Nine years ago, the editor of the newspaper I wrote for sent me to Africa to do a story on the Somali Bantu emigrants flooding into our state from a refugee camp in Kenya. Many local residents were freaking out about this in a particularly zenophobic and tiny-minded way (“What if they catch people’s cats in traps and eat them?!”) so it was a hot topic and we had to jump fast.
“Hey, sign this,” my editor said, flipping a triplicate form onto my desk. “We upped your life insurance. Just a formality!”
I signed, then toddled off to get shots for various 19th-century diseases, all of which hurt like a bitch. The doctor gave me a package of syringes along with my anti-malaria pills.
“You don’t want to get an injection in an African hospital,” he said, “but if it’s unavoidable, make sure the nurse uses YOUR syringe. And don’t open your mouth in the shower.”
Before the trip I researched the camp, which housed 130,000 (mostly Muslim) refugees who’d fled war, genocide and famine in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Congo. The refugees lived crammed into small tents next to outdoor pit latrines. Each morning the women lined up to collect strict rations of water, corn mash and salt. Rape was as common as the dust storms. People waited years for good news: It’s time to fly to America or Canada and start new lives free from machete-wielding militias.
The camp’s name, in Swahili, means “nowhere.”
My first night in Africa, I stayed in the U.N. compound and as the sun rose saw my first dik-dik, a little antelope named for the alarm calls of the females. After breakfast, where I did not try any of the goat stew, we caravaned into camp under armed guard in the back of a rattly van. Also along for the ride were various NGO people and Peace Corps kids, every one of whom was redolent with tea tree oil (keeps bugs away) and patchouli (just because).
“Cover your hair,” said a girl with blonde Wellesley dreads and gold-tanned skin, tossing me a bandanna as I stared at a band of Masai warriors walking through the desert, armed to the teeth. “It’ll make your interviews easier.”
Along the bumpy road, my photographer and I hissed our way through an argument about female genital mutilation – he said it was a cultural practice and none of our business and that I shouldn’t go into camp with an “agenda”; I said it was a barbaric, life-ruining human rights violation and a person didn’t need an “agenda” to want it stopped. I asked if he’d feel the same if FGM involved little boys having their penises split open in such a way that thousands of them died and, for those who lived, urination and sex would be a lifelong agony. He said he would.
I questioned his veracity. In fact, I think I may have called him a liar. No, I’m sure I did. We didn’t speak much for the rest of the two-week trip. Later that day, he got outrageously sick (having opened his big mouth in the shower).
Dozens of children waited by the gate as we pulled into camp, some just barely able to walk. They wore cast-off American T-shirts so long they fit like nightgowns – giveaways from bars and shows, with a smattering of Britney Spears and N’Sync. They kicked a soccer ball made of twine and rubber bands behind the caravan until we parked.
I stepped out of the van and the dust attacked. It was in my eyes, my ears, between my teeth. It collected under my bandanna and melded with my sunscreen to form a chalky dirt paste. My cold bottle of water quickly turned the temperature of blood. I had never been so hot in February; hadn’t realized in my rush to prepare that February was African high summer. The kids surrounded me, peeking into the pockets of my cargo pants. My guide/fixer/Maay Maay translator, Abdu, scattered them with a swoosh of his handmade switch.
We walked a mile into camp, passing blocks of tents and latrines and the occasional goat, until we reached a long, low building.
“Cultural orientation class,” Abdu said in his formal, British-y way. Inside, a group of women and teenage girls were prepping for life in America. They practiced turning a mock light switch on and off; pushed buttons on a mock dishwasher; passed around a santitary napkin.
I thought about all the things these women could never prepare for; things that were really going to matter when they hit stateside. Like me: I’d mined the State Department website for everything I could learn about Kenya, but nothing readied me for the women’s gazes; the torch of their curiosity burning through the bandanna on the back of my head.. No story I read prepared me for what the women themselves told me through Abdu:
They came to the village with machetes.
They burned everything.
We ran but they were in a truck.
They took my daughter.
I do not know where my parents are or if they are still alive.
My husband is in another camp.
I do not know how many years ago it was.
“Americans are very conscious of time,” Abdu translated for the teacher, who stood in front of a giant map of the U.S. “They wear watches and keep clocks in their houses. Americans do not like it when people are late. You must check the time often in America.”
After class, I asked Abdu to see if anyone would give me an interview. He scouted the crowd, then returned with a woman about my age. She wore a red-and-gold head covering and held a happy squawking toddler.
“What do you most look forward to about America?” I asked, pen poised. My interviews were going to make up more than half the story, which I was already writing in my head: Refugees fleeing terrible lives make the journey to new, better ones!
“Safety and security,” she said, kissing her baby’s head. “Where were you born?”
OK, cool; I could be the interviewee for awhile. I walked over to the U.S. map and pointed to the dark line separating Arizona and Mexico. “Right here,” I said, “but now I live here.” I pointed to the middle of South Carolina.
She was confused. “Why did you leave your homeland?”
Homeland. This was several years after 9-11, so I only thought of that word in the context of Homeland Security. For an American, the word is foreign, only slightly less retro and weird than “Fatherland” or “Motherland.” I was a 31-year-old American woman who’d spent the last 10 years moving from city to city with no real roots or even loyalty. “I took a job,” I said. “I work for a newspaper.”
“But what do you make?” she asked.
“I make…” Now I was confused. What the hell did I make, really? I wrote a popular women’s column; some feature stories and film reviews. Once every two weeks I did the cops-and-courts beat and drove to a City Council meeting or a house fire. I couldn’t hem a dress, hang a straight curtain rod; or change my own oil. I bought my meals ready-made at the organic market.
“I make words,” I said.
She changed the subject. “Where is your husband?”
“I don’t have one,” I replied, but didn’t explain further. I had come out at 28 and was still struggling with the differences between the life I’d dreamed of as a kid (traditional family; acceptance in the wider world) versus the life I actually had (solo homeowner; non-monogamist; childless).
There was, as far as I knew, no word for “female homosexual” in Maay Maay. There’s a word for “male homosexual,” but it’s a pejorative; plus, homosexuality was – and still is – punishable by death in this part of the world. Best to let it lie. “I have a house and three cats.”
“Cats?” she repeated in Maay Maay, looking to Ashur for confirmation.
“Small cats,” I clarified, miming little paws and ears. “Not like lions.”
“What do the small cats do?” she asked. “Do they give milk or meat?”
“No no no,” I said. “The small cats are for companionship. So I don’t have to eat or sleep alone.” (At that time in my life I wasn’t doing a whole lot of sleeping alone, but again, I wasn’t about to get into it). I thought of the cats; their slim, tough little bodies figure-eighting around my legs when I got home at night. It pissed me off when people called them “child substitutes.” They were cuddly and comforting to hold, but I knew they weren’t the same. I loved having a bit of unpredictable wildness in my house. I loved being stalked from atop the refrigerator.
She leaned back and looked at me like, Let me get this straight. “The small cats do not give milk, neither do they give meat or labor. They eat from your plate and sleep in your bed. They are your only companions at home. When you are not at home, you make words.”
Looking at my life through a reductionist lens bummed me out a little. She was right, but also not, and I suspected this went both ways.
“Well…yeah,” I said. “But I have friends, and, uh…I read a lot. I go out to hear music…I spend my time…”
My time. I would never be able to explain to her how I spent my time; could hardly explain it to myself. I couldn’t explain “friends,” couldn’t tell her how women sluiced in and out of one another’s lives like water. No combination of words could articulate my fear that I was moving at a stately pace toward something irrevocable.
Eyes limpid with sympathy, she handed me the baby. We played with him and forgot all about the time.