Auma’s apartment, a small but comfortable space with French doors that let sunlight wash through the rooms, was on the first floor. There were stacks of books everywhere, and a collage of photographs hanging on one wall, studio portraits and Polaroid shots, a patchwork of family that Auma had stitched together for herself. Above Auma’s bed, I noticed a large poster of a black woman, her face tilted upward toward an unfolding blossom, the words “I Have a Dream” printed below.
“So what’s your dream, Auma?” I said, setting down my bags. Auma laughed. “That’s my biggest problem, Barack. Too many dreams. A woman with dreams always has problems.”
The city center was smaller than I’d expected, with much of the colonial architecture still intact: row after row of worn, whitewashed stucco from the days when Nairobi was little more than an outpost to service British railway construction. Alongside these buildings, another city emerged, a city of high-rise offices and elegant shops, hotels with lobbies that seemed barely distinguishable from their counterparts in Singapore or Atlanta. It was an intoxicating, elusive mixture, a contrast that seemed to repeat itself wherever we went: in front of the Mercedes-Benz dealership, where a train of Masai women passed by on the way to market, their heads shaven clean, their slender bodies wrapped in red shukas, their earlobes elongated and ringed with bright beads; or at the entrance to an open-air mosque, where we watched a group of bank officers carefully remove their wig-tipped shoes and bathe their feet before joining farmers and ditch diggers in afternoon prayer. It was as if Nairobi’s history refused to settle in orderly layers, as if what was then and what was now fell in constant, noisy collision.
We wandered into the old marketplace, a cavernous building that smelled of ripe fruit and a nearby butchery. A passage to the rear of the building led into a maze of open-air stalls where merchants hawked fabrics, baskets, brass jewelry, and other curios. I stopped in front of one of them, where a set of small wooden carvings was set out for display. I recognized the figures as my father’s long-ago gift to me: elephants, lions, drummers in tribal headdress. They are only small things, the Old Man had said…
“Come, mister,” the young man who was minding the stall said to me. “ beautiful necklace for your wife.”
“This is my sister.”
“She is a very beautiful sister. Come, this is nice for her.”
“Only five hundred shillings. Beautiful.”
Auma frowned and said something to the man in Swahili. “He’s giving you the wazungu price,” she explained. “The white man’s price.”
The young man smiled. “I’m very sorry, sister,” he said. “For a Kenyan, the price is three hundred only.”
Inside the stall, an old woman who was stringing glass beads together pointed at me and said something that made Auma smile.
“What’d she say?”
“She says that you look like an American to her.”
“Tell her I’m Luo,” I said, beating my chest.
We turned onto Kimathi Street, named after one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion. I had read a book about Kimathi before leaving Chicago and remembered a photograph of him: one in a group of dreadlocked men who lived in the forest and spread secret oaths among the native population – the prototype guerrilla fighter. It was a clever costume he had chosen for himself (Kimathi and the other Mau-Mau leaders had served in British regiments in their previous lives), an image that played on all the fears of the colonial West, the same sort of fear that Nat Turner had once evoked in the antebellum South and coke-crazed muggers now evoked in the minds of whites in Chicago.
Of course the Mau-Mau lay in Kenya’s past. Kimathi had been captured and executed. Kenyatta had been released from prison and inaugurated Kenya’s first president. He had immediately assured whites who were busy packing their bags that businesses would not be nationalized, that landholdings would be kept intact, so long as the black man controlled the apparatus of government. Kenya became the West’s most stalwart pupil of Africa, a model of stability, a useful contrast to the chaos of Uganda, the failed socialism of Tanzania. Former freedom fighters returned to their villages or joined the civil service or run for a seat in Parliament. Kimathi became a name on a street sign, thoroughly tamed for the tourists.
Just then I noticed an American family sit down a few tables away from us. Two of the African waiters immediately sprang into action, both of them smiling from one ear to the other. Since Auma and I hadn’t yet been served, I began to wave at the two waiters who remained standing by the kitchen, thinking they must have somehow failed to see us. For some time they managed to avoid my glance, but eventually an older man with sleepy eyes relented and brought us over two menus. His manner was resentful, though, and after several more minutes he showed no signs of ever coming back. Auma’s face began to pinch with anger, and again I waved to our waiter, who continued in his silence as he wrote down our orders. At this point, the Americans had already received their food and we still had no place settings. I overheard a young girl with a blond ponytail complain that there wasn’t any ketchup. Auma stood up.
She started heading for the exit, then suddenly turned and walked back to the waiter, who was watching us with an impassive stare.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Auma said to him, her voice shaking. “You should be ashamed.”
The waiter replied brusquely in Swahili.
“I don’t care how many mouths you have to feed, you cannot treat your own people like dogs. Here…” Auma snapped open her purse and took out a crumpled hundred-shilling note. “You see!” she shouted. “I can pay for my own damn food.”
She threw the note to the ground, then marched out onto the street. For several minutes we wandered without apparent direction, until I finally suggested we sit down on a bench beside the central post office.
“You okay?” I asked her.
She nodded. “That was stupid, throwing away money like that.” She set down her purse beside her and we watched the traffic pass. “You know, I can’t go to a club in any of these hotels if I’m with another African woman,” she said eventually. “The askaris will turn us away, thinking we are prostitutes. The same in any of these big office buildings. If you don’t work there, and you are African, they will stop you until you tell them your business. But if you’re with a German friend, then they’re all smiles. ‘Good evening, miss,’ they’ll say. ‘How are you tonight?’” Auma shook her head. “That’s why Kenya, no matter what its GNP, no matter how many things you can buy here, the rest of Africa laughs. It’s the whore of Africa, Barack. It opens its legs to anyone who can pay.”
I told Auma she was being too hard on the Kenyan, that the same sort of thing happened in Djakarta or Mexico City – just an unfortunate matter of economics. But as we started back toward the apartment, I knew my words had done nothing to soothe her bitterness. I suspected that she was right: not all the tourists in Nairobi had come for the wildlife. Some came because Kenya, without shame, offered to re-create an age when the lives of whites in foreign lands rested comfortably on the backs of the darker races; an age of innocence before Kimathi and other angry young men in Soweto or Detroit or the Mekong Delta started to lash out in street crime and revolution.
In Kenya, a white man could still walk through Isak Dinesen’s home and imagine romance with a mysterious young baroness, or sip gin under the ceiling fans of the Lord Delamare Hotel and admire portraits of Hemingway smiling after a successful hunt, surrounded by grim-faced coolies. He could be served by a black man without fear or guilt, marvel at the exchange rate, and leave a generous tip; and if he felt a touch of indigestion at the sight of leprous beggars outside the hotel, he could always administer a ready tonic. Black rule has come, after all. This is their country. We’re only visitors.
Did our waiter know that black rule had come? Did it mean anything to him? Maybe once, I thought to myself. He would be old enough to remember independence, the shouts of “Uhuru!” and the raising of new flags. But such memories may seem almost fantastic to him now, distant and naïve. He’s learned that the same people who controlled the land before independence still control the same land, that he still cannot eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels that the white man has built. He sees the money of the city swirling above his head, and the technology that spits out goods from its robot mouth.
If he’s ambitious he will do his best to learn the white man’s language and use the white man’s machines, trying to make ends meet the same way the computer repairman in Newark or the bus driver back in Chicago does, with alternating spurts of enthusiasm or frustration but mostly with resignation. And if you say to him that he’s serving the interests of neocolonialism or some other such thing, he will reply that yes, he will serve if that is what’s required. It is the lucky ones who serve; the unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs; many will drown.
Then again, maybe that’s not all that the waiter is feeling. Maybe a part of him still clings to the stories of Mau-Mau, the same part of him that remembers the hush of a village night or the sound of his mother grinding corn under a stone pallet. Something in him still says that the white man’s ways are not his ways, that the objects he may use every day are not of his making. He remembers a time, a way of imagining himself, that he leaves only at his peril. He can’t escape the grip of his memories. And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition.
A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you.
A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground.
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*Extracts from "Dreams from My Father - A Story of Race and Inheritance", Copyright © 1995, 2004 by Barack Obama.