Earlier this month, I met a fellow traveler who in 1988 made a journey of sorts to Kenya. We had never met before, though of course I knew who he was-- who doesn't?
In 1988, each of us had a different reason to go to Kenya: On his first trip there, President Obama went to meet family and to better understand his father, whom he scarcely knew. Obama's parents divorced when he was only a toddler and by the age of twenty-seven, his heritage-seeking, self-knowledge pursuit was an earnest attempt at putting together pieces of his personal history. In Kenya, Obama met with a half-sister, and aunt, and other family members, all members of the Luo tribe.
That same year, I, too, took time away from my life and dove deep into Kenya. My trip did not begin with any goal of determining my history, or connecting with relatives. As a matter of fact, I don't know if I have a single living relative outside of the United States. Maybe that is part of my wanderlust, the opposite side of the pilgramages so many Americans take. Maybe I became restless to travel because everything that defined me in a historical sense was within arms's reach?
The president and I share a longing for knowledge, for understanding. His reasons to go to Kenya speak to his desire to understand himself via a bloodline that took him all the way to Africa. My reasons have more to do with how the benign stagnation of privileged American life-- an excess of convenience and access-- made me long for a connection to humanity in a place where convenience wasn't much of a factor in day-to-day life.
I wanted to see what medicine looked like when it didn't come in child-proof bottles. I wanted to touch a drum that wasn't kept in a climate-controlled studio. I wanted to sleep under a limitless sky with the sounds of baboons howling in the distance. I wanted to have something significant to worry about, like malaria, not like finding the lowest price for a tank of gas. I needed to understand that my experience, though a human one, was but one way to live, and humanity persevered in more ways than in my luck-of-the-draw life.
In the end, I guess the president and I wanted the same thing: to flesh out our humanity and to know who we were in a broader exploration and experience of the world. And on the veritable eve of the publication of my book, meeting Obama knowing the coincidence of our Kenyan pursuits went beyond what was already a tremendous honor: It connected me to my own history in a new and deeper way, and further inspired me to continue my pursuit of justice, self-knowledge, and creating.