When they say Nairobi is not your mother’s, you better believe them. Yesterday afternoon, I alighted at Nyamakima, grateful to have made it safely to the city and to a new life. Father had given me strict instructions in the morning, before I left Eldoret, to call Uncle the minute I got to Nairobi. He insisted that Nairobi was big and confusing and a new person could easily get lost.
Uncle was supposed to come pick me up at The Archives. He was also the one supposed to give me directions to get to the place. So the first thing I did as soon as I was out of the vehicle was to call Uncle. The phone rang, once…twice…then Uncle hang up.
“I’m in a meeting. Call me after 30 minutes” A message followed soon afterwards.
For a moment, I was at a loss on what to do. Here I was, a heavy backpack with my belongings, very new in this big city, wondering whether to wait for Uncle’s meeting to finish or to take the initiative and head to The Archives. Was it a building? What kind of building was it? I had no idea.
I quickly scanned the environment and noticed just how busy everyone seemed. There were vehicles everywhere. Crossland…Crossroads Travellers. White Nissans, as we called them instead of vans, with the telltale yellow stripe to indicate that they were Public Service Vehicles. Former Transport Minister, the late Michuki’s legacy still going strong.
Boards overhead announced the destinations they were heading to. Narok, Nakuru, Naivasha, Eldoret… I could not read all of them. I was tired and overwhelmed by all that I was seeing. I simply wanted to get to Uncle’s home.
Hurlingham…that was where Father had said his cousin lived.
Uncle is actually Father’s cousin but if you wanted a relative in high position to help your daughter, you did not refer to them as a cousin but something closer, like a brother, perhaps. No wonder Father had warned me against calling his cousin anything else other than Uncle. He was the one supposed to pay for my college tuition and I in turn, had to patiently reside in his house until that time he deemed fit for me to join college.
“Excuse me, how do you get to The Archives?” I asked a buxom woman, with a toddler and several, heavy luggages. The child, a boy, stood quietly beside his mother.
“Oh, you want to get to The Archives?” Her voice was unnecessarily shrill.
It reminded one of a witch’s cackle but I have never encountered witches, so I just assumed it did, judging by how annoying it was to the ears. The thing with Kenyans is that they have this annoying habit, of repeating what you have said in a statement, that comes across as a question.
“Yes.” I replied politely, to what should not have been a question in the first place.
“Go up, when you see a junction on your right, follow that junction all the way to the end. The Archives is visible at the end of the street.” She offered and though what she had said made little sense to me, I decided to trust her word.
“And do carry that backpack at the front. There are a lot of thieves at this time. Si unajua ni January?” She instructed.
Indeed, it was January. January was always marked with scorching heat. It was as if God decided to move the sun closer to the earth at that time. I was sweaty, having been in a vehicle for 5 hours straight. I could not open the window, because the woman sitting next to me, had a small baby and was complaining of the wind, although I felt like she was just making a fuss for nothing.
A little wind on a very hot day, did no harm to a baby that was in fact, warmly dressed in woollen clothes. Every once in a while during the journey, the baby would let out a piercing scream. I was convinced that she must have been hot but I could not tell the mother, seeing that she acted like she knew what was best for her child. So I had endured.
January was also touted as the brokest month of the year with many having overspent during the Christmas festivities. No wonder the lady had taken it upon herself to warn me of thieves. They must have been stealing more at this time of the month. Following her instructions, I decided to carry my backpack at the front even though I felt ridiculous and like a woman with child.
Someone offered to carry the luggage for me, I politely declined. He could have just been one of those cunning thieves the woman had spoken about. The ones who disappeared down a corner and you never saw them again, together with your belongings. She had instructed I go up and that is exactly what I did. I went up till I saw a junction on my right and followed the direction all the way to the end, only to be met with another street.
Hadn’t she said that The Archives was visible at the end? The only thing I could make out were tall buildings, very close to each other and so many people. I was convinced that Nairobi is where everybody headed to make a better life for themselves. Otherwise, what could explain the large number of people on the streets?
“Excuse me,” I tried to stop a lady but she ignored me. Did not even bother to look at me. I watched her walk past as if nobody had just spoken to her. As if I was invisible. I was scared of asking men for directions. Father had insisted that I only ask women for directions. They could be trusted, unlike men, who could not be trusted.
Funny, that coming from a fellow man, but Father had once lived in Nairobi. Sometimes, he would mention just how life could be expensive in the city, but would always point out that there were plenty of opportunities, especially for youngsters. I did not want to dissapoint Father, so I had purposed to be obedient to Uncle until I graduated from college. I still had no idea what I was going to study but Father was convinced that Uncle, a Lawyer by profession, would guide me on the best career choice.
“Excuse me,” I tried to stop two young ladies, deeply engrossed in animated conversation. These ones looked at me, their faces glowing with the excess make up they had applied, as if I had just dropped from planet Mars and carried on conversing. They even burst into laughter, just for effect, as they walked past.
There was a shop selling phone accessories nearby. As a last resort, I decided to walk into the shop and ask for directions. A young man was at the counter, eyes fixated on the street. He turned two lazy eyes at me and said, “Yes, how can I help you?”
“I think I’m lost.” I confessed. At this point, I was not really paying attention to Father’s caution.
“You look lost.” He mentioned, much to my chagrin.
Just why were Nairobi dwellers so rude?! I wondered angrily, to myself.
“Damn right I’m lost!” I would have loved to retort back but instead asked meekly, “How do I get to The Archives?”
“Eh, huku ni mbali sana na Archives.” He informed, suddenly energised, as if my ignorance of Nairobi had stroked his ego and probably, reminded him that there were some people having worse days than him. “Huku ni River Road!” He added.
“But this lady directed me to walk straight to the end of this road and I will see The Archives.” I lamented.
“Eh, that one misled you. You see that street at the end, turn right. You will see some matatus. That is Tea Room. Walk up to the end of that road. That is Accra Road. There, you can clearly see The Archives.” He offered. For some reason, everyone I asked directions spoke of The Archives being at the end of the street but I still had some faith left.
I mouthed a Thank You, I doubted the young man at the shop heard, as he had resumed his previous demeanor of lazily looking out at the street. If someone could get paid just for watching people walk past and cars drive by, then Father must have been right that they were plenty of opportunities in Nairobi.
By then, my legs were beginning to ache and my only desire was to see a building with the words “The Archives” inscribed. So I carried on, afraid to walk too close to the busy road for the matatus were being driven like they were on a roadtrip to hell. I saw an elderly man nearly get hit by one of those old buses. He quickly jumped out of the way, surprised. I think I was more surprised that he had been able to do that given his age but this was Nairobi. Anything was possible here.
A street boy rudely bumped into me. The backpack nearly fell off.
“Nini wewe! Angalia pahali unaenda!” He growled menacingly.
I held my breath as he walked past. He stunk.
Clutching at my backpack more possessively, I resolved to search for The Archives until I found it. Eventually, I did.
On seeing the pale yellow, colonial style building, with the distinct words “Kenya National Archives”, I nearly jumped with joy. Finally, I could breath a sigh of relief. I was careful though to watch for any carelessly driven matatus as I crossed the road, eager to get to my destination. I could almost picture just how proud of my efforts Uncle would be. I was a first timer to the city yet had managed to get to where he was supposed to pick me up without any directions from him.
As I got to the front part of the building, I chose a spot where I could make a phone call to Uncle. I had previously put my phone on one of the side pockets of my backpack. Instinctively, I felt for the pocket only to be met with nothing. Frantic, I put my bag down to check. The whole pocket together with my phone was missing. In it’s place were tiny loose threads hanging out.
Uncle would find me at dusk, still at the same spot waiting for him.
“I told you I was in a meeting, why didn’t you call me back after 30 minutes to get the directions?!” He admonished. “I would have sent someone to pick you up!”
“I couldn’t!” I gulped, thoroughly ashamed of myself that I had annoyed Uncle even before I got to his house.
“What do you mean you couldn’t?!” He sounded exasperated.
“My phone got stolen.” I revealed quietly.
“Hii ni Nairobi.” He reminded and I felt thoroughly stupid.
“Get in the car. We will figure out your phone crisis at home.