Days 1-2: Nairobi
Arriving in Nairobi a few days earlier than the rest of the group, I attempt to experience my birthplace through their eyes.
The airport is definitely third world, although it could be worse. Outside, diesel-laden air assaults my coddled oesophagus as traffic closes in a choke-hold. My cab driver rotates his wrist at my open window. “Close please. Purse snatching. Road vendors.” I should know better. Living in Canada has deposited a layer of carefree sediment, which I need to quickly slough off.
With their shoulder-hoisted cargo of flowers, chips, cheap plastic toys, and puppies, roadside vendors amble in the path of frazzled swerving and frantic hooting. At roundabouts, police appear to direct traffic. My driver says, “These guys are in cahoots with the vendors. For a bribe, they actually slow traffic so vendors can sell their stuff.” He shakes his head and wrenches the steering wheel to avoid a matatu – infamous private transit minibuses – which has climbed the highway divider in order to overtake. The matatu’s careening posterior proclaims: “In God we Trust”.
On the highway divider, pedestrians dodge not only the matatus’ impatience but also a shower of Marabou stork droppings from the canopy of acacia trees. They walk with umbrellas. Should your driver detour he will likely drive through Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, set against the backdrop of shiny high-rises. My driver doesn’t detour, and soon after the Westlands roundabout I am soothed by the verdant oasis of my in-laws’ home.
The first group members, Bill and Mina arrive. Mina, also Nairobi-born, is back after 35 years. They look shell-shocked. Their first words: “How lucky are we to live in Toronto! Can’t understand your wanting to return.”
Why indeed? I battle the question as events of the past few days flood my mind. My father-in-law has just been admitted to a Nairobi ICU, which, like most healthcare in Kenya, is private. My mother-in-law was asked to put down a wad of cash before they would admit my father-in-law. Once again, I realised how fortunate I am in Canada.
But when I witness the incredible outpouring of community support – from food that is delivered three times daily to endless hospital rides and company for my mother-in-law at all times – I remember why I would return to Nairobi. When towering walls of psychedelic pink bougainvillea tumble along dusty roadsides, and when sunny smiles and greetings of “Karibu!” surround me, I remember why.
The group finally all arrive, and my Nairobi childhood friend arranges for a karoga (cook-out) party. We eat, laugh and dispel the stresses of travel and ICUs. My friend goes out of her way not only for me, but for the entire group. She hosts, graciously accompanies us on our sightseeing, shops, stores extra baggage, and organises cellphones. A group member, J, is numbed with news of her mother’s death which arrived as she descended Kilimanjaro (a pre-safari add-on). She says, “I decided to continue with the safari because I knew the group from Toronto and knew they would be supportive. And somehow, I knew everyone in Nairobi would be just as supportive.”
Besides sightseeing at the Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary, Karen Blixen Museum, and the Giraffe Sanctuary, it is this indefinable yet evocative element of Nairobi life that I wished my group to experience. If J’s words are anything to go by, the group was touched by Nairobians’ graciousness.