It was a murmur of voices, hush and impatient. The shuffle of heavily-laden luggage being dragged across the dusty stone floors. A muffle in the speaker system barked orders. A long line of legs streamed to and fro. Some running. Some shuffling. Some waiting nervously. I didn’t know where I was going, I just new it was a new place, and this place was new. I couldn’t tell where it was. I could barely see over anyone’s hips. I also knew this could be quite possibly the last time that I was in this place. I gripped my aunt’s hand a little tighter as she guided me through the crowd.
We had just gone through a tense paperwork checking session with what I assumed was a very important person, but the way he continually and forcefully threw the paperwork back at my aunt. My heart was beating fast and I had a suspicion this wouldn’t end well. I looked around, trying to take in my surroundings. There was a blur of activity as people milled around going to and fro, some busy, some almost relieved. I’d never been here before.
I didn’t know where we were going, but we needed to get there fast by the pace we were going. I assumed my aunt had won the negotiation with the important man. He signed the paper, gave us a time and pointed us to the direction we were currently headed to.
We arrived at the gate just in time. Paperwork was exchanged. Strange knowing looks were thrown towards me by uniformed white women, coupled with affirmative nodding and hand-shaking with my aunt. The paper checking and stamping continued. My aunt’s grip loosened and she grabbed me by my shoulders. “Here you are,” she whispered, “God bless you and have a safe journey.”
Another hand grabbed me before I could wave goodbye. I disappeared into the jetway with one last look at my aunt.
That was 20 years ago. The place: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.
This week, Kenya erupted into a wave of violence following a bungled electoral process. I’d decided to stay largely silent through most of it, but feel that I can no longer do so because of the horrible sensationalistic Western media coverage. For the most part, I didn’t want to believe that a place responsible for some of the best memories of my childhood was disintegrating into political chaos because tribalism and a corrupt political machine had gotten together and spawned hell’s revenge against it’s own people. I refused to believe that the heart-warming beauty and progress I had seen in my recent visit to Kenya in October of 2007 was slowly being eroded by CNN‘s lifeless toe-tagged citizens of Nairobi’s hospital morgue. Even the BBC ratcheted it up a notch with Kisumu’s post-violence ghost-town images.
Kisumu was particularly heart-breaking as I had briefly driven through on my way back to Uganda that October. I had fond childhood memories of this little town. My mom’s sister taught in a school not too far from this lake-side commercial port. She had brought me once to shop for shoes. I could still smell the Bata store we went to and the tan cowhide mud sluggers that I got that day. I used to treasure them every morning before school with a solid, perfected hard brushing. I even saw a Bata shop that night as we drove through the sleeping town and I remember wondering if that was in fact the very shop where I’d gotten those shoes.
I recently drove by the apartment complex on LBJ in Dallas where i spent my first night in America after that flight. I thought it odd that the parking lot didn’t have any cars in it until I saw the glimmer of the wire construction fence surrounding the whole complex of apartments. I pulled off the highway to take a closer look. Sure enough, the fence stretched all the way around the two blocks that the apartments were situated, and engulfed the neighboring complex. I drove around into the alleyway, checking for signs of life. I parked, jumped the fence, and was immediately hit with a wave of nostalgia. I had friends here. I had a childhood here, and they were soon to be erased by the American “out with the old, in with the new” grip on commercial development. The battle cry for laying down the economic progress bar in any community. How much is still old, how much is new?
I could still hear the echoes of my friends voices calling up to my balcony to go skateboarding. I heard the screeches or the girls being chased around the pool by the boys in our annual summer classic of Marco, Polo. I could still hear the crescendo of crashing marbles as our sore thumbs took aim and fired at those glistening balls of glass. But I also heard the chuckles as the bullies targeted my newly-arrived foreign accent. And I remember working hard to get rid of it because I wanted to be like everyone else. I lost something here.
The images of countless burned down communities in Kenya brought me back to reality. This would be an upscale neighborhood, I thought. Families would thrive and be happy with even this in Kenya. Running water, indoor plumbing and electricity—all the trappings of modernity, yet still deserving to be torn down and replaced with “the new.”
I had a conversation with my father here once. I told him how I wanted to go back to Uganda and make a difference and forego this American life of throw away tradition. It’s a vision that has stayed with me for the better part of two decades. From time to time it’s been challenged and horned by Darfur, Rwanda, Kenya, Somalia, and even Uganda’s Northern child soldier crisis.
As a member of the African Diaspora, where do I stand? I am astride two cultures, none of which I can shake. They shape me, mold me. And I am not alone in this. There are 165 million of us in the diaspora that feel the same way. What is our purpose here in this new world? More directly, what is our responsibility to the sinking ship that is Africa? If Kenya, the banner child of post-colonial rule, that made a successful democratic transition from Daniel Arap Moi, can disintegrate this easily, along tribal lines no less, how can we defend our homelands as poster children of progress in Africa? It saddens me to watch the news and read the blogosphere alight with bulletins and sighs of defeat that, “here we go again, another genocide watch, Africans return to their savage roots and hack dozens in elections, will Africa ever see true democracy, ….” It’s enough to drive somebody to depression.
But yet that image of busy commerce on the glistening clean streets of Nairobi is firmly etched in the back of my mind. I walked through the center of Nairobi that October afternoon thinking that above all the negative, violent imagery of Africa played in the Western media today, Africa is slowly marching forward. Kenya’s annual billion-dollar remittance from it’s diaspora is clearly evident, though there few numbers have been collected to support the evidence. And there it is. That is our voice. That is our battle cry for laying down our progress bar. Africa will ask, “how much have our children that are abroad done for their home?” We’ll measure progress in the smiles, the confidence, the self-employed, in the economically independent individuals making an impact. We’ll see the raise of community projects fed by partnerships in the Diaspora–all efforts that will be glossed over by the Western media.
And as one interviewee on CNN emphatically stated of the progress of Democracy in Africa, “lives will have to be sacrificed, and we are prepared for those sacrifices” in order for Democracy work. As sad as that is, I have to think that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it certainly wasn’t bloodless.