So this is what it feels like to be totally emasculated – a pathetic, vulnerable fool at the mercy of a large, particularly frumpy Kenyan woman with a penchant for asking for cash in a particularly maternal way.
Kenyatta Airport. 1.30am. I had been warned before I left Addis Ababa that it was required for all travelers to have a yellow fever shot. Of course, I did not have a yellow fever shot.
“You will have to pay,” the desk clerk for Ethiopian Airlines said. OK, I said. Whatever, I thought. I can pay.
Upon arrival at the other end, after a plate of plastic chicken and some of the most vigorous turbulence I have felt in some time, I found myslef scribbling out an entry form at the Nairobi customs counter.
She saw me quickly. She was seemingly adept at stalking vulnerable looking idiots.
“Let me see your vaccination certificate.”
I told her I did not have a yellow fever shot.
“I am looking through your certificate and I cannot find it. I cannot find the yellow fever vaccination. Is this my mistake or yours?”
I told her it was mine.
She rounded up another British man who I would learn via audible pleading through the thin “medical officer” office walls, that he worked for an NGO. He wanted to help Kenyan people. He had a conference to get to. He was very tired. And, unfortunately, for him, he also did not seem to have a yellow fever shot.
After about 10 minutes he exited the office.
“A bit of a fuck up aye?” I asked him.
“I just don’t know what she wants.”
She then ushered me in, asked for my passport, and from then on would be on a first-name basis with me, though I would never know hers.
She was large, to be sure. She had a friendly face and seemed concerned for my well-being. I admitted blame. It was my fault, I said.
“Good,” she replied, “yes it is your fault.”
She showed me the list of yellow fever countries where it was compulsory to have the vaccination before entering. She pointed to Ethiopia.
“See you understand?”
Yes, I said, I understood. I was stupid.
“No, no, no. Do not insult yourself.”
I said I was not sure what else I could do.
She gave me two options, neither of which were really options.
Either I went back to Addis, or I waited until the morning in the airport for a doctor to give me the shot.
I could handle that, I thought.
“Then,” she said pointing to the vaccination booklet, “you need 10 days for it to work.”
So in that case, she continued, I would have to spend 10 days in the airport. Ten days mingling with the duty free peddlers. Ten nights, 10 days.
I am not sure if my reaction was audible, or if my face said it all, because I felt the blood drain out of it.
“Speak up,” she said, “speak up, you need to say something.”
I told her I was not sure what to say. These were my only two options?
“You tell me?”
I am also not sure when the conversation turned to cash and her doing me a favour and her having to check with her “supervisor” and her offering me help because she was concerned about me. But soon I found myself standing over an ATM machine trying to figure out the exchange rate. I later learned I got it horribly wrong. For her, though, it was horribly right.
I went back into her office, my wallet thick with Kenyan Shillings.
Here, I said.
“Let me see.”
She took the wad off me and counted it in her thick fingers.
I had not been to Kenya since I was about seven-years-old, back when I spoke with a horrendously posh accent, confirmed by home videos of me telling my brother to “Thomas, Thomas, look at the monkeys.”
There were no monkeys here. Just a ticking clock, this woman, and the crappy artificial lighting which always goes hand in hand with crappy airports.
“Ok,” she said, “now I want you to understand. This stays between us, because I have done you a favour, Ok? You have to understand this stays between us.”
I sighed, and told her I understood.
I felt like shit.
It was now almost 3am, my pick up for the hostel had likely long since left. I wanted to get out of there.
I understood a lot, I said as she continued in a soft, caring voice.
I used the muscles of my face to stretch my mouth out offering a small glimpse of teeth.
“Ok,” she said again.
She did not say thank you.
I saw the British man on the way out. I did not speak to him. I wanted to forget that incident. His face seemed pale too.