The Angels of Nairobi

I have a new catchphrase now: “I have never lost anything of value in Kenya, except for my heart”. The story remains true, and I have added another chapter to it today.

There are many reasons why I fell in love with Kenya, since I first visited Nairobi in 2009. I had mentioned elsewhere on this blog that JKIA (Jomo Kenyatta International Airport) was my first landing point in Africa twenty years ago. I have had a long history with this place, but I am mostly attracted to the friendliness of its people. There are times in Africa when a mzungu* could feel intimidated and afraid, but Kenyans rarely unsettle me in this way. They are in general honest, peace-loving, helpful and genuinely friendly.

I have always enjoyed a laugh with the security guards in our estate. I am on good friendly terms as well with the taxi drivers who regularly help me out with lifts to the airport or when my car breaks down (the latter happens more often than I would like). Almost everyone I work with in the banks, at my coffee station, or the local grocery is helpful, courteous and kind. They offer help most of the time without reservation.

One incident that demonstrates the helpfulness of Kenyans happened to me late last year. I was driving to the aforementioned JKIA to fetch my parents who were coming on their first visit to Kenya (it was also my father’s first visit to Africa). It was dark but not too late at night, and I was happily following the directions of the google navigator. I was perhaps within minutes of arriving when I took the turn to the airport too early, and ended up heading towards the industrial area in bumper to bumper traffic. The google navigator went ominously silent and completely stopped making any route suggestions. There was a dark screen showing a dotted line on the road where I was heading away from the airport. My son beside me started panicking and proclaiming that we were lost, and I was worried that there was nowhere for me to turn around. I was not afraid because the road was full of cars and there was no chance of anything criminal happening to me in such setting. But the time was approaching my parents’ arrival and I needed to act, so I did the only thing I could think of, the African way. I rolled the window down and signaled the passenger from the car next to me that I needed to talk and asked how to get to the airport. The man and his driver/friend smiled and told me that I needed to turn around, I told them I knew that but I did not know how. They tried to explain, and I struggled a bit to follow their directions. They kept watching me and the driver used his indicators to point me to the turnaround route.

It is quite complicated to drive in Nairobi as there are so many parallel routes that run along a main road and offer a chance to turn around, go onto a side street, or to continue on the same main road. After a while of this partially successful navigating their car stopped and they told me to follow them. They ended up leading me to the airport security gates. I took the number of the helpful passenger and promised to stay in touch. A few minutes later, I managed to get to my parents after they cleared customs and collected their bags, they had to wait for me for a bit. Later that evening I also enlisted the help of another kind Kenyan airport worker to point me to the parking pay-station. He earned the price of a cool drink for his trouble.

As for my airport guide, I invited him a few weeks later to have lunch with me and my son. The story ended on a little bit of a sour note when a few days after our meeting he texted me to lend him money for his agriculture project. I told him I would gift him a significantly less amount, and I sent him that to never hear from him again. I still think that my overly obvious gratitude for his original kind deed made him bold enough to ask. If I did not offer that type of gratitude (and the very expensive lunch) he wouldn’t have asked to borrow money. And he did not expect anything in return for helping me that first time. I would like to think that he would have done it anyway. After all I could have just driven away into the airport that evening, never to see him again.

Now getting back to my luck at never losing things in Kenya, I have a few stories to demonstrate it, including my brush with disaster some time ago. But the first incident that set the scene for me and gave me a good feeling about the place happened a few days after my arrival in Nairobi. I was still unsettled and living out of my many suitcases in a guesthouse. My son was trying to adjust to the new school, and we did not have yet our regular routine for daily transport. Sometimes I picked my son up from his nearby school and brought him with me to the office compound, where we had lunch at our cafeteria. We arrived in the rainy season, so we always had some umbrellas and rain jackets with us, but this being Africa means that there are always spells of sunshine even on rainy days. It so happened that my son forgot his rain jacket at the cafeteria one Friday and we only noticed this at the weekend. I thought that I will never see his beloved blue jacket again, but on Monday when I checked for it at the lost and found counter, it was there. And I thought, this is cool, this place is for me. I completely lost track of the number of things I lost and had to discard in New York, yet this place welcomed me by returning to me something that I care about.

Later things like this happened with my son again. Whereas he lost many things at school or at the YMCA in New York, never to be seen again, he always managed to find the things he misplaced at his school in Nairobi.

Today I added another chapter to this saga of lost and found. I walked to a nearby bakery to order donuts for a school party. I withdrew money from the ATM, to pay for the oder, then headed back to the office to have my coffee in the garden. While getting ready to receive my coffee I noticed that my debit card was gone. Surprisingly, and because of my history of being a loskop I did not panic and just went meticulously through my wallet and my hand bag. I still had the receipt from the bakery and I phoned the lady who took my order and explained to her what happened. She said she would look. Meanwhile I retraced my steps out of the compound and back to the bakery. I was sure that I either left it in the ATM machine, or dropped it on the way back. When I arrived at the small shopping mall where the bakery was, the saleslady was already there and told me that she asked the bank. The security guard was there too, and some other people from the bank. Where this would usually unsettle me, I sensed the genuine helpfulness and concern from everyone. I was completely calm through all this. I went methodically again through the contents of my bag and wallet, then I sat on the bench in front of bank machine and the small bank branch and started dialing my overseas bank to cancel my card. The bakery sales lady told me that she informed the bank manager so I did not bother to check with them again. As I was starting to make my phone calls one of the bank employees came out to check the machine, I told her that I had lost my card, and that it might have been retrieved by the machine. She asked me to hold on a bit. A minute or so later I was asked for my passport but the only ID I had on me was my work ID, they accepted that and returned my very same debit card.

I laughed thanking them and said that I always tell everyone that I haven’t lost anything of value in Kenya, except my heart. The bank manager smiled and said: You lost it to someone in Kenya? How sweet ! Yes, I said, although I thought that sweet was something else. Then you haven’t lost it really, she replied, it is with someone, you see?. Perhaps you are right, I answered. But I wished I could believe that.

In the meantime, I send a heartfelt blessing to the angels of Nairobi. Thank you, I feel honoured to be one of you.

 

* Mzungu: Common Kiswhaili word referring to a person of pale complexion or European descent – plural: Wazungu.

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