Nairobi, Early-ish November, 2010
I was sitting across from my friend, Jemedari, in a restaurant cum pub waiting for the monthly poetry session, Bar Stool, to begin when an insanely curly-haired white girl walked in. Later, more friends would turn up for the gig—most notably Kevin “ManNjoro”— and the three of us ended up reciting poetry.
I remember there was a hilarious mchongwano (teasing) session right after and I can recall looking over to the girl’s corner thinking, “Poor thing, she’s not getting ANYTHING.” When the show was over and we all stood up to leave, I walked passed her table and I’ll never forget what I heard her say to me.
“Ningependa kuzungumza na wewe.” (I’d like to speak to you)
Sure, anybody can learn Swahili but what are the odds that such a person will introduce themselves to you at some random poetry gig?
“It’s ok. We can speak English,” I said.
“Lakini mimi ninapenda kuzungumza Kiswahili sana,” she replied. (But I like speaking Swahili)
“Yeah, but my Swahili is bad.”
Anna was a charming German chick who had travelled to Kenya to write a thesis on Performance Poetry as part of her African Studies: Literature and Culture course in her local university. “Bar Stool” was the first event she’d attended.
I took her to meet my pals and soon we were all laughing and chatting. I remember she told some funny bar joke about mushrooms. We all exchanged numbers and it seemed that was that until I found out that she was being hosted close to where I lived. And even after she’d interviewed me for her paper, we ended up meeting often at different events.
When she left one month later, we had discovered a shared love for Literature, Dancehall music—she’s the first white girl I know who dances to the beats as opposed to the words of a song, a fondness for making silly faces (and posting them on Facebook). But best of all, we had formed a sisterhood complete with cool nicknames.
Dar Es Salaam, Day, Night and Morning: December 19th-20th,2011
It had been a long journey to get there—671.15 kilometres to be precise. Ish. Anna was celebrating her 30th birthday in Zanzibar and last I checked Zanzibar is much closer to Kenya than Germany. I had to find a way to visit my friend. Preparation for the trip included a visit to Toi market for shorts, tops and the perfect Panama hat.
I also took fresh passport pictures to apply for a temporary passport. A ‘stabby’ time was had at the Nairobi City Council Immunization centre where I got a Yellow Fever jab– yes, you will need this to visit any East African country regardless of whether you will travel by bus or plane.
The jab is good for 10 years and costs Kes. 1800 (1500 for jab, 300 for certification book). It is actually slightly cheaper getting it done at the border at 1200 bob. Exchanging Kes. for Tshs. is also much rather done at the Namanga border.
In any case, the night before the trip, I had a slumber party/watching-of-fake-movies-then-bashing-them session with my good friend, Rosey. We had a cab guy pick us up at 5:30am so that I could make the 6:00am bus to Dar.
After warm goodbyes, I was on board…the wrong bus. Thankfully, I decided to double check with the conductor/bag handler and he pointed me in the right direction. I had an aisle seat but the guy I sat with had no qualms about letting me take the window seat. Cool dude. He’s name was Otieno and he was travelling to Dar to pick up his dad’s newly imported car.
He’d just gotten back from Rwanda and was on the road again. We talked about Kenyan weather, why it was cheaper to import a car via Tanzania and, of course, politics and the 2007/8 post election period. He told me about how he had been traveling with his sister and two brothers on the Nakuru-Nairobi highway when a group of rioters stopped them, dragged them out of their car and burned it right before their eyes.
They were next.
Thankfully, an army truck appeared and the hooligans scattered. But even then, the leader of the regiment had been reluctant to help. Otieno believes that it was because they were Luo and he was a Kikuyu. It took the intervention of the other soldiers–Kalenjins—to get them into the back of the truck and to safety.
“Walimwambia afadhali wamwache hapo watuchukue.” (They told him they’d rather pick us up and leave him there if he denied us help.)
Back at the Namanga border while filing the exit forms, I made friends with a bubbly, chubby girl called Mariam. She was a student at USIU going home for the holidays. Mariam wore a long black sweater over purple tights and sandals. Three of the nails on her right hand were skinny talons painted in different bright-coloured hues. Her laughter came easily and in short, loud bursts.
Everything was funny to her. Everything. She giggled at my excitement at reading the ‘you are now entering Tanzania’ board at the end of the no-man’s land on the border between the two nations. She cracked up while telling me how the guy she’d been sitting next to had offered up his shoulder for pillow services.
She was positively tickled by the look on my face on being told that a plate of nyama choma and chips costs Tshs. 4000. I eventually figured out the math, threw in a 500ml Azam Cola at Tshs. 1000 and enjoyed my first meal in Tizedi. Yum.
On reaching Ubungo bus station on the outskirts of Dar Es Salaam at 8:15 pm, Mariam and I decided to share a cab. By then, my phone battery was low and I needed to borrow a phone because the cousin who had offered me her place for the night had asked to personally direct the cab guy once I got into a car. Mariam lived in the general area I was headed to, so we dropped her off first then set off on what would later turn out to be the longest cab ride in my life.
My cousin works as a pilot and was away for the night. Her place is in an area known as Mikocheni or as I like to call it, “The Haystack”. We drove around for nearly two hours and could not find her house! We were in the right area, right estate but somehow we couldn’t find the house ‘next to a shop and within the same compound as a salon’.
Also, the gardener who had the keys to her house and who could have picked me up had switched off his phone. Alas! I had to find a hotel to stay for the night before catching the 7:00am ferry to Zanzibar the next morning.
It took us a while to find a reasonably priced hotel—at one point the cab guy asked his sister if she could host me, at a price, but still… Finally, a sleepy attendant at Hotel Ninety-Two handed me the blessed key to Room 12. I took a shower then carefully laid out my clothes for the next day.
Since my battery was flat and neither I nor the attendant had a charger (so much for Nokia phones with small pin chargers taking over the Universe), I asked her to wake me up at 6:00am—which she didn’t—and told the cab guy (whose name escapes me) to pick me up at 6:30am—which he didn’t.
Zanzibar, 9:30 am December 20th, 2011
The three of us were eating breakfast on the rooftop of a hotel in Stone Town. The view to my right was that of dozens of rooftops, taller limestone buildings scarred black with age and the evenly distributed rectangular shapes of wooden windows with shutters flung open.
The narrow street below was crammed full of curio shops, lesso-swathed women and twice as many young and old men. The thunderous drone of scooters and motorcycles pierced the air every so often. The view to my left? The upper halves of two waitresses framed within the till cubicle. Right before me? Anna “Banana” and her best friend Mareike (who we called “Malaika” for the entire trip.)
Three hours before that long-awaited reunion, I had woken up to a dark and rainy morning in Dar. The power was out, I had no way of telling the time so I got ready and set out to find the attendant. She informed that it was 6:30 am and that the cab guy was nowhere in sight.
Eek! We tried calling his number but it was off. I tasked the lady to get me a new cab guy and she dashed out for a while and returned with the news that, apparently, my earlier cabbie had sent another guy to pick me up but due to the heavy downpour she hadn’t heard his knocks on the main door. SMH.
Being the pessimistic Nairobian I am, I whipped out the umbrella I had packed in my hand luggage for this very eventuality and ran to the cab. Traffic was a little light and we arrived at the port by 6:50am. Along the way I used the cabbie’s phone to call Anna and told her that I was hoping to make the 7:00am ferry.
Through earlier research (which Anna later confirmed) I had found out that there were resident and non-resident rates for ferry rides. The difference in margins was ludicrous. Residents paid Tshs. 20,000 while non-resident paid 35 dollars (Tshs. 63,000). So, when I went to purchase my ticket and the guy asked, “Resident or Non-Resident?” I do believe that was when the Devil whispered in my ear.
Also, he may have flashed before my eyes the hotel and cab fare costs as notes set ablaze.
The guy looked me over once, laughed and said that he would help out his East African sister as he handed over a resident ticket. According to the slip of paper in my hands, I was “Awanjen”, a Tanzanian who was about to miss the 7:00am boarding call. I have never run that fast or desperately in my life. The “Azam Sea Bus” (they own EVERYTHING) was impatiently docked in waters located at the end of two very long corridors.
I finally skid to a halt where three gents in dashing white sailor uniforms stood waiting to check my ticket. They ask me to slow down, as the ferry still hadn’t left.
“Oh my God! Thank you Jesus!” I exclaimed as I handed over my ticket to a slim, yellow skinned officer.
He looked at my ticket, cut his eyes at me and asked for my resident ID in a curt tone.
It must have been the oh-my-God. And the “Jesus”– definitely the Jesus.
Just then, one of the other officers standing behind him told him to let me through. I made a dash for the ferry. I could see it clearly now. Kilimanjaro III was an ivory beast with streaks of blue running along its sides. I thought it looked very new, very clean and a lot like a mini-cruise ship. I wanted in.
“Your ticket madam?”
A man in a blue coat, brown shirt and black pants had his right hand stretched towards me. Oh Mama. I thrust the ticket into his hand and watched as he went over every line.
“Don’t worry, it can’t leave without me.”
What about me? I felt bubbles of anxiety rising up from my belly. Here is ferry. Here is me. Me not in ferry, why?
“So you are a Tanzanian? Where do you live?”
I was practically flailing my arms about and jumping up and down in a panic.
“Relax. Give me your passport.”
I dug into my hand luggage and handed over my temporary passport. At this point I couldn’t even make eye contact with him. Ticket: Awanjen (dude heard his own things when he asked me my name), Tanzanian. Passport: Wanjeri, Kenyan.
“Ok, you can board.”
Without a backward glance I made for the door of that ferry like my life depended on it. The ferry had four seating areas: Economy, First Class, Premium and Diplomatic VIP. From what I could tell, I had just entered the Economy class floor and the two staircases cordoned off and manned by three officers on opposing ends of the room led to the other three zones.
The floor was divided into three columns each with four rows of either blue or orange seats. A shop selling tea (!) and snacks took up one corner. I was in a blue seat between a mother who was haranguing her two kids and a soft-spoken lady clad in a black buibui. Next to her was a gentleman in a blue-striped shirt.
They played a video with various shots of the ferry confidently slicing through the big, blue ocean as a female voice-over gave us safety instructions in Swahili. They later screened “Dumb and Dumber” which everyone seemed to be paying close attention to until the waters got choppy and the ferry was violently rocking up and down. As water forcefully whipped against the windows, a murmur of duas floated all around me.
“Hapa kunajulikana kwa upepo mkali. Ni sehemu ndogo lakini…” (The wind is very strong here and even though it is a short section…) said the mother of two, her voice heavy with anxiety. She held her two children on her lap until the ferry stabilized and she could spread a lesso on the floor with ease. She then placed the older child on her seat and held the other close to her chest. We all fell asleep for the rest of the trip.
I opened my eyes sometime later and I remember seeing lots of brown. It was the sand at the shores of the island. My eyes travelled up and I scanned the buildings perched just behind the expanse of brown and I smiled. I had made it.
The officers manning the tourism information desk at the port were very friendly. They let me use their phone to call Anna and when I saw my crazy, curly haired friend running towards me, I knew that it was all worth it.
Nairobi, 9:00 am January 4th, 2012
First day back at the office–no sand or sea in sight. Sigh. I sat at my desk and went over the three great days I had at Mustapha’s place in Bwejuu, rural Zanzibar. It was where Anna and Malaika had first stayed in 2005 when they had been on a scholarship at Takiluki- Taasisi ya Kiswahili na Lugha za Kigeni for an advanced Kiswahili course.
It was paradise on a budget and it was lovely! I missed our spacious bungalow with a staircase smack in the middle that led to a secluded attic. I missed the Reggae playlist with its repeated play of certain songs (Richie Spice’s Brown Skin is now dead to me) and the suggestive nature of their evening selection. Ha!
I miss playing Bao with Anna, swinging (and attempting to strike poses) in the hammock with disastrous results. I miss our “body guard” Nassir who said “Hamna noma” (no problem) every two minutes! I miss hanging out at the swinging park benches made from planks of wood and rope.
I miss saying, “Gunste! Gunste!” Hehehe. And, I wish someone taped us when we went swimming and I discovered that there were jellyfish in the water. I have never sworn that much or that fluently. I was grateful to have met Juma, the awesome spice seller who remembered the girls, by name, from their trip six years ago!
Looking back now I realise that there are so many things that went wrong when I was alone. (When I got to Dar from Zanzibar–I travelled as a Kenyan this time, thank you very much–the buses to Mombasa were sold out and a conman tried to have me pay nearly Tshs. 10,000 extra for a seat in the next day’s bus) I cannot believe how calm I was. I always found a way. The lessons I took away from this trip is that I have finally grown up.
And, I can do anything.
A special thanks to my Dar angels; Nsia for her help in foiling that conman’s plan and Mama Fauzia for hosting me when I had no money and no place to go. (Thanks Triza and Aunty Azama for giving me the hook up.) Thank you God for keeping me safe and making so much possible.
In case you were wondering, I travelled to Mombasa on Christmas Eve to stay with my family until some days into the New Year. That part of my holiday was ten days of fun, sand bombs and “Nyum, nyummy”. But that’s a story for another day.