Three weeks ago this Friday I landed at the Nairobi airport not as a pass through passenger, which had been the extent of my stays in the glorious Nairobi airport, but as a resident of this city. Nairobi is the epitome of the "teeming masses" cities of Africa. Its roads clogged at every artery, people traveling every which way, by every mode of transport, foot, bicycle, car, truck, Mutatu (never, ever risk your life on these overstuffed, poorly maintained, rap music thumping death traps) and even donkey and over sized wheel barrow. The smell of diesel lingers throughout the day and everything appears to have this film of soot. A 20k drive from my house to one of the only areas to ride safely both from a road standpoint and a roving thug bike jacker standpoint can take as few as 30 minutes on an early Sunday morning to 2 hours during the evening commute. Needless to say, I am out of my comfort zone. The girl who craves wide open spaces and quiet rides to regroup and gather my thoughts and find my sanity north is living the complete antithesis life. I cling to the brights spots that remind me, the present sacrifice of quality of life has its shining moments.
Last Tuesday when I was staying up in the northwest area of Kenya in a small town on the shores of Lake Victoria I had the opportunity to get to know one of the assemblers from the World Bicycle Relief warehouse in Kisumu. He's a young man named Alex. (I know, there appears to be a pattern with young men named Alex.)
Alex is always laughing. No joke, there was not a moment in three hours in the car that he wasn't laughing, or smiling or praising his wife, his family or his life. His spirit was infectious and he instantly engaged me. Alex is an assembler, however, he wants more responsibility and is trying to improve his skills on the computer and in sales. He loves to sell and is so proud of the WBR Nyati Bicycle. He would jump out of the truck any time we stopped even for a few minutes to explain to the rapidly growing crowds the benefit of the "Nyati".
During our ride through the rolling hills of Western Kenya, we talked about everything from family planning to Martin Luther King. Unlike Rwanda, there does seem to be a conscious effort to plan for a family. Alex has one wife, in Kenya it is not out of the ordinary to have multiple wives. He said she is his one wife, until death do they part. He has three children, two girls and a boy and the one reason he agreed to "up" the family above the agreed upon two was simply that he wanted a boy. His youngest is his boy. He adamantly stated his family is complete and in his eyes "perfect". He spoke several times to his wife along the trip and every time was like listening to a school boy profess his "crush" for the girl who had captured his heart. It was at the same time beautiful to my ears and crushingly sad as I thought about my life alone here in Kenya.
Alex also asked me many questions about America. He had heard from his uncle the proverbial streets paved with gold scenario. I did not burst his bubble, America is still the most amazing country in the world, however, I felt he should know that all is not perfect regardless the country. We talked about the economy and the poor in America, which still in my mind have it made compared to poverty any where else in the world. And then he asked about Martin Luther King. I was shocked at first that this Kenyan who had never been outside his country knew about Martin Luther King. I told him as much as I knew. I have studied King's life extensively. His peaceful protests that changed America are historical. I often wonder what America would have been like had his life not been cut short. I told Alex the good and the really ugly history of America. I spoke about the Civil Rights Movement, the KKK, the lynchings, the segregation of everything from water fountains to restaurants to hotels to education. Martin Luther King transcends decades and continents and continues to influence even a young man in Kenya. It was shocking even as I spoke to think about what the whites did to the blacks even in a "civilized" country like America.
And then we moved on to African history, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa...Alex simply said, "Madam knows so much about Africa." Madam, he called me Madam all day and every time I evoked an image of a brothel outside Las Vegas. I did not have the heart to tell him that his term of respect made me conjure up such inappropriate images.
I spent five days traveling around western Kenya meeting with interested groups, coordinating a delivery of 700 bicycles to World Vision, and lugging a Nyati with me everywhere to demonstrate why this country, these people need THIS bike. For five days I was in my element.
And then I returned to Nairobi. I had to start wearing my mouth guard again because I'm grinding my teeth so severely every night I am destroying my $1,300 crown I just had put in for the previous round of grinding. It is interesting as you age, how you begin to really know yourself and know the triggers that go against your grain.
Luckily I dove headfirst into my work here. I really love working for WBR. I believe strongly in what they do, who they are and what they stand for in Africa. I am so blessed to have this experience and know that I was put here for a reason. Perhaps, to toughen up a bit or maybe even to soften up a bit. We shall see in the coming months.
And yes, I have ridden my bike a bit. Not enough that's why I'm just a bit "off" but the riding I have done through the forests along the edge of the Rift Valley has been spectacular. The guys I have ridden with are fun and I think just a bit impressed that the old American girl can keep up. Of course, I am the only girl. I just need to enjoy the moments when I do get to ride to brace myself for the in your face onslaught of chaos that is Nairobi.
Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore