Handshakes, Laughter, and Kenyan Hospitality

I'M really glad to be back home - in Kenya. When I was in the United States recently, someone said it must be nice to be home. Yes, I said, but explained that home was now thousands of miles away, in East Africa. The visit to the US meant another good visit with my mom and a chance to see friends. But then it was time to get back on a plane for the 30-hour or so trip back home.

So what do I like about it here? Some of the things I like are little things.

As I sat at dinner tonight, I laughed when I noticed our cloth wall hanging. It's crooked, as usual: tugged on by one of our two cats. And the hand-painted plate was in its stand, with the painted fruit upside down, as usual. Christine, the wonderful Kikuyu woman who works part-time in our apartment, prefers it that way. Actually, it's more eye-catching her way.

When I opened the garage, I was amused, not angry, when once again I found the car battery had died while we were gone. When I got it jump-started and charged, it was nice to drive into a small parking lot downtown and find our reserved space still vacant and waiting. The same parking-lot attendant was there. When I shook hands with him - we do a lot of handshaking here - I forgot to finish the handshake Kenyan style with a one-two grip.

Then I walked to the bank a few blocks away - and along the route got re-baptized into the hazards of being a pedestrian in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Traffic is almost always thick. There is general order, but with so many cars double-parked for lack of space, cars are always darting into other lanes. Sidewalks are so jammed that I sometimes walk in the street. I have to be on guard.

It's not that I enjoy the congestion: I just get a feeling of satisfaction being able to cope with it.

But one thing I especially like here is the laughter. You hear it everywhere. A couple walking along laugh privately at something, perhaps seeing the irony in daily circumstances. A group of men sit in the back of a pickup, listening raptly to one of the men telling a story that will surely be punctuated with laughter. A huge lunch-time crowd watches a sidewalk performer, roaring at his antics. Laughter, I'm convinced, makes the often tough economic life here more bearable.

Back in our apartment, where one of the two bedrooms serves as an office, I forgot to pause and wait for a click after dialing the first two digits of most phone numbers. Without the pause you get an eternal busy signal. Most of the time I feel tremendous energy here: It comes from a feeling that there are so many stories to write, so many issues to try to explain about Africa.

For a Westerner to be a channel for informaton about Africans is not easy. I recall the warning a Ghanaian diplomat gave me in Washington before I came here: Don't look at everything as a Westerner - try to see Africans as they see themselves.

So those hours when I am seated at my Toshiba portable computer, often with one of the cats in my lap, writing a story or a radio script, I sometimes remind myself to try to think a bit African - and to look for elements in a problem that could lead to possible progress. That's not only this newspaper's mandate, it's what most Kenyans and other Africans look for, too.

A Canadian friend of mine returned to Nairobi after a two-year stay in Canada. He said that back there, the people he worked with were concerned about issues, and would meet, discuss them, and then - go home to dinner. In Africa, he said, the issues are more real, less theoretical, sometimes urgent.

Some people look for work for years. Many families can no longer afford to pay mounting school fees; food prices are rising faster than wages. And there were major riots in the country in July after the government's detention of leading advocates of a change from Kenya's one-party rule to a two-party system. In the rioting, at least 1,000 people were arrested and 20 people killed.

So how can I really feel at home in this kind of charged atmosphere? I guess I like being on a continent that is beginning to churn with a peoples' desire for freedom of expression, for dignity, for economic progress.

And I am attracted by people's gutsy determination to study, work, and to survive. I'm attracted by their hospitality, especially among the poor. So, for now at least, home for me is Kenya. And it's nice to be home again.

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