Change of Subject and Trip to Asia
October 15, 2006 22 Comments
I suspect that there is a saboteur out to get bullets and honey; in the last week paragraphs have disappeared from the blog and I just now had a techie friend fix the problem (with embarrasing ease.) Maybe this is what I get for dipping my toes into Kenya’s treacherous tribal wars, in which case I must get away. And by that I mean that I am planning to visit Asia for the very first time.
Yes, this son of the soil is going to get into one of those machines made by man to visit at least a couple of cities in India and possibly one in China. I will be there for a week or two at the most so I suspect that I will not have the chance to see much. But planning and thinking of the trip has brought me low in shame. China has a billion people and I do not have a single close friend that I can call there. How pathetic is that? India is the same with all the Indians I know in the States or in Kenya so that again I do not have a person to call on anywhere on that sub-continent (except for the folks I will be working with for a few days.)
For this reason, I have lately been trying to chat up my Indian neighbors in the hope of some introductions with very little success – they just nod politely and keep walking. Yesterday afternoon I saw a piece of paper on the ground and picked it up only to find that it was a letter in english with some Hindi writing (I assume); I guess it must have been dropped by one of them or blown over from their place. Curiosity got the better of me and so I read it. The only exceptional item was the question whether the recipient had ‘managed to make any new negro friends…’ The thing is that I have been re-reading my James Baldwin lately and so this word negro has been much on my mind but I had no idea that there were still people using it to this day. Is it a bad thing? What does it mean? Assuming that the letter belonged to my neighbors, I really think I should befriend them – maybe all their words are frozen in 1960s ‘jive-turkey’ Americanisms.
If I do get to make this trip, I will be the second person in my close family to have been in Asia. My grandfather fought with the King’s African Rifles in Burma. Well, he didn’t really fight since he was a medic (and therefore was called doctor by everyone in Sigona, Kiambu till he passed away) but he was over there.
Most Kenyans do not know with what tenacity and success our grandfathers fought in that campaign since our relentlessly nationalist reading of history leaves no space to acknowledge Africans who fought for the British against the Japanese or the Germans. What this means in my own life is that I grew up around men who had traveled the world, maybe had even performed great feats in battle and never got to hear about it. I wish I had known what I know now before he died. So many memories in my family seem to just be buried and forgotten. And yet daily I read accounts of other peoples who have fought this or that campaign, who have traveled across that sea or that desert, while not having a single idea whether my own blood ever had the same experiences. It is crazy shit to live in a continent that is the most ancient – the cradle of mankind no less – and not know anything much about my own grandfather’s life. I won’t even get into the fact that I have never heard more than a few words about his father and mother, or theirs.
In the States, my black American friends would occasionally remark on how wonderful it was that I ‘had a history’ and a ‘name’ when theirs had been stolen from them by history. How to explain that in the most personal terms, they could trace their lineages further back than I could mine. That they could pop into courthouses and libraries and come away with records and stories of their grandparent’s parents when I could barely name mine or even tell where they had lived, what they had done. It is as my friend Wambui says, I live in an ancient world without having a history. How to explain to them that I may not have a “slave name” but that I do not really know the meaning of my name. It was handed to me from my grandfather as he received it from his grandfather but I was never told what it meant, where it came from, why for heaven’s sake our naming system was as it is. And please do not tell me of pyramids and the great Kush, they are as remote to me in personal terms as the Han Dynasty or ancient Greece. Of course I feel some nationalist pride once in a while at the thought of the Swahili trading empire or even Nubia and Egypt but I have no a personal sense of linkage with that time and those people because my history looms up short – maybe eighty to a hundred years at the most.
I wonder what this does to me. Am I freed by not being bound by a past, freer to create my life, to imagine different courses? Or am I like a corkscrew in a raging ocean, without direction, without the foundations of history on which to build my life? Hell, are these questions even relevant anymore?