“Aya! You know good and well that a SIM card does not cost 200 shillings. I may be a mzungu but I’ve been here long enough. 100.” It was my time in the limelight once again. I reveled in my abilities to intimidate this six-foot Kenyan corner shop owner, or at least make him laugh and hand over a SIM card to the girl beside me. Laila had just arrived in the country, and as I never miss the chance to dart in front of beeping matatus and practice my Nairobi navigation, I had offered to help her find a SIM card in the middle of lunch hour in the city. After my deft negotiating, Laila handed her Egyptian passport over to the man to finish the transaction. After a few still-exasperated faces were sent in my general direction, the shop owner began to compliment the chocolate eyes of Laila.
“Oh, come off it, man!” I laughed, “We’ll see you soon I’m sure,” and I grabbed Laila’s hand and we laughed, as we flew into cloud nine of Safaricom, Kenya’s leading cell carrier, savoring our recent success at the corner shop. We laughed as if we had known one another for 10,000 years that day.
Ketchup was solidifying on my fingers as half of a Vienna sausage began to make its escape from my mouth. Elegant as usual, I thought, smiling wryly. Laila turned to me in the Safaricom queue, where we were slowly losing our youth. “So, you want to be a journalist and a botanist, and you know how to stand up to a grown man, and you’re American AND smart?! You are nothing like I had labeled you in my head,” Laila bluntly informed me. I smiled as I recognized how she had stereotyped me; the loud, goofy girl with blonde highlights and eye makeup must be dumb and shallow. It’s how the world works, right? Just like a girl wearing a hijab must be timid and oppressed and polite. That’s what I had imagined, until I met a powerful, ridiculously intelligent, badass engineering student named Laila.
And all of the books’ cover artists were fired. And all of the paragraphs erased.
As I walked into my bedroom that evening, I hit my new roommate Mariam with the side of the heavy wooden door. There she was again, on her mat on our floor, mumbling words over and over again. Mariam, had gotten to Nairobi a week ago and I rarely saw her unless she was praying in our room or speaking to her family in Cairo on her phone. How many times a day did she have to do this? Could she put a sign on the door? Should I apologize? Do I talk? I had invited her several times to go out with the rest of the house and I and she always said she wanted to stay home. Did she not like me? I cautiously maneuvered around her and eased my way through the tight slip between the door and wall, in hopes of eliminating as much squeaking as possible from the operation.
Growing up in a small town is one of the greatest treasures of life in the Southern U.S. Unfortunately, ti's also the biggest downside. I was practically born in the Baptist church, and grew up in a school that taught only Christmas during the holidays. I knew of only one Muslim, with whom I had never truly had a conversation with, and I had never known a practicing hijabi until I went to university. It’s not like anyone I was raised by, or I myself, was against Islam, we were just all so ignorant of the religion and unfamiliar with people who occupied non- predominantly Christian nations. I had in my head only what Western media had fed me, along with some doctrine of fear and small prejudiced whispers, circulating in my brain bank for this culture and these people. Because of this, I wasn't sure of what to make of my new roommate, Mariam.
The next day, a few of us decided to run some errands together. As we were finishing up, our housemate, Thomas, said that he had to meet his friend in the town center and that we would just see him at the house in Langata later that night. Suddenly, Mariam and I were alone, cruising around the street, and silent. The silence only broke when Mariam caught a glimpse of the mosque on the corner.
“Oh my goodness! I haven’t been inside of a mosque since I’ve been in this country! Can we go in Lauren? Would you mind?” Her eyes came alive as she spoke so eagerly and sincerely of this place she obviously treasured very fondly. I would never say no. When we arrived in front of the brilliant teal blue and snow white architecture, I could only stand in awe of such a structure. I told Mariam that it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, that it would be an honor if I could go inside with her. She told me that she had expected me to come inside, that she would never leave me outside to wait on her.
“I have been looking around for something you could use as a headscarf this whole walk. I haven’t seen anything yet, but there will be something inside for you, I’m sure. This mosque is in the heart of the city, people are not always prepared to come inside.” I smiled as my heart warmed for this girl who was so conscientious of manners and servitude, towards this crazy American girl who was less than friendly towards her for the weeks leading up to this day. The girl who let intimidation get the best of her. The girl who knew nothing.
As we stepped into the brilliant castle that was Jamia Mosque, I felt none of the discomfort that I had anticipated. It felt as if I had known this place 10,000 years. Women smiled at me as I walked slowly, shy and head bowed, shuffling my sneakers behind Mariam. We searched quickly for a headscarf, but when nothing was to be found in the changing area outside of the entrance to the women’s prayer area on the second floor of the building, Mariam simply smiled, shrugged her shoulders, and walked me through the procedure of taking off my shoes and finding a place on the carpet. My loose blonde hair swung in front of my face as I walked to the back of the room, and I was filled with a sense of shame. In such a place of reverence, here I was showing disrespect. I didn’t know what to do, and my discomfort was clear on my face.
“Do not worry about the scarf,” Mariam whispered to me over her shoulder, “You look fine. You are welcome here.”
For the next 30 minutes, I sat beside Mariam and spoke to my own God as she spoke to hers. And then we spoke to each other. And time passed silently until we noticed that the calm, sunny sky had opened and rain was filling the streets of Nairobi below us. Surreal and absolutely terrifyingly beautiful, I saw something in the world that had never been shown to me before in this moment. Love over tradition. Friendship over segregation. Quiet over noise. Our purpose- bigger than our differences.
I took a photo of Mariam as she leaned over the edge of a window in the mosque watching the rain. I felt the thunder that she had given me. It reverberated and shook me from the inside out in that peaceful, still moment. I smiled as I recognized how stupid I had been. I was so scared of building a friendship up until this point out of fear of how she might see me. The sweet, quiet, devout girl who slept in the bunk above me must not like me because of my inability to shut my loud mouth and my wild antics, right? It’s just how the world is, right? That’s what I had convinced myself to be fearful of, until I met a beautiful, loving, incredibly strong, gentle but roaring fire inside of a girl named Mariam.
And all of the preconceived ideas were turned to dust. And all of the self-fabricated story lines deleted.
For weeks after, Laila and Mariam became more like sisters to me than any roommate or fellow volunteer. I taught them how to make banana pancakes out of chapati mix and they taught me how to make beans and scrambled eggs; I taught them how to be the silliest versions of themselves they could be and they taught me how to be vulnerable and open to those around me. Sleepovers became regular activities in the Langata house, and I watched Laila wake up in the bed beside me and Mariam in the one above me to take me to the airport at four in the morning the day I went back to the U.S. We showcased in each other our abilities to laugh until we cried, to stay up talking for hours about problems in the world that left us hurting, to love deeper and be as compassionate and understanding as we could be to anyone and everyone we would encounter. Above all, my trip to Kenya this summer brought me Mariam and Laila, my Egyptian sisters, who introduced me into a world I feel like I have been missing for 10,000 years.
Originally posted February 2016