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Kenya

Africa

The Paradise Mask

Diani Beach, South Coast, Kenya, 4.3222° S


“Everybody—everybody who is escaping from something ends up in Diani. Shady people, criminals, expats… everybody.”

Such was the prognosis of a Diani resident and regular at the South Coast Backpackers bar (where I have been working for the last three weeks), and I am inclined to believe he is right.
Though it doesn’t seem it outright—packed with tourist shopping centers and hotels as it is—Diani Beach is kind of a final frontier. A “la-la land” for expats and Kenyans alike escaping from their pasts—or simply fleeing the big cities (“Nairobbery,” I have learned, is actually a common nickname for Nairobi). A no-man’s land where many normal social conceits do not seem to reach.
What does that mean? Allow me to illustrate:
Here in Diani Beach you have the “beach boys,” the name by which everyone—and I mean everyone—calls the men who pass their time at the beach, either trying to sell something—coconuts, jewelry, boat trips, sunglasses, aloe leaves, safaris and anything else you can or can’t think of—or just loitering… or betting on a Roulette of foreign women. They almost always lose that bet… after all, only so many women will respond kindly to verbal assault: Hey! Beautiful-lady-how-are-you-Where-are-you-going? Why-you-don’t-want-to-talk-you-are-very-beautiful.
Local bars, however, are brimming with those who have won. Young Kenyan men and women share cocktails and seductive glances with much, much older foreign women and men. The Kenyan men wear their good fortune with a touch of arrogance, while the women adjust their skin-tight dresses and scan the room for something better.
Residents and long-term visitors prove a bottomless repository of stories—bar brawls, unsavory characters, intrigue—leading a new arrival to wonder how Diani manages to appear so… idyllic. The ever-swaying palm trees, smoldering white sand, jewel-toned water and algae, beachfront thatch-roofed restaurants and resorts, technicolor kites speckling the sky, two resident Diani Beach camels—it all belies a much less serene, much duskier palette of hidden shadows and secrets… Or so it would seem.
She who ventures out at night must not walk along the road for pickpockets; must be wary of piki pikis and taxis for drunk drivers; must avoid matatus for questionable passengers.
A guest in a five-star, gated compound on Diani Beach might easily—very easily; too easily—forget that Kenyan law allows for detention in jail up to one year on suspicion of terrorism; might refuse to acknowledge that police checkpoints on roads are no more than systematized bribery collection centers; might overlook the streets lined with garbage and the fact that most of the young local women at the bars are probably prostitutes.
Here is a carefully imagined idea of a paradisiac tropical hideaway spread like a semi-translucent shroud atop the reality of Kenya: corruption and a starving tourism industry. At times (most of the time, even), I have certainly overlooked it all, lulled into la-la land by the breeze and the sun and the sand and the coconuts.

But then again, Diani Beach is hardly unique in these regards. What earth-bound paradise is truly what it pretends to be?
***

***
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Africa, Culture, Travel Advice

The Gift

Several days ago, I sat in a matatu (bus) plying the main road of Diani, Kenya. On my way to Diani Beach Hospital for a precautionary Malaria test (I don’t have malaria, Mom, you can exhale).
A muzungu (a sight far more common on the coast than it had been upcountry) boarded several stops after. Hale and tan in the way that Northern Europeans tan—russet, rather than gold—he must have been around 70. His thick white hair and beard shone starkly amongst the rows of shaved Kenyan skulls.
He sat by the door, and when we stopped to let off passengers, he held out a coin (50 kesh—50 cents—, I think) to a small boy a few yards away.
A man carried the boy over to accept the gift. As the matatu began to roll away, the white-bearded man said in a thick (Dutch?) accent, “It’s for him [the boy]! Not you—him!” Thus ensuring that his gift would not fall into other hands, he sat back, satisfied.
This foreigner bestowed his gift with the ease of frequent practice. His manner brought to mind other tourists I have seen in other places, of a similar ilk.
Simply put, something about the gift—or rather, its giving—bothered me.
Two years ago, far up in the Himalayan foothills, very small children would emerge from nowhere, holding out phantom hands and pleading eyes, and ask me and my trekking companions for “candy! candy!” or, even more baffling, “ball-oon. ball-oon.”
From whence had come this peculiar fixation with candy and balloons? Well, from other trekkers, of course. Foreign hikers toting bags of candy—and balloons—to give to children along their path.
There is something presumptuous—maybe—about giving unsolicited gifts to strangers. An assumption that we as outsiders know what is needed, and by whom. That we have a right to give when and to whom we wish, without asking anyone’s opinion. A whiff of a lingering imperialism, perhaps. (Of course, now these children do ask, having learned from experience to expect bounty of visitors.)
I am reminded of a class I took on Jewish Ethics 10 years ago, about which I have not once thought in the interim… According to Maimonedes, there are eight levels of charity. The greatest, you may or may not have guessed, is to support another Jew (this merits another conversation entirely). The lowest, naturally, is to give unwillingly.
Ringing in at number five: giving before one is asked.
This may all be a bit off point, but Western altruism in Africa has a long and problematic history of unsolicited giving, unscrupulous giving, and giving without once thinking to ask what is desired or needed by the recipients.
These sorts of giving smack of colonial condescension. Translated into 18th century garb, the image of the foreign man handing money to a Kenyan child becomes that of the beneficent overlord deigning to notice a black child, reaching down magnanimously from his carriage with the gift.
I do not think I exaggerate so greatly in this leap of imagination.
Sharing food and games in Phnom Penh.
Surely, you might say, I don’t need to ask to know that a starving child needs food, or that a village with no well needs potable water. Yes, there are certain basic needs, but no, you can’t assume that you know best what they are and may thus dictate another’s priorities.
In some touristic destinations, poverty is rampant, and in advising visitors to these places, study abroad or travel guides will usually take one of three tracks:
1. Don’t give anything to anyone. Not to beggars, not to children, not even to new friends. Just don’t, because one friendly gesture of generosity will call upon your head a veritable surge of unanticipated requests.
2. Bring gifts that are useful—flashlights, notebooks, clothing, etc.—to give to hosts or friends. You will be offering something worthwhile, not a symbolic gesture doomed to sit on a shelf beside its untouched kin.
3. If you are going to give a stranger something, give them food. Children, especially, almost certainly need it, and your gift will not be misused or appropriated, as money so often is.
Other responses include: giving to a reputable non-profit, thus ensuring (in theory) that your money will be well spent; sponsoring an individual’s schooling; or offering skills or instruction, which has no (or greater) monetary value.
I don’t have a set position on the question. All of these suggestions have merit. Personally, I am disillusioned by the distribution of spending in corporation-sized non-profits, and I much prefer the work of grassroots organizations that work in tandem with local communities. I love the option of sharing food; I think it is the most human of acts, and almost universally understood and appreciated. Sharing skills—if you have them—equally so. Material gifts are tricky. I lived with a home-stay family in Kathmandu who had an entire shelf of unused gifts from other guests like me—picture books, snow globes, and salt-water taffy, all untouched and unopened. I don’t know about the worth of gifts that serve no function beyond expressing gratitude for hospitality.
And then, even if you do ask a community what it is they want, you will not receive a unified answer. Children may indeed want bicycles and candy—and balloons. Male elders will not seek the same help as women; each may have different priorities.

But if you want to help the “poor, starving children of Africa” (a platitude which, to my absolute shock, some tourists have actually employed), don’t throw up your hands in despair. I think doing good begins with good intentions. Do, however, leave your presumption, your condescension and your self-importance at home. Be mindful of these complexities in your giving.
~
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Africa, Poetry & Fiction

That Sand in your Toes Feeling

Today was a gorgeous day at Diani Beach. For the first time in a long time, I felt poetry pushing at my fingertips. I hope it will transport you to where I am, if just for a moment…

~


You know that feeling
of sand slipping between
your toes
like silk ribbons,
so soft and yielding
you could almost
sink your heels to the center
of the earth?
Take my hand,
and follow me there.
Kick off your shoes here—
Yes, here at the edge—
you won’t need them.
Squint a little
against the glare—
white white sand too bright
to look at.
There.
Where the sand forms
miniature dunes
in the shifting wind.
Before the damp, packed
floor of high tide.
Just there—
Try on a pair of sand slippers
for size.
Material so fine
it will hug every millimeter
of your toenails
and soothe your soles
like nothing before.
Dig deeper,
and feel the cool gasp
of another layer,
untouched by the sun.
Drink the salt breeze
in your hair.
Stay as long as you like.
Watch the waves carry
blown glass jellyfish
and green sea tangle
In and away.
When you’re ready,
brush off your feet with
sandpaper fingers,
and put your shoes back on.
Shade your eyes
for one last look
at that sand between your toes feeling.
~
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Poetry & Fiction

Sound Impressions from a Hammock

As I lie here resting, gently swaying, I reflect on the day’s noises…
There are the birds who say “Oh Yeah” in a melodic chorus of positivity.
Then there are the birds who welcome me in Swahili: “Karibu! Karibu!”
The birds swoop and swivel and swish and swerve—a limitless parade the likes of which I do not have the expertise to catalog, let alone describe. They wake me in the morning and sing me to sleep at mid-day.
The goats scream with human indignance and bleat with an infant’s piteous yowl.
They caper and cavort, cradle sunlight in the sleek hollows of their sides. They stand on hind legs to grasp out-of-reach shrubbery. They block the roads with impunity.
The children shout, “Muzungu! How are you?” with the the same lilt as the birds who say “Karibu.”
They are sudden apparitions at the side of the road, emerging like smoke through fences and paths. Some smile and wave; others stare with scrutinizing solemnity.
The motorcyclists ask, “where are you going?” and have nothing more to say to my reply: “I’m just walking.”
The donkey wheezes through a comical fit of seeming laughter—or sneezes. Sometimes at noon; sometimes at midnight.
The dogs howl like wolves to the moon.
The crickets chirp a thunder and an avalanche in the otherwise quiet of dark.

My ears are working hard to keep up…
~
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Africa, Culture

Rusinga Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya

Here, I am Muzungu: foreign, white, outsider. Kids yell after us as we pass on foot (or, after realizing the walk from Mbita is at least an hour, on pika pika, moto-taxi). It hasn’t gotten old quite yet.
There is something… there is something about the impossibility of fitting in that has always challenged me in the best of ways. In Nepal and India, no matter the effort I made to wear the right clothing, to learn the language, to immerse, I was always patently, immutably other. Here too—I can already tell.
In Europe, not so much. I have a face that can appear French, Italian, Slavic or even Turkish according to context. Without my backpack, I can walk through a city unmolested, my status as tourist unknown, and blend into the crowd of a subway car. The chameleon has many merits, and I have certainly enjoyed exploring new places in the guise of a local.
And on the other hand, I do not like the constant attention, stares of curiosity, shouts, deference and, conversely, hostility I receive when I travel as an obvious tourist. I certainly do not like being singled out by the Nairobi police as an easy source of a bribe, and I do not like the behavior of those men who seem to believe that as a foreigner I do not warrant the same respect as women of their own race.
But still, there is something.
There is something about the impossibility of fitting in that I do like. Standing out, not because of a voluntarily articulated identifier like religion, sexuality, or dress, but because of an immediately evident, insuppressible feature like skin color—like eye color, height, even language, too.
That experience was very rare growing up in Boston, or going to school at Middlebury College. And I think most people, of all backgrounds, shy away from it because it is uncomfortable. It is inescapable. It can be exhausting and challenging. It is also, I think, important.
There is something about the impossibility of fitting in that forces us to confront the reality of our otherness—no greater or lesser than anyone else’s. Amongst so many other reasons, perhaps that is why I travel. It is too easy to fall into the comfortable trap of sameness. Surrounded by people who look— and maybe more significantly behave speak dress and think—like us, we relax not into multiplicity, but into uniformity.
I would rather learn how to be equally at home in my otherness as I am in my belonging.
~

Home for the moment.
Here at the western edge of Kenya, the roads are dirt and dust. An energy center in town offers drinking water, internet and computer use, solar energy and more to residents. Wifi is scattered at best.
At the Wayando Beach Eco-Lodge, our neighbors appear to be hippos to one side and nonstop music to the other. I will teach yoga at 7:30 in the morning… if anyone shows up. I serve Tusker Pilsner to guests and fry Tilapia fresh from the lake for dinner. I have seen three different jewel-colored birds—ruby, emerald, sapphire—since writing that sentence.
The sun burns hot at midday, but the nights bring light rain and heavy wind, and I am happy for the warm blanket in my tent.
Eco-lodge means sawdust-composting latrines, round, self-contained huts for guests, and lake water showers (don’t worry— it’s treated for parasites). It also means fresh papaya, mango, bananas, ginger, arugula, peppers, passion fruit and sweet potato from the garden.
We will spend two weeks here, or hopefully longer…
To Be Continued.

~
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