The red earth roads of Africa undulate over the body of Mother Nature, in the daylight they invite but at night they are darker than rivers, dangerous perhaps at times. Schoolgirls walk home carrying those blades that I still refer to as machetes but which everyone else calls pangas, loosely held in their hands. To cut sugarcane? To mutilate assailants? Difficult to be sure because the answer is probably both.
They are smiling. Sugarcane ought to ruin teeth but it doesn’t seem to. Everyone carries a panga up there in Kirinyaga. It’s completely normal, a part of daily life since the weapon replaced the spear decades ago. When they aren’t carrying pangas they carry axes instead. Smiles erupt like the flash of those speed cameras on Nairobi highways at dusk, disconcerting to a new driver, starbursts in the eyes. And those smiles are utterly normal too, they have nothing to do with the fact I’m a novelty, an unexpected mzungu in a region where mzungus are few, appearing out of nowhere with his large tomato head.
People smile for the sake of smiling and never worry that smiling may be a limited resource, that the well of smiles will ever run dry. It is deeply pleasant. Lucy introduced me to her extended family. There were cousins who call each other brother and sister, nephews and nieces who call those cousins father and mother, adopted children who call everyone uncle and aunt, and it is rather confusing. Lucy’s grandfather had five wives, which explains the immense and tangled network of related individuals that now thrive on the land, like some kind of internet of souls. And the avocadoes fell onto the galvanized iron roof of the farmhouse like gunshots, like the celebratory fire of a warrior greeting.
But what is understanding truly? We often are compelled to do things for ourselves and to ourselves that no one can comprehend, and the release is nonetheless real. The words might as well be independent of the gestures, they are sound effects that follow the actions, as thunder follows the flashing of the storm.
After the burst of language, the verbal signs of exasperation and annoyance, came a lull. At such times they say next to each other, slumped against the bamboo wall, and the starlight came dimly into the room through the gaps, the thinnest blades of cold distant fire. As nebulae condense into new stars, so the aftershock of the detonation of words would stop vibrating in their hearts, reverse direction and contract into new feelings.
He would rummage in his cloth bag, dip a hand into its depths as if into the mouth of a leopard and pluck out the clay jar. Then they would share the muratina, bitter at the back of the mouth at first, then sweetening as it trickled down the throat. Sometimes dawn would creep up on them, always unexpected, and the mountain would reveal itself for an hour before the mists rose to cloak it. The grandeur and immensity, a constant surprise, and then they would stand and regard each other with a hard, firm unsentimental compassion.