The first few months I was here I couldn’t tell the Kenyans apart. The simplest way to say it was that they all looked the same to me. I didn’t realize it, but in my life at home I had grown accustomed to seeing one kind of face. If each race has a set of variables that tend to describe their proportions and colors, the shape of their chins or set of their eyes, then it would make sense that I am best equipped to detect subtle distinctions in the kind of face with which I am most familiar: my own. Over time I have improved and finding white faces the minority of what I have been surrounded by for the last ten months I now have the opposite problem. I am so unaccustomed to seeing white people that they all look the same to me. Waving to the girls at dinner just across from us on the patio, I get a mystified look and half hearted return wave.
But I am right. It is the Dutch girls from the bus office. At least, we think they are Dutch. They are from Holland and we can’t quite agree whether this makes them Dutch or Danish. Volunteers at a hospital in Mwanza they have been living here for two months and kick off tomorrow with a few weeks of travel before they head home. They had planned travel through Kenya but abandoned it in the wake of the election. This, combined with their exclamation of concern over our impending travel to Rwanda, makes them a casebook study in the danger that domestic disorder poses to a tourism industry. “Rwanda? Is that safe?” The genocide in Rwanda was 14 years ago next month and it is still discouraging visitors.
We found this place while we wandered about Mwanza today. The dining patio sits at the edge of the water, separated by a shallow wooden fence topped with small kerosene lanterns. I have been surprised at how calming the wide and quiet flatness of the lake is for me. It reminds me of home I suppose. The land around the lake seems new and ragged: hills climbing to an escarpment that surrounds the city center. The houses terrace up the hillsides creating the appearance of a Mediterranean village transplanted to central Africa. The water and coast are littered with boulders the size of houses, as though god had wandered along the shore scattering pebbles from his pockets. They poke out of the ground and water at intervals, like the ruins of some ancient settlement softened and rounded by centuries of wind and rain.
The Dutch (or Danish) girls are dining with an odd dozen ex-pats from work. Their co-workers resemble nothing so much as the cast of a primetime hospital drama. There’s a stunning, if vacant looking, blonde, a willowy and hippily dressed brunette. Standing slightly aloof is the older, rugged looking supervisor and the grim, tall, thin and dark counter-culture heartthrob. There’s a pop-band pretty boy in the white linen shirt, his tuft of tightly trimmed chin hair bronzed from the sun and a dumpy social misfit sitting with the pair of ambiguously ethnic minorities. The strongest aspect of their TV-drama resemblance is the exotic setting and honest joy that seems to pervade their dinner. Just watching them, I want to be a part of their group, their life. With little more than a cursory introduction, I find myself jealous of their lives. I imagine the houses, the lifestyle that their first world salaries command in this third world country. Their party stretches long into the night in my imagination, as they sip cocktails of fresh juice and imported vodka on the balcony of someone’s hillside home. Their conversation drifts in and out of English and Kiswahili, French and Dutch (or Danish) as they sit smoking clove cigarettes and waiting for the sun rise.
Watching them, wishing for the community and comfort they seem to possess in the midst of this strange and exotic land I start to see how I will remember the life I have left behind in Kenya. I’ve had dinners like this, sitting with my friends under the setting sun enveloped in a bond of common experience and mutual respect. Treasuring an isolation that makes the people and moments more precious than they would be anywhere else. Filled to overflowing with a true and honest desire to be here, now, and nowhere else with no one different. I have a quote written in one of my books to the effect that in travel we become all things: explorer and student, lover and academic, critic and creator and child. But I don’t know that we become residents. There’s a special sense of belonging in a place that’s not your own, of thriving in an adopted home. It’s not a role that we can “try on” as we might do with others. We visit places to try them out, to imagine our lives transplanted somewhere different, but there is a powerful difference between imagining a home and actually having one. It’s worth noting that, for a little while, I had one here.