Robert Starkey


As I walked along the road near Kolobot Gardens I noticed there were soldiers on every corner with automatic weapons. Their presence conjured up the image of Daniel arap Moi on television. His image was telecast so frequently I felt I was living in the Orwell novel "1984" with Big Brother watching my every move. Corruption and graft were household words in Kenya. Francisco explained that I should not worry about anything because all the right people had been paid off. On weekends when Francisco was off on mysterious journeys I would raid the book supply in the spare room. I was often startled by an armed guard who would walk past the bare window with an AK 47 over his shoulder. I was constantly aware that people could disappear in Kenya. When someone was unjustly taken off to prison there was little chance of public outrage resulting in release. Sometimes those who opposed Moi simply died of mysterious circumstances. It was ironic that all I could think about after escaping my prison was the possibility of winding up in another prison.

I was continuously stopped by taxi drivers who were angry that I was walking and depriving them of a fare. A man who was walking in the opposite direction suddenly turned to offer me money for my Nike shoes. People seemed to gravitate to my blond hair and blue eyes as though the features spelled money. When I finally reached the downtown section of Nairobi I was able to blend into the crowd. At a busy intersection I was startled by something moving at my feet. I looked down upon a frail emaciated man lying on a piece of burlap. I felt as though I had just been hit in the stomach and the wind was knocked out of me. I had never been face to face with real starvation before. The man looked as if his skin had been stretched over his skeletal structure after all the fat had been removed from his body. His eyes were clouded and sunken back into his skull. I was paralyzed for a few moments before I was able to move on. I searched for the Argentine embassy were I waited for John to drive Francesco and I home.

Francisco made arrangements for us to spend Christmas at an exclusive 5-star Safari club at the coast just below Somalia. It was a place where the British Royal family and stars such as Elizabeth Taylor could find solitude. Although there was a war just miles up the coast, Francisco assured me there were enough soldiers with machine guns to protect us. As we flew over the city of Nairobi in our small 18 passenger plane, I could see the tin shanty towns at the edge of the city. I wondered how these wonderful people would have evolved without the great white European father coming to save them. Suddenly my attention was grabbed by the vision of giraffes feeding from the tops of the trees. Then I saw a lion feeding on a recent kill as vultures and other scavengers waited at a safe distance. My face would be glued to the window glass for the remainder of the two hour flight over the jungle.

I was thinking about the wonderful scene in "Out of Africa" when Robert Redford soars over the edge of a plateau and the earth just seems to drop off below him. Just then we came to this very spot and I was treated to one of the experiences of a lifetime. There was Africa below me in all its wonder and splendor. I watched as the small ribbons of tracks from Landrovers made their way to the narrow parts of the rivers. I searched for any other sign of civilization and was happy to find none. Then as we came close to the edge of the jungle and near to the ocean, I saw in the colors of the land and water below me the same patterns of the African fabrics in the shops in Nairobi.

As we circled a small strip of sand I understood why this place provided solitude. In three directions there was only jungle. To the East was the ocean. Beside the petite air strip I could see a small thatched roof with two jeep-like vehicles parked beside it. These were our ground transportation which whisked us out over the dunes through thick brush which grazed the sides of the jeeps and our overhanging limbs. We quickly came to an area surrounded with palms where thatched roof cottages awaited. There were eighteen cottages in all. In the center stood two large half shells filled with water, for rinsing feet before entering. Everyone was required to leave their shoes behind and pick them up when they checked out.

Our cottage was one large room with a king-size bed in the center, surrounded of course with mosquito net. The bath or shower was in back. It consisted of two small huts, one with a shower which hung above a wooden plank which allowed the water to run off into the sand, and the other with a toilet. I walked out to the toilet the first time to find myself face to face with a white monkey who was sitting on the toilet tank. At night we could hear the crabs scurry across the grass carpet. There was nothing to make one feel secure from the jungle outside, no doors, no real windows, just a lot of faith.

On Christmas morning I awoke early and was surprised at how emotional I felt. I felt lonely remembering all of the Christmases past with family and friends. It was always a special day for me. I sat on the beach quietly singing Stille Nacht as I had with my grandmother some twenty years before. At this point tears were streaming down my face. I returned to the cottage to tell my Francisco I would be taking a long walk before lunch. I set out along the deserted beach on the other side of the dunes.

I had walked for some time before I even became conscious of my surroundings. The beach was very wide with white sand which at times was so fine it was like walking through snow drifts. I tried to stay close to the water where it was packed and easier to walk on. I kept having the strange feeling that someone or something was watching me from the jungle. Each time I paused to check the trees and brush at the other side of the beach, I would convince myself that it was my imagination. I looked out at the water and wondered which animals would follow me into the sea. I was pretty far from the Safari camp now and I had forgotten to ask if there was any danger in taking such a long walk. It was too late now anyway. I didn't even have the option of running across the sand. I had enough trouble walking across it slowly.

Some of you may be familiar with this story. I am in the process of rewriting it and adding the memories I excluded from the first version. This is the first half of the rewrite. Thanks for being my audience. It helps enhance the performance.


When I decided to accept an invitation to go to Africa it was not something I needed to sleep on. I had dreamt of making the trip since I was a young boy. When an Argentine diplomat invited me to spend the winter at his home in Nairobi I jumped at the chance. We met in Berlin in the summer of 1991. It was a year when I believed I could do anything I could imagine. To accept an invitation to Africa was to challenge that part of myself that could no longer be easily stimulated by fear of the unknown. I had been so free in my acceptance of challenges it was getting difficult to find ones I had not already met. I invited that familiar feeling of anxiety with the knowledge of what would be waiting on the other side of the fear. Too many people face their fears with retreat. I welcomed it with open arms, fully expecting my life to be enriched by facing it and walking beyond it.

In the airport in Berlin I sat with Rob and Ulf who had come to see me off on my adventure. My stomach had been twisted so tight there was no room left for the thought of food. I wore a mask of excitement to hide the terror of going off into the unknown without a maternal hand to grip tightly as I faced the first day of school. "Once I get inside the plane I'll be fine", I told myself. Instead of grasping a mature perspective I retreated into the artificial womb of an Airbus where I curled into fetal position, fastening my umbilical chord tightly when instructed. I thought of those hot summer days on Crete a few months before. There had been an ever present aura of the African continent carried across that vast expanse of water known as the Libyan Sea. It manifested in hot dry breezes that lulled us into delusions that were occasionally broken by brown rain that powdered the whitewashed houses with Sahara sand. On Crete I had tested the water with one toe. I was now prepared to jump in and absorb the shock.

As we prepared to land in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia the passengers were warned to hide all liquor bottles. The flight attendants meticulously cleaned off the counters, double checking to see that all empty bottles were out of sight. I looked out of the window as we circled to land in this Arab state. The landscape was illuminated with amber colored lights that formed a pattern resembling the internal circuit board of a computer. What a perfect metaphor, I thought, as people robotically performed the duties required of free people visiting a repressive state. An early morning mist of fear landed upon the inhabitants of the cabin. What exactly was it we were all required to be afraid of? I imagined armed guards coming onto the plane to interrogate us, requiring breath or blood tests to check for alcohol consumption. I was surprised to learn the source of all the activity was to prepare for the Saudi cleaning crew.

On the flight from Jeddah to Nairobi I was reminded of an episode of "The Twilight Zone" when a jet got lost in a time warp and was taken back to the time of the dinosaur. I had always believed that looking out of the window of an airplane at 30,000 feet was basically the same everywhere, except for the variations of mountains and other distant qualities of the landscape. As I gazed through the window I was not struck by what I saw, but by what I didn't see. There were no signs of civilization, no mountaintop observatories, no man-made alterations to the landscape. I was washed by a sense of powerlessness as though man's ability to conquer nature had been an illusion I was exposing in that moment of revelation. Unconsciously, I clung to the armrest like a child about to be thrust from his mother's womb. I knew within the hour I would be born into an unfamiliar world where I would struggle to understand the images set before my newly opened eyes.

My diplomat friend Francisco was waiting for me at the door of the plane. It was not a difficult birth, as he was able to walk me through the immigration and customs procedure with relative ease. When we walked into the main terminal there was a huge gathering of school children performing a tribal dance for an arriving dignitary. As they jumped up and down to the rhythm of drums, singing a Swahili song, my heart began to jump out of my chest. I surrendered to the fact that I had arrived. I was then escorted to Francisco's car where his driver John placed my bags in the trunk, climbed into his driver's seat on the right hand side and drove us through the streets of Nairobi. Each time we approached an intersection I sat in quiet terror as my "keep to the right" brain tried to digest the collision course we seemed to be on with approaching traffic. At last we arrived at the iron gates which protected Kolobot Gardens from the real Africa. Here I could feel safe in the diplomatic corps' illusion of the West. I could feed on familiarity until I gained the courage to go unescorted beyond the gates of their self-made prison.

The first thing I saw as I entered flat number thirteen was a tastefully decorated living room with two Kenyan style sofas facing one another. They were covered with Zebra skin pillows that only left about three inches at the edge of the seat where one could actually sit. Between them was a huge coffee table stacked with Western art and photography books. Above the table an enormous piece of silk was draped over two bamboo poles to cover the ceiling lights. The silk was decorated with hand painted owl's feathers that created a dramatic effect at night when the artificial light shone through them. At the opposite end of the room was a wall of windows and glass doors which lead to the terrace. There in front of the doors stood Mathenge (ma-thing-gay), dressed all in white, bearing a huge gentle smile that contrasted his dark silky black skin as much as his white uniform. He seemed genuinely happy to see me, even though we had never met. Mathenge greeted me politely with a heavy British accent spoken softly. If I needed anything, I was told, just ask Mathenge and he would provide it. I was uncomfortable with this concept and silently promised myself to compromise to a humane solution.

As Mathenge left the room my attention was drawn to the terrace and the gardens beyond. Here Africa couldn't be kept out with iron gates and electric fences! To the left the African nannies in their blue uniforms were playing with the children of diplomats. The African gardeners in brown uniforms were raking leaves with graceful movements that would be the envy of a Western dance or yoga instructor. Already I could see my perception of these people contrasted to the subservient view of the diplomatic corps and the remnants of colonial rule. I stood with one foot in each world like a standing yoga asana. As my feet separated I could feel my hips open wide to release compassion for everyone involved in this drama. Most of all I felt myself devoid of judgment as I observed the world around me. In Africa I would become the writer I had always wanted to be. For this too I would have no judgment. I would simply write.

Francisco showed me to my room, then gave me a tour of the flat. He explained how the third bedroom was intended to be a library one day, but served as a storage room in the meantime. As he opened the door I could see waist high stacks of books in the center of the room. On top of the stacks I found a paperback volume of a collection of short stories of E.M. Forster. In this volume I would find my link to spirit, my teacher, my Gay brother and companion. I was no longer afraid of the solitude before me. I welcomed it. My new life and dream were no longer just a concept in my head.

As I read the short story, "The Story of a Panic," I wept because it reminded me of my own experiences on Crete just months before. Later, as I read "The Celestial Omnibus," the young boy is reading Keats to Mr. Bons when he also bursts into tears. When Mr. Bons asks why, the boy replies, "Because, because all these words that only rhymed before, now that I've come back, they're me." So in the midst of this wonderful dream my life is being redefined each second. My life which was one dimensional has become three. I am no longer merely the reader. I am also the subject and the writer. Now there are moments when it is possible for me to look back from the pages of the book into this accepted reality and it becomes the dream.

On evenings when Francisco was working late I was left alone in the flat after Mathenge went home. Sometimes I sat upon the terrace listening to the sounds of the African night. A whole world awakens after the sunset. Closing my eyes would enhance that world I knew was so close and dangerous beyond the electric fences and armed guards. In one meditation I saw a lioness who came to take away my fear of the unknown. She came to remind me that fear was the major obstacle to having everything revealed to me. Sometimes I imagined I could se her in my peripheral vision pacing the hallway that had been constructed upon her former home. I soon accepted her presence as an omen of my own liberation.

During the daylight hours I was fascinated by how even the most mundane things were different when studied closely. The sunlight seemed to be vertical at this juncture between the North and South. The white clouds reflected a celestial iridescence that nearly blinded me. Beautiful bright multicolored birds dragging long tails like wedding dress trains would come to serenade me with unfamiliar exotic songs. Some were mantras designed to pull one's spirit out of the body to soar above the greener than green landscapes. Others with great expanses of coal black wings and earsplitting shrieks reminded me that I had more than the fear of lions to overcome. In the distant tall trees monkeys would play like squirrels back home. I was on a path to rediscover my place in nature. Here the constructs of man seemed more like an aberration than an accomplishment.

During my outings in the chauffeur driven car I was acutely aware of the distorted view it provided. I was grateful for the time it allowed me to painlessly transcend my fears and apprehensions. At the same time I felt like screaming out the window, "This is not really me; I am just like you. I have no money!" This would be absurd though. I had the privilege of white skin in a land which belonged to them. I had to be content to watch from the inside as the white minority protected its fears with illusions of superior intellect as they existed on the last crumbs of colonialism which had yet to be destroyed. Was it not the duty of the writer to understand and interpret things from the inside out? Was it not my duty as a member of the privileged minority to expose the injustices through my writings? Perhaps I too was guilty of creating illusions to assuage my guilt.

My African friends soon learned they could come to talk with me at the kitchen window during the day. I felt as though we were school children always looking over our shoulders so we wouldn't get caught by the teacher. It was difficult to not have judgments about the racial and class barriers which existed and of which I was participating in a sense. I rationalized by telling myself my silence was self imposed for the sake of the experience. I was always able to be myself though, and it was recognized by all who also walked on that level without masks.

It wasn't until I decided to bake peanut butter cookies that I fully understood Mathenge's perception of his own life. I had to expend quite a deal of energy to get him to allow me to bake the cookies myself. He explained how happy he was that I was there to provide something for him to do. He had worked at the American embassy before coming to work for Francisco. Mathenge had a special place in his heart for Americans. He told me it was the only place he had worked where white people had treated him like an equal. Of course this put me in a position of living up to his expectations of Americans. With what I was beginning to understand of Francisco's attitude of Africans it was not a difficult task. I just needed to be true to myself.

When I finished baking cookies I called Mathenge into the kitchen. I instructed him to call the man who came often to talk with me at the kitchen window. I forced them both to sit at the small table on the terrace. I brought them peanut butter cookies on a silver tray and poured tea from the silver teapot. They were both terrified at my act of irreverence toward the class system of Kolobot Gardens. I assured them I would take full responsibility. They laughed with me, but it was a nervous laughter that was never free of the occasional look over the shoulder.

One Saturday afternoon Francisco decided we would go for a drive in the countryside. He had instructed John to come to work early that day. This was my first time outside of Nairobi. I was amazed at how the deep green foliage contrasted to the red soil. It always looked as if it had just rained. I watched in silence as we raced past the real Africa on our way from one controlled environment to another. We were going to have lunch at the stone farmhouse where Danish author Karen Blixen had lived from 1914 to 1931. We sat at a table on an expansive green lawn where Africans in clean pressed uniforms waited on us. I felt like we were on a movie set in Hollywood. I expected Robert Redford and Meryl Streep to join us for lunch. As I watched the waiters walk across the grass balancing trays of food I wondered which of the tin shacks we passed on the road belonged to them. I wondered where Mathenge's home was. I felt an incredible sense of shame to be participating in such a horrible illusion at the expense of other people's lives. The gap between the rich and the poor was almost too much for me to bear.

The following Monday I had planned an escape from Kolobot Gardens. I told Mathenge I was going for a walk. He wanted to know if he should call Francisco to have John deliver the car. I explained that I wanted to have the experience of walking among the real people who lived in Kenya. When I arrived at the front gate it was obvious Mathenge had called them to tell of my adventure. I got a strange feeling that everyone was winking at me to encourage me on. Without saying a word myself the gate keeper wished me a pleasant walk, then lifted the iron gate. I felt like a prisoner who had just been granted parole.

Again I felt the eyes upon me more intense than before. As I turned to face the jungle my heart rate began to increase. There, along the edge of the jungle were baboons, what seemed to me like hundreds of baboons, although I doubt there were that many. I tried to remember if I had ever seen a nature program about baboons. Were they hostile to humans? I seemed to remember someone saying baboons in the same sentence with the word vicious. Oh well, what good was all of this garbage in my head? The fact was, I was on a deserted beach on the coast of Kenya with hundreds, well, "lots" of baboons and I was on my own!

I noticed one baboon who seemed to be larger than all of the others. His hair was turning gray and he looked as though he was the authority figure. I watched him for some sign, but he only looked at me with the same wonder. I convinced myself they were probably just as cautious about me as I was about them. I took one step toward them and they all took one step back. I decided to walk farther down the beach and return later. As I walked away they all came running out onto the beach. When I was a safe distance for both them and me, I turned to watch as they seemed to play on the beach. When I finally returned to the safari camp later some of the people were talking about seeing baboon tracks in the sand. One of the employees warned that walking on the beach alone was not a good idea. I sat down to a feast that would have impressed the best French chef in Paris. Christmas, I thought, should be a holiday filled with experiences that are memorable for a lifetime. I had just experienced the most memorable Christmas of my life!