Fiction — October 23, 2012 12:52 — 2 Comments

Customs In Customs – Bradford Philen

After arriving to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, we all met by baggage claim. It was a large room that better suited the aura of a past decade. Fluorescent bulbs dimmed the air tepid and the red brick walls were cold. Dawn, the color of honey, crept through the front windowpanes of the airport terminal. The morning light was just past Customs. Life was just past Customs. 

While waiting for our suitcases and duffel bags, we noticed Moussa was missing. I looked to the second floor where we just descended from the Immigration and Visa lines. The escalator steps were fluid with movement, but stale, like the last piece of cheesecake sitting on a revolving display plate at a diner. Moussa was nowhere to be found.

Arrivees, antsy and angry at the sore sleeping conditions of the redeye flight from Dakar, searched with fervor for their baggage. Where’s my luggage, we all moaned, in a tone assuredly insinuating the baggage attendant had stolen our suitcases of underwear, pressed clothes, and dress socks for some secret mission or black-market scheme. Fortunately, my colleagues and I all retrieved our luggage and stood as we, Westerners, often do – as if we were late (by no fault of our own, of course), agitated, or, likely, both. Westerners are never still in style. There is never enough time to be still. There is never enough time to wait.

We each found our own way to pass time, anticipating Moussa’s arrival. Jenny, dressed in a long and loose tai-dye dress, dangling earrings, and an assortment of beaded necklaces, one with a wooden charm of the African continent, talked mostly. She asked each of us about the flight and pondered out loud how much of Nairobi she would remember, as it had been 10 years since she’d returned. She relished over the doughy and moist ugali. You don’t really swallow it, she said, it just slides down your mouth, and the nyoma choma is the best grilled meat in all of Africa, she added. She described to us how just outside the city limits of Nairobi giraffe and zebra pass through the roads, neither scurrying nor lost, but poised and at-ease.

Leslie, a presenter at the conference we were to attend the following day, paced the room, trying to recount in her mind all that she needed to finish and tidy-up before the conference. She carried a weight of worry and anxiety much like love-handles, visibly noticeable, though not necessarily unattractive. Are you sure you brought enough copies for each and every attendant, Leslie asked Jenny, who replied with a shrugged, of course I did. Murray, of Maori decent, who was closest to a people whose souls were ingrained with stillness and quietude, stood, listened and watched. His face and neck was wide, his skin smooth and slightly freckled, his hair trimmed in military fashion.

Dawn was lost in the warm sunrise.

“Where do you think Moussa is,” Murray, who spoke with a sprinkle of British English, finally asked, breaking Jenny’s Mzungu trekking-through-Africa stories.

“I thought I saw him in the Visa line,” I replied.

“Yeah, but there were three lines – one for EAC, one for Foreigners, one for other Africans,” Murray pointed out. “Which line was he in?”

“It must have been other Africans, right? I don’t think he was in our line.”

“This is just ridiculous,” Leslie said.

We fidgeted, waiting for Moussa, the one African in our party of five. He was Senegalese, now thousands of languages away from Wolof. Swahili was the mother tongue in these eastern lands. Karibu! Habari? Mzuri asante. Asante sana.

With every second passing and with each escalator step turning and turning and turning, the dullness of the room swelled. The number of people waiting outside Customs for friends, family, and clients grew as new flights arrived. Light emanated behind them, forcing us to squint. The morning was passing with the rising warmth of the sun’s rays.  In the far away Great Rift Valley, the same radiant sun waited for giraffes and zebras and elephants to graze upon the land.

An hour later Moussa stepped on the escalator. Murray spotted him first. “There he is,” he said.

We were appalled, first. Then, we were relieved and ready to pass through Customs and on to our hotel rooms for some much needed rest.

“It’s about time. I wonder what happened,” Jenny said.

“I knew this would happen,” Leslie sighed. “Now we’ll have to rush to the hotel to check-in to the conference on time.”

“Oh, relax,” Murray declared. “I think they’ll let us in. We’re on Africa time, remember.” Our eyes met. Sarcasm guffawed. Leslie chided our humor and began to roll her luggage towards the exit.

Moussa approached us. We had already retrieved his luggage. Talk was brief. We, westerners, marched towards Customs while Moussa followed behind us.

“Moussa, was everything okay up there?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah, no problem,” Moussa replied.

“What happened?” I asked.

I already knew, but inquired anyway, partly to show concern, but mainly because I am from the west and I am uncomfortable with awkward silence.

Moussa shrugged as we walked towards the exit. His gait was relaxed. He sucked his teeth. His saliva was dry. “Oh, you know. I’m African.”

We snickered, wrought with white man’s burden.

“That doesn’t make any sense. You’re an African traveling in Africa. You should be able to go as you please. In America, we go from state to state without any ID,” Leslie argued.

“But Africa’s a big place,” I said, trying to appease the discomfort I felt for Moussa, as if he was supposed to answer all questions related to Africa just because he’s African. “And, it’s not one country.”

“Well, I know that,” Leslie retorted.

“Ah, that was nothing, really. Try going to France with a Senegalese passport,” Moussa said.

I knew it was true. Africans have to try the hardest to prove their identity.

“But, at least I’m not Arab,” Moussa’s voice trailed. “Those guys have it the worst.”

We, westerners, laughed with Moussa the western laugh that tolerates the foreign world, but manipulates it to create our comfort and to bring ease to our existence. Arabs. Mexicans in Arizona. Nigerians in London. Turkish Germans. Navajos, Persians. Filipinos in the United Arab Emirates. Aborigines in Australia, Bissauans, Taiwanese, Ivoirians, Samoans, African-Americans, Somalians, Haitians. Marginalized. My passport reads United States of America and my picture shows my blue eyes and blond hair. I’m pale and my skin is bland, like fat-free margarine. Freckles form with ease when my skin is exposed to the sun, and I easily lose the second toenail on my right foot if I run with wet socks.

“We’ve been here so long. I’m so thirsty. Dehydrated. I need water,” Leslie said.

“Water is life,” Murray said.

“Me, I can’t drink water,” Moussa said. “Only when it’s hot. I prefer Fanta or juice.”

“It’s the air plane, Leslie,” Jenny pointed out. “The air isn’t pure, so you have to drink extra water to avoid swelling. I always take two waters when flight attendants come around. Always. And never eat the food. It’s not good for you. It’s not natural. There’s nothing organic. It’s all processed.”

“It is what it is,” I said, not really knowing what I was actually saying.

“Everything’s changing I guess,” Leslie said.

“Ah, but, we’re still here,” Moussa said. “That hasn’t changed.”

Finally, we all exited the airport. We, westerners, walked through Customs with our heads high, while scanning the room for our next vantage point. Moussa strolled through behind us. We reached the life of the light outside the arrival terminal. Jambo! We all heard and were on our way.


Bradford Philen is an educator, coach, and writer. In 2011 he published the novel Autumn Falls. His short stories have appeared in Fiction365, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and in Sentinel Literary Quarterly. He is currently working on a collection of short stories about the people, places, and cultures of West Africa.


  1. Madeline Raynolds says:

    Dig the rhythm of the world revealed!

  2. Tej Rae says:

    The first use I’ve seen of ‘it is what it is’ that says it all.

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