The day finally came that I knew must someday come. My editors announced that I was being transferred back to Boston. The Vietnam war had wound down. The Monitor bureau in Saigon was being closed. That provoked a shuffling of correspondents not unlike a game of musical chairs. The man who had been in Beijing was coming to Nairobi and I was the guy left standing.
My replacement was highly experienced. In fact, when I arrived at the paper, hired in for the Africa job, he had been serving as the Monitor’s foreign editor. Experienced, yes. But he knew nothing about Africa. That meant the paper’s Africa coverage would suffer. That distressed me. But there was no appeal to the decision. My “World Press”colleagues and I had occasionally discussed transfer orders. The strong consensus was that the guy being transferred must show himself a “team player.” So Donanne and I began to make arrangements to leave.
We had our second conference with Laban and Murugi and told them the news. We assured them that we would write recommendations for them. Furthermore, we would try to place them in new jobs and give them money enough to tide them over for a spell.
Laban told us that he would like to try a new line of work. He knew a man in the industrial area who would train him in “panel-beating,” apparently a branch of auto repair that involved removing dents. The cost of the training would be the equivalent of five months wages. I agreed to finance the training which would take place after we left Nairobi. I hoped Laban’s contact was honest and could place him in a new job.
Then one Saturday night five weeks before we were to leave East Africa, Donanne and I returned from seeing a play to find Murugi sitting uncomfortably on a chair outside the baby’s room, wincing against pain and hardly able to move. She pointed to her ankle and indicated that she had injured it while stepping off the small porch outside the kitchen.
“I better take her to the hospital,” I told Donanne. We got on either side of Murugi, our arms under hers, and lifted her onto one foot. We carried her to the car and settled her inside.
I drove her to Nairobi Hospital and helped her inside. There Kikuyu nurses examined her and told her to return in the morning. Nothing could be done for her so late at night. I agreed to bring her back the next morning at 9:00 o’clock.
I had often left Murugi outside the hostel where she lived. But I had never been inside it. She was awkward on the crutches the hospital had lent her and I helped her up the porch stairway, my hand under her armpit. Residents idling on the porch watched us, a few of them standing in the presence of a white man, but none of them speaking or offering help.
Once inside the hostel, I discovered that the main room, once a parlor, was a mass of curtains hung on wires. I helped Murugi down a hallway of cloth. We quickly arrived at a cubicle. She pulled the fabric aside. I helped her into a curtained enclosure, large enough for a bed, a chair, a small dresser and a rod on which to hang clothes. I took the crutches and helped Murugi onto the bed. She kept thanking me, “Asante sana, Bwana. Asante sana.”
Returning outside, I found the porch filled with men and women who had heard that a white man was inside the building. No one spoke, but many of them stared at me as if I were responsible for Murugi’s pain. I nodded and hurried to the car.
Back at the house I found Donanne in the nursery, sitting in the dim illumination of the night light, holding the baby and moving back and forth in the rocker. “I’m to take her back tomorrow morning,” I said. Then I told her about the curtained quarters in which Murugi lived.
The next day I fetched Murugi early and took her to the hospital. She had fractured her ankle. After it was set in a cast, I took her back home.
I saw her a few days later when I went to the house to pay her the wages owed her for the previous two weeks. When I offered them to her, she shook her head. I urged her to take them. She refused.
“This is not good,” I told Donanne when I returned home. I remembered what colleagues had told me on arriving in Nairobi: that an expat was most vulnerable at the time he was being transferred. It seemed likely that Murugi’s fellow hostel workers had encouraged her to play me for whatever she could get and that she had decided to give it a try. Moreover, the timing was bad. My editors had instructed me to take a ten-day reporting trip to Mozambique, Rhodesia and Angola. “Why did this accident happen now?” I wondered.
Donanne said, “Because it’s a metaphor.”
“Oh, yeah?” I replied. “Well, it’s one that requires a cast.” Donanne smiled indulgently. I relaxed and smiled, too. “Okay. How is it a metaphor?”
“It says, ‘Your leaving does me injury. You leave and I break.” I shrugged. “But I reject that,” she continued. “For a year now we’ve had the Kikuyus here with us and they’ve enriched our lives. We’re better people because Laban and Murugi have been in the house.”
I nodded although I was not completely convinced.
“And they’re better off, too,” Donanne said. “Laban has a much stronger sense of himself. He’s ready to try a new line of work and he has a girlfriend who stays with him. Murugi has benefited, too. Our going doesn’t injure her. It gives her a chance to gather up her talents and use them to enrich somebody else’s life. Right?”
I reached out, placed my hand lightly on her head and admired the baby.
“Go on your trip,” she encouraged, “And do the best job you can. We’ll be all right here.”
I went off to southern Africa, remembering one of the questions I mulled asking Laban when we first interviewed him: If I am fair to you, will you be fair to me? And I recalled what I thought when her neighbors watched me help Murugi, on crutches, up the stairs and into that large room of cloth walls. I thought they’ll advise her, “He’s obviously hurt you. Play him for as much as you can get.”
According to my diary, I was in Luanda, Angola, on June 27, 1973. I rose at 4:15 a.m. to catch a plane to Sa da Bandeira where I saw a development project on the Cunene River and returned to Luanda. Says the diary: “Four hours in Sa da Bandeira, five hours in planes, two in airports.” I did full days of interviewing (some in French) and photo-taking in Luanda. I should have been telling myself: “This transfer [about which I was not enthusiastic] cannot injure you.” But my entire time in Luanda I walked around with a crick in my back.
Good news! After some confusion Amazon seems now to be stocking Fred’s Congo memoir A YEAR AT THE EDGE OF THE JUNGLE. It’s also available from the publisher at www.cunepress.net.
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