During February break last year, David and I saw Matilda the Musical on Broadway. During’s this year’s break, we are headed to see Munzatsi (the school) in Kenya. These two seemingly unrelated things are, in fact, very much connected to each other — and to a murdered girl who is about to make her literary debut (in my new memoir DRYLAND) after decades in no man’s land.
What do Matilda, Munzatsi and this haunting murder have in common? I’ll let Matilda explain:
Just because you find that life’s not fair it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it!
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
You might as well be saying
You think that it’s okay
And that’s not right
And if it’s not right!
You have to put it right!
So I am headed back Munzatsi Secondary School to put a few things right. As a Peace Corps volunteer teacher there, I was less than stellar. Only 21 at the time, I was more interested in going into Kisumu, about 40 minutes away, to party at the Octopus Club or swim at the Sunset Hotel, or even take the night train to Nairobi to drink and play Black Jack (with very little money) at the Intercontinental Hotel’s casino. I felt lonely and alienated at my rural school. Scared, too — of catching malaria, of being bit by venomous snakes, of the endless stomach aches I suffered and of running out of beer.
I wanted to run away all the time. (Heck, that’s a feeling I still grapple with to this day!) Eventually, I decided I’d had enough of Munzatsi and quit the school, as well as the Peace Corps. No one blamed me for leaving, it was a very hard post. I did a few good things for the school, though, which included working with my dad and stepmom to raise funds for a library.
On March 11, I am running back to Munzatsi. Well, more like flying for 20 hours and driving for six, so I can see the school again and remember all the love I did feel for the people and the place.
And I’m taking Allan and David along for the ride. I look forward to seeing Munzatsi and the village of Maragoli through their eyes as well as my own very clear lens. From the email I’ve received, it sounds like the headmaster, students, parents, and school board are planning a big homecoming celebration for us.
I’ve already warned Allan that there will be a lot of crying, by me. In fact, last night at dinner, I couldn’t even speak of the return without bursting into tears. Am I going to put something right at Munzatsi? Not so much for them, but perhaps for me. I want to revisit the place, and the feelings, that scared me. Courage and honesty already rule the school; now I want them to rule me.
Speaking of courage, let’s revisit the murder of Carolyn Abel in Seoul in 1988. Of course, as most of you know, I’ve been revisiting the crime for years, both in my head and on paper. I even went back to Seoul in 2014 to walk down nightmare lane, and to make things right with South Korea–a country I blamed for a lot of crazy shit that went down while I was there.
I kind of fell in love with Seoul when I went back again. The very food that had once made me very sick, suddenly made me very happy! I loved lounging in the bathhouses, and strolling through the markets. I took a long look at the DMZ between North and South Korea, for the second time in my life, and thought about all the divides I’d created for myself in the world. Which of them could I help make right?
I’ve been trying to tell the story of Carolyn’s death for decades. But every attempt to write about what happened in Seoul all those years ago was met with rejection after rejection. I wasn’t telling it right. I must have filled up thousands of pages with dozens of versions of the tale. But it wasn’t until I came to grips my own terrible truth — that I was an alcoholic — that I was able to put the crime into context. My recovery in Abu Dhabi in 2015 helped set the story of Seoul straight in my head, and then I was finally able to get it down on paper in the way I was meant to tell it. I got it right, finally.
And Grand Harbor Press, a division of Amazon, bought the global rights. Now, in a matter of months, my true tales of Kenya, Korea and the Middle East will be wide open for the whole world to see.
Will Carolyn’s story be made right because of it? The person who most likely responsible for killing her is still at large and largely unprosecutable in this country. And it’s unlikely that there’s any resolution in the future because of a “DMZ” of jurisdiction and bureaucracy. But, at the very least, there is peace — if not justice — to be had in telling the truth righteously.