A Tribute to Place:
One Year at a Nameless Location (Everyone Always Misses the Turn Onto the Dirt Driveway Tucked Between the Frangipanis) on Gitanga Road
Today I renewed my lease.
I remember the first time I opened the front door. That was one year ago. Whooosh, it was like air rushing into a vacuum, carrying with it me and all my belongings. I saw the abundance of leaves and sunlight (those two things alone gave me so much hope) dancing across a panorama of windows, I saw the clean tiled floors, freshly painted white walls, and I nearly cried from joy and relief. Moving here was immensely helpful in allowing me to feel like I could close the door on the anxious events of those first 5 months in Nairobi. I felt like I could leave things behind, I could start new, I could be buoyant. (Now I envy that the anxieties of that earlier Melanie could be cured so easily, by a mere shift from one location in Nairobi to another.)
One year ago, I had just made a theatric escape from my previous place on Muthangari Gardens. There, I bought my first houseplant, and it grew large and very green. I spent hours on weekends stretched out on the warm grey cement floor outside, reading, or thinking, or observing my neighbors quietly. I stuck Jacaranda flowers in the space between the stone blocks outside. I had skirmishes with ants and spiders (some the story-book kind of giant and hairy), beetles, wasps, slugs, and long lumpy brown trails that suddenly wrapped around the corners of the room, which were termites carrying off my bedframe grain by grain. I welcomed geckos, but was horrified when I found them dead in the bathroom. Once I went for a week without showering properly because there was no running water, or the water was always pipe cold (water pressure problems). I didn’t understand how that could be a normal thing for someone. Of course I knew in theory, that more people in the world have mobile phones than access to running water (much less heated running water), but I couldn’t really have known. I couldn’t have known how to wrap a towel around my waist and prepare a basin, mixing boiled water with cold water, and washing with a pitcher and towel. How would I have known to do something like that, after growing up with working clorox-clean showers all my life?
But the real issue was the landlady. She lived in the house at the end of the compound, and from there she would sit at her door which was always slightly ajar, glaring cynically out at her little concrete and stone empire. She started projects that we all suspected she could not afford. She began to charge us (funny how it was especially the muzungus), for strange things. In December, after being accused of something and given an unsavory ultimatum, my friend and her family moved out, and the day they packed their things to leave, the landlady blocked the gate with her body and with the askari, demanding money left right and center. My friend and her husband had to threaten to call the police while bargaining down to a price they could afford to pay. They had to bargain their escape.
After that I was the last muzungu left in my compound. And the landlady began to leave me these letters on half sheets of paper torn out of a notebook, scrawled in blue ink, that listed things I owed her money for, random monthly fees that I apparently hadn’t paid for since I moved in, and she charged me an egregious amount of money for the work they did breaking into my house through the metal door after the house key, the only copy that existed, was stolen.
The start of 2015 found me a nervous wreck. It wasn’t long after I had been robbed at gunpoint when I came home one evening, knocking at the gate for 15 minutes before someone came (usually one knock is enough and the askari promptly opens). But that day it was the landlady that opened. I stepped in, hesitant, and she began telling me a rather elaborate story about how that morning the askari and his nephew had tricked her, robbed her, and run off. She went on and on, it almost became a kind of whining, and I could tell she expected me to pity her. But I only felt frightened because I knew she was lying to me, and as the sunlight grew thin, I also realized that no lights were coming on, and there was no electricity in the compound. Half the houses were now abandoned, unoccupied, and none of my remaining neighbors were home yet. It was just me and that dubious landlady. That image I saw of her is still vivid: standing in the empty dirt lot, that limp in her body even when she wasn’t moving, wrapped in her faded pink bathrobe, hair disheveled, bags dark under her eyes, lantern in hand, telling me half truth half fairytale as the air lost its light. I was slowly edging away from her, trying to end the conversation, wanting to run to my house and lock the door. When I finally managed to do that, I found none of the taps were running. I figured the landlady had no money to pay for the whole lot: water, electricity, and askari. I reached for my phone, to call Mrs. Im (my boss+surrogate mom) for help, and then realized with sickening dread, that I had run out of credit and could make no calls, send no texts, and it was now too late, and the walk to the kiosk on the main road too dark. I began to cry, contemplating how I would last until the sun rose the next day. I sat on the floor against my kitchen wall, trying to listen for my neighbor coming home, and I prayed and prayed that somehow someone, anyone, would call me out of the blue. I could hardly believe it when I suddenly heard my phone buzzing. I ran to it like it was the last good thing left in the world. Of all the good people in Kenya, it turned out to be Mrs. Im. Hi, Melanie. Hi, Mrs. Im, I said, trying to contain my voice. I remember she asked, Are you OK? And I had been surprised by how fitting the question was, as if she knew. And then I had wanted to yell, OK? I am a number of things — relieved! disturbed! but not OK. I told her what had happened and she told me to quickly pack my necessities, she was coming for me. That week I stayed in her guest bedroom until I moved into my current apartment, living disheveled out of my backpack, going to school and lesson planning, and teaching, and trying to look like everything was normal while I stood in front of my students.
Mrs. Im explained to me why she had called me that evening. She said it was Mr. Im. He had, without reason, suddenly felt very uncomfortable and worried about me. He kept telling Mrs. Im to: call Melanie, make sure she is OK, just call her and make sure. Mrs. Im thought, well of course Melanie is OK, why wouldn’t she be, but she called anyway, and asked if I was OK… I found this piece of information stunning, but then at the same time there was a part of me that believed that that was how it should have happened, because I still fully expected, insisted — perhaps stubbornly and childishly — that God would take care of me. I believed that this kind of story should be normal if it is true that God takes care of those who follow Him to wherever on the map He points.
That Thursday, we backed a 14 seater school bus into the dirt lot. We stuffed everything, clothes, books, gas stove, furniture, into the rows of seats that carried students just a few hours ago. I kept watch out the window as Solo took apart my bed frame. The curtains were the last thing I took down. I had not told the landlady when I would be leaving, I had not paid her any of the money she demanded in those handwritten letters. We held our breath as I locked up, and left the plant at my front door, so it would look as if I was coming back. The landlady was slowly walking out of her house towards us when we drove the hell out of there. Solo and I were practically yelling at each other in terror, excitement, and disbelief that we had made it, after plotting for a week, my great escape.
Some weeks later I knocked again at the black gate on Muthangari Gardens. A new askari opened the door. I handed him my keys. Please give these to the landlady, I said quickly, and ran off.
Now, that old place seems like the stuff of dreams.
Now, I am here.
Here means C3. I asked the landlord to explain that to me after someone delivering food on a boda boda came knocking at my door, insisting the plastic bag was for me, and I squinted at him through my glasses, half asleep. Here means the third floor of an apartment building that is stacked like legos (because it was built like attaching structure upon structure as afterthought), at a nameless location somewhere along Gitanga Road, shielded by trees and frangipanis. I have yet to identify an address. Sometimes it shows up on google maps as Plot 330, but nobody knows what that means.
Here, in March when the long rains came, I dragged my bed next to the panoramic windows, so I could watch the tremendous display of weather as I fell asleep. I saw all manner of bugs and even mice, illuminated during split seconds of lightning, quaking against my third-story window sill, among the climbing vines. I felt thunder shake the building. The rain fell in buckets and it seemed the whole earth allowed itself to be smelled in one breath.
Here, I learned how to light a candle with cheap matches (about 6/10 of them break and it makes me think about that story of the match girl, who had one match left, and what a great deal of anxiety that must have been), and let the wax drip into the base of a cup, holding the candle in place as it cooled. I learned how to lock and unlock a padlock with one hand and without being able to see it, I learned how to pull laundry line, how to make stew, how to wash without running water. I learned about how modern urban spaces change a culture, suck it dry, mechanize living for speed, convenience, and economy. I learned both what it means to be a 20-something year old living alone in a city, as well as what it means to be a 20-something year old female foreigner (a person whose face is constantly and unavoidably interpreted as foreign) living alone in the city of Nairobi.
Here, the gas tank for my stove finally ran out. It was a miracle tank. They told me it should last 3 months, maybe 5 or even 6 tops since I lived alone, but no one believed that it would last one whole year, with me using it multiple times nearly every day. People said, Are you sure you didn’t change it out at some point and you’ve just forgotten? No, of course I would remember going to an Oil Libya petrol station to return my old tank and pick up up a new one. Yes, it really lasted a whole year. I think God kept adding petrol to it.
Here, I finally got a rug. Then I finally got a table, designed by me and custom made by Wikie, the school carpenter. But I can’t sit at it yet. No chairs.
Here, the neighbor below me wears round specs. He texts me, good morning sweetheart. He invites me over for dinner and a movie. He looks at me in a way that I can best describe as “eager”. I regret thinking he would be a kind neighbor, thinking when I first moved in that he would be friendly and helpful, not friendly and eager for someone to warm his couch. I regret living alone. I regret that almost everyday.
Here, my other neighbor and I suspect that the lady living right above me is likely a prostitute. She is strictly private, never talks to anybody, dashing in when she sees you coming out. And the only people I see coming from her place are older men. The latest guy I saw was rather flustered, adjusting his sleeves, and ahem-ing like he was trying to clear out something uncomfortable from his throat. I always hear a lot of sounds coming from her place, like so much furniture moving that the floor might bottom out and all of it will come crashing through my ceiling.
Here, I fight for laundry line. Because neighbors use mine without my permission. Jessica takes initiative to scout these neighbors out for me. Why are you hanging your things here? she demands. Just for today, they said. But 3 days later it was still hanging there. Jessica shakes her head. That is so bad, she says. Yes, I said, surprised by her camaraderie and her six-year-old sense of injustice, It is actually very frustrating. Now I don’t know where to hang my laundry. Jessica says, I know where, and as the sun sets, she helps me sneak my laundry to the other side to hang it on the neighbor’s extra lines. Make sure they don’t take your clothes, she advised, wake up early tomorrow morning and come to take your things down.
Here, I find the most beautiful bugs at my door. Iridescent, transparent, patterned like an artist applied his hand to pottery.
Here, I get hit on every month when I go to my landlord’s office. I mind what I wear when I go to pay rent, sometimes I change outfits. I get asked the strangest questions, they always catch me off guard. Sometimes I try to be curt and polite, other times I get angry and speak my mind. But he seems to like that too. Sometimes he talks about my hair, sometimes he talks about business and how much money I have, sometimes he talks about China (because no matter how many times I explain where I’m from…), sometimes he talks about wanting to get married, sometimes he asks about the people that come to visit me, especially when they are male. Today when I renewed my lease, he asked me how often I shower. I feel violated by the way he looks at me. I don’t like the way he smiles like he can see through me or like he knows something I don’t.
Here, my row of shoes are a tide of their own, ebbing and flowing. Nairobi streets are not kind to shoes that walk, grinding them down to holes and shreds and loose soles. Then shoes are replenished at the Toi market, that maze of second hand items that I simultaneously love and hate treasure-hunting through.
Here, I neglected paying my electricity bill for awhile, and by awhile I mean 8 whole months, before Kenya Power realized and shut me down. I lived by candle light for a couple nights and then went to the KPLC office to explain myself. They gave me some beef, which I ate politely, and then I paid about 6K (60 USD) for all 8 months. I had to look up the word “arrears” for the first time. “Your account has been in arrears since May” haha. They reconnected me before I even reached home. I was impressed.
Here, on NYE, Jessica and I spread an opened sleeping bag under a tree and ate through an entire 20 bob bag of sweet red plums. They are delicious this time of year. We sucked the seeds dry and tossed them into the abandoned bathtub that is nestled among the grass.
Here, I learned how to fast. I learned about hunger, until it became a familiar thing to me. I learned how to give up sugar. I learned Philippians 4. I learned, am learning, how to endure in prayer.
Here, I learned things about myself that I wish I didn’t have to learn. I learned about things that haven’t left me even after all these years. I learned about isolation and loneliness, I learned how to hold myself, how to nurse myself at my own bedside.
Here, I listened for different footsteps across the pebble parking lot.
Here, I fed a cat, mostly because I needed the companionship. Was bitten by too many mosquitos and have the scars, spotting the backs of my legs like a skin disease, to prove it. Public information.
Here, I haven’t painted anything yet, though my paints and brushes are set out. They collect dust. And I rarely miss it. But when I do miss it, I miss it until it hurts.
Here, I became 24.
Here, I became a butterfly. I came close to staying still, I came close to being caught. I wonder if I can still fly.
Here, my hair grew long, and was trimmed while I sat on a livingroom table, then grew long again, then was trimmed while I sat on the kitchen floor, then grew long again.
Here, I felt like dying and I felt like living. One more than the other.
But I want to leave here now. Even though I just renewed my lease. Even though I have no there to go to. The anxiety is something I want to close a door on again. I wish it could be that simple.