Diamonds and Frost

Sometimes, the pain of your soul will reveal, where your heart truly dwells.

Sometimes, 
I welcome the pain.
when it means I'm alive, 
that my heart still beats, 
With something beyond it's mechanics of survival, 
the rush of life's blood, and the rhythm of  breathing.

Sometimes, 
it's good to wake up with a memory of muddled dreams, 
where I fought for something undefined 
and awoke with a vague sense of loss
that tells me I'm struggling for meaning, 
I haven't yet sold my soul 
for a fist-full of gold

And sometimes, 
When I surrender to the urge,
to own, to buy and to consume, 
I remember that sunshine was free, 
as was love, friendship and the scent of rain

I still miss the red dust of Africa on my shoes, 
And the warm smiles cracking 
on tanned, work-weary faces
I miss the belief that I had plenty, 
that I did not need to ease the pain of existence, 
with shopping online

And it hurts me so, that I will soon surrender
the kiss of copper and bronze on my skin, 
to the blue-tinge of winter cold, 
And although I am privileged and envied 
I  know what I lost
I traded golden sunshine and hearts,  
the perpetual green, and the smell of warm earth 
for expensive perfume,
for style and high culture, 
at a great cost
for gold that only glitters, 
for diamonds and  frost. 

Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home

I spend long times dwelling on the questions of being and belonging, in a place, in a time or within a group. And after over half a century on this earth, I realize that I relate most to people who have similar questions about belonging. I gradually drifted from people who closely identified with ideals, from a nationalistic or religious angle. My nature is a questioning one, and I feel that my personality, my likes and dislikes are not fixed. Nothing ever remains the same so why should people relate closely to identities and groups they did not even choose.

If we can rethink our choices of careers, partners, friends and favourite activities, why can’t we revise our ideas of home, culture, religion and tribe? The identities we were born with were imposed on us and we should have the power to question and change them. If I take this thinking further I can venture to say that the least interesting people I know are those who were born into certain categories of existence and spent their lives defending them and trying to tell me and others that theirs was the only way to live. When I am faced with such arguments I mostly nod my head sadly and wonder about where their convictions came from when they haven’t tried other options. The most powerful arguments of this type come from religious or nationalistic camps. It is easy to get trapped into logical fallacies when you proclaim your way as the only way, given that you have tried no other options. That is why religious propaganda and missionary work often relies on converts who have found their true saviours in Allah, Jesus or Jehovah after being failed by one of the former or by any other styles of belief or non-belief that exist in the world today.

The most compelling spiritual stories are about people who have spent a long time on their journey and altered their destination or worldview to arrive where they are. None of the inspiring people we know was born into the lifestyle and existence that inspired us. We are mostly inspired by change, by moving from one state into the next and this in essence is what we seek for our spiritual life.

I type these words now as I look outside my window into a back courtyard of a European residential building. The neighbouring buildings are hiding behind the green veil of tall trees swaying in the breeze. The oak trees are still carrying their full foliage and haven’t yet turned colour and I am looking forward to the autumn palette that I have not seen in many years.

My own journey of belonging is taking another turn, and I now live in Europe. I still feel the pain of leaving Africa. Today I re-organised some of my things, most of which are still packed in suitcases. I came across some gifts I received and items I cherished. The vibrant colours of Africa spilled out of my luggage from shirts, clothing items, kikoys, shopping bags, and masks. The ache is still there, and I miss the friendly faces of my Kenyan friends who became like family to me. But I also notice that I am slowly making this city my own. I walk the streets and see myself in many people, the crazy, the non-conformist, the woman who wears fluffy fur sandals in the mall, and the woman who sings audibly as she awaits the traffic light to change colour. I see myself in the ageing man with a pot belly wearing his socks with his sandals and in the young-looking grandma choosing her three apples carefully in the market.

I love the colourful markets and the niches of counter-culture I discover every day. I have even developed a secret admiration for graffiti artists and those who stick copies of their poems on the bridges that cross the river and its canals.

I used to identify as African, defying my son who branded me with cultural appropriation. I still relate to the simple African lifestyle, to the spirit of the good people, their patience and benevolence. How they are ready to welcome a stranger into their lives and make him or her feel at home. I felt at home in Kenya, and I believe that I shall return to visit often. But after over two decades of moving places, countries and continents, I learned that the only home I need to make for myself is within my own heart. I learned to welcome and accept myself at every stage of my life, and acknowledge that I had a blessed one. I am lucky to be where I am now, and I was lucky to stay six years in Kenya. I now know that I was even lucky for my four years in New York. In those four years I did not learn to befriend the city and its people, but now I know that it was possible to find my niche even in that wild city. I could have hidden somewhere from its blatant consumerist culture and found a space where art and counter-culture thrive on the challenge the city’s existence created.

There is always a place to call home. And it changes with time. Ten years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time after moving to New York. My friend and her children met me at Cape Town airport. They held signs that welcomed me and my son home, decorated with stars, hearts, and glitter. The childish colourful drawing and words touched me deeply, and I kept these signs for a long time. When I moved to Nairobi I stuck the welcome signs on the wall of my bedroom. The rising sun shone on them every morning, and I gazed upon them every night as I drifted to sleep. The symbolism of the sign was that I was truly home, safely in my bed, in Africa.

I gave up that symbol after six years. I now understand that a gypsy like me might always be on the lookout for a home. That the home that I am looking for might not be an actual place, just a feeling that I have when I like myself just as I am in this moment. And somehow I’ll find my way home. Somehow, I will be going somewhere.

The Shape of My Heart

It is early morning in a smallish European capital that is laden with history, both for me and my family and for humanity. I am trying to make this city my home for the second time. Although the person who walked here over 30 years ago could have been a stranger, someone I heard about or imagined. My half-formed self has changed profoundly since then. And even the city whose existence is counted in millennia changed a lot in three decades.

I am not yet sure whether I will befriend my new place of dwelling or loathe it. I have had both good and bad times here, and I fear what the northern cold would do to me. After six years of living in temperate climate, I find this European summer a bit cooler than the tropical winters of Nairobi. I am now wearing the same light jacket that I wore there when it got cold. The rain and thunderstorms arrive with the same frequency. But Africa’s weather, just like its people’s temperament, changes quickly from dark to light, and from cold to warm. Here, it takes longer for the air to warm from a cold spell, as it takes time for people to thaw from partially frosty and stand-offish attitudes.

I admit that I what I am saying is just my heart missing the warm embrace of Africa. With the exception of one glum taxi driver, who was not even local, I have seen nothing but warm welcome from colleagues and from the city itself. I look forward to exploring it on foot and enjoying, for once, the pleasure of being a flaneur in a well-organized walkable city. Because while African populations largely prefer walking, most of their cities and towns are anything but walkable. People still walk everywhere, among fields, on dirt roads and even on city highways. There are no rules nor paths for walking, the people just make them by the tread of their feet.

Europeans only walk for pleasure, not to commute or to get themselves from point A to point B. My current city is spoiled for choice when it comes to means of commute, as it has Subways, buses and street cars. And it is a fraction of the size of Nairobi, both in terms of space and population.

My current apartment is tiny in comparison to my place in Nairobi, but is well-designed and organised in a manner that makes its size irrelevant in comparison to its convenience. But there are still things to learn. How to sort waste, in the absence of informal recyclers who would make use of all discarded items of plastic and glass. And how to choose healthy foods from supermarkets bursting with choices and temptations.

It is relatively easy to replace mangos and avocados with apples and pears, even when your preference runs to the former rather than the latter. But it is much harder to go back from coffee capsules to regular ground coffee from a pour-on filter. My preference for plain water is already challenged by a myriad of fizzy drinks that offer low sugar content but god knows how many additives and sugar substitutes. And the African definition of fresh vegetables will surely be challenged by agricultural productions practices in Europe. My next learning tasks will be how to eat clean, when I am tempted by discount grocers and fast food outlets on a daily basis. How to maintain a frugal existence when I am surrounded by elegance and style. I am now an unwilling participant in the machine of capitalism, but I am powerless to resits it. The first thing I bought when I landed here was a fancy, and expensive, new smart phone. My African sensibilities cringed at this decadence, but I still produced my credit card and swiped it, confident in my financial and professional security. I made many excuses about this, but I know it is an unnecessary luxury. There are many cheaper phones that could do the job, but it is so easy to follow the temptations of luxury and convenience here.

I will watch carefully how this move will change me, to the better or worse, and I will learn more in the process about myself and my evolution as a human. The first lesson I am working on is how to let go of people, places and things that I loved deeply, and how to love new people, places and things. I will try to adapt and keep my humanity, and stay fair to those I interact with.

And while I am here, I will acknowledge that mother Africa and its people still have a big hold on my soul. Europe has the bling, the prosperity, and the convenience, but Africa has the shape of my heart.

Book: In the House of the Interpreter

In the House of the Interpreter: A MemoirIn the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir by Ngugi wa’Thiong’o

The author writes about his years at Alliance High School in Kenya. The writing is very good, with fairly interesting anecdotes and vignettes of Kenyan society, youth, and evangelism.

The last few chapters, cover the author’s return trip to his village after earning his first pay as a temporary teacher, and this is the part where I most related with the protagonist. He was arrested under the state of emergency and spent some time in jail. For me, the book is worth reading for these pages alone.

Overall it is a story of African people, their survival under difficult circumstances and the choices they make; when it is acceptable to compromise and when it is not.

From a character point of view, there are a few memorable ones. Carey Francis the British principal of a school for Kenyan boys. An officer of the colonial power, who is deeply dedicated to educating native boys and presenting them as equal to their white peers. He reconciled both conflicting interest with Christian belief.

Good Wallace, Ngugi’s brother, who fought with the Mau Mau resistance in the mountain.

Also interesting is the ambiguous and often false relationship between evangelism and true morality. Worth reading, even if the story could not maintain tension and interest equally throughout.

Book : Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Angel Tungaraza is a Tanzanian expat in Kigali, Rwanda. Her husband works as a special consultant at a local university and she has her own home-based business, baking individually designed western-style cakes. This helps make extra money for her large family, because after the death of both her children she cares for five grandchildren and their young minder.

As Angel designs the perfect cake for each customer and occasion she gets to know her customers and becomes sometimes part of their lives, and through their stories we get to know their world. Angel is true to her name compassionate, and exceptionally tolerant. She intervenes whenever she can giving people a push in what she figures is the right direction or helping them see things more clearly. Her good intention are rewarded most of the time.

There are many issues encountered in this book: The Rwandan genocide, AIDS, child soldiers, Gender equality, sexual orientation, poverty, African identity, female genital mutilation, and African wildlife (especially the endangered gorillas) among many others.
Angel is someone I would love to have as my best friend, because she has exceptional understanding and tolerance for all these themes. Although the book does not explain how a woman who has always lived on the continent and only went for visits to Germany, while her husband did postgraduate studies there, could arrive at such worldly tolerance and wisdom.

The book is fine for people who do not know anything about Africa, it brings it to them gently. It does not vilify Wazungu (White people) completely although it is funny to note that the only two asshole characters were a Canadian working for the International Monetary Fund and an American who the whole community knows to be working for the CIA. Other minor baddies/ eccentrics include an unbalanced former child soldier, the drunk manager of the building, and the Indians who are afraid of catching their death from germs; these characters all come across more comical than evil. All African characters are essentially good, even the prostitute is an honest working woman who looks after two sisters and an orphan.

If you are willing to suspend your disbelief for a few hours, and enjoy a story where small people try to make a difference and succeed, then you will enjoy this book. It is gentle and warm, does not have a complex plot, and reads like a series of stories with some direct sermonizing. But a skeptic like me would end up with a few exclamation marks (!) knocking about inside my head. For example, how on earth could an Italian-born man be such a strong proponent of “circumcising” his own daughter, while her Somali mother is not ?

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The Pharaohs

Egypt won their sixth Africa Cup of Nations championship (AFCON) yesterday. In this country most people would have preferred it to go to Cameroon, not North Africa.

There is a deep divide between the north and south, even here in Africa. The prevailing feeling is that the northerners are not real Africans, and this perception might hold more than a little bit of truth. The North Africans are fair-skinned, live in different climate and ecosystems, and most importantly they are from a race which colonised the rest of Africa centuries ago. Their ancestors traded other Africans as slaves, and prosecuted them as heathen.

In modern times the divide is still clear, as is the mutual distrust between real Africans (Sub-saharan) and the northern inhabitants of this continent.

In my experience the Egyptians think of themselves above the rest of Africa. They are the pharaohs, they had the civilization, and they are not Africans.

I had the questionable honour of taking part in professional African forum in this country, where one of the delegates was Egyptian. The delegate thought that because of my origins I was bound to feel certain affinity towards him. He considered me to be one of his people, and did not bother to hide his disdain to all things African.

He found fault in everything from the travel arrangements, to the flights, the hotel and even the food – which was disgusting according to him. I tried very hard to tone down this negative attitude, and harder still to sympathize or relate to him. But as the hours passed, I started to identify with the African he disdained and condescended and was no longer the Arab he wanted to gang up with. The incident widened the rift between me and my origins and brought me closer to my adopted African identity. Would my attitude be different, if I also came from the land of the Pharaohs?