Kenya 1983-84

Kenya.  June 1983-August 1984.

The Everydayness of Another Culture

Postcard from Michael Silverwise upon arrival (June 8, 1983):  “Ken buddie — already miss you / great deal. Hope / your new world treats / you properly and / you it. USA still / about the same – / I got up to-day and / showered, thousands / died — Love alway Mike

My Kenyan matches:

  • Kuku Kibiriti (Chicken Matches) and Chapa Nyota (Strike the Stars)

Kenyan matches have such personality, such very selfish keepers of the flame, lighting with an orange sizzle and a burst of flame that spews about bits of phosphorus.

Mama Gladys: “me, I slept until saa tatu… so much rain!… I woke up this morning… tap-tap-tap-tap-tap… nothing to do, nowhere to go… mvua mengi… and I went back to sleep…”

my tea kettle, African lore, getting high on cheap bhang, my kerosene lamp by which I read and read, the thunderous rain during which I sing at the top of my lungs, filling up the chalkboard in class, playing chess and checkers, fresh fruit and vegetables in the open market, sharing paths with chickens, cows, goats and donkeys, my womb-like mosquito net, conversation with Muganda and Baraza, conversation with Chaghanbhai, my kitty Kibaga, learning to cook Indian food, having time to think about God…

My black cat is named Kibaga, which means many things, but mainly kitty in Swahili. He bites his bugs and cleans his ass on my bed, and despite my most earnest efforts chases and kills the good bug-eating geckos.  Bad sweet Kibaga.

I learn much from Kibaga: of Silence when he performs his adorable soundless meow, of Humility when he looks at a photograph of himself with complete indifference, of Timeless Contentment when he flirts with the present, moving through the grass, stalking Nature, now startled by a lizard, a branch, a butterfly, and leaping leaping in response, ever-diverted, ever moving forward…

Daily I destroy hundreds of ants, sweeping the flames of oil-soaked sacks over their teeming trails, pouring the boiling dregs of leftover tea in their tunnel networks, being most inhospitable, and yet they stay.

I scanned the paper, read the headlines, reassured myself that my universe persisted: Daniel arap Moi did something suitably beneficent on page 1, x number of people were injured in matatu accidents on page 2, x number of people were mauled by animals on page 3, and the elaboration of Moi’s beneficence continued on the back page…

I gargled in front of Muganda.

“Ah mwalimu, I used to do that when I was young.”

“Well Muganda, I do it when I am old.”

“Ah, it is funny that you do it when you are old and I did it when I was young.”

Muganda told me that his father is always saying, “tell mwalimu I really appreciated the lemon he gave me in my tea.”  Muganda says, “but father, don’t you think it’s strange for me to keep telling mwalimu thank you for the lemon in the tea?”  And Muganda’s father says, “just tell him I really appreciated the lemon in my tea.”

Sometimes Muganda will belch and to his enormous amusement I will feign nausea and loss of appetite, which ritual guarantees an eructation rally at every meal.

Dear Muganda brings me a cup of water in the evening and shines a light into the cup so that I can check for unwelcome fauna.

Muganda’s dream:  “I saw you mwalimu, I was praying before I went to bed which I used to always do but had recently stopped.  You said, ‘Muganda, why aren’t you praying?’ I said, ‘but mwalimu, I’m praying tonight!’  You said, ‘But that’s only tonight.’  And then you left.  The next night, you came back and said, ‘Muganda, why aren’t you praying before you go to bed at night?’  And I fell on my knees crying and began praying.  Next thing, I saw you in the city in a car and you greeted me but you looked so different. You were fat.  Then, I was driving the car, I had a job and was very happy in the city. I went back to pick up my parents and we were all very happy.”

Muganda became a Christian because Christians were good examples, chiefly in that they avoided busaa and chang’aa.

“‘Africa buys what it wants and begs what it needs’ are words that were once uttered by Martin Luther King.  The truth of the words is striking.  A benz or a tractor, take a loan using a farm’s title deed to build a hotel, instead of of promoting food production; build a show-piece of a new road instead of maintaining an old road and using the available funds in industrialisation or agriculture: maintaining expatriates, some even as teachers of local geography, instead of developing local manpower. This is madness in Africa!”  –G. Kariuki, Nairobi (newspaper clipping)

Where tribe or clan demand absolute loyalty, no moral code extends far enough to condemn even grand-scale corruption. Quite the contrary, corruption is a natural manifestation of self-interest because it enriches a member of the tribe, and by extension, the tribe.

Mark Baraza tells me that Luos are not circumcized and Bukusus therefore hate Luos. They are not respected as men.  “I just remember my pain.”  Baraza tells the story of the 60-year-old mzee forcibly circumcized.  He had fled to Uganda during his own circumcision ceremony when he was 12.  I asked why he returned.  “Ah mwalimu, that one I cannot argue. Just home. There is something about home.”

“Hey bwana that mzee could walk!  I’ve never seen an mzee walk like that!”  –Mark Baraza upon viewing the film Gandhi

Muganda and Baraza asked me one evening what I was always writing.  “Great ideas,” I said. They wanted an example. I complied with a 70-word jargon-filled philosophical bullshit sentence, to which Muganda responded with much consternation that it would take him at least 20 minutes to understand that sentence.  They both insisted that I would certainly write my own books some day and suggested some titles: The Fertile Land of Kenya, Land of the People For the People and By the People, and Love Makes the World Go Round.  Of the last, they both agreed that people would really buy it.

A conversation with Ms. Abwogi in July 1983…

  • the spirits (the living dead) are most happy at festivals and celebrations — during feasting, the blood of a slaughtered animal trickles into the soil and feeds the spirits
  • you can die because (1) the spirits lose the war against the ancestors, or (2) the spirits desert you (e.g., because of selfishness, not feasting, etc.)
  • spirits can be made happy, whether you care about them or not, by feasting (e.g., feasting in a devout Christian home)
  • Kikuyus have a somber attitude toward death; they consider the Luhyia custom wasteful
  • you carry spirits with you and they mingle at celebrations
  • if a newborn is crying, he is named after a certain spirit and the crying stops
  • a youth who is mentally off might be named after the spirit suspected of disturbing him and then he is okay
  • during dreaming, the spirit goes away and communicates with other spirits (Abwogi found out in a dream where to go look for her great-grandmother’s grave in order to cement it; upon finding it, it had miraculously sunk 3 feet)
  • the importance of believing: some tribes do not believe as much, and maybe it doesn’t work for them

 journal image

Early July 1983. There was wailing near Matende. Mr. Wakhisi was organizing shillings for the funeral, suggesting 5 shillings each… “We must pay our respects, they are our neighbors, the spirit will be here tormenting us if we do not pay our respects… These Kakamega people are very funny people; they do not go to pay their respects except for their closest relatives!  I will go on my own… No. Last time I was organizing money for a funeral, I received the news that my sister had died. I just remembered that. No, I cannot repeat that.”

16 July 1983. Funeral for George Abura’s brother.

Mr. Luvembe:  “The beer and the liver, they do not rhyme; on the 11th and 12th he overdrunk.”

“Many people here do not believe in natural deaths, they do not believe a person can die from disease, so they look around to say it is this cause or that.  Some believe he was poisoned–he had just built those houses by selling some land and some thought there was jealousy among his age-mates because he will be richer, and so he was poisoned–that is why we had the post-mortem.”

Letter to the Editor, July 1983.

“I am a Luhya but I detest the way we mourn the dead. It is worse when people believe that a person cannot just die but must be bewitched. This has caused untold embarrassment to many people who are falsely accused of causing the death of others. Mourners at a funeral carry away household effects. All cattle and chicken and crops must be eaten up. What are the people left to feed on?”

Lutomia on a certain woman (July 1983): “This one makes the men shake. You will have to meet her and then you will tell me your impressions. If she doesn’t make you shake, we will send your sister-in-law to check you out.”

23 July 1983.  Mwanga Village, Kibisi Scheme, Naitiri Location, Tangareni Division, Bungoma District, Plat No. 70:  Mark Baraza Wekeza’s “home -home.”  For over an hour we sat in a matatu and I read 60 pages of Baraza’s Harlequin Romance, starring mining heir Julian Standford and young embittered Fleur. The standard hut has walls of soil from the river, peppered with family photographs in rigid postures, a ceiling of grass, and a floor of cow-dung.  A lamb was slaughtered for the occasion, and the best meat, presented to me, was the liver and kidneys, thereafter roasted hunks. I ate a lot.

Gut rot is a grievous thing. Returning to a normal bowel movement after a debilitating bout is a happy thing, a simple pleasure… I took my pipe and a good book to the loo.

28 August 1983.  I travel to Patrick Muganda’s home-home.  Muganda and I spent an exhilarating few moments running through a deep dry riverbed.  I learn to say tumbo langu halina utulivu (I am not hungry) because I do not want to repeat my ordeal at Baraza’s home-home, where I ate ugali, sukuma wiki, lamb liver/kidney, pili-pili, etc. etc., and experienced wrenching gut pain. At Muganda’s, I was wiser if less impressive, mentioning my stomach difficulties, and got off light: a little rice, a little stew, a little kuku, a lot of tea.

Expenses: August 1983

Salary:  Sh 1000

Mbelezia debt 100

1 Aug     30-          eggs at Matrons

1 Aug     36.25     Cowboy cooking fat; 2 kilo rice; 2 kilo sugar

1 Aug     65-          Mama Gladys salary (Jul)

2 Aug     4-            milk at duka

4 Aug     23.80     ndizi, potatoes, unga, chicken & beef TASTEMAKERS

5 Aug     5-            matatu from Kakamega forest debacle

5 Aug     30-          lunch at Golf Hotel

5 Aug     3.80        Sprite and Fanta at duka

5 Aug     100-       to Millie for kangas in Mombasa

6 Aug     35.10     fish, potatoes, tomatoes, cooking oil, baking powder

6 Aug     2.15        milk at duka

8 Aug     25-          matatu to Kisumu with Piers

8 Aug     50-          AWS books in Kisumu (poems and plays)

8 Aug     26.25     knife (15.75) and spoons (5.25 each) in Kisumu

8 Aug     20-          14 oranges in Kisumu

9 Aug     5-            beer at Golf Hotel with Piers (balance = Piers and F. Lutomia)

13 Aug  1.90        Sprite at duka

13 Aug  47.05     mkt: cooking fat, Blue Band, avocado, samaki, Gladys unga ugali

18 Aug  6.85        bread, milk & Sprite at duka

18 Aug  23-          paraffin (William)

18 Aug  20-          loan to Patrick Muganda

19 Aug  10-          aerograms

26 Aug  4.95        bread and milk at duka

27 Aug  20-          stamps

29 Aug  80-          sugar, potatoes, cooking oil, unga, tea, tomatoes, bread, avocadoes

31 Aug  2-            matatu to C.K.

31 Aug  65-          Gladys salary (Aug)

                742.40   TOTAL

The great deference to the magic of education is a gamble for the sacrificing parents. The educated child can greatly aid the family, but education is a volatile magic; the child as well might abandon the family.

Jonathon was in Form 1.  He went back to his shamba and had a big argument with his parents.  He maintained he was educated now, that such work was not for him.  In a fit of adolescent temper, he swallowed a bottle of paraquat and was buried two days later.

“That is my favorite tradition at food and therefore I will never leave enjoying the food and to make it more worse I will have overlooked my tradition which can lead to an aprapt death.”

–student  composition on beans and ugali

In the staffroom at Matende Secondary School…

Mr. Mbelezia: The Devil is a black man bwana.

Mr. Wakhisi: Eh, but the African is the cleverest man in the world.

M: The cleverest man. He knows how to survive. Look at the red Indians in America.

Ms. Abwogi: Africans are the fastest learners. We learn English fluently in five years of Primary but wazungu are sometimes here for 20 years and cannot speak a Luhyia sentence.

GKM: Mbelezia, what do you really know about America?

M: We know nothing about America. We just know some Europeans left and went there.

* * *

M:  In African politics, bwana, you have to struggle to survive. African leaders never resign.

W: Kenya cannot afford to support any country with arms, but Njonjo can afford to support a country with arms. He was supporting Ian Smith. If he stepped inside Zimbabwe, he would be a dead man.

GKM: Isn’t Njonjo denying that he is the Traitor?

A: He is the Traitor. Of course he’s denying it. Judas was friendly with Jesus before he betrayed him.

M: He wants to sell us. He doesn’t like Africans.

A: He launders his suits in London because he doesn’t believe there is any laundry in Africa that can clean his suits.

M: When he says he is a Briton, they really enjoy him.

W: He is a clown bwana. He is a neo-colonialist.  Give me a gun, I will shoot him. He has made me to suffer very much.

* * *

M: Fidel Castro. You must clap for him bwana. A little country with a big effect. He tells people to speak ill of him, and then the U.S. welcomes them and then they report back to Castro.

W: When Castro is head of the non-aligned, the non-aligned are aligned with the non-aligned.

M: His sister is self-exiled in the U.S. and when Castro speaks at the UN, she goes around the U.S. saying that he should not be allowed to speak because he is the leader of a repressive regime.

* * *

W: Bwana, Kenya is a nuclear power!

A: We will smash Russia.

W: We are a superpower bwana.

M: Then why don’t we have a foreign aid budget? So many countries are helping Kenya, and we don’t even have a foreign aid budget.

Catherine Luvembe: Mr. Mbelezia, how can you say Kenya should give aid when you won’t even give a few shillings to your school?

M: I gave some shillings. Even Mr. Ken gave shillings. There is no free education in Kenya. There is a series of harambees, and they even include Mr. Ken. Taxation.

* * *

W: Eh, Mr. Mbelezia, in my life I will never vote for a woman. If a woman wins in my area, I will buy land somewhere else. A woman is too easily fooled bwana.

M: Even a snake deceived Eve. Something that couldn’t talk.

W: When there is a snake, a woman is the first to see it.

A: These stories are invented by men. Mr. Wakhisi, if you think along those lines, you will never marry. Or perhaps you will marry a man since a man is so perfect.

M: Mr. Wakhisi, you know God is a jealous God. “Hey what are you doing?? What are you discussing??” [laughter]

A: You two should write the Bible.

M: Mary said to God, “But I have never known a man,” and God said, “don’t worry, don’t worry.” And Joseph stayed asleep. He was not a very active man.

A: You will pay for that argument.

From student compositions (October 1983)…

  • They rare hens for eggs and cocks, bigs for pock and dogs, and gow crop like cabbages, maize and English potatoes for cash.
  • It is funny that I am a big boy. I don’t really know how I was borne and brought up to this stage.
  • Also during this year my grandfather died again.
  • Every boy must be circumcized at the age of 7 years or below or over.
  • Some of my teachers were so cruel to pupils, they could pitch us our ears, beat us until we could not be able to sit down because of the swollen battocks. Even if you ask them a question, you are given a punishment bucause you want to show off that you know more than they know. And if you carry any eatable thing, maybe groundnuts, these teachers will snatch from you and they eat. Also, when given some thing to sell, they just take on purpose and they refuse to pay for it.
  • He starts dictatetion when he is about 15 metres away from class.  Reaching in the class, he has already finished.
  • I kept all different stamps from the countries which I could say were already developed like America and other European countries.
  • The fluent English I speak I owe it to this teacher. He has opened for me the door that closes the fruits of my country Kenya and made me to eat them or rather he has cleared for me the bush that surrounds delicious fruits and enabled me to taste them too.
  • Anyone found brewing should be sentenced to death.
  • Women are human females and men are human males.
  • athropology means the study of all athropos and logis; restrospect is looking back and restrospection is to go back; retrogression is anoun and retrospect is the verb; geology is the study of logy
  • If you break any of them [the Ten Commandments] you go to church and repent on the priest, the priest listened to you were sins after which he gives your some prays to pray. This show that all your sins are forgiven.
  • [baptism] The priest takes water and bores on your fore head and smear out on the face.
  • Marriage is done through wedding or just going to Church. The priest parys for you and asks you questions like are you going to remarry again?
  • It is known that he was conceived miraculously and born in the tenth century. Until he was twelve years of age Jesus began his ministry of preaching and saving people.
  • He was crucified, died, buried and resurrected in spite of great natural event of earthquake.
  • I prefere city life than rural life. This is because in city you can walk even at night because there is light every where at every time at night whereby in rural places you can even step on someone because there is dark every where at night.
  • So that’s why I say that rural people are good because they know nothing.
  • Infact some young boys and girls who live the city life don’t know their tradition customs, and you will find that some of them go on seducing there reletive because they don’t know each other and the first time they meet they don’t bother to ask so many questions.

From Form 3 Examinations (October 1983)…

  • Children (boys) are sacrificed over 12 years [meaning circumcized].
  • When a boy is circumcized he is free to do everything he wants. If it is going to local dances, grooving with ladies he can do without prevension.
  • There are what we call superstitions (old beliefs). Some of them are true and others are not true but we should not neglect them.
  • In my tribe women  are surving the most important part. They are the intermediaries between their children and their husbands. A husband can not cook when his wife is just sitted comfortable. A husband can not look for firewood, fetch water, extra. You can see that in my tribe men are really enjoying life. I tell you if you can come and stay in Kakamega and be a member of my tribe, you can really enjoy.
  • Europeans are the ones that made my tribemates to forget all about their culture. Nowdays women are being granted equal rights to men. Men are also helping in cooking, new systems of love has been introduced and all these things have brought confussion. My tribe has not changed too much but it is only the idea of culture that has made my tribe to change to a small extent.
  • Compared to other tribes you will find that Luhyia’s are the most civilized tribe in Kenya. Other tribe in Kenya go as far as circumcizing girls which is beyond god’s case. Such tribes are Kissii, Kikuyu and Pokat.
  • After a return of fathers’ visit from somewhere, the mother sits down on a goat’s skin and a father on a traditional stool exchanging conversations on what they have seen new for the day as a whole.
  • But nowday my tribe has improved, when the boy is ready to be circumizazzed they take him in the hospital.
  • If you are a Tiriki and you are circumcized in the hospital the old men will say word and you will become mad or die. Or you wouldn’t produce any kid in your future.
  • This days our customs have to be changed by the system of religion. This is because we are allowed to follow Christian rules. Nowdays children share bear [beer] with old people when they are not circumcised. The girls are married when they don’t know how to cook, how to make a house clean … So I thank the religious people to remove us from following our tradition customs, and teaching us education.
  • The boys will be given certain herbs to drink, instrucked and fuly granted to old wood from youth wood.

From Form 1 exams (October 1983)

  • She is a cruel girl, but kind to people.
  • Simon is black, short and fat. His work at home is to dig. He is very funny and likes jokes… But the badness of Simon is that if you bring bad jokes that he doesn’t want he beats you and also abuses you.
  • He like preaching a word of God and preaching to people how they should be not taking alcohol and so on, but suprising people enough, he is a very good alchol taker.
  • The most thing which father likes the best is the taking of alcohol everyday. After he is drank nobody in our home tries to joke where he is because at this time he is serious in his deeds and he can just harm the person. When he is drank he never knows what is good to do or what is bad to do so he goes on destroying utensils, demolishing some of the furniture and as well as tearing up our clothes.  Apart from taking alcohol and acting as a madman father is very kind to other people and as well as our family.

Student-reported customs

  • Luo belief in night sun: west-setting sun returns to east at night and only fortunate people see it; returning sun carries many things with it; if you see it, you are free to ask it for something; if it throws you a rope, you will have many cattle and use the rope to tie them up; if it throws you a hoe, you will be burying your relatives with it, therefore it is best to throw the hoe back
  • Luo equivalent to “haraka haraka haina baraka” (lit. rushing rushing there is no blessing — haste makes waste): “Jarikni ja muod nyoyo gi kuoyo” (rushing can make one eat beans with sand)
  • Luos throw two hens on the roof; each hen has a name and the first hen to reach the ground is the name of the crying child
  • Luhyia oral education was for 3 months; intensive; learning tribal secrets, way of life, tribal enemies and friends
  • wealth is known by how fat you are, how many wives you have and how many children you have
  • a Luhyia boy will climb a tree and look at the surrounding fields; if he sees a girl busy digging in the garden then he tells his parents what he saw and he will marry that girl [suspect]

Swahili Proverbs

  • Damu nzito kuliko maji (blood is thicker than  water)
  • Dalili ya mvua ni mawingu (lit. the sign of rain is clouds — coming events cast shadows)
  • Chako ni chako hata kama ni kibaya (what is yours is yours even if it’s bad)
  • Mahili pa ugenini usitoe maneno mengi (lit. where you are a guest you do not offer many words)
  • Mkono mtupu haulambwi (an empty hand is not licked)
  • Mfalme asiyetoa hapati wafuasi (a chief who doesn’t give doesn’t get followers)
  • Kulika kuchukiwa na wengi ni afadhali uchukiwe na mfalme (it is better to be hated by the masses than by the chief)
  • Heshima huanza nyumbani (respect begins at home)
  • Kila kitu kina pande mbili (everything has two sides)
  • Huwezi kuwatumikia mabwana wawile; ukimpenda huyu, unamchukia mwingine. (You cannot serve two masters.)

Island of Lamu (March 1984)

  • thriving Islamic culture… cats and placid donkeys everywhere… no cars…
  • Yoghurt Inn… Banana Pancake with Guava Jam
  • the old man with white whiskers sits on a slab

blind boy smiles in his lap

the Indian girl opens her big eyes wide

briefly forgetting her shyness

  • Late morning dialogue at the Yoghurt Inn:  “I got up and walked over here and ate. I think I’ve pretty well done all the important things today.”
  • travellers competing for the role of authentic traveller
  • there is actually a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Lamu (!)
  • I thoroughly enjoyed the African hymns before, lively call and response pieces, but when I heard them issuing out of the Catholic Church of St. Mary here, they sounded discordant… Islam seems natural here, the kofias, the prayer calls, the bui-buis, the dhow eyes with the Islamic crescent that see the dangerous rocks, all the sandals at the steps of the mosques, the Arabic chants issuing from the woodcarver’s shop,…
  • [Ten years later — not much different.]
  • On the train ride from Mombasa to Nairobi. The climate this time of year is sultry so I enjoyed the night breeze perched at the coach window. An insect settled on my face and I whisked him away, but he stayed, and then I was more forceful, and whisked him, and my $100 glasses, into the African bush.

Uganda (2-6 April 1984)

  • banana trees and enormous ant hills along the road — “In Uganda, if you drive straight, you’re drunk” (because of the pot-holes)
  • around the electric lights, children catch and eat grasshoppers
  • there are some shops and offices along Kampala Road, but the pulse of Kampala is behind Kampala Road in the Bokassa Road area: broken muddy sidewalks teeming with people, sidewalk vendors selling Sportsman and Rex cigarettes, hard candy and Chinese matches, sidewalk tailors operating their ancient foot-operated sewing machines… along one stretch, nearly every shop had a tape machine blaring Western pop, reggae, Zairean pop, and the occasional Christian hymn…

23 April 1984. what pleasure am I afforded by the rain beyond the fact that I love the rain for itself? simply this: I sit in my little room in Kakamega reading the plays of Oscar Wilde and I laugh uproarously behind the smothering roar of the rain


the dark continent

clouds just after dusk slowly cover the moon

and are illumined

the intimacy of the insubstantial and the inconstant

you cannot caress the pre-dawn impression

of the hills against the sky

however ardently you may wish it

and if you wait for the sun

and climb to a point in the hills

you imagined perfect

then it is not so beautiful as real

and your humor rescues the moment

nairobi from the second floor

the saturday morning and I

am lazy looking down from here

an old woman peeling mangos

in her shawl and sari and crooked specs and wispy white hair

three times I have returned to this perch

and she squats peeling mangos

then what?

the travel clock ticks but not the birds

the sun shines on the empty morning cup

tiny specks of tea leaf golden brown

the bumble bees are about like Cessna planes

the cow at the petrol station sniffs the pump

rushing home river sound river sound receding

evening fires a hill away

my tea kettle blackens and blackens

and grows dearer

17.Sept.1983 (to John McLean)

My dear friend,

let me tell you my thoughts in this moment

penned hurriedly before the moment passes

how sad that it should

the afternoon is indescribably beautiful

I am alone nature is gentle

and my senses are pleasantly weary of assertion

try not to judge my effusion

for it is to you I have entrusted my moment

not the world of letters

I am a battle between asceticism and aestheticism

I have smoked my cigar, savored it

but I have not eaten

nor will I until perhaps this evening

I am happiest when I am hungry

and most wretched when I am filled

how beautiful the world is when my body isn’t sated

there is a kind of discipline that gives ism its private joy

that prepares the soul to comprehend and be comprehended

that moves the I to a gentle sensible unmasking…

* * *

there has been an interval

a time to play checkers with my friend Muganda

I win but am undone

and a storm gathers

but storms are peaceful

* * *

I have a parable but you must know

my parable is the story of this parable telling itself and nothing more:

an apprentice performs a simple act

perhaps to demonstrate enlightenment

the master cracks a stick over his head and says

do you think you are showing me something?

the apprentice says yes master, I was

the master smiles and says you are closer now

and even further away

* * *

I play checkers with the Self for lack of understanding

I cannot yet be silent

2.Oct.1983 (to John McLean)

My dear friend,

again the morning is clear and beautiful

and again my thoughts have turned to you

I think of our love of language

of books and their power–

an isolating love especially here

where students struggle to parse the literal

of sentences in their official language

I cannot explain book-reality

or maybe my language fails

I read slowly I linger

to read not to have read

it is tragic between writer and reader

who neither can hope to understand

and doing both I know only dimly what I do not understand

careful writing is braggadocio or vaunted self-awareness

we have lost the love of the story

* * *

“The story,” the Bushman prisoner said,

“is like the wind. It comes from a far-off place

and we feel it.”

* * *

I think of the fable of in which the world gathers fearfully

to see what emerges from a great rumble in the mountain

and perhaps it is precisely the ambition to produce more

than a little mouse that blights the spirit of a writer

8.Jan.1984 (to John McLean)

My dear friend,

Everywhere the great clamor is meaninglesness

I must prolong my experience

because I am losing so many great things

and great things pass away with a poof

will we die?

except by a kind of sophistical contrivance

I cannot say everything is absurd

a vile hyperbole

though so many hear it and bow

when will we die?

I am curious

stripped of other curiosities for the time being

(send thoughts on this new prospect of death)

ever yours,


Asians in Kenya

An Asian on the British:

“The British people, that is their badness; they are never clear. You have to find out the sense of what they are saying, and when you do find out the sense, they can say, ‘but I didn’t say that.'”

An Asian who was a house-boy in India for 5 rupees a month and went to school with only a loin-cloth:

“That is why I understand these people from the inside.”

An Asian on his daughter:

“I am looking at her fingers and I think she can be a writer or a poet.”

An Asian on Hindu scripture:

“I don’t read the Gita; I don’t understand it frankly.”

Nava RatriGarba and Dandieras in the temple — some of the women become extraordinarily beautiful dancing so fluidly

My friend C. K. Patel on Kali Yuga:

“In the past yug, the ideal worship was with a mantra.  Now the ideal worship is with the name of God, that is, repetition of Hare Ram.  If I want you to type a letter for me and I go out and repeat ‘Mr. Ken, Mr. Ken, Mr.  Ken,’ perhaps you will come out finally and say, ‘what do you want?’ and then you will send me away and so I will continue to repeat, ‘Mr. Ken, Mr. ken, Mr. Ken…’ until you come out again, and so the idea is to connect with God for one moment only and then, who knows? maybe you will have Him.”

North of South by Shiva Naipaul (read July 1983)

  • Our ancestors, when they crossed the black water (kala pani), lost caste. Complex purification rituals would have to be performed if they were to be cleansed of their defilement and restored to the fold. For us, their descendants, no rituals of purification will ever suffice. We are beyond restoration.
  • The Indian in East Africa brought India with him and kept it inviolate.  Africa wrought no discernible changes in him.  He remained spiritually in tact. That has been his greatest stength and fatal weakness.
  • Re Asian gatherings at Mombasa seafronts: “That is bad politics: one would expect them to behave with greater circumspection. However, these gatherings have another, even deadlier aspect. It is this: they exclude. They symbolize the impenetrability, the hermeticism of the Asian world. This inaccessibility feeds the African’s ‘deep resentment.’ The Asian is irreducibly foreign, irreducibly alien.”
  • The European world is altogether different. It offers him [the African] if not the substance at least the illusion of assimilation.
  • Aristocratic nostalgia — the “beauty of Africa”: an act of arrogation, as if to say, “we alone, because we are who we are, can comprehend the spirit of the place and be comprehended by it”


One evening I argued with my friend C.K. Patel whether one could remain spiritual and kill mosquitoes. He maintained it was sufficient to drive them away. I posited multiple scenarios I thought justified killing mosquitoes. He told me the story of the Buddha’s encounter with a man wearing a garland of human fingers.  The man told the Buddha if he took one further step, he would kill him.  “Okay,” said the Buddha, “but everywhere they grant a man a last wish. Will you grant me?” “Okay, what is your wish?” “I want that branch up in that tree here on the ground in front of me.” So the man broke off the branch and delivered it.  “Now,” said the Buddha, “I want you to replace the branch, to put it back where it belongs.” “Are you mad?”  “You see,” said the Buddha, “how much easier it is to destroy.” The man became a great saint, still worshipped in India. I maintained that some destruction seemed necessary. “Look at Gandhi. He believed completely in non-violence, but his program led to the death or injury of many Indians.” He agreed and we digressed into a discussion of Indian independence, which he actually considered premature. I recalled an earlier scenario, when we were playing carom on the floor, and an ant crawled onto the board. Had it been on my side, I would have smashed the ant and flicked it away. But he said, “go away, I don’t want to kill you bwana.” He picked up the ant and put it under the couch. The ant returned and again Mr. P put him under the couch — which happened twice more, and I said with some annoyance, “the ant clearly wants to die.”  The ant had not come to die, Mr. P told me, but to serve another purpose. I was wholly unconvinced, but troubled, and was unable to indulge my appetite for insect massacres thereafter.  The next day, a mosquito buzzed about me and I made ready to smash it, the experienced a dissipation of fury and waved brother mosquito away. Mr. P laughed and laughed.

8 February 1984.

Am hanging out with my artsy pal Amar Patel, who is 8 and whom I commissioned to do a few portraits of me, each of us drinking coffee and tending to our respective tasks. Conversation is light, chiefly his arithmetic sums and his Corgi cars. He shows me an accident, an impressive crash, in which the freeway gas tanker got the worst of a smash-up with a mobile crane. Amar admires my small handwriting and imitates it doing his sums, producing a meandering row of shrunken numbers. Amar learning polite English: “Give me the paper — oh — would you please like to give me the paper?” Amar’s dear mother Bhano tried to put a stop to Amar’s portraits of me for fear of hurting my feelings.

17 February 1984.

Below the ledge of a Nairobi Patel family’s home, there is a limping mangy bitch with puppies, an ugly creature, and Sanjna throws bread to her, careful not to hit her.

27 February 1984.

“I sometimes think we survive by moving through the world and inspiring other people to pray for us.”

–C.K. Patel

“One thing I don’t like about you people in the West is the way you go out with women to all those bars and go on drinking and dancing and shouting and burping. What is it for? There is no art in it, no progress in it. It’s not like prayer or devotion.”

–C.K. Patel

Herman Hesse maintains that Buddhism disappeared from India because it was too intellectual and denied the world of symbols.



My British friend puzzled over the fact that my name was the same as my father’s.  “Why would you name someone after yourself?”  I couldn’t say, but said “just because,” which occasioned a sad reflection over how much of my life stood unexamined.

One cannot embrace the truth of freedom from the law until certain aspects of character are habituated to harmlessness.

I thrust myself into the distant future, into a time when I am long forgotten, wreaking havoc on my sense of self and place, a dislocation I thrust upon myself frequently.

August 1983. I watched a horribly violent  movie called Vigilante.  It filled me with hate and anger, as if sent to deliver me from my illusory peace, to shatter my idealistic spiritual world. Whatever becomes my way must somehow account for everything unbearable.

I have recently come to realize that I dislike people who dislike me. Self-awareness progressing rapidly.

August 1983.  L’esprit de systeme was viable because intellectuals could isolate their corner of the world, know its parts, and comfortably generalize. Even the antithetical esprit systematique was more a revelry in the corrosive power of rationality, and not  a recognition of realities beyond the pale of systems. But such a debilitating spray of realities are flung at us now. That is the chief consequence of the media revolution, that we learn far more than we can reconcile in a single world-view.

The Newsweek coverage of the J.D. Autry capital punishment case in Texas (October 1983) occasioned a radical reconsideration for me.  Against my history of vocal opposition to the death penalty, against my sentiments on the just and virtuous state, against my belief in the sanctity of life, my sympathy was not with J.D. Autry. My sentimental opposition to the death penalty did not survive the black-and-white image of Shirley Drouet’s bloated head with a bullet hole in the middle, the mother he had killed stealing beer.  Now it seemed a positive moral failure to keep him alive.  (The protesters who wanted him executed bespoke, with their placards, a more fundamental morality: “We pay for our beer. Now it’s time for you to pay for yours.”)

18 November 1983.  A Primer on Self-Relfection.

Chapter 1: Thoughts on Regressive Introspection

Chapter 2: More Thoughts on Regressive Introspection

Chapter 3: More Thoughts on Regressive Introspection Revisisted

18 November 1983. Aspiring Writers Anonymous Handbook.

  • You must concede the bitter fact that much of what bubbles forth from your imagination is boring rubbish. Be firm. Dole out your thoughts judiciously. Let the little new-borns age in a secret journal for several years. And then throw them away.
  • Resist the temptation to convert a good short story idea into a novel.  The additional character development you are eager to supply will oppress the reader.


November 1983.  My British friend Camilla asked me to pass her the bottle of High Life Sherry, but I was gazing at the U.S.S. Ranger on the cover of Newsweek and began a reverent humming of “America the Beautiful.” Camilla demanded the bottle and threatened to tear up my picture of Henry Kissinger if I didn’t at least level off my patriotic crescendo.

7 December 1983. There are essentially lonely people for whom self-respect is the only ethical imperative.

December 1983.  In a letter to British pal Piers Rawling (a cognitive psychologist then working on a thesis concerning dialectical reasoning).

“‘…How is your work progressing? Sartre was a cad to criticize dialectical reasoning.  Upon what aspect of dialectical reasoning have you focused your vast powers of mind? Or not. Or both. It occurs to me that Hegel offers of a potentially useful distinction for cognitive psychologists: what he calls “Verstandt” (understanding) seems subsumed under various cognitive capacities, despite its superficial resemblance to “dialectical thinking.” What he calls “Vernunft” (reason) seems to be the genuinely separate advanced cognitive capacity, wherein ones goes beyond the basic structuring principles of identity and non-contradiction. One possible gauge for the Vernunft capacity would be a person’s conception of the infinite: few would likely get beyond Hegel’s Spurious Infinite. Another aspect of the Vernunft  capacity would be its independence from “intelligence” (or more usefully, from the “stacking process” that establishes IQ intelligence). I think it would more properly be linked with the restless discontent with dualisms that drives so much independent and creative thinking. Common cognitive capacities can “resolve” the tensions of most dualisms, but only the uncommon separate cognitive capacity of Vernunft “sublates” the distinctions of a dualism. Thus only is the cognitive capacity properly dialectical.”

January 1984. When I arrived in Kakamega and unpacked my suitcase full of books, Francis Lutomia glanced at the table of contents in The Philosophy of Hegel, and said, “I can tell I like this guy’s philosophy.”

30 December 1983.  I listened to the sound of the sugar strafing the surface of the coffee. I watched a gecko catch, fight, and finally devour an enormous insect. I read about the big guns on the New Jersey, not out since Vietnam. They leave craters the size of tennis courts. Syria has kamikazi pilots. Raed Mustaf Agil, 25, Iraqi, ran a truckload of explosives into the U.S. embassy in Kuwait.

January 1984. To Michael Silverwise.

…there were the times of meditation, Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, Valpollicelli and Bardolino… there were the songs that hushed us, that kindled secret pains, your Joan Baez song and my Joan Baez song… there were the Kierkegaard sessions and Ram Dass tapes and poetry readings and non-sequitur laugh-ins, and then a spin on the bikes and Gatorade… does anyone play video games anymore? there was Zammito the Ubermensch and the little man in the music department who taught us the Plains Indian Snake Dance…  there was dark and peaceful Hamburgers by Gourmet, one of my favorite monasteries, and the Raw Deal, another of my cloisters, but only because my good buddy monk Michael consecrated the food there… there were the scores of movies, Fellinis and Truffauts… there were the two exquisite creatures with long hair… there was our great birthday bourbon bash-up, my most delightful ever sickness unto death (just why did we beat each other up?)

January 1984.

My dear Camilla,

There is the Zen legend of H’ui K’o offering his severed arm to the great master Bodhidharma as proof of his sincerity.  I was affected by that that legend. That is extraordinary, isn’t it? One simply could not harbour the tiniest particle of suspicion about another’s sincerity if one received his recently severed arm as a pledge.

To that end , I am sending a package to Domenica which she ought to receive before I get to London. It is oblong-shaped and will have a smattering of registration stickers and health certificates. I do not have her address, so I am sending the package to you. Can you relay it to her? Do please keep it refrigerated while you have it. You’re a dear.

January 1984. In Suetonius, we read that Tiberius’ pet snake was eaten by ants, which he took to be an omen of the danger of the multitudes.

January 1984.  Mysteries We Now Understand.

  • lead dishes occasioned the decline of the Roman Empire
  • Van Gogh suffered from a rare vision disease, hence the light effects in his paintings
  • voodoo zombies in Haiti are simply drugged with a powerful narcotic
  • Alexander the Great acquired that appellation when, upon returning from battle, someone yelled “all eggs under the grate!” (–Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers, p. 159)


Thoughts About God

August 1983.  I am thinking about my utter  aesthetic failure to apprehend God.  My framework has been  Calvinist, despite my intellectual quibbles with Calvinism, and the persistence in my heart of the far-away profoundly ugly Calvinist God has doomed my efforts to look upon God with anything but boredom and repulsion.  The heart has its reasons that reason does not know. My Calvinism has privileged reason.  So I labor to dislodge deep-set ideas about God, ideas long obscured by their festering effects. Certain impressions have such an oddly tenacious cling, seeping out silent revulsion, prejudice, cursory dismissal.

I spent my growing-up years needing something comprehensible about God, and so acquiring images, and making additions as my soul enabled, and collecting, loathe to relinquish anything, until God resembled my cluttered attic, something useful but so ugly that I could not bear to behold it, and so I held God at bay.

And all the while, God is beautiful, yes, true and good, but above all, beautiful.

September 1983.  I see that I am competing for spirituality, not so much as if running a race with others, but in the sinister way everything becomes a competition with me, that is, not the desire for the degradation of others, but the instinctive pitting of myself against others.  Of Enlightenment, a form of self-realization, I think, okay, I think I’ve got It, but then I think I must suspend It until I learn how to function in the real world with It, which is to say I haven’t a clue what to do with It, which is to say I haven’t got It at all.

Sometimes I think I must have a tin ear for the music of the soul and I wonder if I am destined to be curious about God.

6 October 1983.  my strange path, the laying of a hundred thousand million tangents around the perimeter of a circle, closing in…

7 October 1983. perhaps i can only be the prophet of those who forever hold back, a spokesman for the spiritually mediocre…

9 October 1983.  renunciation of pleasure as essentially Feminine; pursuit of pleasure as essentially Masculine; perverse extremes of each; renunciation as the greater maturity; male hunger  for God; female maturity smoothes male excesses

14 October 1983.  It has happened.  But I seem to have lost it.  Like something momentarily present and now gone, but profoundly lingering. A smile that says, “I’m gone now, but I was there — you weren’t deluding yourself.”

Insofar as leaps of faith are rationally grounded, they are provisional leaps, perpetual deferrals of the real leap.

28 October 1983. how to be filled with God & political? without becoming an impotent liberal, something weepy and useless…  I cannot seem to sustain what I think is a spiritual state of mind… I submit to all manner of indignation… damn the crude self-indulgence of human nature… damn the cruelty that issues from it…

intellectuals are dangerous in politics — whatever their constructed ethical code, they are not encumbered by a moral instinct, therefore their evil is efficient, terrible, insidious

30 October 1983. with irony as the greater awareness, God occupies the supreme ironic stance (thus how irony returns to myth)

November 1983. God the Ironist.

Irony is always the presumption of elevated awareness. The milder our chuckle, the more private our titter, the more intensely do we esteem our appreciation. We have done our penance to cultivate this discrimination. Now it is ours to enjoy, to sip and smile and say, “brilliant.” Is it not so?

 And so ascending with our downward glance, we imagine an ultimate, the Supremely Ironic Perspective, where God must live. And here God laughs, not a derogating or condescending laugh, for condescension is always the lower ironist’s insecurity, but divinely raucous laughter. When we see God divinely convulsed, we laugh a bit too, whereupon God can barely hold Himself in his throne. Our nervous laughter rings rather hollow at first, but we gradually Ho-Ho with the best of His retinue.

 January 1984.  God is never met in conception. It is of no consequence that I formulate statements about Him. It is of no consequence that I say He exists or He doesn’t exist. If I am defying God and do not want to, perhaps I am in a personal quandary, but I am not doing anything wrong.

God is not the being who works out the details that make our lives more pleasant. That may be some other being, but not God.

January 1984.  The Prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad…  –Hosea 9:7

6 April 1984. When I commune with God somehow, I never feel I am reaching beyond my self, only into regions of myself I do not yet understand. As one comes to understand those regions, God is both extinguished and realized. Some will emphasize one or the other.

Concerning God, both transcendent and immanent…

to the extent He is transcendent, we cannot possibly speak of Him and therefore ought not speak of Him at all (Wittgenstein) — there is absolutely nothing we can learn of God in His transcendence…

as to immanence, can words or description or language in any form take us closer to that which is immanent? if we maintain that words will clarify the nature of God’s immanence, then we pursue an erroneous understanding, for what is immanent is not understood by conceptual thinking, which objectifies the world…

so how immanent and transcendent?

God is immanent with respect to the Self

transcendent with respect to the self

by gradual expansion of the self toward comprehension of the Self, one experiences the immanence of God…

in our conceptual thinking, we (self, a concept) conceive of God (another concept) and God is therefore always-other (and further an always-other about which nothing can be empirically experienced… and thus it remains, exertions notwithstanding, for many life-times…)

15 April 1984.

  • 5 influences that undercut conceptual thinking: (1) Hegel (dialectical method; sublation of opposites); (2) Martin Buber (“I” as mere concept; “I-You” as real; child psychology, all is self); (3) Wittgenstein (conceptual baggage and consequent improprieties of language); (4) Oscar Wilde (aesthetic smashing of ethical dualisms); (5) orientalism (jnana yoga using the mind against itself; Zen, acutely aesthetic radical empiricism)
  •  the dialectical method is the point at which Western rationalism comes closest to subverting itself in favour of something greater
  •  the first critical step of independence: to confer capricious value upon things and gestures
  •  the most vivid phrase on Nietzsche: “megalomania of a great mind — what a catastrophic superfluity!”   –Eric Heller
  •  with a friend, one confesses what is Serious and what is Play, that is, what matters; otherwise one is confined to the vast in-between of small talk; life is interesting because friends will not always know how to distinguish the Serious and the Play

One Response to Kenya 1983-84

  1. Ela Macdowell says:

    I finally found Africa. It must be wonderful to have all this recorded. I wish I had some of the high points or low points of my life recorded similarly.

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