I have mental snapshots and memories of the main house on the family compound. We were living with a Kipsigis family on their rural Kenyan land, surrounded by rolling hills, grazing cows, and red dirt. In this main building, we shared meals around a long table and the boys slept in the corner, having given up their outbuilding to our family. The shortwave radio sat high on a shelf, beyond my childish reach. Night had fallen, but sound emanated from the lone electronic device in the building. November, 1988. We were listening to the results of the U.S. presidential election.
This was the was room where one of the sons howled in pain, hopping on one foot after bravely pouring methylated spirits on a toe infested with jiggers – a sure and painful post-op cleansing . This was the room where I first remember experiencing the joy and cacophony of a torrential African downpour. Rain on a tin roof – too loud to talk, so we sit in silence and listen to the music that signals the earth is being watered in season. When it rains, the cool breeze wafts through the open door, passing by the small shelf that holds the radio. We learned to say ‘close the door, it’s cold’ in Kalenjin, a phrase I remember to this day, most likely unconsciously modified over time to become unrecognizable to a native speaker.
In this room I first observed the routine ritual of maintaining the floor. The matron mixed red mud and dung in a basin, grabbed handfuls and smoothed it over the floor, adding inches and uniformity of color back to a ground that had been worn down by thousands of footsteps from family and friends, distant relatives and neighbors, coming in and out, in and out, all day. Chai spilled on this floor as it was poured from tin mug to tin mug for cooling. It simply absorbed into the earth. A self-absorbing floor – genius. I could use one of those now.
It was late. I remember being tired. It was certainly past my bedtime, which normally occurred shortly after the sun went down and the dim lamps fatigued our eyes. In this corner of Kenya, at the age of seven, I learned that it’s not only Americans who are interested in U.S. election results.
The following year, from the a rooftop patio of a concrete, Portuguese colonial-style house in civil war-torn Mozambique, I watched explosive flashes on a television screen. A Mozambican friend brought over a television, a luxury we did not possess. But this moment warranted being informed, and our rooftop patio was perhaps the best place to catch the waves. My dad manipulated the antenna in the dark. The president that was elected when I was in Kenya was now presiding over a war in the Middle East while we lived in Maputo, Mozambique.
Yesterday President 41 died at the age of 94. The day he was elected, the crackling voices on the indispensible shortwave radio sowed in me seeds of comprehension – what happens in the United States doesn’t stay in the United States, but impacts events and individual stories across the globe.