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Things fall apart

March 11, 2008

That’s the title of the novel I just started reading by Chinua Achebe, recommended by a friend who’s been here a while, and also the way of the mechanical things we’d like to rely on but so far can’t–specifically car and Internet. And then there’s Eliot Spitzer in the news this morning!

Last Tuesday a lorry, which is British for “truck,” hit the pole that brought us the Internet. The apartment owner gave a “very stern” deadline of Friday to Telcom to have it fixed, which was laughable. Go ahead and laugh with us! In the weeks we’ve been here, we’ve learned how mutable time is in Kenya. The ratrace love of deadlines hasn’t been adopted yet. If we see that DSL line back up before the end of the month, I’ll eat meat. Goat, arms and ribs and all.

For now we’re using a little cellular modem that’s not only slow but derelict in its duty, disconnecting every few minutes, or whenever you press the “send email” button. For an information and image junkie like me, this is infuriating. I stubbornly hit “Connect” again, and it just as stubbornly refuses to remain connected. I should just stop trying and go outside.

The Suzuki story is getting tired even to me, since we’ve told it to everyone we know too many times in the last month while it was in the high class performance 4×4 shop and while we were walking. If I had any juice on this line I’d post for you a very funny picture of Chris and the owner and the mechanic all leaning over the engine to listen to the new noise it started making the day we went to pick it up the first time, after 2 weeks there. They kept it another week, and on our way out in a taksi the next Saturday to get it, the mechanic called to say how sorry he was to tell us about yet a new problem!

Were these not warnings enough for us? Did we not hear our own jokes about how we got just 46 hours’ worth of driving after it was worked on? (having seen this happen 4 or 5 times)

No, no we didn’t.

We put our trust in that mechanic and looked forward to 4x4ing with the softop down, and just shy of a month in the shop, we got it back. We drove it a day and then I decided to take it through the chaos that is Nairobi traffic to Humble Hearts school late Thursday afternoon, so I could follow the kids who live at Angel Cottage home and photograph what life’s like there. After about 45 minutes waiting for my turn to go through the roundabout at Haile Salassie and Moi, the 2 main arteries downtown, the Suzuki started to sputter. I’d turned the engine off while we waited, and she didn’t want to turn back on. When you’re at the head of a line of 100s of hot cars, buses, and matatus full of hot, annoyed, tired people all waiting for their go, this is bad news.

Somehow the Suzuki got going enough to limp through Moi and the next small intersection, but wouldn’t make the next big roundabout, the spiral of incoming roads swirling around the country bus station and market. Bad news again. The small slope in the road helped me coast off into the dirt where I tried to restart. What happened next is a haze of diesel smoke, sides of buses at close range, some guy who attempted to stop traffic and guide me back in and then demanding tea, horns blowing, the sight of the engine and oil lights on the dash, the click click of the starter, stutteringengine noise, an expressionless traffic cop, and then the sudden appearance of an on-the-spot mechanic with 3 helpers pushing me out of traffic. Then a push once more around the roundabout, the hood is up, new spark plugs are in, assurances that the car is fixed for months are made, thanks and shillings are given, and I am chugging back the way I came, on the phone with Chris to say I am done with the Suzuki, a decision he heartily agreed with. That car may live to die another day, but not with him or me in it.

There are other cars to rent, maybe not as coy and cute, but who needs high maintenance anyway?

As for the novel. I had just bought it at the Bookstop in Yaya Center and brought it with me to read on the Citi Hoppa bus to town (to deliver a letter to the cell modem people that their service is crap and we want our shillings back). I put it down on my lap when the bus started moving again. The guy across the aisle had to sit crossways in his seat because of the giant sack of vegetables on the floor. He saw the price sticker still on it and asked me if this book, this insignificant-looking paperback really cost 1000 shillings, which is about US $14. I said yes and his look said shock.

Then it hit me that Things Fall Apart–labeled a “classic bestseller” on the cover, having sold over 2 million copies in the US, written by a Nigerian hailed as the first major African author, that “is often compared to the great Greek tragedies”–that this is ungodly expensive and out of reach to the relatively well-off sport-coated man sitting next to me on the bus, and to how many of his countrymen as well? It hit me that this book described as “the most widely-read book in modern African literature” is most widely read outside of Africa. I’d like to see if Achebe’s books are even in the McMillan Library, where I’m going tomorrow with a letter to request permission to photograph inside. Even then, it wouldn’t be free to read. You pay a subscription to use library books here, putting literature outside the grasp of the poor.

So now I know I’m fool enough to complain about a faulty internet connection while being rich enough to afford one of the classic pieces of African literature. Another of the things falling apart is my concept of how life is or “should be.”

And I was wrong about the monkey, too, and feeling remote in our treetop apartment five floors up. Yesterday I ran into a small furry primate sitting outside the drying room, peeling and eating the mango I’d put out there to ripen. I asked him what he was doing, and he picked it up and headed away up the roof, dropping the passion fruit he’d filched from the kitchen windowsill.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. MIL permalink
    March 11, 2008 9:38 am

    To insure that you will continue to speak to me, let me first say I am sorry that life is so very frustrating for you both, BUT I must tell you that your posting is really hysterical to those of us surrounded with working cars, computer experts that fix things in an instant, and “pets” that would never steal our fruit! Hang in there because those of us in our comfy environments can also see how mundane our lives often are. :-) You really must consider writing a book. I’m working on a catchy title.
    Love (and patience) to you both.

  2. March 14, 2008 10:05 pm

    Wow! What a week. I used to have a little pick up truck that sounds very much like your Suzuki. The last time it went into the shop it actually cracked in half on the lift. (Cab went one way, truck bed another. Ugh.)
    It really is sobering to think about the level of wealth we take for granted, isn’t it? My year in Bolivia was very hard, trying to take this into account and living with the discrepancy day in and day out. I think you write very eloquently about your thoughts on that.

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