Empty Handed

A thought, an experience, a watershed moment.
Shared by Nekesa Kay Kweli

I’ve read Thoreau’s words a thousand times and every time
they read the same, yet different.

“Why I left the woods? I do not think that I can tell…
I have often wished myself back.”

And yet every time I read them, they beg the conclusion of another
forgotten future that maybe could not have been. They put to death yet
another one of my many precious reasons. All my reasons and all of theirs
have never been enough to explain to me why I left.

“Why I left Africa? I do not think that I can tell…
I have often wished myself back.”

I can’t tell you why our species as a whole left the Great Rift Valley of
Kenya, only that I did the same, and all of these thousands of years later I
would imagine the significance it held for me was the same as for our
semi-hominid ancestors. The search for food and a hospitable climate amidst
the eminent promise of a lost habitat in a rapidly changing world.

Or something to that extent. I’ve never been entirely sure.

The Earth is always a step ahead of us, even though we step ahead of her
turning to walk into sunsets and out of sunrises.

I walked into the setting sun of the first old me when I boarded that plane
for the first time, preparing myself in humble prayer for a first baptism
of red dusted roads and charcoal smiles. It was a world of firsts, made to
open my fists.

And it did.
And I walked away empty red handed.

I once sat on a cow hide covered in human fecal matter and held the barely
breathing infant of a slum rat mama with a rib cage clawing at the borders
of her impoverished prison of skin while her own mother gasped in her last
malarial breaths on the bed she had prayed for her whole life. She died in
that bed, and for good reason. It held the scent of her corpse for days
like perfume of the rare privilege she died in. She died in her bed and
left it to her slum rat mama daughter and barely breathing grand baby who
would be blessed, or would they, to breathe another day. So that way when
they slept hungry, the pain of the red earth would remain unstained by the
even redder blood spilled from aching joints in too far exposed skeletons
with malnourished delusions of better days.

I never quite had the words to express that experience until now. Just held
Ruth as she knelt in the sewered slum dirt and let the tears flow freely
from her face. I envied her ability to cry. I could only ever manage to
muster a few tears at a time in the silence of my own company. Its been
that way my whole life. So instead of crying for myself, I held Ruth, let
her cry into me, taking them on as they soaked my shirt, like maybe her
tears would wash me too of the filth that would hence forth live in the
back of our noses, the bottom of our heels, the ventricles of our red slum
stained arteries. We picked the jiggers out of our toes like the kids
showed us how to, but the wounds never stop itching. We were both 19; she
on her way into the church and I on my way out.

That slum was oxygen in the most fantastically paradoxical way.

It’s funny, I found Christ in the trash houses of Kipsongo. It was the same
day he packed his suitcase, tipped his bowler hat, and caught a matatu to
Nairobi where he could get his shoes shined for 2 shillings outside of the
KFC. That’s Kenyan Fried Chicken, not lucky enough to have been shipped on
a slave boat over to Kentucky during the days of the trade.

I never saw him inside again. In fact, I came to believe that that shiny
shoed Jesus was only ever a phantom. And only was ever convinced of his
humanity in the streets slamming rhymes with slum dogs and bitches. The
rats and the ratatats and the vermin they said carried disease. I welcomed
the sickness after a lifetime of be still and smile pretty. It was the
remedy to the forced sterility of a self I had never really known but in
the submission of others.

I still can’t tell you why I left Africa. But I can tell you why I went,
went back, and as long as I breathe, will go again.

I went for peace. I went to be broken. I went with a band tied around my
upper arm waiting for the tip of their poisoned tongues topierce the soft
tissue of my ego’s inner arm. Like heroine, their pain was enough to numb
my own. Call me sadistic, or maybe masochistic, perhaps my strange
addiction to the dirt was just a desire for novelty, to have seen something
that few have and allow it to bank me. Deposit value by the name of
uncommonality in my first hand account. I thought it might teach me
morality, when in reality it only taught me to be tricky, to move with the

I went for my babies, three chocolate angels who wandered out of that red
dusted slum and into the thundering of my redder heart. They are each a
tale of their own, too tall and lanky, too sassy to tell in this pseudo
poem, they run in my veins like…
each pulse is a prayer for them. I went to become again a child in the eyes
of the Most High. Yes, I found Her in Kitale Town. In her womb called
Kipsongo Slum.

I forcibly inserted myself into the emaciation of my species, seeking
emancipation for my soul. I found my chains and bounds in leaps. Committing
spiritual suicide over and over again, I went to obliterate the me I had
been born into, to forge my way in service, to welcome a thousand firsts,
put to rest a thousand and one old versions of myself. I went to learn that
Love is more than a four letter word. It is a weapon, a conviction of
salvation in this decaying world.
I walked in and out of countless burning sunrises and sunsets. I carry the
same burning inside of me, just behind my belly button. Let it be
sustenance to the pistons of my existence.

I went and for that I let my reasons live.
I went and that is enough.

The ones that I let die are the ones that try to tell me I need to know why
I left. I left my heart and I intend to go back for it someday.

So I can’t tell you why I or we as a species left the Great Rift….only
that it was time.

Only that it was time.