Sunday, June 9, 2013
Picture a beautiful beach—cloudless sky, white sand, waves undulating like teeth on a jigsaw. Now, populate it with tourists. Not too many, but enough to keep the local boys on their game. There are a few overweight Brits sipping mimosas by the bar, bikini-clad ladies sunbathing near the shore, two guys on boogie boards that were first in the water. Next, add a group of backpacking foreigners on only their third day in Kenya. Look at their bright eyes, their jubilant expressions. Marvel at their surprise at the sight of the ocean.
Now, look closer. See that one in the back, carrying a drawstring bag with books and sunscreen he won't actually use? He’s got his fancy camera pressed up to his nose and his legs crouched, trying to take the perfect shot. Focus now, this part is absolutely crucial. See him slow down from the rest of his group just a step. Now two. Now three. Enough to allow for some distance. That’s when you pounce, Ali. That’s when you make your move.
When Ali approached me, he started in with Obama, hakuna matata, and how we are all “one people.” At first, I was convinced that he was mildly autistic and begrudgingly played along, but it didn’t take long for me to revel at having connected with a local. After a few more minutes, Ali and I were flanked by another boy, a brash young Kenyan probably no older than sixteen. He was wearing board shorts, a Rasta-inspired polo, and a pair of cheap sunglasses, and introduced himself as Solomon. “My African name is Suleman,” he explained, “but Westerners have a hard time pronouncing it.” Sunglasses or not, Suleman had a terrible poker face; for the entire length of our exchange, he couldn't stop grinning like an idiot.
The con was textbook in its simplicity. The moment I was out of earshot of the rest of the group, Ali and Suleman started in about how there were no jobs on the coast for young people, that both of them were orphans, and that they were desperate to provide for themselves without turning to violent crime. Ali explained that they sold handicrafts—carved keychains in the shapes of animals. “Wouldn’t you like to see one?” he asked. “Only 500 shillings each.” And in those fleeting minutes, when I gave up hemming and haranguing and eventually conceded the money to Ali, the boy took off. “I’ll be right back with the keychain,” he promised, shouting into the wind.
At the time, I don’t know why I didn’t try to go after Ali, but it was like I had been paralyzed. As his figure gradually retreated from view, I still couldn’t really believe what had transpired. Finally, when it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t going to return, Suleman tried to level with me. With nary an ounce of regret or repentance in his voice, he said, “like it or not, some of us need to hustle to survive.” And just then, as a new group of foreigners descended on the sandbank, he began to get antsy. His legs started moving before his mouth did. “I’ve got to work, my brother,” he told me, “I just have to.” And pretty soon he too was gone.
The whole episode reminded me of the time when Anne and I were approached by a grifter on our last day in India. It’s a story I reference constantly—the cherry on top of a putrid, melting sundae that seemed to define nearly every experience and encounter I had in the country, and the proof to show what a miserably hard place Delhi is to live in. What I regret most about that exchange, though, is not how everything unfolded with the scam, but how I reacted to it afterward.
I know it wasn’t fair to blame Anne, but I did it just the same—emphasizing in the subsequent retellings how it was her naiveté and her money, and lauding myself on how attune I was to the whole situation from the beginning. But the reality was much more complicated than that. Knowing only what you know, how do you turn down someone you have made a connection with? In a moment of vulnerability, how do you so coolly reject another human being?
The next day the four of us went to Kaya Forest, a sacred site once home to nine of the indigenous tribes of Africa. It was about a half-hour journey away from our guesthouse by tuk-tuk, a slow puttering ride down gravelly back roads. On the ride there, we passed boutique four-story hotels and elegant Western cafes, interspersed with corrugated tin dwellings and huts made of straw and grass. The people we passed along the road alternated between stone-faced indifference and avid enthusiasm. Weathered men holding pitchforks glowered at the four foreigners crammed in the backseat, while small children crooned a fevered jambo and waved as our three-wheeler chugged past them in a plume of smoke.
When we reached Kaya Forest, we were led to a small visitor’s center and instructed to sit down along a row of neatly arranged plastic chairs. In front of us stood a tall man with graying hair and a bushy beard. “My name is Suleman,” he said, “and I will be your guide for the afternoon.” My eyes grew wide at the mention of his name. He in no way resembled the Suleman I had met on the beach a day prior, but the wound was still raw, and I didn’t yet know what to make of him. Perhaps sensing some discomfort, Suleman looked me dead in the eyes when he spoke, like he was searching my face for marks of latent trauma.
Suleman led us out to the forest and started with a brief history of the region. The indigenous tribes left Kaya Forest in the late 19th century, but for the last decade, the site had been maintained as a conservation project with the support of a few local and international NGOs. Many of the trees in the forest were listed on the endangered species red list, but even then, some of them were being decimated by invasive species. “Some people think we should start cutting down the Ficus Benjamina for instance,” Suleman said, of a parasitic fig plant that chokes out its host, germinates its own flowers, and puts its own roots down in the ground. But Suleman didn’t agree. “It’s the cycle of life,” he explained. “It’s nature. And nature can’t be stopped.”
Suleman pointed to one tree whose bark was used in ancient times to make clothing for tribal men. The bark needed to be scraped from the tree in long scathes, boiled in batches and then pounded repeatedly with a hammer to become pliable enough to be stitched together. Suleman told us that these cloth trees had another purpose—they were also used for prayer. Elders considered them auspicious and used the trees to pray for rain, for the prevention of disease, for a fertile season. He invited each of us to pray for something in our own lives.
At Suleman’s insistence, we each went up in turns to the cloth tree, hugged it around the waist like a lover, and said a prayer. Suleman was the first one up. He gave the tree a hulking bear hug and when he turned back to face us, he was beaming a smile of such genuine radiance that it heartened me just to look at him. The center of the tree had been hollowed out and was so smooth that it felt as if it had been sandblasted. When it was my turn, I pressed my face deeply into the wood so it was flush against my own skin and wrapped my arms tightly around its large trunk. I took a deep breath and whispered softly into it: I want to believe in people. I really do.