How It Begins

Zebras in Naivasha There's a beginning somewhere. And here's what I think. I think the beginning is like this:

When I was little I liked to get stuck in things. I didn't just watch TV, I lived it; I didn't just read books, I expanded on them in my head. I used to act out films as they were playing, as if they were just background noise. I did a pretty good rendition of Cinderella, playing all of the parts; as a wicked step-sister, snatching a plastic necklace from my Cinderella-self and tearing it to bits.

But the stories I liked best were the ones most remote to my own place in time and geography. I didn't watch the things that other kids my age were watching; I have gaps even now in my cultural consciousness because of it. I preferred Anne of Green Gables to Nickelodeon (I was never very popular). It was almost as if I longed for an archaic world and would rather pine hopelessly than assimilate into the Mickey Mouse Club culture of my contemporaries; but I was six, and wouldn't have been thinking like that. I just liked the impossible; the historical, the fantastical, the exotic.

And somewhere in there was this made-for-TV movie about a pair of kids who go to visit their parents in Kenya. The parents are researchers of some kind and the brother-and-sister duo spend most of their time in the company of a young Masai boy, who freaks them out by drinking cow's blood but also teaches them cute little proverbs and how to play mancala. The real point of the story is that the kids adopt a baby cheetah, which is subsequently stolen from them and taken to Nairobi, where it's made to race against greyhounds. But I liked the sound of this place, Kenya, which was so different from my place, Orange County. I didn't much mind about the cheetah--I thought it was a little foolish of them to try to tame a wild animal in the first place--but I liked the sweeping stock-footage views of the Great Rift Valley and the chaos of Nairobi and the long dusty roads, the acacia trees, the manicured lawns in the middle of this vast wilderness.

You can't blame a compulsion purely on one childhood image; I saw films set all over the world, and their impact was transient at best. But sometimes, if you see something, it makes you feel something, and then, over the years, that something grows. You start to notice other things. At a bead shop in Laguna Beach with your mother, you buy only beads imported from Kenya and then have the shop girl string them into a necklace which you wear tied round your neck and which, fifteen years later, you still have. You read things and research things. You develop an undeserved, irrational passion for a place you have never been and can never fully understand. You close your eyes sometimes and imagine yourself there. You're like Flaubert, but less eloquent, less able to understand how similar we are to the needle of a compass, how arbitrary the points that attract us are. Something small--an imagined quality of light, maybe--gets under your skin, and you can't get it out.

I'm not saying that this particular point, this random place, this name in the atlas that I decided at such an early age to like, means anything more than any other place might. I'm not saying that I am satisfied or dissatisfied with my two weeks there, that they meant more or less than they would to anybody else, that they were enough, but neither that my hunger is insatiable. I'm only saying: every journey has pre-history, begins long before we think it begins. I'm only saying, this is where Kenya begins, for me.