I’ve learned I can simultaneously expand with wonder and implode with despair. It’s a hard thing, working in a beautiful place and knowing it’s degraded, its soils are crumbling, rolling into the lake, leaving scars of absence. It’s also a hard thing to be degraded, to be regarded either too hard or too little, so like the soil you run away and scars mark your retreat.

Walking back to my tent-room after tracking down documents, I’m greeted by a man who shakes my hand and then refuses to let go, he grips harder and I yank away and shuddering, hurry off. He knows exactly to where and I don’t like that. I have to work, or I don’t have to but I want to, we’re trying to do the right thing and write a decent, helpful report, but I sit on the edge of the hill and stare out over the lake a bit first. It is beautiful. I know it’s choking.

Gwassi Hills, KenyaSunset over Lake Victoria

At night, we stare out over the water some more. The sunsets are some of the most stunning I’ve seen. I read my book before bed. In the morning, before our tea and toast, we stare out over the water again to see what we’ll see: fishing boats, a smudge of a midge hatch, contrasting currents. I feel a bit more curious and energized. I think about the complex projects that can maybe help restore this place. But then I’m deflated the next time a group of men largely ignore me in a meeting about microloans. The only words for me are: hello, goodbye, and you should stay here and get married.

I prefer the words in my book, or the ones that I myself type, so I huddle back in my tent-room and do some work, or just sit in murk of discontent and unease. I can’t stay inside for long, though; it’s too beautiful.

Suba Tent RoomSunset Grass

With my colleagues I make my way down to the edge of the lake and I leave them for the women’s side of the dock. I’m happier there. I’m showered with smiles and questions and the ladies laugh at my swimming as they wash. They ask me if I’ll come back tomorrow. I wish I were coming back tomorrow. But I’m leaving tomorrow, with the men. Well, I should say there’s one man in particular who holds on too long, who grabs me close, who appraises me, who says things. He’s my boss.

I come back to these hills some weeks later, though, and now we sip tea in the dining area. We met my colleague in Kisumu after flying from Nairobi, after an hour’s drive from where I lived and worked. I was relieved to be with my colleague as we drove and ferried and drove from Kisumu, a buffer from him and the tense hours I’d spent just the two of us in the airport, on the plane. I was shown off to a government minister: look at her! His eyes pierced and I couldn’t avoid them. So now I was back in the hills, sipping my tea, and dissolving quietly, but more calmly, less rapidly than in those anxiety-tinged hours as I forced myself through the motions of politeness as I was subdued, devoured.

Tea Time

We visit gardens and offices and factories. We work on our report. We stare at the lake. I chat with the women. I shy away from the men.

Another Lake Victoria SunsetRed Clouds

One last sunset, and then we walk to dinner. The cook has made me another special vegetarian meal. She is very kind and seems as eager to make new dishes for me, as I am eager to eat her food. I’m eager to talk to her too. I ask her a lot of questions. I have learned a question is a friendly thing and I can’t, sadly, just be friendly because friendly is too much, friendly is dangerous. Except with women, of course. We get it.

Lake Victoria Current

The beauty crowds my emotions, and I feel bad about that because the hills are falling apart and the lake is curdling. I also feel bad for not enjoying myself but I’m curdling too. I’m getting mean. And I’ve learned I can concurrently appreciate and despise, for there are different components to everything. Currents cut through in different shades, they cut through me and they cut through this place. I love it and I am deeply uncomfortable. I’m disturbed and I’m excited.

More has travelled through these ravines by now. They’re six years deeper inside me. I’m sure they’re deeper in the hills too. Sadly.