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Authors: Corinne Hofmann

Reunion in Barsaloi

BOOK: Reunion in Barsaloi
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Corinne Hofmann

Reunion in Barsaloi

Translated from the German by Peter Millar

BLISS BOOKS
LONDON

For my African family

I would like to say thank you to everyone who made my ‘journey back in time’ possible, in particular: Lketinga, Mama, James and all the other members of my wonderful African family, as well as all the inhabitants of Barsaloi who welcomed me back into their midst so warmly, Father Giuliani who showed us his hospitality and gave us an insight into many of the problems facing Samburu culture today, the staff of Constantin Film, who allowed me a glimpse behind the scenes of the making of ‘my’ movie, my publisher Albert Völkmann who came along on the trip as a ‘fatherly friend’ and Klaus Kamphausen who made the arrangements for our trip and took the photographs and video, my readers who have shared my life and that of my African family and who gave me the courage to go back to Barsaloi, and last but by no means least Napirai who, despite early misgivings, understood my reasons and let me make the trip.

Born in 1960 of a French mother and a German father in Frauenfeld in the Swiss canton of Thurgau, Corinne Hofmann had an international bestseller with The White Masai, an autobiographical account of her life in Kenya, which has since been translated into more than twenty languages and has spawned a film adaptation, seen by more than one million people when released in Germany in 2005. Her second book, Zurück aus Afrika (Back from Africa) described her attempt to start a new life back in Switzerland. An English translation will be published by Bliss Books in 2007. She has lived for several years with her daughter near Lake Lugano.

I
t all seems so long ago now. It is almost fourteen years since I fled Kenya with my daughter Napirai, then only eighteen months old, and now I’m sitting in a plane on my way back to Nairobi for the first time. I’m an emotional wreck. One minute my stomach is churning with excitement, the next I’m so nervous my hands have gone damp and clammy. I could collapse in tears one second and burst out laughing the next.

All sorts of questions are rattling around in my head. What will I make of my old home? How much will have changed? Will anything still be the same? Will ‘progress’ and the hectic pace of life that goes with it have changed Kenya so much that I won’t recognize the tiny village of Barsaloi in the north of the country or the people who live there now? Fourteen years ago there was only the Mission building, eight or so wooden huts, our breezeblock shop and a few
manyattas
, the traditional cow
dung-lastered
homes of the Samburu tribes-people.

Sitting next to me in the plane is Albert Völkmann, my publisher, who’s coming with me in the role of a ‘fatherly friend’, as he puts it, and Klaus Kamphausen, a photographer and film cameraman who has come along to make a visual record of our trip. I’m relieved and glad not to be embarking on an adventure like this alone.

During the flight I keep thinking about all the people I haven’t seen for so long: my mother-in-law, for whom to this day I have enormous respect, my ex-husband Lketinga, James, his little brother, Saguna, his niece. I’m also hoping to see Father Giuliani, who on more than one occasion saved my life, as long as we can find his new Mission. I just hope it all goes well and it’s not all going to fall apart the minute we land.

Eventually I doze off and when I open my eyes a couple of hours later there are red and orange stripes across the sky, exactly the same sort of dawn that greeted me two years ago at the end of a long, exhausting climb up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. The difference is that back then, sitting at Stella Point 18,000 feet above sea level, I was absolutely worn out, whereas now I’m no more than a little stiff and uncomfortable in my aircraft seat. Gazing out at the bare mountaintops beneath us in the dawn, I drift slowly off to sleep again.

But then, just about an hour before we land, I have a panic attack that almost makes me sick, and I pray to God it’ll all be okay. Through the window now I can see the endless expanse of the Kenyan plains. Here and there I can even make out the occasional circular corral – a few
manyattas
grouped together and surrounded with a thicket fence to protect them from wild animals.

Maybe we’re even flying over Barsaloi itself? I think how often I used to sit outside our
manyatta
with Mama, looking up at the sky. Whenever we saw a plane pass over she would ask how these ‘iron birds’, as she called them, could find their way without any paths or lights up there. Is there a chance she’s sitting down there now, looking up at the sky in the knowledge that I’m on my way?

All at once I want to jump out of the plane and parachute down to them. Sitting there lost in my thoughts, I soak in the vista of dried-up river beds wending their way across the dust-red earth and the green fringe of trees that, despite the drought, still marks their banks. A few minutes later the plane begins the slow loop of its descent towards the runway in Nairobi.

F
or months before I could set out on this journey I had gone over and over the same argument in my head: am I doing the right thing? So many things keep happening and changing my life that with hindsight it seems as if it had all been preordained.

Over the years I had time and again made approaches by telephone to the Kenyan Embassy in Switzerland and the German Embassy in Nairobi to try and find out what could be done to have my divorce from my Samburu husband, which had gone through in Switzerland, recognized in Kenya. Every time the answer had been the same: I would have to engage a Kenyan lawyer but first and foremost I would have to get my husband’s agreement. Lketinga (whom I had left in Mombasa on the coast) was now once again living in northern Kenya and had been married for years to a young woman from his tribe. There could simply be no question of asking him to come to Nairobi, not least because he wouldn’t see the point of it. Things were going fine for him; and as men could have more than one wife, divorce was simply unheard of among the Samburu.

But as that meant I would still have to get his permission as my husband before I could leave the country again, I simply left things as they were, reconciled to never being able to visit Kenya again. Nonetheless, my thoughts often returned to my family there, above all my mother-in-law, my daughter’s grandmother. With the thought that we could leave it a few years until Napirai was an adult and expressed a wish to visit her father and then we would find a way around things, I simply put my European divorce papers back in the drawer.

For the whole of 2003 I was busy promoting my book, enjoying myself hugely touring as an author and giving readings. Work was also well in progress now on turning the book into a film and that meant I had to travel to Munich often for consultations on the script. It was good that they let me make comments and suggestions and listened to what I had to say; we ended up working closely together, which at least meant I found it easier to live with the occasional changes that were made for dramatic effect.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t easy to have to see whole chunks of my own life re-enacted with different names while things that happened to me were often cut out or changed. Some of the scenes left me in tears, aware of how much it all mattered to me, but at the same time proud that an important part of my life was going to be transposed to the cinema screen. I was also curious to see how it turned out. Napirai was a bit more sceptical about the whole business, understandably as she has no memory of those days and there’s always the risk she could get the film mixed up with reality. I just keep praying that it will all work out and neither of us will regret it.

Through my collaboration with the filmmakers, however, I built up a few contacts in Kenya; and in December, completely spontaneously, I got the divorce papers out of the drawer again and faxed them to an acquaintance in Nairobi, asking him to discuss the case with a local lawyer. If ever there was a chance of an easy way to have my divorce recognized in Kenya, then this would be it, when we were in touch with the right people on the ground. With nothing to lose, I sat and waited for a reply.

My reading tour at the start of the new year kept me very busy. Reading about my exploits to hundreds of eager listeners and seeing the happy and amazed expressions on their faces is a real treat for me and I’m forever delighted by how many people say they get something out of it of relevance for their own lives. It has almost become like a vocation to me.

But precisely because I was so happy and satisfied with my work, I left it too late to realize that a domestic disaster had crept up on me while I wasn’t looking. Ever so gradually, the man I had been sharing my life with had drifted out of it. By the time I had noticed what was happening it was already too late. I was both angry and upset at the same time, but I neither can nor want to talk about it anymore. Once again something had unexpectedly fallen apart at the seams. Now I realized that, even with all
the love in the world, my new found fame has made life impossible for any man at my side. After the release of the film it could only get worse.

Nonetheless, I was not about to give up my way of life. I had fallen in love with a writing career that has allowed me to do good both here and in Africa. The huge number of letters I have received has proved to me that my books have helped countless people to overcome racial prejudice. Is there any higher calling, particularly when I myself am the mother to a mixed-race child? One thing was clear to me: from now on I would use my fame and all my energy for good. It was a decision that, once made, helped me to put the trauma of my failed relationship into perspective.

I plunged back into work, spending what free time I had with my daughter or going for long walks in the mountains I love so much. Then a few weeks later I got a message from Nairobi to say my European divorce papers were also legally valid in Kenya and that in Kenyan law there was also no question of having abducted my daughter fourteen years ago as her father had given his consent at the time to her leaving the country, even if he had not realized it might be for ever. I felt a great wave of relief wash over me, a kind of liberation.

Even so, I found that the effects of the collapse of my relationship were still taking their toll at night. I was having trouble sleeping and dreaming too much. Once I woke up in the middle of the night, sitting there bolt upright, covered in sweat, convinced that if I didn’t go back to Kenya I’d never see my mother-in-law alive again. I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning and couldn’t get back to sleep.

But the thought had implanted itself in my brain. Over the next few days I plagued myself with the question of whether or not I really should go back to Kenya. What would Napirai say? What about my mother? Apart from anything else, what would my African family think, above all Lketinga?

But the idea had taken hold of me, even though I kept experiencing radical mood swings. If I had still been with my partner, there would have been no question of going back to Kenya!

How strange was that? As if life really was predetermined and there was no avoiding fate.

I decided to go to Munich again to meet the director of the
White
Masai
film who had meanwhile been to Kenya and met my family in Barsaloi. She said that after a certain initial wariness, she had been treated
well and that eventually had even got to meet my mother-in-law. Mama was an old lady now, but still impressive. She had told her to tell me: ‘Corinne should live to be ninety years old, just like me. She should know that I love her with all my heart, that she is welcome here whenever she wishes and that I would love to see her again before I die’.

When I heard these words, my eyes filled with tears. I suddenly felt intense empathy with the old lady and in that moment I made my decision: I had to see my mother-in-law again and hold her in my arms. I was going back to Africa.

I discussed it with my publishers. Albert, my editor, who had already been to see my family and taken them a copy of the first book,
The White
Masai
, said he would be happy to come with me. ‘That way I’ll get to meet Little Albert,’ he said with a smile. James, my ex-husband’s brother, had actually named his own first son after him, as a gesture of thanks for the publishing house’s generosity.

It was up to me now to tell James what I planned. He has been the link to the rest of the family, not least because he’s the only one who can read and write. But I was tense and nervous as I waited for his reply. Then at the end of May the long-awaited letter arrived telling me how happy he and the rest of the family would be to see me. He said that Mama claimed she had always known that one day she would see me again. She was delighted and even Lketinga had said he wouldn’t make trouble. According to James, everybody he told could hardly believe it and said: ‘Really, Corinne will come once again to our place in Kenya?’

When I read the letter to my daughter she said off the top of her head: ‘You know, Mum, you’re right: you really do have to go back.’ Those were the words I had been praying for, the words I needed. I love my daughter a lot and hoped I would return home with loads of new impressions, stories and photographs to share with her.

For four months I had agonized over whether or not going back was the right thing to do, whether everybody would come out of it okay, but now I was certain. I was certain that everything that had happened since the start of the year was planned to lead up to this reunion.

BOOK: Reunion in Barsaloi
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