||Skin The Colour Of Money
by Isabel Huggan
In September, 1989 in this magazine`s Field Notes column, I wrote that living in Kenya was teaching me silence. Ironically, no sooner had I declared my reasons for not writing than I began to write again; perhaps acknowledging the culpability of innocence awakened me to its value as a toot in fiction, and I`ve since been working on stories in which the central narrators are Canadians in an African setting. Although I am drawing upon what knowledge and experience I gained during three years in Nairobi, what I am writing is fiction and does not necessarily reflect my actual life or the lives of people I know. I am well aware of the limits imposed by the point of view I`ve chosen, but those limits are what I want to examine.
THE FIRST TIME, you feel a little awkward and self-conscious, horribly aware of not only your pale skin but your clothes, your watch, the gold bangle you forgot to take off before coming here. You feet unjustly assessed by the eyes watching you from every corner, you want to stop and explain: "Look, I`m not as rich as you think 1 am, really." But here inside the walled market of Kariokor, no matter what you do or say, you look like just one thing. You stick out like a sore thumb, A white thumb, more precisely. You seldom see people your colour inside these walls.
You come here on this first visit with another mzungu woman who is showing you where to buy decorated gourds for half the price you would pay downtown at the African Heritage shop. The young man who incises the gourds is called Boniface; he has a small stall in which he sits on a low stool so he is looking up at you, his face tilted at a humble angle in order to answer your questions. Even as he talks - he speaks English very well - he works steadily, unswervingly, his sharp tools cutting precise and delicate lines into the hard brown skin of the calabash. He is maybe 26, at most 30, and you would like to ask him something about his life, how he got here, where he learned his trade, how he bears the cramped quarters where he works. But the woman who brought you here has warned against too much conversation. To be overtly friendly is to invite confidences of the sort that end in requests for money to pay for children`s schooling, a mother`s medical bills, a brother`s bail ... the less you know about them, she says, the less they can ask of you.
She really is not a hard woman, your friend Bertha. The opposite, rather. She`s one of the few compatible women you have found in Nairobi, with a warmth and humour you have come to depend on. But sometimes she says things like this that sound shockingly hard and cruel. Because, as she often explains, she knows more than you do. She has lived in Africa for 15 years - west, south, and now east - and her experience has consolidated itself into attitudes you can see she is trying to pass on, to save you from making the same mistakes she once did.
It is simply a matter of not letting yourself be used, according to Bertha. You must never forget for a moment that people will try to use you for their own ends, as a way of meeting their own needs. Within that framework, you can still communicate, give and take, and learn from each other ... but you must remember: There is only one thing black Africans see when they look at you. They see your skin, and your skin is the colour of money.
"Even the Kenyans who have their doctorates from Oxford or Harvard or McGill," she says. "You have to remember that. Of course they know better, of course they know that not all whites are rich. They`ve seen the slums in Boston, they still subscribe to the Guardian Weekly and they know the world as well as you do, probably better. But they see you in this context, and here you mean one of two things. Either you are a taker or a giver. And they took back their country from the takers a generation ago. Which means there`s only one category left, honey!" Bertha laughs as she says this. She laughs whenever she is making outrageous statements that she means you to take very seriously. Her laughter seems to be a signal to pay attention.
Boniface is showing you an extremely large gourd on which he has carved three different pictures, each one framed by traditional designs of leaves and flowers. Almost the entire surface of the gourd -probably over a metre in circumference - is covered with markings made by his knife, and has been polished over and over again so that it shines with a deep ruddy glow. The three pictures are representations of African animals mating; a male rhino humping a weary-looking female, a wildmaned lion roaring in ejaculatory ecstasy over his spouse`s supine shape, and two zebras caught in the act by Boniface`s knife. It is so clearly and exactly what the tourist trade demands that there is something astonishingly likeable about the gourd. It is what it is, something to sell to someone who will take it away as a souvenir. This gourd will never be used as it might have been in days gone by as a container for milk or water; it is simply an object made with one thing in mind - to obtain money from someone with skin the colour of yours. "Do you think for one minute an African would buy such a thing?" asks Bertha. "And set it on a shelf and fill it with dried flowers? Don`t be daft!"
You think of your housekeeper, Florence, the day you and Larry came home from Kisumu with a carload of clay pots. You had gone crazy over them in the market there, made lightheaded by the heavy, damp heat of Lake Victoria and a little dizzy from the rich odour of decaying garbage and jostling people. You were astounded by the pots, the incredible number of them - pots of every sort and size, so simply made and so ... yes, what you thought was, so primitive. You were quite moved by that aspect. You stroked the round sides of rough soot-blackened henna-brown pots and went on and on about the purity of their line, the uneven texture and lack of uniformity, the innocence inherent in designs unchanged over ages, naive and wise at the same time. You even quoted William Blake.
You could have bought them for much less money if you hadn`t gone into such raptures, but once you`d let the hawker see your enthusiasm for the pots the price went directly and proportionally skywards. No matter. Cheap at twice the price. And that was a long time ago, last year in fact, before you`d learned to keep a straight face in the markets, to fake indifference while making a deal.
You bought 17 pots in all, some of them for planting ferns and ivy along the wall of the house, some for decoration (actually, they`re so badly fired you cannot use the casserole in the oven without it cracking or make tea in the teapot without it leaking, so much for primitive ... but they do look wonderful on the dining-room sideboard) and some to use as vases for (yes, admit it) bouquets of dried flowers. When you arrived home after the long drive across the country, Florence met you at the door, ready to assist with the carrying in of luggage. You began unloading the pots from the car and her face was a study in amazement and disgust, but she helped you bring them inside without a word. When she set down her final load inside the living room, she stood up straight and adjusted her headscarf and her apron, movements you have come to know precede a righteous speech. Florence is a feisty Kikuyu, fearless in expressing her opinions.
"This big pot for making beer," she said. `And all these other for cooking. What you want with these pots?" You saw her expression and imagined she thought she was going to have to prepare the evening meal in one of them, and that would be the last straw. She`d hand in her notice in a second if she couldn`t use your Calphalon or Creuset. One of the joys of Florence`s life has been the high-quality kitchenware you brought with you from Toronto. Better, she says, than what you can find in the Asian shops in town (which is not exactly true but you cannot persuade her to think differently about anything concerning Asian merchants, whom she hates ardently, and you no longer try).
"Oh heavens, Florence, I don`t mean to use them for cooking," you said, laughing so she could understand there was nothing to worry about. "We just bought them because they`re so beautiful."
She looked at you with disbelief, rolling her eyes to one side (the way she always does to indicate her total rejection of whatever you have proposed) and then coughed a little, low in her throat. "These not beautiful," she said. "These cooking pots. Beautiful is this" - she pointed to a ceramic lamp base "or this." Again, her finger stretched out to indicate something else of real worth; a pewter figure of Merlin holding a crystal ball. Florence has worked in Nairobi houses long enough to know without question that beautiful and valuable mean the same thing.
You tried right then, at that very moment, to have a discussion about aesthetics, and for several minutes you felt as if you were making headway, as if you were getting through. You explained how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and how, for someone like you, the pots from Kisumu are a new way of looking at the world. You see all of Africa in these pots.
"I look at these pots and I see stirring and smoke and cooking irio," said Florence, aggressive and suspicious at the same time. "No beauty, just work. Burnt food over the fire, another pot broken from the flame. Work and trouble."
"We see things differently, you and 1, Florence," you said brightly, trying to smooth over and put a nice face on things. Trying to eradicate the antagonism you felt radiating from her. You wondered why in heavens name she was so put out at you for buying these pots. Maybe because you`re in a life that doesn`t need them, you realized with a guilty shock, suddenly feeling your point of reference shift and alter. Maybe because you have the exquisite privilege of looking, simply looking at them. Yes, that would make you mad too. But it seemed too elaborate an idea to get into with Florence and so you let it go.
They sell clay pots here in Kariokor, and charcoal-burning iiko stoves, and brooms and baskets and plastic buckets, and sandals made from old rubber tires, and a host of other things all meant to be used and used and used again. Used by Africans, that is. Boniface`s decorated gourds are definitely an exception in the marketplace -everything else made or sold here has a practical reason for being. Even the sisal bags called ciondos, woven by women sitting on the ground outside the market walls; even these things now made for the tourist or overseas market are meant to be used, were used initially by African women and still are. The last decade has seen their traditional patterns in brown and ochre and rope-colour mutate to brilliant fuchsia and turquoise and scarlet, better for catching the eye of foreign buyers.
The production of ciondos is divided between the sexes at Kariokor, a careful marriage of mutual labour and benefit. After the women have finished their weaving, the baskets are brought inside the walls, where young men attach leather straps. There`s a stall next to Boniface`s where several of them work from dawn to dusk, listening to taped music as they secure leather strips to the woven bags or sew zippers across the openings. Like the bright colours, zippers signify a changing world. So much theft on the streets of Nairobi, the streets of New York and London and the world ... zippers are crucial now for tourist sales. Without a zipper, a ciondo sells for half the price. Zippers bring profit.
The day that Bertha brings you here, you tell Boniface you would like to buy one of his gourds, perhaps the very large one. And you ask, as she has instructed you, what is the best price he can give you since you cannot possibly pay the amount on the sticker attached to the neck of the gourd. He smiles and says you should tell him your price, and then the two of you will come together to find a middle way. You suggest something less than half the sticker sum - this is what Bertha has told you to do - and he shrugs. Then, looking up at you from his stool, he says loudly so that everyone around can hear, "What do you take me for, a fool?"
Bertha is as startled as you are by the sharp edge of his tone. You had only meant to initiate the bargaining process as is always done, you had certainly not meant to insult him. Bertha raises her eyebrows at you and you understand you are now to suggest another, larger figure. You do this and Boniface laughs, slapping his knee with delight. He sees he has the upper hand and that you are a little worried, even a little frightened of upsetting him. Of doing the wrong thing.
And yes, you are also aware of the eyes and ears of all those young men in the ciondo stall next door, who have been openly laughing at this last interchange. You are anxious about what they will think of a white woman haggling over coins she can well afford to spend. You are lost, you do not know which moves to make to restore your dignity. Which moves are yours, which moves are theirs? How is one ever, ever to know? You let Bertha take over for you and she, with skill and gentle persuasion, buys the shining gourd at half its sticker price.
You have come a long way since that first session with Boniface. Months have passed and now you visit frequently, bringing him new customers just as Bertha - who has moved to Geneva where her husband has finally got a top-level job, no longer "in the field" - once brought you. He greets you always with that special African handshake in which you twist your hands three times, and he calls you "rafiki yangu," Kiswahili for "my friend." You know he also calls you "my white person" (mzungu yangu) to the leather workers next to him. And you thought you heard them call you "memsahib shillingi" one day.
Mrs. White Person with skin the colour of Boniface`s hopes and dreams. If only he could make enough money, he could stop this business and then ... and then, what? You buy as much from him as you can and you sit on the stool beside him and smile your friendliest smile, for, really, what else is there to do? You cannot help who you are, and neither can he.
"Na wewe ni rafiki yangu pia," you say to Boniface as you settle your pleated cotton skirt around you, proud of your bits of Kiswahili and proud of how accepted you feel - by him, and by the leather workers next door. Without Bertha to chide you for such naivete, you have made great strides with Boniface - and he has never asked you for help the way shed said he would. Today you are not here to visit him, but you will sit and make conversation for a little while, inquire about his work, refuse the offer of a soda, and then move on. Today you have come, as you do regularly now, to visit his grandmother, old Mercy.
She is well over 90, wizened and perfectly shrunk down to essence of woman, a tiny dark brown crone missing her top row of teeth but none of her wits. Sharp and quick and still able to sing the celebration songs from her Machakos girlhood, she is losing her sight now, slowly - one of her old eyes is clouded over with skim-milk blue, but the other is still glittering jet-black. Some days she seems to see perfectly, and other times, when it suits her to, she acts as if she is blind, touching your face and stroking your arm with her thin dry fingers; they feel like whispers on your skin.
Since the day he called her over to come and shake your hand, you and this ancient Kamba woman have formed an attachment. It`s the oddest damn thing that`s ever happened to you and you can`t explain it, nor do you often try to. You just let yourself feel affection and accept hers back - for she does seem genuinely fond of you, and calls you her "young girl" You call her "Mzee Mercy," having learned in Kiswahili class that the prefix Mzee before the names of elderly people shows respect. The old man who ruled this country long before you arrived was eventually known only as "Mzee," and he gave the word a status it still carries. Anyway, in this culture, being old negative attribute the way it seems to be back home. For one thing, here it means you`ve survived.
It was on your third visit, the day you first came to Kariokor alone, that Boniface called Mercy over from where she was sitting in a group of women drinking chai together and talking. "Here, memsahib, this is my own grandmother," he said, pushing the old lady`s shoulder a little so that shed move toward you. "She is more old than anyone in this place and she knows many things. She cannot speak English or Swahili, but if you wish to talk with her, 1 can tell her what you say!`
You shook her hand and told her how honoured you were to meet such an old person and then you couldn`t think of anything else to say. You stood there speechless, staring at her shabby cotton dress and ragged headscarf, noticing the way she was "dressed up" with a necklace of pink plastic poppets and a rhinestone brooch. But you were unprepared for conversation and it made you feel lacking, as if you were letting your side down. (What to say, what to call across the great divide of age and race? What to offer, what to ask?) You wished Bertha was with you, she`d know what to do, she wouldn`t be standing here paralysed by cultural incompetence. You felt your cheeks and neck flush with the awful certainty that Boniface was waiting for you to make some move and you couldn`t imagine what you were meant to do. You knew you were red with embarrassment, as pink-faced as a mortified child would be - you could feel the dark splotches of heat rising under your skin and even your ears seemed to be burning. As you looked over at Boniface to see if he might give you a clue, you heard the old woman say something to him, and begin to laugh. Boniface started laughing too and his loud "haw-haw-ham" was picked up by the strap-boys next door and the women who`d been sitting with Mercy. All around you the sound of laughter, African-sounding laughter you did not understand, but you knew it was because in some way you had made a fool of yourself.
"Oh, do not look so sad, memsahib," said Boniface, finally able to contain himself . "It is a very funny thing my own grandmother has said. She has looked at your face and has wondered if you are trying to change your colour!` He had to stop there to catch his breath before going on with more laughter, more slapping of his leg while urging everyone around to join in this grand joke. A mzungu turning from white to red. What next? Maroon? Copper? Mahogany? Chocolate? Coal?
Beside you, the old woman`s shoulders were shaking with laughter, and she hopped up and down in a little dance-on-the-spot, perfectly delighted by the merriment she had caused. She reached over and took your hand and laid it against her face and said something else, which Boniface did not translate for you, but you sensed it meant that she wished you no harm; her wrinkled skin, hardened into ridges and folds, felt oddly pliable and tender beneath your fingers.
You left that day as soon as you could gracefully make an exit, and did not return for nearly a month; but when you came back (you had to buy a going-away gift for someone in Lorry`s office and one of Boniface`s gourds was the ideal thing) she was seated on a stool beside her grandson, and welcomed you with great enthusiasm, as if shed been waiting for your return. In fact, since then, you come to see her, not Boniface. It amuses Larry - he tells people this - that although you feet ill-suited to the East African Women`s League, and you will not put your name on the waiting list for the Muthaiga Club you seem to have formed an alliance with the Old Ladies of Kariokor. "An exclusive little group," he teases.
You have learned, over time, not to make any special effort other than bringing the occasional gift for Mercy: a cardigan you don`t need, a silky headscarf, a necklace of imitation pearls, sometimes a bit of cake or soft cheese. What she gives you back are her old songs, none of which you understand without translation by Boniface, whom you suspect of dramatic elaboration - according to him, all her songs feature copulating lions. When Mercy sings, it is easy to think of copulation. She waggles her thin old hips and tosses her narrow shoulders and her milky eye seems to look far back into her head, far back into the Africa you can never, never know Her good eye glitters at you, daring you to try,
She is happy singing these songs, you think. No one but you ever seems to sit and listen to her, and it occurs to you that maybe she is one of those boring types who go on and on, and that Boniface is using you to get his grandmother of his back. Perhaps, but you don`t care. You feel very peaceful here, sitting on a stool sipping orange soda and listening to Mercy`s quavering voice gather strength and become a piercing wad threading its way along the stalls, pulling all of Kariokor together
In order to get to Boniface`s stall you must enter by the doorway where ~men are selling honey in clear glass bottles placed out in bee-beset rows. As soon as you are inside the market walls there is a heavy and overpowering sweetness in the air, but it is only a passing sensation; for as soon as you pass the honey-ladies there are other, far stronger odours. Sharp, sour, acrid. The smell of rubber tires being sliced, the bright, woody aroma of sisal, the sweaty stench of leather, the complicated richness of rotting fruit ... and over it all and through it, aft smoke and burning meat and the salty, green reek of people and urine and labour.
(You know how work smells now, you told Larry after one of your early visits; it doesn`t smell like his office at the United Nations compound at all.)
In the beginning, you wore strong perfumes before coming here, as a kind of olfactory shield - it was a bit of a joke, the way you`d spray on Beautiful or Opium before going to Kariokor. Now, you no longer bother. Its not that you don`t notice the way the place smells; you like it. You like having your nose assaulted, your senses beat upon. You believe, even knowing it cant be true, that here m the market with Mercy you are part of Africa.
Whenever you think this (you don`t say it aloud, not even to Larry) you wonder what comeuppance will be yours. This is dangerous pride, this feeling that you belong Hubris, asking for trouble. One of the last pieces of advice Bertha gave you before she left for Geneva was this: "Don`t fool yourself," she said, in a voice resonating with concern and foreboding. "You can never be one of them and don`t forget it."
This afternoon in the kitchen, like a dim and distant echo, you heard Berthas voice underneath Florence`s. She was standing at the sink, wiping her hands on her apron and glaring at you, angry and not afraid to let you know. She discovered you wrapping up an almond cake she had baked this morning, and when she said, "What are you doing, Madam?" you tried, too quickly, to explain about the little treats you take Mercy, You only succeeded in enraging Florence, who had baked it especially for Larry And for another thing, she considers the Kamba people deeply inferior to her own.
`You take this food 1 make to some old Kamba?" asked, her voice sharp as scissors. "You think it not good enough to eat?"
"Oh no, Florence," you began, wanting her to understand, her of all people, how wonderful it is for you at Kariokor, sitting with the old lady and listening to her songs. But you saw her face and you knew it was impossible and that language would fad you if you tried. And so you set the cake firmly on the counter beside Florence and walked from the kitchen.
You decided on the way to the market you`d simply have to be careful from now on about taking things to Mercy; you don`t want Florence upset and resentful. You can just as easily buy little cakes from the bakery Or maybe, you think, you should just give her some shillings, and then she could buy what she needed. Yes, maybe that would be better. You will sit with Boniface a while, and ask him what he thinks of the idea.