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Nancy wants to see ‘a very close, very old friend’ who lives at Banana Hill, where Nancy too used to live.

‘She will not believe it when she sees me!’ Nancy says as we walk up the hill towards the woman’s house. It’s a slow process. We cannot pass through the market without having to stop several times for Nancy to explain where she’s living and what she’s doing now. Reply to questions like: ‘What’s it like up there?’ Or, more alarmingly: ‘How is it – on the other side?’ Each comment is met with cries of: ‘Aaieeeeee!’ Or sometimes: ‘Eeeeeeeeee!’

There’s Brenda, who runs a grocery store and has a daughter in England. She and Nancy attend the same church. Using her mobile phone, Nancy texts the daughter to tell her she is with Brenda in Banana Hill.

There are cousins, nieces, friends, who are market traders. There are nurses Nancy used to work with. And there is one whom she encouraged when she was just a girl to go into nursing. ‘See what a big woman she is now!’ she says, pointing to the nurse. There is no denying it.

At one point Nancy says: ‘If you have eyes, you can see that I am at home here.’

I have eyes.

We pass by a community health centre where Nancy used to work. ‘Can you get me a job when you go back?’ is the repeated, only half-joking, request.

Nancy tells me: ‘People think that if you come from abroad you can help them. The expectation is very high. But how can you help everyone?’ She finds this difficult to deal with, but seems to me to be handling it well, never losing her friendliness under the barrage of requests.

‘She will not believe it,’ Nancy repeats as we climb up and along a narrow network of alleyways to the home of Damaris.

And it is true, Damaris does not believe it, letting out a great ‘Aaaiiieeeeee!’ of surprise.

She lives in a tiny farmstead, more like a backyard, into which she manages to pack one cow, two goats and half a dozen chickens. Recycling is by necessity – oil-drum bases welded together form Damaris’s kitchen wall.

Through a hole in her living room wall she runs a convenience store, selling groceries that she has bought from the market. Damaris is poor – and especially so since her husband was mysteriously killed. One day he went into Nairobi and did not return. Damaris went in search of him and eventually found him in the city mortuary.

Nor is Damaris in good health. She brings out a brown envelope containing x-rays for Nancy to look at, and shows her the inhaler she is using. The x-rays reveal shadows on both lungs.

‘We miss each other,’ Nancy tells me. ‘We used to talk to each other about our problems. It doesn’t solve the problems but it helps lighten the load.’

‘See what a big woman she is now!’ she says, pointing to the nurse. There is no denying it

Florence’s restaurant

Nancy bids farewell to her old friend. We have another visit to make – to Nancy’s cousin, Florence. Thanks to her work in England, Nancy has been able to help Florence through a crisis that could so easily have been a tragedy.

As we reach Florence’s house Nancy shouts a greeting and suddenly a small boy leaps at her and climbs up into her arms. It’s a lovely spontaneous gesture, a true leap of affection (see photo page 9). His mother appears at the door, hugs Nancy and bursts into tears.

Nancy’s help to this cousin was a lifesaver. First she helped by sending money from England so that Florence and her husband could buy a taxi which provided a livelihood. Then, when Florence became ill – with breast cancer – the family were able to sell the taxi to pay for a mastectomy and follow-up treatment. Nancy also sent some additional money for cancer drugs.

Florence says she is feeling okay now, although she has to keep taking anticancer drugs for another five years. Then she leads us to a ‘hotel’ business she is now running. It’s not a ‘hotel’ in the English sense of the word, more like a cafeteria and bar. The place is friendly and bustling. On the wall is a poster urging you not to be prejudiced against people with AIDS. It’s heartfelt. Two of Florence’s brothers-in-law have died from AIDs and their children are being brought up by grandparents.

Florence plies us with food to take home. But Nancy is taking something else home. This well-run ‘hotel’ has given her ideas.

‘I can see Ayub running a place like this,’ she says.

Old friends everywhere in Banana Hill. Nancy stops to chat.

Vanessa Baird

New Internationalist issue 379 magazine cover This article is from the June 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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