By Lakshmi Jagannathan
It’s 8 pm, dark. “Tell me. What should I do now,” the Uber driver asks plaintively as we turn into a lane. I am in “Nairobbery,” Kenya, a place where you may have to bribe a corrupt cop, where you never slow down for a traffic situation because you could get car-jacked, where terrorism is very real. And here I am alone with a local who is lost.
I feel strangely serene. With some phone guidance, somehow, we reach our destination. For some reason, everywhere I go in East Africa, I seem to have total trust. I seem to be attracting only a sense of well-being in a place of contradictions.
Another driver literally drives through water to get me to a recycled-glass factory run by Anselm Croze, a German-Americana social entrepreneur and environmentalist. At the factory, men dance dangerously in rhythm to a roaring oven fueled with recycled gas, dipping their long rods in broken glass, swirling it, blowing into a vase, cooling it with their bare hands and newspaper.
So skinny — her waist size is probably 19 inches — she looks like she might be in middle school, but she is apparently one of the hottest seamstresses around. Her shop is literally a hole in the wall, near Ring Road – a dangerous part of town. The doorway is low and the tiny room very stuffy. She looks at the colorful fabric I have and offers ideas. She seems to be a counselor of sorts and philosopher – tells me I need to take risks, bare a shoulder here, make a neckline plunge there. “Are you a model?” she asks taking measurements, winning me over instantly.
Weeks later, when she comes home with the final product for a fitting, I gasp at the result. Where am I going to wear this glamorous dress with a head scarf to match? A Hillary Clinton fundraiser? Farmer’s Market? Within a span of 3 weeks she makes several outfits, dresses, a jacket and even a matching handbag, but what I am impressed with the most is the warmth of her personality. I think Oprah Winfrey should have her design her clothes.
When the rest of my family arrives, we visit an elephant orphanage where babies drink out of giant milk bottles and receive “kisses” from a baby giraffe at a park. We see gorillas in Rwanda, hug a 189-year-old turtle in Zanzibar, and see a lion curled up on a tree in Tanzania.
What moves us most are the two kittens my son’s household has adopted. On our last day, one of them licks my foot and gets on top of my suitcase. When it’s my son’s turn to leave, both get into his, expecting to be taken “home.” I have never thought of myself as a cat person, but now I feel I have left family behind in Jabavu Gardens.
Coincidentally, a month after we return, the President is visiting Nairobi. I have been reading a book about the less rosy side of Kenya “Our Turn to Eat: The story of a Kenyan Whistle Blower” by Michela Wrong. Colonialism and corruption have been the cause of a lot of problems, but tribalism is still the worst enemy. Stereotypes are common – Kikuyu are enterprising, Maasai are only good as security guards, Luos are all show and no substance. In different regimes, different groups were favored and whole regions suffered because of nepotism.
For various political reasons, until recently, relationships between the U.S. and Kenya have been cold, but now I see the President greeted with great affection. Obama is the first American President to visit Kenya and everyone is proud of his Kenyan heritage. At an event, he speaks to a solar energy entrepreneur. The Kenyan doesn’t get the President’s jokes. Their body language and accent are not the same. The President is clearly American, but if Donald Trump really wants to know, he is a Luo.
Kenya and other East African countries are also linked inexorably to the country of my origin – ships sailed into the coastal regions from Western India for hundreds of years and workers were recruited to build the Railways. Politically, Indians keep a low profile, but they play a significant role in the economy. Indian food is main stream and there are innumerable places of worship.
When I visit a bead factory run by a women’s cooperative, or talk to my son’s friends who work to prevent gender violence in Somalia, I wish I could be more than just a tourist. Traveling to an exotic place for me has never been just a tick off a bucket list or yet another posting on Facebook.
It’s about connecting to the past, to people and lately to animals. It’s about confronting risk and overcoming fear. I find I get attached to the places I visit. Maybe it’s because I was an immigrant, but I find I belong nowhere and everywhere. I don’t know how the President felt about his visit, but, suddenly, Kenya is another “home” I now miss.
Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writer program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world.
Tomorrow: “Time to write” by Rachel Lippolis