a non-specific, non-definitive list of the things you will forget and remember when you “go home”:
1. You will remember the warmth of a proper reception: they will greet you like the sun after the most dreary of cloudy days, ‘Karibu’ and ‘welcome home’ washing over you like the milky sweetness of your youth returned.
2. They will stare at you openly: because though your name sounds like theirs and your face resembles their own, you cannot scrub the America off you. It pours out of your clothes, into your saunter, out the undecided steps of your feet, and eventually, your mouth—when you open it to reveal the United States that have made themselves at home on your tongue.
3. You will relearn your R’s: if you can, practice now the rolling of those full round ‘r’s beginning at the back of your tongue, making their way to its tip, remembering how your Kenyan name should sound when it is not watered down by the laziness of American mouths.
4. You will remember how to look right first when you cross the street, just in time to step back from the reckless cars careening down potholed and freshly tarmacked streets alike: you will forget (again and again) to look right first. The ‘America’ is difficult to scrub off you.
5. You will forget which side of the car to get into: your brother will laugh every time you approach the driver’s side of his shiny sports car though you are still too afraid to sit behind its wheel. You will smile at him on the occasions you remember where the steering wheel sits in relation to you. The next time, you will forget again.
6. You will remember to flip light switches off with the frequency of your youth: and on your first day, you will be reminded that flipping them on does not mean that electricity will flow through them. “The notice came last week, I forgot about it,” your sister-in-law will tell you on that first morning. She will worry over you because of the scheduled power shortage and you will remind her that you are home.
7. You will start to count the number of AK rifles openly carried by law enforcement officers on every other street: you will realize that they do not make you feel safe, their fingers too close to triggers, your body still triggered by the America you just left.
8. You will stop counting the number of AK’s openly carried by law enforcement officers on every other street: you will ponder over the failed perception of increased safety as your brother reminds you that for the Kenyan police and armed forces, “bullets are free.”
9. You will become accustomed to the searches of your body, your backpack, your purse, your eyes, your car: this is the cost of entry to the places of commerce, socialization and entertainment in a country living under constant threat of terror attacks. Remember that American adage, “freedom isn’t free?” This is its imported price.
10. You will recall that ‘urban’ and ‘developed’ do not mean sterile; that even the leaves return to their homes covered in the fine dust that coats everything and soon, you will learn to lick the grit off your teeth without knowing it.
11. Your transit will be a lesson in democratic road sharing: bike lanes will appear and reappear as needed, commerce will arise from the space between two stagnant vehicles, and your eyes will feast on the mkokotenis, boda bodas, bicycles, matatus, and impatient pedestrians, who through it all, skirt bumpers and fenders like urban athletes.
12. You will watch traffic lights, flashing red and green with timed precision, replaced by the seasoned arms of officers policing the traffic flow: labor is cheap and we are plenty, so sit back and wait to be waved through. Or, if you are ladened with 2 instead of 4 wheels, hop the curb and breeze through the choked roundabout where streetboys laze on thirsty grass, the city clock keeping watch over them.
13. You will be reminded of the privilege of green space in a city sprouting concrete; when lucrative housing developments supersede the need for urban planning in a city teeming with inhabitants, green space becomes a luxury. Relegated to those who can afford to enclose themselves in lush golf courses, isolated arboretums, or on Saturday nights, drive their cars to viewpoints outside the city where they will watch the sun emerge from its slumber before descending into theirs.
14. You will be robbed: maybe not today, not tomorrow, perhaps not event this week or next month, but eventually you will be robbed of your personal possessions. You will feel like a tourist, you will feel silly, you will feel slighted, you will accept it. After all, nicknames are born of a measure of truth, and this is Nairobbery.
So karibu and welcome home.
Feature photo credit: Emily McCartney Photography .