Dawn: Mwingi Rd., Kileleshwa, Nairobi.
My Lufthansa flight -an Airbus A340-300 — touched down last night at 8:11 pm local time. It has taken me an entire summer to prepare for this day. I haven’t slept much. The cock is crowing. There was a slow-mo feel to the entire season of renting, interviewing, writing magazine queries that went no where, writing a few at last minute that ended in assignments that should have been completed before I left for this new city. By the looks of it –energy, attitude, day-to-day drama — Nairobi doesn’t give a damn about the U.S.
Oh yes, and flying, trying to push for my private pilot’s license on the Cessna 172 when there was never enough time or money –a few breakthroughs, a few good landings and crazy exhilaration in the air — and, of course, that full-stop denial by FAA of my medical license, based on their “vague” checklist for medications they deem verboten for pilots. Ironic — I had taken Venlafaxine for years to make my post-menopausal life less moody, stronger, more stable. The aviation doc told me to get a sign off explaining the usage from my Oby-Gyn. Voila! FAA rejected my application anyway. I’m awaiting the results of my appeal.
The final few weeks living out of a suitcase drove various hosts — my daughter, my friends Paula and Karl — crazy as I packed and repacked for a journey that truly begins here, this rooftop Airbnb flat in a tony section of Nairobi that is really too big and expensive for me. Traffic, cocks crowing and a dull gray dawn –and just too much to do.
At the airport at Dulles I ran into the lovely soul Capt. Gunjan Aggarwal, the First Officer at Air India who flew around the world in 2017 in a Boeing 777, part of a record-breaking demonstration of women’s prowess in the air.
Gunjan and I have a bond of “what can we learn from each other” given the timing and professional distance of 35 years. It’s funny imparting my story of consistent twists and turns, the fall-out of gross immaturity — how life got in the way while I was making other plans…this girl, on the other hand, has single-mindedly pursued her dream of becoming a professional pilot and she’s among the best. Given how difficult it’s been for me to learn flying, especially at this age, I’m still in awe of all these women who do it as though by second nature.
My Nairobi-based driver, Saitoti, meaning “boss,” met me on the gangway leading from Jomo Kenyatta airport. A beautiful smile, a truly welcoming old friend waiting to rekindle our bond from my three weeks here in Kenya last January. Saitoti is about the age of my son, Emmett, the newly married Captain-psychologist now in the US Army in Oklahoma for officer’s training. Saitoti, as always, keeps me posted about his life and feelings on Whatsapp…even after the break-up from a girl he was engaged to.
He drives me through the cool Nairobi night to Ring Rd. and then Mwingi Road, my new home.
My young landlady, Wangechi Wawera Mwende, graduated from Nairobi’s Strathmore University two years ago. She’s diminutive, pretty, wearing a Grace Jones haircut, announcing she’s a musician of some repute –rapper, R&B artist — and oh won’t I love to see her perform? I ask. So here’s one of her videos, “Used to it.” She greeted me with a sly smile, fresh apples, muesli and coffee in little packets. Gregor Samsa the cockroach introduced me to one of the big bedrooms — I felt right at home, having squashed more than a few North Carolina giant water bugs.
The night weather here is cool and soothing…Dawn is breaking. Deplaning, I met Andy Yang, a young Chinese business man staying in Nairobi only for one night visiting friends — as far as I could tell, he was the only Chinese on my flight. In my halting Chinese I tried to explain my mission, leaving the words “Fulbright scholar” and “journalist” out of the conversation. Today I’ll stop at Strathmore University, say hello to my dearest friends Luis Franceschi, the Dean, Mukami Wangai, Ivy Manyasi, John Ambani, many others, then shop for some food, go to the US Embassy to register, and try to figure out how to attack my research problems in a way that’s uniquely stumbling, sincere, productive, I hope…the way I’ve felt all my life dealing with foreign challenges.
I have no idea what to expect. I’m a little scared. The Fulbright Scholarship is a big mission. An honor and a giant responsibility to live up to…right now I’m Gregor Samsa waking up in Eden!