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Friday, July 13, 2012

being back

Nothing fits quite like it used to, nothing feels at all as it should that’s the truth about how it feels to back home after a long time. Everything is familiar enough to make you feel like you know where all the pots and pans are and then you open drawer after drawer in search of knives and can’t locate them; if you’re not careful enough home will take away your fingers. Just because it looks the same doesn’t mean it is and even if it was just because it is the same doesn’t mean you are.

I had a roving first week trying to touch base with as many people in as many locations as I could. And what struck me was the immensity of Nairobi and the necessity of public transport. Trying to get from Kileleshwa to Rongai a mind map just laid itself out and the distances were outstanding, I walked everywhere in Kristiansand and now I was going to walk those distances just to get to the matatu stop. The immensity of the place related to time too. Not just time in traffic which is the best lullaby in the world nothing saps my energy like traffic does, I try to read and tire of it and then study the scenery and tire of how static it is then I feel like dozing and put my eyelids against my eyes and sleep for just a bit and jerk awake. There is another type of waiting i had forgotten about though, the waiting for a bus to fill up. There is no clock on this, there is nothing you can do about it, you can’t rile against human inadequacy you just wait because you must be patient in Kenya.

Am trying to get to Rongai and I ask the conductor how much to Barclays and he says
“park place mbao” twenty shillings to parkplace
After I get in I tell him “nilisema Barclays” I said Barclays.
“oh huko ni 40.” oh, for there its 40
“we wacha hizo, ningejua ni 40 singeingia” ah, forget that if i knew it was 40 i wouldn't have come in.
“relax, ata hakuna music hapa kelele yako kila mtu anaskia” relax, there's even no music on this matatu and everyone can hear the noise you're making.
“hiyo ata ni poa nimeleta entertainment, hawa wasee wote wanacheka wacharge 5 bob 5 bob ya kicheko alafu mi nilipe mbao.” that's even good i brought some entertainment then, all these people laughing charge them 5 shillings for the show and let me pay twenty.

This did not work, but I have missed travelling in Kenya. I forgot where everything is though and it doesn’t matter since all you need to get anywhere is the number of the matatu and the name of the place. This Norwegian girl who’s been here for 6 months points out it’s the same in Norway and for the first time it hits me that it is the same, exactly the same. As long as you know what number to take and where to get off you can get anywhere. So why does it feel so different? There’s a flavour of human interaction in the way you do it here. You know the name of the place and you have to tell the conductor or a fellow passenger to warn you when you get there. You have to depend on other people’s kindness and goodwill to get anywhere. Nairobi is notoriously a place you don’t trust anyone  but is this really true when we build our whole lives on backbones of trust like this and hope that the system isn’t paralysed by too much weight.

Also it’s cold here. It’s really cold especially indoors and especially at night. During the day the stone houses keep the icy breath of the Kenyan cold season frigid. It blows in the doors and windows and even if those are closed it passes through the walls like a spirit and my teeth are always a-chatter wondering what happened to Kenya and all my fond memories. At night when the sun has been gone for a few hours and we are still a few hours from dawn I feel like am back in Norway. It’s too cold outside and to dark always too dark. Same Norwegian girl tells me,
“on the bright side it’s only getting warmer now.”
It hits me that I have heard this sentence, this exact sentence for a whole year, I heard it in January in the midst of winter and in February as her clutches slowly withdrew from the world. I heard it in April when what passes for spring in Norway rained me down, I heard it in June as I froze my ass off every night and I come back home to hear it in Kenya? I don’t believe in warm weather anymore. Maybe it never existed and we just lied to ourselves about it.

There are things I have to forget, I have to forget about street lights, I can’t use them to cross roads anymore. I used to think that a zebra crossing was like a piano on the road, a place of beautiful stillness where a pedestrian was for once at peace. Here it’s a different kind of piano, a symphony written to chaos and speed and randomness. It’s looking right and left and still scurrying across, its taking the time to listen to the other warning sounds, the hoots from the cars, the shouts from the people, your own gut that still remembers at least partially how to keep you safe.

I missed how loud people talked and how every conversation had so much potential to turn into a discussion on your family and where they are from and how you are doing and the price of the dollar and…

I missed the throng of people. The almighty rush of millions and millions (or so it seems) going about their daily business in town. Rushing here and there trying to make a living. It gives the air a certain tinge, a certain urgency as life moves to this rhythm. This quick paced, life laced  beats that strum through the air with every shout, with every shop that blares music out of its premises, with every matatu conductor having an argument with a passenger.

Sunday I woke up and went downstairs to get breakfast. “if there’s none over  there it’s over.” This was my first day back home and already it felt like I had never left.

The best moments are the quiet ones. Once you know someone for long enough, when you’ve lived with them for years and years words don’t mean so much. Presence is all that’s needed. I can be busy in the sitting room, writing or reading. Eating or thinking and just next to me is another member of my family absorbed in their own world, maybe sharing conversations I can’t be a part of but there’s an unaffectededness to it, a quiet tenderness, this too is time spent together. The feeling of comfort that disappears after a few hours of wakefulness, when I have shaken away the demons of the night that haunt me so much now, dragging me back and forth and everywhere, after being awake for a while I know exactly where I am. Am in a place that needs you to wear a sweater indoors, in a place of complete comfort of quiet and of noise. And most importantly the peace that comes in the chaos of being home.

Last night I went out and lost my phone. It’s a common enough occurrence if not in Kenya at least for me. When I finally woke up I switched on the instant water heater(it took a while to stop turning taps the other way when water comes out cold but I got used to that too.) this heater doesn’t work too well. Am used to the water steaming me up and while this one is warm it’s not hot. And there are coils around the shower head, for every few drops one begins to coalesce there and become cold so two times a minute or so  a cold drop of water will fall down and shiver you up. It’s not completely comfortable but it’s ok. Add to that we are having temperatures of 15 degrees in the day. The thing about water being just so is that you don’t want to come out, when it’s hot enough it’s hard to leave but nothing like this, here your mind freezes into inaction you need to step out and know you’ll feel better once you dry yourself off but you can’t move. The water is just cold enough to remind you how cold it is outside the shower and just warm enough that you can stand there for a bit longer, just a bit. This is how Kenya feels. It’s not completely comfortable, it’s not entirely safe, you can lose your phone on a night out and there are vast stretches of road without light. Places of abyss where only fools tread. But it’s comfortable enough. You don’t want to leave, you never do. There’s a breath of life in everything. Every step feels more meaningful, tinged as it is with danger and fatality. Life is much more immediate here, much louder, much more chaotic just muchier. I probably feel like this because am home and it is home but sometimes this thought runs through my mind and it feels exaggerated and mildly false but every once in a while I will think, “I have never been as in love with anything as I am with Kenya right now.”


  1. You sound confused, but you also sound happy, and that's always a good thing =)

    1. yeah it is such a mishmash of feelings happiness sneaks in though quite a lot