#4 Saturday in Nairobi

Saturday, June 25, 2011

#4 Saturday in Nairobi

Hi All,

My days get changed all the time.  What I thought in the morning is often only a small part of what actually happens.  I had thought today would be very leisurely, teaching a class (yes they go to school on Saturday) on curve sketching, taking pictures and interviewing more of the scholarship girls, coming home to relax, write and get myself better organized.  ‘Twas not to be.

Walking into the kitchen for breakfast I found Judy and Jecinta (social worker) planning a trip to Nairobi to buy things to sell at home (to support Jecinta’s work here in the slums, as well as children in the orphanage).  Oh!  I really wanted to go, but I couldn’t back out of that class I’d promised to teach for Simon.  The teachers use me to cover some topics they are unsure about (and I attend classes when they teach topics I don’t know).

We agreed I would go to school, call when I was finished, at which time they would board a matatu.  I would begin walking up to the road to catch it there.  It worked beautifully, and we 3 were soon ensconced in the back seat, chatting and feeling squeezed by very small space.

In Nairobi we walked for maybe 10 minutes to the Maasai market, across unbelievably jammed streets, where traffic moved at a snail’s pace and people took their lives in their hands to get across.  We would wait until a big group of people took advantage of 3 inches of space and scurry across with them.  It’s everyday for them, but a bit breath-taking for us, although we felt secure with the savvy Jecinta.

The market sits in a large fenced in park in central Nairobi.  Venders are jammed so tightly the aisles are maybe a foot wide.  Most spread their wares on the ground and are hawkers par excellence.  Mzungus are particularly targeted for their spiel.  Immediately we were flooded by young men, all wanting to be our guides and show us the best prices.  We ignored them as best we could and eventually they gave up and went off to find others to hassle.  The goods were so varied and abundant, I wished I could fill a van with carvings, baskets, fabrics, and cutenesses galore.

We headed for the purse sellers first.  We each selected what we thought we could carry and what we thought people at home would like—and then the haggling began.  The woman we eventually bought from was a formidable bargainer, but no match for Jecinta.  Oh, she’s tough!  Back and forth they went, “Oh no, Madam, these are far superior to the ones you bought last week for sh 350, no, these are worth at least sh 600.  The ones you bought at 350 were made of sisal, these are made from baobab!”  “No, 600 is not possible, just tell us what is your best price.”  It was an experience to behold, each knowing there would be a compromise, but each wanting to get the advantage.  Eventually Judy bought 3 and I bought 10.

I got 2 nativity sets, smaller than ones I’ve gotten before, but very nice, salad sets with carved handles, cute little Maasai candle sticks, colorful soapstone bowls, and a wonderful Noah’s ark, complete with Mr. and Mrs. Noah, about 8 animal pairs, the ark and steps to climb up.  It’s the best thing I saw.  I hope to get back to buy several more of them, but we were limited by what we could carry and the purses are bulky.

We wandered through the aisles, bumping into people, fending off aggressive sellers, trying to think what would please people at our fund raisers in the fall.  I’d love any feedback from readers about what you wish I’d bring back.  The variety of goods is quite overwhelming and I worry I’ll buy things that appeal only to me!

Loaded with bulging backpacks, our ever-handy cloth shopping bags, several large plastic bags (Oh! The shame of it!), feet aching, knee complaining (mine), tummy rumbling (3:30 and no lunch) we made our way through the maze to the gate and out to the street.  Then more decisions.  We were treating, of course, so we found a restaurant, piled our bundles onto the floor and fell into chairs.  That felt good!  It was a burger and chip place—ACH!  We ordered fish, which was Jecinta’s suggestion.  It came with a huge helping of fries and fried, batter-covered tilapia.  The fish was delicious, but I removed the outside, which was dripping with fat.  Shyly, Jecinta asked could she have it.  She liked it better than the fish.  She insisted on sharing her fish with me in exchange for all the fried covering.  To my amazement we 3 ate every last fry and all the fish (and batter).

By then it was nearly 5 and our weary laden bodies faced a long walk back to the matatu station.  It didn’t take Judy and me long to agree on a cab, but Jecinta, feeling like a baby-sitter, I’m sure, worried about our being high-jacked and taken off to who knows what.  In the end we found a very nice cabby, a marvelous driver who wended his way through impossibly narrow streets of cars, trucks, matatus, hand carts, pedestrians and other cabs, nose-to-tail, all vying for the advantage at impossible intersections, and missing each other by the nano-meter.  Judy and I were amazed at the skill and determination of the drivers.  We didn’t see one vehicle so much as graze another.

In the matatu we were crammed in the back again, but this time we had all our baggage as well.  In the single seat in front of us was a mother with an infant and a small girl of about 6.  Like most African moms, she had bought 1 ticket, which meant the baby was on her lap and the daughter was on the floor at her feet.  This is a 1 ½ hour ride!  Eventually the man in the seat opposite got off and the girl was pulled out of her cramped space, only to have a new passenger board.  At this point the 3 of us squeezed a bit more and found about 3 inches for her tiny bottom between us.  She looked a bit unsure of sitting between the 2 mzungu ladies, but necessity overcame fear and she sat there until their stop.

As we neared home we realized we’d made a tactical error.  Jecinta was getting off at her house, outside of town and she was jammed into the corner seat.  How to get her out and how would Judy and I lug all the stuff that had loaded down the 3 of us?  Fortunately, about that time the woman with the baby and the child got off.  We loaded bundles into 2 seats, Judy moved to one of them, Jecinta squeezed and slid out, moving just like the traffic, inches at a time.  She also had the foresight to call Agnes to send some of the children to the compound gate to lug our bundles for us.  The matatu stopped right at our gate, the children were there, but the tout (conductor) worried about handing them our things, thinking they might be street thugs.  We all laughed and eventually managed to get ourselves and all our purchases out of the vehicle.  We trooped up the driveway with the children, full of questions about our trip and our bundles.  Home never looked better!

Next came the task of separating the items, which had been mixed all together.  In time both Judy’s bed and mine were covered with our treasures.  Julian (matron of the children’s home) stopped in, having just returned from the ceremony at which her sister had taken her final vows to become a nun.  She was full of excitement of her own adventure, but still had energy to ooh and aah over our things.

Just then Cyrus came by, wanting to know where I had been.  He and I traditionally spend at least one evening deep in conversation.  The oldest of the orphans, he is impatiently waiting to hear whether he has been accepted to medical school, either at Nairobi University or Kenyatta University.  We sit in the kitchen with our tea and chat about things, and as usual, he eventually begins to share.  He wants this so much, and while his brain (and mine) tell him his chances are excellent, he’s beside himself with the waiting.  He earned A- on the national exam, considered to be a very high mark, but just a few points under the cut-off for government sponsorship.  This means he has to pay, but we have found wonderful folks in the US who will sponsor him.  Because he was so close to that mark, it is highly unlikely he wouldn’t be admitted.

He told me a wonderful story of his arrival at a really good high school.  A math competition was held the first weekend, attended by some 18 – 20 schools, each bringing a student from each form.  Cyrus, who had yet to even be issued his math book was chosen to be the form 1 representative.  Puzzled, confused and yet proud, he went with his fellow students, but didn’t imagine he could do much, as the contest pitted forms 1 and 2 against each other, while forms 3 and 4 had a separate set of problems.  Afterwards the students wandered around, waiting for the results to be announced.  Pretty soon he heard teachers asking, “Who is Cyrus Kariuki.”  “Oh, no, I’ve done something wrong, I’ve broken a rule, I’ll be punished, sent home in disgrace!!!”  As it turned out, he had had the top score among form 1’s and 2’s, beating out all the form 2’s who had had a year of high school math!!!  He was so stunned, that when his name was called to be recognized he just sat there until he was nudged forward by the other boys.  Standing in front of the assembled students and teacher advisors, microphone thrust in his face, he froze, could say nothing, except mumble “thanks” and rush back to his seat.  Now, 4 years later, he is a grown up 19-year old, confident in his abilities and just wanting to get on with it.

Several years ago I had brought my stethoscope from my nursing school days, thinking I’d give it to Lucy, a nursing student.  I’d been too late, she already had one, so it stayed here, waiting for the right person.  Several months ago I had had the flash, of course I should give it to Cyrus.  I’d planned to present it as soon as he had gotten the word, but as I sat listening to him I just couldn’t wait.  I fetched it and told him I’d brought him a present.  I started to tell him about nursing school, wanting to lead up to it, but he was dying to know what was hidden behind my back.  When I brought it out it was like an explosion of wonder, joy, amazement, delight.  I wish so much I had had a picture.  I did get his picture, but the look on his face is recorded only in my memory.  It was worth millions.  He sat for the next ½ hour chatting and fiddling with the stethoscope, listening to his own heart and maybe believing a bit more strongly that it will happen.

Best, Margo

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