Friday, February 10, 2017

It Takes a Village

I had become somewhat accustomed to people in Kenegut knowing my every move, but Mr. Mbaka had invaded my privacy. And he had no qualms about letting me know he had done so. Mr. Mbaka was a portly man with an arthritic hip and a walking stick. He had donated the land on which the school had been built, so he was an important person, something like a mayor. I suppose that gave him the right, in his mind, to enter my blue hovel without permission.

Late Monday, after returning from my weekend with Christy, Mr. Mbaka approached me as I was headed to the bar to meet Mr. Tembur, as promised.

“Meestah Ree-chahd, please to let me show you something,” he said.

After six hours of gut-churning rides on matatus and buses, I was itching for a Tusker, but I could not refuse an elder of his standing, so I followed him as we retraced my steps back to the blue hovel. Without hesitation, he pushed open my front door and proceeded to my bedroom.

“I was wondering,” he said, poking his walking stick into my duffle bag on the floor. “What is this?”

He prodded at a large bottle of multi-vitamins I had bought in Phoenix. I gazed at him in astonishment.

“We hope it is not drugs,” he said, solemnly.

We! I thought. How many people had invaded my blue hovel? Had a committee formed in my bedroom?

“Those are vitamins,” I explained.

He furrowed his brow.

“Dawa,” I said, using the Swahili word for medicine.

“So, it is good for you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s for my health.”

“It will not hurt me?”

“Did you take some?”

I retrieved the bottle from my duffle bag. The contents, as far as I could tell, were the same.

“Yes,” he said.


“We must think of the students,” he said. “Some of them have been in trouble for smoking bangi.”

“I don’t smoke bangi,” I said, with some hostility in my voice.

“So this will not hurt me?” he said, plucking the bottle from my hand and inspecting it.

“No,” I said, “but your urine might turn orange.”


“Your water,” I said, gesturing at my crotch. “It might turn orange.”



He still looked confused, but I left it at that. I told him Mr. Tembur was waiting for me.


“The market,” I said, avoiding mention of the bar.

“You and Mister Tembur spend much time at the market.”

“He is my friend,” I said.

“The market is closed at night.”

“Not the bar.”

I turned and walked out of my blue hovel, leaving Mr. Mbaka behind. It was a rude gesture, but I was beginning to feel a little incensed at these intrusions in my life. By now, the headmaster had submitted his quarterly report to TFA about me. I was given stellar marks, except on my morality, which he had rated “below average.” Christian missionaries had done a thorough job in Kenegut, and the rest of the highlands, so most people frowned upon alcohol consumption.

At the bar, with a Tusker nestled safely in my hand, I told Mr. Tembur about how I had walked out on Mr. Mbaka. I asked him if he thought I had been rude.

“Do not worry,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “You are still a baby here.”

I groaned. He was referring to a speech I had given the day after my arrival in Kenegut, at a ceremony held in my honor. On that day, Mr. Kiryui, the headmaster, escorted me to the school grounds, where more than a hundred villagers had gathered.

“What is this about?” I asked Mr. Kiryui.

“They are here to greet you.”

Most of the villagers were sitting on the ground, splintered into various groups. Women sat in one group, men in another. A group of elders were perched on chairs and benches brought out in their honor. The largest group was of students, and they were relegated to the back of the assembly.

Mr. Kiryui informed me that Mr. Mtoo, who served in a security capacity for President Daniel Arap Moi, and therefore the most respected person in Kenegut, would open the ceremony and introduce me, at which point I was expected to give a speech to the gathering. Just a month ago, I was a worker bee at a behemoth insurance company, a hamster on his wheel. Now, I was being honored by the entire village of Kenegut. I was awed and embarrassed.

I had no idea what I would say to the people gathered in my honor. Then I saw Mr. Simoni, a fellow English teacher, in the distance, and I remembered what he had told me that very morning. He said his wife had given birth to a boy the day before, a few hours before my arrival.

“We have named him Reeh-chahd,” he had said. “In your honor.”

I had my inspiration.

When it was my turn to speak, I stood, screwed up my courage, and let the words tumble out, while Mr. Kiryui stood beside me, translating my words into Swahili. I told them that the birth of Mr. Simoni’s baby was a blessing, and that I was honored the boy was named after me. I then told the gathering that two babies had arrived in Kenegut.

“I am like a baby,” I said. “I don’t know your language. I don’t know your customs. I don’t know your culture.”

Several members of the audience began to laugh. I looked at Mr. Kiryui. He gave me a sideways glance and nodded his head in encouragement.

“Like a baby, I will make mistakes,” I said.

Now the women joined in the laughter. I needed to wrap it up before I turned crimson.

“You must please forgive me now for any mistakes I make in the future,” I implored. “I am learning what it means to be a member of your family, and I thank you now for all the help you will give me.”

By now, elders were slapping each others’ backs, and the women covered their mouths and waved hands in the air, as if to swat my words away. Mr. Kiryui spoke above me, over the heads of the women, so the elders could hear. When he was finished, he looked at me, a bountiful smile on his face, waiting for my next words.

I cleared my throat, feeling blood fill the capillaries of my face. “Thank you for welcoming me to your home,” I said. “I am truly grateful to your hospitality.”

I took a few steps backwards to indicate I was finished. Mr. Kiryui translated the last of my words, and the hilarity gradually subsided. A few of the women shouted mirthfully back and forth to one another. I dared not look at the students in the distance.

Mr. Kiryui tossed the proceedings back to Mr. Mtoo and then stood beside me. I asked him how my speech was received.

“They liked it,” he said, smiling.


“Tell me, Mister Tembur,” I asked for the umpteenth time, “did they really like my speech?”

Just then, Mr. Maritim, a history teacher, appeared at our table. He had patchy muttonchop sideburns that made him look like a mangy lion.

“Ah, Meestah Maritim!” Tembur said, raising his Tusker and pointing the bottle at me. “Meestah Reeh-chahd wants to know again if everyone liked his speech.”

“You mean the baby speech?” Maritim said, grinning.

“It is the only speech he has given,” Tembur said.

Mr. Maritim slid into the both beside Mr. Tembur. I raised my hand to get the bartender’s attention and ordered a Tusker for Mr. Maritim.

“It was very funny,” Maritim said.

“See there,” I said. “That’s the point. It wasn’t meant to be funny.”

“You did not mean it to be funny?”


“Then you must be a very funny man,” Tembur said. “I would like to hear you when you mean to be funny.”

Mr. Maritim slapped the table and chortled, covering his mouth with his hand.

“Tell us a joke,” Tembur said.

“I don’t know any jokes,” I said.

But then one occurred to me.

“Okay. A man walks into a doctor’s office,” I said. “He is naked, but he is wrapped entirely in Saran Wrap.”




“Plastic wrap.”

Tembur and Maritim exchanged quizzical glances.

“The man was wrapped in clear plastic,” I said. “He was naked, but you could see right through the plastic.”

“He must be crazy,” Tembur said.

“Yes,” I said. “When he walks in to the doctor’s office, the doctor turns to him.”


“And the doctor says, Clearly, I can see your nuts.”


“That’s it,” I said. “That’s the joke.”


Clearly, I can see your nuts,” I explained. “Do you know what nuts means?”

“It is meaning crazy?” Tembur asked.

“Yes, but it also refers to a man’s private parts,” I feebly explained.


“His testicles.”


“Yes, nuts is another word for testicles.”

Mr. Maritim scratched his sideburns, uncomprehending. Suddenly, Mr. Tembur slapped the table and guffawed. “I understand,” he said, and he proceeded to tell the joke to Mr. Maritim in Swahili.

Mt. Maritim burst out laughing.


Three rounds later, and I soon learned that Mr. Maritim was a bitter drunk.

“Meestah Ree-chahd,” he said, “are you owning a car in the U.S.?” 


“Me,” he said, “I have never been owning a car.”

I nodded my head dubiously, unsure where he was headed. He had that glazed look in his eyes that suggested he had donned a different personality.

“Do you know,” he said, poking his chest, “I have never been to Nairobi.”

And I had already been there at least a dozen times. These niggling observations about my privilege annoyed me. Yes, I enjoyed certain privileges, but that did not make me happier? 

“Imagine,” Mr. Maritim said. “I have been living here all my life, and I have never seen Nairobi.”

Mr. Tembur could see I was getting irritated.

“Look here,” he said to Mr. Maritim. “If you have never been to Nairobi, it is your own fault.”


“Do you have money in your pocket right now?”


“You have money in your pocket,” Mr. Tembur said, “yet you let Meestah Ree-chahd here buy you your drinks.”

That flummoxed Mr. Maritim.

“You see here,” Mr. Tembur said, turning to me. He pointed at Mr. Maritim, who was still speechless. “This is Africa in a nutshell. We have the means to do for ourselves, but instead we put our hand out.”

“I did not ask him to buy me a Tusker,” said Maritim.

“Indeed,” I said. “He did not.”

"But neither did he refuse," said Tembur.

That silenced Mr. Maritim, and I thrust the knife further by ordering another round of Tuskers for our table.


I stepped out of the bar into the inky black night of a new moon and followed a corridor of light emanating from a nearby window to where it fingered the treeline at the outskirts of the market. I unzipped and urinated into the bushes. As I stood there, glancing nervously around, I suddenly heard a man’s raised voice coming from a nearby hut. I cocked my ear as the voice became more aggressive. The meek protestations of a female voice followed each outburst. Then, it happened: a smack loud enough to make me wince.

She spoke in Swahili, and though I did not know the words, I understood the universal language of mercy. The man pelted her with angry words. I shook off the last drops and zipped my trousers. The scrape of furniture being shoved aside. Muffled cries. I despised myself for remaining rooted to the spot. A tin wall separated me from the violence happening on the other side, and I felt powerless.

Shaking with anger, I turned and marched back into the bar. I slipped into the booth, visibly upset. Mr. Tembur asked what was wrong, and I told him what I had overheard.

“Just there?” he asked, pointing out the door.


“Aiii,” he said, clicking his tongue. “That is the owner’s home.”

“The owner of this bar?”

“Yes,” Mr. Maritim confirmed. “He is a mean one. Especially when he is drunk.”

I drank more than I had planned to that night. Around midnight, we finally stumbled out of the bar into a night that had been extinguished of all light. I had never in my life been deposited into such darkness. I took a few blind steps and stumbled over a stone in the path. It was clear I would not be able to find my way back to my blue hovel.

“I am thinking we must walk you home,” Mr. Tembur said.


A rooster crowed at dawn outside my window. I nudged the curtain aside to see cows feeding on my lawn and the rooster perched defiantly on my fence, eyeing me sideways. Tuesday morning. A day closer to reuniting with Christy. That is how I counted my days in Kenegut now, and it was becoming clear that the situation was untenable. When TFA first offered to send me to Kenya, they originally had me posted in the Literature Department at Eldoret University, but by the time I got to the orientation in Phoenix, I had been re-stationed to Kenegut Secondary School.

I decided during my next trip to Nairobi that I would visit the TFA office and demand to be re-stationed near Christy. By now, several other TFAers had been relocated. Michelle had been moved a few miles outside Kericho. Helene and Soren had been plucked from the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro and had been deposited comfortably at the Teachers College in downtown Kericho. It was my turn, I decided, as I sipped coffee in my blue hovel.

Kenegut was a beautiful locale. At any turn on the path or road, I might be confronted with a magnificent view of the surrounding highlands. And the people were generous, kind, hospitable. I was their sorry son, and they looked after me, watched my every move. They knew I drank beer in the bar and wine in my blue hovel. They knew I traveled to Nairobi every weekend, and they wondered at the reason why. They suspected me of harboring drugs, of possibly smoking bangi.

Those unseen eyes followed me everywhere, and I was beginning to feel claustrophobic.

As I sauntered toward the school grounds, I saw Mr. Mbaka in the distance, sitting with Mr. Langat, the oldest man in Kenegut, who was presumed to be more than 100 years old. Sitting beside them, all smiles, was Kiptoo Kiryui, the headmaster’s son. It was a marvelous tableau, and I hurried back to my blue hovel to retrieve my camera.

Mr. Mbaka ruined the photo by picking his nose, an action that was seemingly not frowned upon in rural Kenya. In fact, each morning, Kiptoo bounded trouserless out of his house next door and perched himself on top of a dirt pile in my backyard, where he would defecate without the least sign of bashfulness.

I shook hands with Mr. Langat, with my free hand supporting my wrist, as was the custom with elders. I looked into his rheumy eyes, magnified behind black, horn-rimmed glasses, and wondered at what he had seen.

If he were truly more than one-hundred years old, he would have been born around the time the British colonized East Africa. As a boy, he would have witnessed the British forcibly take over the highlands, and he and his family would have been relocated onto "native reserves." He would have been middle aged when Mau Mau rebels fought against British rule, and I wondered if he had participated in the effort to reclaim his family's ancestral lands. To ask would be rude, and he most likely would be evasive anyway. By the time Kenya gained independence in 1963, he would already have been an old man, well into his sixties, if not his seventies.

I would have asked him a number of questions, but Mr. Mbaka had something important to tell me.

“Mistah Ree-chahd,” he said. “Last night, I thought I was dying.”

I eyed him quizzically.

“My water was orange,” he said, “so I thought I was very sick.”

I smiled.

“Then I remembered what you told me.” 

He pointed an index finger at me, the one with which he had picked his nose. “But do you know,” he said, “my hip still bothers me.”

I smiled. I thought about explaining to him that vitamins did not work that way.

Instead, I told him I was sorry.

(To be continued)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Between Two Worlds

When I returned to my blue hovel in January, after traveling alone for five weeks, I found myself being pulled between two worlds. At Kenegut Secondary School, I had managed to get my teaching schedule squeezed between Tuesdays and Thursdays, so each Friday morning, I dressed, stuffed belongings into my backpack, pressed my Filson hat onto my head, and exited my blue hovel to hike six miles to the Busia-Kisumu Highway.

At the juncture, I waved down a passing matatu heading for Kericho, where I exchanged my ride for a Stagecoach bus to Nakuru. In Nakuru, I usually lunched on nyama choma or chicken curry at one of the tourist hotels. If I were in a hurry, I might risk giardia or amoebic dysentery and wolf down a couple of meat pastries from a street vendor. Sated, belly full, I boarded another Stagecoach bus for the slow climb up the eastern face of the Rift Valley, with expansive views of the landscape I had just traversed. 

Eventually, the road leveled off, and the bus driver shifted gears until we were hurtling downhill toward Nairobi. By the time I stepped off the bus at University Way, I had already traveled five hours. Only one more matatu to board: Number 29 to Langata. I usually arrived at Kifaru Lane by late afternoon. I had only a half-mile walk to Christy’s house. When I turned onto Ndovu Lane, my pace was nearly a jog. I rushed headlong down her drive, pushed open her front door, and flung myself into her open arms.

Home. I was home.

Mondays were painful. After breakfast, Christy and I would trundle down Ngong Road in her red Renault wagon and idle away a few hours at Yaya Centre. Sometimes, she drove me all the way into Nairobi, where we would have an early lunch at the Norfolk Hotel or the Trattoria. Our favorite lunch spot, however, was a deli run by an American woman who served thick, moist slices of chocolate cake.
Inevitably, the time would come. We lingered in our goodbyes, holding hands, holding each other. Sighing already with longing for one another. And always I waited until the last minute, passing up matatus or hired cars to stay with her a few minutes longer.
One time, I lingered too long, and the car I had hired dropped me in Kericho at sunset, in the middle of a downpour. Everyone was scrambling for matatus home. I was forced to stand on the back bumper, gripping the luggage rack, as the packed matatu lurched down the Busia-Kisumu Highway toward the juncture to Kenegut. By the time I was dropped off, the sun had set, but I still had six miles to walk in the pitch dark of an African night. I was soaked through, shivering with cold. But somehow I made it back to my blue hovel.

By now, Kenegut and my blue hovel had lost its charm. No electricity. No running water. No restaurants. No cinemas. No Christy.
I chafed at the confines of the school grounds and the surrounding village. The days seemed interminable, and I kept myself preoccupied with running, writing, and reading. I sometimes read for hours on end, and I soon exhausted the school library’s meager assortment of books. Whenever my mind was idle, my thoughts returned to Christy.
On one of my return trips to Kenegut, I stopped to buy a chess set with pieces carved from soapstone. I taught my colleagues how to play, and Mr. Tembur, a math and science teacher, was a quick study. He was tall and gangly, with a toothy smile, and he often spoke out of the side of his mouth. Soon, he was beating me at chess almost every day, and I could tell by the wry smile on his face that he would checkmate me in a few moves. Always, he was apologetic.
“I am sorry, Meestah Ree-chahd, but I must take your queen,” he might say. Or, as he took my bishop, “I am sorry, Meestah Ree-chahd, but your holiness the bishop must die.”
I found other ways to pass the time, but inevitably I was faced with hollow, empty hours alone.

In Nairobi, Christy and I filled our hours--every minute of them--and everything we did, even the smallest actions, seemed magical, rapturous. A bottle of wine purchased at the Karen dukas meant we would be sitting before the fire, on her sofa, later that evening. Buying a loaf of seed bread at the local bakery meant we would be eating toast together for the next morning’s breakfast. Stacking firewood outside her house ensured we would stay warm for the next few evenings. We were securing a future, purchasing items that committed us to an evening, a morning, an entire weekend together.
One afternoon, we came home to find two songbirds singing sweetly outside our bedroom window. The birds bobbed and weaved their heads, as if trying to kiss. When we turned away from the open window, we saw that the birds had knocked over a floral arrangement, scattering flower petals across the bed.
That evening, at Christy’s suggestion, we stepped outside to look up at the stars. They fluttered and pulsed in a night sky unpolluted by lights.
“Beautiful,” I said. And when I turned to her, she was looking straight into my eyes.
“This is your chance to get it right,” she said.
I knew she was referring to the night in Nairobi National Park, but her words cut right through me, and suddenly all my life felt like preparation for this moment. I would get it right. So I leaned in and kissed her tenderly.
That night, as we sat before the fire drinking wine, Christy fell asleep with her head in my lap. As I gently stroked her hair, I was at turns amazed and grateful at how quickly my life had changed.


Night had fallen, and feeling lonely and claustrophobic in my blue hovel, I made my way to the Kenegut marketplace to have a Tusker or two at the local bar. Most of the male teachers lived in tin shacks huddled around the outskirts of the marketplace. These shacks were the size of storage pods you might find in people’s driveways in the U.S., sparsely furnished with a single bed, a small homemade desk and chair, and a bureau for clothes, if they could afford it. Otherwise, shelving might do. During the day, the heat inside was stifling, and the tin walls and ceilings popped and cracked as they expanded with the heat or contracted in the cool of the evenings. 

The market itself was a clearing the size of a football field, with small shops lining its edges. These shops were mostly clapboard-like affairs. There was a butcher, a kinyozi (barber), a handmade furniture shop, several small dukas that sold essentials, such as rice, sugar, bread, and salt. But most of the business was conducted in the market’s open central area, where locals, mostly women, displayed their fruits and vegetables on cloths spread out on the ground, secured at each corner by large stones.

In the evenings, most of the teachers hovered around the marketplace, so it had become habit for me to saunter the half mile there in the evenings and “accidentally” find Mr. Tembur and the others to ask if they would join me for a drink. For their part, they always acted surprised to find me there. On their meager salaries, I knew most of them were penniless by the end of the month, so I would stand them for Tuskers, Pilsners, or White Caps—whatever was their poison.

This evening, I found Mr. Tembur alone, leaning against a tree.

Mr. Tembur, looking hangdog, held out his hand. “Meestah Ree-chahd, will you kindly sponsor me for a drink?”

“Gladly,” I said.

The bar was a tin shack the size of a school bus. Inside, it was musty and gloomy. A lamp hung limply from the ceiling, its weak bulb powered by a generator that thrummed outside. The bartendress, a stern, hard-faced woman, brought two Tuskers she had pulled from a stack of crates behind the bar. In most rural areas, beer was served at room temperature, because electricity was inconsistent. In Kenegut, it was non-existent.

For the next two hours, Mr. Tembur made me laugh. A tonic to my loneliness. As is the custom in Kenya, empty beer bottles were left to pile up on the table, a sign, I suppose, of wealth. The more bottles, the wealthier the person. So it should have been no surprise that some locals approached our table beseeching Mr. Tembur to have me stand them for a round. Each time, Mr. Tembur responded with sharp words until the man clucked his tongue and walked off disgusted. But one man, dressed raggedly in moth-eaten clothes, would not relent.

“Enda!” Mr. Tembur said.

But the man persisted, swaying on his feet as if the room were spinning.

Mr. Tembur called to the owner of the bar, who was sitting with a group of locals, drinking a White Cap. He glanced at us, then unfolded himself from the bench seat, and sauntered over to our table. He pulled the drunk man away by the elbow, but still the man would not relent. Standing unsteadily on his feet, he protested and pointed at me.

Suddenly, the owner slapped him across the face, a smack so loud it silenced the room. The owner barked a few harsh words, and then the drunk man, humiliated, shuffled out of the bar.

Mr. Tembur could see I was upset.

“He is a drunk,” he said. “His children, they go without.”

In this way, with these small reveals, Kenegut lost its charm for me, and my blue hovel no longer felt like home.


The next morning, I was up before sunrise. I choked down a thick slice of bread with strawberry jam, drank a cup of Nescafe freeze dried coffee, packed a few belongings in my backpack, screwed the Filson hat on my head, and stepped out of my blue hovel to a glorious sunrise. Mr. Tembur greeted me on the dirt road that led to the Busia-Kisumu Highway.

“You are in a hurry this morning,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to get an early start.”

“There must be something important in Nairobi,” he said, with a knowing smile. “Every Friday you leave earlier, and every Monday you come back later.”

I smiled nervously.

“You are like the man chasing the honey bird,” he said. “You are after something sweet, I think.

I laughed. “Is that a Kikuyu proverb?”

“No, it is a Tembur proverb.”

We clapped hands, shook.

“I will see you Monday night, Meestah Ree-chahd,” he said, smiling. “Perhaps you could sponsor me for a Tusker.”



The gears ground downward and we came to a complete stop. We all craned our necks to look out the front windshield. A long line of vehicles snaked away into the distance, disappearing around a curve in the road. People began chattering, and then the bus driver was peppered with questions. He replied in Swahili and gestured helplessly at the long line of vehicles before him.

Soon, impatient motorists were filling up the passing lane. Matatu drivers, because they work on commission, are usually the first to go off-roading and blaze trails through the bush. Eventually, both shoulders of the highway filled with vehicles, but they too came to a standstill. Word eventually reached us that a tractor trailer had overturned on a bridge. There was no going around. We would be stuck until the truck could be moved.

We were halfway to Nakuru, in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me, but soon vendors crawled out of the bush selling fruits, vegetables, hard candies, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers, wristwatches, batteries, air fresherners, steering wheel cushions. You name it, it was for sale. After a couple of hours of sitting idle, I bought an ear of roasted maize and a bunch of miniature bananas for my lunch, which the vendor pushed through my open window.  

Another hour passed, and the heat inside the bus became soporific. I pulled my Filson hat down over my eyes, rested my head against the window, and fell asleep. I woke to the sound of the engine coughing to life. According to my wristwatch, I had been asleep nearly an hour. It was almost mid-afternoon. If we moved quickly, we would make Nakuru in time for me to catch a bus to Nairobi. But untangling the traffic was a nightmare. We crawled forward a few feet, only to halt for several minutes, and we moved at this glacial pace for more than an hour. By the time we were funneled through the bridge and were spilled out on to the open highway, the sun was tauntingly low in the sky.

Our bus lurched into Nakuru an hour later and a mad scramble for matatus ensued. Everyone was trying to get home. No one more desperately than me. It was soon clear I would not find a ride anytime soon. Nairobi was three hours away, which meant I would get there well after sunset, and Nairobi is no place to be after the sun sets. I was stuck in Nakuru for the night.

Christy would be expecting me soon, but I had no way of reaching her. Cell phones did not exist then in Kenya, but in just a few years the entire country would be wired, and you could travel to the remotest place and find a Maasai elder herding his cattle in the Amboseli bush, or a young Samburu warrior washing his spear in the Ewaso Ngiro River, with a cell phone attached to his belt.

For now, I had to wait out the night. I checked into the Midland Hotel, just off the highway, and ate a steak dinner in the hotel restaurant. Afterward, I went up to my room and took a hot bath in the large, clawfoot bathtub. I then laid out clean clothes for the next day and packed my backpack, so I could bolt out the door first thing in the morning.

I was up before sunrise and well on my way to Nairobi before the sun finally pierced the horizon. By mid-morning, I was sprinting down Ndovu Lane, worrying irrationally that Christy had given up on me and gotten on with her Saturday. Perhaps with friends. Or another man.

When I reached her doorstep, the front door was locked. My heart sank. But then I saw her fleeting figure dart past the window.

The door opened. She stood there looking at me in disbelief. I pushed my way inside, let my backpack and hat fall to the floor, and embraced her mightily.

“I was so worried,” she whispered in my ear.

I cupped her face gently in my hands and told her I was sorry.

“Last night was difficult,” she said. “I barely slept at all.”

I pulled her closer. We had been cheated of an entire evening together, so we clung to each other for a while longer, trying to reclaim it.

(To be continued)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lunatic Express

I traveled to Nairobi on a rail line that was once dubbed The Lunatic Express. 

Nairobi was established in 1899 by British colonialists as a railroad depot linking Mombasa to Uganda. The town quickly grew to become the capital city of British East Africa and of independent Kenya. The construction of the railroad took several years and thousands of lives, primarily through malaria, dysentery, cholera, and other diseases. 

The most notorious form of death, however, was by lion attack. For several months in 1898, two male lions, known as the Maneaters of Tsavo, were responsible for the deaths of at least 28 workers. Most victims were taken at night, dragged out of their tents kicking and screaming into the bush to be devoured unmercifully. Lieutenant-colonel John Henry Patterson was sent to dispatch the lions, which he managed after several months and several unsuccessful attempts.

The lions were skinned and spent twenty-five years as Patterson's floor rugs before they were sold, in miserable condition, to the Chicago Field Museum, where they were reconstructed and put on display.

Not long after my train ride to Nairobi, a film version of Patterson's story was released, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. Eventually, it made its way to Nairobi cinemas, where it was met with much laughter, primarily because the film was shot in South Africa instead of Kenya, and the South African cast members had mangled the Swahili language. The most memorable moment, though, was watching Michael Douglas chant and dance with Maasai warriors. Kenyans in the audience laughed uproariously, while Christy and I groaned in our seats.

My trip through Tsavo was vastly uneventful. The train departed Mombasa shortly after nightfall and arrived in Nairobi fifteen hours later, around 10 a.m. I paid roughly 2,000 shillings for a second-class berth, which I shared with a young Australian man named Pete, who was on his way home after spending several weeks traveling around Kenya. He was melancholic, especially when I told him I was less than halfway through my stint.

"You're bloody lucky," he said. "I don't want to go home."

I told him he was young, that he had plenty of time to explore the world. 

"That's where you're wrong. This is a one-off thing," he said. "Not unless I win the lottery."

I asked what he meant. He explained that he was from a working-class family and had only recently come across a little bit of money.

"This is me last hurrah. I'll be settling down," he said. "My holidayin' will be on the Gold Coast with me wife and kiddies."

"You have a wife and kids?"

"Nah, but I expect I'll have 'em soon enough," he said. "Hey, let's have a Guinness!"

I agreed. I'd had a Kenyan Guinness before. For some reason, it was of a stronger variety than could be had in the U.S., with an alcohol content around 8 percent. After the first few rounds, Pete told the steward to bring six beers at once to save him the effort. Three beers in, I was already feeling tipsy. And tired. I yawned several times as a hint, but Pete was oblivious.  

"Wagga what?" I said, when he told me where he had grown up.

"Wagga Wagga," he said. "Never heard of it?"

I told him I had not. "What does Wagga Wagga mean?"

"It's an Abo word," he said. "Means crows. One crow is wagga. More than one is wagga wagga."

I don't recall how the conversation turned, but shortly after he told me about Wagga Wagga, he revealed to me that his mother had died recently.

"Sorry," I said. "How did it happen?"

He sighed, twisted his face into a grimace.

"I'm sorry," I said. "That's not my business."

"Nah, it's all right," he said. "She died of cancer back in June."

I apologized again.

"Before she died, she gave me her life's savings. About three thousand dollars." He looked out the window. "She always knew I wanted to go to Africa."

"That's very touching."

He was silent for several seconds. I was about to say something to lighten the mood, but the alcohol must have flooded his frontal lobes and suppressed his inhibitions.

"Me dad's a drunk," he said, suddenly. "Lost his job in Wagga Wagga, so he moved us out to Broken Hill and started working for the mines."

I glanced at the empty bottles and realized he was drinking at almost twice the rate as me. 

"Me mum hated it there," he said. "I think she was saving that money to leave him."

"You think so?"

"Yeah. And she might have," he said. "But I remember something quite clearly. She asked me once if I loved me dad."

He fixed his gaze on me.

"She wasn't asking off hand," he said. "She was looking straight into me. Kind of scared me."

"What did you say?"

"I said yes. And I said it like I meant it."

"And you think that's why she stayed?"


I don't remember what else we talked about. Pete downed beer after beer, while I nursed one until it was as warm as broth. At some point, I told him I was turning in.

"Oh, yeah, right. I won't keep you up, will I?" he said, pointing at his Guinness.

I shook my head, climbed into my bunk, and rolled to face the wall.

"Sure is dark out there." 

I did not roll over, said not a word. A few minutes of silence. The train was rocking me to sleep.

"We must be in the middle of nowhere. There are no lights to be had."


I woke at dawn to find Pete sprawled in his seat, a Guinness sitting precariously between his thighs. I reached over, rescued the half-full bottle, and set it on the washbasin among numerous empty bottles. I counted at least twelve.

The train jolted, and the clinking of glass must have wakened him. His eyelids fluttered open, and then slowly he leaned forward, like one of those mechanical tipping birds, until his head hung between his knees, his hands covering his face. I asked if he were okay. 

"Me head's splitting," he groaned.

I fished in my backpack for some Tylenol and gave him three capsules.

"Thanks," he said.

He glanced around, and then he reached for the bottle of Guinness on the washbasin. He popped the pills into his mouth and washed them down with a long swig of warm beer. He was mostly quiet the next few hours, perhaps because of his hangover. Perhaps because he was embarrassed by the things he had said the night before.

The train lurched unceremoniously into the Nairobi Railway Station. We poked our heads out of the car and plunged into the stream of humanity flowing out of the station onto Haile Selassie Avenue. Pete said he was going to the Iqbal Hotel to rent a room for the day. He needed a shower, he said, before heading to the airport that evening. 

Against my better judgment, I told him that, as a TFAer, I got a discount at the Parkside Hotel. I was spending the night in Nairobi, so I suggested he use my shower and park his bag there until it was time for him to leave.

"Thanks, Mate. That's mighty generous."

We trudged up Moi Avenue, weaving our way through the bustle and throng of pedestrians. I paid for a dormitory-like room at the Parkside, overlooking Jevanjee Gardens. Pete tried handing me money, but I waved it away.

I dropped my backpack on the bed and told Pete I was going to the TFA office and that I'd be back to fetch him for lunch.

"I know a good Italian place," I said.

"Sounds good. I'm famished." 

I descended the stairs to Monrovia Street and turned north on Muindi Mbingu Street to the Norfolk Towers, where the office was located. There, I was handed an application for a year-long extension on my contract. Marie Nelson, an administrative assistant, said I would be an excellent candidate. I thanked her and told her I would seriously consider it.

Marie also handed me a $250 reimbursement for a reason I can no longer remember, but it's written in my journal that I did collect the money, and that I walked out of the office feeling elated. Not because of the money. No, because that was the afternoon my heart leapt at seeing this photograph of Christy at the TFA office. I quickly snatched the photo from its album and tucked it into my shirt pocket.

I had planned on staying at the office longer, to catch up on news of my colleagues, but my eyes were starving for another glimpse of Christy's face, so I quickly said my goodbyes and stepped onto Harry Thuku Road and headed south. 

Walking the streets of Nairobi was always an experience. Street boys with glue bottles stuck to their noses. Grubby-clothed children, snot caking their upper lips, being directed by their mothers to tug at your sleeve and beg for shillings. A man with a leg as wide around as a basketball, a result of elephantiasis, panhandling for money on the sidewalk. Another man folded up by polio begging in the middle of an intersection, hoping drivers will toss a few shillings at his feet as they whizz by in their vehicles.

By this time, I had adopted the "Nairobi Walk." My version was to know exactly where I was headed before stepping onto the sidewalk and make a beeline for my destination. No meandering, no dawdling, no daydreaming. But here I was, meandering and dawdling along Harry Thuku Road as I gazed at the photo of Christy, daydreaming about seeing her again.

Luckily, no one tried taking advantage of me. Someone almost always tried. A Kenyan--always a man--would inevitably approach wanting to ask me a question. 

"Mistah, do you want to see the Kenyan Picasso?" No, thank you. "But his studio is just there." Just there was down a forbidding alleyway.

"Where are you from, sah?" The United States. "Where in the United States?" Chicago. "Me, I am going to the University of Chicago!" Congratulations. "Will you sponsor me?" 

"Where are you from, sah?" Portland. "I am going to school in Portland!" Which Portland? Furrowed brow. Then, a knowing smile, as he walks off.

The most puzzling question: "Excuse me, sah, but what did you pay for those shoes?" Nothing. "Nothing?" I stole them.

Pete was waiting for me in the lobby of the Parkside, freshly shaven, his wet hair slicked back. He was not used to Nairobi, so he did not brave the streets himself. He was shocked when I told him we should walk rather than take a taxi.

"It's only a few blocks," I said.

"So, you're not afraid of Nairobbery?"

I smiled. "Not anymore. It's not that dangerous if you know what you're doing."

"I have to admit, I was a little surprised when you took off on foot for the hotel."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"Like I said, you surprised me."

I led Pete to Trattoria, an Italian restaurant in the heart of the business district. We sat at a table on the second-floor balcony, overlooking Kaunda and Wabera streets.

Pete immediately ordered two Tuskers from the waiter. His eyes met mine.

"I got shillings that need spending," he said. "This is on me."

He was in no hurry to order. He downed two Tuskers before he even opened the menu. Eventually, he decided on a filet mignon, one of the more expensive dishes. 

"Order whatever you want," he said. "I mean it. I need to spend the last of me shillings."

"You can exchange them at the airport, you know."

"Nah. I want to go out in style."

I settled on tilapia in a white wine caper sauce. Pete ordered two more Tuskers. When our meal came, he ordered another round of Tuskers.

"I'm still drinking this one," I said.

"All right, then. One," he said to the waiter.

As the waiter cleared our plates, he ordered another round. By this time, he'd had six beers to my three. Pete excused himself to go to the bathroom. Once he was gone, I retrieved the photo of Christy from my shirt pocket. I must have mooned over it.

"Who's that?" Pete said over my shoulder, startling me.

"That was quick."

"I was gone several minutes," he said, sliding into his seat.

"I must be drunk."

"She's lovely."


"She your girl?"

"Yes," I said, and it felt wonderful to say it.

"Where is she?"

"In the States. Visiting family."

"Otherwise she'd be here?"


"I'm a poor substitute."

Pete waved down the waiter and ordered another round of Tuskers. I told him I preferred a coffee.

"Come on. Be a bloke. I'm leaving today."

I gave in. Halfway through the next beer, he began bemoaning his return to Broken Hill. 

"It's a dead end," he said. 

"It can't be that grim"

He said he had quit his job at a gas station in order to make this trip.

"They won't have me back. I'll probably end up in the mines with me old man."

He told me the world's largest mining company owned the town, so the most lucrative jobs were in the mining industry.

"It's like being in the mafia," he said "Once you're in, you're in for life."

"You'll land on your feet," I said, without conviction.

"Yeah, like a cat," he said, feebly.

Pete checked his watch.

"What time's your flight?"

"In three hours."

"You should get going."


But he sat there staring down at the pedestrians on Kaunda Street. His eyes followed a Maasai woman, with a shaved head, dressed in red and blue shukas, beaded sandals, beaded wristbands and necklace. The only thing missing was the beaded collar around her neck.

"Look at her," Pete murmured.

"Let me buy you one more round," I said.

He nodded. We spent another half hour on the balcony, mostly in silence, watching street life below.


Pete dashed upstairs to retrieve his bag, while I found a taxi and haggled with the driver over the fare. We settled on fifteen hundred shillings, a fair price. When Pete emerged from the hotel, however, he announced he had less than a thousand shillings left.

"Holy cow!" I exclaimed. "That's not enough to get you to the airport. Not by taxi."


"How much do you have?"

He pulled the wad of bills from his pocket and counted eight hundred shillings.

"We'll have to put you on a bus."

"How much is a bus ticket?" Pete asked.

"I don't know, but you're going to have to head to the bus stage now."


"I will take you to the airport," the driver insisted.

"He has only eight hundred shillings," I said.

The driver eyed me skeptically. All wazungu have money, he was thinking. I explained that Pete was leaving for home and had spent all his shillings.

The driver sighed. "Sawa."

"You'll take him?"


While Pete was climbing into the taxi, I retrieved seven hundred shillings from my wallet and slipped the bills into the driver's hand. He beamed with gratitude.

I leaned through the back window. "Have a safe trip."

Pete smiled. "You're a lucky bastard," he said. "I'd kill to be in your shoes."

We shook hands. I unbent myself and watched the taxi drive off. Pete stuck a hand out the window and waved. I returned the gesture.

I went up to my room and flopped onto the bed, staring at the swaying branches of a Eucalyptus tree outside the window. One day, I, too, would be leaving Kenya, and the thought seized me with panic. I could not imagine myself returning to the sanitized, soulless suburbs of Chicago. I imagined Pete returning to Broken Hill, tomorrow or the next day, and the sheer and utter despondency of his countenance was merely a projection, I knew, of how I imagined myself upon my return to the States.

Kenya had transformed me irrevocably. Though I had eight months left on my existing contract, I was determined to prolong my stay in Kenya. I sat up, retrieved the extension application Marie had given me, and sat at the desk to fill out the paperwork. Only a few of us in the group of sixty-four teachers would receive extensions. I was determined to be one of them.


Several weeks later, while on a Stagecoach bus in Nairobi, I thought I saw Pete walking west on Mama Ngina Street, near Trattoria. I swiveled in my seat to get a better look. I was sure it was him. Immediately, I pulled the chord, but the next stop was a few blocks away, at the Hilton Nairobi. 

I hustled down Mama Ngina Street, but Pete was nowhere to be seen. I turned north on Muindi Mbingu Street to Kenyatta Avenue, which was swarming with pedestrians. I backtracked and headed for Trattoria. I searched the restaurant but did not see him. I thought about checking the Iqbal Hotel, but that was in the opposite direction he had been heading.

When I thought about it some more, I realized I might have been mistaken. The hair was a little different, and the backpack was blue, not red. Pete was in Broken Hill. I gave up the chase. 

I had just endured six hours on matatus and buses, from Kenegut to Nairobi, over some of the most dangerous roads in the world, to see Christy. I was tired and filthy. The sun would set in about an hour. Christy was waiting for me, with wine and supper, in her house in Langata.

It was time to board the final matatu and head......well, home.

(To be continued)