The Old Fever: A Memoir of Kenya by Rick Gray
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  EXCERPTS FROM A MEMOIR by Rick Gray
 Yellow Moon
 Somali Women 
 The Notebooks
 
Somehow Peeling
 In the Darkness 
 Checking into the Pig 
 The Curse
 
 

Somehow Peeling

I would always find him seated calmly in my home, reading one of my books. I would slip off my muddy gumboots and step barefoot across the cold cement floor. I reached below the bed, quickly, to startle any wildlife, then slid out a bottle of Kenyan Bond 7 brandy. Pouring a drink (Maina never accepted one in the two years I spent with him), I sat down on my bed and leaned back against the growing collection of African maps on my wall. Now that I was settled, Mr. Maina recognized my presence, and lifted his face from his reading. He wore a green knit hat pulled down to the edge of his heavy-lidded, frog-like eyes.

“Mr. Gray,” he began our session, “haba na haba hujaza kibaba.”

“Little by little fills the cup,” I answered. Maina, our school Swahili teacher, enjoyed quizzing me on proverbs, which he used to begin our discussion, like a Zen master with a koan. His eyes softened after my translation as he approved my answer. He lifted his huge hands from the pages of my book and adjusted the lime-green hat, grinning at a private joke that swam up from behind his eyes, then dropped his attention back to the page, wrinkling his brow and prepping me for a question.

“This man, this Paul Ther…”

Theroux,” I volunteered.

“He is riding the iron rooster, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. The guy likes to ride trains.”

“This is the book?” he asked, baffled.

“Yep. He cruises all over China on trains.”

“But why?”

“Curiosity,” I countered, and leaned back into my giant Michelen 746, Central and Southern Africa.

“I think you are cheating me,” Maina said. Riding trains around China could not be the true subject of a book. He studied my face for signs of deception. “He is a spy,” Maina concluded, waving the book as if he had captured its author, “he is an agent of your CIA.”

“You always say that when you don’t understand. You’re paranoid. This is why people don’t take Africa seriously.”

“Your people are not serious?”

“About Africa. They think it’s just…..”

“Primitive?” Maina suggested, lifting his eyebrows in accusation, then glancing down at my dirty bare feet.

This would go on for another hour or so before, the pleasantries now over, he would move on to the real subject of his visit. This was always about our futures. Maina believed they were connected, in the African way, by fate.

“Mr. Gray,” he would begin, waving away the offer of another drink, “have you ever been thinking of buying a plot?”

“With what?” I laughed, gesturing around the bare cement space. Our faculty housing space had once been a storage shed of a white, colonial farmer, and had been divided into tiny apartment by cardboard walls. Even the slightest movements could be heard by the other teachers.

“You cannot cheat me. You people always have money. How much is a ticket from New York to Kenya?”

“The Peace Corps paid for it.”

“You see? Your money is always growing. You people only need to scratch the ground.” He made a Kikuyu gesture with his right arm, as if hoeing cabbages on his farm.

“And what would I do with a plot?” I asked, not bothering to argue that I had no money, which was not really true. There was always my government, the most powerful in the world, who would bail me out and evacuate me if I ever got into real trouble. There was also my American family who, from an African point-of-view, lived like royalty, or at least corrupt national leaders. It was a ridiculous argument, claiming poverty to Mr. Maina, who shared a similar living space to my own with three other teachers. His salary, even lower than mine, was shared with an extended family who considered him lucky to not have to wake up in the morning and scratch a living out of the hard, frosted dirt of Ol Kalou.

“You settle here,” Maina answered, “and write about the people.”

Now it was my turn to study his face for signs of lying. Even his use of the word settle seemed suspicious to me, so close to settler, one of the code words in Africa for the white man. But Maina never showed his hand, only stared into my eyes, waiting for my next move. This was a deeper game than I had ever known, I understood, and Mr. Maina played it like chess.

On other nights, the conversation would turn back to his dreams, which he was always careful to protect. It usually began with his delicate fingering of another one of the books that appeared in the growing pile on my desk. Maina would handle the books as if they were newborns. His huge, dark hands could envelop even the Russians. He had heard of these novels from Kenyans who had received Cold War scholarships from the Soviets. One night I came in from another midnight stroll across the cold highland moors and found him shaking his head and clucking his tongue in disbelief as he read War and Peace at my desk.

“These people are very intelligent, Mr. Gray,” Maina warned.

“No one else can touch them,” I agreed, settling in with my drink.

“Not even American?” Maina lifted his eyes from the page, teasing.

“Not really. Not the depth.”

“Depth?” Maina mangled the word, so alien to the African tongue.

“They go deep,” I said, pointing downwards as if explaining a new vocabulary word to a student. His frog eyes followed my finger below my bed, where I stored my journals. Mr. Maina knew about these hidden journals, and probably read many of them while I was wandering the African moors. On this night he leaned slightly forward and peered into the darkness, widening his eyes with exaggerated curiosity. We exploded with laughter, howling like fenced-in wolves. Maina slapped his knees and did the slow, African roll of the upper body, letting the pleasure seep deeply into every cell. Happiness is an oasis, and you must enjoy every drop of it before the next drought of boredom, or worse, that is surely waiting at the edge of the next dry season. Maina was teaching me this in his own, African way.

“I want to open a bookstore,” he announced on this night, once our laughter had faded. He had turned back to War and Peace before he had spoken, and now kept his eyes down on the page, frightened about the reaction to such a moment of exposure. It was as if he were expecting to be beaten for saying it, or worse, cursed. The darkness was thick outside the window on this moonless night. The silence was broken only by the sound of far-off wild dogs fighting over a snatched chicken, and the sprinkle of passing rain in the tall grass. We sat still together under the hiss of my pressure lamp.

“A bookstore?” I asked carefully.

“The people are needing to read,” Maina said, his eyes remaining on the page. There was now a defiant tightening of the muscles in his jaw. He clutched the book harder. “I would have everyone available, Mr. Gray. Even Russians. And Paul Ther--- ”

“Theroux.”

“You are knowing Sidney Sheldon?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah?”

“I’ll be selling Sheldon and….” Maina now rifled through the books on my desk, his eyes shining in the hot yellow light of my pressure lamp. “Who is this Bukowski?”

“American. Lots of cursing.”

“And Things Fall Apart. This I will be placing in my window, for attraction.”

“It’ll work like a charm”

“Like a butcher’s goat, hanging.” Mr. Maina lifted Chinua Achebe’s novel and dangled it above his head like a bloody goat carcass in the market. We were both very hungry for meat, and leered up at it like wolves. The book looked delicious.

“You will sponsor me?” I heard Maina quietly ask.

When I lowered my eyes I saw Maina staring at me. It was a look I had seen many times before in Kenya, but never so intimately. I felt cornered. I shifted on my bed, wanting to crawl below my filthy sleeping bag.

“I told you, I have no money,” I said. Mr. Maina held his stare, waiting for me to get over my poverty act and cough up the American dough.

“Call your Peace Corps,” he told me, when it was clear I didn’t know what to say next, “tell them it is for helping.”

“We can’t do profit projects,” I said.

“Then call the Embassy.”

“They only handle emergencies.”

“Mr. Gray,” Maina said, gesturing at his second-hand rags, and his cracked, plastic shoes, which were somehow never muddy, “this is an emergency. The people are needing.”

“The embassy doesn’t do bookstores.”

“Call your family. They are rich, isn’t it?”

“I told you. My family is not rich.”

“You are cheating me, Mr. Gray.”

“I’m not,” I told him, looking straight into his eyes, “I really don’t have the money. Look at me.” And now it was my turn to gesture at myself. I waved my glass of brandy down toward my dirty bare feet. They looked like something out of Dickens.

“But you are only playing,” Maina said. “For you, this is only adventure.”

“It is not!” I snapped, rising out of my bed and pacing the cement floor. “I am sick and tired of everyone thinking I’m rich! I can’t even afford meat!”

“Because you are buying too many big books!” Maina argued, waving my War and Peace. I would buy these books at a store next to the Thorn Tree Café, next to the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, a hub for the traveling circus of tourists, aid workers, journalists, and raconteurs passing through town. The price of even a coffee at this café would buy a decent bag of rice, or sugar, and its food, so great a temptation after months of maize meal and rice gruel, would put a dangerous dent in a Peace Corps monthly salary. Yet I went anyway, and nursed my coffee for hours as I leafed through my new book. “Look,” Maina went on, pulling V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas out of the pile and pressing his accusing index fingers against the price on the back cover, “it is twelve pounds! This is better than my cousin’s pay, and he is police!”

“Then ask him for money!”

“He is having a family. You are alone, Mr. Gray. You are nothing. You are…..”

“I’m what? White? That’s what you were going to say, isn’t it? White!”

Maina turned away, acting hurt. He was a very bad actor, and had the African weakness for melodrama. I could see his broad shoulders begin to shake beneath the worn edges of his drab sports jacket.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“You are not white, Mr. Gray.”

“And what am I?”

“You are red, and somehow peeling. The students are saying your face is looking like your Africa map. Hahahahahaha!”

I stood bewildered by the comparison of my face to a map. I looked over at my Michelen 746 and tried to see myself in it, but came up blank. Then I remembered the tattered National Geographic map I had recently hung in the library. There were sections of the Congo and Angola that flapped out from the wall like, yes, peeling skin.

 

end

© 2012, Rick Gray

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