I am in Kenya! The heavy droughts that decimated livestock last year have been followed by heavy rains that have carried on through the dry season. The landscape is green and rainy and cool. Each day – and there has only been one full one so far – is christmas, a bounty of the unexpected. It is a new country. A new part of the world. It has been 21 years since I have even stepped foot on the continent – even then, only a moment in Egypt, barely a week in Morocco – and 30 years since I experienced the go-slow market of Lagos, Nigeria. And, really, how long since I’ve been somewhere completely new? Return trips to India are a strange form of going home. Panama had the familiarity of Costa Rica. Was it Thailand? Eight years ago? Definitely too long. I revel in the firm futon mattress in a strange place, the fresh papaya, the fact that is is called popo. Each word is new. I have to pay attention, trying to figure the unspoken communication when the words are beyond me. Each moment there is a chance, once again, to discover the unknown that has always been. Just not for me. It is why I travel.
Munir and I drive to meet Teeku. I look out the window of the vehicle as we travel through the city, observing my mild apprehension that is trying to match what I see to the scary stories about “Nairobbery.” We are in a nice section of town, granted, but even the ride from the airport, down the Uhuru Highway, just shows me people going about their lives. Most are moving from here to there and back, laden with packages, on foot, in their cars. They plaster walls, dig road-side ditches, sell newspapers or posters of chickens or a large yellow antennae that looks like a ray gun from a ’60s sci-fi movie. Drivers stay on their side of the road. Some wear seatbelts. Some do not. Some drive with their windows open. Some do not. I notice single white women with sunglasses and shorts talking on their mobiles as they walk alone down a busy street, or a white couple with a small child buying rosewood furniture from a roadside stand. I learn of the KCs – Kenyan cowboys, the naturalized white people left over from a colonial past, like cricket and tea time.
In the afternoon, I go to the National Museum and smell the rich, almost tasty, smell of human sweat in the un-air conditioned halls. The dim lighting of the Hall of Mammals – an homage and tiny echo of the American Museum of Natural History – illuminates the giant elephant, the towering giraffe. I see Ahmed of Marsabit, the elephant with tusks that swooped to the ground, such a spectacle of tuskiness that Kenyans rallied the government to grant him singular protection in 1970. He spent his days with armed guards around him till he died one day of old age during his 55th year. And another display tells me that the hippo is related to the dolphin! Who knew such things? How can such creatures exist! Will I really see them, live, running, a spotted long-necked impossibility reaching up to graze on trees or a round monster lying in wait amid the lake reeds, nostrils like a submarine’s spyglass?
But humble as the few rooms of the museum are,, New York cannot come close to claiming the skeletons that lie in one room, found so close by in the Great Rift Valley. Fragments of bone dug out of the earth and pieced together with pinchers and glue and an insane patience to unlock some secret story about the way that we – upright, omnivorous, speaking, playing, murdering, ruminating, singing, loving, planet-seeking, planet-destroying – bipedals came to be.
Hordes of school children fill the hall with their echoing calls, the universal cacophony of youth. But each group is a cha-cha-line of organization, a single file with each child in contact with the one before them. They only swarm as they crowd in around each exhibit, or as they pass me, looking up from dark faces with beaming open smiles, “Hello? How are you?!” But their gaze is as fixated when it falls upon the warthog, four times as big as them, or the the harrior hawk within the glass case in the bird room, where the scent of formaldehyde fills the head and takes away the breath.
Outside in the courtyard, workers cover chairs with white fabric and arrange bouquets of blue and orange birds of paradise. Tonight, someone is getting married! Back inside, more men set up speaker systems in a great room filled with displays of gourds and maps of Kenya made out of butterfly wings. When they test the system, the music is alive, leaping across the room and infecting school boys who begin to dance with the beat. Upstairs, after the music is off again, another boy in a school group picks up the mallets and starts to play a traditional xylophone instrument as his teacher leads the others in an impromptu song about happiness that weaves between English and Swahili. I look at circumcision knives behind the glass, imagine their task, but also robes made of animal skins, slings to carry babies and charms to string around their waistlines to protect them from evil spirits, and staffs and hats and skirts and all the humdrum of daily life, from a long ago then to now, from birth till death.
Here, in Africa, if we are to trust the dusty skeletons, is where it all began. There was no boy named Adam. Maybe a boy whose name began with a Ng sound or M, the lips sealed tight. Or just a woman and man, with no need for names, coming together in union. A coupling born of an unanalyzed need, neither sin nor salvation, but an act of bodies, skin-on-skin, amid the savannah or the forest of East Africa. Part of a long story that hasn’t ended, that has no beginning. Why do we need the big story of the start, or the last big cataclysm, when everything that is happening in between is so damn interesting?