It’s winter here, which means that the sun only shows up once a day, and the breeze makes me wish I was wearing a jacket. Still, I am outside in shorts and a T-shirt, sitting at a picnic table surrounded by plants as green and hearty as brussels sprouts. To my right, I can see the tops of banana trees sprouting over a hedge. Plants that look like huge, half-buried pineapples line the edge of the path. Coiled acacia trees, towering eucalyptus, tall, straight palms that sport a tiny shock of leaves at the very top. Other, nameless trees bend over the road and crowd against each other, blowing their leaves into the wind.
I’ve been here for four days, and it’s hard to believe that so much time has gone by. The sun sets at 7:00 almost every day and the whole world is dipped in darkness. There’s nothing like nighttime in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar shapes and sounds bending and scraping all around you. It’s not terrifying, it’s exhilarating, but I still wouldn’t want to stray too far from electric light.
Especially on Wednesday, after driving through the empty streets of Nairobi at 3:45am, under acacia trees laden with sleeping storks, crawling under the mosquito net into bed at 4:30, and waking up at 10:00 to the whistles of strange birds, everything felt very, very surreal. I kept expecting the cover to close or the credits to roll. Movies can teach the sights and sounds of Africa, but you can’t smell a movie. You can’t feel them brush your face, hurt your feet, rattle the seats. Here, in this place, there’s depth. There is feeling out-of-place. There is embarrassment, tiredness, hot and cold.
How can I describe this place, since I am just a youth? If I could communicate smell, I would say that this place smells like the sweater that you press to your face to catch the scent of last night’s campfire. It smells like wiry plants flexing their green arms in the sunlight. It smells like lying flat on the concrete next to the pool, while water sizzles off your body. It smells like dusty rain. If I could communicate sound, I would write about the trills of the red-cheeked cordon bleu (it’s a bird, not a cheese). I would describe the low voices of Kenyans speaking Swahili. Someone is using a hammer over there, beyond the banana trees. A radio’s pop tunes mix with the clatter of pots and pans.
There are two main feelings I get, being here: 1) the dirt feels much more present. Not in the sense that everything is dirty, but everything feels very earthy. The earth of Kenya is red, deep and dark when wet, bright as chili when dry. Even the green of the trees accents the red of the dirt. Cars, tires, trees, walls, buildings, even people are coated red one foot above the ground. The whole city wades through red dust. It colors the air and coats the brain.
2) As poor as these people are, as filthy as their huts and shops and houses are, there is no sense of sorrow, filth, hopelessness. Neither is there particular abundance of joy, cleanliness, or hope. There is just life. Sometimes, we drive through pot holes deep enough to hide cats, or across stretches where the road is cut into squares. Vehicles drive on the shoulder, kicking up dust, while pedestrians walk down the center line, or what is left of it. But it’s all just life. The ten year olds who are probably walking several miles to school along the side of a busy road don’t feel sorry for themselves. They just walk, because if they don’t, they will be late for class. We squeeze nineteen people into a van because we must all get there, and no one wants to walk. It’s just life. It’s just Africa.