“Hello”, I said, as I picked up the incoming phone in the office.
“Abaar gaan”, I heard a male voice from the other side.
What’s this? I almost jumped off my chair. Thousands of kilometers away in a different continent, I am hearing a male voice, albeit with a strange pronunciation, uttering two words in my mother tongue that would mean “song again”. I was twitching my eyes. What is this!
The silence from my side was perhaps a bit too obvious.
“How are you”, the voice asked.
Who’s this guy asking such a personal question even without knowing me – I wondered.
“I am fine, thank you”, I said with continued curiosity of knowing who this person was. And quickly added, as a gesture of courtesy, “How are you”?
“I am very good. The weekend was a bit hectic, you know, but a weekend is a weekend. You have so much to do and you hardly get any time during the week. That is why we all look for the weekend”.
This is pretty obvious. The caller on the other side said correct words and his sentiments are also well understandable, but ……..
“Sure”, I said and started wondering who this person could be. He definitely does not know me as this was the first day of the week, first day in my new office and first time in a foreign country away from my homeland.
“Exactly”, the caller said, and without stopping there, continued, “When a Monday appears, I start thinking that it would be just three more days in between before we get Friday. You may or may not agree, but I must tell you that we all are working to take some rest.”
“Umm….”, I tried to say that I was not looking for the rest as I just started my new life in a foreign land and that I would be happy to be working the whole week to acclimatise the new environment. Thought of my mind did not get time to be transmitted through verbal medium as the caller cut me off instantly saying,
“Sorry to interrupt but you know what, it is not that all weekends come to you as something you would always look for. Last Saturday, I got a call from my brother that my father who was 78 years old and living in our rural homestead about 80 kilometres away suddenly fell ill, I mean seriously ill, and that I would have to go, immediately.”
“Sorry”, is all I could say before the caller said –
“Thank you, but you know what, I had to rush to see my father. And because I did not have enough cash, I had first to meet two of my friends to borrow some money before I could proceed. And, it delayed my journey. My brother, I must tell you, it was a bad, very bad feeling; my father was on his death bed and I was delaying my arrival to his home. God will never pardon me, I have almost ruined my case”.
What must I do? What must I say? This man, completely unknown, called my phone at about 5 minutes past 8 AM and is telling me so much of his personal issues. And, that too, such serious problem as his father being on death bed.
New country, unknown culture, strange pronunciation ….. I did not know how to react. Has his father died over the weekend? Should I say ‘sorry’? A sense of helplessness was engulfing my whole thought process. I lightly stamped my toe on the marbled floor of the office, got back to my senses and decided to keep quiet and let the flow from the other side continue.
However, this is the first time in last few minutes that my unknown caller stopped talking.
Seconds passed by, perhaps three or four seconds; and then, I thought I had heard a deep sigh through the telephone receiver. The man on the other side sighed deeply. Gosh ….. the father must have died. What must I do now? Should I now at least, say ‘sorry’? It took about another three or four seconds for me to think.
“Ummm….”, I was excited that the man started the conversation. “Brother, can I please speak with Robert, please?”
Being the first day in the new office, I did not know who Robert was. I very politely requested the caller to hold on for a minute, checked in the office for Robert and replied back to him – “There is apparently no Robert here, but will you please tell me Robert who?”
I put my left palm on the microphone of the telephone receiver, screamed at one of the employees to get Robert Wambui on the phone, and informed the caller – “Sorry, but no Robert Wambui works in our office”.
“Oh really?”, the caller said, and then continued, “doesn’t matter, I must have called your number inadvertently. But, doesn’t matter. You have a nice day!” And the call was disconnected.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
This was how I discovered Kenya – my first African experience.
I continued to stay in Kenya for next five years, but never got a chance to listen to my first caller and learn if his father was alive over that weekend.
I have not yet been able to reconcile with the fact that the human can be so simple as to tell an unknown voice about his (her) personal problem and finally understanding that it might have been a case of wrong dialing the phone number, does not get irritated with the time lost.
What I definitely learnt in Kenya, and very quickly after my first telephonic experience, was that one must greet, among many other expressions, as ‘(H)abari gaan(i)’ – how are you doing (‘song again’ in my mother tongue with just a little deviation in the pronunciation) !
The warmth of the greetings is the warmth that the country offers.
(originally published as an editorial on indians4africa website)