Creative Writing Challenge – DISCLAIMER: This has nothing to do with my life!!


This is for Katy Read whose blog I follow. I hope we can continue to challenge each other further in our creative writing process. I loved your story. Now read mine!

2 A.M – The Challenge

It’s 2AM and your phone has just buzzed you awake, filling the room in white-blue LED light. You have a message. It’s a photo. No words, no explanation. Just a photo. Tell us all about it. And what happens next.

Always an insomniac, I had just drifted off to sleep. I heard buzzing. Lost in REM sleep, I drifted on. But then there was more buzzing. I knew it was my phone. I let it buzz and fell back to sleep, but the buzzing was relentless. It must be an emergency. I squinted my eyes open to reach for the phone but the LED light was glaring and I had to put my hand over my eyes. Password. Unlock. 1 message. I tapped the little envelope on my touch-screen and up came a photograph so shocking I immediately sat up in bed sober from any remnants of sleep.

Our 2-year old had earlier cried for mommy while in her room, and my husband had brought her to our bed. When I shot up and started to pull slowly out of the bed, she started to rouse from her sleep.  Terrified she’d wake up and then wake up my husband I hushed her back to sleep while rubbing her back.

Unfortunately it was too late and Jim tossed around to face me. “Is everything OK?”

“Oh yeah. I’m just feeling restless as usual, can’t sleep. I’m going to go to the living room and watch some TV,” I said. I was nervous and my voice was shaky but I hoped that he couldn’t make it out through the whispering.

I quickly wore my sweat pants and dashed out the room. As soon as I got to the living room I collapsed in fear. How could this be? Was it a cruel joke? Was it for ransom? I looked at the picture again. No, this was for real. I could see by the look of terror in Travis’ eyes that this was no prank. Did somebody know about us? Who could know? We were so careful.

I had met Travis 3 months ago at an engagement party at my girlfriend’s house. My husband and I were going through a rough patch. We barely spoke anymore. We barely looked at each other, or touched. Travis was everything I’d been looking for in that moment. He had an intensity I found intoxicating. He was reflective but easy. His dancing around the room was casual and carefree. It was like he didn’t care that people watched. Later, I was making casual chit chat with him and asked him where he was from and without skipping a beat he said, “I’m German, but I hate Germans.” Both amused and intrigued by this, I went on to ask him a ton of questions about his family and his past. His grandfather was Nazi, and he had lived with the burden his whole life.

“When I walk on the street, I know that no one knows about my history, because I don’t have the Swastika branded on my forehead, but I still have such a heavy shame about it – sometimes I feel like people know my secret, just by looking at me.”

He talked slowly, heartedly like he searched for forgiveness. He told me that back in 1995, he couldn’t wait to get done with high school so he could leave Germany. He had moved to Switzerland to study, then taken time off to back pack through Africa, and finally settled in Cape Town where he completed his PhD and found work as a university lecturer. He never went back to Germany. He was single. I wasn’t. But I didn’t care. I asked him for his number saying that I wanted to meet up for coffee and connect more on our careers, adding that I wanted to pursue a PhD. But I knew exactly what I wanted and from the look on his face, he knew too. When I called him, there was no pretense. No coffee, no lunch, no wasted superficialities. He asked me to come to his home, a small but quaint flat that was walking distance to the beach. We didn’t care about the beach. I walked in and immediately flew to his arms. It was like I had been there before, been there forever. The passion was insatiable. I exploded in ripping orgasms, one after another, half-clothed on a leather couch in his living room. It wasn’t anything I’d ever experienced before. Afterwards we undressed each other slowly and made love patiently and gently for what seemed like hours. We lay on the couch, talking about everything and nothing. I looked at my watch and screamed out realizing it was 3 p.m. My kids! All afternoon I couldn’t wipe off the smile on my face. I cut up carrots and cucumbers robotically but my mind was somewhere else.

I burned my hand while removing the roast chicken from the oven, but I hardly reacted. Every now and then my three kids would awaken me from my dreamy state with nagging questions, or a waging war between the two older ones. I had deliberately not taken a shower after getting home, so I could carry his scent with me. But at dinner I felt so happy, so carefree that I didn’t care my husband was sitting right next to me and might get a whiff, or perhaps a sense of my ethereal state.  My mind would flash back to my body writhing in Travis’ arms, and my neck and cheek would flush with so much heat it burned.

I was unstoppable. Every couple of days, I was in his apartment getting the therapy I needed to survive my marriage. At night I would lie awake thinking about him, about us. I knew it would never go anywhere but wondered why I would feel so strongly for something so fleeting. I looked over at my husband every night. There was such a distance between us and I didn’t know why; when did we get here? I used to be in love with this man. We were inseparable, mind and body. Now all we talked about was the kids, bills, and our investment plan. When we had nothing to break the over ripe air of silence, we would create superficial topics – me, I would talk about the latest gossip out of Hollywood, and he, mostly would talk about politics. The sex was machine-operable. It was satisfying but so routine, so programmed. I was so numb with boredom, mundane, and lack of chemistry. I was paralyzed in this marriage and I could barely feel my legs.

Now, three months later, this phone message. What could it mean? I was just about to dial the number, when another message popped up. “You know what you did. Now you must pay.”

I tried to call the number but it was a dead number. How could that be when I had just received 2 messages from this same number? I called Travis’ number this time, hoping for the best, but the call went straight to voice mail.

Then I got the third message. “No calls. Meet at 5 a.m., Bakoven Bay. No cops. I’m watching you always.”

New York, New York, Chapter Three


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Photography by Katsu Naito/ West Side Rendezvous

On a cold day in November, I was walking around midtown in New York looking for interesting details to photograph. My large-sized Cannon was draped around my neck. I felt a tap on my shoulder and expecting another mugger turned around feeling dejected.


“Mushrooms? Mushrooms? Shrooms? You want?”

Really perplexed I looked the peddler over – a youngish chap, maybe in his early 20s, dressed in a smart, blue collar shirt with a white Tee underneath, and preppy blue jeans. The only thing remotely street about the man was that he wore his cap back to front.

I tried but couldn’t see the merchandise he was offering. I thought it was strange but kindly told him ‘actually I don’t buy vegetables because I eat my meals at the dorm.’

Thinking what a dunderhead this guy was I turned around and continued on my path to become the next Annie Leibovitz.

A few days later, while having lunch at Tom’s Restaurant – the Columbia University eatery that is famed for being featured as ‘Monk’s Restaurant’ in the sitcom Seinfeld – I shared with a friend how funny it was that a guy who looked like he had climbed out of a Tommy Hilfiger catalogue would be peddling mushrooms on the streets of midtown.

“Oh yeah! They sell mushrooms to kids in the City all the time.” She was dragging long slurps of strawberry milkshake out of a funnel-like red straw.

It made no sense. “I don’t get it. What kind of mushrooms are they selling – Portobello? Button? Porcini? And why on the street? Why kids?”

My friend looked me over, rolled her eyes and sounding nearly in pain by the levels of my idiocy proclaimed, “Oh my God Irene, what I’m I going to do with you? Mushrooms are drugs. Hallucinogens? Like … Seriously?”

A few days passed on and still on the hunt for the perfect photos I decided to try my luck in the Meatpacking District. Of course I wasn’t going to find anything there in the light of day. The only thing that was hot in the late 90s about the Meatpacking District – during the day – was swinging slabs of beef, white aprons with streaks of blood and streets covered in thin film of meat sludge. At night however, the area was known to be popular with transgender prostitutes and a drug dealing hot spot. That seemed appealing to a budding photographer.

It’s really a contrast to the Meatpacking District of the 21st Millennium, which New York magazine has rated the most glam, most happening neighborhood in New York City. In the late 90s, it was a ‘lawless’ area of town.

But as with all areas, a smart developer realized a diamond in the rough and soon office lofts started to move in and were later followed by high-end boutiques, the Apple store, velvet-rope nightclubs, swanky hotels like the Standard and Hotel Gansevoort and the tourist attraction, the High Line.

Today, it’s the spot to catch a Kardashian yet back in the day, it was a rare occasion to see women rolling around in their Jimmy Choos and their LV purses. But that’s where I wanted to be. I decided that I wasn’t brave enough to circle the neighborhood at night, and waited until early dawn to make my way. At about 5 a.m. I started my little journey to W 14th Street and with my camera, toddled around the blocks down to the Hudson looking for anything and nothing. Finally, my portrait –  a group of transgender women stood in the middle of a cobblestone street talking and laughing in high spirits. Most wore little to nothing outfits accessorized with fishnet stockings and up-to-here high-heeled shoes, and almost all of them were drop dead beautiful. It took me a while to bait the courage I needed to walk up to the posse.

As I got closer they seemed to quiet down, and by the time I was at reach, there was dead silence. Shaking like a leaf, I managed to breathe out my opening line. I had rehearsed it on the subway. I didn’t know how it would go over, but I knew either way it would break the ice.

“Hi ladies, first of all – let me just say how gorgeous you all look tonight.”

Silence.  I had bombed, big time, and now I’d have to re-strategize.

Just as I was shifting around to say something less daft, one of the girls put out her hand to high-five me.

“Girrrrl, you know, I needed to hear that. It’s been a long night! Thanks honey, and you’re gorgeous too! Who are you? What’s your name?”

And with that all the other ones chimed in, and thankfully, the ice was broken.

That night, I got an education about the working girl. It’s a hard job, and it doesn’t matter if you’re straight-up female or transgender. The job has long hours, no benefits, and more likely than not, you will end up in a car with a sociopath and be very badly hurt. For the transgender women, their clients are mostly married men. The Hudson Street girls told me most of their clientele came from New Jersey.

The girls were lovely. They let me take a few photographs of them, all of them wanting to go with their ‘stage’ names. It didn’t matter to me. When the sun came up, I saw the girls in the light of day. I realized they were just like me. Good, funny, loving, friendly souls.

That night I learned why journalism is so important. Journalists must remain non-judgmental, fair, objective, neutral, and with that naturally comes compassion for humanity. Suddenly you realize nothing is what it seems and every story has another side.

The girls had bared their all. Showed me who they really were, which is more than can be said for most of us. That night, I had a black and white film roll in my camera. As I rode the subway back to my life, I realized it fit perfectly, because tonight was a black and white night.

New York, New York – Chapter Two



A few weeks into my Masters, my peers and I quickly learned why the Journalism School at Columbia was distinguished from the rest. There weren’t going to be any exams, no extended reading of any kind, or long lectures. It was going to be fully practical, and you either had it or you didn’t.

We were started off with basic level training, a practice called ‘man on the street.’ The problem was that every assignment at the J-School had a deadline; it was exactly like working in an actual newsroom. For everybody else it may have been wetting feet, but for a novice like me, it was close to walking on water. I remember standing a few blocks from campus on Broadway and 115th, with a notebook and a digital camera, and having to ask random people an open-ended question like, “What do you think about what Mayor Giuliani is proposing for Harlem?” This being New York, no one cared to even look at me. I remember saying, “Excuse me, sir” and “Excuse me, Ma’m” at least a hundred times. The clock was ticking and I had barely two hours left to get the story in on time. Finally, a plumpish middle-aged woman wearing a nurse’s uniform and a lady-moustache stopped to curiously ask me what I was doing. She was impassioned about the topic; she talked so fast and had so many kicker quotes. After that I learned to always carry a tape recorder. I quickly photographed her, took down her name and age, and run back straight to the lab to download the photograph and bang out the story. I handed it in at 3:45 p.m. just barely making my 4 p.m. deadline. In the student lounge, all the others were bumming around drinking sodas and eating pretzels out of the vending machines. I was sinking fast, and I realized then how important it is to have some work experience before getting yourself mangled in a Masters degree.

After our introduction to reporting on the street, we were asked to cover a protest in the City. At the time several global issues were burning up New Yorkers, but I chose to cover the City’s public school teachers’ rally. There were so many questions I could have asked, and the opportunity for a myriad of colorful, passionate and incensed quotes was wide open. But when I got there I was so shy that rather than interview the teachers, I started to march with them.

As part of the academic structure, we were all designated a “beat”. This was going to be the town where you lived and breathed. You were to know everything about your beat – the players, the residents, the politics, the history. I was the only black student in my section, and it was either deliberate or coincidental that I was handed Jamaica, Queens, – a historically African-American neighborhood. The professors gave us no clues, or hints about what we were supposed to do or find in these neighborhoods. Years later as a seasoned journalist I would know that the first thing you do when you get into a new town is go to City Hall and map out the leaders of the school board, the town planning council, make friends with the town cops, and perhaps visit the Welfare/Government Assistance office and talk to some angry, hungry Americans. Even visiting the neighborhood barbershop doesn’t hurt.

The second thing to do is to figure out what days (usually nights) all the boards hold their meetings and abruptly show up. It’s during those meetings that most stories will come alive, when parents are screaming at the school board members about budget cuts and teacher lay-offs, or in the town council meetings when a big shot New York real estate investor is caught in a cat fight with residents about bulldozing an old section of the town to develop a new strip mall.

But at the time I was greener than Queen Elizabeth’s lawn. I didn’t know what was up or down. I would walk around Jamaica sometimes all day, not knowing whether I was coming or going. It was excruciating. Just when I was about to possibly get kicked out of the program for showing unprecedented dumbness, I met a counselor at a women’s shelter and she happily talked to me about the plight of abused women. I visited the shelter and was saddened to see so many beautiful women violated by men they loved – they looked like broken shells; completely hollow inside, no light in their eyes and with seemingly nothing more to give. I was told that some of them were wealthy suburbanites, and it had taken them years to finally leave their cushioned lives. And the fact was many of them still returned. When I handed that story in, the Prof looked at me and said, “We’re finally getting somewhere.”

Part of getting to know my beat was experiencing a “Police Ride Along.” These are usually fairly boring. How serendipitous that on the same night I would be riding with the cops, a gang of masked bank robbers would shake down the Federal Reserve? Not. I sat in the back of the patrol car while two chunky officers drove round in circles. All the while their two-way radio was going off in a language I didn’t understand. “10-4, 5-4…”  They stopped for coffee and donuts just before dropping me off to the subway at midnight, confirming the stereotype that cops eat too many donuts. I took the F train at the Jamaica stop, the last stop on the Queens train, and started my 45-minute ride into Manhattan. At Times Square, my least favorite spot in the City (Broadway), I changed to the 1, 2, 3 and started my trip uptown. When I got off the subway, the last stop before Harlem, I picked up a quick step up to International House, being aware it was already 1 a.m.  But just a few blocks before I got home, I felt someone tap my shoulder, and turned around to find a hovering figure in a hooded sweatshirt.

“Ok. Don’t panic.  Don’t panic, don’t panic.” I told myself I was also wearing a hoodie over my head too, so really, why stereotype – he may just need directions.”

“Bitch, give me your bag, give me your watch, I want to see your phone. I need your cell phone right now.”

“Ok. Panic, panic. This is bad. This is really bad.”

My backpack had only school stuff really, and I didn’t want to mention I had on my laptop, so I started to slowly take off my watch and then hand over the cell phone. My prayer was that he would take those and not need the bag. But he knew my moves before I invented them.

“Bitch, I said give me your bag, right now. Don’t be acting all coy.”

Coy? Really? It seems a big word for a thug.

Then a pistol came out from underneath ‘somewhere’, and the strong language went up a notch. I took off the bag from my shoulders and handed it to him really fast. I was half kneeling on the ground now, trying to get as far back from the gun as I possibly could. He quickly sifted through my bag and threw out the books, then took my wallet, my cell phone and wristwatch and threw them in the bag. Of course the laptop was gone too.

Welcome to New York.

New York, New York – Chapter One


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There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”    E.B White (Here is New York)

When I first moved to New York City in the late summer of ’99, I was close to paralysis with trepidation for the enormity of what I had brought on myself. New York was nothing like I had seen in the movies. It wasn’t fantasy, it wasn’t romance and it was not top-down views of a beautiful island with a lime-green statue and a beautiful skyline. New York was an asylum – An asylum with a stench from hell. I could not believe the smells that emanated from the belly of this town; sweat, piss, garbage, more piss and other undetectable but still all fiercely pongy.  It smelt like a really mean person had shoved my head in Shaquille O’Neill’s gym sock, or worse his armpit. Sometimes I would walk around paranoid. ‘I smell dead people.’

What I dreaded more than walking 30 blocks while praying to God I wouldn’t need to cross the street ‘ever’ – was heading down the to the subway. In the summer, the subway is a steaming capsule of suffocating commuters, some of who clearly are not familiar with the term ‘bath’. Squirrel-sized rats rule the rails, but topping creepy was my encounter with a subway masturbator. The subway car was packed to the rafters and I was glued to a nut job who rubbed, and rubbed and rubbed himself against me. I was completely traumatized.

I was surprised to learn that all the trains run from downtown to uptown. Since I lived on the far West Side, if I had any business on the East Side of town, my options were to foot it, or take the Cross Town bus. It took several months before I had the courage to take the bus, and ended up doing a whole lot of walking. New Yorkers spend a large chunk of their lives walking in the City, and it pays them back generously with a natural leanness. In Manhattan, I rarely saw obesity.

New York drivers have a high level of road rage, and Yellow Cabs in particular are not familiar with halting at red lights. I was really afraid to cross the street. I devised a strategy where I’d only run across when a woman with a stroller was also crossing because then I was guaranteed safety – or so I hoped. After a week of one horrifying experience after another I turned to a friend, who said, “New York is a jungle. If you survive here, you can survive anywhere.”

I started school about a week after getting to New York, and within Week 3 realized that I had taken on more than I could bear. If Mt. Everest was ever on my bucket list, I can go ahead and tick that off because that year was the toughest challenge I’ll ever have to endure in my life. I had absolutely not a clue what was expected of me. My first class assignment, which really was more of an ‘assessment’ for the Section Prof to see where we were at was a disaster of epic magnitude.

I remember thinking, ‘write like the New York Times, write like the New York Times,’ but all I managed to put out was a low-class ‘essay-style’ piece with about one quote. When it came back it was covered in so much red, I couldn’t make out the original script.

To humiliate myself even further, I had rented-out a room in a community residence hall called ‘International House’, where most of the foreign students lived. It seemed a good idea before I arrived in the city. I hoped to hold hands in candlelit Kumbayah sessions with fellow despondent immigrants. The curious mind I am, I had done a bit of research and learned that several famous people had traveled through I-House – Chinua Achebe, Mark Mathabane, Kiran Desai (yes, all writers), as well as several Nobel Prize winners, several presidents, and famous CEOs and the like – so I felt proud to be joining a part of history.

As soon as I landed in the City, I went straight to the building, which sits on the border of Harlem in Morningside Heights, and lagged my luggage up in the creaky elevator. When I swung the door to my room open, I was hit by a such a severe case of shock, I became light-headed and had to hold on to the door frame to keep myself from hitting the ground. New Yorkers always use clichés like ‘living in a closet’ but this room space was a box and it was absolutely no cliché. There was a single bed by a window that looked out to the buildings across the quadrangle. Mostly, the view was hundreds of air conditioners hanging off hundreds of apartment windows. A wooden desk hugged the bed close. In the first few nights, I slept with my head next to the table but suffered multiple injuries to my face and arms while tossing in my dreams. I then switched around so my feet were next to the table, but it would mean having to gear up to a bit of Pilates every time I got up. Behind the door stood a wardrobe designed for a Hobbit. I had to pick and choose what would go in the wardrobe and the rest I left in my luggage, which I stored on top of the Hobbit wardrobe.

The bathroom was down the hall, so every morning and evening I’d have to flip-flop in my Terry bathroom gown with a shower cap on my head and a little basket of scrubs and gels. If I needed to pee in the middle of the night, once again, I scurried away across the hall and by the time I scurried back I would lie in bed completely wide awake.

I had no mirror in my room. To wear my contact lenses and my general face every morning, I used a small hand held mirror.  For the rest of my body I simply picked out an outfit and hoped for the best. If I had a clothing label hanging out or my panties peeked out, I’d just have to suffer the shame.

I had no refrigeration system or perk of any kind. I’d eat an early breakfast in the cafeteria, dash off to campus, then if I were lucky enough to make dinner at 7 I’d make it, and if not, then that was that. In those moments I discovered the famous ‘Slice’; a greasy but heavenly large slice of pizza retailed at any ‘mom and pop’ Italian corner shop. I had watched the natives closely and learned that all I had to say was ‘slice’. With that password, the huge Italian guy would proceed to cut a generous portion from a massive 20-inch pizza kept warm under a glass heater. I always ordered the Margherita, complete with hot gooey melted cheese. Add on some pepper and herbs with a Coke, all for under $5, and dinner was served. When I found the courage to venture further uptown on the creepy subway, I discovered Gray’s Papaya on 72nd Street and Broadway. I don’t typically love hot dogs, but Gray’s would become one of the things I missed most about New York when I finally left years later.

On Sundays I ventured out, mostly walking. I discovered that supermarkets are quite rare in the city, and instead what I found were ‘mom and pop’ grocery stores that also offered fruit and vegetables. I learned they were called Bodegas. I claimed my own little coffee shop, Nussbaum & Wu, where I would sit for hours on Sundays and read the New York Times, and the New Yorker and classic books about New York. I discovered the fresh bagel, and a few weeks later I would become more daring and discover bagel and Lox, which is the bagel topped with smoked salmon. I stumbled on Broadway one day when I was lost on the subway, which meant I had to get out of the station and walk up several blocks to change trains. It was a bit like being in Vegas – so many flashing lights, it was over stimulating for my slowly developing nervous system. I was perturbed by the gargantuan number of tourists and especially by the West African peddlers selling fake Rolex watches. During my years in New York, I made it a point to avoid Broadway.

In the City I felt a strange sense of loneliness but yet a perfect peace. It was the first city I’d lived in America where no one cared why I spoke differently or asked me where I was from. No one tried to peg me. It was liberating to be so free. But as with everything, there are always two sides to the pancake. New Yorkers are blind, either too busy or too jaded to care about anything that unfolds right in front of their eyes. I’ve seen New Yorkers walk by with no interest or concern as a man who was obviously mentally ill striped naked to his birthday suit; yet, that same crowd would pay $120 to see Aida on Broadway, without reservation.

Finding me


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I believe that we all know who we are and who we want to be from the moment we’re born. For as long as I can remember I loved to write. When I was 13, I came first in my age bracket in a nationwide school literary competition. The kids who were registered for it came from really posh schools, mostly white kids, and I’m not actually sure how I ended up in the mix, but in any case, I put in my story and a few months later got a letter in the Post Office Box – how I miss those days – that I had won in the age group 12 to 15 years and would receive Kshs 5000. At the time, that was a crap load of money.  I keep the certificate and every now and then dust it off, to remind myself what could have been, had I applied myself in life just a tad more.

In high school, I would spend my time in class doodling creative love letters to my sweetheart, while the math teacher went full on radical with Pythagoras’ Theorem. Of course I didn’t stand a chance. If a subject didn’t have a literary aspect to it, I struggled. In the Sciences, I was as dumb as bricks.

After high school, what I really wanted to do was to get a degree in Creative Writing but I didn’t have the gumption to look my father in the eye and ask him to finance 4 years of such whimsical education.  Really, my parents are so old school. Ask my father and he’ll tell you that Creative Writing is par to a degree in tap dancing. I went on to study International Relations, of which I had absolutely no interest but I still had to grade highly so I could have a chance at a Masters degree doing what I really loved. As soon as I was done with Undergraduate, I started to apply for a Masters degree because I wanted to get working on my writing career as soon as I could. My father and I compromised on Journalism, in the hope that it at least offered gainful employment whereas creative writing was a crapshoot. You can be lucky to get published, or very talented and never discovered. You can also be a one hit wonder, which is never to be confused with the handful of Pulitzer prized writers who for whatever reasons wrote only book but hit it out of the ball park. I’m talking about JD Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) and the like. I didn’t have much confidence in myself really as a person. I was ten times less confident than I am today, and just as neurotic, so probably not a very healthy human being. My boyfriend at the time seemed to see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and was very encouraging. He was very Dalai Lama in his approach to life, and I always thought he would make a great motivational speaker. “Your belief that you’re not good enough will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” “Your lack of confidence is only perceived by others because you believe it yourself and offer it out to others.” “Your self-deprecating humor shows a lack of confidence,” and so on and so forth with highly enlightened material.

So here I was, busy applying to mediocre schools that I believed were more my intellectual fit, and here he was, pushing on me applications for universities that were completely and absurdly out of reach. One of the requirements for all the top schools was work experience as a journalist, which automatically threw me off the bus, as I had never written a single article in my life unless I planned on submitting to the admission board the doodles in my high school journal. The other requirement for these schools was very high scores in the standardized test GRE. Unfortunately I was a cripple in math. Everything was just wonky.

The Dalai Lama who by this point had promoted himself to Chief College Admissions Guidance Counselor, tossed out all my applications to my ‘safe’ schools and landed on my table an application to Columbia University, the most respected journalism school in the Western hemisphere – an Ivy League; Northwestern in Chicago, the second best; Boston University, which comes in at a close third, and as my safe school, he picked New York University. Truth is, it was completely ridiculous. Meantime, life moved along. I continued working retail with absolutely no back up plan at all. Then one day an envelope came in the mail from Boston University. I called the Lama, who was at work, and explained that it was a really big envelope, and in flat-toned, matter of fact audio he said, “You’re in.” As it turns out, flat standard-size envelopes are typically rejections. You can expect to find one sad letter that begins with “We regret.” Large, heavy envelopes are acceptances and inside you will find everything you need in order to begin the process of registration. In the next few weeks, I received a very small, thin envelope from Northwestern and to this day have never heard from New York University. Next in line was Columbia. I received a flat envelope and was at least happy that my decision to attend Boston was going to be an easy one. But when I read the letter, it had a different tangent. The Admissions Board had considered me for the first round and wanted me to go to New York City to sit the writing test. My heart was thumping at a rate higher than is definitely advised by any medical board. I was speedy like on a cocaine-high, just twirling and twirling. It was insane.

The day I went to New York to sit for my writing test was also the first time I had ever been to New York but I had such a case of nerves related to my big test that I couldn’t appreciate any of the city’s magnificence. The Lama, in accordance with his role as coach, counsel and manager, wouldn’t hear of it that I would take the bus, train or God forbid drive myself. The idea that I might not get to the school on time, or in full capacity, was too nerve wrecking for him, so he buckled me in the backseat of the car like a toddler and walked me through what we thought the test would be like. I’d been told by a Kenyan who’d been to Columbia the previous year to expect a bunch of multiple answer questions that test general knowledge of the news, and then a second section that is the formal writing test.

The Lama and I worked through every possible news question we could think of with a fine tooth comb; news personalities, foreign leaders, Israel and Palestine, natural disasters and anything in between. When I opened up the test, the very first question read: “Which foreign dictator has been the president of the Republic of Kenya from 1978 to present time?” I looked around the room pretty sure I was in one of those prank, ‘Candid Camera’ TV shows. I was holding my breath, waiting for some idiot in baggy jeans to jump out behind me with a camera shouting “Syke!”  It was too bizarre. The rest of the test was hit or miss, with some of the questions being really obscure. “What is the currency of Belarus?” Really?

A few weeks after the big test, I got yet another thin, flat envelope from Columbia. My heart sank and I opened it tearfully. I had put so much hope into this and I hated myself for even thinking that I could accomplish something of such magnitude but once again it was another surprise. The Admission Board had looked at my application and my test scores and were impressed, but had reservations about my lack of work experience. For that reason, I was being wait listed. I decided to get on with my registration to Boston U, because time was running out and school would be soon starting. I wrote out a seat deposit check to the university and put it in an envelope together with other documents that I planned to hand deliver the next day, Monday. I fixed myself a bowl of ice cream and sat down to watch my favorite sitcom, Seinfeld. Then the phone rings and I’m slightly irritated, especially since my show has just picked up momentum now. Elaine has been bit by a dog and is having symptoms like difficulty swallowing that she believes are related to rabis. But the ER doctor is an Indian immigrant and her symptoms are lost in translation. Every time she says “I think I need a shot,” he says, “Not shot, dog bite.” When Elaine looks more and more frantic, she keeps repeating, “No, no, no. I know I’ve not been shot. I’m asking you, ‘do I need a shot?” The Indian doctor repeats, “Not shot, dog bite. Woof woof, not bang bang!”  I’m cracking ribs in fits of laughter. As the phone rings longer, I’m now aggravated. “Seriously, who’s calling on a Sunday?” I drag my feet to the phone, pick up and greet with a teenage attitude, eyes rolling all over the place.

Then, a long sigh.


“Yes, hi. Can I talk to Irene please?”

“This is she.”

“Hello Irene! This is the Dean from the J School at Columbia. How would you like to come over to New York and join us this fall?”

Retail Therapy


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My first official full-time job in America before I became a serious career girl – and a legal alien with an Ivy League degree to boot – was at a French Connection clothing store, a European chain that sells really tapered men’s pants. Those pants I found were a hard sell when it came to American men. It was always the same question. “Do you have anything a little less snug?” It appears in the States, Dockers are the be-all and end-all and who can blame them? No one wants to see an overweight man walk around with Speedos for pants.

When I interviewed for the job, I was told that I would earn $12 an hour and would have an 8-hour shift with a 1-hour lunch break. I was told that there was a specific discount for employees at the store, which seemed a good enough perk because the clothing was up market – not haute couture – but for me, a $200 pants suit was nothing short of Alexander McQueen.

I started the next day and learned quickly that retail only looks easy, but is hard. There were only four tasks and one, working at the register, was off-limits unless you had worked at the store for at least a year, or were sleeping with the manager. Basically, you had to prove you could add up your numbers without being short, and that you didn’t have sticky fingers. The task I loathed the most was standing at the door while wearing a clown face to welcome people who mostly walked in without even acknowledging my hard-worked smile. I was a ghost and strangers whizzed past me, through me, like I didn’t exist. Another tedious task was roaming around the store, endlessly folding the clothes that shoppers unfolded. It was scream-worthy. Nothing irks more than watching a bored woman who you know is not in to buy anything, come in swishing her Starbucks Iced Latte, and then slowly unfold t-shirt after t-shirt. Folding the tabletop clothing comes hand-in-hand with ‘sizing’ the hanged-up clothes. Nothing beats going around all the sections arranging clothes in order from Size 0 to Size 12 and then doing that over and over from 9 a.m to 1 p.m. From time to time I’d lift my head up and there was my manager watching me all the way from the counter. As always, she’d wave at me, and wind up her hands around her mouth into a big C and then hush out in a loud whisper, “SMILE”. In that moment I wanted to cry. I would tell myself that if I didn’t look at my watch, enough hours would have passed by and it would almost be lunchtime. I’d wait for what I thought was a long while, and then finally peek down at my watch feeling proud of myself at ‘not looking for such a long time’, but only 15 minutes would be gone by and I’d be so depressed. Not to be theatrical but if I had a shotgun, I’d literally have shoved it in my mouth. And then another hour would pass by and I’d be so bored that my spirit would lift out of my body.  It was some kind of inadvertent Astral Travel, a state only arrived from intense meditation except mine was from excruciating boredom. The people who pay thousands of dollars to gain that experience at an Ashram in India would be maddened by this story. I would find myself hovering over my body wondering how I came to be this sorry person standing like a shell in this outrageous environment, and I’d be mostly cursing the tormenting frozen smile that hurt my cheeks and made me look like I was related to the Joker. To this day, I hate to smile. My feet were perpetually sore. I tried flat shoes, mid-heeled shoes, boots, it was all the same. During stock-taking, all the staff had to stay in all night, counting a ton of clothing. At end season, we had to pull another all night-er, re-designing the store. Nothing beats pulling a turtleneck over a mannequin’s head, or fitting it with knee-high’s. Brutal.

Retail stores have several tricks of the trade. The lights are always fluorescent in the display area to lighten the mood, but very soft in the dressing room to play down physical flaws. Stores use ‘skinny mirrors’ to give the illusion of thinness when customers try on clothes. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the clothes look fabulous on you in the fitting room, but when you get home, that black cocktail dress you purchased for your work dinner suddenly hangs off you like a muumuu? Another interesting trick is in goods placement. Some retail guru one day discovered that men tend to walk to the left and prefer to walk downstairs, while women walk to the right and have no squirms walking upstairs. That is why men’s and women’s departments are accordingly placed, in the more sophisticated stores that take this into account. Not surprisingly, accessories like shoes, belts and handbags are always placed in the back of the store, to force customers to walk by all the buyable items. Plus, don’t ever let them tell you that ‘it’s the last one’. Even if a store has 200 copies of an item, they might put just 10 out at a time to make it look special. This is also done on sales racks – sometimes just one of each size is displayed so people will think it might sell out and they’d better get it right away. And finally, have you ever walked into a store and the music was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think? Then walked into another store and the music genre sounded so classical you thought you were at the Opera? The volume of music is adjusted depending on the day and time. Head Office decides on the genre usually as a match to what they feel their brand represents. For example, a hip store like The Gap, catering to a youthful crowd will play music louder on the weekends to seem like a happening place to hang out. Head Office dictates what music albums are to be played for the season. And then maybe two are put on a loop. If you work at the store, it’s slow murder. To this day, I’ll erratically start to screech, “If I could turn back time.” It happens anytime, anywhere, a totally involuntary movement triggered by a deeply embedded memory of Cher’s voice in my brain from the numbing loop. Psychiatrist I’m not, but I’m guessing it probably happens when the demons from my past are taunting me.

My favorite job was working the fitting rooms. I enjoyed keeping busy clearing up the rooms, hanging up the unwanted clothes, and giving women my opinion. I learned during my time in the retail business that being blunt, my trademark character, would quickly get me fired. I also learned never to compare my body with any woman’s as a benchmark. Once a woman asked me, “What size do you think I’d be in this shirt?” Rather than wisely say, “Let’s try you on a 2,” I replied, “Well I’m a Size 0 so you’d probably be a 2.”  That day, I got my first warning.

The clothing retail industry in the US is a superficial industry. High-end clothing stores and accessory shops are the most notorious. If you’re ugly, if you wear braces, have acne, are overweight or look disheveled you’re not getting the job. I watched girls come in and hand the manager their CVs, and she would smile and say that she’d call them if anything opened up, but as soon as they turned their backs, she’d hurl their CVs in the bin. A pretty girl would walk in, and the next day she’d have the job. It was predictable. Gays always got the job because 9 times out 10, they seemed industry-compatible; easy on the eye, well groomed, and enthusiastic about clothes, they saw retail as a starting point in a fashion career. Retail managers can be cruel. My manager at French Connection, a tall, handsome woman with a short cut to the side Bieber-like coif, said to me on my performance review that she had only 2 issues with me. “One – I’m wondering if perhaps your deodorant is not strong enough. I’d like to recommend Secret. Two – I think your skin is beautiful but you’re going to need to get a proper facial regiment. You’re quite flaky. I’d recommend Clinique.” And after that harsh whipping, I was left scrambling over my lunch break looking for both ‘Secret’ and ‘Clinique’. The latter I may add, cost more than my bi-weekly pay.

As it turned out, I ended up working in retail for a few years on and off as a tide to get me over the tough fiscal times. Even when I had a full-time career with a Masters degree, I still worked retail, because my work as a newspaper journalist living in one the most expensive cities in the US paid me the equivalent of the Vietnam Dong. As it turns out, malls in the US are open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., so there are a ton of collectable hours on the pay front. It’s also an easy way to get discounted quality clothing, handbags and shoes. In the end, I’d worked at a designer handbag shop, a shoe store, and two up market clothing stores.  Funny thing is, it’s only until you’ve had a dead end ‘job’ that you realize how much you want a ‘career’.

Out of Africa

San Diego, California

Sometimes when I catch my children walking through the world I think back to my first experiences in America. A mere walk through the mall has my kids enthralled. The taste of an ice cream is euphoric, and all the while time is of no value or consequence. Malls, parks, nature trails and pretty much any environment where a child can scour, stare, dig, chase, taste, and burn endless sources of energy are exhausting for most parents, but ironically, the joy of being a parent is in seeing how little a child needs to elicit such a heightened level of wonderment.

Being in America for the first time was my first child-like experience as an adult and it’ll probably be my last. I have visited many cities around the world and been awed by the beauty of most, but I’ve never been as wide-eyed as I was in America. I arrived in San Diego, California in the late 90s. It’s a breathtaking coastal city with a beautiful skyline and an East African climate; although most Americans would hardly believe it.

For a girl out of Africa, America was outrageous. The driver sat on the ‘wrong’ side of the vehicle. It was weeks, actually months, before I learned not to jump into the drivers seat every time I hitched a ride from a friend. I remember looking for zebras on the road every time the signposts read ‘Zebra Crossing.’ As it turns out, zebras are actually pedestrians.

Everything was large. The cars were monstrous. California highways can have anywhere from 6 to 8 lanes. I remember the day when I had to take my driver’s test I had a ghastly puke session triggered by nerves. It didn’t matter that I had learned to drive in a country where traffic laws are nonexistent and where I would actually be hailed a cowboy by any American driver, the fact was I had never had to parallel park, or navigate roads that wide, or Keep Right.

A few months after arriving in San Diego, I made friends with an out and proud lesbian college mate. In the midst of our budding friendship, she drove me to a popular gay and lesbian hangout spot where we browsed a niche bookshop, DVD store and explored other gems of a subculture that at the time was entirely alien to me. It later turned out she was ‘into me’ but at the time in my naiveté I genuinely thought I was gaining an education. I digress. On our way back to campus from so-called niche hotspot, we were driving in one of the middle lanes – perhaps third or fourth. All the cars ahead of us started to swerve right and left, and finally when we had full visual we realized we were about to eat an old couch that lay smack across the length of the highway. Problem is when driving at 100/mph there is not much reaction room when a piece of furniture suddenly appears right in front of the hood of your car. But Ally was able to wind quickly around the couch, and all the while other cars on multiple lanes were swerving around us. At that moment I realized those people who built the wide highways – hey, they are not so dim after all.

I was doubled over by the numbers of fast food joints. Every block I drove past had a different kind, and I couldn’t wait to try them all. Escondido Blvd: In-N-Out; Broadway: Jack in the Box; Eastlake Pkwy: Taco Bell; Magnolia Ave: Burger King; Olympic Pkwy: McDonalds; La Mesa Blvd: KFC; La Chula Vista Blvd: White Castle. It was endless. My first experience with an American plate serving was traumatic. The food served on campus was American, but I had been plating myself Kenyan-style, which in America is eating like a peasant. Upon seeing the size of my paltry tray and anorexic self, my roommates – a trio of American girls – took it upon themselves to induct me into the art of eating American. One Friday evening, I found myself, not at a fast food joint, but at another level of eatery, somewhat higher on the hierarchy. You can spot these on every block in the US by the numbers of Americans queued outside with buzzers while they wait for a table. And so it was, that at T.G.I Friday’s, I was attacked by a hamburger the size of a newborn baby. Stacked with blue cheese, and bacon, a side of potato wedges and a starter of onion rings, and a strawberry milk shake that was dinner itself. Outrageous.

After dinner we headed out to ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’. Before the movie, my friends ordered up a large tub of popcorn, M&M’s and Gummi Bears, and a large serving of Coke for everyone.  If I was going to survive America, I knew I hard to change my eating habits, pronto!

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

One of the most dreaded experiences that all Kenyans who want to visit, study or live in the United States must endure is the visa application process. Today, in the digital, post-Osama bin Laden era, it is actually a lot less daunting to deal with a visa application because the process is done electronically. Appointments are made online on an electronic calendar, and applications are filled and then submitted electronically to the consulate of choice. Visa payments are also made online. Passports are then delivered to the nearest courier. On the appointment day, applicants must be on time for their appointments and only bring with them original documents requested on the web site. All other materials will already be in possession of the consulate via the electronic route. This process is designed to minimize human traffic in the buildings as well as inform consulate staff beforehand on the number of applicants that they should expect on any given day. When an applicant eventually appears before the powers that be – after undergoing a thorough body search which includes being asked to taste the liquid in your baby’s bottle – a very quick ‘ay’ or ‘nay’ is given. Essentially, with the electronic submission, one’s documents precede their visit, so all the materials have already been studied beforehand. This seemingly brushoff decision tends to frustrate many; however, begging is generally frowned upon and often applicants will be dismissed with a deafening, ”NEXT!”

In the 90s, the process was hugely different. In Kenya, owning a personal computer was a rarity, and the only sighting of the Internet we had experienced was on Sandra Bullock’s, ‘The Net.’ So, in order to apply for an American visa, I had to make a quick trip to the US Embassy to pick up applications forms. Simultaneously, I was busy sitting for my SAT’s because even though I would be a transfer student, the consulate was known to get ugly, making kids jump through unnecessary hoops. Back at the ranch, my father was busy getting his financials in order. The consulate required that the child’s sponsors’ bank account reflected a year’s worth of tuition at the minimum, and a three to six-months history of steady income. The purpose of this was to negate chances the tuition funds had streamed into an account via fundraising channels. The million bucks question often asked by the consulate — just before “REJECTED” was stamped on an applicant’s passport – was, “Will you fundraise for your child’s tuition each year for the next four years?” Valid.

The rumors were plenty and wild. So and so was rejected because his dad talked too much. So and so was rejected because her dad didn’t say enough and “plus, you know he stammers”. So and so was rejected because “they” could tell her family fundraised. So and so was rejected because her grades were exceedingly low. “If you’ve got a D average in high school, how will you manage an American college?” My father and I were sweating bullets.

The queue at the consulate was a monstrosity. For an office that prided itself on smarts and security, the game plan on not accepting appointments was puzzling. Their bright idea was that they would open their doors at 8:30 and shut them at 12:30. Whoever managed to make the cut in that time window was served, and the rest of the Kenyans left waiting on the queue dispersed like pollen in the wind and fell back into place the next morning.

The day my US visa was granted, I was third on the queue with my father at 5:30 a.m. We stood on the entrance outside Moi Avenue. At 9 a.m. we were bustled in by a frail looking askari. Imagine that? No security checks, no body checks, no tasting of the baby’s milk? I was presented in front of a lovely African American woman, who took to me instantly. She was pleased that I had managed to keep up my grades while in the accelerated program, and she was impressed with my dad’s financials. I was granted a 4-year F1 Visa, which is an American student visa. I was asked to return later that day to pick up my passport. I was also handed a “very sensitive document” called an I-20. This document is a closed communication between the consulate in one’s home country and the United States. It’s a secret document of sorts that must not be opened by “Aliens”. After your arrival into the US, the I-20 is returned to you. On every entry back into the country, you must present it again. Without your I-20, your student visa is void. In fact, you will be deported trying to come back into the US. Thus began my life as a legal Alien of the United States of America.

About a year later I learned a lesson in respecting the ultimate power of the I-20 and its utter control of my measly life as a legal Alien. One drunken night, a group of friends, myself included, decided to go drinking across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. In case you’re wondering why Mexico, please take note that Tijuana is about a half hour across the border and for a student budget, it has a terrific nightlife. Once you pay the admission to a club, the tequila comes pouring, and you don’t have to be 21. After a wild night of downing tequila, we started to make our way back to the car, so jolly that every now and again we would break out in song. Well, the joy didn’t last. As soon as we hit the patrol border, an exceptionally gentlemanly American Immigration Officer requested our passports. Of course, as soon as he realised we were Aliens,  the next request was for the almighty I-20’s. Problem. One of the girls in the group had not given her I-20 to the school before leaving for Mexico for an Exit Stamp. The idea is that the I-20 is the Alien’s leash. The university must be aware of the Alien’s whereabouts at all times and so must the government. In order for you to leave the country, the university must stamp the I-20 to acknowledge that they are aware. This little debacle sure sobered us up. We were sat in a corner until the wee hours of the morning while papers were pulled, calls were made, our car was sniffed, and all other unbelievable shenenigans were sneezed at us; suddenly we were criminals. Eventually, they let us through. That was the last time I set foot in Mexico.

In the summer of 1998, while I was sitting in a Diplomacy lecture on campus, the professor got news that the Kenya and Tanzania US Embassies had been bombed. He knew I was Kenyan and allowed me to leave, to call my family. As it turned out my sister had been walking a few blocks away and got caught by shards of glass from imploding buses, cars and buildings. She still has a large scar in the shape of a spider’s web on her hand where she got a full roll of stitches. But most devastating, was the news that my immigration clerk, the kind, beautiful African American woman who granted my visa had died in the bombing.

To pee or not to pee


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This blog is inspired by my extraordinary life as an immigrant. The day my folks put me on a British Airways plane to San Diego, California, with nothing but the clothes on my back and a suitcase full of a ton of blankets, Kodak photographs, my birth certificate and a worthless document called a “School Leaving Certificate” is one that will be forever etched in memory. I remember every single detail. I was 19. It was the late 90s; the world was pre-digital. I often think about what I would take with me if I had to live on a deserted island, and it always brings me back to the contents of my suitcase the day I left Kenya for America. It’s interesting the things we think we are going to need most at any given time and how ridiculous the choices we make seem to us a few years later. However, if you’d asked me at the time, my whole life was in my suitcase.

I remember my mother bought me a big leather jacket with shoulder pads to boot. I was very thin, probably anorexic, though at the time not a single doctor in Kenya would have recognized anorexia if it bit him in the eye. I remember I could fuel easily on an apple a day (no pun intended). The jacket weighed heavily on me. I tried to tell my mother, but she wouldn’t hear of it. No one leaves Kenya without a leather jacket. I remember my boyfriend at the time wept like a woman. The man was bawling so hard it made me love him less. I learned after that experience that with men there is pussy whipped and then there is just wimpy, and the latter is plain unattractive.

I picked a window seat on the plane. Looking back now, I’m surprised I managed a 12- hour flight without on-board entertainment. In the 90s, the most exciting feature on planes was a funky telephone with a credit card stripe. I did have a yellow disc-man with headphones the size of an elephant’s ears. I experienced my first ‘near-death’ experience while grappling with an airplane loo. To start with, I had never before seen a smaller toilet. Being Kenyan, I have seen some tight toilets in my days. In fact I’ve seen toilet-shower combos – a bizarre architectural design only Kenyans could execute – where one stands over a ground-built loo while enjoying a shampoo and conditioning. In case you’re wondering, the shower water drains into the loo. This kind of shower requires a fantastical skill set of body balance and multitasking, which is no wonder Kenyans excel in pretty much all areas. The plane toilet, on the otherhand, is built to traumatize. On, youtube and several other websites, tips are offered on how you can overcome your phobia for the airplane toilet. It’s a global phenomenon. For a first time flyer from a third world country like myself, the toilet was weird enough. But let’s take it up a notch.

I am a neurotic, anxiety-ridden, phobia-riddled, hypochondriacal person. I’m the only person I know who worries that I will die from meningitis. In case you’re wondering, the telltale symptom of meningitis is headache; however, for me because I suffer relentless migraine I would never know that I had the meningitis headache thus I’d die a sly death. I worry I’ll get bit by a large-sized, cobra-like snake, even though I don’t hike, or go near any hint of brushland or even shrubbery, precisely because I don’t want to get bit by a cobra. I worry that the reason I can’t get rid of my cough the past few years is actually because I might be a TB carrier, and let’s not get into the size of my drug cabinet. The point is that I worry about everything and nothing, so much that I’ve got no nails left to bite.

So, being in a claustrophobic toilet and then attacked by that ghastly sound when I was fiddling around with the flush button was all just a tad too over stimulating. At this point, I am yet to pee… I’m still exploring like the bushman I am. Finally, I decide I’m ready to try this thing out, I button down and start to pee. But suddenly, I am airlifted mid-pee, my whole body (all 45kgs) thrown up and bang – my head is throttled into the low ceiling of this cupboard they call a toilet. The pain was smashing. The plane was rattling violently, and I remember feeling really nauseous. Even worse, I was still half squatting on the loo with jeans pulled down. Yup, I wasn’t done peeing! There are only one or two times in your life when you have to make a decision about a pee. I could either finish this already quite messy situation, or I could shut it down midstream, get out of here and die in a communal space with everybody else. Well, maybe it was the nerves, but I just had to pee.

TO DO LIST: Kegel exercises.

The rest is vague. I do remember clamoring out of the loo with a knocking headache and being thrown around the aisle while trying to get to my chair. A stewardess sitting on something that looked like a child’s booster seat with seat belts wrapped over her chest Apollo-13 style was yelling at me to ‘sit down, sit down.’ I yelled back maniacally that actually my seat is all the way about 10 rows up, but she screamed at me to sit down anywhere and fasten my seat belt. I remember thinking, I don’t see my life flashing before my eyes, I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. The people that cheat death have sold us a crock of bollocks. I was a dim African girl on her first time on an international flight. When turbulence hit, I really believed I was dying. My first clue that I’d live should have been the fact that the oxygen masks didn’t drop down! At the time my mind was still Kenyanese. Today, not so much. It’s been 15 years since that flight and my brain now thinks and talks to me in American lingo. But back then my brain talked to me in Kenyan slang, all my internal thoughts, ideas and jokes were totally Kenyan. I remember thinking, ‘Yaani, I can’t believe this is how I’ll kick the bucket, bwwwana!’