It was 1988 at the University of Nairobi, and Chinua Achebe was only three feet away from me when my cheeks prickled and blushed a deep red. I had read his work already, but his presence and his voice seemed to admonish me, personally, to "cultivate the habit of humility" -- and I felt practically commanded to examine what the hell I was up to there in Africa.
At 19 years old, I had come to Kenya essentially on a whim, and I was making the most of the cosmopolitan and chaotic city that had become my temporary home. Nairobi offered itself up to this newcomer: a great exchange rate made it possible for me to live (frugally) for $2000 a year; my smiling white face endeared me to well-heeled ex-pats who had their drivers pick me up for dinners at their guarded compounds; and a little bravado could get me a free day by the Norfolk pool
He never knew me, of course, but I've carried his books and his words through these intervening decades... and his death this week has reminded me to re-examine what the hell I'm still up to: still traveling to Nairobi after all these years, not exactly a tourist but certainly not a Kenyan, either.
My musings have been helped along by the serendipitous timing of the U.S. screenings of Nairobi Half Life. Blissfully, this is no Out of Africa (blech). It tells a Kenyan story on Kenyan terms, and it is rough and tender and dark and funny.... Its main character, Mwas, arrives in Nairobi in search of opportunities, and is quickly offered several: the opportunity to shovel shit off a slick cell block floor; the opportunity to separate fellow citizens from their belongings; and the opportunity to hustle and be hustled, to name a few. But Mwas is not only a con-artist, he's also an artist in a more conventional sense: he's an aspiring actor who gets his break in a local theater production.
His talent for performance helps him live by his wits in a city that is both unforgiving and invigorating -- he's entrepreneurial and sharp, and he embodies Nairobi's allure. He - and it - is charming and vibrant, but also unflinching and unromantic when that's what the moment calls for.
His life, and the Nairobi of this film, is untouched by NGOs providing fresh water or AIDS cocktails or educational programs. There are no sundowners at the Muthaiga Club or lectures at the National Museum or khaki-clad wazungu headed out to ogle lions. These are realities of modern Nairobi, too, but we've seen these images before -- in documentaries that feature do-gooders and their projects to lift people out of poverty, and in feature films that romanticize pre-colonial African life and/or demonize the bored memsaabs who order the help to refresh their gin and tonics. I see bits of myself reflected in each of these other visions of Africa... not as an oppressor exactly, but certainly as a beneficiary of historical oppression. In this vision of Nairobi, however, people like me are inconsequential.
Nairobi Half Life has no interest in revisiting Africa's historical or international relationships. Instead, it beautifully illustrates another of Achebe's observations about the progression into modern urban Africa:
"Oppression . . . has the ability to call into being a wide range of responses between partial acceptance and violent rebellion. In between you can have, for instance, a vague, unfocused dissatisfaction; or, worst of all, savage infighting among the oppressed, a fierce love-hate entanglement with one another like crabs inside the fisherman's bucket, which ensures that no crab gets away." (From The Education of a British-Protected Child)
Mwas and his gang are in the bucket with other hustlers and cops on the take... and most of them will be dropped into the boiling pot, at the mercy of predators higher up the food chain. But (spoiler alert) the artist will live.
It's as if Achebe spoke directly to director David "Tosh" Gitonga, too:
"It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning."
-- Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)