Not too long ago on the Lunatic Express, the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I met a businessman who had lived in Nairobi since 1963. A real estate developer with some other interests he still considered his home the village where he had grown up and where he would return to grow old and be buried. Traveling from cities to villages, or what expats sometimes just call The Village is in many ways the quintessential African journey even though it’s sometimes short enough to walk in fifteen minutes.
I’ve spent most of the past ten months in cities but I’ve taken trips to the village often enough to offer a generic description. In a hectic parking lot teenaged boys thread between minibuses shouting out their destination. If you’re going their way they’ll lead you to their vehicle. If you’re white there’s a good chance they’ll stick you in the front seat and ask for more money. Men selling watches, airtime, water, soda and newspapers knock on the bus windows. When every seat on the bus is full, and never before, the bus shakes alive and edges out of the lot.
The trip begins near a city center with a few tall buildings and shops packed together. There are embassies and pizzerias. The road passes small factories and houses on hillsides. Pretty soon there are banana trees between the houses and the factories disappear. The road gets bumpier.
As people who know a lot more than me have pointed out, this journey is so important because it crosses the rift in 21st century life between commerce and tradition, respect for the past and hope for the future.