A Forced Vacation to Nairobi

When evacuated from a country, most head straight home, seeking the comfort of friends, family and familiar places. We chose to go to Kenya.

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.

In the Eye of the Storm

I remember being a little disappointed when found out that I would miss the most interesting events on Egypt’s political calendar during my year as a Fulbright grantee, as the presidential elections were scheduled for after our departure. I have always been a little envious of friends telling stories of their time abroad witnessing this historic election or that momentous event. I wanted to have one of those adventures, to be on the ground when the path of a country’s history takes a new or unprecedented turn.

Having just been evacuated from Egypt following weeks of mass protests aimed at removing the ruling regime, I can say that the adventure did not turn out quite as romantically as I had imagined. My experience instead followed the seemingly universal truth that many of the best stories or most rewarding experiences are often the ones that are the least enjoyable when you are living through them.

Specifically, adventures are much less fun when you are actively fearing for your life. At first this was true in the very immediate sense, hearing gunshots outside our friend’s apartment and reports of prisoners breaking out of a jail located only two kilometers away, scaring us enough to push couches and chairs in front of our door in a makeshift barricade. It also manifested itself in a fear of impending calamity. In such a quickly changing situation with little sure information, we were frantically moving from one precautionary measure to the next, whether it was stockpiling water because we heard that workers left the purification plants, buying extra food due to reports that major ports had been closed and petrol was scarce, or calling friends to warn them of an impending mobile phone shutdown after a tip from someone whose uncle worked in the government. We were never quite sure what was going to happen, but the knowledge that anything could happen made every danger much more real and provided fertile ground for our imaginations to run away with us.

This was all made worse when the Egyptian government started restricting means of communication, starting first with Twitter and Facebook, then cutting off the internet itself and finally taking down the mobile phone network, leaving everyone to revert to long-unused landlines. Having grown up in a generation in America where instant communication and unrestricted contact with the outside world is taken for granted, being forcefully and completely cut off felt like being slowly suffocated. Losing the ability to instantly reach out to and connect with friends, family and coworkers across the world was like losing one of my senses, as if I had been struck blind, deaf or mute. Even those who did not often use the internet were greatly frustrated by their right to access it being taken away.

The short period of time where we were part of the small minority that had internet access (having moved to a friend’s apartment) led to a feeling of responsibility that we had to get the word out. We frantically posted photos, sent pictures to news organizations, contacted local papers and blogged our experiences, as if we had to make up for those whose right to express themselves was denied.

With or without all our means of communication, we began to live and breathe the crisis, glued to the TV, computer or phone, closely following every new event, passionately discussing its implications and continually guessing as to how the situation would unfold. Unrelated events seem irrelevant, leaving us impatient when the news stations began to report on happenings elsewhere in the world and even a long-awaited email notifying me of my acceptance into a graduate program seemed out of place, as it if did not relate to my life at that moment because it did not relate to Egypt. Other habits also began to fall away as previously regular exercise stopped, daily prayers became shorter and meals were eaten at odd times as our day began to revolve around following the news.

***

The increasing size and intensity of the protests shocked not only outside observers, but Egyptians as well. With two thirds of the Egyptian population born during Mubarak’s reign, many had never experienced real political change or even the hope of such change. The protests shook them out of old habits, opening their eyes to the possibility of taking part in the recreation of their country. This shock was strikingly clear when we drove by the still smoking headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (burned out the night before) and not a single person honked as masses of cars wove their way across to bridge with every driver pointing and staring. In a city known for its high levels of noise and especially from cars honking, this was an incredible event. People in Tahrir Square (the center of the protests in Cairo) also began to create their own community, reinvigorated by a newfound sense of national pride and ownership, with some even starting to pick up trash and jointly designating sections of the square as smoking and non-smoking, both events that I would never have imagined to see in Cairo.

In the end, a time of great crisis is also one of great opportunity, where the worst, but also the best, in people is brought to light. During the protests, the darker side of the human nature most often wore the uniform of a police officer or carried the identification card of the secret police. The brutal repression used against the protestors has led to over 300 deaths and numerous stories and videos of beatings, torture and unlawful abductions. Although the image of the police here has never been a particularly bright one, the protests saw levels of brutality that have shocked many, especially because the aggression seems to be ordered if not encouraged by the ruling powers.

Although the violence and looting is what most often dominates the news, the crisis here has also provided many opportunities for man’s higher nature to show itself. The mass looting led to the organization of neighborhood watches where men from neighboring building took up makeshift weapons, set up barricades and organized shifts to protect their neighborhoods. This happened all over Egypt, as neighbors (many who met for the first time) came together in an incredible display of solidarity, united by a common threat. Protestors in Tahrir and elsewhere also demonstrated an inspiring sense of unity, strikingly visible when they formed a human chain to protect the Egyptian National Museum from looting or when Coptic Christians formed a chain around Muslims praying in Tahrir to protect them from the police. These expressions of unity and solidarity were echoed abroad and many of us in Egypt were touched by the many many expressions of love and concern that poured into our inboxes or covered our Facebook walls.

***

The level of sacrifice on behalf of the people protesting is a testament to their spirit and their incredible desire to be freed from the oppression that has plagued them for decades. In a country with such widespread poverty, taking a day off work may mean giving up a day’s meals and yet still people turned out in the millions, despite the clears threat of violence and some even passionately claimed that they were ready to die for their country, to give their lives so that others may see a better Egypt. There is a deadly seriousness about these protests, one that forces you to see the events not as simply fun or entertaining but as a very real struggle for liberation, one that is being fought daily on the streets of Cairo and virtual avenues of Twitter and Facebook.

There is no way to adequately sum up the events of the past weeks in all their complexity and even those of us who have left the country are still vainly trying to process our own experiences while half our mind is still in Egypt, hearing the chanting and reading the ever-evolving posters and signs in Tahrir. It is clear however, that Egypt will never be the same after these protests, but it is not yet clear what it is that will change. For my part, I hope that it is the sense of unity, solidarity, sacrifice and pride that overcome the corruption, repression and greed that have afflicted this country for so long. I hope that I will be able to say that I was in Egypt at the start of a revolution that profoundly changed the country for the better and gave regular Egyptians a voice in their own future. Like many around the world however, I will just have to keep hitting “refresh” to find out.