Words are flying. I can’t understand any of it, but his hand motions Up then right. For someone who has said only one word to me, he is surprisingly talkative now.
Two men approach the vehicle. The windows open, just like they did three times before. Their weapons obscure them. I mustn’t stare. So I bow my head respectfully. Well, respect is what I’m going for. I’d really rather not let on that courage is taking a serious thrashing in my chest.
They wave us through.
My driver finds his silence again. Shocker.
Should I say something? I haven’t even returned his phone. I don’t know his name. I can’t exactly tap him on the shoulder. In these parts, shoulder tapping is something you probably don’t want to do.
We drive up the street. It is very Old Town, Mombasa. Three-storey buildings looming over the narrow street, their paint peeling with that gaunt unmistakable mark of humidity.
True to the script, we turn right.
There’s nothing here. Just wall. My heart is racing so fast, it could make Usain Bolt look like a deadbolt. Alright, I’m just going to put it out there – Usain Bolt has me in a deadbolt. Yeah, yeah, I know he has a girlfriend or something and she’s really hot and he’s all the way over there and I’m all the way over here, yadda yadda…Oh My God, where did that gate come from?
This is like a scene out of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Open Sesame! And a gate appears on the wall!
A face peeks through the small gate. The driver motions, rather urgently, for him to go back. My throat feels like the Chalbi desert, but my senses are in overdrive. I’m so focused, my eyes could decapitate a mosquito.
Someone’s trying to open the gate. The bolt appears to be stuck. The seconds tick away.
We’re just sitting there.
What the hell?
Seconds matter here. Seconds make the difference between survival and smithereens. Seconds make the difference between IED and DIE. Seconds matter.
The gate finally swings open.
We drive in. I turn my head to watch it close. This part is smooth. Bolts in place in five seconds flat. I don’t know if I’m secured or sequestered. I guzzle my surroundings. Armed men and high walls. Very high walls.
The boot opens. My door opens. Almost simultaneously. I step out of the car. There’s not much else to do.
A man walks by with my bags. He motions for me to follow. I nod and comply.
Two steps…three steps…
There’s someone behind me. The footsteps sound very deliberate. I turn because I want to look him in the eye when he…stretches out his hand.
Does he want my laptop? I start to hand it over. But he points at something else. His phone. I give it back. He smiles. It is not a toothy grin. It is not warm and fuzzy. His smile doesn’t say haha you goofy kid, you forgot you had my phone! His smile is as brief as a period. It is gone so quickly, I think maybe I imagined it…
I wake up in a strange room. The white fluorescent light is smack above my head. I blink to focus. The AC purrs in the corner, but my ears tune in a different sound. The call of the Muezzin; a call to prayer.
Memory gushes in.
The gate. The armed men. The Maze. The man lugging my heavy bag. My footsteps close behind, laden with hope that a familiar face will soon diffuse my fears. The lobby is empty. The man heads for the spiral staircase. Three steps up, a voice stops him.
She is standing on the far side of the lobby. She is small and barefoot. She points to a door on the ground floor. We follow her.
She walks ahead, spraying perfume in the air. She snaps her fingers to get my attention. Then she points at the AC and switches it on. I nod. She points to a door and makes a bathing motion – hands tossing water over her back. I nod. She holds out her open palms, a question in her face. She is asking if I need anything else. I place my open palms on my chest.
“Martha,” I say.
She replicates the action. “Sofia.”
We both nod. She leaves.
The jilbab comes off, and for a moment, I just sit and breathe. The perfume and the AC mingle to hit a spot in my lungs. This is surreal.
“Have you seen the visitor?” A familiar voice asks. I’ve never been so happy to see a colleague!
He wants to show me around, but I’m thinking that it’s time for a major operation (insert VHF radio voice):
Alpha Mike to base, Alpha Mike to base, over!
Base to Alpha Mike, Go ahead, over!
Alpha Mike to base, Taking sukuma wiki to the fridge, over!
Base to Alpha Mike, Go ahead and good luck, over!
Alpha Mike to base, Target secured, over!
Base to Alpha Mike, Copy that! Great job, over!
Operation ‘Bring kales to Mogadishu‘ is a success.
15 minutes later, on behalf of all food, injera welcomes me to Somalia.
The rest of the day passes in a blur. All I can remember with absolute certainty is that I’m in Mogadishu.
The next morning, I wake to the news that the roads are still closed.
Breakfast is injera, what else is new?
The rest of the day passes in a flurry of activity. I barely notice the sun sprint across the clear blue sky.
In the evening, the mood turns festive. It is a perfect day for ugali and Sukuma wiki. To be clear, it is always a perfect day for ugali, but today, perfection goes beyond a wish, beyond a craving for a piece of home. Today, the smell of ugali, the feel of it, the taste of it, will be real.
I take the lap of honor. Humbly. As I should. Then I leave the guys in their kitchen and head to the gym.
Now. I need your respect. Nay. I demand it. I’ll tell you why.
You think running on a treadmill is hard? You should try running in a dress long enough to cover your toes.
All day, I’ve negotiated with myself.
Do I really have to do this?
Yes. I’ve been cooped up in this compound for 2 days now. I need the exercise.
Do I really have to do this in this dress?
The gym has this beautiful design with large gaping holes in the walls. It is great for ventilation. Not so much for privacy. Anyone walking by can see me, and so I must maintain decorum. Headscarf and everything. To shorten the dress, I’ve tucked part of it into the waistband of my tights. It now falls just above my ankles.
Let’s do this! Let ’s go, let’s go!
Two minutes in, I realize I cannot do this. Not with the headscarf. It is smothering me, so I take it off. Don’t get too excited – there’s still a bandana hiding my hair!
Twenty minutes later, I’m awash with the utmost respect for Sarah Attar. You’ve probably never heard of her, but in 2012, she broke a record, she set precedent, and with it, fire to the London Olympics.
You see, when I plopped myself on the couch, that 8th day of August 2012, I was just settling in for a bit of the Olympic action. What I caught, was history in the making;
In the lineup for the 800m women’s race was Sarah Attar. A 19-year-old girl in a white hijab and a green sweatshirt. My reflex was to laugh. Did she really expect to win in that outfit? It took 10 seconds for the laughter to fizzle out in my throat. In its place, I felt the burgeoning of respect.
That race was about something else. That race was about choice and tenacity. Sarah didn’t have to run for Saudi. She has dual American and Saudi citizenship. She was born and raised in the US. But when Saudi finally decided to let women compete in the Olympics, Sarah stepped up. Hijab and everything.
She came in last at 2 minutes and 44.95 seconds, but as far as statistics go, she made so many firsts.
Fast forward to April 2018, I’m sitting in a gym in the heart of Mogadishu, reading up on Sarah Attar. Something I didn’t do in 2012 when she first raced, nor in 2016 when she took on the 42km marathon in Rio.
To understand something, you must travel beyond the deception of perception; you must look far past the veil of prejudice, and reach far above the realm of what you currently know.
In layman’s, just walk a damn mile in the woman’s shoes.
I walk out of that gym, feeling totally humbled. I get to the kitchen and find the guys in a desperate attempt to salvage the feast. Apparently, the kitchen staff took our Sukuma wiki out of the fridge because…well, what does it freaking matter now?
Most of the greens I painstakingly lugged across two airports are now ruined. Talk about a major upset! But the guys aren’t giving up that easily. They’ve managed with several washes, to salvage a little. They’ve cooked it and seasoned it just enough to mask the taste of stale.
When we sit down to dinner, they all agree that it’s the best meal they’ve had in months. I go to bed with my hero status intact. Really, guys, there’s no need to throw roses at my feet.
Roses are scarce here, we should probably save them for a really special occasion. Like tomorrow’s mini-marathon – the first of its kind in decades. It has been organized to mark a day aptly dabbed – The International Day of Sport for Peace and Development.
It is without a doubt, a powerful statement that close to 500 youth turn up to participate – some of them barefoot in the scorching heat. It is obvious that the legend of Abdi Bile commands the winds. They’ve even named the Land Cruiser Pick up after him. If you need to get anywhere fast, you need an Abdi Bile.
You can be like him. The youth are told in the opening speeches. You can be like Abdi Bile if you just work hard.
It is a loaded moment because the man himself is right there with them – living proof that it can be done.
And after a 4km run, a young man crosses the finish line. He wears the broadest smile – a smile that reaches through time to 1987; to the 1500m race that saw Abdi Bile become the first Somali to be crowned world champion.
It is a smile that speaks of hope. A quiet desperation to reach far above the realm of the only life he has ever known, and maybe, just maybe, touch something better.
At 13:00hrs, a loud explosion rends Mogadishu’s clear blue sky.