By Luz Helena Beltrán Gómez
Arriving in Nairobi was a very much anticipated experience. I longed for the tropical green that paints my childhood memories and I knew that in this part of Africa those landscapes are very much shared with South American views. With very little Kiswahili –the language spoken in Kenya – in my knowledge basket, I ventured into a new professional challenge, full of uncertainty and hope. I felt reassured when I heard the first karibu –which means welcome– on the road.
I was there escaping a professional nightmare and jumping into unknown waters. Trusting the universe that all would be for the greater good, and full of hopes, but also with many fears.
In moments of deep uncertainty, I yearned for the places of emotional safety that saw me grow up. So far away, in the middle of Africa, I was in the warm and humid womb of a friendly city, with chaotic streets, too narrow for their traffic demands and with huge contrasts between wealth and misery. I ended up a one of the many hearts of the feminist movements in Africa, with a void of knowledge and an urge to earn my place in the new environment. There were meetings, talks, paperwork. My head was spinning, and at the same time, I was empty and grateful to be right there. I had some moments of immense joy, which coincided with the time to eat. In this case, food was repairing, nourishing and comforting. The local lunch consisted of dishes called Githeri and Mathoke, which were also delicious reminders of the flavors of the mountains of Colombia, so delicious, they even fed my nostalgia. Githeri and Mathoke looked like a Kenyan version of a bandeja paisa, a traditional dish from Medellin.
In a free space of time, I visited the Kenya National Museum with my a newly minted buddy Abigail, whom I met on this trip and is the most delightful and beautiful woman inside and out. We saw the different collections, dated and in need for renewal; we saw the history of Kenya being told as if only men existed from the Pleistocene to the Independence. There was no sight, nor mention of any women, besides the not so satisfying exception of queen Elizabeth. There was, for example, a pictorial account of how Kenya got rid of the colonial power of Britain. In it, there were pictures of good British and good Kenyans, even wildlife made it into the exhibition. However, no women made the cut. This disturbed me, because when we were watching the exhibition a giant group of school girls came to see it at the same time. I saw they didn’t see themselves, and passed by, giving the information of the wall the same oblivion it gave to them. It was a moment of reflection and perhaps sadness.
Abigail and I ventured on foot and in car to explore the city and saw order inside the chaos and beauty inside the disorderly arrangement of streets and non-existing pavements. In the escapade, we learned that the name Nairobi is a Masai word, pronounced with accent in the a, which means “place of cool waters”. We learned that Kenya has 47 tribes and that there is a lot of tension between them, which is tangible in the country’s politics, and the violence that ensued the previous elections. We also noted a wonderful variety of birds in the middle of the city, which in South Africa would require a trip to the bush to be seen. In particular, I saw a yellow-breasted sun-bird, a couple of finches and even some birds of prey!
We then met Saida, our brilliant coordinator. I had gone there seeking her, for work and for my soul, just that I didn’t know the soul part. She is a dynamic young woman. Her glowy skin, fierce eyes, boney frame, wide smile and nasal voice gave me the reassurance I was looking for. Her presence is very expansive, so even before we crossed words, my soul felt well. Saida is very knowledgeable about grassroots women’s organizations in the region, she is active in promoting gender equality and the advancement of women, so speaking with her was a school and a university for me.
Saida heard all my observations about the museum’s need for refreshment and inclusivity, she entertained my linguistic musings, shared generously her knowledge and told me the story about the name of Kenya: When the colonizers came to this fertile land, they asked the locals for the name of Mount Kenya, to which they responded in Kiswahili Ki – Nya which means “there is snow within”. Ki is a common prefix in Kiswahili and it is as versatile as it is common, so, it is frequent to find names such as Kilimani, Kilimanjaro and Kibera.
Thanks to Saida, we had the privilege to see the settlement of Kibera, which is one of the most impoverished and vulnerable areas in the city. Like any slum, it carries the cross of stigma, poverty exacerbates crime, constructions are at the mercy of the weather. Yet, in it, I saw several schoolchildren, laughter, hustling, joy, people getting by and doing the most they could with the dire conditions that surrounded them. Even though Kibera receives violence and isolation from the greater Nairobi community, it is a world within itself and it reverberates with life and the unwavering hope reflected in the eyes of its inhabitants.
In Kibera, Saida took us to a group of women who lead the push for gender equality and justice. These women were poor, they were self-made, they had little education, they had blood curling stories to share with us. These women shared more than an afternoon with me; they shared their energy which I so desperately needed to continue my journey in life without despairing. Their belief in justice gave me power. It gave me strength to believe in myself, in the continent, in humanity. It healed me.
It all went too fast. But I learned enough Kiswahili for greeting a person and ask politely how are you: Ha bari zenu? I discovered the fantastic Dawa (ginger, lime, tea and honey drink of the Gods), I made a new friend (Abigail), my hope was restored, I felt salama –safe in Kiswahili– and I saw the bright future ahead of me.
I can safely say that this was a healing journey because, after it, I feel inspired to march forward and be a real agent of change.
Thank you Kenya.