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.

Nairobi .. A Lucky Third Time

I have been saved from the big city and delivered back to my beloved Africa. My son and I arrived in Nairobi in early September and we are enjoying the mild climate, the friendly people and a much more comfortable lifestyle.

Nairobi sits high up on the hills almost 1700 m above sea level. It is lush, green and sunny, and no wonder it is known as the Green City in the Sun. The headquarters of my organization sits in the middle of a tropical garden, and every morning as I walk to my office I stop to take in the flora and fauna, the colours of Africa; the smell of the soil, the spice and the herbs; the bird song and all the small and large things that make this place home to my heart.

Even before my arrival to live here, Nairobi has been a decisive stopping point in my destiny. In June 1999 it was the site of my first ever arrival in Africa en-route to Johannesburg. I bought myself  a ticket on Kenya Airways then, and had a very heavy carry-on with dozens of unread books.  Ten years later it was my entry point into the organization I serve since 2011. I already have memories here, so it wasn’t difficult at all to feel instantly at home.

I do not miss New York, but I am lonely for my friends. And although I have been to many social events so far (almost as many as I usually attend in a year or more in New York) I haven’t yet made a meaningful connection with a true friend

This loneliness, coupled with the novelty of the new place makes me emotionally vulnerable. And although I have been through this silly heartache before, I must admit that soon after my arrival I was caught by my first crush on an educator. I have never had this before, and it is almost 25 years too late. At my age this is quite embarrassing but I am just living through it at the moment. The positives are a renewed interest in learning, a rejuvenation of long dormant feelings, a temporary respite from a long-held cynical view on love and relationships, and a reaffirmation of being alive. The downside is facing up to the fact that as a middle aged woman I still have the heart of a 19 year-old, and that perhaps we grow old but never grow up.

It is all part of opening up to life again. I am happy to be in mother Africa’s arms again. I will take whatever she gives me, she has been always kind and generous to me. I love being back here.

 

 

 

Nairobi

One of the last things I remember checking on my stolen lap tops were flights on KQ (Kenya Airways) to Nairobi. I was close to buying a full fare ticket rather than take advantage of a stand-by, because I was not entirely comfortable with using my company benefits to write an exam for another job. My qualms were put completely to bed after the incident with my computer and my whole concern shifted to the option that would cost me least money.

So as it happened I bought myself only a stand by ticket on SAA and double-checked that I do not need a visa. Since I was flying to Nairobi via Johannesburg I found myself at Cape Town airport for the earliest flight, I reckoned that since it was a Sunday the flights will be busy and they will get busier as the day wore on. There were two flights from JNB to NBO on the day but I did not want to wait around for the later flights and preferred to arrive earlier in Gigiri to orientate myself.

So it was I left with heavy heart early in the morning, leaving Robert with his dad and with lots of instructions and support. I was due to come home on Tuesday afternoon and that means I will spend two nights away from my little boy. I did not get on the first flight out to Johannesburg but was on the next one which meant that I would make the connection to the earlier flight to Nairobi.

I spoke to Robert again from Johannesburg as I was checking in for the flight and sent a text message to my contact at the guesthouse in Gigiri to arrange for a taxi from the airport. The flight to Nairobi was four hours and I arrived in the afternoon to a warm and humid city. The taxi was waiting for me, an old car with tattered upholstery but the driver was very nice.

Nairobi struck me as a true African city. I passed this way before almost ten years ago, on my way to Johannesburg at the time I only glimpsed the airport and the skyline of the city but I got the feeling that things haven’t changed much since then. The airport itself is distinctly third world, with dirty tiles and smudged counter windows, and plastic loungers showing their cracks and their age.  The drive from the airport was easy, and there was no traffic to speak of on a Sunday afternoon, but the dusty road reminded me of Aleppo, and I am positive that it would get terribly congested during rush hours. Drivers had the same lack of curtsy I experienced in the Middle East, where traffic circles are a clear invitation to chaos, when all cars from all direction claim the right of way, and the horn seems to be the only useful traffic signal. This is very different from the scene in South Africa’s urban centers.

Also reminiscent of the Middle East was the general state of the roads, the pot holes, the broken lamp posts, and the uneven sidewalks. Things like that appear also in South Africa but they are less prevalent in the large city.  As we neared the city center I saw huge birds gathered on one of the trees by the roadside, and I realized with a chill that they were vultures, I never expected to encounter such a sight in the middle of an urban setting, and again I had to remind myself that this is the heart of Africa.

Although Gigiri is the home of the United Nation office in Nairobi (UNON) there aren’t many guesthouses in the area, and the place where I ended up staying is the only one that responded to my inquiry. It is big house overlooking a garden and has a huge kitchen and television room for the guests to share, the room itself was very big and had a television and a small fridge. Again the furniture, curtains and colors reminded me of the Middle East, there were lots of velvet, gold thread, curtains with tie-backs and tassels. The setting showed signs of age, but was nevertheless comfortable.  Most impressive was the friendliness of the people who were looking after the guesthouse. They helped me with directions to the UN office and I walked there on the afternoon of my arrival for orientation and timing. I told the young woman that I will be back for dinner.

The walk to the UN office took just over twenty minutes. I returned just as it was getting dark. I remember that I stumbled into a little puddle on my way back and muddied my sandals. I was grateful that I will be wearing sensible and not dressy shoes for the exam.

Dinnertime at Rugiri Guesthouse was a quaint affair. I met the only other guest, I do not remember his name anymore but he spoke with a very distinct north American accent and I was therefore shocked to find out that he was Russian. Despite his full head of hair, all dyed a dark reddish brown, I could tell that he was old enough to remember the USSR, and that perhaps gave us a little more to talk about. He was thrilled to find out that I came originally from Syria.  We sat at the kitchen counter throughout dinner. He had TWO laptops and was working on something while helping the young woman who is in charge of the guesthouse to download or upload something on her own Netbook. She was, I understood, working on an assignment for university. Meanwhile I was still sore from the loss of my laptop and wondering when I will ever have the company of one again.

The mystery Russian man had many interesting things to talk about. He worked for an NGO and was in Nairobi on one of his projects. Throughout his travels he came across many adverse situation and perhaps that is why he was guarded about personal information, he never volunteered much, but he told me one story that I found interesting. In his opinion what separates civilized men from savages is one meal and a drink. He came to realize that once when  he was besieged with other relief workers and the rations of food started running short. It is a scary thought to contemplate.

I will remember himthough for his love of reading and he gave me some book titles that I promised to check out and will read in due course. I think his taste ran towards the futuristic apocalyptic, because Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World featured in that conversation.

The next day I met him again at breakfast and we exchanged good wishes while I went on my way to the exam. The UN building in Nairobi is surrounded by a lot of green and the entrance is interesting as you follow a winding path of flagpoles to the main building. The security procedure was not long and I was early to the appointment. It took a little longer to locate the man in charge of the exam, who turned out to be a weary-looking Frenchman, who did not hide his dissatisfaction with the “strange” instructions passed down to him from New York. Inwardly I sighed, here was the shape of things to come: bureaucrats complaining about other bureaucrats did not sound so good.

In time I met the other two candidates in Nairobi. A Moroccan gentleman who was visibly older than I was. He told me that he was a teacher at a local university. The other candidate I saw but I did not talk to. She was the blind candidate who gave rise to the Frenchman’s complaints. At the time we arrived they were still busy trying to set up the software to help her perform the test. The next hours went by very quickly for me as I wrote the three exam papers one after the next. Sometime in between the papers we had a break, and I ate the crackers and cheese I brought with me. I even came prepared with a sachet of instant coffee, but it was a mission for my Moroccan colleague to find the boiled water for it.  When the time for the third and last paper finished, we said our goodbyes and I went to retrace my way back to the guesthouse. My brain was tired but I was high on adrenaline feeling that I did the best that I could.

I asked for a place to go shopping and the ladies at reception gave me direction to the village market. I expected some sort of local market that sold local produce, but it was a small mall called the Village Market. I saw many of the familiar South African franchise brands, like Steers, Debonairs and even Woolworths. I just stopped at one of the local supermarkets where I bought a few treats: dried pineapples and Kenyan coffee come to mind. I spent all the Kenyan currency I had left after paying for my room and meals.

In the evening I had dinner alone. My companion of last night had already checked out, but I still enjoyed a fish dish that one of the male staff of the guesthouse cooked. The next day was a public holiday in Kenya – Kenyatta Day and I saw some programs on national television about the man. I also discussed Swahili with one of the friendly staff, it has many words of recognizable Arabic origin. Before she left for the night the lady receptionist/caretaker assured me that my taxi driver will pick me up for my trip to the airport bright and early. I said my goodbyes and turned in for my last night away from home and from Robert.

The trip back home was very uneventful, until I arrived at Johannesburg airport that is. At passport control a very bored-looking female immigration officer asked to see my immunization card, after asking me where I arrived from. I was later turned away from immigration on the pretext that I needed an immunization again yellow fever.

Help of course was at hand in the form of a private international clinic, the only problem is that the shot cost me over R700 (more than $100 at the time) and that was many multiples of what it cost in a normal hospital. Somebody had to take me around immigration to an ATM because I did not have that money in cash and the disgraceful private clinic did not have a credit card facility. I was fuming at the end of this misadventure and no amount of justification from the medic at the clinic could convince me that their operation was anything other than highway robbery with the endorsement of government, absolutely awful.

The delay meant that I had to wait a little longer to board a flight to Cape Town. Fortunately the flights were not full on a weekday and I proceeded home with a little less money and sore arm. The thought of meeting my little boy soon was enough to get me over anything else.

In all it was a successful trip and I will remember Nairobi fondly. Kenya looks like a true African country with no more white-man hangups. In fact, apart from the mysterious Russian and the senior staff at the United Nations, I did not see any white people in Nairobi, and I was impressed with the efficiency of everyone from the staff at the guest house to the taxi driver. Yes, things were run-down and a little reminiscent of the cash-strapped country in the Middle East I hail from, but it was pleasant to see the Africans -for better or worse- running their own country.

View from the guesthouse in Gigiri