(circa mid-November 2016)
I watch as the children line up to hug Mary every time she visits Restart. To them, she is more than just a benefactor. “Hello, Mum,” they say as they bury themselves into her shoulders. As far as I can tell, she is the closest thing they have to a mother.
One day, at lunch at Mary’s house, she tells us the stories of a handful of the children at Restart. Growing up in a third-world country, I guess that there are certain things you just learn to block out of your emotional radar. Yet I find myself sitting at the table, Mary’s presence delving into the caverns of my mind, and I feel like crying. I am not steel.
When we get back to our apartment, a wave has descended upon me. I lay under it, a face below rippling, spiraling water. It feels as if an emotional buffer, developed so carefully throughout the years, has been frayed at the edges. I’m still as I try to understand what some of these children have been through, the pain they have suffered, the loss. I don’t understand. I don’t know. I can’t know.
Sarah and Ellie leave a few days apart from each other, and it is just Nicole and me left. It feels dimmer without them, and a few of the younger children at Restart are quieter than usual. Nicole moves into their old apartment. Being introverts, we sporadically visit each other, though, when we do, we normally have a deep conversation or two. I grasp onto these revelations, the sustenance of a soul as ragged and intense as mine.
I call my mom sometimes, missing the sound of her voice. I sit on the low counter of my dark kitchen, holding the phone to my ear as if the voice emanating from it is pure gold. I wonder if my mom can visualize me, right now, in a big empty apartment in a big empty night. If it’s only been two weeks here and you miss Mom this much, what will it be like when you’re gone for a year at a time?
The next Wednesday I go in for acupuncture, I take a matatu back to Gilgil. If you’re familiar with Kenya, you are familiar with matatus. For those of you who aren’t, they are buses that drive precariously along every Kenyan roadway. I’ve only taken a matatu once before, and I would never have imagined riding for three hours in one.
Like any other expat, my stereotype of matatus has always been negative. I’ve only known them to have overtly aggressive drivers who don’t play by the rules, waiting to seize any opportunity to gain as much ground as possible. Accompanied by the careening, jostling, slamming movement of our car battling matatus down dusty roads, this dislike has been etched into my mind since I was a toddler peeping out of the car window with big eyes.
So it is with unease that I climb into the very back of the matatu, the belly of the beast, the arch nemesis of expat’s great rumbling SUVs and four-wheel drives. Yet the inside is not what I expected – clean, velvety upholstery, with quiet passengers. I sit next to a beautiful girl who kisses her boyfriend goodbye through the window, watching the city recede into a burst of mist rising from cold rain and hot roads. She is Nairobi, I think.
An hour later, as we approach the turn off for Tigoni, I feel nauseated with homesickness. It’s raining, cold and misty, the tarmac of the road dark and wet. Ask the driver to stop, and just walk the eight kilometers home. But I don’t. Instead, I think of my mom’s voice, soft and gentle, and fall asleep to the half-fantasized lullaby of rain and mother’s caress.
The matatu hurtles down the wet roads, braving the foothills of mountains, leveling onto the flatness of the Rift Valley. Inside, I am there, sleeping, safe in the cocoon of well-traveled seats, rain fluttering against the delicate metal walls and spinning rubber tires that have made this trip time and time again.