I walk round the bend from the Kenya National Theatre and down Kijabe street, looking for the food kiosks I once knew that stood some place near Text Book Center, or so my frayed memory tells me. There, we would consume chapati-mayai and tea. They think up the most innovative combinations of dishes on the streets, the kind you'll never find at Java. The thing about street foods is the smells- O lord, kill me dead. I'm disappointed the food kiosks are gone.
I keep on walking further down, all the way towards the Globe roundabout, and suddenly, those intoxicating smells come rushing at me- where are you... where are you... there! I emerge from the dip of the road into a stretch of food kiosks forming a hypotenuse leading up the hill towards Moi Avenue, hidden from view, but announcing their presence from angles where the eyes see only the tar-baked hustles of a growing city. I follow the smells, and there, standing inside one of the food kiosks is a lady wiping a plate with a dish cloth.
She's bespeckled, clumps of grey hair beneath a flowery headscarf dignifying her searching look as she gazes out towards the approaching Nairobian. Something about her- I think it’s the way she stands there, like a feminine billboard stretching upward, twenty-by-ten. I approach.
“I’d like some food”, I say in Kiswahili.
“She doesn’t understand Kiswahili”, her assistant tells me.
“Ah, O well, I’d like some food”, I repeat in English, “For eight very important people”
She’s puzzled. I proceed to tell her I have an important meeting, with people coming all the way from Mombasa, and I want good food made for them and taken to the Kenya National Theatre.
Now she’s really puzzled. Can’t I see she runs a simple street operation with a table for four, plastic water jars, maandazis in a plastic bag behind a counter that's pretending it belongs in a five-star setup. For a moment, that counter seemed to dare me to question its social status, its very identity; I leave it alone. Then something must have happened in the lady's mind, a shift that moved a cog of destiny a notch up, and she snapped to an invitation of the gods that neither I nor she quite grasped.
“Yes, I can do that!” She brightened and her spirit saluted the winds of purpose. Purpose comes visiting, unannounced, a parasite in one’s body, delivering its fortunes to another. I knew she was a sojourner from several borders westward. Her name suggested Rwanda, and I was right. I did not ask anymore. I knew her story before she told it. Not an arrogant claim to clairvoyance, but a discerning that said to me; don’t demand the full tale yet, just sit well in the knowledge that therein lies a tale with both a gripping familiarity, the journey of the stranger seeking fortune against impossible odds, and the unknown paths that could shock and inspire, enrage and transform.
We shook hands on a contract of passing strangers, no papers, the nib of faith signing on the dotted line of ignited dreams. Three days later, she and her son organized one of the most pleasant feasts which they delivered at the appointed venue. She was prepared, down to the savory inventiveness of the street food cuisiniere. Sanitary, classy, inviting in its simplicity. She took the menu I gave her and served it with novelty, providing us with far more than we had bargained for.
In those hallucinogenic smells that waft up one’s nose lies stories of the human sojourner as high as the city billboards, and as deep as the unscreamed terrors and the unlaughed joys spewing out from the eyes of strangers making a home in faraway lands. I have found these smells in the streets of Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, New York, Washington DC, and in my home cities, Baltimore and Nairobi. The arresting smells of sojourners serving out their souls.