What I miss most when I return to Kenya is not the way things used to look or the way people used to act. What I miss is the firstness of experience and its accompanying intensity. I miss the very rawness of my nerves.
Arriving at the boarding school where I lived, high on the escarpment above the Rift Valley, I remember the crisp morning chill and the fog that we walked through on our way to the cafeteria. I remember the crunch of the gravel-like sugar we sprinkled on our mundazis, and the woodsmoke scent of the women who stopped outside our dorm to ply us with sour apples and maize from the bundles harnessed over their foreheads. I remember, just after sunset, the hyraxes screaming from the forest like lost children, the near-desperate loneliness, but also the sweep of my girlfriend’s cornsilk hair.
I remember it all, but that is the very problem. Those memories have accreted around my sensory organs, creating a barrier between me and the present. The synapses have built up a kind of plaque, coated by the past, making the current Kenya hard to fully experience or store. I cannot—never can—feel like I used to feel here. As a result, I can never look back on this present moment with the same vividness as those earlier moments.
My senses were so new and alive back then—so truly “sense-itive”—that every physical impression sang into me, translated instantly from skin to mood, from eyes and ears and nose to emotion. I “felt” the world touching me on all sides and at all times. There was no distance between my emerging self and my surroundings.
And I didn’t study my experience like I’m doing now. Why? Because I was right in it, swimming along and sometimes nearly drowning. It was so vivid that my system occasionally went into panicked overload. That part I don’t miss. And I am happy for the ability to reflect back, contemplating instead of simply reacting. However, when I was a youth in Kenya, my days were not redundantly numbing. I felt fully alive. Every day was exquisitely rich with “realness.” And that is what I fundamentally miss as the near sixty-year-old who has finally come back to the place where it all began, the origin of his heart’s eye.