This episode contains so much of what people have loved about Bourdain since his first show aired — as something of an experiment — almost 17 years ago.
What began as a guy going to places to eat unexpected foods evolved into shows about food and culture, and ultimately became a series of informative cinematic essays about places and their people at poignant moments in history. In Kenya, you get it all of that (with a side of goat head soup).
You’ll laugh and you’ll cry, but you’ll also learn something about a place you probably never gave much thought to before.
Sorry, Tony, but that’s what all foreign correspondents aspire to. Few of them reach it. But you did.
“This is decidedly not a s—hole,” Bourdain says early in the show, in that familiar tone that seamlessly places the viewer in the American moment. “There are poor people here just like there’s poor people anywhere else. Kenya is as distinct and different from other nations in Africa as Texas is from Mars.”
His companion in Kenya is the comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America,” W. Kamau Bell, who looks to be the next in this line of “human correspondents.” I only hope there are more chances for us to see Bell in other countries – out of his element but being himself.
In one sequence, Bourdain explores the African trade in secondhand clothing and its impact on the local textile industry. Under threat of U.S. sanctions for not engaging in free trade, Kenya and other nations on the continent began importing tons of used clothes each year, turning the trade into a billion-dollar industry. Seventy percent of Africans wear secondhand clothes, we learn.
A local businesswoman explains the impact this has on people’s dignity, explaining that many Kenyans even wear used underwear, to which Bourdain deadpans, “Well, there’s a big market for that in Japan.”
Bourdain narrates over a short animation about the issue, and then suddenly there we are in the market with him and Bell, trying on pairs of slightly used Vans and old concert T-shirts.
The two of them go there and step into other people’s shoes, in this case literally, and teach viewers something about the world they didn’t know before.
That’s what resonates about Bourdain’s shows, and it’s exactly what’s missing from most news coverage. Especially on television, and especially from beyond our borders.
Escaping cliched story lines, we’ve learned from watching Bourdain, is easier than television news usually makes it look.
The best television correspondents don’t just go somewhere and then tell you about it. They show up, they ask questions, and they listen. What’s striking about Bourdain is that he was always ready to have his assumptions overturned. That’s good journalism. It’s why people from all over the world believe that Bourdain gave them a voice.
Bell is doing that, too, with his show. In his appearance on “Parts Unknown,” we experience his wide-eyed wonder at many situations he encountered in Kenya — drinking fresh cow blood, for example — as well as the personal questions about race and identity that he explores.
Both men have devoted followings because they never treat us — viewers and the people they’re interacting with on screen — like idiots. That’s refreshing, but it shouldn’t be so rare.
I’m biased, because Bourdain was my friend. But since his death, the importance of his work becomes clearer all the time. More than three months after his suicide, the shared sense of loss remains palpable across the widest imaginable spectrum of communities — in America, around the world and across different professions.
Toward the end of the episode, after experiencing Kenya’s urban and tribal life, as well as its breathless natural beauty, Bourdain and Bell reflect on how lucky they are to have the jobs they do. “Forty-four years old, dunking fries, I knew with absolute certainty that I’d never, ever, ever see Rome, let alone this,” Bourdain tells his new friend. He loved what he did, and because it came to him after a lifetime of struggle, he savored it even more.
The episode closes with a self-aware soliloquy from Bourdain that reveals a truth that TV journalism almost never does: acknowledgment of its own limited scope.
“Who gets to tell the stories? The question gets asked often. The answer in this case is, for better or for worse, I do. At least this time out. I do my best. I look. I listen. But in the end I know, it’s my story. Not Kamau’s. Not Kenya’s or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.”
Maybe, but you’ve given them all a good head start.