Why Do I Write: About Africa (Sehemu Mbili)


In a previous post regarding the poems I’ve written about Kenya, I focused on the overarching experience. We did so much in such a small span of time, and learned so much, that from the get-go the trip was already slated to become a huge part of me growing-up and getting to know the world.

However, during this trip I also experienced what it would be like to truly, fully believe that I was about to die. See, when I was getting all of the shots necessary for entering Africa, I only got those that are legally required. Because of my sensitivities, I never get shots that are not ‘required’, and I figured that malaria was really all that we had to guard against (and we had pills for that). Also, when in Kenya, we were told to take care with the water- we were supposed to make sure that none of it got into our bodies without being filtered. I followed the rules, of course- except for when I forgot while shaving my legs. I put my nicked up skin right under the running water and never thought twice about it.

A couple of days into the trip me and another girl became violently ill. At the advice of one of the local priests, we got taken to a clinic to be tested for malaria. The other girl came up positive for it. I came out negative for it. One of the other members of my group told me to be glad that I didn’t have malaria. But I wasn’t glad- I was still in so much pain and I wept because now I didn’t have a reason for it.

It’s been three years now so I can’t honestly tell you if I was really in any danger of dying or if my paranoia was kicking up the pain to the point where I simply believed that I was dying- but I know that if you had asked me then, I was convinced that I wasn’t going to be coming back to the States.

Now this is where this gets relevant to my poetry. When I look back at the poems that I wrote while in Kenya, I’m often stricken by the images I used, the short/conciseness of the poetry, and how obsessed it seems that I was with the idea of ‘belonging’.  If I could pick out one of the biggest flaws that I have in writing poetry, it would be that I just love to write images for the sake of images, and will draw out a poem that could have very well ended much earlier just to keep drawing out those images. I also tend to use a plethora of cross-sectioned imagery that blends theology and nature and the gothic and grotesque. However, with my Kenyan poetry, I use very little abstract imagery at all. Most of it is simply recounting what I’m seeing in a simple way. Most of the poems are ridiculously short, for my average line-length. And everything is focused on that idea of being part of a Kenyan family through adoption-by-tree-planting, or feeling at home at Lake Nakeru, or taking individual villagers as sisters or brothers in spirit.

At the time, this seemed perfectly natural. Looking back now, I realize that these were poems I was writing when I thought I wasn’t going to be writing for much longer. These were the last poems that I thought I would ever write. I didn’t have time or the energy for pretense or huge, long expositions about the things I was seeing in Kenya, either positive or negative. I just wanted to put down what was going on around me, and who was around me, as I was dying. I wanted to feel like, if I was going to die an ocean away from my family, that I was at least going to die surrounded by some kind of family. I wanted to die loved.

Even when we did finally get me correctly diagnosed with typhoid and got me medicated, the fear never left. It still hasn’t left. When I get sick now with a huge cold or a fever, I often have dreams that I never left Kenya. That I’m still there, getting ready to die, and that my life up until now has all been one huge fever-dream. Whenever I feel like I have little or no hope, or that I am all alone, I find myself writing about the savanna or the songs that I barely even remember. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing about Kenya, even if I do never get the chance to go back (though I sorely hope I will be able to, sooner rather than later).

It’s given me a lot to think about, in terms of what is truly important. If these poems are any indication, at least there is some proof that family has always, and will always, come first to me. That, no matter what, I am always desperate for family. To belong somewhere. To have people who are proud of me, who miss me when I’m gone, who will be there when I come back. I am lucky, and I thank God every day, for the family He has given me- my family by birth, those family members I choose, and even the family I am still in touch with worlds away in Kakamega, Kambiri and Nairobi. It’s a bit silly to know that it took almost dying for me to fully recognize that and stop taking that for granted, but there it is.

So if you come across any poetry of mine written about my time in Africa, re-read it now, knowing that I thought that those poems were going to be my last words. Or you can even read the ones I’ve written after  coming home, and see how I have dwelt on just what it would have meant to go to eternal rest there, or what is has meant to come back to my family in the States.

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