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.

South Africa Has a Heart

A couple of good friends of mine started yet another wave of Afro-pessimist discussions. One of them is a former co-worker who moved here from Germany less than a year ago, and another is one of many South Africans who decided that they had enough of this place and moved to a space in the advanced world, where things run predictably and one is more likely to die old in bed than in a violent crime. Both people, I must say, are very near and dear to me and I understand where they are coming from, but I do not feel that they are judging this place fairly.

I would be imitating the official propaganda line if I say that the world has to judge South Africa by where it used to be a few decades ago, with gross inequalities and tension between the races reaching a near-breaking p0int. I would be asking too much of the world perhaps to judge it not by the yardstick of a Europe whose civilization has been in the making for hundreds of year, or by the yardstick of a North America, or Australia who built their civilization after marginalizing and ousting the indigenous peoples.

I ask people to judge South Africa by its heart, by its people.  The people who are the salt of the earth of this country (and this continent) are not the criminals who broke into my flat and lifted my computer, they are not the child rapists,  they are not the corrupt politicians, and they are not the South Africans who criticize and bad-mouth the country with another (western) passport tucked safely into their back pockets. It is everyone else who lives in this place trying to earn an honest living with a smile, no matter how difficult things get.

I have been to Europe and I always get this cold feeling from people around me. They complain and moan if the bus is late, and quickly start huffing and puffing if another person inadvertently blocks their way in a supermarket aisle.  People are so uncharitable and intolerant of others’ mishaps and of small inconveniences.

Here in South Africa, people are tougher, yet in a way this makes them more human. We tolerate being squeezed four abreast in a minibus. We wait patiently when a person wallows in confusion not knowing exactly what item they are looking for in a shop. We greet each other on the road, and we smile. We start making conversations and getting to know someone after we encountered them once or twice at the same place.

People in this country have a lot on their plate. They fight the daily prejudice, and the crime. They try to eke out an existence hampered by daily inconvenience of imperfect services and over-extended public facilities, and yet they persevere, with dignity and with a smile.

A few days ago I was walking towards the V & A Waterfront. Across the road from the Commodore Hotel there is (or was) a bedsitter of sort, or cheap flats.  On that day I saw the people who lived in that bedsitter. They were strewn on the sidewalk along with all their worldly belongings. There were cookers, ancient fridges, bunk beds, appliances, and at least one battered car.  But mostly there were the mattresses and bedrolls, extending from the wall of the property to block the whole sidewalk.

I walked past mostly black and coloured people of varied ages.  I saw one gaunt-looking elderly white woman in blue jeans cuddling an equally ancient dog. These were no bums or homeless beggars. Most wore decent, but old clothes, and some were passing the time by reading. Perhaps there were a few students from out of town among them.  As I walked along I saw a clutch of them further on talking to a policeman in a patrol car, but there was no trouble, rioting or shouting as you would expect under the circumstances.  When I wanted to maneuver Robert’s buggy past the last mattress, the young man sitting on it just moved it aside. I turned and said: “Thank you”. He surprised me by answering, with a smile: “You’re welcome and sorry for the trouble”.

I was so blown away by his polite answer, because it was so free of rancour and so incongruous with his desperate situation. I  had to ask him then what was happening there, and as I expected they have been evicted from their lodgings. The young man did not seem perturbed but rather optimistic that the policeman will solve the problem. I keep thinking of these people now and hope that they have been sorted out. That man, and the way he behaved is in a nutshell the people of South Africa. The way they react to dire problems with patience, dignity and humor always amazes and inspires me.

I once spoke to a friend of mine about South Africa, why I love it.  There are many reasons, but mostly because it is a place that challenges you, and surprises you. Sometimes the surprises are nasty, but most of the time they are little gems of wonder, wisdom and learning.

South Africa makes you face your own prejudice and challenges it. You cannot hide behind the familiarity of your comfort zone, be it country, colour, race or sexual preference, and then glibly make a judgment on this country.  To those who question whether South Africa is capable of hosting the World Cup I say: Didn’t Mexico host one successfully ? Didn’t Greece pull off hosting the Olympics, with a balance book worse than South Africa’s?  What I would like to know the REAL criteria that makes these two countries better than  South Africa.

Yes, perhaps I am wearing rose-coloured blinkers, but I am optimistic that this World Cup will work. It won’t be spectacular, groundbreaking or breathtaking, but it will be an African World Cup, for All Africans to be proud of and for the world to enjoy.

This is the link to the article my friend mailed me and which was referred to in this post by my friend the Baron.  One of the commentators inspired me to write this. He reasons that it is the responsibility of the world to assist in making this World Cup work for South Africa and thus give hope for the future of the continent,  because South Africa its  only beacon of hope. He said: The world cup is the symbol of the future for this country. If it is pulled from [its people], whatever investments exist in the country will be pulled out, whatever skilled people remain in the country will surely leave, and Africa will go to pot”. I think his opinion has merit, and I also believe that true aid is teaching Africans how to do things, not to throw money and food at them. The world however prefers either to do the latter, or to watch from afar expecting us to burn ourselves down anytime.

Here are all the other reasons why I love South Africa ( I will be adding to this list as I remember things).

1- It is the rainbow nation. Nobody here is too foreign, and no religion is too exotic .  Most people accept you for what you are.

2- I can wear shorts and sandals almost year round.

3- I do not own mittens, gloves, or long underwear.

4- I can see wild animals in their natural habitat.

5- I can get my documents certified for free at the police station.

6- I don’t have to see the face of one corrupt political leader or another whenever I open my wallet to take out paper money. Our money has the faces of the big five (African wild animals: Rhino, Elephant, Lion, Buffalo, and leopard).

7- In South Africa you can install prepaid electricity meters, where you can really watch your electricity consumption.

8- South Africa is ranked 35th out of 178 countries for ease of doing business – ahead of places like Spain, Brazil and India.

9- South Africans are creative, resourceful and artistically inclined – you can enjoy the creative energy everywhere. There is amazing music, literature and visual art produced here. This apart from the traditional and innovative arts and crafts you see in market stalls.

10- It is God’s own country, stunning in every way, with amazing biodiversity and most wonderful vistas.

11- Chocolate marshmallow Easter eggs, Chutney, and the plethora of tastes and spices from all over the world.

12- The abundance and variety of local fruit and vegetables: Avocados, mango, litchi, papaya and pineapple are a few of the popular ones, in addition to all types of other fruits I am used to in the northern hemisphere. No wonder South Africa is one of the largest fruit exporters in the world.

13- I can easily get and afford efficient household help.  I try not to abuse the privilege by offering decent working conditions and wages.

14- The music, the spontaneous rhythm that comes out of people at every possible occasion. There is nothing more moving than strangers singing together in perfect harmony that comes out of the joy of the occasion, completely unrehearsed.  Even the demonstrations and strike become a song-and-dance affair. After all, we are the people who made the toyi-toyi protest dance famous.

There are many more reasons but to sum up most of what I read and feel, I can say that South Africa is real, passionate and challenging.  Living here has an element of adventure, as you are experiencing a place that is evolving and trying to find its place in the world. So if you like your life predictable, and safe you may want to stay away.  South Africa, like its mother continent,  is wild, passionate and surprising and it takes a free spirit with tenacity and tolerance to understand and embrace it.

Make Your Choice:

5 Reasons Why South Africa is Not Ready for World Cup 2010

5 Reasons to Stay in SA & 5 Reasons to Leave

24 More Reasons to Stay in SA

One of the best reasons sums it up

Update: The Cape Argus ran a story about the eviction on Portswood Road. Here is their update. Unfortunately there was no happy ending for the people involved.

The eviction might have been one of the results of moving Somerset Hospital (A government hospital) from Green Point. This move is most probably motivated by the business potential of the building and area of the hospital, which is very close to the V&A Waterfront. I bet it would be turned into a hotel, making money for big business, at the expense of the weak and poor as usual.

Happiness is…

I subscribed to a site called the Happiness Project and I am trying to follow some of the advice dished out by Gretchen Rubin the who authored a book called The Happiness Project.

One advice she gave last week was to take a day off which I did today, unauthorized of course. I felt overwhelmed with my life, as yesterday was particularly demanding with Robert. I felt like I spent the whole afternoon running after him, picking up messes and fixing things that he broke (the dial out lock on the phone and one of my tapes to name two). I read somewhere that one can phone work and request a mental health day, which of course is not possible in our marvelous workplace, so I claimed food poisoning instead. No, I am not afraid to be found out by management since I have given notice already, they cannot fire me anymore.

So What we did today with Robbie boy? We went to his swim lesson which was great then I came back to spend some time with my new best friend – my new laptop which I bought yesterday. Later and after my boy forced at least one shut-down and aborted one download we went to the Waterfront. He kept asking yesterday for steak sandwich from the Waterfront,  just as we were getting ready for sleep.

So we spent a leisurely two hours walking there and back. It was one of those golden afternoons, warm with no wind, heralding the arrival of autumn, my favorite season.  As we sat together on a bench, with Rob eating his sandwich and sipping on a cool drink (dry lemon soda of all things) I felt I was so happy, what more do I need from life? Things are falling into place. I have work coming up which will keep me busy and there might also be another opportunity on the horizon.  I will have to drink this in and the memories and appreciate what I got.

Robert took pleasure in watching people dismantling the little rides that were busy here during the summer holidays. One of them is a roller-coaster that looks like a caterpillar. I felt a pang of guilt that he never got to ride them this summer but I am hoping to do the rides with him next year. Also there are still things that I can do with him once I am a free working from home mommy.

There are always the good times, I should remember that. This blog is not only about me whinging. It is also about me enjoying life as a mom and taking little snapshots of our time together. On our way back for example he had the hiccups and asked me for water: “I am hiccing up” he said, and I thought it was so funny that he made up this verb. I heard him before saying: “I hicced up”.

I hope I will never forget these little phrases and his little gems of wisdom he imparts on me every once in a while.


Yesterday I was contemplating the coming mounting expenses and thanking my stars that I had at least one outstanding payment arrive into my account. Yes, the exchange rate was horrible, but at least it will pay for the upcoming rent and appliances until I receive money from selling my own unwanted furniture and the deposit from this flat.

I went to the cash machine to withdraw money for the nanny, who is looking after Robert at Britt’s house, and at once I saw that I had more money than I should have, not a few hundred, but a few thousand more, and I did not have any more outstanding jobs that amount to a few thousand Rand.

I was so anxious I went to the bank to enquire, and lo and behold I actually got a refund from the Receiver of Revenue. I was so happy I almost cried, it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time !! I also got paid my regular salary on the same day, so I have all the money I need to get my through the terrible expenses of moving, I shouldn’t have worried.

Yes, I am lucky. Somebody out there is looking out for me and I am so grateful for everything I have.

I realize that every day when I look at my son, and when he snuggles against me at night, and says : Mummy I love..

Lost and Found

My absent-mindedness almost caught up with me today ( yet again).  This happens two months after losing my wallet on board a bus – a situation I haven’t recovered from yet, I might add, since I haven’t had the time yet to replace my driver’s license. The near miss today was my cell phone.

The day started in the usual rush to get Robert to day care and myself to work. I had arranged with his father to pick him up early today so that we can take him for his immunization, but in the rush I forgot to take his immunization card.  So the day did not bode very well from the start.

At the Cape Town Mediclinic Robert sat through two injections on each shoulder crying only for the second one. He was however very fidgety as I carried him to the parking lot. I took out my cell phone to call his father who was out of sight as we returned to the car, but before I could use the phone, my ex showed up and we quickly got into the car and headed home.

I only discovered that I misplaced my phone two hours later as I was ready to leave with Robert. I went through the usual routine of phoning it and was dismayed that I did not hear it in my flat. The next check was to phone my ex, which is rather embarrassing for me, because my ex always lambasted me for my absentminded and disorganized nature. Surprisingly this time he was rather accommodating and went through searching the car twice, and then offered to walk to the Mediclinic and ask at the desk. He came up with nothing and I resigned myself to the fact that I have seen the last of my cell phone. The only question in my mind was when should I actually give up and order a new one ?

I researched and located a replacement at a cost of R2500, it could have been worse I thought. Then I remembered with dismay all the photos I took yesterday and never had time to download. I also realized with shock that I lost everyone’s number including my nanny’s. I managed to find her number somewhere else, which was somewhat of a relief because my only contacts to her -Jackie and her mom- are not talking to me anymore. In the end and after futile phoning to my lost cell, which was always ringing forlornly somewhere, I decided to go to the shops. For some reason I started buying the things that I was putting off, never mind the fact that I was going to have a huge bill for a new cell phone shortly.  Robert was oblivious to my trouble and slept peacefully in his buggy. Today he wore a lime-green shirt on top of his army camouflage pants and looked so cute, and again I thought of my missing cell phone and its camera.

Shortly after our return from the shops I made one more call to my cell phone and to my amazement someone answered, saying that they found my phone on the sidewalk; I had dropped it right in front of our block. The kind man explained that his housekeeper found it and I was so pleased I told him I would give him all I have in my wallet as a reward, he said that his housekeeper will be pleased.  A few minutes after this phone call the kind man arrived with my cell phone, and he only took part of  the money I offered in gratitude. My good Samaritan lives and works a few blocks away as a children photographer, so I am certainly going to see him again for photos with Robert.

What a surprising and pleasant end to another misadventure. Thank you Cape Town, there are still good people out there.

Update on Robert: My worries about Robert’s eating calmed a little after his measurements at the clinic. He actually put on a few grams since he recovered from tonsillitis.

Today his stats today are as follows:

Weight:  10.35 kg

Length: 82 cm

Precious Gifts

I have a lot to deal with at the moment. The personal difficulties of being a single mother and the emotional difficulties of trying to negotiate some assistance from a reluctant father. The need to ask for help for almost everything, when I always preferred to be the one lending a hand wears me down. At times like this it is important to remember and appreciate the precious gifts I enjoy every day:

* Robert’s first two pearly teeth in a broad grin.

* A taxi assistant giving me back change when I mistakenly overpay.

* My house mate walking down to the shops in the cold to buy Robert new winter track suits.

* A friend reaching out across oceans and time zones with help and concern.

* A kindly word received when needed most from someone I did not expect.

* My parents’ gentle support. The years might have weighed their shoulders, but not their hearts. They still open their arms willingly, ready to embrace us if we need them.

* A woman I do not know smiling and cooing to Robert, then telling me that he is a gift from god, as if she has seen into my heart.

* Knowing that I am blessed, believing that I tried my best, and having no regrets.

* Hope… for a future.

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Autumn’s Golden Moments

I love autumn, it is a season of quiet and maturity. My trips to the park are becoming more frequent, and I am savouring the time I spend with my son in the golden warm weather.

Yesterday we happened onto two birthday parties in the park. The kids and their nannies were the main guests, and of course a handful of moms and dads completed the picture.
Although we received an invitation to one of them, we remained on the sidelines watching the festivities.

The party went in full swing after singing the traditional “Happy Birthday tooo yoooou” and its Zulu equivalentMine mnandi kuwe = God bless you today”. The nannies broke out in full song, with their harmonious, velvety voices. My heart soared on wounded wings, and I was reminded again, why I love this place. I can relate so much to the African spirit, its capacity for great joy, great anger and great pain – sometimes all at the same time. The women especially fascinate me. I can see the love they bestow on their charges. I can see that they are real mothers to these children from morning till afternoon, Mondays to Fridays. At the same time, they do have their own families. Their own children are perhaps neglected, and left to fend for themselves, it is a hard life. Yet they take whatever joy they can from it. When there is an opportunity for happiness and cheer, however fleeting, they grab it with both hands and embrace it with their hearts. Tomorrow they will go home to face their never ending problems, but today they sang and danced and enjoyed themselves, and lifted my spirit in the process.

The World is Still Okay

At midday today I was labouring up the hill from the supermarket, loaded with packets of groceries in both hands and on one shoulder. It was hot and I was sweating, concentrating only on the road ahead, wanting to get home to my depressed –and depressing- husband.

A man in dirty clothes was sitting in the shade of a tree by the roadside; he mumbled something to me that I wasn’t going to acknowledge. In this harsh city there are so many like him, drunks and vagrants who normally ask handouts. Still I looked back towards him, and his words made sense once I saw what he was on about.

He had said: “Look at my baby ma’am”, and his baby was a sleeping puppy cradled peacefully on his lap. I smiled and said: “What a beautiful baby”, and as I continued my walk I held the picture of the man and the puppy in my mind and my heart, I thought: The world is still OK. or as we say in Arabic الدنيا لسه بخير .

In this cruel and rough country, where a man could kill another for a cell phone, where babies are raped, killed or thrown in garbage bins, there is a scruffy man, who cradles a little dog and calls it his baby. Mercy and kindness still go around, and life is definitely still worth living.