Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Smell

At the edge of the Rift Valley in Nairobi, Kenya, little Wendy
strikes a pose. Photo by Hannah Rappleye.

Nairobi, 6/8/08, the dry season:

I am sitting on a well-kept couch and eating fried green beans and oily beef, picking it up with chunks of chapati, and feeling a little sick. Hannah and I are in the living room of the family of our friend Mike Tiampati, Program Manager of the Mainyoito Pastoralist Integrated Development Organization. His two adorable daughters are going crazy on orange Fanta, and we're watching "Project Fame," a low-budget East African imitation of "American Idol" sponsored by Kenya's famous Tusker beer. First up is a cover of "Billie Jean." Later, a fellow in a tilted stetson hat sings Usher. They're all amateurs, but they're strivers. Before we discover who is dumped and who is saved, I look Hannah in the eyes and suggest that it's time to go.

It's dark as we walk through a sort of grimy alleyway towards the guest house. Mike, 35, tall and burly, a bold man with a genial manner, totes his defensive weapon - a long club with a knob at the end. A drunk man stumbles by. Any moment, I tell myself. It's just about to happen; and then it does. I double over and eject all the contents of my stomach onto the ground. My eyes water and snot bursts out of my nose. I can taste bile and Fanta . I amble a few steps and vomit some more.

"The Maasai say it's the best medicine," Mike says, chuckling.

There is something peculiar about our guest house. As we cross a muddy field in our approach, I notice a young man and woman standing together awkwardly move away from each other, and proceed to stroll towards the front gate separately. Once Hannah and I enter the dimly-lit barroom, buzzing with activity - couples sit at a few couches, smoking cigarettes and chatting, in groove with the music - I go in search of a bathroom. The place hosts many rooms, but only singles and double-sized beds. The bar sells water, cigarettes and bottles of Vat 69, Bond 7, Waragi, and other hard liquors. In this crammed, convivial atmosphere, I find the bathroom along the hallway. Mike's only gone here a couple times for drinks; he describes it as a "rendezvous" site. Mike would never stay here, because he is a married man.

The next morning is overcast. Hannah and I are sitting in patio chairs by the front door, waiting for Mike to bring us to Narok, where we will meet Maasai tribesmen and women. We're feeling slightly annoyed - inside, as the ladies clean the bar, a Christian radio program called "Women of Faith" blares over the speakers. Stentorian voices spread subliminal messages in a fog of pious feedback. "The Father goes so far beyond what a wayward child deserves," an intense voice says over the radio. "The Father runs and throws His arms around you."

The show ends and on comes a loop of power-ballads that praise Jesus Christ, in all his glory. I imagine that the point of all this is to rock the sin out of the entire guest house, using blessed noise.

"This music makes me want to drink whiskey and have sex," Hannah says.

A few minutes pass, and she recognizes one tune and sings along:

"Our God is an awesome God
He reigns from Heaven above
With wisdom, power and love
Our God is an awesome God!"

Then, suddenly, something familiar emerges from the daily morning bustle. It's the smell again.

The smell is pungent, wet, but neither sweet nor bitter. It is not distasteful, but it's not pleasant. It may be the ruddy mud fermenting in the heat - but the smell shows up where there is no mud. All of a sudden, anywhere, it is there. I might be walking around one of Kampala's suburbs, or cramming my legs into the seat of a rumbling coach bus and resting my head against a window that doesn't open, or sitting calmly on the back of a sputtering bodaboda while swerving through a busy street: the smell is there. A couple days back, I passed an invisible wall when I entered a grass lawn at a hostel in Jinja, and there was the smell. Its formula activated and prodded the swirling in my intestines, and I threw up. I've never asked any locals, ex pats or visitors about the smell; it remains a mystery.

Now, in the parking lot before me, I smell the smell.

I feel truly mystified, haunted, dare I say harassed! I sniff and shake my head, turn to Hannah and rattle on about the smell, the smell again. It's everywhere! I write into my notebook every instance I can remember of encountering the smell. I want to know, What is the smell?!

Yet we're waiting so long that eventually we get up to go walk down the main street, and we buy bicuits and a toothbrush. By the time we're back at the patio chairs drinking Krest with Mike telling us about Maasai tradition, the smell has disappeared and I've forgotten for a time that there ever was a smell. When I go up to northern Uganda, to Gulu, the smell is not there.

The smell is omnipresent, here or not here. It could be a sign.

Do you know what the smell is?


Samantha said...

"Great topic & it has covered several points regarding
subliminal messaging technology. It was fun reading your article. You might want to check out as they have a whole range of articles and programs related to subliminal messages."

Hannah said...

God this post made me really nostalgic.