A few days ago I came to the startling realization that in two more months, I will have lived in Nairobi for a year.
That also means that it will have been two years since I left the U.S. and moved to East Africa.
Two years is an odd and startling benchmark in my own mind. When you are 21 years old and freshly graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, two years seem like an eternity. Two years in a land so foreign where, as my roommate Kimmie likes to say, the only thing you recognize is your own shadow. Two years in a place so far away that, looking forward, you can’t even imagine life on the other side of that finite stretch of time. I am nearing that point. That point at the end of two years. And it is so very, very real.
When I was 21 and a fresh graduate I thought I would spend two years in East Africa. I think the ‘about me’ section of this blog still even says that I would spend two years here. I am trying to remember what I thought would come after that. Graduate school seems the most likely next step I would have imagined for myself at the time. Let me start by saying that I am not ready for graduate school. But let me end by saying that I have never before felt like I know and have experienced so little as I do at this point in my life. At this very moment, it seems to me that I have spent two years in East Africa learning how much I don’t know.
October 28th, 2010 was election day in Zanzibar. At noon on the 27th I was gazing at the great expansive African sky. Pardon the cliché, but it’s true, expats in Africa love to write about the blue expanse, omniscient and omnipresent, above our heads. On this day, the cotton clouds were gathered at the edge of the horizon, and the sun shone. Golden, velvety, and alluring.
I thought I had made up my mind to stay. I would hunker down in my apartment in the heart of Stone Town. I would stand by the tiny, labyrinthine city, whatever happened. Tear gas, bombs, violence, or not I wanted to be there and witness history in the making. There had been a referendum for a power sharing agreement between the political party that had been in power since ’64 and the minority party. There had also been violence after the past three elections. People were uncertain; there were those whose predictions were grave, although all of us were hoping for the best. My friends advised me to leave- and since I insisted on staying- at the very least stock up on non-perishable food and water.
Nell and I met that afternoon on the third floor of Tatu, the newest favorite haunt of expats on the island. Good food, great ambiance, and even better marketing- alongside Zanzibar’s most extensive whisky bar- and it was a sure hit.
“The offer still stands,” she told me. “It will bring me great peace of mind to know that you’re safe with us instead of here in town.”
The offer was a weekend stay at a luxury all-inclusive resort on Zanzibar’s east coast to escape the hypothetical election turmoil. She had asked me before several times.
My favoritest word to describe how I felt when I first moved to Zanzibar is “fetus.” Like the freshest, greenest “spring chicken” you ever saw– I am fairly certain I was an idiot. I still am. But now I am an idiot with two years behind me. I was utterly inexperienced. I had never lived completely by myself. I had never been responsible for paying my rent and utility bills on my own.
I spent about five and a half out of seven months in Zanzibar with an upset stomach, while simultaneously drinking water straight from the tap. I only stopped the week before I left the island: when I turned the dial one day and sand poured out from within the faucet. I spent many long and strange days in the post-abortion care ward at the state hospital, Mnazi Mmoja. On one chance mid-November afternoon I narrowly side-stepped the spray from the broken amniotic sack of a woman giving birth at a village maternal ward. I had never before seen a woman giving birth. I learned the hard way that heat-stroke induced delirium will make locking yourself up in your bedroom seem like a good idea. I found out that people you put your faith in can turn out to be dishonest and selfish. I finally understood the meaning of the saying “friends become our chosen family.”
On October 29th, 2010, on the night that the islands’ election results were announced, I stood on my balcony with my heart in my throat. Not a single fist was thrust into the air in objection- instead, several hundred Zanzibaris, sympathizers of both parties, gathered just below my building, arm-in-arm, singing Kanaan’s Wavin’ Flag. Shivers ran down my spine.
If you had asked me when I was 21 where I would be after two years- I might have shrugged and said ‘I’m not sure. Maybe I will have figured some things out.’
I could not, for example, have known that I would live in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. I would not have known that I would spend hundreds of hours on foot, and on share-taxis and motorcycles visiting several dozens of farmers and entrepreneurs scattered across two countries. I would not have known that I would eat mashed plantains and beans everyday for 75 days. I would not have known that I would grow weary from living out of a suitcase for a year and half and would move eight different times before I settled down in one place. I would not have known that a mountain gorilla would rub his face on my thigh far atop an active volcano on the Rwanda-Congo border. Or that I would probably become the world’s first non-swimmer to be scuba certified. I would not have known that I would curse out some cops one night in Nairobi and spend the next several months coming to terms with why I was unhappy. I would not have known that I would see Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Oliver Mtukudzi perform live in Kenya. Or that I would make a real home for myself- with art on the walls, and beautifully-crafted furniture- in a far-away city. I would not have known that my eyes would swallow a starry night sky from deep within Madagascar, while gazing up from inside a lunar landscape towards the heavens. Or that I would utter a midnight prayer at the top of a sand-dune in Lamu while the wind whipped my hair. I would not have known that I would meet several hundreds of people who each left an indelible mark on my life. Or that two years later I would still feel like a fresh, green spring chicken.
Two years later, 23 years old, and more questions swirling in my head than ever before. Just a child playing the part of an adult.