The train is dashing through tunnels, gliding over bridges. But I sit there feeling homesick. The initial excitement of coming to Europe has now left an emptiness in my stomach. It is not that I am hungry. I simply miss the ugali and sukuma wiki.
I miss the hustle and bustle of Korogocho. The nostalgic smell of the dark dirty soil. The tantalizing smell of nyama choma. The concealed fragrance of Omo from the washing of the clothes on the streets. The jostling crowds and the rubbing of shoulders. The bustling activity around the kiosks. The dirges sung by drunkards as they stagger their way home. The freedom of the children running around.
When you are in those wretched hovels of Nairobi’s slums you dream of being in the skyscrapers of America–or in the castles of Europe. But when you are here, suddenly you feel lonely. Strange!
It is not that the people here are unkind. In fact they are very polite. Very well trained in social etiquette. Simply, you are a stranger. You are not like them. As you gape at the buildings and structures around you, they stare at you. You are a mshamba. A newcomer to the city!
Sometimes they are ignorant too. They speak to you as if everyone knows their language. Some think, Africans still live in trees. They know very little of Africa–the ‘dark’ continent.
That feeling of being a stranger drives you crazy. The feeling of being watched makes you feel shy.
The stomach pinches you from deep down. There is a lot of food. But you never get satisfied. There are a lot of people around you. But you feel left alone. That loneliness hurts your heart. On the third day you just want to run away.
Yet I cannot lose this opportunity. Beginnings are hard, they say. I shall get used to being here, I suppose.
It is summer here. And it is beautiful. God, why are you so partial? You give them the four seasons on time. To us, only the dry season and the wet season. And some wet seasons are dry too!
These days, everyone is in a holiday mood. They take holidays seriously. We have no holidays. Is it because we never work enough? Is it because we don’t just take our holidays? Or is it because we live every day as a holiday?
They dress scantily here, parading their fatless stomachs. When we dress that way they call us uncivilised.
Why am I having these uncharitable thoughts now, while I am actually here due to the charity of someone from this part of the world?
Suddenly, darkness, except for the lights in the train. And suddenly again, bright light reflected from the blue sea. The train is rushing through tunnels and over bridges.
“Our next stop will be Genoa,” announces a pleasant voice. “We are sorry we are late by ten minutes,” it apologizes.
“Italian trains are never on time,” grumbles a bulky young lady. In English! Her accent is familiar. That is the language we hear in movies at the video parlours in the back streets of Korogocho.
The lady seated opposite me smiles, lifting her gaze from the book that she’s reading. I smile shyly. Turn my gaze away. I glance through the window. The mountains marry the blue beaches giving birth to a scene wonderful to behold.
The lady is reading the Da Vinci Code –Dan Brown. In English! The book is familiar to me. I haven’t read it though. I have seen it around a lot. From the time I got into the airport. I wonder what is special about that book?
Our train is pulling out again after a brief stop in Genoa. There are some more announcements. In Italian and in English.
English! Our Swahili teacher always scorned it. “The language of the colonialists,” he said. But today it removes my feeling of strangeness. You remove a thorn with a thorn. Strange! How do I remove my strangeness? Just get into the circle of the other!
“Panini, Bibite.” “Panini Bibite.” I hear an enthusiastic voice accompanied by a trolley.
Snacks and drinks! That much Italian I have learnt in one week. Yeah, come to think of it, I know more. We learnt it from the Italian missionaries back at home. In my place, the children greet all wazungu with a broad smile on their face, “Ciao! Ciao!”
I do not even want to turn my gaze in the direction of the panini. Things are too expensive here. I am not thirsty. I don’t want the water that costs one euro. I had rather save one euro. A hundred Kenyan shillings! And three euros if I don’t take a small sandwich.
Three days ago, I was with my priest-friend in Rome. In St. Peter’s Square. After having a “tiny glimpse” of the Pope as he appeared on that distant window, we queued up to enter the Basilica. I was hungry. Italian breakfast is not heavy, you know. We walked up to a kiosk nearby. My friend paid four euros for a small piece of pizza, which he gave to me. He took nothing. I took the pizza but refused the drink. Out of frustration! I satisfied myself with the cold water from the fountain. The pizza made my stomach ache.
“Panini, Aqua.” “Panini, Aqua.” That threatening voice again. It makes you thirsty!
The lady opposite me takes out a hundred euro note. She wants to buy a bottle of water. The gentleman with the cart explains something–in Italian. Common sense and my little Italian suggest that the man does not have change.
“I can give it a little later,” he assures her.
She is reluctant. She gives him the note; takes the bottle of water.
I see her sour face. She does not want to open the bottle.
As the man is about to push his cart away, she cries out, “Signore, scusa, scusa!”
She returns the bottle of water. She wants the money back.
I dip my hand deep into my pocket. Dig out a coin. It bears the sketch of a man. Arms outstretched. My priest-host in Rome told me it is a sketch by the famous Leonardo da Vinci. Another Da Vinci code! One euro!
I offer it to the lady. She is embarrassed. She refuses.
I insist, “No problem!”
“Thanks!” she smiles. And turning to the aisle, calls “Signore!”
The panini man stops, smiles.
He has his euro. She has her water.
Everyone looks at me.
I am a hero now. Because of my one euro!
She repeats, shyly looking at me, “Thanks!”
She opens the bottle. Takes a sip of my one euro. Turns her gaze back to the book. Perhaps she is embarrassed. I look away. Out of the window. The train is dashing through a tunnel. There is nothing to see.
Where did I get all this courage? I’m usually a coward, not having the courage to be charitable. Always on the receiving end. Thanks to our missionaries!
But today, thanks to my missionary friend, I am on this train. And I was able to be courageous enough to offer a euro to a European. Suddenly the tables are turned. She needed a euro. I had the euro.
I just offered it.
There is something happening to me. I am getting into a larger world than my Korogocho!
“I am Chiara!” A hand stretches out in gratitude.
A firm handshake.
Back in Africa, when I shake hands with women, I know who is educated and who is not. My elder sister, uneducated, lives in the country. Has a handshake like a fish. My younger sister, just completed Form Four, really shakes your hand. Assertive. With bright confident eyes. Education of women can make all the difference in Africa.
“And I am Musyoka!” I respond with equal affection and affirmation.
Just a while ago, I was a miserable, lonely stranger. Time was dragging along for me in the corner of the speeding train. My one euro has done the trick. I can smile now.
One euro! The coin with the anatomy of a man! It has a human face today!
But back in my country, over 60% of the population has no access to one euro a day. Below the poverty line. A world economy with no human face!
If someone can travel to the industrial area by matatu, paying one euro, up and down, and come home with another euro, his wife can smile, and his children go to school. This one euro can feed his family for the day with ugali and sukuma wiki. And if his wife is smart, she can spare some coins for the chai next morning. And maandazi for the children. Yet, it is often not there. That one euro!
The world is all strange. It is all new to me. To get this enlightenment, I had to pay one euro.
“Where you come from? You live in Italy?” Chiara becomes interested in me. Her accent is very similar to that of a volunteer we had back in our mission.
“No, I come from Kenya,” I furnish a ready-made answer. I have had to say this to so many people, so many times, in the past week. And I can almost guess her next response.
“Oh, I hear about Kenya. I hear it is a beautiful country.”
I thought she would mention the long distance runners, Malindi and the Masai Mara. This is what Europeans know about Kenya. At least in Italy!
Beautiful country! I wish she could know of the potholes on our roads. The dirty slums in our city. The corrupt police. The crime. The falling economy. The collapsing education. The starving people… Beautiful country!
“Yeah, Kenya is beautiful.” For once I am proud to be a Kenyan. One euro has done the magic.
“So you are studying or doing something around here…” She doesn’t want to be more specific in her guess. But she does want to know more.
“I arrived in Rome last week. Now I am on my way to Turin to visit another priest. Then I will be going over to the ISS–Institute of Social Studies–in The Hague, Netherlands.”
“Mu-syo-ka!” I remind her of my beautiful name, which means, one who comes back. My name is so simple, yet they find it so hard.
“Musioka, you are going to study there, yes?” Chiara seems to know what I am here for. But she hasn’t managed to get my name.
“Yes, I am going to do a Post-Graduate Diploma in Development,”
I am proud that I have come to Europe to study. How many Kenyans dream of this, yet it remains only a dream. How many of our girls dream of getting married to a mzungu just to be able to make their way to Europe!
I add, “The priests in our mission are sponsoring my studies.” I do not want her to think that I am so rich as to afford studying in Europe.
She becomes quiet. The sun is bright outside. As we pass through the orderly farms of northern Italy, even the maize looks very healthy. Beautiful houses are scatteredhere and there in the countryside.
“This book you are reading, is it famous? I see a lot of people reading it.” I want to continue talking to her. That is the only way of getting rid of my loneliness. That is the only way I can learn about the ways of these people.
“I am reading this book, to improve my English. This is the first English novel that I read. Seems interesting. I have not got much from it, anyway.”
There is an announcement on the public address system of the train. “Our next stop will be Asti! Fermata prossima…”
“Oh, it is time for me to get down,” Chiara seems anxious.
“OK? I see…”
Chiara stands up. Pulls her bag from the rack. Then she turns to me, “Take this book. A gift. Everything is yours. Thanks for the one euro. Grazie. Ciao!”
I hesitate. She insists.
She moves towards the aisle leading to the door. I watch her go. I have mixed feelings in my heart. Nice meeting her but too brief a meeting.
The train pulls out again. I flip through the book in my hand, The Da Vinci Code. I continue to flip through the pages. A bookmark, a business card. Chiara Lamponi, CEO, it reads. It bears names of her contacts. I put the business card back in the book…
A hundred euro note! Yes, the hundred euro note she had offered to the panini man.