The Africa they don’t show or talk about

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson

In the 90s when you were barely in your twenties, you lived a life of misery, a life of hand to mouth. You lived in a one-room flat where you shared a toilet and a bath cubicle with several neighbours. You hated it and longed to leave to greener and better. At that time Kenya was undergoing political change, the economy was abysmal and people your age – the lost generation – were lost more than ever. You had a job but no prospects [or so you thought]. To make ends meet you did unsavoury things that you’d sooner eat your right arm than discuss with your closest and dearest. As fate would have it, you found a way out. You went abroad – to the UK no less. The first few years, as you searched for the elusive ‘papers’, you worked your fingers to the bone. You helped those you left behind. You sent money relentlessly to any and all your relatives and some friends.

In the late nineties and early noughties, life was hard in the UK, but you were not one to give up and consoled yourself you’d be returning as soon as the country’s economy stabilised. You made do by sofa surfing until you found a shared flat. A few months later you were kicked out because you didn’t contribute enough, despite the fact that your bed was the threadbare fold-up sofa bed in the living area. Your roommates took up the master bedroom and the second bedroom because they were there first. You moved out to yet another shared accommodation intending to stay for one year because rumour had it that the country was stabilising, and returnees were making a killing in various sectors. So, you worked some more, but in your search for ‘papers’ you fell pregnant and following advice of well-meaning friends decided to stay in the UK and raise the baby. Fast forward 15 years, you and your non-existent papers, council house, career, and teenage children are still in the UK trying to make ends meet, and it’s worse than ever because the conservative government is in power. You love it though because your children get free education and you have the NHS.

Recently you got the long-awaited papers, you decided to visit your country for the first time since 1995!! You decide to visit alone first to hide the proverbial bones, then arrange to take the children another time. You arrange to stay with one of your old friends who decided to stick it out in Kenya and who insists ‘she owes you one’ because donkeys years before you sent her some money when one of her kids was sick and she had no money. You have no idea how she was doing currently because every time you ask, she says ‘tunasukumana tu!’ She started a second-hand clothes stall and you sent her some old clothes but that’s all you knew about her life. So, you assume they were living on the breadline.

On arrival at JKIA, you are met by a stranger who is holding a placard with your name on it. You are perplexed but he tells you he’s been sent by madam to pick you up. You assume they are friends and that your friend probably had an emergency, like a sick child or something. You are amazed at how much the country had changed – a far cry from the water aid ads they show on TV. The roads look better than the A406 and you are wondering if you arrived at the right country. Your driver says very little, but you notice he has an iPhone 7 when he picks it up to tell the caller that you were on the way. You drive through unfamiliar places but other than the smell and the heat that met you at the airport, you could be forgiven for thinking you were still in England.

You arrive at your destination and before you could reach the handle of your door, the driver rushes to your side and opens the door for you. You step into a gravel drive in some serene compound and as you are about to tell the man he brought you to strangers, your friend emerges from the mansion just a few yards away, arms outstretched and screaming with excitement at seeing you. “What is going on?” you wonder. “Sasa mrembo?” she chimes. You want to say words, but none is coming from your mouth. Your friend reaches you and gives you a bear hug, thanks the driver and tells him she would call if she needed him. Two seconds later, two uniformed women emerge from the house and take your luggage; your friend tells them to put them in the room they’d just placed flowers. You still haven’t said a thing because you are waiting to wake up from this insane dream and find yourself still aboard KQ1001. You are not dreaming.

The main door to the house is of Nigerian proportions – few inches short of a garage door. The foyer of this magnificent house is bigger than your entire flat in London. This is where your friend lives. This is her house. She, however, has never mentioned she was some sort of billionaire in all your communications, even when you sent her the £100. She had said thank you like a million times and offered to host you whenever you decide to visit Kenya. Inside the house, the kitchen is big enough to fit a thousand cooks: the living room big enough for a banquet befitting a king. What you didn’t know was that your friend did start a business selling second-hand clothes, and when the country’s economy stabilised she took a course in fashion design and now owns and runs a big ass boutique in an exclusive part of Nairobi even you can’t afford.

For the one week you stay with her you are treated like a queen. When the time comes for you to leave and visit your family, she asks the driver to drive you anywhere you want. You cry all the way to wherever; your family is horrified when they see you because you look worse than they do or ever did. They too are excited to see you and fight over who to house you: you see, all of them have their own homes and thriving businesses. In comparison, you are the poorest of them all – you and all your Englandness, flawless skin, manicured nails, pedicured toes and bad hair.

They accept your presents with ohhhs and ahhhs and then fight over whose holiday home you’d visit first. By the time you arrive back at Heathrow, you are more than deflated. When you get to your house you are faced by a mountain of letters (most likely bills), an empty fridge, no house helps or chauffeurs and below zero temperatures.

Be humble for always:
Live in the moment:
Do not indulge in self-pity:

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