I was twenty-three when I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Kajiado, a vast district of arid and semi-arid savanna in southern Kenya. A backwater since colonial days, Kajiado was notable for the people and wildlife surviving on its savanna, the replenishing lake of sodium carbonate at Magadi, and Kenya’s share of Mount Kilimanjaro (the summit was across the border in Tanzania). I came to Kajiado to teach about health, but helping people proved harder than I expected, and for six months I felt guilty, frustrated, and very lonely.
In the evenings I took long walks. I’d never lived in such an open place. Grassy ridges rose and fell like ocean swells. Clouds towered over brown hills. A steady wind blew from the east. I could see the horizon in every direction but rarely saw another person. Sometimes, when the air was particularly clear and I was in a certain mood, the long horizon touched a longer horizon, and I’d think, One day I’ll be even more alone than this. I visualized darkness dropping across the sky like a curtain on a stage. I thought that if I could imagine death—a condition lonelier than my own—I could appreciate what I had. And if I could appreciate, I could be happy.
My only experience with imminent death had been inconclusive. I was fifteen and naked. I had a severe asthma attack in the shower. Until I stopped breathing, I’d never appreciated how the world penetrated me. Being unable to breathe was like looking out an airplane window. Everything in the world was far away, inaccessible, and vaguely exotic: the plastic shower curtain, the peach-colored tiles, the harsh light bouncing off the mirrors, even my fist as I pounded the door. Trying to shout, I made fish-like gasps. My cries seemed muffled, as if by a pane of glass, as did my father’s voice when he came in and screamed for my mother to call an ambulance. Even fear was sealed outside the airplane window. The only fear was in my father’s voice. I thought, So this is dying. Then I drew a breath. As soon as knew I’d live, I felt ashamed for my father to see my nakedness. But I felt even more ashamed to see his: the stunning vulnerability of his panic-stricken love.
My dad was an Episcopal priest at a church in Petersburg, Virginia, where we’d moved in 1990. It was a backwater by then, but it had once been a major tobacco port and railroad hub. In the Civil War, it had been the strategic gateway to the Confederate capital in Richmond. Over the course of a nine-month Union siege, both sides built entrenchments so complex, defended with weapons so deadly, historians consider Petersburg to be the birthplace of modern trench warfare. Eighty-five thousand soldiers died before Petersburg fell. The Civil War ended a week later.
They rebuilt the ruined city, but over the next century Petersburg gradually declined. In the early ’70s, desegregation finished the city off. Middle class white families moved to suburbs that prospered as Petersburg withered. After losing its white children in the ’70s, Petersburg lost its industrial base in the ’80s when Brown & Williamson Tobacco moved to Macon seeking cheaper labor. The city lost its retail base in the early ’90s, just as my family arrived, when Southpark Mall opened just outside the city limits. In a few years Sears, Woolworth’s, Bradlee’s, K-Mart, J.C. Penney, Thalhimer’s, and an entire mall, all a bike-ride from my house, went bankrupt or moved to Colonial Heights.
Not that I cared about the political, social, and economic forces shaping my city. I had no interest in history. All I knew was that I lived in a landscape of bricked-up buildings, bad schools, and very few kids, at least few white kids.
I’d never had much faith in god. I can remember making a conscious choice to believe in heaven when we were still living in Richmond. I was nine years old, at most, old enough to think about death, and decide that any alternative to an eternal afterlife was simply too bleak to consider. I stopped believing in heaven around the same time I stopped breathing in the shower. Crouching naked in the bathtub, more alone than I had ever been, I’d had no sense of going anywhere, good or bad, and a very definite sense of leaving.
Without religion, the aftermath of death became an inconceivable lack. In college, my experiences with hallucinogenic drugs suggested an existence deeper, more beautiful, and more meaningful than what was apparent on the everyday surface. But when I tried, sober, to appreciate the world’s richness all the time and thus feel lucky to be alive and thus feel happy, I felt trapped in a Petersburg of the mind. I couldn’t see past a landscape that was manufactured, disposable, and ugly: asphalt parking lots, vinyl siding, Styrofoam cups. I became convinced it was impossible to live meaningfully in America. So I applied to the Peace Corps.
In Kajiado, I discovered a world where people still carried swords and used oil lamps, lived in houses made of rough stone, followed dusty footpaths across thorny gullies and ridges of windswept grass. I was sure that this was where I was meant to learn to appreciate everything, all the time. I pursued this goal relentlessly. In my free time I read books my father sent me—The Art of Happiness, The Way to Love, The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, The Power of Now. In addition to the usual unhappiness, I now felt like a failure, too. I couldn’t blame Petersburg, or America, or my parents’ divorce. I took long, solitary walks, believing the savanna’s grandeur might force meaning into my life. For six months, I toiled at the work of appreciating. I diligently imagined my own death. I felt guilty, frustrated, and very lonely.
By May, I had to admit I was flagging in my pursuit of happiness. The high school basketball team I coached was absorbing more and more of my attention, and I was ravenously curious about my home. Instead of using my journal to record detailed explications of my isolated thoughts and feelings so I could pick them apart, understand them, and fix them, I was filling it with descriptions of the places I visited, the people I met, and the things I was learning about Kajiado’s history.
One day I rode my bike to the old civil station that the British had built on a hill near town, the remnants of the greatest empire in history. I passed the whitewashed buildings that were now the offices and homes of government officials, turned behind the old, one-story hospital (still the region’s only hospital) and stopped at a grassy slope that fell to a dry streambed. Beyond the valley there was a ridge I wanted to explore, overlooking the railroad line that carried black cars of soda ash from the inexhaustible source at Magadi to the port at Mombasa. Above the ridge were the cheerful humps of the Olemolepo Hills, and above them, the summit of Ol Donyo Orok, Black Mountain, which marked the border with Tanzania.
One thing was out of place in this wild scene. Farther along the grassy slope was an enormous geometric shape. Curious, I rode toward it, bouncing over tussocks until I was abruptly rolling on a smooth gravel drive that ended at a freshly painted iron fence. Inside the fence was a raked gravel yard and rows of tombstones. Beside the gate, a historical marker offered a very brief synopsis of World War I in East Africa. In the 1890s, Germany and Britain divvied up East Africa by drawing a line from the Indian Ocean through Kilimanjaro and the Maasai savanna. When the countries declared war in 1914, they conscripted local people into little armies and sent them to kill each other along the border. The soldiers buried here were British citizens who’d fought with the conscripts. Visitors wanting a key to the gate should call the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Nairobi.
I was curious about the cemetery, but more curious about something else: why British soldiers had been sent here at great expense to die so far from the trenches of the European front. As far as I could tell, there’d been nothing of strategic importance in East Africa. But the gate was locked, the sun was setting, and I still wanted to explore the land beyond. So I rode across the valley, climbed the ridge, and left my bike by a little house at the base of a hill near a curve in the tracks. At the peak of the hill, I was surprised to find a broken marble obelisk. Its inscription was illegible, but when I came down, I met an old man sitting outside the little house. His name was Francis Ole Risa, and he was eighty-four years old. He said the Magadi Soda Company had erected the obelisk in 1914 to celebrate the completion of the tracks. I learned later that the company had harvested soda ash reliably and profitably for ninety years until it was sold to the Tata, the Indian conglomerate, in 2005.
I didn’t return to the cemetery for a few weeks. But on May 31, I decided to honor something I’d done with my father one year before, when I was out of college and living at home in Petersburg for the first time since high school. I’d been reading on the porch one afternoon, reliving the countless summer days I’d killed in exactly this fashion, when my dad interrupted me to ask if I wanted to check out a Civil War cemetery behind the old Union lines. It was Memorial Day, and we had plans to attend a cookout, but he thought we could squeeze in a quick visit.
So my father and I drove down Flank Road and turned onto a pebbled drive lined with pines. Beyond a gate in a brick wall we found a well-tended lawn and 6,700 marble tombstones, almost all nameless. It was a Union cemetery in Virginia, so my father and I were the only people there. We soon parted ways among the rows. I walked past stone after stone, listening to birdsong and rustling leaves, failing to imagine the young men around me. They came from New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont. I searched for clues on what to feel. Beyond the wall, I could see plowed fields. I didn’t know anything about farming, and I didn’t know anything about fighting. War and cultivation were as opaque to me as death. I desperately wanted to appreciate this time with my father. It seemed like the kind of moment I should have big feelings about. It was the sort of thing fathers and sons did in books before the son went away. My dad’s dad had died when he was twelve, and I never wanted to take a single day with my father for granted. But I’d had no idea how to feel or what to think as I stood with my father in the field of dead young men.
In Kenya one year later, I walked the rows and counted twenty-six stones: C. Scott, East African Mounted Rifles, age 20; W. E. McLaren, South African Infantry, age 21; Barton James Platt Mawdsley, 17th Indian Cavalry, age 22. They’d come from Newport, Glasgow, Pietermaritzburg, Chelsea. They’d lain in thorns behind machine guns, hauled gunboats to landlocked lakes, shot giraffes that walked into telegraph wires: for a railroad that would remain no matter which side won, hauling its ash through every alternative of history.
I thought of twenty-six mothers in coal towns, seaports, and farmsteads, who surely never visited these graves on the savanna. And I considered the twenty-six fathers, who did not hold their sons at their last breath. And I kept company with the sons: who knew nothing but this white valley and the brown hills beyond. And surely, the lack I always felt was in me as I stood in that field of dead young men. But I was thinking of other things. I was watching the grass outside the palings’ ripple: one vast exhalation, then another.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.