Suddenly, the pickup truck driving next to and slightly ahead of us, which wasn’t speeding or doing anything stupid, swerved into our lane to avoid a pedestrian dashing across the road. The driver lost control of the vehicle and spun out in front of us. Kennedy braked rapidly and coolly and we came to a stop, incredibly, a couple of inches from the pickup’s bumper. The truck’s rear end was mostly in the central reservation.
Not, however, before we heard the sickening thud of metal hitting flesh.
I saw the pickup driver at the moment he realized he’d hit someone. It’s etched onto my mind: his anxious turbaned head craning at his rearview mirror and the slump of his shoulders and slow blink of his abruptly deadened eyes. Then I saw the schoolgirl’s body crumpled against a tree. For some reason, I noticed that her socks didn’t match and this bothered me. I heard a high-pitched whimper, which was coming from me. “She’s breathing,” said the bloke, grasping my arm. “She’s alive.”
A huge crowd began to form on the central reservation. A group of men roughly lifted the girl into the pickup. The last we saw of the driver as we carefully maneuvered around the truck, he was climbing back into the cab, his ashen face set as the noise of the crowd swelled. I hoped he didn’t become a victim of mob justice. (He was Sikh. The girl he struck was black, as were most of the crowd. I’d seen enough of Kenya at that point to determine that in most communities with mixed populations, the Asians and Arabs generally occupy higher socioeconomic strata than the blacks.) I hoped the girl was as resilient and rubbery as children generally are.
I was still pretty wobbly when we entered the airport. The bloke put me on a bench after we checked in and went off to file a lost property claim for his Leatherman and sunglasses, which had been stolen on our flight from Lamu to Nairobi. It took ages, since of course he had to meet everyone on duty at the police desk before the rather simple form could be filled in. Afterward, we were pestered for tips by other officers who pointlessly took down the information from the form. Once we finally managed to rid ourselves of “helpful” people, we entered the gates to have a hasty cup of coffee and scrambled eggs before boarding the flight with five minutes to spare.
On the flight, I wrote madly and watched both “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “The Ghost (Writer)”. The first was entertaining, if a bit too self-consciously parodying. The latter was quite good, although I was a little grumpy to discover that it was a Polanski film. (Yes, I realize that a child molester can also be a brilliant film-maker. Now that I know he’s both, however, I don’t particularly wish to support his work in a conscious fashion.)
The past weeks of functioning as a walking tips dispenser for every person that helped us out had worn down my moral expectations. It was exhausting and debilitating, and it put me on edge. Every courtesy became suspect. It became difficult to tell which gestures were given without an expectation of reciprocity. I wondered, frankly, how any non-Kenyan managed to make and retain Kenyan friends. It was not a question that my experience as a tourist would allow me to answer. It was not a question that Tick Bite Fever, David Bennun’s memoirs of his childhood in post-colonial Kenya, answered. He was clearly enough of a Kenya Cowboy to attend white schools and have mostly white friends. It was not a question our friends could answer, either. They’d only been there six months, and the work colleagues with whom they were most comfortable were other expatriates. (This is not a criticism of them. It took me years to make British friends.)
I’m sorry I’m ending this travelogue on a bit of a downer. Obviously I had some wonderful experiences in Kenya, particularly when observing its great natural beauty. However, you don’t have to be an exceptionally sensitive tourist to be affected by the pervading destitution of the bulk of the human population in the country. There is a tendency in the developed world to romanticize certain types of poverty, I think. For example, when it’s dressed up as culturally significant, like the bomas of the Maasai, or when it isn’t desperate because the people aren’t visibly ill, famished or tugging at your shirtsleeves begging for a few paltry coins. Even so, nearly all of these people would have changed places with me or my friends in a heartbeat. They wouldn’t think about it. They would just go. The kinds of opportunities that are available to us - mobility, modern housing, national services - are simply not there for them. They make do. They smile at the tourists and indulge our whims because it gives them an income. They haven’t much choice if they want to be able to save enough, potentially, to move on to something marginally better. By comparison, our limitations are minimal. In the face of such overwhelming need, I feel powerless. Without completely changing my career or bankrupting myself, there isn’t much I can do to help in a direct way. I already give as much as I can from my monthly salary to charity. I can try to be more grateful for the things I have, and make less effort to obtain things I don’t. It’s the best I can do, and it sure doesn’t feel like much.
In spite of this keen and persistent sense of discomfort, I loved Kenya. It’s a stunning country. I’d return to see it again.