(a combo of truth and fiction)
I tried not to stare at her, but her eyes were all over me. The two of us sat smushed together on the metal floor of the matatu taxi truck. Others squished onto the benches or hunched above us. One minute ago I was bored out of my mind, waiting for the driver to quit two hours of yelling around the market square for more passengers. But now this tribal woman had jammed in next to me, the door had slammed, and we bounced over the lumpy hard-mud road.
On a tight curve I clumsily leaned into her, captivated to be right here, right now, a footloose American woman in Kenya in 1984, shoulder to shoulder with someone whose life I could barely fathom.
Her eyes burrowed into me.
I gave her a glancing smile, not bold enough to stare back.
Her slick shaved head sprouted a few small braids at the top.
Her face was clear and alert.
Loops of tiny colorful beads circled her neck and dangled from the pierced tops of her ears.
A rough old rust-colored cloak and skirt enveloped her.
Between her feet sat a cloth bag, maybe supplies from town.
I had a dozen questions but only five words of Swahili.
She smelled musky, like sweat and dirt, like she worked and rested in earth, which apparently she did.
How could we communicate?
Examining my every pore, she touched my long wavy hair. She stroked a strand and stretched it toward her.
I smiled and nodded.
Solemnly she patted her head, her skinny braids, so short by comparison.
I dared a quick touch on her smooth head.
She looked at me intensely. Grim nod.
I hugged my knees in our cramped space.
She gripped my shoe. She ran her thumb under the tread.
Then she grasped her own foot, the sole tough, thick, and hard.
She tapped my shoe, tapped her foot, and motioned as if I would give her my shoes.
Oh, boy – no way. These were my only shoes. I traveled light on purpose. Anyhow her feet were tough enough without shoes.
I pretended ignorance.
She tapped her foot, my shoe, her foot, and nodded.
I shook my head no.
She tapped my shoe, her foot again.
“Look, I can’t give you my shoes.”
Her eyes tunneled into mine.
I thought, geez, if I were going to a big city maybe I could arrive barefoot and buy new shoes. Not. Anyhow my destination was a small place without shops.
Besides, these were my shoes. They were excellent quality on purpose. That was why they were on my feet.
I returned her stare and shook my head.
For the first time she looked away, at somebody’s legs a few inches in front of us.
We lurched to a stop. One guy got off the matatu. Two more crammed in.
I looked at her calloused hands. I imagined her daily foraging or planting, tending a fire. Lighting a fire with a flint or something. What a skill set. What a life, outdoors day and night, saturated in the Earth.
She stroked my long sleeve down to my wrist.
Uh-oh. I knew what was coming. Yesterday at the market a tribal woman desperately wanted my red-checked shirt. I loved my shirt – light cotton, perfect for hot sunshine and cooler nights.
Oh geez, now she rubbed the fabric of my sleeve between her fingers.
Her other hand rubbed her faded reddish cloak.
She elbowed me and did the firm nod.
She pulled on my sleeve and tapped her bare chest under her cloak.
“No, honey.” I shook my head. I had two shirts, the one on my back and the one in my pack. Well, plus my undershirt. “No can do.”
She nodded vigorously, bared her breasts, and presented her cloak to trade with me.
I shook my head, grabbed the front of my shirt and held up two fingers to convey the scarcity of my shirts.
Her eyes flashed. She nodded and showed me two fingers.
She rummaged in her bag for a package of yellow maize cornmeal stamped, “Given by the People of the USA.” She pushed her cloak and cornmeal against my knee.
Two for one, she implied.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I have only two shirts.”
“Then you can give her one,” said the man who belonged to the legs in front of us. Damn him, butting in and speaking English.
“Well no,” I said up to his chin, “I cannot give her one.”
He gazed down at me. “Why not?” He looked across the passengers and loudly repeated, “Why not?”
My new friend, half-naked with a special pattern of scars across her chest, stared at me. She held her offerings on my knee.
I sighed and studied my feet, my excellent shoes.
We swayed as the matatu swerved.
I liked my red-checked shirt. It didn’t belong to her. She only thought it did.
In the First Nations culture back in Arizona, if you openly admired another’s possession, it was then given to you, belonged to you. Simply because you loved it.
The driver called out in some dialect.
My girlfriend answered him, squeezed my knee, and shoved her cloak and maize into my lap.
The matatu jerked to a halt.
“It’s time,” said the butt-in man. “She has to go.”
She gave me a vehement nod.
She took my hand and maneuvered both of us to stand up.
The man assisted with my elbow. He looked into my face as if I were the spoiled American.
Her bold chest confronted me.
The driver called out again.
Our man replied and gestured at him.
The flat empty landscape of yellow grass and sparse acacia trees stretched far around us. A ridge of hills sat several miles to the south.
The woman unbuttoned the bottom of my shirt.
The gall! I carefully pushed her hands away.
She mirrored my wide-eyed incredulous look.
She jabbed her finger to her offerings at my feet.
The driver yelled.
Everybody rubbernecked at us.
Shaking my head, unbuttoning my shirt, I thanked my stars for my undershirt, anyhow.
She laughed and grinned from one loopy earring to the other.
She clapped her hands and slipped into my shirt.
Her joy overflowed into the whole place.
A surprise chuckle bubbled up out of me.
I picked up her maize and gave it back to her.
Our man patted her shoulder.
She squeezed off the matatu.
There she went with her bright shirt. Walking barefoot straight into the middle of nowhere, through the dry grass to the distant hills.
(Care to share your Crazy Day, below? Truth and/or Fiction?)
Okay, in real life, push did not come to shove. The tribal woman who sat with me that day was not this pushy. However the shirt (below) was often coveted during this 1984 trip. Yes my wardrobe was that limited. (Pic: Gary and me – Tusker beer in Kenya. It looks like fiction, that we were ever that young . . .)