Karibu Tena, Welcome Again

On the drive to the Boston airport for David’s and my flight to Nairobi, a U2 song from the early ‘90s came on the radio. I thought nothing of it until I heard the lyrics, “Did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?” All of a sudden, my eyes burst forth with enough water to nearly fill the empty Starbucks cup in my console. Is that why I was returning to Kenya?

I was so young when I moved here, only 20 years old! I was fresh out of college; fresh off a huge swimming career. Almost literally a fish out of water. Even though I found myself living in East Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was lost. To soothe myself, I’d occasionally hitchhike from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean – roughly 1,000 kilometers – to swim in the sea and to drink myself silly.

Kenya and its wildlife were tame compared to Nancy Stearns Bercaw. I forged a new identity as a land mammal by getting into crazy situations only to see if I could myself out again. Simultaneously hunter and game; alcohol my adrenaline and my bullet. I chased myself from one end of the country to the other, as if I were doing laps in a pool. 

At some point, though, you go down (or in my case, you drown on dry land) when you race around at breakneck pace. When I left Kenya, I felt defeated — a brand new and very uncomfortable sensation for a former champion. I relocated to Korea to see what waited for me there. Turned out to be a dead girl named Carolyn.

Now here I am, back in Kenya, three decades later. People tried to warn me that the country had changed: You won’t recognize the place! But I was more certain that Kenya wouldn’t recognize me. I have changed so much since 1986-1987. What would 2017 bring to the fore?

Would I be ashamed of the girl who once roamed here? Or, worse, would I want to be her again — drinking in my old haunts? Could my new self — swimming again, sober for two years, happier and stronger than I’ve ever been in my entire life — endure the trip to ground zero of my personal explosion? Perhaps I have, indeed, come to heal to the lepers in my head. Though leprosy, while treatable, remains incurable.

All of my death-defying experiences from Kenya to Korea, as well as my rise from the ashes in Abu Dhabi, are chronicled in my forthcoming book. After completing the manuscript last spring, I knew I wanted to come back here. Allan and I had discussed some sort of big trip, and after finding affordable tickets to Nairobi, we decided to take this one. We didn’t necessarily discuss all the implications of the trip, but he knew because he’d read the very first iteration of the book and pushed me to dive further into the difficult subject matter on my pages. Tell it all, Nancy. And so I did.

Later, in an effort to push the current envelope just as far as it would go, I invited a friend from my time in South Korea, 1988-1989, to meet me in Kenya for the weekend. Tamara lives in Ethiopia and would only have to make a short journey. If she came, we could talk about our good old days, none of which are actually good. Tamara and I are bound by the murder of our fellow teacher Carolyn, in Seoul, who quite possibly was murdered by an even better friend. A situation that has haunted both Tamara and I. She ultimately decided to fly from Addis Ababa to revisit the past with me.

On Saturday, Tamara and I toured Karen Blixen’s farmhouse. While there, a line from “Out of Africa” ricocheted in my head: And when I’m certain that I can’t stand it, I go one moment more. And then I know I can bear anything. That’s EXACTLY what I’d done by asking Tamara to come here. If I could endure the memories of madness in Africa and Asia for a few moments longer, then I could move even further away from the sorrow in both places. After all, as Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen also said, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”

I have cried over and over again since that U2 song got me going four days ago. Tears fell upon landing at Jomo Kenyatta airport, upon smelling the fires that burn every morning in the city, upon seeing the swimming pool at the Hilton Hotel (where there had been much wilding in my early days here), and upon seeing my son take his first views of this beautiful country and warm people.

And I wept upon seeing Tamara but NOT for what has passed. Instead, I wept at the realization we were making new memories. We fed giraffe, shopped in a frenzied market, we dined well, and we talked and talked about many, many things—remarkably little about Korea. Tamara and I now have Kenya in common, not just the horrors of Seoul! I am so grateful she chose to come. I cried even more when she left. As I explained to her, in a subsequent message, “I am open to life like never before and ready to take on pain the way I once did frivolity.” Tamara’s visit went a long way in my continued healing.

Allan will arrive in a matter of hours now, and we will embark on a safari tomorrow morning to celebrate all that we have endured in 20 years together. If it weren’t for Allan, truth be told, I may very well not be alive right now. Instead, I am back in Kenya with our child—and I’m already loving this unforgettable place more than I remembered. Swahili pours out of my mouth, the way gin once poured in. I smile and laugh and talk with every Kenyan I meet. They all say, “Karibu tena,” to me, which means “welcome again.” Already, I can see that I am the “me” that never was here. And Kenya, as far as I’m concerned, is better than it ever was. But things here have changed too. 

The outdoor terrace bar at the Norfolk Hotel — where I used to drink beer after beer in my youth and where I took young David for lunch today — is now enclosed in bullet-proof glass. There are iron gates and security checkpoints at the hotel’s entrance. A situation that made me want to cry for all of us. Indeed, the whole world. So very much has changed for everyone, everywhere.

There are more tears to come, no doubt. Like when David, Allan and I first see a lioness and her cubs on the Serengeti.

Like when I see my old school and the Bercaw Library, established by my father who has been dead for five years now—taken by a disease that stole his memories of this place, and of me. A disease I fear may also be coming for me.

Like when I walk past the Sunset Hotel and the Octopus Club in Kisumu, where I swam and drank my days and nights away. 

And, hardest of all, will be the moment when I say, “Kwaheri tena,” which means goodbye again, to Kenya.

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