A week after we returned from our sojourn to Uganda, I received an email from the Director of the Egyptian Fulbright Office saying that he was “delighted to welcome us ‘home’”. It appeared that our time in East Africa had finally come to an end.
While we were looking forward to returning to Cairo, it was not easy to leave our new friends in Nairobi. The local Baha’i community welcomed us so warmly, especially the Soltani family, who we had met shortly after arriving, and who graciously hosted us for almost a month and a half, despite our having no idea exactly how long we would be staying with them. In fact, with all the invitations to return, it seems that next time we are evacuated to Kenya, will have no problem finding a place to stay!
I certainly miss the ever-present greenery that definitely did not greet me when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. And we also miss some of the freedoms we enjoyed in Kenya. It was hard to pack up our shorts and tank tops, knowing that we would not be wearing them outside again until we returned the States, no matter how hot the Egyptian summer turns out to be.
The one thing I will not miss however, is being called “mzungu” almost everywhere I went in Kenya. Although the word technically means “someone who moves around” in Swahili, it seems to have become synonymous with “white person” and is used liberally by everyone from hawkers on the street to small children playing in alleys. Coming from the US, where race, and especially the names one group gives to another, is a bit more charged and tense, it was hard to get used to. In an effort to communicate my frustration, I once responded to a man by saying “mwafrika, sasa?” which is the linguistic opposite of “mzungu” and means roughly “African, what’s up?” He didn’t quite know how to take that :)
All things considered, I think that we will be coming back to Kenya. Next time however, it hopefully won’t be amidst a revolution.
Being evacuated from a country makes returning a somewhat odd experience. Some of the first things you notice such as, “there are no longer tanks in the streets” or “the burn marks on the side of police station are gone” and “you can find bread and milk in the supermarket” tell you a lot about the state of the country when you left.
Other signs of the recent unrest still remain however. The graffiti that sprang up during the revolution calling for Mubarak’s removal can still be seen on many walls throughout the city and almost every subway car has the “Mubarak” stop on the map scratched or blacked out, often replaced with “martyrs” scrawled in thick black permanent marker.
There are even some small pockets of protesters in the streets. Around a hundred or so people continue to protest in Tahrir square daily, (with an even larger protest this past Friday) calling for the worst offenders of the previous regime to be brought to justice. The success of the revolution seems to also have emboldened those with long-held and unexpressed grievances to take to the streets and demand change. I recently passed a mass of chanting people blocking a main road with signs and when I looked up expecting to see that they were in front of a police office or the Ministry of the Interior, I instead found that them protesting in front of the Egyptian Academy for Science and Research. It seems that they have had enough of the long years of study that result in a job with a meager salary.
There are even those who have seen the vastly popular protests as a great business opportunity. Tahrir square is now covered with men and women selling a variety of red, white and black hats and pins or shirts with “I <3 Egypt” printed proudly on the front. Even the American University of Cairo Press recently came out with a “Tahrir!” calendar you can purchase and hang on your post-revolution wall. Although some of these items may have existed before, there is certainly an enlivened sense of national pride that has made them vastly more popular.
Not everyone is profiting from the revolution however, and among those hardest struck is the tourist industry. We experienced this personally by being forced to cancel a trip to Upper Egypt because of our evacuation, but we were certainly not the only tourists affected.
When we returned to our travel agent, whose office is on Tahrir Square (a great spot for business until two months ago), he told us that he was closed for a full month. Once we finally made it up to Aswan and Luxor, we were struck by how few foreigners we saw, especially since this is supposed to by Egypt’s high season. One of our guides told us that of the 500+ boats that normally cruise the Nile packed with tourists, only fifteen are currently operating, a statistic we could easily believe as we were almost always the only customers in every restaurant we visited.
Despite the heavy blow to Egypt’s economy, people seem to be happier. The shouted greeting of “welcome to Egypt!” that we commonly hear walking down the street seems warmer, as if people are telling us “welcome back, we missed you”. There is also a new sense of vitality here, of greater productivity. I have seen areas that had not changed for months now suddenly have shops under construction, repaired sidewalks or new carts dotting the road.
Everyone is also constantly reassuring us that it is ok to be back in Egypt, that things are back to normal. One example that comes particularly to mind is of the woman who owns a vegetable stand near our apartment. After seeing me for the first time in two months, she happily welcomed me back saying, “Egypt is good now, in fact, it’s better.”