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 wikihow.com, 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!’