Thoughts from George Rosen
September 26, 2013 Leave a comment
The seed of “A Good White Hunter” was seeing, forty years ago on a side street of a small Kenyan town, a man—an obviously unhappy man, wearing that grim look people wear when they’re doing work they don’t like, for a person they don’t like, for money they need to have. He was loading or unloading something from a Land Rover; you couldn’t tell which because he was in a moment of stasis, just staring at some shapeless sacks.
He was unshaven, dressed in a sleeveless undershirt and khaki pants, stained like all cloth in that part of the country, with the red laterite dust of the roads. The remarkable thing about him, what made him much later (I’m not the world’s fastest fiction writer) turn into a story, was that he was an mzungu, a “European” as they say, with cultural accuracy, in East African English: a white man. I spent two years teaching high school in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, and he was the only European—an Englishman, I guessed, I imagined, not hearing him speak—I ever saw doing menial labor for somebody else, in his case an Indian store-owner next to whose storage godown he was standing.
This certainly was not what the British colonial regime had intended. Nor was it anything typical of the then newly independent Kenya, where in a few parts of the country—particularly in the richly soiled, fertile areas of the “White Highlands” that had been kept off limits to native Kenyans by the colonial rulers—there were still several thousand British farmers, prosperous men and women you could sometime see walking down a small-town street with a servant staying cautiously a few steps behind.
So I wondered how it had happened, how it had come to pass for this one guy contemplating those sacks of, who knows, those sacks of something. There was, of course, a “real” story, one I didn’t know. If I’d been braver or more obliviously curious, I might have just walked up and asked him. But I didn’t, and it’s inside such fortuitous, sometimes intentional, ignorance that a storyteller’s imagination often starts to work. What I saw then, and it took me twenty years to figure out, was the Atherton of “A Good White Hunter,” a traveler who maybe was, or maybe not, going to make it home.
George Rosen is the author of the novel Black Money (Scarborough House, 1990) and the story collection The Immanence of God in the Tropics (Leapfrog Press, 2012), which includes “A Good White Hunter” and other tales of East Africa.