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
 
 

Yellow Moon

The first night I spent in Kenya a child was born in the hotel room above mine. I woke to the sound of running, a chattering of voices like nesting birds, then singing. When I tried to gather more details the next morning, the Kenyan hotel staff grew nervous and encouraged me to focus on the Peace Corps breakfast buffet. The birth stayed with me throughout the three months of in-country training that followed, and when I finally waved goodbye and headed off alone into Kenya, I sensed there might be no turning back. After arriving at my post in the highland town of Ol Kalou I collapsed into my sleeping bag and felt as if I had fallen into a place that had been waiting for me since the day I was born.

On that first dawn the cry of roosters scratched me out of strange dreams, disturbed by malaria preventatives. Then came the sound of deep voices through my wall, none of them speaking the Swahili I was taught, but a tribal language I didn’t understand. I spotted a boy standing in my open doorway, holding a basket of eggs. A bottle of milk, a corncob stuck into its opening as a cork, rested on the ground near his bare feet. I lifted my head and motioned him into the room. He stepped back further, rested the basket on the ground beside the bottle of milk, and sprinted away. I rose from my sleeping bag and walked out into the light.

Ol Kalou had been Maasailand before the British arrived and civilized it with their fences and wheat. After independence in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, parceled out the land in this area as gifts to his Kikuyu tribesmen. But the Kikuyu I came to know there weren’t grateful. They all dreamed of returning to the real Kikuyuland on the other side of the Abedare Mountains that hung over Ol Kalou’s valley. The rolling green hills that called to them over these mountains were filled with old relatives and trees. Ol Kalou was treeless and open to the cold night winds that often left the ground frozen in the mornings. The school kept holding tree planting ceremonies, to raise Kikuyu morale. Their hearts weren’t in it. They wanted the old trees.

But I loved it from the beginning. Its stark highland moors stirred something tribal in my blood, and I could feel my Celtic ancestors stirring as I wandered in my gumboots through its bleak, soggy fields. I loved the strange shapes of its rocky crevices that looked stabbed into the rugged curves of its moors. I loved the shade of blue that blazed from its sky like something out of a child’s joyous paintings. I even loved the solitude that came down on you like the rains as you moved through the black chill of its nights. I should have known from the beginning there would be trouble ever leaving the place behind.

On that first morning, after a breakfast of boiled eggs, I turned my attention to the problem of work. I taught English, an assignment for which I had no qualifications beyond my three months of in- country training, and my substitute teaching work in Brooklyn, New York. We covered none of the course material in my classes back in Brooklyn, where I had bribed my students into a state of calm with stories of growing up in white suburbia. They listened as if the stories were coming from another land as far away as Africa. Now, as I peeked out of my faculty housing window and saw the Kenyan students beginning to appear, walking solemnly up the rocky driveway with their parents, some with goats in tow as an alternative to cash tuition payments, I felt completely out of my depth, and a fraud. Despite what I had planned on paper during training, there were no supplies at the school, not even chalk, and it soon became clear I would need to throw myself in front of these students as I had done in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.

On the first day of classes I was paraded before a ragged line of students by a headmaster with whiskey on his breath at eight o’clock in the morning. The students did their best to keep straight faces at the sight of our little parade, but there were a few whose hand-me-down school uniforms shook with wild laughter. I joined the other faculty at the head of the parade after I was introduced and the Kenyan flag was raised. We were over eight-thousand feet above sea level and could see our steaming breath as we sang the national anthem. On Kenyan government radio and television, the national anthem sounds forceful and full of hearty, military cheer. At our school, the students had managed to shift the anthem into a minor key, which gave it a mournful, haunting quality that seemed to better match the morning fog and their future prospects in a one- party state. I spent the first few weeks in my classroom entertaining them with tales from New York City. They ate it up the way they devoured their lunch of potatoes and beans, for many their only meal of the day.

This is why I was very concerned when I was handed a letter, after I had only begun to develop a rhythm to my classes, that I had been selected for the Nyandarua District In-Service Teacher Training. I needed to report to the town of Nyeri, where I would be lodged at the Pastoral Centre during the intensive, week-long session. The letter was from the British Council in Kenya.

Our headmaster let me know I needed to attend the training, or they would all be in trouble. He stood not over five feet two, and looked behind his desk like an overgrown boy playing the big boss. But it was a disturbed child, not an innocent charmer. In the manner of the semi-functioning drunk, he dressed impeccably well when sober enough to appear in public, but I could see his hands shaking at the ends of his gold-cuffed sleeves, and his polished black shoes tapped the floor beneath his desk as he spoke, as if already moving for the drink he needed so badly. He stared me down with his bloodshot eyes, letting me know I could not refuse, or he would find a way to send me home. I thought of arriving penniless and sunburned at my parent’s doorstep back in the First World, and agreed.

The Nyeri Pastoral Centre, in the bouncing green hills of Kenya’s Central Highlands, brought back dark memories of my Catholic education. As I entered its gates I felt the same wave of dread that washed over me as I was dropped off at my high school, where I would spend the next four years under the authority of Benedictine monks. I expected an audition table lined with British Council officials in white linen suits and clipboards seated below a hanging crucifix and a Union Jack, taking notes as I presented my sample English lesson. When it was over, a man would slowly rise from behind the table and remove an envelope from his jacket and silently hand it to me. When I opened it, I would find a one-way ticket to Newark as the room burst into cruel, dry laughter.

“Goodbye, my boy,” he would wave as I fled the room, “and never come back to our Keeeeenya.”

I found a room filled with Nyandarua District secondary school English teachers, around fifty of them, unpacking their bags and claiming their spaces on the bunk beds that had been arranged for our lodging. The space boomed with the deep rumblings of the Kikuyu tongue. As I stepped into the space with my olive-green U.S. Army duffel bag, the room fell silent. In the short time I had been in Kenya, I had learned not to attempt to break the awkwardness of these types of moments, but to take them even further. I removed a small tape player I carried around with me during this time, and pressed the play button. The sound of Bob Dylan’s harmonica moaned through the space like the arrival of an alien spacecraft.

“You are knowing Don Williams,” one of the teachers finally asked, approaching.

“Is he Peace Corps?” I shrugged, now setting up my bunk.

“American cowboy music,” another teacher explained, “it is very beautiful.” The mention of Don Williams had broken the ice, and soon there was a crowd around me, some of them waving cassette tapes, urging me to experience the genius of Don Williams. I had heard this kind of music being played on matatus, or communal taxis, everywhere I rode in Kenya. Squeezed into these vehicles, I would scan the faces around me hidden behind bags of maize, or live chickens, and would see many of them with their eyes shut blissfully, mouthing the words to a Glenn Campbell song, or soulfully swaying their heads to Dolly Parton. But Don Williams ruled. Pop in a Don Williams cassette in a Kikuyu matatu and everyone sighs as if there was suddenly air- conditioning. I never got a clear answer when I tried to identify the source of this music in Kenya, but I had no doubt it was brought in by American evangelical missionaries. If there had been an influx of hippies in the sixties would everyone be listening to the Grateful Dead? No, there was something about this music, like Christianity itself, that seemed to take to the upcountry soil. I finally understood that I needed to surrender to it. At the Nyeri Pastoral Centre I gave in to the demands to turn off the Bob Dylan, and replaced it with Yellow Moon, which many of the teachers told me was Don Williams’ most important album.

And what happened over the next week saved me. The British Council training made me understand that my storytelling in the classroom was, in fact, teaching English. But the training held other surprises. I couldn’t hide and isolate myself in our communal lodging, but was forced to spend my nights perched on my bunk explaining myself to an audience of Kenyan male colleagues whose curiosity about American women was endless. They wanted white girlfriends, but would settle for a one-night stand, preferably with a blonde. I explained to them I had lost contact with white women, and could not even offer the phone numbers they were requesting, their Bic pens poised over their open palms, ready to write. But when I confessed a similar interest in the exotic, they listened closely, and whispered together below me in the bunk beds, plotting.

It happened the next night in a nun’s room, with a crucifix mounted on the wall above a Spartan bed. Under the influence of many bottles of complimentary Tuskers, I believed it would have been culturally insensitive to refuse such a gift. There was also the deeper question of race. All of my late-night reveries about the magic of Kenya were nice, I observed my colleagues thinking, but could I pass their truer, African test? My colleagues led me down the pastoral center hallway and pointed to a door, slapping my back like encouraging teammates. I made sure to show no hesitation as I opened the door. Inside I saw a very large Kenyan woman already under the sheets, looking bored, and slightly sad, as if the post-coital depression had already begun.

“Can I come in?” I asked. She studied me for a moment, then began laughing. She bore a striking resemblance to the barmaid who had served us drinks earlier that evening. I had failed at everything else in my life, I rallied myself, then stepped into the room, stripped off my ruined khakis, and went to work as an ambassador of good will.

end

© 2012, Rick Gray

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