In a way everything here is always secondhand.
You will inherit a car from someone who has decided to leave the country, which you will then sell to one of your friends. You will move into a new house where you have already been when someone else lived there and had great parties at which you got incredibly drunk, and someone you know will move in when you decide to move out. You will make love to someone who has slept with all your friends.
There will never be anything brand-new in your life.
It's a big flea market; sometimes we come to sell and sometimes to buy. When you first came here you felt fresh and new, everybody around you was vibrant, full of attention, you couldn't imagine ever getting used to this place. It felt so foreign and inscrutable. You so much wanted to be part of it, to conquer it, survive it, put your flag up, and you longed for that feeling of estrangement to vanish. You wished you could press a button and feel like you had been here all your life, knew all the roads, the shops, the mechanics, the tricks, the names of each animal and indigenous tree. You hated the idea of being foreign, wanted to blend in like a chameleon, join the group and be accepted for good. Didn't want to be investigated. Your past had no meaning; you only cared about the future.
Obviously, you were mad to think you could get away with it without paying a price.
It's seven o'clock in the morning, and I smoke my first cigarette with sickening pleasure at the arrivals hall of Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi.
She is on the early-morning British Airways flight.
Her name is Claire, I have never seen her. I was told that she is blond, long-legged and sexy. She will be looking for me. She has probably been told to watch out for a dark-haired chain smoker with the look of a psychopath, or at least this is the only honest description that would fit me today.
I hate Claire, she is my enemy, even though we have never met. Yet I am here to greet her and welcome her as part of our family, the baboon group whose behaviour I have finally managed to make my own. I guess this is my punishment.
She has never lived here before, but she is coming to stay for good. She will eventually learn all the rules and turn into another specimen, like all of us. That is what everyone has to learn in order to survive here. She is coming to live with the man I am in love with, a man I haven't been able to hold on to. Another possession which slipped out of my hands to be snatched up by the next buyer.
The tourists start pouring through the gate, pushing squeaking carts loaded with Samsonite suitcases. They all wear funny clothes, as if each one of them had put on some kind of costume to match the ideal self they have chosen to be on this African holiday. The Adventurer, the White Hunter, the Romantic Colonialist, the Surfer. They are all taking a break from themselves.
She comes towards me looking slightly lost. I notice her long thin legs, her blond hair pulled tightly into a braid. Her skin is pale, still made up with London fog. She is wearing a flowery dress and a thick blue woolen sweater that makes her look slightly childlike. I wave my hand and she lights up. It's true: she is beautiful. She has destroyed my life.
It's like musical chairs, this secondhand game. When the music stops, one of us gets stuck with their bum up in the air. This time it must have been my turn.
I steer her cart out of the airport towards my old Landcruiser.
"Did you have a good flight?" I try a motherly tone.
"Oh God, yes. I slept like a log. I feel great." She smells the air. "Thank you so much for coming to pick me up at this hour. I told Hunter that I could have easily gotten a taxi --"
"Don't even say that. There's nothing worse than arriving in a place for the first time and having to start haggling for a cab. I believe in picking up people at airports. It's just one of those rules."
"Well, thanks." She smiles a friendly smile. "Wow, you drive this car?"
"Sure." I hop in and open the passenger seat while I hand a ten-shilling note to the porter. "Watch out, it's full of junk. Just throw everything on the back seat."
Claire looks slightly intimidated by the mess in the car. Tusker beer empties on the floor, muddy boots, a panga on the dashboard, mosquito nets, dirty socks, rusty spanners.
"I just came back from safari," I say matter-of-factly as I pull out on the main road.
She looks out the window at the grey sky hanging low over the acacias. Her first impression of Africa.
"What a nice smell. So fragrant."
She sits quietly for a few seconds, letting it all sink in, her weariness mixing with her expectations. Her new life is about to begin. I feel a pang in my stomach. I didn't think it would be this hard. As usual, I overestimated my strength.
"Have you heard from Hunter? He's still in Uganda, right?" I ask, knowing perfectly well where he is; I have memorized the hotel phone number.
"Yeah. He thinks he'll be back next week, unless there are problems at the border with the Sudanese troops. In which case he will have to go in."
She sounds so casual, the way she has picked up that hack slang, as if the outbreak of a war was the equivalent of a night club opening. Just something else to report, another two thousand words in print.
"Let's hope not." I add more of the motherly tone. "I'm sure you don't want to be left here alone for too long."
"I'll be all right. It's all so new, I'm sure I won't be bored." She turns to me and I feel her eyes scanning me. "I knew when he asked me to come here that he wouldn't be around a lot of the time," she adds nonchalantly.
She's tough, I can tell already, hard inside, under the fair skin and that blondness. She'll get what she wants.
"You live with Adam right?" -- to put me back in my place.
"Yes. He's still at the camp up north with the clients. I've just come back from there. You'll meet him when he comes down on Saturday."
"I've heard so much about him from Hunter. He sounds wonderful."
"He is wonderful."
We take the Langata road towards Karen. She looks out the window taking everything in: the tall grass shining under the morning sunlight that has pierced the clouds, the old diesel truck loaded with African workers which spits a cloud of black smoke in our face, the huge potholes. She will learn how to drive a big car, find her way around town, she will learn the names of the trees and the animals.
"I'll drop you at home, show you how to turn on the hot water and things like that, and then leave you to rest. If you need anything just call me, I live right around the corner from you."
"Thank you, Esme, you are being so kind."
She will fall asleep in the bed I know so well which is now hers.
I am glad to hate her. Now I will go home and probably cry.
This is a country of space, and yet we all live in a tiny microcosm to protect ourselves from it. We venture out there, and like to feel that we could easily get lost and never be found again. But we always come back to the reassuring warmth of our white man's neighbourhood in modern Africa. It's right outside Nairobi, at the foot of the Ngong hills where Karen Blixen's farm was. It's called Langata, which in Masai means "the place where the cattle drink."
There's no escape; here you know what everybody is doing. You either see their car driving around, or hidden under the trees in their lover's back yard, parked outside the bank, the grocery shop, filling up at the gas station. A lot of honking and waving goes on on the road. You bump into each other at the supermarket while you are shopping, the post office while paying your bills, at the hospital while waiting to be treated for malaria by the same sexy Italian doctor, at the airport where you are going to pick up a friend, at the car repair shop.
Even when you are out on safari, thousands of miles away from everybody, if you see a canvas green Landcruiser coming the other way, you look, assuming you'll know the driver, and most times you do. It's a comforting obsession. So much space around you and yet only that one small herd of baboons roaming around it.
This is our giant playground, the only place left on the planet where you can still play like children pretending to be adults.
Even though we pretend we have left them behind, we have very strict rules here. We sniff new entries suspiciously, evaluating the consequences that their arrival may bring into the group. Fear of possible unbalance, excitement about potential mating, according to the gender. Always a silent stir. In turn each one of us becomes the outcast and new alliances are struck. Everyone lies. There's always a secret deal that has been struck prior to the one you are secretly striking now. Women will team up together against a new female specimen if she's a threat to the family, but won't hesitate to declare war against each other if boundaries are crossed. It's all about territory and conquest, an endless competition to cover ground and gain control.
You always considered yourself better than the others, in a sense less corrupted by the African behaviour. You thought of yourself as a perfectly civilized, well-read, compassionate human being, always conscious of social rules. The discovery that you too have become such an animal infuriates you. At first you are humiliated by your own ruthlessness, then you become almost fascinated by it. The raw honesty of that basic crudeness makes you feel stronger in a way. You realize that there is no room, no time for moral indignation.
That this is simply about survival.
Nicole and I are having lunch in a joint off River Road, where you can get Gujarati vegetarian meals. You have to eat off your aluminum plate with your fingers. There is a lot of bright coloured plastic panelling, fans, flies, and a decor straight out of some demented David Lynch set. Wazungus, white people, never dream of coming here and that is exactly why we do, because we like the idea of two white girls having a lunch date on the wrong side of town.
"You look sick," Nicole says, gulping down chapati and dal. Her skin is a shade too pale for someone living in Africa and covered in a thin film of sweat. She's angular, beautiful in an offbeat way.
"I am sick."
"You have to get over it. I can't stand to see you like this."
She has just had a manicure at the Norfolk Hotel beauty salon and her nails are painted a deep blood red. She's wearing the same colour lipstick which is rapidly fading onto the paper napkin and the chapati, a skimpy skirt and a gauze shirt. Looks like she has just walked out of an interview for an acting job at the Polo Lounge in Hollywood and driven all the way to the equator in a convertible sports car.
"You didn't have to go pick her up at the airport. I mean, someone else could have."
"I guess I wanted to test myself. And in a way it was symbolic."
"Did Hunter ask you to do it?"
"Yes." I nod quickly. But it's a lie.
"I can't believe it. He's such a--"
"No. Actually it was my idea."
"You are sick."
"True. But it's all part of our private little war."
Nicole sighs and takes another mouthful of vegetable curry, her wavy hair hanging over the food.
"What does she do? I mean what is she planning to do here?"
"I haven't a clue. Articles for House and Garden? Maybe she will start a workshop with Kikuyu women and have them weave baskets for Pier One. She looks like she could be the crafty type ..."
"Oh please." Nicole laughs and lights a cigarette, waving her lacquered nails in the air. "She must be better than that."
I take a deep breath, fighting the wave of anxiety which is about to choke me. I am actually drugged by the raw pain. It is almost a pleasure to feel it inside me, like a mean wind on a sail that any minute could wreck me. If I survive it it will eventually push me to the other shore. If there is another shore.
I feel as if I have lost everything. It isn't just Hunter. I have also lost Adam, myself, and most of all I have shattered the silly dream I had about my life here: I have lost Africa.
"When I saw her this morning" -- I have to say this, to get it out of my system -- "the way she was looking at things, so full of excitement ... you know, everything must have seemed so new and different ... it reminded me of myself when I first came down here. Of the strength I had then. I felt like Napoleon on a new campaign, I wanted to move my armies here, you know what I mean?"
She nods; she's heard this a million times, but has decided to be patient because I guess she loves me. She knew beforehand that this lunch would require an extra dose of tolerance.
"She'll fight her battle, and learn the pleasure of annexing new territories. And I don't mean just sexually. She will start to feel incredibly free. Whereas I am already a prisoner here. Like you and all the others. We fought, we thought we had won something, but in the end we are all stuck here like prisoners of war. And we still can't figure out who the enemy was."
"Oh please, don't be so apocalyptic. You are just in a seriously bad mood. I think you need a break. Maybe you should go back to Europe for a while."
"Nicole, why is it that after so many years we don't have any African friends? Can you give me an answer? I mean, if you think about it --"
"What does that have to do with --"
"It does. We're like ghosts here; we can't contribute to anything, we don't really serve any purpose. We don't believe in this country. We are here only because of its beauty. It's horrifying. Don't you think?"
Nicole picks up my dark glasses from the table and tries them on, looking nowhere in particular.
"Look, there's no use talking about this again. I hate it when everybody gets pessimistic and irrational and starts ranting about living here."
She stares at me from behind the dark lenses, then takes them off and wipes them with a paper napkin.
"Haven't you noticed the pattern? We're like this bunch of manic-depressives. One moment we think we live in Paradise, next thing this place has turned into a giant trap we're desperate to get out of."
"Yes," I say, "it's like a roller-coaster."
"I think what we all do is project our anxieties onto the whole fucking continent. This has always been Hunter's major feature and you've just spent too much time listening to him. He loves to ruin it for everyone else because he hates the idea of being alone in his unhappiness. He will ruin it for Claire as well, just wait, you'll see."
This thought makes me feel slightly better. I am not in a position to rejoice at anybody's future happiness at the moment, I feel far too ungenerous. I am acting just like Hunter: working to create as much misery around me so that I don't feel completely left out.
"Come to the loo. Then I'll take you to Biashara street. You need a bit of shopping therapy."
Nicole is cutting a line of coke on her compact mirror inside the pink Gujarati washroom. I envy the way she always seems to be completely unaffected by her surroundings and carries on living in the third world as if she's simply browsing through an ethnic sale at Harrod's.
She snorts quickly, holding back her curls.
"Wow! It's such bad stuff, but what the hell ..."
She watches me while I inhale my portion of rat poison, then puts on a naughty smile.
"We'll turn Claire onto this really bad coke and transform her into an addict, that's how we're going to get rid of her. We'll persecute her till she gets a bleeding nose."
I finally laugh. The rush makes me feel warmer. I'd like to hug Nicole now, but she is suddenly looking serious.
"You know, Esme, I never told you, but in a way I feel like I should tell you now ..."
"I did sleep with Hunter as well. Long before you came out here."
Her cheeks are lightly flushed. I drop my eyes from her face.
"I had a feeling you had," I say. But the revelation hasn't shocked or hurt me.
"Just because ... oh I don't know. Because of a certain intimacy you two always had."
"Do you mind me telling you only now?"
"No. It doesn't make any difference. Really."
We pause and smile at each other. I feel my heart hammering wildly, and the sudden urge for a cigarette. But I know it must be the cocaine, not her revelation. Strangely, if anything it makes me feel closer to her. She lights two cigarettes and hands me mine. We stand, our backs against the pink tiles, inhaling smoke and scouring powder.
"I am not unaware of what you said before, you know. We are all trapped in some kind of crazy white-people's game here," she says in a soft voice. "I just don't want to get completely engulfed in that kind of dissatisfaction because I don't have any alternatives."
"What do you mean?"
"I wouldn't be able to go back to Europe and function at this point. That's what made me so unhappy about sleeping with Hunter, now that I think of it. I felt he was constantly drawing energy out of me. His bitterness was poisoning me; that's what made me get away from him."
"Hmmm ... I guess I am the one who has been poisoned now."
We stand in silence, smoking our cigarettes.
"I'll tell you exactly what it is that hurts, Nicole. The absolute certainty that I don't, and probably you don't either, have the determination, no, wait -- the faith -- to redeem someone like Hunter. We both would rather be poisoned than try to detox him. I never believed I had the power to make him happy. Isn't that stupid?"
"Why, what makes you think this girl will?"
"She has that strength. She will simply drive him out of whatever hole he's trapped in and bring him to the surface. She will love him, it's as simple as that."
"You love him too."
"But she's fearless. Young. And she will have his children."
"Yes. She's a breeder ..."
"Right. We are not."
"No. We'd rather snort coke in the loo."
We pause, meditate for a few seconds. Then we do another line and go shopping.
I have to go one step back and try to put things in order. To fabricate some excuses for myself.
You have tried to leave before.
You have woken up in your bed in the middle of the winter, rain furiously pounding on the mabati roof, and felt like everything including your brain was turning to mould. You hate the idea of being so far away, forgotten by your friends at home, oblivious to the political changes in the world. You are starved for magazines, sophisticated conversation, films and good clothes. The person lying next to you is a man who was born here, for whom all that is simply nonexistent. Before falling asleep he has told you how much he loves the sound of the rain pounding on the tin roof at night, how it reminds him of his childhood. You hear him breathing peacefully, wrapped up in the blanket while you are going mad. In the morning you walk out in the garden, holding your hot mug of coffee close to your chin, your last good pair of boots deep in the thick mud. You feel as if your entire soul is going under. Everything around you has the bitter taste of decay: the mangoes rotting in the basket, the corrupted policeman at the roadblock who wants a bribe to let you pass, the headlines in the paper about new tribal massacres in the desert and piles of bodies liquefying in the heat. Suddenly the hardness of Africa reveals itself to you. Senseless and without redemption.
When you look in the mirror your face looks drained, armored, no trace of lightness left. You look older. That's when you think there may still be time to save yourself.
You want to leave. And you believe you will never come back.
Nobody is happy to let you escape, since everyone shares the symptoms of your disease. Someone will take you malcontentedly to the airport, in full Kenyan style, still wearing shorts and sandals, opening one Tusker beer after another, hitting the cap on the door handle and throwing the dripping empties on the back seat. They will sway and swear overtaking matatu buses on the way, they will be rude with the porters who are too slow to take your luggage.
You don't care.
You are already on the other side of the ocean, shielded by what's left of your good European clothes, the list of phone calls you have to make tomorrow.
You are out of here.
You check in with a smile, handing your ticket to the pretty stewardess in flawless uniform, the efficiency of Europe already welcoming you behind the airline counter.
You think you will come back, sure, but just as a tourist, to see your friends and your ex-lovers. To see all the places you loved. The Chyulu hills, Lake Turkana, the beach of Lamu, the Ewaso Nyiro River.
You don't know yet that you won't be able to get away.
So many people have tried to define the feeling the French call mal d'afrique which in fact is a disease. The English never had a definition for it, I guess because they never liked to admit that they were being threatened in any way by this continent. Obviously because they preferred the idea of ruling it rather than being ruled by it.
Only now I realize how that feeling is a form of corruption. It's like a crack in the wood which slowly creeps its way in. It gradually gets deeper and deeper until it has finally split you from the rest. You wake up one day to discover that you are floating on your own, you have become an independent island detached from its motherland, from its moral home base. Everything has already happened while you were asleep and now it's too late to attempt anything: you are out here, there's no way back. This is a one-way trip.
Against your will you are forced to experience the euphoric horror of floating in emptiness, your moorings cut for good. It is an emotion which has slowly corroded all your ties, but it is also a constant vertigo you will never get used to.
This is why one day you have to come back. Because now you no longer belong anywhere. Not to any address, house, or telephone number in any city. Because once you have been out here, hanging loose in the Big Nothing, you will never be able to fill your lungs with enough air.
Africa has taken you in and has broken you away from what you were before.
This is why you will keep wanting to get away but will always have to return.
Then, of course, there is the sky.
There is no sky as big as this one anywhere else in the world. It hangs over you, like some kind of gigantic umbrella, and takes your breath away. You are flattened between the immensity of the air above you and the solid ground. It's all around you, 360 degrees: sky and earth, one the aerial reflection of the other. The horizon here is no longer a flat line, but an endless circle which makes your head spin. I've tried to figure out the trick that lies behind this mystery, because I don't see any reason why there should be more sky in one place than in another. Yet I haven't been able to discover what is the optical illusion that makes the African sky so different from any other sky you have seen in your life. It could be the particular angle of the planet at the equator, or maybe the way clouds float, not above your head, but straight in front of your nose, sitting on the lower border of the umbrella, just on top of the horizon. Those drifting clouds which constantly redesign the map: in one glance you can see a rainstorm building up north, the sun shining in the east, and grey sky in the west which is bound to turn blue any minute. It's like sitting in front of a giant TV screen looking at a cosmic weather report.
You are travelling north, towards the NFD, the legendary North Frontier District, and suddenly it's as if you were looking at the landscape through the wrong side of binoculars. The ultimate wide-angle lens, which compresses the infinite within your field of vision. Your eyes have never cast a glance so far.
Flat land that runs all the way to the distant purple profile of the Matthews Range and then, just when you thought you had reached an end to the space, right when you imagined that the landscape would close itself around you again, that you would feel less exposed, another curtain lifts up to reveal more vastness, and your eyes still can't catch the end of it.
More land stretching obediently under your tires, offering itself to be crossed. Your tracks become the endless flag of your conquest. You fill your lungs with the dry smell of hot rocks and dust, and you feel like you are breathing the universe.
You see yourself as you are driving into this grandiose absolute geometry: you are just a tiny dot, a minuscule particle advancing very slowly. You have now drowned in space, you are forced to redefine all proportions. You think of a word that hasn't occurred to you in years. It sprouts from somewhere inside you.
You feel humble. Because Africa is the beginning.
There is no shelter here: no shade, no walls, no roofs to hide under. Man has never cared to leave his mark on the land. Just tiny huts made of straw, like birds' nests that the wind will easily blow away.
You can't hide.
Here you are, under that burning sun, exposed. You realize that all you can rely on now is your body. Nothing you have learned in school, from television, from your clever friends, from the books you have read, will help you here.
Only now do you become aware that your legs are not strong enough to run, your nostrils can't smell, your eyesight is too weak. You realize you have lost all your original powers. When the wind blows the acrid smell of the buffalo in your nose, a smell you had never smelled before, you recognize it instantly. You know that its smell has always been here. Yours on the other hand is the result of many different things, from sunblock to toothpaste.
Le mal d'afrique is vertigo, is corrosion, and at the same time is nostalgia. It's a longing to go back to your childhood, to the same innocence and the same horror, when everything was still possible and every day could have been the day you die.
As I said, I am making excuses for myself.
I am trying to put everything on a grander scale, in order to feel that I haven't lost all I have lost for nothing. I have been driven out of the Garden of Eden but the apple wasn't something I wanted to eat out of simple greediness. Now I know that no human being will ever resist that temptation.