I never imagined I would find myself singing a Shania Twain love song for an audience of teenage girls in the central highlands of Kenya. But Saturday, in the dark, dark night, on the porch of Sammy’s family’s house, that’s exactly what I did. It was that kind of weekend.
I don’t sing well. And since I don’t sing well, I don’t sing. Except in the privacy of my own car, and since I don’t have a car anymore, I just don’t sing.
My grandmother could sing. My sister can. But my mother’s singing refutes any idea that pouring your heart and soul into something will overcome any deficiency in talent. I take after her.
My friend Sammy had invited Esther, Grace, and I to his family’s home in Siakago, which sounds a lot like “Chicago,” in Kenya’s Eastern Province.
After being welcomed into their home, Sammy had to leave so the three of us decided to take a walk. His four sisters joined us, capitalizing on the opportunity for laughter that accompanied watching me try to forge a natural toothbrush from a stick Grace pulled off a huge shrub. On the way back, Esther decided we should race, so after I beat her, the girls wanted a go. I smugly beat them all, in spite of my chunky hiking boots and full stomach. But by the time they demanded a rematch, I had a stitch and was starting to feel the weight of the huge lunch of rice, meat and potatoes I had just eaten. I pressed on as hard as I could, but I lost time when I had to go around the drunkard ambling down the road. I came in third or fourth, and by the third race I was dead last and had a searing pain in my side. But the experience bonded us. And after that we were great friends.
It was starting to get dark so we sat on the porch talking. Behind me I heard giggles and felt a pair of brave hands shyly touch my ponytail only to pull back when I flinched.
“Can I touch your hair?” the brave one asked.
“Of course.” I scooted back so they could play with my hair.
“It’s soft. Can we braid it?”
Two of them went off in search of rubber bands and a pick, and the next thing I knew I was surrounded and my hair was being parted and picked and moved around and readjusted. In the end I had two braids on each side, pigtail style, and one in the back. My shadow on the concrete steps reminded me of a distant Wendy’s sign along a dark highway.
The overcast sky started to clear only long enough to tease us with a sliver of the starry night that wasn’t reaching us. So the night was dark and quiet.
Almost everywhere I go the get-to-know-you question of choice is “What music do you listen to?” The girls and I discussed music and what we liked. Then I got a request I’ve never gotten before.
“Sing us a song.”
…… “a song?”
“Yeah. Sing a song.”
It was clear from her expression that she was not luring me into a trap of embarrassment, but genuinely wanted me to sing a song.
………. “what kind of song?” I stalled as much as I could.
“Any song you like.”
“What kind of song do you like?” Please God, my god, any god, get me out of this. I can’t sing.
“Sing a love song.” I wasn’t going to get out of this. The others were all content in their conversations, the night was calm, and we were far from any urban distractions like car accidents or fights or disorderly drunkards.
I wasn’t sure how old these girls were, but they seemed young, young enough that I wasn’t going to deny them the pleasure (hm..) of hearing the foreigner sing them a song. (I found out later they were older than they looked).
And of course, the first song that popped into my head was “Hakuna Matata.” Not exactly a love song and quite possibly offensive. Then, I got a total block and could not think of any appropriate song to sing to a couple of innocent teenage girls. The sisters’ sweet expressions and big, shiny brown eyes told me Imma gonna get get get you drunk, get you love drunk off my humps was probably not what they were looking for in a love song.
Then my brain went back in time to the mid-90’s, that sweet decade of my formative years when music taught me not to go chasing waterfalls and how to ride a train.
Sweet sexy thing. Bring that body to me. You know I’m in the mood to make sweet love to you. Probably not the best choice either.
You got me open like a 7 Eleven… No. I would slap me if I sang the songs of my own youth to someone else’s youth.
Nor was the R&B ballad that in junior high gave me quixotic expectations about all the romantic sex I thought I was going to have in high school appropriate in this situation. Throw your clothes, on the floor, I’m gonna take my clothes off too. I made plans to be with you, girl whatever you ask me to do I will do…
I saw no need to set them up for disappointment.
I’ve theorized that when I really don’t want to do something, in spite of willpower my brain just refuses to cooperate.
But then, my mind came to Shania Twain. Why? I have no idea. But I found Shania, and there under the porch light I stared into my Pippy Longstocking shadow as I belted out the first verse of “You’re Still the One.”
Looks like we made it, look how far we’ve come my baby. Might’ve took the long way, we knew we’d get there some day. They said, ‘I bet they’ll never make it’ but just look at us holding on. Still together, still going strong….
Then, something weird happened. They didn’t laugh, and this made me feel really good about myself. Too good. So for what felt like ten minutes but was really more like five seconds, I pretended to be a star. And I got so moved by my own performance that for the first time in a while I thought to myself that it might actually be nice to find somebody to make it somewhere with.
When I’d gotten so full of myself I couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics, one of the girls said, “That’s pretty.”
I’m pretty sure she meant the words, not the execution. If not, it would be the first time a Kenyan has lied to me.
I wasn’t going to be embarrassed alone, so at my request the girls sang a Swahili love song for me. I have no idea what the words meant, but it made me think making love in Swahili wouldn’t be a bad idea.
By the time they’d finished, it was starting to get chilly. We took our shoes off and streamed into the house where we sat on the couches and laughed hysterically for two hours watching “Mind Your Language” on DVD, now friends forever.