It is your first time out of the country of your birth. Your first time on an airplane on a trip overseas carrying a brand new blue passport. It had happened so quickly. As your mother escorts you to the Jomo Kenyatta International airport, she says, look at God and you cannot help but agree with her. You are the first person in your family to travel out of the country. It is only a short visit. Three months to visit, the cousin of an old school friend who lives in the Netherlands. Your old friend, who you met in church, proposed your name for the babysitting job in Europe. She was supposed to go but her husband refused. Your friend’s cousin who lives in Amsterdam has started a new job with an international company and she needs help settling in. You come highly recommended and everyone seems to agree that you are honest and hardworking.
You are a single mother of two teenagers and have raised over a dozen children in your long career as a domestic worker. Your mother says, it’s all God’s work. No one would have imagined that a simple person like you could be going to Europe.
The flight is overwhelming to the senses and every time the plane encounters air turbulence you start to silently sing the lord is my shepherd. You are in the middle seat, squashed in between two strangers for eight hours and the only word exchanged is “excuse me”’, when the gentleman seated by the window decides to use the bathroom.
You arrive at Schiphol airport and follow the other passengers who disembarked, walking hurriedly through a maze of signs, written in a language you don’t understand. It is all so new. You see a black person and let out a sigh of relief and walk towards the man in a black suit wearing a green reflector jacket. He doesn’t speak English and is not helpful, so you go back to using your common sense and follow a passenger who you recognise from the flight.
You arrive at the passport control and stand in line. All your papers are ready with duplicates in your handbag, just in case. You are nervous and you hope the uniformed men do not notice that your hands are not steady. The officer behind the glass cubicle is speaking to you in English but you keep saying pardon. It is an unfamiliar accent. He examines your passport in the same way a Mpesa agent examines cash, holding it against a light looking for the watermark. He wants to know why there is a single visa in it. You repeat everything your friend coached you through. I have come to visit. It is my first trip. This is the name of my sponsor. You are told to step aside and two immigration officers, a man and a woman, lead you to a room that has a long aluminium top table. You feel like unzipping your puffy mitumba jacket. Your face is shiny and you are worried that you may not look innocent.
They ask the same questions and you give the same answers. They want to know who the sponsor is. Your phone vibrates and it’s your friend’s cousin. Where are you? she asks. I have been waiting out here for an hour. You switch languages. Wahala dey. She wants to speak to the officer in charge. You hand over the phone. It is a brief conversation and you can hear your friend’s cousin talking with authority. She does not appear to be afraid of them. Then they leave and it feels like the longest 15 minutes of your life. You are thinking about your children. You are thinking about the stories that you have heard before. Of drug dealers who set up unsuspecting passengers and put things in their luggage. How could your blessing turn into a nightmare so fast? Who has cast an evil eye on you?
At the arrivals area, the two athletic looking immigration officers, in their well fitted uniforms are talking to your friend’s cousin. They want to know where she works? Does she have proof of employment? She shows them her work emails and official address but that is not sufficient. They want to see an official payslip on a Sunday morning!
When they return, they are different people. Humans and they are smiling. The lady says, there is no problem now and you are free to proceed to the baggage belt. Your friend’s cousin is waiting for you outside. In the Uber, driving out of the airport, you have no time to take in the sights. You are pestering your friend’s cousin. What did you tell them? Were you angry at them? No, she says. They asked for my official payslip and I showed it to them. They could not believe their gross annual salary is what I make in a month and that they were very polite and friendly after that. She laughs. Can you imagine? They should know people? Your friend’s cousin keeps on talking but you haven’t moved from what she said. How is it that a woman like her who grew up in Kenya could be earning more than a white man in his own country?
There are no black people where your friend’s cousin lives. She has a big house with four rooms with a garden at the back, where she lives alone with her son. You are shown your room. It is as large as your entire one bedroom house in Kawangware. Her son is a sweet boy, a little man who you take to instantly. He is two years old and has learned to be independent. You understand boys. You have two of your own.
During your first week, your friend’s cousin arranges some orientation. One of the cleaners from the agency who used to clean the house is coming to show you how to use the washing machine. When you answer the door, you are surprised to see a white woman. It is not what you expected. Where is the cleaner you want to ask but she is already talking to you in a language you don’t understand? So you use Google translate as you were instructed.
She tells you she is from Lisbon, in Portugal and she came to find work in Amsterdam. You tell her that you remember Vasco da Gama from history, wasn’t he from Portugal? She tells you she doesn’t watch much football. She starts to wear her gloves and an apron. She wants to show you how to clean the house and use the machines. She does not have much time. She has more than two more houses to clean before the end of the day.
Your friend’s cousin is away at work for most of the day. It is just you and the little man. The weather is not friendly and you now wear trousers. None of the women here wear dresses. It is too cold. You found a baggy pair of jogging trousers. If your mother saw them, she would be scandalised. But how can she understand? She has never experienced this kind of cold.
You have been pushing the stroller around the neighbourhood with the little man for weeks and you still have not met any black people. The other day, you saw one, a delivery man. He could be from Ethiopia or Eritrea. He was not black, black, like someone from Nigeria. One morning your friend’s cousin tells you to take out the bins. It is collection day. You can see the collection point from your room. You wait to see who will be picking up the trash. At exactly ten o’clock, a big green truck arrives. The driver is white. The two men hanging on the back in orange overalls like matatu conductors are also white. In Kenya, you had worked for two white expatriate families, one British and the other German. Before this experience, you had never seen white people doing dirty work. Or even poor ones.
You just got off the phone with your eldest son in Nairobi. You are livid. You cannot believe he has spent all the money you sent him and wants more. Talking to him almost brings you to tears. You tell him about this place. The mzungus do all the housework themselves. Men and women all clean. They are not bosses like they are in Kenya. Only the very rich can afford a live-in maid. Why are you being stupid and I have taken you to school?
You have noticed that there are many dogs. In your daily walks you meet more people walking dogs than children. They don’t bark at people. You have never been to a place with so many dogs that sleep indoors and do not bark at night. An old lady with a small white dog stops to talk to you. She asks about the little man who she thinks is your son. At first she speaks to you in Dutch and then she apologises claiming her English is not very good because it is not her mother tongue.
She is a pensioner and she begins with a story about a trip to Kenya many years ago. Her sister had adopted a boy from Kenya and she had visited them in Nairobi during the adoption process. The boy was an orphan from Mathare and she had never seen such poverty, yet people were still kind and welcoming. After that she went on a safari to the Tsavo National park. You tell her you have never been to a game park in Kenya. But why? she says, sounding surprised. Kenya is paradise. You have real nature and summer all year.
You stand by the road, speaking for a long time like old friends and you laugh a lot. She is treating you like a normal person and you like her. After that encounter, every time you meet her, she stops to say hello. You notice more people smiling at you. Maybe it is because the days are getting warmer and longer and people in the neighbourhood seem to be thawing out. You now have acquaintances who you catch peeping out of their kitchen windows, eagerly waving at you.
You have been here for longer than three months. The government added an extension on your visa because of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. You now know your way around the neighbourhood and have learnt how to use the bus. Your friend’s cousin does not go to church so you are on your own, on your day off, on Sunday.
The church is small and they rent a school hall for the service. They serve coffee with biscuits before service begins. You wonder why people don’t take tea in their houses before church. The congregation has some black people and they preach in English. You meet a Kenyan there. He is from Meru and he understands your mother tongue. He asks how long you plan to stay. You tell him about the visa extension. He asks whether you are working on a plan to stay? You don’t want to go back home, he advises you. Then he leans in and whispers. Don’t waste the opportunity, people are dying in the Mediterranean trying to get here. Find a way to stay and make money. Don’t you have school going children?
Your friend’s cousin has many black friends. They are all friendly and respectful women. They call you by your name. There is one from Nigeria who grew up in England. Another one from South Africa is Asian and she has a darker skin tone than yours and the girl from Sudan looks like an Arab, but they are all proud to be black. It is very confusing.
You are about to go back home, the travel restrictions have been lifted. You miss your children. You have never been away from them for this long. You have also never earned so much money before, just taking care of a child and cleaning the house. On your way back from the shops, you bump into the lady with a small white dog and four of her friends. You recognise their faces. They are the ones who always wave. When you tell them you are going back to Kenya, they put on a sad face and say they will miss you. The lady with a small white dog says you should stay in touch. As she gives you a card, she presses your hand and says, thank you for your sunshine.
In the house, while packing, you tell your friend’s cousin about the lady with a small white dog and what she said to you. She laughs and tells you, don’t you know, you are the mzungu here. You want to understand more. How can I be a mzungu? I am just a simple maid. No, she says. You have something many people in this world are searching for. Something that money cannot buy. You are intrigued. What is that?
Her eyes are wet when she replies. Everyone wants to be happy but too many of us are not, even with all this stuff. But you! you know how to share happiness.
You go back to packing and trying to zip up the stuffed suitcase but your mind is already in Nairobi, with your children.