This week’s New Voices entry, “Rosebell,” comes to us from Silvia Spring. For one month, Celia, a reporter for Newsweek, shares a flat in Nairobi with Russell, an intern at the U.N. Written in the retrospective, Spring’s voice transports us to Kenya to show us why Celia’s month with Rosebell lives with her so vividly in the years that follow. Read on below.
We decided we wanted to learn Swahili, so we hired a tutor, who came twice a week and scattered her textbooks over our kitchen table for us to study together. We were never going to be fluent; we knew that. But we also didn’t want to be completely mute in this new country. Just being able to introduce ourselves, say hello, and thank a waiter or a taxi driver in the local language would help pierce the bubble we lived in, we hoped.
For the entire nine months I lived in Nairobi, I slept in a single bed. I had volunteered to move there because my boss said we didn’t have anyone else to cover East Africa. The bureau chief in Capetown guaranteed me at least seven days of work a month for my reporting, a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.
Newsweek was losing money. Staff reporters who quit were never replaced, women left for maternity leave and didn’t come back, and the editors were more than happy to rely on freelancers to cover stories they couldn’t pick up from the wire services. I packed one suitcase and paid for my own flight from London. I left behind a group house and a relationship I wouldn’t have found my way out of without the excuse of a transcontinental move. I had never been to Africa.
Through friends of friends, I found a room in a shared apartment in a small complex in Kileleshwa, and I kept the address on the piece of paper folded in the front pocket of my backpack the entire trip. My flight landed early on a Saturday morning, and the taxi from the airport took over an hour. Miles of slow traffic on crumbling roads wound around concrete apartment blocks and shopping centers. The smog of burnt gasoline was so dense I could taste it on my teeth. It was colder than I had expected. People in sweaters walked barefoot on the dirt shoulder just inches away from the cars, and when we stopped at a light, someone knocked on my window offering DVDs and bunches of roses for sale. We passed women with baskets of green bananas balanced on knots of cloth on their heads and babies hammocked tightly onto their backs. The men, light without the weight of such cargo or passengers, walked more quickly, their arms swinging.
The apartment building sat in a quiet suburb with red dirt streets and a Korean church. The taxi driver honked at the guard to roll back the security gate when we arrived. I was here; I’d done it.
Beyond the cement wall that protected our building, yellow-wood and fountain trees bowed over the roads. Inside, the apartment had three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, and a small balcony that looked over the parking lot. It was a short walk to a nearby stall to buy bottled water and Safaricom top-up cards for our phones. In the evenings, you could see trails of smoke slithering toward the sky where people in the surrounding neighborhoods burned their garbage.
My flatmate Georgina loved that balcony. She had already been living in the apartment for a year when I arrived. She was half-Welsh, half-French with blonde hair down to her waist. She called her afternoon drinks sundowners, string beans haricot verts, and underwear smalls. She laughed at the tourists who arrived in khaki outfits and hiking boots just to sit inside a jeep on safari. Instead, she wore white stretchy jeans and sparkly ballet flats everywhere she went and the tiniest bikini I’d ever seen. She told me that when she felt stressed she liked to take her fishing rod to the pool and practice casting it out and reeling it in. “It’s one of the loveliest ways to pass the day,” she said.
The Finnish girl that lived in my room before me had moved to Zanzibar to be with her boyfriend who flew planes for Ethiopian Airlines. What a world to enter, I thought, where girls wore gold slippers on safari, people practiced reeling in invisible fish to pass the day, and boyfriends worked as pilots.