Too Close for Kenya

Flor da Kangra, Dharmsala, India 2013The terror attacks in Kenya have weighed heavy on my heart. So much so that it’s taken til  now and with great deliberation to even discuss my disdain for the entire affair. My peripheral intersection with the events in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall have left me grieving — perhaps for a sense of youthful immortality that has, apparently, died a quiet death.

Like 9/11, Nairobi’s attacks affected me around the edges in a way that some might say have shaped me. When those four planes headed West ward they departed from both a town I’m from and a town I was residing in at the time. Only years later when I moved to New York for almost 7 years would I associate those events with those towers. My fears, at the time, weren’t for people in the WTC, but for people possibly on those planes. Had my aunt Trudy traveled for work that week? Wasn’t a friend’s parent traveling from Logan? Such were my thoughts then and thankfully my people weren’t on those planes. I wasn’t touched – some might say – because they weren’t touched. Yet, sealed in that close call somewhere was the feeling that if it could happen so close to home and spare me and mine, perhaps this would always be the case.

Kenya undid all of that. For the reality is that as the events unfolded, I quickly thought “Of course, I don’t know anyone in Nairobi.” The same way I’d thought, “I don’t know anyone in Libya,” “in Syria,” “in Afghanistan”… But I did know someone in Kenya. I knew someone in Nairobi. I knew someone in Westgate Mall. In fact, I knew two someones – one who lived and one who died.

The irony that these two people would be my two people, in the same place at the same terrible time, is haunting. They’ve been part of an interwoven story in my life that’s left me speechless and afflicted with writer’s block since the realization dawned on me.

She hosted me at Barnard on prospective weekend. In deciding if I’d chose Barnard over Hopkins, over UNC, over… I’d slept on her floor and tried to live her life and be one of her friends. In deciding to choose the college, I chose her shadow – taking courses she had taken, being similarly disappointed with the administration’s ‘color blind’ shenanigans, sharing a suite with her my junior year. The cake may have been that, but the icing and the irony is that she went to Ghana in 2004. On an otherwise unprecedented trip led by British novelist Caryl Phillips, she and a cohort of Barnard women made the reverse transatlantic journey. From what I hear it was chocked full of white girl guilt trips and Black girl breakdowns. Soon after, she graduated and headed for Harvard Law, as she’d always planned. And I headed into my final year.

I, too, joined Caryl’s course and I also went to Ghana. In 2005. Similar tales resulted, except that my cohort upped the ante with multiracial girl ambivalence. I, too, met with Ghanaian students, had an amazing Ghanaian tour guide, and spoke with Ghanaian intellectuals – one of whom was Kofi Awoonor.

He met our group throughout the ten day trip. He introduced us to the students of University of Ghana’s Cape Coast campus. He dined with us and entertained us with diplomatic war stories at an Ivorian restaurant in Accra. And he even took us out to a resto-bar overlooking the Atlantic. Or maybe I’m mixing up my boys born on Friday and he only went to the dinner with us.  Or maybe there are other punctuations I should remember, but don’t now. Nevertheless, he was a figure and remains a phantom – tireless and effervescent – in my Ghanaian memories and my West African dreams.

Just shy of 7 years have passed since that trip. And in those 7 years of separation, I’m sure he’d long since forgotten us – she from ’04, me from ’05.

Some twist of fate made these two individuals, my people, show up in Westgate Mall that day.  One could say it was no coincidence. Neither are Kenyan. Months earlier, maybe even weeks earlier, neither was even in the country – much less in the mall!  I bet they didn’t even know that the other was there. I suspect that even if they’d passed one another, they wouldn’t even have recognized each other by name or face. But there they were, fighting for their lives.

Unfortunately, he lost.

There are requiems that must be written for the loss of such lives like his. But you could google such memorials and they’d be more intimate than anything I could produce.  Yet her shattered serenity I know more dearly and could argue that it too deserves commemoration of its own. I could pity these two people and praise their bravery or simply honor their greatness – tragedy not withstanding.

What these events have raised in me is the nagging knock of mortality at my own door, followed by – not the fear that life is too short – but the fear that the world is frighteningly small.

I know people in Libya. I know people in Nigeria. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And in Washington, DC. Safety has become its own mirage, now more than ever. It’s trigger finger, though, remains brilliantly, divinely, randomized.

Perhaps if it weren’t these two people, these uniquely separate individuals, whose lives intersected almost a decade ago for just ten days…

If they could find themselves deeply entangled in danger in a foreign country, far from, distant from, their own…

Were it not them, were it not now, maybe I’d still feel spared the disruption of the world’s violent explosions so closely to home…

Ifs and buts get us nowhere…

So it was them. So it is now. So far, but so close.

I wish we were close enough to hug, but weren’t not. We’re just close enough for tragedy, but not enough for comfort. I’d like to hug her to let her know that I love her and that I’ve always appreciated her shadow. I haven’t the words to express both condolences and respectful distance. I haven’t the vocabulary to say that I’m happy she walked away, bruised but breathing. That these events aren’t hers alone to suffer. For, we are all utterly too close, too shamefully close to a Kenyan mall near you.

And I am so sorry, so deeply sorry, for her loss and for the loss of Kofi.

…We’ll always have Ghana.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day…”

My ‘Literature of the Middle Passage’ professor Caryl Phillips (Caz) said that “Graham Greene once said that most writers are fully formed by the age of 14.” I’m not sure if Caz understood the relevance of that statement for me personally, and – looking back – I’m not sure how it possibly could have been relevant to any classroom discussions from that semester, but it’s one of the few tidbits of writers’ identity reinforcement that I continue to carry with me into adulthood.

See, our camel driver was fourteen years old and he seemed to be the youngest on the strip from the East street entrance to the East gate of the Taj Mahal. I got the impression that he too was fully formed. He was only 3 years senior to the camel he whipped forward, and both were visibly weather beaten. His is the face of India’s laborers – young, unregulated, untrained, and in service to another person who could be described in the same way. This ten-year old to the eye, fourteen year old by his own admission, triggers images of the boy from KaviLatika from Slumdog Millionaire and Sarita, begging for money and food outside Saket mall, who told me she was 4, then 5, but looked 8, and then admitted she didn’t know how old she was.

When I think of a childhood I don’t remember, I have to admit that it’s categorically different from a childhood they never had.  While I’ve found many Indian families to be an onion of rules, impositions, superstitions, responsibilities, joint families – my impression of most middle class families is that these layers offer children shelter from the larger unpleasantries experienced by India’s lower class children. For every Amir, there must be a Hassan, who does the grunt work so the former doesn’t have to and who takes the fall because the former wouldn’t know how to get back up.

From my vantage point, this is the way this society is built; often in direct contradiction to a more familiar idea of self-reliance and independence. Surely, India isn’t the only place on earth where this rings true. Needless to say, these layers of family and work order prop up the top echelons of society, and more importantly make it possible for the middle echelons to believe themselves to be on their way to the top.  These accepted labor inequities can lead to unconscionable extremes of blatant child labor and abuse; the more common impression I have as a resident outsider is that this methodology leaves gaps of accepted inefficiencies and predatory behaviors that are deeply imbedded in the fabric of this saffron life.

This country has no dearth of young labor. But, what it could use, in my mind, is a more visionary ideal of how best to use it. Carry overs from the caste system may have worked for the British of the 1900s, but they simply don’t translate well in the service & outsourced industries of today’s American standard.

As a child, I learned early that if you want something done right – you have to do it yourself. As an adult, I’m learning that in some stretches of the earth, while the belief rings universal, the division of labor isn’t organized to see its fulfillment. The fact that I have a full-time household staff of three, is absurd to me. The fact that I actually need them at all is even more mind-blowing, especially when I spend more time talking to them about how to appropriately interact with each other than they actually spend doing their jobs.

But, Delhi is built on having layers and layers of unskilled, often young, workers around to do the things you can’t, don’t want or think you shouldn’t have to do. Yesterday, something clicked when I heard tell of how Arjumand Banu Begum come Mumtaz Mahal had 14 children in her 19 years of marriage to Shah Jehan; she died at age 38. The Shah had over 350 concubines who lived in the palace in rooms flanking their marriage bed chamber. When he played parchessi, he used women of the harem as human game pieces. When Mumtaz died giving birth the 14th of their brood, she was remembered as the perfect wife because she traveled behind him wherever he went and had no political aspirations. I hate to be the jerk that can’t translate joy from this love story, but this is relevant to this conversation because it not only shows that being dicked around (pun intended) is par for the course of both work and home, but it also illustrates the historic foundations of the re-fashioning and over-glorifying antiquities’ disregard for human value as a concept of valor to be revered. #offmysoapbox

On the journey to Agra, my Ugandan friend and I discussed for hours how she and her West African sunshine dumpling were going to raise African children of two nations while living in a suburb of the U.S. She frets over identity; I posit that a healthy relationship between parents seals those gaps. She frets over schooling; I suggest home schooling and mixed Montessori education. She worries that they won’t settle comfortably into the title of African-American, when it is what they will be called, but not precisely what they are made of.  I found myself reminding her that in the world beyond today, the children we think we’ll own will be born into the world that we make for ourselves.

Lest we forget, though, that their identities will be formed in constant flux and relative to the identities of the children of others, those who we allow to wash our clothes, clean our cars, buy our books, install our cable, DJ on the radio, make millions off of us, do our dirty work, make us go get butterscotch lady finger cookies while walking barefoot across the Brooklyn bridge on stilts, whip a camel so that we don’t have to walk 30 yards. How we treat those around us, whether they work with us, for us, near us, across the seas or not at all, will have a great bearing on the character of the generations to follow.

This week’s lesson from North India is one that has rocked the foundations of my core, causing me to wonder if I can be formed anew to adjust appropriately. Since I don’t want to undo the Caz & Graham mystique, it’s an idea I’ll continue to mull over. Maybe with time, I can disbelieve it. But, I’ll share now for your thoughts. Forgive me my resignation and maybe an offense to the higher being of your choosing, but while we are all God’s children, the meek will not inherit the earth… perhaps the after life but, from where I sit, the selfish opportunists start young and they got the earth on smash for generations and generations to come.