Some friends familiar with the region laughed at our choice of destination, as it was not so long ago that people were fleeing from Kenya due to post election violence. The choice was not entirely random however, as Caity studied abroad here in 2005 and has yearned to return ever since. A month ago, the prospects of coming to Kenya during our year in Egypt seemed bleak, as we had already used up my allotted travel time from Fulbright. The protests in Egypt however, gave us the opportunity to turn an evacuation into a forced vacation.
Due to the curfew, we had to leave our apartment much earlier than our flight was planned to depart, getting us into the Cairo International Airport a full twelve hours early. We were not the only ones in such a predicament though, as the main terminal was packed so full of people of all nationalities that they spilled out onto the street, where a huge white tent had been set up to provide shade. Fortunately we had not tried to escape sooner, as many poor souls before us faced waits of over 24 hours, massive lines for food and drink inside the terminal and no blissful refuge from the sun for those stuck outside.
We finally boarded with surprisingly little trouble, and after a long and sleepless ride we touched down in Nairobi. Although we had rough directions to the friend-of-a-friend’s house where we were to stay, when we tried the number that we were told to call when we got close, no one answered. With nothing else to do, we comically spent the next few hours sitting with all our luggage outside a corner store on the side of the road in the general vicinity of the apartment. Although a number of people took pity on us and tried to help, there was not much they could do, as all we could tell them was, “her name is Erica and she lives around here…” Luckily, Caity rescued us from our predicament by miraculously remembering the name of the apartment complex and we showed up to the bewilderment of our host, who could not fathom how we found her without calling.
This was my first time in Kenya (or anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa for that matter) and the first thing that struck me was the colors. Compared with Cairo, where everything not originally some shade of tan or grey is slowly taking on a sandy hue, it seems that two rainbows collided over Kenya. Even if the vegetation were not so prevalent, with the deep green leaves accented by an incredible variety of flowers, each with a different shape and color, the clothing would make up for it. Kenyan clothing (especially for women) is made using brightly multicolored cloth with beautiful patterns in hundreds of styles and worn as skirts, dresses, shirts, or hats that certainly makes my wardrobe seem pale in comparison.
Unfortunately, the reason I had so much time to observe the foliage was because we spent a lot of time sitting in traffic. During one of our inevitable waits, one driver told us the interesting story of how this all came about. Since independence, Kenya has only been ruled by three people (sounds strikingly familiar coming from Egypt) and the second of those, Moi, was in power for twenty-four years. During this time, not only did he not build any new roads, but he also let the current ones fall into an incredible state of disrepair. Then came the cars. At the same time that Kenyans were looking for lots of cheap cars, Dubai was looking to get rid of its old ones, which were quite nice by Kenyan standards. This combination of bad roads and cheap cars created the situation where travel times with and without traffic can vary by over two hours!
Although everything was new to me, Caity was excitedly reliving her past trip here, with each new place bringing back old memories. She was so happy to be back that even the smell of the trash burning on the side of the road made her eyes light up!
In the spirit of retracing Caity’s trip, we decided to see if we could find the house of her old host mother in Nairobi. This trip gave us a walking tour through the area known as Kibera, named for one of Africa’s largest slums, the home to over 800,000 people. As Caity slowly retraced the path she had taken every day from home neighboring the slum to her classes, we passed rows of rusty tin shacks, trash piles and meandering goats, as well as large wooden pushcarts, open gutters and barefoot children playing in the street. We attracted a number of stares walking through this neighborhood where we obviously didn’t belong, but also smiles, especially from the children who would run up to shake our hands and excitedly ask in slurred English “Howareyou?”
When we finally arrived at the right house it felt like a scene from a movie. Our hearts were pounding as Caity knocked on the door calling “Mama Zubeda?” I could just imagine an older woman opening the door and looking at a vaguely familiar foreigner standing in front of her until she finally realized that it was the sweet, laughing girl she had hosted five years ago! Her face would then break out in a huge smile and she would scream “Caity!” and they would both hug and we would spend hours together talking about the last five years while drinking sweet chai.
At least that was how it would have happened if it were a movie. Instead the woman who opened the door was not Mama Zubeda, but an unfamiliar woman who had never heard of her. After asking around, we found out that she had moved to Canada three years ago and her husband was working in Uganda.
Although our magical reunion in Kibera did not go as planned, we were able to connect with the Baha’i community in Nairobi, who had been a welcoming family to Caity on her first visit. One couple in particular had opened up their home, hosting her a number of times, even if it was just to have a break from the bucket baths of her host home. It was at their house that we attended Feast, a gathering held by Baha’is every nineteen days where the community comes together to pray, share news and catch up.
We shared prayers and songs, teaching some in English and learning others in Swahili. Near the end of feast, we mentioned that we did not have any plans in the next month and asked if there was anything we could do to help the community here. One man quickly approached us with a hopeful gleam in his eye and asked if we would like to go to Mombasa for two weeks to help the local Baha’is there with their service activities.
We could not think of a better way to spend our forced vacation. Although we could not have imagined it, it seems that there was a reason for our trip to Kenya after all.