Monday, 25 June 2012

Shoeless in Nairobi

              On our first morning in Kenya, I made myself a promise: the next time I was robbed of everything I owned, I would at least try to be awake while it happened.

          We had been met after midnight by a smiling Kenyan employee of the agency we were going to work for, and driven to Eastleigh, a smart suburb of Nairobi. The driver unlocked the door of a two-storey house on a street that could have been in Northampton or Des Moines. Too tired even to shower away the grime of air travel, we had sunk into floral-patterned twin beds on the second floor. As I lapsed into a kindly coma, I thought how little like Africa this place looked: we had an entire middle-class home to ourselves.  So far, so good.

          As I came to, sometime after a sudden dawn, Barbara was standing at the door of the room, her hand on the knob.

          “Okay, Art, I give up.  What did you do with the key?”

          “What key?  Is the door locked?”

          “Tighter than a tick.”  She twisted the doorknob futilely. I got up slowly and tried it myself.

          “You don’t suppose what’s his name, the driver, locked us in on purpose?” I asked hopefully. Barbara just grunted. She was crossing her legs, needing the bathroom. I wrenched at the handle.  Nothing.

          “I think there was a key in the door when we came in,” I said. I dropped to my knees and peered under the crack at the bottom. Nothing but polished floor.

I went over to the window and looked out. The room let on to a sloping shed roof over what I knew was the kitchen. From there I could see a short drop to the grassy lawn of the manicured compound below. There was no one in sight.

“Go on, then,” said Barbara.

“Go on and what?”

“Yell,” she said.  “Call somebody.”

“What do I say, exactly? ‘Help!’ sounds a little extreme.”

Her expression showed she didn’t mind what words I employed, but that she expected a yell, right now.

“Hey!” I tried. “Yo!” No answer from anybody except a chained boxer dog in a yard across the street, who barked unconvincingly and went back to sleep.

The problem was that we didn’t know anybody except the driver, whose African name had already eluded my memory. I threw on my trousers and put my leg through the window.  If Barbara was impressed, she didn’t let on. I slid cautiously down the slope to the rain gutter and looked over. A man was sitting on a folding chair in the garden next door, reading a leather-bound book. It could have been a Bible.  He was a wiry man in his fifties, with a thick shock of wavy dark hair and a serious expression.

“Good morning,” he said, looking up at me.

“It will be as soon as I get down from here,” I said. The man got to his feet in an unhurried manner.

“We seem to be locked in our room,” I said.

He nodded, and disappeared around the corner.  I sat expectantly until I heard Barbara’s voice inside the room. She was talking to the man, who had unlocked the door from inside the house. I crawled back up the roof and squeezed through the window. The wiry man was alone. Barbara had lit out for the toilet.

        “My name is Howard,” the man said.

I looked around for my shoes.  I must have left them outside the bedroom, alongside my suitcase. I excused myself and went into the hall.  There was nothing there.  Absolutely nothing: no carpet, no table, no mirror, no curtains, no luggage, nothing. I spun around to see Howard leaning against the doorjamb.

“There won’t be anything of yours out there,” he said.

“Who… who would have taken everything?” I asked, unbelievingly. “What happened?”

Howard shrugged. “This area is usually all right,” he said. “You get a few robberies like this out in Karen, but Eastleigh has got a lot of private police on patrol. This is unusual.”

“We’re just lucky, I guess,” I tried to put sarcasm into my voice, but just then caught sight of Barbara’s white face. Her expression said it all.  Whoever it was had gotten all our stuff. Including, it seemed, my shoes.

“They left the kitchen cabinets,” Howard said across the table, where we were having tea in his back yard. Bored detectives in uncomfortable-looking suits had made their perfunctory report and then vanished. My main concern was trying to avoid the large red ants that threatened to crawl up my bare feet.

“They took the refrigerator, of course. It’s as good a way as any to carry off the food. The rest of the furniture will have taken them some time. They probably had to steal a truck, as well.”

“They took furniture, rugs, curtains, the fridge, for God’s sake, and we didn’t wake up?” I was incredulous. “What did they do, drug us, or something?”

Howard’s face got even more sombre. “They locked you in. All foreigners’ houses have internal door locks, for just this kind of thing. They reached in, took the key from inside and locked the door.  If you hadn’t been so tired, they might have awakened you.  That was lucky.”

“Lucky,” I scoffed. “If we’d been lucky, we’d have scared them off.”

Howard didn’t reply.  It was Barbara who got the point first.

“If we’d woken up, Art,” she said, “They would have killed us.

“Welcome to Kenya,” said Howard.

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