Moments that Embrace
Hotels are the same everywhere I’ve been.
With Lamu Island, I was looking for something that felt closer to a regular house, and since it is off-season and most of the hotels are closed for renovations, I choose a guesthouse along the beach in Shela Village. The windows are wide open in my second floor room, and I can see the sea. The water is constantly moving, and coconut tree fronds sway to the left all day long.
It is an actual village. Hak, who lives next door in a house not bordered by a fence, tells me the village is mostly made up of three families with branches snaking all through the Island.
“So, you know, everyone is your grandmother’s cousin or your dad’s brother.”
When I first got here, all I could do was stare at the water and breathe.
During the boat ride from the airport on Manda Island to Shela Village in Lamu, Hak had invited me to have dinner with him in the evening. Before dinner, we walk through the narrow streets around the village, often stepping into doorways to allow load-bearing donkeys to pass by. All of it takes only about 35 minutes, including the times I stop to take photos of the intricately carved doors many of the houses have, or Hak stops to greet one of his relatives. Well, since everyone here is related to everyone, there is a lot of stopping. At first, I try to mumble the Arabic greeting after him but my tongue gets tied like a child’s shoelaces, and I trip over the words and soon stick to “Hello”, “Good Evening”. I notice how most of the people are fair skinned with curly hair, and he explains that this part of the coast was involved in trade with Arabs and so they are of Omani and Somali descent.
He takes me to a house he says he is watching for someone, and shows me around. It is one of the more modern ones, complete with a bathtub, he says, even though the floors and rooms are in the same style as the ones in the guesthouse. He shows me all the food, piled on plates in the kitchen, only the samosa and chapatis recognisable.
“I go round when we break and just take food from here and there,” he says. “We all do it in Ramadan.” I remember the women we had seen earlier grinding in the corridor of the house. “Some of the old houses touch, you know, and some even share a kitchen.”
“Community is really important here, isn’t it?” I say as we climb up to the roof where there is a sun bed and hung clothes swaying in the night breeze.
There is a lot of food, and I start to think about how awkward it is to have someone watch you eat, as he insists I try a little of everything, telling me how to pair chapatis with a potato and meat sauce.
How are you supposed to respond to such eagerness except with matching enthusiasm of yours? So, I ask him the composition of each meal, and he pulls a chapati into two layers and tells me see, it’s better than the one thick pancake-like blob Nairobi chapatis usually are. I think about the thick chapatis I had eaten in Nairobi but I cannot decide if one is better than the other, so I just nod.
Bhajias taste like akara, and it is a pleasant feeling in my mouth as memories of Saturday mornings spent stealing akara crumbs before breakfast as a child in Lagos come springing up. There’s fish cooked in coconut sauce and I wonder out loud if every night is a feast like this.
“During Ramadan, it is,” he says. “And most of the food is sweet. I think it is like a reward for fasting.”
We eat with our hands, as is their culture. “I want you to have an organic experience,” he repeats what he told me on the walk from the airport to the jetty.
“I eat little by little till the morning,” he says when I insist he also eat. “Most of my clients, we never go past the professional talk and the boring regular museum stuff. I feel very connected with you.”
I think about how I always end up connecting with people and the weirdness it sometimes threatens. The random late night walks, heavy-conversation filled uber rides, or off a train and down an alley with a 77-year-old man because I saw them someone as they were and allowed them to shed layers before me. Sometimes I wonder, especially with the men, if they feel connected because we talked and I prodded corners no one usually bothers with, or if they want something else like the old man in Watford earlier in the year, who hit on me after we talked about him leaving Afghanistan when the Russians invaded. Maybe it is usually a bit of both, but often, I am grateful for the random yet unusual conversations, and how it heightens experience. I also know to get out when the talk starts to roll on its side.
From the rooftop, I look around the village. There is thatch on the roofs, even of the fancy hotels. The intro to Joy William’s “Not Good Enough” comes on as my phone rings. I mute it but mouth the first line: “Go on, look me in the eye. I’m all out of things to hide”, yet, when he says, tell me about your life in Nigeria, I think about the job I quit at the end of last year, and this year of traveling and trying to figure out how to find my way in the world. All of it threatens to overwhelm me, so, instead of answering, I say, “I have done too much living for me to tell you about myself. Can we take it from here? This moment?”
Abdul is half lying in the front corridor of the guest house when I come out. He has a wrapper tied around his waist and walks in this nonchalant way with his waist thrust forward and legs thrown lazily.
It is really hot on Thursday when I visit Lamu Town from Shela Village where I’m staying the week. Hak has linked me with Abdul, his uncle, whom he describes as a historian and intellectual.
“I can’t think of anyone better to take you around and show you our beautiful culture and history.”
During the boat ride to town, I ask him if he’s lived all his life here.
“Yes, it is my home. Where is yours?”
This question is becoming harder to answer by the day, and I often say, “I used to live in Lagos.” Not knowing if/when I will return to set up another space for myself. I take a detour in my head and start mulling over if old spaces were home or living spaces. I chuckle as I remember reading about Prince saying to Matt Damon, “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.” Increasingly, I’m finding that home is often a moment. Not a place, or a person, but pockets of moments that embrace me till I walk out on them and spend the rest of time trying to reconstruct them.
Abdul leaves me at the museum to go say his prayers. When he comes back and we leave, he takes off his scarf from around his neck and stands really close to me, then he wraps it around my head and shoulders.
“I want to take you to the old town, but I want the old people to see that you love and respect our culture.” I smile, pose for a quick photo with the scarf, and then we are on our way. As he shows me off to the men, I realise the scarf is not so much for me as for him to earn their admiration which he does not seem in short supply of around the town.
We go to the beads shop where I pick the cheapest bracelet, then he takes me to the wood carvers and shows me the process of carving the designs on the doors I had stopped obsessively to take photos of. I am hesitant to step through a lot of the workshop doors, imagining how weirded out I’d be if strangers wandered in and out of my office to watch me work, but the men are insistent, beckoning.
Like in Shela, there are no cars in Lamu Town, just donkeys and the occasional motorbike. While walking to the market, we see three young girls, wide-eyed as they played in front of their house before we stopped. He greets them one by one, touching his palm to theirs then kissing his fingers. After he is done, the girls look at me, and Abdu urges me to greet them.
“It’s our traditional style,” he says, so I touch palms and kiss my fingers after in turn.
We wander into a silversmith’s store. Maybe not wander, Abdul seems to know well all the people to whom he is taking me.
I look through rings, with the silversmith, Mo, sliding them deftly through my fingers and telling me about each one. I have no interest in the ones with stones because I still remember the one I bought in Kano while in Law school, whose stones fell out within a month.
I show him my pearl ring. “I don’t really like stones.”
“Ok, try this one,” he slips what looks like 2 rings at first on my middle finger.
“This one, is called a love knot”, and that’s when I see that each has a knot, which is linked to the other’s knot, making it one ring with two bands. “This one is like between you and your husband.”
“I don’t have a husband.”
“Your boyfriend then. Or your child.”
“I don’t have any of those things.”
"You don't have anyone in the world?" The way he looks at me like he has found an aberration in the way of the world. And I think, 7 billion people and I don't have one?
"I have my family and friends," I say.
"Ha, so you have a family.”
"Yes, the one into which I was born.”
“No! How old are you? I mean your own family?"
Instead of answering, I ask him how old he was when he got married.
“I was 25! My wife was 22 and our daughter is 25 now. I’m not so young you see.”
“That's very lovely,” I say. “How many children do you have?”
It is easier to lead people down the path of their own happiness than to explain the questions I have not even answered to myself. Don’t give me sorrow that has not yet come to me naturally.