(The following piece originally appeared in WORD WEAVER.)
FINDING FOCUS IN NAIROBI – Part II of III
Polepole (rhymes with—and means—slowly, slowly). This is the method by which Kenya moves. I first experienced this when I boarded the 12‐seater for my return to Nairobi. The pilot promised a non‐stop flight. Ten minutes in, however, he announced a change of plans. He said those three words no airsick mini‐aircraft; neophyte passenger wants to hear: “We’re going down!”
It was Independence Day in Kenya. The celebratory air show at the Nairobi airport meant “no fly zone” for us. We had to land at Siana Airstrip and stay grounded for an hour. As we touched down, I saw a herd of gazelle leaping across the runway, mere feet from the plane’s nose! It was a horrifying, heartbreakingly beautiful sight. After narrowly avoiding the herd, our pilot assured us we could have safely crash‐landed to the side, if need be.
As a peppering of Masai emerged from the surrounding trees, I forgave the air show that kept us from our destiny. We were having a moment! Every day in Kenya carries with it a magical moment. To see it, all you have to do is surrender to the beat. Pole, pole.
After an hour of sharing stories with the generous Masai, it was almost painful re-boarding the plane. But we said our goodbyes and took to the air once again.
Navigating the country on my own was wonderful, but I was excited to be back in Nairobi. It was time to meet my fellow writers and begin the SLS fiction program.
My instructor, Catherine Bush, made me realize the importance of focus in storyline, something I never contemplated while writing. She broke down the process and explained how the writer should consider the reader’s expectations. If you give them one strong thread to follow, they see that thread as your storyline…throw in too many and confusion ensues.
Catherine assured me I could do this and carry on writing in the freefall style that I love. I was afraid I would have to sacrifice my “NO OUTLINING” rule but all was good. With her guidance, specific to my own manuscript, I was able to retackle my story, find the strongest thread—the story’s essence—and run with it. Catherine equipped me with the tools to help me do this. It was as though she came into my windowless house, created windows and then helped me to fling them wide open.
Our classes were held on the outside patio of a hotel in the heart of Nairobi…with fragrant breezes swishing our pages and intoxicating our lungs. If Nirvana is a place, it’s filled with writers, acacias and yes, even shouting taxi drivers. The outdoor classroom had its limitations, but they only added to the vibrant atmosphere.
You can live concurrent lives in Kenya. We were steeped in words but we also inexplicably saw everything in and around Nairobi. We took in the Rift Valley, the Ngong Hills, the Giraffe Centre (complete with sloppy giraffe kisses), an elephant orphanage, a reading by some of Kenya’s top literati, a chaotic downtown Nairobi Masai market, museums, parties and barnyards.
I cried while our bus travelled the Uhuru Highway en route to the nearby Ngong Hills, as I watched a shanty-town blur by. Children played in the dirt, inches from our tires as we whizzed by at 100km per hour; goats bleated; vegetables collected poisons from black exhaust bursting from every vehicle; thousands of rusted tin shacks—strung with uncountable lines of miraculously pristine laundry—crowded together like rotten teeth in a mouth too small to hold them.
My sadness at seeing the crumbling shantytown was double-edged, though. Every face held a smile, every life a beat you could feel. My heart ached during the entire trip…but with what? I couldn’t quite place it. The melancholy I felt…was it for the people of Kenya or for myself and the people back home? People who have not yet surrendered to the comfort of a time no clock could hold. Polepole…slowly, slowly.
After a long week of writing craft and exploration, we were ready for the last leg of our journey…Lamu Island. I couldn’t imagine it topping Nairobi…but I was about to discover there were no limits in Kenya.