(circa mid-November 2016)
My days at Gilgil are starting to blend together. Early mornings when gentle light hits my bedroom window, the smell of coffee, the feeling of pulling up stiff jeans that dried overnight on our clothes line. The pastel tiles and steam from our shower room, the taste of fresh fruit bought at a duka nearby. Walking on dusty roads, listening to the lull of flip-flops, sweating in the morning sunlight, rocks shuffling underneath our feet, children running up to us to shake our hands.
Hours spent with little children, mornings in Mary’s dining room, wrapping over a hundred Christmas presents. Lunch with Mary and her various other guests in her garden of flowers and sunbirds. Tea with Palmer, a little old Scottish lady who lives nearby and always gives us apples or tomatoes from her fridge. Sunny afternoons at Restart which quickly cloud over, thunder booming in the distance. Girls braiding my hair, watching the Restart choir practice, toddlers dancing joyfully. A walk back home. The feeling of finally getting to the apartment door, the musty smell inside, Aljazeera documentaries by myself or Keeping Up With the Kardashians with the other volunteers.
The sun going down, the cigarette smoke near the doorway. The smell of Thomas’s dinners, usually chapati and lentil stew, sometimes a curry or something fancier. Listening to Sarah’s profound wisdom, chatting with Ellie, or discussing shared political opinions with Nicole. Dinner, more TV, maybe a glass of wine. Saying goodnight, walking down the hallway from Sarah and Ellie’s apartment room to mine.
And laying in bed, all the wondering and thoughts of everyday life. Thinking about the past, about the one or two people I still miss, about what it would be like if they were here now. The interruption of a nocturnal tree hyrax calling, a sound akin to a pig being slaughtered. The pulsing beat from Wispers Bar and Restaurant just across from us, and the yells from an occasional brawl. More mental drifting, my mind going a thousand miles an hour. Sentimentality, sadness, hopes, dreams, frustrations. Then sleep.
We go shopping in Gilgil one day, to the market where one can buy mangoes, kale, cilantro, avocados, carrots, potatoes, lentils, beans, cabbage, garden peas, and bananas for under three dollars. Of course it’s all organic. The mangoes are like candy, leathery skin washed in iridescent pink and green. The carrots are sweet and orange, the kale curly, the avocados as large as my hand, creamy with a slightly nutty, faintly spicy aftertaste. Njahe, a local variant of bean, is ebony with a single white stripe. Zebra beans.
One evening we go to Pembroke to watch a dress rehearsal for their end-of-term show. Pembroke could be a university campus; with magnificent architecture, vast fields, and a crest of arms, it is truly a beautiful boarding school. We meet some British kids our age, working at Pembroke during their gap years. Later on, we go to the Pembroke country club with them, an old building in the middle of the bush. I’m very intimidated by the rigid code of conduct, afraid of a disapproving eye, and, more than anything, of embarrassing Mary. Though I do accidentally slosh red wine on the table, all I earn is a reputation of being weird. At least I think that’s what it is.
The next day we go out to eat nyama choma, or half an animal served on a block of wood. The waiter asks me if I want a GMO or local chicken – the local chicken is much, much cheaper. A few of us get a touch of food poisoning, but for two chickens and part of a cow for eight dollars, it’s not a big deal. I think about the animal I just ate, and I long to be a vegan again.
One day we go to Restart, and, while a group of girls play with my hair, an older, quiet girl decides to braid all of it. I sit there while she rummages through the slippery, dark ends of feathery hair. For close to two hours, she braids, while the girls around me and Ellie chat with us, laughing, gossiping, giving us and insight into their lives. They ask me abrupt questions, giggling as I flounder responses.
When the older girl is finished braiding, she tells me that I’m beautiful. It feels genuine. I hug her. She laughs in her husky voice and walks off, stunning herself, immense with intuition, strength, and grace. I wonder what her story is, what makes her want to help others feel confident.
This is what life looks like.