The Savory Smells of a Sojourner’s Soul

I walk round the bend from the Kenya National Theatre and down Kijabe street, looking for the food kiosks I once knew that stood some place near Text Book Center, or so my frayed memory tells me. There, we would consume chapati-mayai and tea. They think up the most innovative combinations of dishes on the streets, the kind you’ll never find at Java. The thing about street foods is the smells. You are never strong enough to escape their clutch. I’m disappointed the food kiosks are gone.

I keep on walking further down, all the way towards the Globe roundabout, and suddenly, those intoxicating smells come rushing at me. There they are! I emerge from the dip of the road into a stretch of food kiosks forming a hypotenuse leading up the hill towards Moi Avenue, hidden from view, but announcing their presence from angles where the eyes see only the tar-baked hustles of a city bursting at its seems with dreamers and doers. I follow the aroma of foods, and there, standing inside one of the food kiosks is a lady wiping a plate with a dish cloth.

She’s bespeckled, clumps of grey hair beneath a flowery headscarf dignifying her searching look as she gazes out towards the approaching Nairobian. Something about her- I think it’s the way she stands there, like a human billboard stretching upwards. I approach.

“I’d like some food”, I say in Kiswahili.

“She doesn’t understand Kiswahili”, her assistant tells me.

“Ah, well, I’d like some food”, I repeat in English, “For eight very important people”

She’s puzzled. I proceed to tell her I have an important meeting, with people coming all the way from Mombasa, and I want good food made for them and taken to the Kenya National Theatre.

Now she’s really puzzled. Can’t I see she runs a simple street operation with a table for four, plastic water jars, maandazis in a plastic bag behind a counter that’s pretending it belongs in a five-star setup? For a moment, that counter seemed to dare me to question its status, its very identity. Then something must have happened in the lady’s mind, a shift that moved a cog of destiny a notch up, and she snapped to a calling she’d probably been waiting on for a long time.

“Yes, I can do that!” She said with resolve, and her spirit saluted the winds of purpose. Purpose comes visiting, unannounced, a parasite in one’s body delivering its fortunes to another. I knew she was a sojourner from several borders westward. Her name suggested Rwanda, and I was right. I did not ask anymore. I figured I knew her story before she told it. I wasn’t making an arrogant claim to clairvoyance or a dismissive stereotyping of others’ lived experiences; I knew when not to ask for the full story because I may not have the capacity to handle it right there and then. It could be the gripping familiarity of stories about refugees from Rwanda, the journey of the stranger seeking fortune against impossible odds, the unknown paths that could shock, enrage and transform.

In those hallucinogenic smells that waft up one’s nose lies stories of the human sojourner as lofty as the city skyscrapers, and as deep as the unscreamed terrors and the unlaughed joys spewing out from the eyes of strangers making a home in faraway lands. I have found these smells in the streets of Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa, New York, Washington DC, and in my home cities, Baltimore and Nairobi. The arresting aromas of sojourners serving up their souls.

We shook hands on a contract of passing strangers, no papers, the nib of faith signing on the dotted line of ignited dreams. I did not tell her that I would probably be needing her catering services for a couple of months and for larger numbers. One step at a time. Three days later, she and her son organized one of the most pleasant feasts which they delivered at the appointed venue. She was prepared, down to the savory inventiveness of the street food cuisiniere. Sanitary, classy, inviting in its simplicity. She took the menu I gave her and served it with novelty, providing us with far more than we had bargained for.

She agreed to be our weekly caterer for an ensemble of fifteen artists for two months. She never disappointed. Every Saturday, her son delivered her chapatis, beef stews, sautéed beans, matoke, vegetables, salads and maandazis at the Kenya National Theatre. Years of business studies and workshops will teach you the dos and don’ts of striking a good deal. Sometimes you just have to break the rules and follow the calling of the street-food goddess.

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