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Callaloo 30.2 (2007) 637-643

Water Brought Us

January 4, 2007

Please allow me to clarify something I said to you. I told you about my "spiritual transformation" on the island of Lamu, but you spoke no reply, said nothing at all in response, only looked at me. How to read your look, your silence? As doubt, disbelief, or something else? (So many possibilities.) I'll take the blame since I probably explained myself poorly. Allow me to try again.

I hope you understand that when you and I spoke—at Busch Gardens that excellent open-air restaurant (my favorite on Lamu) overlooking the waterfront, the Indian Ocean, you on one side of the table, me on the other—I was weak, woozy, sluggish, from battling giardia and from the side effects of the powerful antibiotic I was taking, but I was also fully coherent, completely rational and sane. The transformation I experienced, starting in Nairobi and finishing on Lamu, is genuine. In brief, it happened as follows.

The night of Wednesday, December 20, our last night in Nairobi before the scheduled move of the Kwani festival to Lamu, I was sitting in my hotel room, listening to music, awake for yet another night (the ninth). Since my arrival in Nairobi on December 12 I had failed to sleep more than two or three hours a night at best, and had in fact meant to hunt down some sleeping pills. I attributed the insomnia—I suppose that is the right word, insomnia, although the word feels wrong, feels foreign to how I felt—to the combined effects of jet lag, extensive teaching preparations, too much hanging out (I had actually cut back on that), and pure excitement about the Kwani Writers' Conference and all of the interesting and inspiring people I was meeting and vibing with. I know today but didn't know then that I was fully infected with giardia. As far as I can determine, I contracted the bacterial infection by using—innocently, naively—tap water to brush my teeth, doing so every since my very first night in the country. I had failed to take serious notice of the symptoms—I was far more concerned that I had somehow become manic, although my thinking and actions were normal to both myself and others. I was exhausted but rational. So, medically speaking, this bacterial infection, and the physical symptoms it caused me to suffer, was almost certainly the cause of my insomnia.

In any case, this final night in Nairobi was more of the same, with the difference that I had not been able to fall asleep at all, but was sitting there, biding time, hoping to kill the hours separating me from the morning transport to the airport, and so hoping, sat listening to music—Goodie Mob? Soriba Kouyate? Blind Lemon Jefferson? Floetry?—when the thought came to me, quite spontaneously, out of the blue,"Your ancestors are trying to get your attention. That's why you can't sleep." [End Page 637]

I noted the thought, found it interesting, but didn't wonder much beyond that.

The ancestral call had begun almost a week earlier, the previous Thursday, if memory serves me, during the first Kwani party at Club Afrique where I found myself being drawn into the circle of dance—(Le General) Jack Nyadundo,The King of Ohangla—with other Africans from around the continent and the world. (Nigeria represented. London represented. Liberia by way of London. South Africa. The Congo. Uganda. Zimbabwe. Kenya, of course. And the finer distinctions of region and people.) So the boy from New York (by way of Chicago), the boy from the Diaspora, was being drawn in, welcomed back, home. I'm shy and almost never dance. And I had never danced the circle (not the same thing as our "Soul Train line" or "Bus Stop" as I discovered that night). Jack and his band ended their set, but I was drawn into dance again not much later when Ntone began to DJ—what an...