ALICE / by Hilary Hann

I don’t really remember how I came to be standing here, surrounded by Chinese tourists confused by the exit procedures for leaving Kenya. Dust eddies through the trucks, buses and 4x4 safari vehicles which are parked in an inventive manner designed to get passengers as close as possible to the immigration building. No yellow exit forms to be seen anywhere so we dutifully fill in the blue entry immigration forms, and I write DEPARTURE in big bold letters over the top, just in case anyone thinks I’m a mythical being who can enter multiple times without ever leaving.

Wandering back to the vehicle, I see the same two women standing next to my passenger door, various beaded bracelets hanging from their hands, a look of hope in their eyes. I’ve exhausted my Swahili in trying to convince them that I don’t want any souvenirs, that I have nothing to trade, no money to spare, no space in my luggage ad infinitum, but still they hold out hope. Thinking that a quick departure is in order, I shrug my shoulders in African acceptance when told of the fact that the bus blocking us in is there for the duration as the driver has given the key to someone for safekeeping and that particular, reliable individual has headed off for a well deserved drink … apparently! 

I’m stuck with the saleswomen.

“Perhaps I would like to trade my earrings for some beautifully beaded Maasai souvenirs?” the younger woman asks. I explain that my mother gave the earrings to me and I could never trade them. Well, that changed everything. If my mother gave them to me, then there was no way they would consider taking them. What was my name? I introduced myself, and the younger woman introduced herself as Alice. The older woman had a name which I can neither pronounce nor remember, she also had very few teeth but a lovely smile. Mama Mzee has 8 children but only one girl for which she is very sad, but she has many grandchildren so is blessed. Alice has two children and thinks Mama Mzee is mad to have so many. Alice asks me why no one buys their goods anymore? I struggle to answer because it is a long time since I bought such souvenirs. She says that she has to pay school fees and support her family, and I say that it is difficult being in business as we have all suffered. Bit rich coming from someone who sits in an expensive 4x4 with a private driver, in a country half way around the world from home, but it is all relative. There was a time when the haranguing of roadside hawkers made me nervous, but now it is an opportunity for simple ‘girl’ chat and learning of new things.

The bus driver’s friend materialises at about the same time as the bus’s occupants escape from the clutches of the immigration officers which surprises no one, and we get ready to leave. I say a cheerful goodbye to my new friends, wishing them better sales (target the Americans, I say in parting, they have lots of money!!) and we drive the few metres across the border into Tanzania.


January 2012, Namanga border post between Kenya and Tanzania