An African Out in the World

An African Out in the World


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In the style I was wearing the hair was parted into platted sections and then black

raffia fiber . . . was wrapped on each plat together with extensions wrought from

thick black string.  The result was many spiky, stiff, long antennae all over the head. 



An African Out in the World Or When I was a Tennis Player

By Betty Wamalwa Muragori


I was standing on a tennis court playing in the finals of my first tournament in Britain.  It was a time of many firsts for me.  It was the first time I had left the boarders of my country and the first time I had flown on a plane.  Ok it was the finals of the plate event, for those of you who may not know what this means, the plate is for those who loose in the first round of a tennis tournament. And yes that means I had lost in the first round but I have some mitigating circumstances as my excuse so hear me out. 

The trip had started with a great deal of excitement.  It had become the tradition in our school for the top tennis players to make their grand British tour, playing tournaments to test their ability and their dreams.    Were we as great as we thought we were? Could we actually compete with the best in the world?  Did we really want to become career tennis players? These were the questions we went to test.  Playing in Nairobi, it was easy to believe our own hype and we were encouraged to think that we could compete with the best in the world.  It wasn’t rare for many of us to make claims that we could beat Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert-Lloyd if we were only given a chance, when interviewed by the media. 

It took just my first tournament to accept the gap between me and the rest of the world.  It was a large lake.

Getting to Britain

But before I continue with the events on the court let me tell you about the eventful journey that took me to that court.  My parents walked me to the door of the plane.  Remember when people did this?  Flying in an airplane was still a big deal, a marvel to be discussed for many moons by those left behind.  And for us back then going abroad still meant going to Britain our former colonial ruler.  The clinical cold efficiency of today’s airports with their fixation on security was an unimagined nightmare still a long way away. 

In Nairobi we still had the old airport that had been built in homage to a village where everyone knew one another.  It was built to honour relationships and public displays of love.  The actual buildings looked more like a series of barns that housed cattle.  Departure and arrival scenes were multihued affairs.  They featured a range of villages from different parts of the country, all assembled at the same time, in this one place, to see off their relatives and friends and to welcome returning ones. I recall a riot of colourful dress, a range of facial features, different ages from new born babes to old grandparents, many languages all spoken in high excitement.

One person would on average have 20 people seeing them off or welcoming them. You could always tell who the traveler was because of their shiny new clothes.  That was another thing about air travel in those days, people got dressed to fly.  I was dressed in brand new clothes too.  Bell bottom trousers that swept the floor and platform shoes that made me 5ft 8in. adding four inches to the height recorded in the passport.   This height differential was going to be questioned later on in this eventful journey.

The departure and arrival routine seemed to have been agreed.  Much singing, a few speeches and the mandatory lengthy prayer said by a woman who always looked like she came from an unchanged place in time.  I imagined her at home in 1862 just as she was that day in 1976, just dressed differently.  The matriarch of the clan, large and buxom or thin and angular, it was she who carried the wisdom of the ages in her lined face.  She always looked to me as though she had a special direct line to God and that her prayers were promptly answered.

Lost in a Foreign Land

I was traveling with one other girl who was part of the tennis team.  The rest of the team was to come later as they were still doing their end term exams and would travel a week later.  I got onto the plane and the enormity of the journey I had undertaken struck me silent.  My friend and I were separated and I was left alone with my terror of being found out.  You must understand that I was a teenager, seventeen years old and in the grip of the need to know “things”, or to look like I knew “things”.  What those things were was immaterial, I just had a desperate need to look like I knew.  So my terror on that flight revolved around the thought that soon everyone would know I had never flown in a plane and my demeanor of cool would be exposed as fraudulent.

My friend had flown before so she knew her way around airplanes, and we had agreed that she would cover up my ignorance.  So I was aghast and almost wept when I realized we would not be sitting together.  I withdrew into a fear so intense it shrunk me into a small point inside my head.  The seat seemed to grow in direct dis-proportion leaving me feeling as though I was stuck in a bucket.  My first moment of humiliation was being helped with my seat belt by my neighbour a man of oriental extraction.  After that I was too scared to even go to the bathroom.  But real travails were about to start, making these ones I had made up look, made up!  

We arrived in France only to find that there was need for a transit visa to go from one airport to another and I did not have one.  Once again my friend was ahead of the game, as she had her visa.  She left and I was now stranded in a foreign land which spoke a language I did not know.  I could not find out how and where I could get a transit visa because everyone I approached declared with some haughtiness in English that they could not speak English.  After about two hours of wandering around the airport and getting no help, I stood in one place in the airport and openly started to cry.  I was scared and I was through with the cover-up.  The tears prompted a woman to come to my aid. 

At last I was sitting on the flight on my way to Britain.  I had made it out of France. 

I arrived at Heathrow airport and stood on the queue in a state of simmering panic.  Half an hour before we were due to land, I had realized I did not have my passport.  My turn on the queue came.  The immigration officer looked at me and asked for my passport, and I burst out crying.  I told him I didn’t have it and regaled him with the story of my French adventures and how I had left my passport at an airport in France, either Charles de Gaulle or Orly.  It turned out that he was formerly from Kenya and was fatherly and sweet.  He let me into Britain on some temporary papers. 

Later on my passport was found and delivered to me in Britain so that I had it by the time I was ready to leave.  I made sure that I only told my parents this part of my adventures when I was safely home and even then they freaked out and I had to calm them by reminding them that it had all ended well as I was clearly safe and sound.  This particular episode of my first trip abroad is truly astounding in a world that has become so paranoid.  I often wonder if I would be languishing somewhere in an unknown detention centre if I lost my passport today.

A Detour into an African Hairstyle

So back to the court.  I was playing a tall girl from New Zealand.  She was traveling with her mother who watched her every match.  Early in my tennis career I had forbidden my parents from watching me play.  The reasons are lost in time but the regret still lingers.  My parents watched me playing tennis but three or four times.  As a child I wanted my sporting life to be my world apart from my family.  I regretted this decision from time to time when I had lost a match and started looking for my Dad to cry into his arms.  Instead I had to be stoic and take my defeats as graciously as I took my victories. 

The match with the New Zealand girl was tight.  We were a set even and it was two all in the third set, when that girl whose name I have forgotten walked off the court to talk to her mother.  The score in that game was fifteen all and I was serving.  I looked at her with some surprise as she took her time talking to her mother. 

But it really wasn’t her fault.  I know she had me pictured as a cute, sweet, little African girl who would never stand up to anything.  Actually I had purposefully created that impression by how I looked.  I wore my hair in a hairstyle that was instrumental in creating that impression.  In those days we took advantage of the limitless styling options that is African hair.  Mass chemical hair straightening was at least a decade away and our reference point was still the hair styling inventions of the continent.

As I write this I realize how difficult it is to describe some African hairstyles.  Ok let me give it a go.  In the style I was wearing the hair was parted into platted sections and then black raffia fiber (what is raffia? sorry you need to see it to understand it) was wrapped on each plat together with extensions wrought from thick black string.  The result was many spiky, stiff, long antennae all over the head.  These were then curled into either tight or loose corkscrews and shaped into a myriad of styles.  If you can’t picture the hairstyle too bad, it’s a black thing.

So I looked like a cross between a space being and a cute poodle.  It could all backfire though and you could end up being treated like a poodle.  Susan, my long term tennis partner who was playing in junior Wimbledon that year, got fed up at the success of her hair style in getting attention from everybody.  She didn’t mind that the likes of Arthur Ashe paid her attention, but the problem was that many others treated her like the latest adorable puppy.  She pulled her hairstyle out of her hair.  Then she complained because she was then ignored for being ordinary.

Discovering the Steel in Me

The nameless girl from New Zealand and her mother had oohed and ahhed over my hair before the start of the match.  And I had smiled sweetly through it all.  Looking harmless was a finely honed strategy that we African tennis playing girls had effected back home when we found ourselves playing a game in which Africans were disproportionately

un-represented.  In the beginning we benefited from people’s meager expectations of our abilities.  At home we were long busted, but here in foreign lands other people’s myths about us played right into our hands.  In many cases you could win at least three games before your opponent twigged.

I watched the girl from New Zealand talk to her mother as I waited to serve.  It was fifteen all, remember?   She took her time and they might have even laughed a little.  And then I spoke, I said,

“If you don’t get back onto the court right now, I will serve.”

She turned and looked at me briefly and went back to her conversation with her mother.  She, was calling my bluff.  And I, was becoming more and more resolute and controlled by the moment.  With no further warning, I served.  Fuelled by my quiet resolve, the first serve was perfect, hard and angling sharply to the right.  The ball went in, bouncing onto the back of the fence with no one to return it.

“30/15” I called out.

The girl screamed, and must have said something like.

“What are you doing?” in a state of distress.

I was cold, efficient and purposeful now.  I did not reply.  Instead I walked to the other side of the court and served perfectly again to an empty court. 

“40/15” I replied.

The girl from New Zealand ran onto the court.  She knew she had no redress because she was not supposed to go off and interrupt play in the middle of a game.  She was engaged in audacious gamesmanship and I was going to make her pay.

She was almost crying when she got onto the court and into position.  Needless to say she was now a basket case and no match for my growing confidence and my determination.  In my years of playing tennis this match stands out for me.  It was then that I found out that I am in fact made of steel.

Winning from Perspective

The next day we started playing in the next tournament in a new town.  I don’t remember the name of the town except that it had a poetic name.  In this tournament I managed to do much better, I lost in the fourth round.  Before I was knocked out I played a match of epic proportions.  My opponent was a waif like girl with long blondish brown hair.  She was thin and I took one look at her and dismissed her straight away, I knew I was getting to the next round.  What did I look like you might ask, identical, waif like, thin, with corkscrews for a hairstyle.  But I knew I was strong. 

I was used to winning and had been rather traumatized by loosing in the first round in my first tournament.  I won the first set easily enough.  The waif like girl won the next set and I put it down to bad luck.  We were playing on grass and there really was a lot of chance involved.  You were lucky to receive a true bounce.  The uneven nature of the grass meant that you never knew where the ball was going to bounce or how it was going to bounce.  And even when the bounce was true it was low and fast.  Soon after the match started I realized that being careful was going to get me nowhere and that I might as well play full out.  And that is what I did. 

The waif girl and I were hitting and playing magical tennis and because I was labouring under the perspective that she was no good I never recognized the magnificence of her strokes.  Every time she returned a particularly excellent ball that I had expected to be a winner I thought “Fluke!”  I would then proceed to tighten the angle of the next ball or hit that serve harder or the volley deeper.  We were both soon playing amazing tennis and a crowd gathered to watch us.  I won the third and final set and my coach and the rest of the team ran onto the court celebrating loudly.  I looked at them in shock as they informed me that I had just beaten one of the best junior players on that circuit, and the girl who was the runner up in the Queens tournament, the previous one in which I had won in the plate.

Not Sharing Bath Water

1976 was a hot summer in Britain.  In fact they were calling it the hottest summer for many decades and warning of a looming drought, something I was very familiar with.  The British had instituted a range of measures to deal with the threatening water shortage.  There was to be no watering of lawns or gardens, no washing of cars and no general misuse of water.  One of the more curious things was that people were being asked to share bath water.  My team was made of two African girls, two girls of Asian extraction, two girls of European origin and an English coach.  All except the coach were Kenyan.  To make the trip affordable we were housed by volunteer British families free of charge.  Our team decided to do its bit towards the water saving effort by sharing our bath water. 

This well meaning gesture soon opened the race lines wide.  None of the other girls of extraction other than African would use the bath water after an African girl had bathed first.  My African compatriot and I were aghast at this new racial frontier that we had never encountered.  We did not know what to say to these girls who were our friends.  A gap of silence soon festered.  To get our revenge we plotted between the two of us to always take baths first.  And then made concerned remarks about the need to conserve water when we heard the others letting out our bath water, knowing that they were too embarrassed to respond to our wicked teasing.

That trip to Britain was one of my most memorable experiences.  I had many more adventures which I will keep for another day.  But this I am sure of, I set out a shy unexposed African child and came back home a confident young woman who knew what she was about and could negotiate her way in the world with ease.  At the airport on my departure from Britain, a different customs officer queried my unstamped passport and my height. I was still wearing my platform shoes.  I was unfazed, I explained the passport saga without drama and then I lifted the trousers and showed him the heels that gave me my height, and we both had a good laugh.

posted 18 July 2007

Betty Wamalwa Muragori is especially interested in how Africans are constructing new identities as they redefine their place in the world.  She believes in the power of words.  She has a BSc degree from the University of Nairobi and MA in Environment from Clark University in Worcester Mass. USA.  Currently Betty works for an international conservation organization in Nairobi, Kenya. 

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update 19 June 2012




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