It has been six years since I was last in Lamu and as I squeeze through the narrow alleys towards the house where I am being hosted, memories pop out at me from each corner. I had forgotten how specific Lamu town smells. The humidity in the area teases out an almost aromatic fragrance from the donkey dung scattered on uneven pathways. Surprisingly it isn’t unpleasant. The house I am staying in has a lush central garden that has become my view as I write. Every now and then the branches succumb to the flirtation of the breeze, and the garden sways littering delicate white frangipanis on to the deep brown soil.
Periodically the air is punctuated with the heavy grunts and alarming hisses of the randy tortoises who seem to spend every few hours copulating. Tortoise coitus is alarming. He mounts her and visibly thrusts, his neck getting longer and straining, and his face contorting in an expression that is very disturbing in how human like it is. Animals mate, they don’t make love. You expect it to be perfunctory, almost business like. These two tortoises are at it a lot, but I think she has finally had enough. This morning as I scoop up the hot bahazi with the still warm mahamri, he mounts her and she tries to get away. She crawls towards the garden. Still mounted he follows. It looks like he is steering her. She keeps walking. He keeps following. I feel a wave of inexplicable anguish wash over me. She must feel so helpless trying to get away from him, and he won’t get off her, his weight on her body reminding her that she is trapped to his will. I get an unwanted peek at his jewels. It is much bigger than I thought it would be and waves around like a palm tree branch in the wind. I suddenly lose my appetite for breakfast.
Lamu is a noisy place. There is a gujurati phrase, which when translated loses its lightness, everyone lives in each other’s armpits. The houses are built in a way in which everything is amplified, and you have to get used to the forced intimacy of sounds creeping into your space. This morning at 2:00am a baby coughed and I awoke. I lay in bed listening to the comforting of a mother’s cooing and wondering if I will ever wake up at 2:00am to the sound of my own baby coughing. Yesterday the loud taarab music that seemed to be playing from a loudspeaker within the neighbourhood suddenly switched to 70s Bollywood music, and just like that I was snatched from a balmy Lamu afternoon and spat into my dad’s car somewhere in Voi on a road trip to Mombasa. But without a doubt the most striking sound of all is the loud Adhan that pierces the air every couple of hours. I have never lived in a place where Islam is so interwoven into the day, and the call to prayer fills me with an inexplicable peace that my body had lost the memory of.
Yesterday evening after a full day of writing, needing to stretch out my spine, we wandered down to a little cafeteria behind which a yoga class was taking place. The average age of the mostly mzungu students at the class was 75, and that was after you had accounted for myself and two Swahili women in their late thirties. The teacher, a taut man named Kelly, tapped at his ipad to play the pre-loaded tracks of indian chanting whilst he led a gentle class that comprised mostly of stretches. The end of the class saw us in happy baby pose, where you lie down on your back, legs up in the air, knees bent, hands clutching your feet as you roll around. As we lay on our backs and spread our legs up to the air, it started. Loud ones, staccato ones, shrill ones, squeaky ones, hissing ones. One by one, the orchestra of farts sputtered out into the air from the tired bowels of the elderly yogis. And the most astounding thing of all, is that not a single person laughed. There was nary a giggle. We all acted as if we had just experienced an onset of temporary deafness, and continued wiggling around in happy baby pose.
As I lay awake waiting to hear the Adhan at dawn, I thought about the farting yogis, and why the rest of us innately understood how important it was to preserve their dignity and pretend we hadn’t heard the litany of flatulence. A memory popped into my head of my grandma a few weeks ago when I lay in bed next to her. Her brain had gone back into a familiar loop, and as she does every Sunday, she commented on how beautiful my teeth were, and asked how I had managed to transform them considering how dreadful they were before. My teeth are not great, but they have never been dreadful. Her brain has constructed some story about them which she has fixated upon for the last several years, which every time we are together forces its way to the front of her brain comes out in the exact same way, every time.
This time she went to touch her own teeth for emphasis, but when her fingers met only gum, her eyes filled with alarm. When I asked her what was wrong, she wailed, ‘they are gone, they are gone, they are gone’. I am not proud to say this, but a giggle popped out of my mouth.
‘What would you do if you woke up one morning to find you had no teeth?’
She looked at me aghast.
My laughter had poked her already tenuous sense of dignity, at an age where the structural integrity of your dignity is entirely reliant on the people around you playing along.
And I had broken the rules.