Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part I)

So, the other day in class I was introduced – by my students – to two fascinating concepts: bananas and coconuts.

Bananas are yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Coconuts are brown on the outside, white on the inside. Have you caught on to the similarity: white on the inside? Students from mainland China and Hong Kong explained that bananas are used as a metaphor to define people of Chinese ethnicity who have adopted European mannerisms: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Along the same lines, explained an American student of Indian descent, coconuts are deployed to describe a younger generation of Indians who grew up in the United States, speak no Hindi, Punjabi, or Gujarati, but have ties to Mother India through their parents: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Aside from the retrogressive use of brown and yellow, terms that have not quite transcended their history of oppression in the same way “black” has, there was much that intrigued me about this kind of cultural analysis. On the one hand, I’m in the midst of writing an article about the use of African cuisine, especially in urban areas, to explore hierarchies of (symbolic) power. That bananas and coconuts are, first and foremost, fruits opens up a host of questions as to why communities repeatedly resort to food as a motif to discuss race relations, power differentials, and discrimination.

The other reason why I was fascinated by this discussion was more personal. What fruit, if any, would be most appropriate in describing the kinds of cultural mixing that forms my own personality?

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Let’s step back to kindergarten. I attended Silverbeck Academy for pre-school at a time when academies were still portent symbols of bourgeois social mobility. This counted twice as much in the rural Gikambura area where Silverbeck was located. The institution had both interior and exterior markers of class. On the one hand, its facilities were made of stone and mortar; windows had glass panes, unlike Gicharani Primary School – a public school up the road where paned windows were largely a foreign concept. Internally, Silverbeck used class trips to set itself apart.
There’s one particular excursion that is ingrained in my mind. The school took us to Wilson Airport, a small commercial airport outside the Nairobi CBD. Then, and even now, the airport is frequented by smaller planes, not the international Boeing 737s that one would find at the much bigger Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It was a great day for an outdoor trip; the tarmacked runway was blindingly sun-lit when we arrived. After all 10 or so kindergarteners got off the bus, we walked around the airfield amongst the planes. Just touching the sleek metal must have been fun. The tail license numbers on the small engine Cessnas must have looked erringly familiar to the numbers and letters activities we did in class. The coolest part of the trip was getting into one of the 8-seater planes, sitting in the cockpit, and having my picture taken holding onto the controls.
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In other words, the sense of being different has always been with me. As I’ve grown older, I’m less perturbed by this outsider-looking-in feeling. I think this is part of why what’s foreign/unfamiliar has always been attractive to me. Back in those Silverbeck days, there was an outdoor cinema once a month in my village. Folks from the government’s Ministry of Sports & Cultural Affairs would show up in a van, rig up a white sheet for a screen, crank the generator, and project old westerns after dusk.

You can’t imagine how big of a deal these events were! They served as a lifeline for teenagers and young adults, connecting them to a “modern” world that barely condescended to visit the dusty market square that we called a town. Those images, those accents, and that music all pointed to a life larger than any of us could comprehend. And this is before we even begin to break down what it meant to view white people with guns riding at high speed towards, or away from, danger. Missing a movie show was tantamount to a midlife crisis, or worse.

My dad’s side of the family tells stories about their escapades attending these movies in the late 80s. The venue was often the outdoor pitch where our local soccer club hosted weekend matches against other teams in the region. One evening when a film was showing, aunt Wanja decided to attend. She sat upfront, on a rare patch of grass, and bundled up to keep warm. She had on an oversized coat, perhaps borrowed from an older sibling to keep the chill away. It goes without saying that there were no public restrooms available at the movie showing. As a result, movie-goers invented all kinds of ways to cater for their bathroom needs. The men, as you can imagine, would simply find a bush to the side and “do” it. Women had less options. And attending to a number 2, by either men or women, required even more skill.

On this particular night, my aunt must have sat next to a member of the audience who was particularly skillful. He/she did their thing, and wrapped it up using a polythene bag. They then deposited the package into my aunt’s coat pocket. Somehow, as she concentrated on John Wayne surviving, yet again, a fusillade of bad guy bullets, she missed both the stench and the newly added weight in her garment. It was not until the film ended, and they were heading back home, that she drove her hands deep into her coat pockets to warm them up and keep away the numbness. Her scream must have woken up any sleeping devils. Her curses would have made a sailor blush. She pulled her right hand out of her now very heavy, very smelly pocket and shook it till her fingers almost dropped off. Running to a patch of a grass, she proceeded to rub her hand and wipe off the offending goo. Getting it out of her coat pocket was another story altogether. All this time, the big village boys were having the time of their lives: pointing and celebrating her misfortune in between sending missiles of rotten eggs across the departing audience.

Getting home from a movie was rarely a peaceful affair; it generally involved fist fights or stone throwing. But not even the threat of human feces could keep us away. It was always a welcome addition of excitement to our usually mellow rural hamlet. Most importantly, however, the screen helped us imagine novel identities we’d otherwise not have experienced. A few days after watching a western, I put on a yellow rain coat and swaggered just like I’d seen the main character to. The coat was new, and came to just below my knees; the proportions couldn’t have been better if it had been meant to be worn out in the wild, wild west. And with my hands deep in my pocket, I thought that my twirling coat tail would have done any cowboy proud.

The Memory of that First Illicit Love (Contd.)

Silverbeck Academy moved around a few times before it found a permanent home. One of its earlier locations was a few blocks from Gikambura’s commercial center next to the proprietor’s house. On my way back from school I’d find a pebble or a tin can and kick it all the way home. Well, as close to home as I dared since that kind of soccer exercise could ruin my school shoes making my parents not too happy. Having worked up enough of a tear in my shoe, usually my right one, I’d be sent off to the cobbler. He had lost one leg just above the knee. I suppose I was never particularly alarmed by his disability because I do not remember asking what happened to his leg. He was a good cobbler; after mending my shoe he’d warn me against kicking stones and tin cans because that ruined my shoes. I don’t think he had any fear of me taking his advice since that would have surely dried up some of his business.

Gikambura, had a main street arranged around a market. Shops surrounded the rectangular retail space, leaving a one-way traffic lane all around. My grandmother once ran a charcoal business here. I’d visit – after school and weekends presumably – and sit with her. The venture didn’t last very long but, my first memory of Congolese music is from that shop. I don’t think she played music there but there must have been other Lingala enthusiasts around her, all willingly and obnoxiously sharing their taste in music. Mbilia Bel’ “Nadina” sank into the depths of my young mind, in much the same way coal dust wafted up my nose making me sneeze.

It was also in one of these back alleys that I first experimented with being a hobo. I’m not quite sure where I was coming from but I do remember I was hungry. As I walked home I turned a corner and oh my! What did I see on the ground other than a couple of pancakes. They were stale and somewhat dry but they looked good enough to me. With some hesitation I picked several up and began chewing. I was so afraid I’d get sick I figured that if I only ate about half of each I would be safe. And that’s what I did; I took several bites from each before tossing it back on the ground. I don’t actually remember getting sick so my plan must have worked!

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The first home I can actually remember my family living in holds several memories for me. In one, I recall our house help, Wanjiru M. For the most part she was a responsible adult taking care of a toddler; other times not so much. Accurately or not, I have memories of lying on a couch and waiting apprehensively as she went to pick a tree vine to whip my young behind. I have no idea what I had done to elicit the proverbial rod, and if there had been a lesson mingled in that corporal punishment I forget.

Wanjiru also served as mom’s “bird.” Let me explain. Mom would come home from work after spending the day in the city. Then, inexplicably to me, she would ask me about the naughty things I had been up to all day. If I asked how she knew I had been out on the main road, a location I was warnd to avoid due to reckless drivers, she would answer a “bird” told her. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out the bird was right there with me. Talk about sleeping with the enemy!

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One day I came home from school to find a brand new chicken coop. It smelled of newly-cut wood and the sawdust placed in it. Wonderful! In minutes I was inside the structure, tall enough for me to stand, and I could look out through the wire mesh. Obviously, I also had to explore the roof and so up I went, and inevitably bent some of the tin roofing. Whatever the case, I suspect I could not have been happier if that hen house had been transported into my bedroom. Can you imagine what a cool bed it would have made! I think my fascination with structures, carpentry, and building began then.