By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
I did not know that a one day dream flight from Nairobi to Los Angeles would turn out to be a five-day nightmare.
I had pestered the hosts of the Kwani Literary Festival to ensure my seat on Virgin Atlantic Flight VS672 that left Jomo Kenyatta airport on December 18 for London to connect with another Virgin Flight VS007 to Los Angeles the following day.
My wife was scheduled to have surgery at the Douglas Hospital of the University of California, Irvine, on Tuesday, December 21. I would be back to my home at the University Hills, Irvine, by Sunday.
The festival, a conversation among generations of African writers, particularly those of the 1960s represented by Micere Mugo, Rebecca Njau, and Philip Ochieng’ and the current, represented by Binyavanga Wainaina and Billy Kahora, among others, had gone remarkably well.
My sunshine memory was rudely interrupted by the flight captain announcing that a snowstorm had taken over Heathrow, we were going to land in Lyon, France, and spend the night there.
Then it was announced that only Schengen and European Union passport holders would be allowed out of the terminal to spend Saturday night in a hotel courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.
Kenya passport holders were specifically singled out and isolated from the rest. Our bus was escorted by armed French police into a separate building at the airport into which we were locked. The three stewardesses in charge of us were ushered into a separate room, clearly not a paradise, but it had cushioned chairs for beds.
The rest of us, all Kenyans, except for a Jamaican and a couple of British passport holders who stayed in solidarity with their Kenyan wives, were each given tiny low red plastic bedlets with aluminium foils for blankets.
The cement floor was cold and dreary. It was a winter night after all. The French authorities would not even make an exception for Imani, a one-year-old, who had to share the cement floor with her parents, Brenda and Colin.
We raised many questions: why were we, bonafide passengers, who had had no say in the decision to land in Lyon, treated as if we were terrorists and refugees about to take over France? The captain, our captain, had abandoned ship. Not a word from him. The stewardess tried their best to cope, care and calm nerves.
They seemed equally helpless. Ironically, it was Imani, with her smile and energy, who kept our spirits alive. She never once cried through the night and she shone her smile on all.
I witnessed an incredible display of unity and solidarity among the Kenyan Asians and Africans of all ethnic backgrounds and religions. Humour, stories, laughter, kept us going, under our aluminium sheets. I learnt more about Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and the humanism they shared, from those stories than I had learnt from books. People offered support to each other.
Barriers of race and class and gender had broken. There were some touching stories, like that of the “just married”, Oliver Apunda from Ahero and Agnes Kahindi from Kikuyu, whose love had withstood the inter-ethnic tensions of the post-poll chaos.
Simon Onderi, a medical student at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, acted as our unpaid doctor, attending to our different ailments. Somebody had the presence of mind to alert Kenyan embassy in Paris.
I don’t know if it was her intervention, or our near riot protests, but on Sunday, we were moved into a hotel to join the other passengers.
It was not until Monday evening that we eventually left Lyon for Heathrow where this time, those of us with connecting flights were allowed into a hotel.
My Virgin Atlantic flight would now leave for Los Angeles, on Tuesday.
I would not be able to accompany Njeeri for the surgery, the very purpose of my having to leave Kenya on Saturday, but at least I would be with her in the evening.
I went to terminal three, Heathrow, three hours before my scheduled flight. Alas, all Virgin Atlantic flights to Los Angeles had been cancelled. Heathrow was a mass of endless chaos.
I looked for a Virgin Atlantic office, to see about my options. I found none.
I approached Virgin Atlantic ground crew attending the long queues the few flights to other destinations. No help. No information about the Los Angeles route. After dragging my luggage around through the muddy snow, I eventually bumped into a frantic Virgin Atlantic official, who thrust some papers in my hands but would not otherwise answer questions.
When I raised my voice in protest, he threatened to call police, with implied but unmistakable hints that he would not hesitate to brand me a terrorist menace. I dared him to go ahead. He vanished in the crowd.
Dispirited, I returned to the Holiday Inn where I had spent the night but now under my own care.
Fortunately I found some of my fellow Kenyans still there, awaiting later flights, among them Simon Onderi, who had acted as our unofficial doctor through out our plight. I was freezing.
My asthma was back. I was wheezing. Dr Onderi took over and eventually got through to a switchboard and spoke to a human voice representing Virgin Atlantic.
The next possible flight would be on December 28.
And even then, it was not certain for sure. He pleaded with them to offer me an alternative flight.
He told them about my wife in hospital, my own condition, asthma, high blood pressure, to no avail.
Dr Onderi had to rush for his flight. For me it was another night at the Holiday Inn.
My wife was in hospital, my two teenagers in the house. My asthma acted up.
I had undergone severe attacks of asthma in the past, once in Senegal in 1969, and again, years later in New Zealand in 1984.
And in both cases, I actually had to be rushed to hospital in the middle of the night. I feared the same.
It was then that I called Barbara Caldwell, my research assistant at the University of California, Irvine. She was on a Christmas break.
But within a couple of hours, from her home in far away South California in the US, she did what the Virgin Atlantic could not.
She got me a seat on a British Airways flight to Los Angeles for the following Day, Wednesday.
It was a one-way ticket but with the price tag of a return business class.
I flew back to California on Wednesday, December 23, five days after I left Nairobi, to take Njeeri home from the Douglas Hospital.
Dr Karen Noblett and her team had successfully carried out the four-hour surgery on my wife.
She was in much pain, but at least, we would have a Christmas reunion with our children.