Neil Shea

writer

Writing the Future

Dispatches from Kenya, August 2013


Some faces you remember, like seasons, for the story they offered. Not always true, not always real, but beyond image or the geometry of attraction our eye moves toward stories, possibilities. We fill in details without thinking.

I met this girl at a crossroads in the Somali section of a refugee camp in northern Kenya. It was late afternoon, Randy Olson was photographing, I was talking with people. All around us the rush of commerce and homecoming. Women at butcher stalls sliced rubber-band strands of camel tendon and slapped onto scales wet chunks of camel heart. Customers browsed and bartered, waving at squalls of flies. In the street dust boys chased a sunken soccer ball, kicking through traffic, bicycles and mopeds, pushcarts and piles of donkey shit. A waist-high boy wearing a skullcap approached, looked me over, and then drew his finger across his throat, as though our places were assured in some new-old story.

She stood apart, adrift, floating. She stared at me in silence for a long time, ignored the other swarming children. She looked only, and in her face I saw this sense, so easy to lose, of wonder.

It was hard not to imagine the life awaiting her. Already she was dressed for it, wearing the ghost-cloak. Probably she was born in the camp; perhaps she would forever live there. I had met many others who’d already spent a decade inside it, unable to return home or without another concept of home. I looked forward and saw the girl’s wonder fading, crushed by culture until one day it vanished. A light extinguished. The details came easily. I’d seen it before, hadn’t I, in many other countries? Don’t we know how this one goes? Ahead is a blade, then adulthood. We all shake our heads.

After a few minutes I snapped out of it. On the street a butcher-woman was smiling, asking me to step away from her stall; I was discouraging customers. Children still swarmed, small hands petting the burned-blonde hair on my arm and reaching into my pockets. The girl was gone. I laughed. How eager I had been to write the future.