Out of Africa: Coming Home

On Tuesday I packed, played football and Lego with Peter, and walked through Kitengela for the last time, on its market day, saying goodbye to the litter-strewn streets and the roadworks rising out of the dust.  I left Kitengela in the evening just after Storm Over Paradise had started.  David drove me to the airport, and on the way we were stopped by the police, who checked the boot of the car.  Apparently it’s a completely routine check and they stop everyone.  As we were driving I saw two sets of headlights coming towards us, driving on our side of the road for no apparent reason, since there was no problem I could see on the other lane.  I asked David why they weren’t on the other side.  He said, “They are Kenyan.  Truly Kenyan.”

At the airport I was one of the people who are selected for a random check through their whole luggage.  It was fine though because I just told the man I had been a volunteer teacher in Kitengela and he went easy on me, only checking the flap pocket at the top of my rucksack, and the very top of the main body of the bag.  This was lucky as I did not have the energy to try to unpack any of my bag.  I thought there might be less security flying out of Nairobi, but in fact, unless I’ve forgotten how it is at home, it seemed like there was more.  I had to take my shoes off three times.  One of the security men checking my passport at the final check before the boarding gate was troublesome, and held my passport for about ten minutes looking at it and questioning me.  By the time he had finally finished with me, a big queue of people waiting had formed behind me.  I think the problem was that I look a bit different from on my passport photo, when I’m younger, have shorter hair, no beard, no glasses.  It shouldn’t have been a problem but he was just of a suspicious nature.  Then he asked me when I arrived in Kenya, and when I went to Uganda, and I couldn’t remember the exact dates.  This made him more suspicious.  In reality I was just extremely tired and I couldn’t be bothered.  I just stood there and patiently answered his questions and knew he’d have to let me through eventually, since I hadn’t done anything wrong.

At the gate I continued reading my Paul Theroux book, who had just entered Malawi by matatu.  I, on the other hand, was just about to fly out of Kenya.  Boarding the plane was exciting; I knew I had already entered a different continent, although the plane was still on the ground.  The BA plane was a new world, with its spotless interior, soft blue reclining seats, TV screens in the backs of the seats, and trolleys of food.  I sat in the midst of a large group of Kenyans, who were all very excited.  This is how I felt when I left Heathrow at the beginning, because it is the start of a great adventure, and because as a first time on a long-distance plane, BA is a revelation in luxury.  Some of them were already wearing their woolly hats and coats.  I was wearing three layers and had another three in my hand luggage.  At half past midnight I was above Ethiopia or the Sudan, the air temperature was -41°C outside, it was 4000 miles to London, (8 hours), 34,000 ft high, and travelling at 582mph!  These statistics appeared on the map on my TV screen.  After the dinner they handed out, I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but around 1.30am I must have passed out from sheer exhaustion, because I remember nothing else, and woke up later with the headset still in my ears to find the film had finished, with the screen blank.

When I woke up we were flying north up the coast of Croatia.  At first I was extremely confused, having just woken up and seeing on the map where we were, but then I realised we had just come almost directly north up from Kenya, and had yet to go west.  Flying over northern Italy I could see lots of small towns, looking metallic in the wintry glint of buildings under electric light.  No town in Africa looks like that from above.  I was amazed by the extent of electricity, everywhere in the darkness.  Tiny pinpricks of light in straight lines along all the roads, street lights and lights on buildings and houses.  So much electricity, and nobody isolated in the primitive darkness, as I had seen two nights before from the train.

By 4.15am GMT we were making the approach into Heathrow, and everyone was chirpy and wide awake because in Kenyan time it would have been 7.15am, and generally people wake up early because dawn is early.  As we came in over south east England, one of the excited Kenyans near me asked me: “Is it London?”
“Not yet,” I said. “London is very big, very bright.  Many lights.  These are just small towns.”  And I smiled, thinking of what they were going to experience.
Even the toilet cubicle on the plane seemed like a miracle to me.  It is hard to explain.  Some of you will understand.  The last toilet on transport I had seen was the one on the train, and it was a revelation to me to see a toilet which was clean, not flooded, had toilet paper and soap, a working flush, a door that shut, and locked!  It seemed like a profound triumph to create something that is functional, and clean!  When I was waiting in line for it, one of the Kenyans from the group near me was in front of me, waiting.  He kept trying to get in the door, although it said “Occupied” in a red light on the front.  One of the BA stewards was telling him over and over again, “It’s occupied at the moment”, and was getting more and more frustrated as the man didn’t appear to understand and kept pushing at the door.  I told him “It’s busy.  There is someone,” and he understood that fine.  I felt like the steward had no idea at all where this man had come from.  The Kenyan was dressed in an old t-shirt and a woolly hat, I could tell he was a lower-class Kenyan from his appearance.  It’s possible he had never seen a toilet with a locking door before let alone one that is able to light up and tell you whether it’s “occupied” or not.

We flew over London in the early morning, to the delight of the Kenyans near me, and me as well, as I have never seen it at night from the air.  And seeing it after Africa, London looked a miracle of glittering wealth and electric light.  Mankind’s victory over the natural environment, where thousands of years before there was only darkness and the cold.  The group of Kenyans were in awe, and I was too.  I saw the Eye, a flashing wheel of red and blue light beside the river.  Miles and miles of London, disappearing into the horizon, humankind’s conquest over the darkness of nature, an assertion of power, ability to change the primitive land into this awesome spectacle of light and development.  It was 28°C the day I left Nairobi, and -2°C when I landed in London.  At some point during the flight, high in the clouds, it had been -60°C outside. -60°C!  It’s unimaginable.

Getting off the plane the air was icy and I was very cold.  But I had decided to embrace the winter, for I have realised that the winter is a big reason why we are who we are, why the West has developed the way it has.  I have spent a long time wondering why Africa is undeveloped and Europe is developed.  And the reason I have decided on is this.  Long ago, we had to build stable houses, to protect us from the cold, we had to find fuel to survive the winter, so the cold weather spurred on industrial development.  And the winter stops the insects from being huge, as they are in Africa, and it kills off many diseases.

It was 5.15am when I got off the plane at Heathrow.  I thought: “That’s okay, only 45 minutes until the sun rises.”  But I was wrong.  Although I was anticipating the cold, I had forgotten about the difference in daylight!  I have got so used to the unvarying rhythm of daylight from 6am – 6pm.  Everywhere was so clean, and functional.  It was incredible.  The floors at Heathrow are so shiny they reflect the lights from the ceiling.  Going through customs declaration I was captivated by the black marble floor of a perfume shop, which had pieces of sparkling crystal in it, glittering as I walked by.  Glossy adverts on every wall, clean walkways and pavements and buildings.  Swarms of white people, well groomed, well clothed, dressed up in winter layers – coats and scarves, breathing icy breath into the cold morning.  On the tube I dozed off to sleep, and woke up to realise that the underground is the exact polar opposite to travelling by matatu.  I realised I was standing too close behind a man on the escalator, when he turned around and looked back at me, being unused to personal space, because in Kenya everyone is crammed in together, on buses, at school etc.  That’s another new thing – escalators – wow!  I saw glass floors.  Glass lifts.  Everyone rushing about in a crazed hurry to get somewhere.  Everyone, without exception, rushing rushing.  When I got to Kings Cross at 7.20am, it was still dark.  I walked outside between St Pancras and Kings Cross main stations, and it was the first time in a long time that I had walked outside alone in the dark.

And I was back home: on the train journey from London to Cambridge, in winter, mid-December.  It is only since I got on the plane that I realised how tanned I am, so brown that it looks like dirt.  From the train I saw many sights that stood out to me: frost on the fields!  A house made of bricks!  A pink cloud front glowing at sunrise over the frosty morning; ice on the railway track.  The blue and red lighted sign of a Tesco Extra!  I have never had so much fun seeing ordinary things.  A bridge!  Big electricity pylons.  More houses made of bricks!  Another train!  And a road – smooth for many metres on end, with white lines, and not a pothole or a massive rut in sight!  Such crazy things!  Christmas lights blinking in the rising morning.  Vast fields that have been ploughed by machine, not hacked at by hand with sticks, and sharpened rocks, or bits of leather.  No roaming Maasai morani (warriors) with their cattle, and no dead cattle by the side of the road.  The train passed through Royston, and I saw many more houses made of brick and other solid stone structures.  But in my mind’s eye I saw another clutch of buildings, ones made of corrugated iron and sacking, or mud and sticks.  I saw allotments, and greenhouses!  It was as if I was seeing everything for the first time, or after a very long period away.  Everything was very grey, even when the sun was up.  I’d forgotten how grey the British winter is: grey sky, grey fields, grey towns, clouds, roads, houses.  I’d forgotten the colour grey.  My eyes are accustomed to bright sunlight.

Friday 18th Dec.
It began snowing as I arrived home.  By the next morning it was deep and thick; we were snowed in and the power had been down for 14 hours.  It was like being back in Kitengela, except for the cold.  I have experienced a change in temperature of more than 30°C in the past couple of days; what I had forgotten about was that there is much less daylight.  It is still snowing now, although the electricity has come back.  We went for a walk in the snow.  I am really feeling the cold.  But I am enjoying being home; everything normal just seems very fresh and a little overwhelming at the moment.

This is the end of my Kenyan journal.

Thank you for reading!

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