Detroiter begins Kenya expedition


Saturday morning storytelling and poetry with teen boys in Kawangware, a slum in Nairobi. They meet every week for Art Club.

As a 30-year-old who chose to move to Detroit from Boston three years ago, I’m constantly asked, with varying degrees of bewilderment, “Why?” The short answer: I want to live in a city that is in the making, rather than one that is already made. While I’m fond of Boston, it’s a city that is overly comfortable in its habits, with little room to re-imagine how things are done.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, the do-it-yourself ethic is not only fueling the city, but creating a space that is nothing less than a laboratory to experiment with new models of what a “successful” city looks like.

Farms next door to public schools and urban art centers? Here is Detroit modeling how the traditional line between “country” and “city” can dissolve. Wealthy loft-dwellers living in the same neighborhood as college students, working class families, single renters, and those staying at a homeless shelter? Here is Detroit offering a small picture of cities that aren’t strictly economically segregated.

In Detroit, it is the movement, the possibilities, and the process that is exciting to me. I came here to learn from it and in whatever way I can, to add my spark to the creative fire.

And this, too, is why I have ventured to Kenya. This East African nation is itself still in the making. The country has yet to celebrate its 50th anniversary and it only just recently approved a brand-new constitution. Demographically, Kenya is disproportionately young: just percent 70% of its citizens are under the age of 30.

In the heart of a Michigan winter, I left for Nairobi, thanks to a Fulbright fellowship that is giving me six months to write and to facilitate writing workshops in Kenya's capital city. One of those workshops is at the University of Nairobi, where college students and I will focus on fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and plays. We'll share experiences with literature from Africa, and especially from Kenya. I also will work with teens through Kwani Trust, which hosts one of the continent's most prominent literary journals. Participants will look critically at what is being said about them in global media, popular culture, and literature. A third workshop will be with youth through The Imagine Company, a nonprofit that marries social entrepreneurship and media.

Along the way, I'll explore how the experiences of creating a new Kenya and creating a new Detroit compare to each other. What can Detroit learn from a young East African nation? How is Detroit understood among the music-loving youth of Nairobi? How might these two different worlds intersect and inform each other?

And then there is the personal side: This is my first big international experience. Am I ready for it? What will it be like to be a constant, consistent outsider? How will I manage having so many of my assumptions about my identity and the broader world disassembled? Will “Teach Yourself Swahili” be of any use? Can I connect to people over so many cultural divides? What will people assume of this Detroiter, and how will they be right, and how will they be wrong? What if I get sick? How do I balance my desire to stay connected with the people I love in the U.S. with my desire to be immersed in life in Nairobi?

I don't know. It's a risk. It's time to step forward, and see.

This article was published in the January 30, 2011 edition of The Detroit Free Press. Reprinted with permission.