by Gina Picard
Location: Lala Salama, Kenya, East Africa
The sun blazed down with a tribal heat upon the African soil of Kenya’s earth. The air smelled of cows and dust. It was hot. It was dirty. And I was all of that, with the weary uncertainty that accompanies such an adventure. I felt small; a small white female wandering a land of primal truths, of bitter need, and with pristine skin against the dark, weathered flesh of Africa. Desperate for a ride to any town with accommodations, I wandered the winding roads that weaved between the delicately rolling, emerald hills of tea in western Kenya. I waved my arm up and down, palm to the sky, the customary gesture indicating the need for a free lift. I felt a sudden draft of isolation.
Ostracized from this new world and its inhabitants by my obvious difference, I longed for the anonymity of my existence back in the States. I also longed to know where I was to sleep that night.
A matatu (the Kenyan equivalent of a New York City taxi combined with the collegiate challenge of how many bodies can fit into a VW) abruptly halted in the middle of the road causing the passengers to lunge forward in their seats. A painfully thin man, as black as greased raven feathers, beckoned me. I ran towards him and tossed my pack aboard the rear of the vehicle, then flung my body on top of it. Whew. No worries now, I thought, pleased with acquiring transport. The day’s journey was just about done.
But, what I did not anticipate was a journey of a different sort, a journey of internal realization, the kind that gives one new eyes that will not be denied their new vision. As I wiggled for a place on the bench, I suddenly became acutely aware of my fellow passengers staring at me. I had grown accustomed to such attention, but this encounter felt different.
Directly across from me sat a young mother with her child, who looked about ten months old, on her lap. As I slid my pack beneath my feet and brushed my clinging hair from my damp face, I looked up and noticed the child stiffen her back, drop her pouty lip, and open her eyes wide in astonishment. Oh wonderful, I whispered to myself, these people have never seen white skin before.
Space and time stood still. The rhythm of the speeding tires held no comfort for me. The sway of every bend in every road only enhanced how alien I was to these people. Centrifugal force made my choices for me as my body unwillingly leaned into theirs. The child, however, beheld my vision as if one blink of her eye would prompt my disappearance or attack.
Those eyes. The eyes of a child, so innocent, yet innocently wise, took in the vision; evaluating the possibilities, sizing up the prey or the attacker, friend or foe. She held within her gaze an honesty, a terror, an inquisition, a wonder. Wide and so full of wet, the eyes of the child sparked wild laughter within the small, full world of the matatu. Her gaze was the source and affirmation of the distance between me and my fellow passengers. Yes, winding roads, rolling hills, sweat tickling all the way to the pool in my navel, I was white and not of them. I sensed that my fellow travelers did not see me as a human being; not as someone on that same journey, on that same road, in their village, their world, their universe.
Nestled between local shoppers with their newly acquired goods of flour, rice and maize, a pair of chickens on the day of their last supper (as supper), and maniacal drifters boozed up on despair, the smell of body and breath permeated the capsule of space and time. The speeding matatu packed with life was vapor-locked against draft. No air. Trying to breathe, but wishing I didn’t have to, I meditated.
My head tilted forward, chin on my collar bone, eyes on my dusty boots resting atop my pack with held my memories and melancholia. I did not want to make a single expression, nor a single move, to prompt further fright within the child whose frozen gaze upon me was seemingly watching out for an attack.
Invisible was the word I meditate upon. If only I knew how to be invisible. But I was indeed visible. I was captured red-handed in all of my white evidence, glistening with the bronze sting of Equatorial sun.
My mind was besieged by thoughts of alienation; my spirit burdened with the loss of anonymity. I whispered to any angel, to any god, to any wind or whim, to please comfort me, lighten the weight of the eyes upon me. The child’s eyes did not offer pardon from the heaviness. The globe, the gulp, the sorrow and the scene, all of time and all of space gathered in my throat. A mass of silent need swelled within the passage of voice, blocking any sound or explanation. My heart, laden with nothing and everything, danced a tortured waltz within my ribbed cage of exclusion. The salty sweat upon my skin coupled with the bitter tears of a freak-show attraction. Emotions welled up so full within my own eyes and spilled over onto a face that I no longer knew.
Still staring at my boots, now wet with sadness, I felt a human touch and a breath of liberation. The elder to my left took notice of my distress and offered sympathy. As she wrapped her motherly arm around my slight shoulders and touched firmly her magical hand to my quivering lips, the mocking laughter ceased. As I lifted my eyes to see her kind face, she blotted my tears with the back of her hand. A blink later I was face-to-face with the wide-eyed child, whose frightful gaze had softened to the gaze of an angel, donning the smile of a comforter with an expression of inclusion.
My tears of sorrow must have released in them a recognition. They saw that I cry too, just like they do. The fear that held such recognition in bondage was replaced with care, concern, and goodwill. My fellow travelers and I were no longer separated by difference. We were on the same journey now, traveling the same road, in the same village of our world within our universe.
Yes, there are common threads that bind. There indeed exists the spirit to transcend separateness. New eyes can transform the old world into a place of acceptance and of belonging, as did the eyes of the child. In a world all full of human we journey, each of us, everyone. I slept safely as I closed by my eyes to my old world within the welcoming home of my neighbor. I slept safely.
Text © Gina Picard 2004, All Rights Reserved