W. Kamau Bell is having an identity crisis. And — like much of what happens to the comedian and TV host these days — it is happening on camera.
Sitting in a small restaurant in Nairobi digging into deep-fried tilapia served with tomatoes and spices, Bell says: “What does it mean to be a black American? I’ve fought hard to claim this identity. It’s exhausting. Am I ready to start with a new one? I don’t know yet.”
Bell’s lunch companion is Anthony Bourdain, and the pair have traveled to Kenya to shoot what turned out to be one of the last episodes of the acclaimed chef and travel documentarian’s award-winning CNN series, Parts Unknown. It was shot on location in February, and Bourdain died on June 8.
Bell had never visited Africa, let alone Kenya, but his first name is Kenyan, a result of his parents’ embracing African culture in East Palo Alto in the early 1970s, and he is wrestling with the knowledge that African Americans sometimes go to the continent “looking for the Motherland.” “I don’t want to feel like I’ve come home,” he says, drawing out the word ‘home’ with a characteristic comedic flourish.
The episode, which airs on Sunday Sept. 23, is jam-packed with the the sights and flavors of Kenya, but it is far from being a top-notes only travel show. The pair talk to local residents about the country’s growth and economic challenges, as well as Kenyans’ continual fight for self-definition. They take a wild ride on a hopping Matatu party bus, visit a boxing academy for young women, travel to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and visit with a Maasai community engaged in conservation.
Bourdain narrates the episode — the last full one he did — and had clearly decided, as executive producer, to make it a story about Bell’s discovery of the country as much as his own. But it was only when Bell watched the edited cut that he realized this. He says he was touched by the choice, not least since he didn’t know Bourdain that well.
They met at the Emmy awards in 2017. Bourdain sought Bell out, and Bell’s wife, Melissa Hudson Bell, snapped a photo of the two of them.
“If I have to be the awkward guy chewing on an eyeball I’ll be
— W. Kamau Bell
“The first time he saw me he said we should do something together,” said Bell this week. Bell had long been a fan of the chef and his work and says when he signed with CNN to make his own show — when we spoke, he was in Philadelphia shooting season four of United Shades of America — he did so reassured by the knowledge the station was backing such high-quality programming.
Bell said he doesn’t want to overstate the friendship he had with Bourdain, however, as it was still “budding” when they went to Kenya. But, he added, the chef “gave me so much.”
The episode opens with Bell’s face and lingers on it often as he absorbs the experiences the two share. Most memorable perhaps, is the close-up on Bell when he has just (gamely) popped a stewed goat’s eye into his mouth at one of the many meals that feature in the show. He slowly masticates with an uncomfortable look on his face. But he has no regrets, given who he was doing it for. “If I have to be the awkward guy chewing on an eyeball I’ll be that guy,” he says.
We did film a show together. It was a @PartsUnknownCNN in Kenya. I have no idea what will happen with it now. @Bourdain had been all over Africa but never to Kenya. I had never been to Africa before. It was an incredible way to be there. We even went to Black Panther in Nairobi. pic.twitter.com/PVc8MTidKl
— W. Kamau Bell (@wkamaubell) June 8, 2018
When the show was in the planning stages, Bell pointed the Parts Unknown production company, Zero Point Zero, to Berkeley company Next Adventure whose expertise is curating personalized, conservation-minded safari and wildlife trips to Africa. Bell is friends with Kili McGowan, the company’s managing director, and was sure its thoughtful approach to travel would marry well with Bourdain’s show.
“It was such a great shared opportunity,” said McGowan. Both Bell and Bourdain, whether through the lens of diversity in America, or international food culture, go into experiences with open hearts and minds, she said. “They both have a vulnerability and empathy that draws people into conversations.”
Next Adventure recommended the visit to the Lewa Conservancy. “The transition from the vibrancy and intensity of Nairobi to the tranquility of the conservancy is one of my favorite parts,” said McGowan who accompanied the crew on the shoot.
McGowan was impressed with the skills of the film crew, and there were no hiccups on the shoot. However a key scene — where Bourdain and Bell sit on large cushions looking out over the desert sipping gin and tonics and talking quietly about the trip — was accompanied by some “ominous clouds” rather than the glorious sunset they had hoped for. In the end, though, it turned into something special, said McGowan, because after they wrapped the scene the heavens opened and it rained for three straight months, bringing immense relief to a country blighted by drought. The arrival of the rain was documented in the show and “it worked out in a way that no-one could have envisioned,” said McGowan.
For McGowan, whose parents founded Next Adventure in 1996 while she was in high school, the safari segment is where the episode packs its emotional punch. “It very accurately conveys for me the satisfaction of safaris — there is something very moving about being with big wildlife. They went in with intellectual curiosity and came out with an emotional ‘wow.’ It was bigger than all of us.”
She added that she hoped the show would have a positive impact on the people and communities of Kenya, as well as address some of the issues surrounding ignorance and prejudice around Africa.
Bell echoes McGowan when he says he is very happy that the shoot took in a variety of locations, as it helped him to get a better sense of the country.
At several junctures, Bell mentions his ‘hometown’ of Oakland, even though at one point early in the episode Bourdain says, “this ain’t Berkeley” when talking about what Bell will make of Africa. Asked to clarify the confusion — the comedian has lived in Berkeley for several years — Bell confirms he and his family recently moved from downtown Berkeley to Oakland. “I knew you were going to ask me that question,” he laughed.
Bell admits he traveled to Kenya with some trepidation. Kenyans he met, he said, were excited to meet him and several said “welcome home… what took you so long?” It might take a while for him to come up with an answer to that question. Bourdain himself suggested it would take Bell months to process his experience — and he suggested they plan a quid pro quo and that he would make an appearance on Bell’s TV show. Sadly, that will now never happen.