People seem to have this idea that I have lived a most exciting life – and I suppose in some ways that i true… I did pack up and leave for Germany when I was 17 to be a nanny about a week after a guy online who I didn’t know from a bar of soap offered me a job caring for his 3 kids. In my defense, this was before facebook was a thing, no one had a smart phone – hell my mobile had BUTTONS, and it was definitely before we were actually worried about online crazy people…. also I worked fulltime at Wendy’s the ice-cream shop, all my mates were already 18 and were going out clubbing without me, and I was bored…. So why wouldn’t I drop everything and fly halfway across the world to a country where I knew no one, and didn’t speak the language?
My sister used to laugh and tell me that I had “Africa Radar” which is to say if there was an African person, piece of clothing, statue, animal or food (Oh man, ESPECIALLY food… Ethiopian food, I am all over that!) I would have noticed from kilometres away… If there was an African movie, I had seen it, and African book, I had read it, and African music was generally playing on my stereo. The day before I left for Germany, I had met a Sudanese-Egyptian who immediately gave me his brother’s phone number saying “He lives in Munich, he will look after you.” … so naturally when I landed in a tiny, regional airport in Germany, the first person I met was a Somali man. He wrote me a couple of letters, and I still have his details somewhere…
The second person I met in Germany was an old German man called Wolfgang.
My first solo overseas adventure was from the start a complete stereotypical “Josie” adventure…..
The sharing of my German story will end here for now… but we may return to it later… Let us go to Africa now….
My journey to Africa began with an immigration agent in Doha, Qatar pulling me out of a line waiting for customs clearance, taking my passport, putting his phone number inside it, before passing it back to me without even opening it to the page containing my passport photo and details… He suggested I call him on my way back for a place to stay, (I didn’t). Shortly afterwards I was waiting to board a plane to Nairobi, once on board sat next to a Tanzanian guy, his name at this second escapes me, but he had dreads, and was wearing a black leather jacket… (I think he was involved in some sort of trafficking? Hindsight *sigh*), who I kissed just before we landed in Nairobi, and then never saw again… he too gave me his number, but calling a random Tanzanian, on a flight to Nairobi, when he was enroute to Uganda, just seemed a little off… besides, who seriously expects to find love on a plane to East Africa??
I don’t know how to describe the feeling of landing in the place where I had assumed that I was always meant to be. The Nairobi airport was dirty and dusty, and I was there for a whole 5 seconds before I saw men walking around with semi-automatic machine guns which terrified me and intrigued me at the same time. I could barely carry my backpack and hand luggage so I stacked a trolley up and started to look for my ride, a taxi driver called John (because that is enough information). Before I had taken two steps, I noticed two of these terrifying, yet slightly exciting, men with big guns searching through a Kenyan man’s suitcase. I was scared to walk passed in case I had missed the sign that said “show the big scary man with the gun your suitcase” plus I was carrying a whole lot of medications to use in a rural Kenyan clinic which I was not 100% certain were legal in Kenya…. I nervously approached a guard and asked if he needed to check my bags… he stopped, scanned me up and down, and looked at me as if to say “why would I need to see your bag? You’re a mzungu” (Mzungu is foreigner – but mostly used for white people… I got this look A LOT over the next few months) and then walked off without saying a word to me… My first African disaster (second if you include kissing the random Tanzanian on the plane) averted, I exchanged $200 US dollars into Kenyan Shillings and bravely walked out the doors into the intense African heat to find John, the stranger that I was going to trust to drive me around Nairobi, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Taxis in Australia are air conditioned, registered, have working door handles, and meter. Kenyan taxis… don’t. John’s taxi was somewhat limited. It was old, dirty and really hot inside. John expertly wove his way through the chaos that was the Nairobi Airport’s car park, paid the man with a AK47 100bob (about $2.00) to exit the car park and then proceeded to drive me to my accommodation. I was to spend the night with Wambui, a Kenyan lady, and her family before catching a 6am bus to Kakamega in Western Kenya. I will never forget that drive… we drove through what I have come to know as very normal Kenyan streets lined with Mama’s (women) selling Ndizi (bananas) boda-boda boys (young men driving bicycle ‘taxis’), men selling sticks of sugarcane to bare footed children, and even a man with an entire display rack of clothing attached to the back of his bicycle!
(I feel the need at this point to let you all know that I did not kiss the taxi driver, and I have never kissed anyone in possession of a AKA47).
When I was at uni I remember people talking about the ‘compounds’ they lived in Nairobi, and the other kids that lived there… I never really understood the concept until I arrived at Wambui’s house. A compound is a group of houses, or a line of houses, all the same, all owned by the same landlord, surrounded by a wall, guarded with a (usually Masaii) security guard. The houses share a yard, or a ‘court yard’ and depending on the level of affluence of the tenants, may have shared toilets and showers. Wambuis house was in a compound with maybe a dozen others, in this particular compound houses had their own bathrooms, Wambui had a toilet (with no toilet seat) and a shower, which apparently ran hot and cold water… I only managed to make the cold water work. Off her tiny crowded living room was a tiny kitchen, which I did not enter, and two tiny bedrooms, one which her brother slept in, and another that she shared with her sister. As I was a guest Wambui gave me her bed, and she slept on the couch.
Incidentally this is one of the things I love about Africans… if you have a guest in Australia, particularly an adult guest, you make sure they have their own bed, ideally a double bed, in their own room, and as much privacy as can be arranged. When I have stayed with Africans I have shared bedrooms with my friends, their parents, cousins, old Mamas, little kids. I’ve shared single beds with girls my age, with little kids and other people’s babies – I’ve sat topless on a bed breastfeeding while a woman and toddler I’ve only met once before have walked in just to chat (and I swear to see if white people – mzungu – really breastfeed!) and I’ve never felt more welcomed.
In Australian culture, if someone offers you a drink or something to eat it is polite to refuse initially.
Host: Would you like a coffee Josie?
Josie: Oh, no thanks, I’m okay.
Host: Are you sure? I’m just making one for myself.
Josie: Oh, well, in that case it would be lovely, thank you so much!
In Africa however, that is not the case. When someone offers you food or drink the correct answer is, ‘oh yes, thank you!’ In fact to say no is just plain rude, you are refusing a person’s hospitality, quite an insult. Further to that, if you turn down food the first time it is offered, it isn’t offered again. I learned that day one, meal one. I didn’t have dinner my first night in Kenya. Wambui offered me dinner, and I politely said “No thank you.” To my surprise no one offered twice. Having just flown from the other side of the world my internal clock was completely out of whack so at the time that was not a big deal until about 2am when I woke up starving. I had just had my first lesson in African Hospitality.
My first full day in Africa began at 4am with a cold shower and a quick breakfast of very sweet, very weak tea made with powdered milk and stale bread spread with vegemite. I was in Africa, sitting with Kenyan, drinking tea grown and made in Kenya by Indians, eating vegemite. I don’t think anyone can truly understand globalisation until that has happened.
I think my first morning in Nairobi, heading by matatu small 14 seated bus which carried no less than 22 passengers and several pieces of luggage (but little livestock in the big city) to the Easy Coach station to catch a proper bus the 220km from Nairobi to Kakamega, a journey that was to take me nine hours, was the first time in my life that I have felt really out of my depth. For a start, no one had told me where I was going, or why. I knew that I was going to go to my volunteer placement that day, and as a Westerner foolishly assumed that 220km by high way would take about 2.5 hours at a maximum, as such couldn’t imagine why on earth I would be needed at a bus station before 6am.
If you asked me to describe Nairobi that morning I would have told you Nairobi is a fast place and Nairobi is dirty. People are rushing, all the time, which in hindsight I find a little ironic as everyone in African seems to operate on ‘African Time’ which is a good few hours slower than wzungu time (white people’s time – mzungu is singular, wzungu is plural). People were jumping on and off the matatu the conductor was yelling, demanding money off passengers, who were grouchily haggling with him to negotiate the lowest possible fairs. Everything happened in a bit of a whirl for me that morning. Wambui negotiating my fare, locals on the bus glaring at me because my backpack took up too much space, Wambui yelling at the conductor when he tried to get me to pay my fair after she had already done so, us almost falling out of the bus once we got to Nairobi centre and we needed to fight our way through the crowds all the while avoiding huge puddles of stagnant water that seemed to be everywhere in the city, to get to the bus stage where I would board a bus to take me to Kakamega… a reasonable sized town in Western Kenya.
I distinctly remember the conversation I had with Wambui that morning, she told me not to talk to any one on the bus, and not to accept food or drink from anyone “even if they seem nice.” I didn’t as her at the time why it was that I shouldn’t take candy from strangers, as that lesson had been driven into my head when I was a kid anyways. (The other thing I remember from the station was the second scariest toilet in the world (the scariest toilet was in Mutaho Village, and I will explain it later…think “Slum Dog Millionaire”) I had mentally prepared myself for deep-drop toilets in the village, and eastern style public toilets… I hadn’t quite expected the dirtiest western style toilet in the world which is what I found at the bus station. As I was about to go on a nine hour bus trip however, my only option was to deal with it. So I did… I remember going back to sit with Wambui and she was looking at me funny and asked me ‘so the toilets are bad yeh?’ and I was thinking in my head this is really not the time to complain, further I don’t want her to call ahead to Kakamega and tell them that I wouldn’t last in the village… so I shrugged my shoulders and told her “public toilets in Australia aren’t very nice either.” It wasn’t a lie… it just wasn’t all that true either.
Naturally, as soon as I was out of sight of my supervising host Wambui (her name is pronounced “Wham-boo-ie” for all you wazungu reading) I lapsed a little in following her instructions…. so although I had promised Wambui that I wouldn’t accept food from strangers I decided that once I had befriended/been befriended by a 16 year old girl named Miriam on the bus, sharing lunch with her seemed like the polite thing to do. I had dodgy chocolate cream biscuits, she had dodgy custard and cream biscuits… we were best of friends. Miriam was travelling to Kakamega to stay with her Aunty for the school holidays. She was the first person I had ever seen open a glass Fanta bottle with her teeth, she also explained to me that one has to keep the glass soda bottles to get their money back. This was a lesson that I was born a generation too late to have learned in Australia. It was fun sharing this horrendously long bus journey with her, she was young enough to have only taken the journey once or twice, and I had never done it, so together we pointed excitedly at the Zebras we passed by. We saw incredibly ugly baboons (I swear I saw one that looked just like an exboyfriend of mine…not naming names of course! Hobart people, try and guess that one….) and even uglier baboons fighting with one another using broken glass bottles (please don’t litter in Kenya guys!) as well as giraffes, buffaloes and gazelles. The bus fare from Nairobi to Kakamega was about $16 Australian – which makes it the cheapest safari ever!
I arrived in Kakamega at around 4pm that afternoon, tired, grumpy and pretty sure that forgetting to write down Onesmas’s number was a big mistake… what if he forgot to come and collect me? Sitting in the Kakamega bus station, watching the clock on the wall I counted minutes…. Five, ten, twenty-five, forty… an hour later he arrived, picked up my pack and we walked to the matatu stage. We got on board, he paid my fare, and we were on our way to Shikunga Village. It was almost 6.30pm by the time we made it to the village, the sun was starting to set, I was jetlagged, hungry and really dirty. I swear there was no longer any dust on the road between Nairobi and Kakamega because I had carried it all with me… it was in my hair, on my face, I felt like I had dust under my skin. To make matters work, I knew that it would be some months before I would have access to a hot shower again.
I was 21… it was a long long long time ago… but this is a piece of my story…. a piece of me.