By Natalie Wyatt
When I met with Lisa Achoki outside of Bingham on a chilly day in early October, she looked perfectly at ease. Bundled up in a large scarf and pea coat, one would be hard pressed to guess that she was from a different climate (and a different continent) altogether. But that is Lisa: an adaptable and driven young woman with an infectious sort of optimism that permeates her wide smile and warm voice. While listening to Lisa’s stories, I wait eagerly during the instances she pauses, fighting for just the right word or phrase; everything she says seems to have the weight of her wisdom in it. I came into our meeting expecting to simply discuss what it means to be a Kenyan at Yale, but was instead privileged to hear about Lisa’s hopes for her homeland’s future and her distinct sense of duty to Kenya, and to Africa, as a whole.
As we settle down to talk in my suite in Welch, it does not take much prompting from me to hear stories of Lisa’s home, Nairobi. Her eyes alight, and a broad grin splashes across her face as she tells me about her neighborhood of Lavington, close to the center of the East African metropolis. Lisa calls it a “faux-burb,” a place with fences portioning off comfortably-sized homes that happen to neighbor a township on one side and the city center on the other. She tells me that much of Nairobi consists of these vast and crowded townships with corrugated tin roofs in rows as far as the eye can see. To Lisa, Nairobi is “vibrant,” the energy in her voice making me wholeheartedly believe her words as she describes the dense markets and the fast pace of life she loves so much. “Well, fast for Africa,” she adds with a laugh, throwing her head of thick braids back.
Although Lisa calls Nairobi home now, in many ways she is a daughter of East Africa as a whole. Having lived in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, her sense of home is vaster than simply the confines of Nairobi. Lisa’s life thus far makes it clear that home is not simply where one has lived the longest. Although she is born of Kenyan parents, Lisa is the sum of her experiences throughout East Africa. When I ask about her past couple years in Nairobi, she leans in as if to tell a secret, remarking, “I haven’t really had the Kenyan experience.” Lisa’s brand of honesty is at once refreshing and charming. She goes on to explain that having attended a boarding school in the region, she has not explored all the various neighborhoods of the city fully, though she admits sheepishly to knowing quite a few good restaurants and malls.
As the conversation moves from her own relationship to Nairobi to her parents’ views of the city, I begin to see where her love and sense of duty towards Kenya, and East Africa, derives from. Lisa explains, “My parents will say ‘Sure you’re going to America, but you better know you’re coming back here.’ ” After listing some of the complaints her parents have with the bureaucracy of every day life in Nairobi, she adds, “If you don’t fix it, who will?” She admits that her father loves to share his opinions of Kenya and East Africa’s economy with her. Again she leans in as if to tell the best sort of secret, “My father says Africa is about to have a boom,” her voice bubbling with excitement. As if to prove his point, she tells me of the time a decade ago, when ATMs were installed throughout Nairobi. However, even that story is tinged with her trademark humor. She delivers the punch line with a grin, “Men were saying ‘You can get money from a wall?’ ”
Although Lisa has no problem sharing humorous stories of Nairobi’s development, she is also quick to address the many stereotypes that western countries, and the United States in particular, have of Africa as primitive or dark. “The jungle isn’t all there is to us,” she remarks matter-of-factly. Looking at her, in a stylish blouse with her hair splayed around her face in braids, that much is evident; she looks like the city girl she so proudly says she is. As if to show the complexity of her home to me, she begins to speak of the ways in which Kenya’s economy could expand in the next decade. Her passion for her country, for Africa and its future, are infectious. When I remark on how proud Lisa seems of her heritage, her dark brown eyes meet mine and she remarks frankly, “Africa is no longer something to be embarrassed about.”
As I listen to Lisa relate stories from her childhood, I cannot help but notice how much she views the region she has grown up in as one larger sort of unit. “We’re all Africans,” she explains to me when I ask about her relationship to the three different countries, and capitals, she has called home. “To me, East Africa is one,” she remarks with a shrug. Whether that is over-simplification or not, I cannot help but be swayed by Lisa’s views of the region, ones that are unabashedly optimistic and inclusive. It occurs to me that I have never heard someone so sure of East Africa’s capabilities as a region; as someone also interested in African development and history, I find her perspective incredibly refreshing.
When we start to talk about the future, about her interests, and about Yale, even then the discussion inevitably moves towards Kenya, and Africa, once more. She explains how she is increasingly interested in studying about Africa at Yale, perhaps becoming an African Studies major or an Economics major with a focus on the growing economies of African countries. “I am starting to realize I am really interested in Kenya,” Lisa confesses. “I owe Africa,” she says, her voice not weighed down with a sense of solemn burden but instead infused with that same passion that permeates all of our discussion.
Lisa’s optimism is infectious. Even in the short hour I listen to her stories of home, I cannot help but hang on eagerly to every word, swayed by her sentiments on the potential of her homeland. Lisa is somehow able to embrace all the stereotypes that many Westerners hold of Africa — remarking at one point that, “Hakuna Matata is a real lifestyle,” with a laugh — while simultaneously proving those very images wrong, making clear that Africa is far more complex than so many people understand. For Lisa, the question is not if she will return to Africa, but when. That sense of duty to Nairobi, to East Africa, and to the continent as a whole, is a fundamental part of her. As an educated and ambitious African woman, Lisa embraces and represents a future for her country that is tinged with optimism. Even when she relates her parents’ stories of Kenya’s bloody fight for independence against colonial rule under the leadership of the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, one can see she feels that those stories are a tumultuous history worth learning but not worth repeating. In Lisa’s mind, Kenya’s trajectory will only be upward.
As Lisa explains her parents’ struggle to get their families’ approval to marry due to being from different tribes, she is able to at once underscore the seriousness of those perceived ethnic divides while also taking a light tone, making clear the faith she has in her country’s ability to be larger than the sum of its conflicts. “All you see on the news about Africa is tragedy, ethnic conflicts, floods,” she says with a shrug, dismissing the narrowness of that view. She jokingly relates to me the very stereotypes that different tribal groups in Kenya have for each other as if to show that these divides are harmless in the face of true Kenyan unity and progress.
It is this unity that Lisa seems to think will ultimately unlock the true potential of Africa and African people. Throughout our hour together the discussion slips back time and time again to Kenya, to East Africa, and away from Lisa and her experiences at Yale. Lisa says she enjoys the African community at Yale and loves the university; however, she seems most excited at the opportunity to talk about her home for an hour. When I ask about her experiences with the lack of focus at Yale, and in the United States, on African history and studies, her response is at once fiercely independent and impossibly tender, imbued with the same powerful insight that is present in so many of her words. “We don’t need the rest of the world,” she says with an unwavering voice. Leaning in, she looks me right in the eyes: “For them to see us, we Africans first need to see each other.”
Natalie Wyatt ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.