For the first weeks I was in Kenya, my father was with me. We’d gone on safari at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and bought jewelry in the market. We’d eaten well on the island of Lamu and walked in the museum that was the home of writer Karen Blixen. We were typical tourists. But we’d had the benefit of being hosted by a cousin who’d lived there for years and spoke Swahili. She’d taught us to speak enough Swahili to get a cab, order a drink, and, oddly, negotiate an engine repair. We became more confident and had ventured out frequently together. Eventually, he returned to Canada and I stayed on.
Some women of 19 who travel internationally are quite street smart and worldly. I was neither. I assumed everyone was kind and for the most part I was proven correct. But there was one time that surprised me.
It was on the streets of Nairobi, as I walked alone, that a man leapt towards me. Before I knew what was happening I was seated on an upside down crate on the sidewalk and my shoes were off. The small man leaned towards me and held my eyes as he waved his hand over the stack of daily newspapers that lay near the crate. “Sell papers,” he whispered. As he disappeared into the crowd he looked over his shoulder and smiled. I pointlessly called out to him, “What do newspapers cost?” but he was long gone and I was barefoot.
After more than an hour, I still had no plan and the realization that I’d been robbed was setting in. I began to panic. I was a long walk from my cousin’s house and the tropical weather made the pavement too hot to step on. I was alone on a street corner in central Nairobi. And I was barefoot. My tender feet always wore shoes. Shoes protected me from the heat of the street and from the city’s filth. I could not walk a metre barefoot.
I could not imagine how I would get home or get another pair of shoes or even how I would explain having been robbed of shoes that I wore.
Then, as suddenly as he’d disappeared, he reappeared. “No more flap, flap” he explained as he slipped my newly soled shoes onto my feet. “You sell any paper?” “No,” I regretted having to admit, “I was too barefoot.”