I first set foot on the continent of Africa in 1971. Exchange students from all 9 University of California campuses were loaded onto one plane and sent to Europe, from where we all were divided into smaller groups and sent on to our specific countries of destination. Mine was Kenya. I was part of a group of about ten, I think, but I don’t honestly remember. We had orientation together, the high point of that was apparently when we had the opportunity to drink a traditional Masai beverage that was a mixture of blood and milk from cattle, because I have no other memory of orientation. I have no recollection of the other members of my group, beyond sitting on the outdoor patio having drinks at the Norfolk hotel, a British hotel built in 1904, and well-known as the starting place of East African safaris for decades. Located minutes away from Karen Blixon’s home (Meryl Streep in Out of Africa), it is still a well-known landmark for travelers, although it is now considered a luxury hotel and has been rebranded as part of the Fairmont chain of hotels. It is also located right across the street from the University of Nairobi.
The tea lounge of the Norfolk is where I taught myself Swahili, after arriving in Nairobi to find that the University had no classes in Swahili. There I studied French, African Literature, and Linguistics with, a British linguist, MAK Halliday, who unbeknownst to me at the time, would one day become an icon in the field of linguistics because of his theory of functional grammar. What I remember about him, however, is not this. Rather, it was the fact that he had meticulously transcribed every sound uttered by his new born son and, over time, analyzed the grammar of his child’s language from cooing right up until he started using words that everyone else could recognized to communicate. Many people thought he was crazy to have done this; I was fascinated. Each day, after my classes at the university, I would head to the Norfolk and park myself in the glassed in porch across from the university. I would order myself a pot of tea, and apply myself to the exercises in my Swahili grammar books. The waiters were happy to let me practice with them to my heart’s content.
The Norfolk offered me something of great value beyond its use as my personal classroom, although this is something that I have never before shared with anyone. One wing of the building had rooms which did not have individual bathrooms. Instead, there were rooms with lovely big bathtubs that opened directly onto the main hall and, given that my white skin gave me license to walk those halls unquestioned, I discovered that I could enter those rooms to bathe when there was no water at the university, which was most of the time. So, very often, after my tea, I would saunter up as if I belonged there, enter a bathroom, whip my shampoo and towel from my bag, and have a lovely bath. This was also where I went when, much to my distress, I discovered I had my first, and (so far only) case of head lice. I was horrified, and I raced up to the bathtubs with my insecticidal shampoo and scrubbed and combed myself silly for at least two weeks, until my hair started to fall out. Of course, I made sure that every alien went down the drain and, in actuality, there weren’t but one or two after the first slaughter. If nothing else, those shampoos really do work. Still, it seemed such a travesty of those shining white tubs to use them for such a purpose.
In many ways, the Norfolk was my “home away from home”, even though I never actually stayed there. It served to take the edge off dormitory life where the rooms made our dorm rooms in the U.S. look like we were in a 5 star hotels and the food could hardly be considered food if one were to compare it to the buffet lines that await students at most American colleges and universities. Upon my return to college campus life in the states, I was always bemused when my peers complained about the food, or the rooms. Their concerns seemed silly and trite, in light of what many students around the world have to endure to get any education at all. This awareness of the dietary realities around the world persisted throughout my life, and educating Americans about how much of the world eats became an integral part of my medical practice whenever people would complained about the lack of variety in their diets if they had to avoid dairy, sugar, wheat, or any combination thereof. Much of the world eats the same few foods day in and day out and are grateful for it.
In lieu of edible food in the dorms, more often than not, I chose to buy food in the plethora of Indian shops selling small portable delicacies such as kabab or samosa, or to sit in the big outdoor stand on the other side of the university that made omelettes to die for. I still remember the long wooden tables under a canopy of tarps, held up by spindly trees cut down for the purposes of building the tent. The food was hearty, delicious, and cheap. I certainly could not afford much more than tea at the Norfolk, at least not on a regular basis. Still, the dorms were not without their uses. When I fell head over heels in love with a young Gujarati man at the university, my little room was quite sufficient for our private encounters whenever my roommate was away. It was, of course, a forbidden love, as he was promised to another who lived in his home town and with whom he would most certainly wed once he finished his studies. Now, years hence, as I step back in time to remember how my story of Africa began, sweet memories of secret moments on the tiny creaky metal bed sit softly alongside the embarassment of stolen baths and insecticidal warfare.
The people who most intrigued me at the university were students from the coast communities of Kenya, mostly Mombasa, who spoke Kiswahili as their native tongue. They seemed to have created a little family among themselves owing, presumably, to the fact that, in addition to being the only native Kiswahili speakers, they were the only Muslims on campus. I longed to be part of their group. In fact, in order to demonstrate my sincere interest in their language and community, I stopped spending any time with any other wazungu (white people) and joined them at meal time, to listen to their Kiswahili chatter and participate when I could. I was so desperate to entered their hallowed circle that I decided to fast during the month of Ramadhan, although I was also curious about what the experience itself would be like. The reasons for the fast are altruistic — the intention is to share in the suffering of many around the world by practicing a dietary vow of hunger for the month. During the month, I was would sit with them in the evening to eat the meal specially provided by the campus kitchens for Muslims since, from dawn until dusk for 30 days, we were not allowed to eat or drink anything. The abstention from water was more difficult from food. In some countries around the world, Muslims will break fast at dusk, eat again at 10 or 11, and then wake again to eat before dawn. In that case, the abstention was not as difficult. But the families in Mombasa with whom I lived did not do this. They would break fast at dusk, eat again before bed, and then wait until the following day, at dusk, to eat again.
Fasting during Ramadhan was a decision that I will never regret. Not only did it provide what was to become my “initiation” into the Swahili community in Mombasa, it also realized its intention. I understood what it meant to live without sufficient nutrition in a way that would not otherwise be possible. Although, as part of my yogic practices, I have fasted often, I have never again fasted without having access to water, and I have never done it for 30 days.
At the end of Ramadhan, Muslim families celebrate with a day of specially cooked foods, and prayer. At the end of my first Ramadhan, one of the members of the group, a quiet and quite orthodox Muslim man whom I didn’t even know that well, invited me to Mombasa to celebrate Idd with his family. To this day, I have no idea why he invited me. He deposited me at his mother’s home and then disappeared into the world of Muslim men, never to be seen again, except occasionally at a distance.
I was embraced by warmth and enthusiasm by the women in his family, they fed me, they decorated me with henna and wanja, the latter being a black ink of some sort that you could use to make the most interesting designs on hands and feet, which could then be colored in by applying dabs of the former, which looked like some sort of reddish mud. Both henna and wanja had to be left on your hands and feet to dry, then to be remoistened, then dried again, repeating the process several times until finally, when washed off, you had beautiful blank and red drawings on your skin that would take days, if not weeks to fade away. The soles of your feet would be solid red, and if your nails were hennaed, the color was permanent; you simply had to wait for your nails to grow out, watching a little red crescent moon gradually get smaller and smaller as it reached the top of your nail.
You could always tell who had been to a wedding, and when, from their fingernails, as this form of adornment was common for both brides, who had extremely delicate and complex designs done, as well as many women attending the wedding, especially if members of the bride’s family. During the process I could not, of course, do anything with my hands or my feet, so various women, young and old alike, plied with delicious mandazi, a type of sweet bread made with coconut milk, and chai, a sweet tea made with milk and spices, while I lay with my feet and hands extended, not allowed to move for fear of cracking the drying mud so it would fall off and need to be replaced. What I did not know at the time was that this family actually made mandazi to sell and, to this day, I have never tasted any better than theirs.
That weekend was the beginning of my love affair with the East African coast, one that has lasted more than 40 years and will probably continue until the day I leave this planet. The Swahili people are, in many ways, very different from Rwandans, who are more reserved and who, more often than not, laugh when you try to speak their language, although many Rwandans believe this is a behavior learned from the French, who, as many of us who have studied in France well know, often express distain for people who speak their language poorly. In contrast, Swahili people couldn’t wait to drag me into their homes, not just for a visit, but to stay. They enthusiastically accepted my efforts to speak Kiswahili, without criticism or ridicule, and without switching to English, even if they knew it. They wanted nothing from me but for me to be who I was. They wanted me to belong to them as much as I wanted to belong to them. We told stories, we laughed, we played with all our children. For the first time in my life I experienced what it was like to be part of a (very) big family. It seemed to me at the time that I had been part of their world since the beginning of time, and would remain so forever.
I became “addicted” to Mombasa. My passion knew no bounds. For the next 8 years, I got myself back there as often as I could. I took money that I was given to study Arabic as a graduate student at UC Berkeley and used it to return there in 1973, where I continued to study Arabic and Swahili. I visited when I went to study in Dar-es-Salaam in 1975. I went back when Peace Corps hired me to write textbooks for teaching Swahili in 1978 and hired members of my family to help me write the short Swahili conversations which formed the basis for the lessons. It was only when I went to teach at the School for International Training in Vermont in 1983, that my trips home to Mombasa stopped, although my love for the community continued to burn fiercely in my heart. I visited once more in 1994.
It was not until now, when I found a job with Peace Corps in Rwanda that I was finally able to make my way back to East Africa. I checked flights and found it was less than a 2 hour flight to Mombasa from Kigali. I planned to spend my holidays there and then, when my service completed, to go back again. Of course, when I mentioned this to someone upon arrival in Kigali, I discovered that I was not, as a PC volunteer, allowed to travel to Kenya, owing to its political instability. And so, here I sat, so near and yet so far, wondering who was still alive, how they were what they were doing. It had been many years since I had heard from anyone, except one friend who periodically would send me an email address and I would hear about how she and her children were doing.
Last week, my phone rang and a voice said, in Kimvita (the dialect of Kiswahili spoken in Mombasa), “This is Maha, daughter of Sulafa’s brother. Do you remember me?” Well, yes, I did, I could still see her fact, but she must have only been 3 or 4 years old, if that, the last time I saw her! We laughed, we talked about how old we had become, she was now 42, with a husband and children, the youngest of whom turned out to be more-or-less the same age as she was when I first met her. Then she explained, she was in Kigali, her husband worked there and she had lived with him there for several years until she had to return home with her children so that they could receive a better education than was available in Rwanda. They only returned for the winter holidays and were there now. Perhaps I couldn’t get to Mombasa yet, but I could certainly get to Kigali. Less than a week later, I arrived and was whisked off to spend the afternoon and evening with her and her family.
Maha’s adult face was the same as that of the young child I remember. I would have known her anywhere, even after 40 years. Our time together was as I remembered my time in Mombasa, we sat together, the entire family, children and parents and talked and laughed for hours, just as we used to do in the evenings in Mombasa. We just sat and enjoyed being together. I remember that I used to always say that the Swahili had taught me the art of being, without needing to do anything. The youngest daughter insisted on clomping around in my Reeboks, looking like a miniature clown with huge feet, and refused to let anyone feed her her evening meal of uji except the new bibi (grandmother). I had finally graduated to being a bibi!. We all found her both endearing and extremely humorous. When she finally took my shoes off, she fell over from the sudden loss of the extra weight on her feet.
I heard about their lives, how they had met, where they had lived, what they are doing now. I reveled in the familiarity of the language, as Kimvita is the dialect of Swahili that I learned and had not heard since I was last there in 1994. It was like finally being “home” again. I was able to ask about everyone in Mombasa whom I longed to see. I discovered that my mother there, MaFatu, (short for Mama Fatuma) was, much to my delight, still alive, in her late 80’s or early 90’s. She had well-outlived my birth mother in the U.S. who had died at 83. I had thought that I would never see her again. And, miraculously, all of her 12 children were still alive, most had married and borne children. Most were still in Mombasa, although a few were in Dubai. I learned about the children of her children who, like Maha, I had met when they were small. I learned that the little boy whom I had carefully fed a fried egg with my fingers every morning for his breakfast for many months was now a grown man with two wives, each with their own house, and several children.
And then… miracle upon miracle, Maha whipped out one of her phones that had some type of video system that everyone here uses (different from What’s App, presumably less expensive) and she called Mombasa. And there, one by one, I was able to actually see and talk to my mother, MaFatu, her daughter, Sulafa, my friend, now in her seventies. They looked the same, but older, and Sulafa’s laughter, as well as the laughter of Maha and her family as they watched us greet each other for the first time, made the years drop away until my yesterday became my today. It was the laughter that I remembered most about living in Mombasa, and it has been laughter that I miss the most here in Rwanda. Even in the United States, people do not seem to laugh as deeply and fully as people in Mombasa. I remember having a student from West Africa who was in one of my classes, comment upon my laughter: “You laugh like an African”, she said. Apparently, not only did I learn Kiswahili in Mombasa, but I also learned how to laugh, how to really really laugh.
MaFatu and Sulafa and I had once shared a small bedroom together. They each had a bed, while I had foam mattress that I unrolled each evening and next to which, in the wee hours of the morning, they would roll out a prayer rug and pray the first of their five prayers of the day while I continued to lightly slumber, basking in their devotion to God, and listening to the call to prayer echoing through the morning air from the nearby mosque. These mornings were when I stopped being a Christian. I could not live in such close proximity to such divinity without realizing that I could not accept a religion that could not welcome their love of God as fully as that love embraced me.
Later, in another video call later that night, after the man of the house in Mombasa returned, I was finally able to greet a younger brother, Salim who was now in his sixties but who had been in his early twenties when I first met him. With his wife and children, he lived with the other women in his family who did not have husbands — MaFatu, Sulafa, and the youngest of the 12 children, Sulaika (Su for short). Salim was the one person whom I remember as my personal teacher of Kiswahili. Rather than going out in the evenings to sit and talk with other men in the community, which is what most men do, he had stayed home and spent hours letting me practice my Swahili while he spoke slowly and gently so that I could learn to understand his. He pulled of his prayer cap so I could see his balding head, and I could see that he now has a short graying beard. But I recognized the young man that had been so kind to me in my youth. His eyes were still as kind and his smile was as wide and brilliantly white today as it was 40 years ago.
The video connection was terrible, with a time lag, but the faces that I saw were still the faces that I loved, and had so longed to see. We had, indeed, all aged, but it didn’t matter. To the contrary, it was a source of delight. Delight in recognizing that the years had treated us well, that we were all still here, somehow, together. Though decades passed, as soon as we were situated together in time, we still belonged to one another, even though geography continued to separate us. The only evidence of our prolonged period of absence from one another was the wrinkles on our faces and the gray in our hair. Maha observed that dunia inkuwa ndogo (the world had become small) and, much as I bemoan the hours that people seem to spend glued to their cell phones instead of talking to one another, I could not deny that the experience of seeing people whom I love after so many years on a tiny square screen was extremely powerful. The technology seduced me; I didn’t want to let go of the phone. As decades melted into one present moment of (virtual) reality, I could not help but wonder what it will be like when I finally see them in person again. I may not be able to contain myself. I most certainly will not be able to breathe.
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