I was pretty sure it wasn’t a kidnapping. Wedged into the middle of the Peugeot’s backseat, bumping along a Nairobi road my first night in the country, it did occur to me that agreeing to go home with a stranger might not have been the best idea.
Esther wasn’t a complete stranger, though. I’d met her about 10 hours earlier on a British Airways flight out of London, where coincidentally I was also wedged into the middle of a disappointingly small aircraft. As I wheeled my black carry-on down the narrow aisle of the airplane, bumping hands and rolling over business-class toes, I prayed that somehow I would be saved from the dreaded middle seat. There had to be two lovers on the plane who would beg me, beg me, to trade my middle seat for one of their window seats because they just couldn’t stand spending the next ten hours so far apart. Or maybe the passenger at the emergency exit would answer, “No, I’m pretty sure that if this plane goes down I will not be able to open the emergency exits.” At which point I would jump up and selflessly volunteer myself for such an onerous responsibility.
But alas, no one seemed interested in switching seats on the full flight, so I took my seat between the barely-twenty-something girl poking at the screen on the seatback in front of her, hastily trying to join the chat with the other members of her youth group scattered throughout the plane, and a quiet woman in a long skirt and light colored sweater, sitting comfortably against the window. Esther had a kind face and a soft brown complexion, and when I sat down she smiled.
Under normal circumstances, I’ll talk to anyone. But on an airplane, my general plan of social interaction is to be as antisocial as possible. You never know what you might be sitting next to. Maybe it’s the enamored Indian student who in broken English gives unsolicited Sudoku hints over your shoulder. Or worse, a middle-aged businessman from Wallonia wearing too much of a cheap cologne that conjures images of the ex-boyfriend who thought late-night televangelists were a suitable backdrop for making out.
But when Esther asked me about my trip to Kenya, I answered, and we talked off and on over the next eight hours. I didn’t know anyone in Nairobi. No, I didn’t have a place to stay yet. I’d never been to Africa. I didn’t have a ride to my hotel prearranged. She offered to give me a ride to my hotel from the airport and told me I could probably stay with her family for a few days if need be.
Because I’m American, I first assumed her offer was half-hearted and insincere, just one of those things you say.
“Oh, how long are you in town for? We’ll have to get together! Yeah…. Give me a call…”
If you are American or have dealt extensively with Americans, you know that the ellipses represent a subtle change in pitch that communicates to the interlocutor, “If you call me, I’ll tell you I’m soooooo sorry, but I just got soooooo busy and I don’t think I’ll be able to get together with you. But next time you’re in town for sure!” And if this conversation takes place via social media, text or email, it will undoubtedly be accompanied by a frowning emoticon to communicate the highest level of sincere disappointment. (This particular American tone can best be described as a subtly condescending whininess, as if a kindergarten teacher were trying to sweet talk her five-year-old student into syncing her iPad.)
But after staring zombie-eyed at several episodes of Bones and The Big Bang Theory, I took my ear buds out and Esther and I started talking again. I found out she and most of her immediate family had lived in the States for several years. She goes back to Kenya every year if she can.
After a few more hours of watching reruns and a meal of spicy, orange-tinted chicken, we landed in Nairobi about 10 pm. As I heaved my backpack off the snaking conveyor belt, Esther came up to me and told me the offer of a ride still stood. I figured I’d taken taxis before, but I’d never hitched a ride with a bunch of Kenyans, so I followed her. I waited with her as she loaded suitcase after suitcase onto a cart.
Outside of security, Esther greeted two older men and several young guys. After an exchange in Swahili with several glances at me, one of the older men greeted me with a broken-toothed smile and we all headed out into the Nairobi night. The young men stuffed Esther’s giant, over packed suitcases into the back of an SUV, mine into the trunk of the Peugeot, and off we went.
After an eight-hour flight from Dallas to London, then an equally long flight from London to Nairobi, I was really looking forward to my hotel bed. A bed I had only seen in a picture on hotels.com. A bed that promised breakfast in the morning and alcohol at night. But I had no idea where my hotel was, and neither did they. So after bumping along endlessly in the darkest city I’ve ever been in, when the idea of coming home with them was thrown out there, I accepted, thankful for a place to stay. And hoping they had a beer.
Almost there, we got rerouted. Recent rains had washed out a road and we had to turn back. Once we were off the main street, we began climbing up an unpaved, rocky, narrow road bordered by tall hedges on both sides, an English maze on a hill.
Finally, we stopped at a gate. Once opened, we drove a few more feet to another gate – the inner compound.
Thankful to be out of the car, my feet touched down on what in daylight would turn out to be sandy, red rocks. After so many hours in transit, my feet were unsteady and I had difficulty navigating the rugged yard.
The yellow light pouring out of the brick house in front of me was the only light to be seen, giving the building an incandescent feeling. The front door opened to a narrow corridor with a concrete floor and yellow-tinted walls. The faint smell of paint permeated the air, masked only by the unfamiliar smells of what was cooking in the kitchen. A hall running perpendicular to this corridor led to a kitchen on the right and bedrooms on the left. A bunch of women, who like Esther wore long, pleated skirts and headscarves, stared back at me from the kitchen. In the living room, just off the kitchen, all the men mingled. Some of them young, wearing bright t-shirts and high top sneakers. Older men with dark, weathered faces wore suits with ill-fitted jackets and pressed trousers.
The light in the house amplified the jaundice tint of the recently painted walls. Then the greetings started.
I’m an anthropologist. I’ve read about the intricate greeting practices of such-and-such tribe of such-and-such place. So I watched intently as everyone moved from one person to the next, grasping right hands and talking rapidly in a strange language. I found out later some of them were saying “amen, amen, amen, amen, etc.” But Esther was greeted differently. Their words grew faster and more fervent as they received each other, as if the vowels were rolling downhill at the incline of their bowed heads.
“This must be what Swahili sounds like,” I thought.
It wasn’t. They weren’t speaking in Swahili. They were speaking in tongues.
After shaking hands with everyone, I retired to my room at the end of the hall. Esther and I had moved my things to that room because the door locked.
About 2 a.m. it dawned on me that the door locked from the outside. And I remembered walking past an interior gate that separated access to the bedrooms from the rest of the house. So I got up and checked to make sure I hadn’t been locked in. So far I hadn’t, but they could’ve been waiting. I cracked the door so the sound of it shutting would alert me. I pulled back the curtains to look for alternative escape routes in the event I did get locked in, but found the windows had bars. I laid back down and tried to sleep, but I soon her roosters crowing and chatter in the rest of the house.
I got up, dressed, and was met in the living room with a cup of chai and chapati, the unleavened flat bread that is a staple of meals in Kenya.