Stranger Danger

November 19, 2019

Kwaheri ya kuonana. Like many Swahili phrases, it does not translate well. Literally: goodbye to see each other. 

It is a promise, pregnant with the certainty of delivery: "I will be back, wait for me." A commonplace answer to a typical goodbye, it is nonetheless startlingly intimate, like the jaunty wink of a snake oil salesperson. Even weightier is that which is not said, and thus, sadly, not understood: "I don't know when I'll be back - in hours or weeks or years or lifetimes. Don't wait too keenly." It is the precursor to after school sessions on the front steps peering through stolen binoculars, hoping to see beyond your acute desperation and the searing heat and jostling bodies of shrieking fellow children - so inconsiderate! - to a figure in the distance, sauntering back to you. 

Yet it is also a threat, its flippant delivery masking the sinister undertones: "I WILL BE BACK, WAIT FOR ME!" A reminder that to truly escape is impossible. Even though you are a born tao you know the village can never be taken out of a person. Your figurative village may be small - nuclear family, Auntie, childhood friends and their families - but its threads are not easily severed, pooling messily and threatening to tangle around your neck. Moving to another country will not be enough. While at the market you may hear the brash clicks of the mother tongue you regrettably never learned to speak. You will turn around to see a woman with Mama's fierce determination in her eyes, always more than enough for both of you. When she asks softly if you are alright because you are lying on the ground trying to smell the loamy earth, so different from Home, you are sure: this woman is a stranger, just like the ones you left behind in the village. You never go back to that market again. 

In the interim between hello and goodbye - no matter how short - anything can happen. Everyone, strangers already, becomes stranger still: they may start slumping underneath baggy hoodies to hide the nubs of once sleek, curved horns; they may smell of other places, other people’s sweat and tears and slow deaths by a thousand ecstasies; they may insist, “Aki nimekumiss sana!” when in fact you only know each other in that superficial we-played-kati-in-primary way, and you have not missed their intrusively tactless familiarity. They may even show up on your eighteenth birthday (at a proper, adult party with hors d’oeuvres!) claiming to be your long-lost father. Faced with a sheepish smile adorned by nicotine-stained teeth, one wonders: how long does it take to get a pack of Sportsman cigarettes?

| Amnesia is also medicine - Yvonne Owour | 

There are many games played by your village. Inclusive games and exclusive games. Remembering games and forgetting games. Childish games and grown-up games. Double or triple or quadruple bluff. They are remarkably similar yet markedly different, tearing apart while pulling together.

Outdoor games were insanely popular while you were growing up, even when it was raining. Every third game ended in a fight, so there was always a chance to accidentally-on-purpose elbow Darryl in the throat. He is the worst kind of thief: he stole your toy cars then sneaked them back, all without exception broken and useless and sad. You think gleefully of snitching on him for a later offence - his mother is the Head Mistress, a strict disciplinarian who expected a heartfelt "Thank you" after punishment. Ten years later he will be the first to reach out when you crumble, unable to take the strain of university. The first words out of his mouth will be: "Si ni life." Then, a few heartbeats later, "Let's run away to where the sky meets the earth."

And you are reminded that even though we are all strangers screaming at each other across a bottomless chasm as we sharpen misshapen knives, we can also be kin from the same village, and sometimes glimmers of understanding can pass from one brain to another. In the danger also lies salvation.
born tao - born in town 
Si ni life - It's life 
Aki nimekumiss sana - I have really missed you


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  • November 19, 2019 - 12:56am (Now Viewing)

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