Quiet was hard to come by in Nairobi, day or night, but it was available to a certain class of expats, the bankers and businessmen and government officials who lived in Gigiri, Runda, Lavington, and other constituencies in the west of the city. I never resided at Cedar Springs officially, of course. Ben was the Embassy employee and I was not even a dependent. But the uniformed askari who patrolled the lush grounds of the complex saluted me respectfully. Ben’s ayah, Afaafa, gladly prepared sukuma wiki and ugali for me. I tried to show her my appreciation with token gifts because greens, any greens, reminded me of home. Ben’s celadon chintz sofa and upholstered chairs felt like my own, as did the photos of wizened women in ponchos and the dun-colored pottery he had collected during a tour in Peru.
We English teachers were consigned to less prosperous, although still livable, flats further north and east, subject to the blackouts, brownouts, and water shortages that only the wealthiest could escape. I don’t even want to think about the drab little apartment in Umoja I shared with Kay, or Kra-zay, as I thought of her.
Kay was one of those aging hippies who will never find themselves. She wore flowing skirts and colorful boubou dresses. I think I looked less conspicuous in my J. Crew outfits. She had a Kenyan boyfriend, Bobby, who was not much older than I was at the time. I’m no neat freak but Kay was the nastiest woman I’ve ever met. I’m talking about stuff a woman her age shouldn’t have to be told, like the proper way to dispose of feminine products. She left hairballs in the shower, dirty dishes in the sink, and odds and ends on the settee in our living room. When I called her out on these and other laxities she would just smile, apologize, and tuck her long dishwater blond hair behind her ears. She must have thought that hair compensated for the lines in her face. Well, every woman has her vanity.
Not that either of us was in the same league with the Kenyan beauties. Whether Kikuyu or Luo or Kamba or whatever, they had that perfect skin and those perfect teeth that only a lifetime of eating very little sugar or processed food can produce. They all seemed to have a wonderful sense of self-possession too, whether they were selling vegetables by the side of the road or being driven around in cars with tinted windows. They knew exactly who and what they were. Who could compete with that?
I didn’t let myself be tempted by the Kenyan men although some of them were fine as all get-out. They were friendly and polite but I knew the deal. Other than a few foreigners who mistook me for Congolese, nobody ever thought I was anything but American. That meant I was a cultural zero whose main attraction, like Kay’s, was probably owning a valid U.S. passport. Knowing all this didn’t make it any easier to listen to Kay and Bobby getting it on in the next room. Nairobi is a place where it’s good for a woman to have a man.
I went out with other English teachers to bars, clubs, and restaurants as often as my limited resources permitted. The more grizzled ones took me to holes in the wall that served changaa, which was illegal. If you want to know what it tastes like just imagine searing pain. Distill that sensation and put it in a bottle. That’s changaa. Kill me quick, it means in Kikuyu. It should’ve been called ‘kill me cheap.’ A real beer cost about a hundred shillings, a shot of changaa ten. Previously, I’d only been a social drinker but I started to overdo it on a regular basis. I was lonely, didn’t really want to stay in Nairobi, but still too stubborn to go back to my mother in Atlanta.
The summer before I had graduated from a well-known East Coast university with a degree in philosophy. I hadn’t been home for a good week when my mom dropped the bomb: she and Sim were getting married. She was giving me the rest of the summer to save for a down payment on an apartment. I had to be gone by the first of September.
Simuel would have been a decent-looking guy had he kept his gut in check. But he was that creature which is rarer than a unicorn, a black man over fifty in good health with a good job, and so I guess he figured he didn’t have to bother. He had this adoring way of looking at my mother, almost like he was asking her permission to even exist, that annoyed the hell out of me. I knew congratulations were in order. Instead, I asked, “How am I going to find work in two months?” My mother inhaled sharply and said, “Isn’t that something you should have considered when you were frittering away the time before graduation?”
“Mom,” I said. “Be reasonable. You don’t get paid to philosophize until you have a Ph.D.” I didn’t say that, much as I enjoyed exploring the systems of thought of Plato, Kant, Rousseau, and a boatload of other dead white men, I never really took any of it seriously. It was more of a fun thing to do, like working on a puzzle whose pieces could be infinitely rearranged. I sure didn’t think any of those guys were wrestling with some universal truth.
She said, “This is the greatest country in the world. Anybody who wants to do something productive can. You could have gotten yourself into grad school, law school. You think you’re just going to sail through this life but no one does.”
“At least I didn’t get myself knocked up,” I said, and regretted it instantly. How could I have been so cruel? Getting pregnant with me is the only mistake my mother ever made in an otherwise blameless existence. But she didn’t get angry, just shook her head like she was in her courtroom, preparing to sentence a hopeless defendant.
I took several crappy jobs that summer. At one of them I met a Belgian dude. He was, in fact, the son of the Belgian consul general in Atlanta. He became enamored of me, I of the idea of escape. We had known each other less than a month when he suggested I follow him to his father’s next posting in Kenya. My mother told me my life was mine to waste. “You are a most creatively lazy person but I do wish you a lot of luck. You’re going to need it,” she said, before she dropped me curbside at Hartsfield Airport.
She was right, as she always is. The Belgian guy dumped me so fast it was like our relationship had been a figment of my imagination. I was lucky to have arrived in Nairobi in November, during the peak hiring season. Even so, it was nearly impossible to find paid work as an English teacher in a country swimming in volunteers. It goaded my conscience that I was not among them. My middle-class students at Kenyatta Private Academy were relatively privileged. But their parents sacrificed enormously for them. I couldn’t even take care of myself.
Whenever I stepped in front of my class I felt like I was being handed something incredibly precious and fragile, something I was somehow bound to let slip from my grasp. The children were always perfectly groomed and more respectful than any American student will ever be. Their little cacao faces shone with earnestness and expectation. I could never be as natural and relaxed with them as Kay, whom they adored.
I couldn’t afford to buy much, but I hit the malls regularly anyway. One day, I met a really nice older lady from Maine at the Junction. She turned out to be the wife of a bigwig at the American Embassy and she invited me to a reception at their home. That’s where I met Ben.
Back home I never would have gone for a guy like Ben. His being white was no problem, but he wasn’t my kind of white guy. He was thinner than I like them, with light brown hair that was almost red. He had on a short-sleeved shirt like a Mormon and sensible shoes. All he needed was a pocket protector to complete the look. Yet when I noticed his eyes on me I extricated myself from a dull conversation with a bald guy.
Unlike his colleagues, Ben didn’t go on and on about how demanding his job was. I liked that at the time, not realizing that his reticence helped me stay walled up in my bower of self-absorption. We talked about the usual things: the weather, the pollution, the crime. He told me he wasn’t afraid of getting carjacked, he had grown up in Jersey. That took me aback; he was nothing like what I would have expected.
That worked in our favor. Adjusting to life in Nairobi – or Nairobbery, as some expats called it – was hard. Things with Ben were so easy. I didn’t have to play the complicated games with him that most guys get off on, not even in the beginning. He took me to the Nairobi National Park for our first date. We didn’t see a lioness devouring anything but we did see an unbelievably graceful hippo and a few dik diks and impalas. And lots of trees. Nairobi is called the Green City in the Sun but at the Park, the trees seemed to rear up with special pride, miles of acacias, cypresses, jacarandas.
After our non-date date, Ben took me home to his apartment in Cedar Springs for the first time. He was the least endowed man I’d ever been with. And the least self-conscious. Our fumbling attempts to get everything in place amused him.
“Just think of it as a compact version,” he said, with a sly little smile.
My toiletries and various items of my wardrobe migrated to Cedar Springs gradually. In the evenings, Ben and I played cards or Scrabble and watched bootleg DVDs. Sometimes he had to go to dinners or receptions at other embassies. I never got a clear handle on exactly what Ben did in the political section or why he didn’t live nearer to the other Embassy employees, but I didn’t pry. He always asked me to come with him to American functions. The Embassy crowd got to know my face.
One evening after we’d dismissed Afaafa early so we could make spaghetti and love in the kitchen, Ben asked me if I wanted children. I said I wasn’t sure. I was thinking of the little Kenyan girls I saw, babies themselves really, taking care of infant siblings.
“You’ll have kids,” Ben said. “Everybody does.”
“That’s not a great reason,” I said.
“Fear is not a great reason not to,” he countered. “I had an awful relationship with my mother. She was toxic. But you don’t see me saying I’m never going to have kids.”
“I don’t think I’m the nurturing type,” I told him. The whole family thing was a touchy subject for Ben. I knew his parents were divorced. He’d told me he hadn’t spoken to his mother in at least a few years. He had one family member he was really close to, his Aunt Rachel. She called him every week. He frowned at me.
“Yvette, you need to stop messing around,” he said.
“I did,” I told him. “Right after we met.”
“I’m serious. Playtime is over. You should be thinking about your future. You’re not cut out for teaching. Did you ever think about joining the Foreign Service? You’d be a great diplomat.”
The idea grew on me. To join the Foreign Service all you had to do was pass a test and taking tests happened to be my forte. I began to study for the Foreign Service Exam. I plowed through books on American history and politics and back issues of the Economist.
A few months later Ben said I had to leave Cedar Springs. He promised it would only be temporary. His Aunt Rachel was coming to visit for a few weeks.
“She’s old, really conservative. Me living in sin would not go down well with her,” he said.
“I always thought Jewish people were liberal. She’s not orthodox or anything, is she?” I asked lightly.
“No, just traditional,” he said. I gathered all my possessions and returned to the apartment in Umoja.
I don’t know what made me decide to go to the Maasai Market on the Saturday the test would be given. I had gone to bed early the night before, having asked Kay to keep it down for once. My eyes popped open hours before the alarm was set to go off, when it was still so dark that even the roosters hadn’t begun to crow. I dressed and made myself a cup of chai. Too nervous to study, I thumbed through my copy of Montaigne’s essays. When the sun had just risen I got into a matatu, which was pretty foolhardy of me, I’ll admit.
By some miracle the driver got us to the market safely. I strolled around like a tourist instead of a person due to take a very important test in several hours. I spotted Ben. The lady beside him didn’t look that old. She looked like one of those spunky middle-aged women who are proud of their gray hair and eager to tell you where they got their shoes at such a good price. They were bargaining with a Maasai woman who had a blanket full of beaded collars spread at her feet.
As I came closer I saw that the not-old woman was the spitting image of Ben. I waved. He didn’t exactly try to look away, but he gave me the sort of neutral half-wave you give someone you see often but don’t know well.
“Hi,” he said. He told the woman, “This is my friend. She’s taking the Foreign Service Exam. It’s today, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Today is game day.”
“Hello, I’m Rachel, Ben’s mom. Nice to meet you.” Even the way she extended her hand reminded me of him.
“Is this your first trip to Nairobi?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m having such a ball. The food is terrific and it’s not nearly as hot as I thought it’d be. We’re going on a safari this afternoon. What a shame you’ve got that test. A couple of Ben’s friends are coming and it’d be wonderful if you could join us.”
“You’re too kind,” I said. “But I’m afraid I’ve got to be running along.” I never talk like that.
“Good luck,” Ben called as I retreated through the crowd.
I showed up at the Embassy on time. I killed the multiple-choice questions. I had the history and the political stuff down cold. But the essay undid me. Ben had told me that it didn’t even matter what position I defended as long as I did it well. The examiners just wanted to make sure I could put together a decent paragraph. Normally nothing is easier for me. But that day I just couldn’t. I was the first to put my pencil down. The proctor’s eyebrows rose when she saw my blank page but I sat quietly until the test was over.
I make a very good living as an attorney but when I think back to my time in Nairobi I’m ashamed that it took me so long to see myself as I was. I tell my own children, who are nearly grown, not to get too caught up in the logic of decisions because none of this is real until you make it.
updated by @americymru: 11/15/16 11:50:03PM