The evening of Sunday, August 30, 2015 I had been Skype messaging with Emmanuel Okenwa-Vincent, OD of the Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. He said that all that was need to move along the faculty appointment in the Department of Optometry and Vision Science was a letter of support from a certain administrator. He was confident that the letter would be signed promptly early in the week. “Should I come to Kakamega?” I asked. “No, that would be premature,” he answered. “Perhaps you would like to take another safari,” he suggested. I bristled at the term safari. I wanted to say the Mt. Kenya climb was a trek and there was a difference. But he meant nothing by it. In fact, while we were in a small store shopping for fruits and vegetables for the Mt. Kenya trek, I had heard guide John Karumba, refer to our adventure as a safari. I had made a note to myself to look up the definition of safari. “How about if I go to Kisumu? It is only about an hour and a half away and I can wait there. “That is a good idea,” he said.
I was ready to leave Nairobi. It was a somewhat dangerous hour-long walk to downtown, and I had little reason to go downtown. Walking in Nairobi means crossing streets and traffic circles where pedestrians have no rights. The rule of the road is “might makes right.” Even John Karumba, a kind man who I respected, would bully pedestrians as he was parking his vehicle. He’d pull in to a spot where someone was standing or walking, creeping forward until they moved. I had already seen the effects of one pedestrian-car encounter outside of Nanyuki. A young woman was left face down on the shoulder of the road, head and chest covered with colorful sarongs the local people had placed over her, bare soles of her feet facing up. All other outings meant arranging for a driver, taxi, or motorcycle, and that involved paying significant amounts of money to get around. Nairobi had the surging energy of movement, covered with a layer of dust, with almost everything in need of repair or renovation.
A hotel employee had recommended the Easy Coach, a private bus company with a terminal in downtown Nairobi. I looked up the bus schedule online. There was a bus leaving daily at 9:00, arriving at 16:00. Perfect, I thought to myself. I would relax in Nairobi on Monday, running a few errands on foot, then leave Tuesday morning on the Easy Coach. I then went online to make a hotel reservation.
For the last several days I had been staying at Kolping House in Kilimani Estates. Kolping was a German Catholic priest who supported social support and job training programs for the poor. On the walls of the old, crumbling one-story house, there were photographs of people learning to do woodworking, sewing, and construction. The staff was friendly and helpful, and the place was secure. It had a large lot surrounded by a secure wall, with large double metal gate in front for vehicles and small pedestrian gate on the side. I had made a friendly connection with one of the security guards. We had chatted for about an hour earlier in the day. I told him I was going to Kakamega to work, and it turned out he was from a nearby village. “The Luhya, we are everywhere in Kenya,” he said. “What are the Luhya known for? I asked. “Farming, he said. The soil is rich and we are good farmers.”
On Monday I gave a few items of clothing to Phyllis, a Kolping house employee, to launder for an extra fee. I still had not figured out how to get laundry done on my own. In my walks around Nairobi, I had not seen any self service laundromats. I also asked if Kolping House used a regular taxi or driver. “Yes, we do,” she said. “Could the driver be here tomorrow morning to take me to downtown?” I asked. “No problem. What time?” she said. “I would like to be there around 8:00 because the bus leaves at 9:00. How about 7:30? I said. “Okay,” Phyllis replied, “I have to go now, we are expecting a large group of guests later this afternoon.” “Asante,” I replied.
I skipped dinner Monday evening. Earlier in the day as I walked Kilimani Estates I had stumbled upon a restaurant called the Kenchi Chicken House, “We are Kuku for Chicken,” they boasted. I ordered the quarter chicken sama, 350 Kenyan Shillings for chicken, fries and a drink, $3.50 US at the current exchange rate. The chicken was good, but roasted then fried, and the serving of fries was so large I could not finish it all. I had watched the employee packing orders to go into orange plastic bags. He put in the fried chicken, then a paper bag packed with fries. As he placed the fries in the plastic bag, he mounded another scoopful onto the fries, and then another scoopful of fries over the whole thing for good measure. Potatoes are cheap in Kenya.
At the local mall, I purchased a new pair of shoes as mine were not quite right. I had sturdy hiking boots appropriate for climbing a mountain, black dress shoes for work or going out, and something very light, akin to house slippers, wholely inadequate for walking the muddy and debris strewn streets of Nairobi. I found a place called Bata Shoe Company and for 2300 Kenyan Shillings ($23) found a pair with good soles and they fit right. I had done well at the Yaya Mall, just a 20 minute walk from Kolping House.
I spent Monday evening writing “Night Life of Nairobi.” There was a bit more commotion at Kolping House than usual. I could hear young voices talking excitedly about their travels. They sounded American, and mostly female, but now at 11:15 at night things were starting to quiet down. I had been writing for hours, and wanted some fresh air. I exited my room, locked the door, and took a few steps across the hallway to the door I usually used to exit the house. Just outside, with a view of the security gates, was where the security guard usually sat leaning back against the wall. The door was locked. I was still holding my keys, four of them, old style keys with a long metal shank and slotted end. I had my headlamp with me from climbing Mt. Kenya. It was a more modern lock that used a smaller key size. Surely, my antique keys would not fit this door.
I walked down a long corridor with windows on my left, the whole way secured with ornate metal security bars. I stepped up into the dark living room, illuminated by my head lamp, and crossed over the the french doors leading to the back yard. I turned the door handle, but it too was locked. Once again, the lock had been switched to a more modern style.
I walked through the living room to the dining room and entered the corridor leading to the kitchen. On my left was a washing machine and on the right a door leading to a courtyard. Perhaps this was my way out. Across the courtyard was a lighted corridor. One of the new guests, a young woman, walked by in a long t-shirt, talking loudly with someone in a nearby room. She was getting ready to go bed, I thought. I looked down at the lock and it was also a modern lock requiring a small key.
I proceeded to the kitchen. The refrigerator was on the left. I felt the wall and found a light switch, pulling it up. A fluorescent light flickered on. A cut watermelon sat on the counter, covered by plastic wrap. Three large ants crawled nearby. Beyond the refrigerator was a door. Was it a pantry or did it lead out?, I wondered. I approached the door, tried it, and it too was locked. It required an old fashioned key and I had some of those. I tried every key. The largest one that worked on my room door was too big. The three smaller keys just spun in the opening. I looked around. On the window sill above the sink there were three rings of keys, some antique and some modern. I grabbed all three and headed back to the door near my room.
One by one, I tried all the keys that had a chance of fitting. Nothing worked. I shook the door quietly, not wanting to wake the other guests but hoping to attract the attention of the security guard. I looked outside towards the lighted driveway and security gate. All was calm outside. I went to every door and tried every key that might work. Nothing. I looked at my watch and it was midnight now.
I went back to the kitchen and placed the rings of keys on the window sill. I reached through the security bars and opened the window. It had rained earlier, and light breeze brought cool, sweet Nairobi night air into the flickering light my lodging turned prison. My only hope now was the security guard, but I had not seen him. I waited. Only a few minutes later I saw him walk through the back patio. “Hey, hey! Can you come over here?” I said in a loud whisper. He came closer. This was a different guy, not the Luhya gentleman I had talked with earlier. “You won’t believe this but I am locked inside. I just want to go out for a few minutes. Would you please open one of the doors?” I said.
“I have no key,” he said. “What do you mean you have no key? I said, You are the security guard. You must have a key.” He raised what looked like a crowbar that he held in his hand, and said, “My job is to keep people out not let people out.” An anger I had not felt in years flashed inside me. “Look,” I said, “you cannot keep people locked inside. This is a guest house not a prison. What if there were a fire or someone had a health emergency? We are locked inside!” “I will call the manager,” he said, and walked away.
I tried the kitchen door again, shaking it loudly. I tested the security bars on the windows. They were strong and left no room for a human my size to pass through. I moved the to corridor door and it was secure, then walked to the metal french doors off of the living room. I tested them. They moved a little. I put more outward pressure on the doors and was able to push them two inches outward. I could feel the strain of the metal. I few sharp kicks to the doors would open them, I was sure of that. The rising panic in me began to subside. I walked down the corridor to my room testing the security bars but all were quite firm. Passing the last door near my room I shook it loudly. I looked out the window to the front gate and saw the security guard disappear into the shadows. He was avoiding me now.
Reason returned. Yes, I could bash in the french doors causing bent metal and broken glass, startling all the guests. I could do that. And then what? I would be outside with some explaining to do. Or I could go to my room and go to sleep. It was almost one in the morning. In five hours, I would see the glow of first light, hear the birds begin to sing. A half an hour later I would hear the opening of doors, and breakfast preparations in the kitchen. These were good people here, they meant no harm. In the morning I would calmly explain my concerns to Michael, the manager, or Phyllis the assistant. I would be leaving for Kisumu at 7:30. I entered my room, locked the door, laid down and tried to sleep.