I perch at the end of the bench at Java, Aero-Club – Wilson Airport. The air is cold and crispy. It’s 9:17am – I’m 43-mins early for my meeting with Lydia Wanjiru Kiriti.
I’ve wolfed down my breakfast and I’m now nursing a small tree tomato juice. I had been reading a story on The New Yorker on my phone which I have since tossed aside because it’s such a perfect morning to do anything but sit still and soak in the moment. Small aircrafts across at Wilson Airport’s sit on the tarmac with wings messianically spread giving the impression of flight even when static.
The interview with Lydia is on her strength of having survived a terrible accident which she shouldn’t have survived. “She is a Harvard case study,” my friend, Mumbi, had mentioned. “And she’s 40.” Problem was that when I called Lydia she mentioned that she wasn’t ready to tell her story. So I convinced her to at least meet me and decide after hearing me out. She had agreed but with a little caveat “Please don’t stare at me when we meet, pretend at least.”
Across the wire mesh fence, on the runway, the tyres of a small-engine aircraft screech briefly as it kisses the tarmac upon landing. A red light winks from the tip of its tail. A nippy wind blows through the garden.
At 9:45am Lydia calls and says she’s “almost,” which is the Kenyan way of announcing one’s impending arrival: “I am almost.” Never mind they could be almost anything; almost giving birth, almost having a hernia, almost getting a root canal…
“You will know me because I’m the only guest seated at the garden.” I tell her.
“Oh, and I will be the chubby lady,” she says with a self deprecating giggle.
“I don’t think many chubby ladies will be walking through these doors this morning.” I say.
She laughs. “You never know. This could be their day.”
“Well in that case, I will collar every chubby lady that walks through.”
She laughs and hangs up.
A man in a green apron motors a lawnmower behind me, disrupting the peace. I get envious when I see someone mow a lawn with those lawnmowers; pushing it around, stepping on the warm mound of cut grass. Before I can ask him if I can help him push the mower a bit , a manager moves me and my sad tree tomato to the terrace as an old ugly black helicopter lands across the fence. The air is suddenly full of the sweet smell of freshly cut grass.
Lydia makes her entrance.
First, she’s not chubby, she has some weight yes, but it spreads evenly on her tall frame. I get up on my feet as she approaches and I immediately see why she had asked me not to stare. Her left face is disfigured; like it was folded and then on second thought, unfolded. Short brutal jagged scars cut across her skin, cutting across her left eye, down the ridge of her nose. She can see through her left eye but she has to pry it open to see, so she leaves it closed . Above the ridge of her nose is a round patch of skin that looks like a scald and it’s a different colour from the rest of her skin. Her jaws look weakened and slightly loopy. At the base of her throat is a hole that she will tell me later she used to breath from for months. In general her left face looks like it was smashed and put back together.
“You smell so good,” I tell her as we shake hands.
“Oh thank you!” she smiles, a smile that miraculously defies the tale of brutality on her face.
“What are you wearing?”
“Pleasures, by Estée Lauder.” She says.
She’s says it’s cold outside so we move inside and sit in a booth under a Bosch speaker. A menu is presented before her and she opens it like you would a book you don’t intend to read. She tells me that she doesn’t have any sense of taste or smell. “I lost all that after my accident.”
“So how did you pick your perfume?” I ask.
“Its what i wore before my accident.”
“I can taste sugar and salt but nothing else, no spice or whatever. If you boiled and served me grass I would eat it. I don’t know what good food is.”
“So you mostly taste food with your eyes, yes?”
I hold up a give-us-a-moment finger at the waitress lurking around our table. She discreetly recedes to the end of the cafe. We sit in brief silence as she looks at the menu. I’m honestly taken aback by her face.
“Stop staring, Biko.” She tells me while looking down at the menu.
Truth is, it’s impossible not to stare at her face. Half her face, at a first glance seems to me like a an abstract drawing done my 3-year old son: you look at it and pretend you know what it is but you don’t. You’re intrigued by it and it seems to whisper to your imagination and you think by looking at it for long you will figure it out, but you never quite do because it’s telling a story in a dialect you can’t understand.
“I have to have a proper look and you should let me,” I tell her. “ I don’t want to pretend that it’s business as usual. I suspect that if I stare at it for long it will lose its intrigue.”
She slowly looks up and offers me a good view of her face, raising her chin in mock defiance, a small smile rippling on her lips. We sit like this for a brief terse moment, staring at each other. The Big Aero Club Stare Down, directed by Lydia Wanjiru Kiriti, age, 40.
She has long dangly chrome-like earrings that resemble a wind chime. Her hair is pulled back meticulously and held behind her head with two hair clips. (HER: “I have the longest and most beautiful hair, Biko. ME: I believe you. HER: Haha.)
“What happened,” I eventually ask her. “Don’t leave out any details. I love details.”
For nine years she was an inflight attendant. In 2007 she landed from Lagos with the morning flight. As she pulled her luggage across the airport’s foyer she mapped out her day like she always had after landing at JKIA; she would buy Saturday Nation (“I loved reading Oyunga Pala” ) and Standard newspapers at the Arrivals stand, get home (she lived with her brother at Nyayo estate), take a long hot shower, get into bed, read the papers, nod off, wake up at 11am and leave the house to run errands in tao.
Outside a new company driver picked her up in a van. As the only passenger, she sat behind the co-driver’s seat. She slipped off her heels and decided that she would catch a quick forty winks, so she told the driver to wake her up when they got to the entrance of Nyayo estate so that she could give him directions to her digs. Bone knackered, she leaned back on the seat and closed her eyes and soon she was fast asleep.
She woke up two months later.
She had slept on January 27th 2007 and woken up March 29th 2007.
“I wake up and look around and think, ‘who told my brother to change the curtains and the colour of my bedroom walls?’” She tells me with a chuckle. “ I touch my hair and in horror I find have matutas! I was horrified, who does matutas in this age?”
“Such a woman.” I chuckle.
There was a woman at her bedside who jumped up in shock when she realised that Lydia had woken up, only to run out calling others. “Others” turned out to be more women wearing white, women who were jubilant and cheery. “I remember laughing and thinking ‘OK, since when did waking up become such an occasion?”
A nurse brought her medicine and she tossed it away because she wasn’t sick, she just wanted to go to tao and run errands. Unbeknownst to her, she was in St Andrew’s Ward at Nairobi Hospital, and she had been involved in a grisly accident two months back. A head on collision that killed the driver on the spot and left her in a coma.
“The damage to my head was incomprehensible” she says. “At the scene of the accident, all my two eyes were out of my head. Literally. I had this big hole from my forehead to my mouth. My brain was coming out of my mouth plus I had a broken femur. Basically, I didn’t have a face.”
I try to imagine this and fail.
“So how…I mean, who are these guys who put you back together?” I ask.
“God.” She says and I just love the way she turns God from a common noun into a verb.
Her first surgery (one of numerous surgeries that would follow) lasted 17 good hours. In that theater was a gaggle of medical heavies; neurosurgeons, ophthalmologists, orthodontists, dentofacial orthopedics, otorhinolaryngologists, maxillofacial surgeons and many more specialists whose names are just so long and too hard to spell correctly. We are talking our own Kenyan doctors, expensive she admits, but competent. (She has not once left the country for a single surgery).
“What is very special about these surgeons was that I’m told that my case was so unique and unprecedented that they would later operate on me while referring to these big surgical books!” She laughs.
The waitress shows up and she orders a hot dawa.
“Do you remember when you first saw your face after the accident?” I ask.
She says she had dragged herself to the washroom a week after coming out of the coma. She wanted to gurgle water, she went in and found a mirror and staring back at her was this woman with half a face and a skin as “dark as the back of my phone.” I ask her if the sight made her stagger back in shock (Yeah, I’m a little dramatic) and she says, “Imagine I didn’t take it so badly. I mean I was alive!”
She had just turned 30 and had to embark on a relearning journey; learning to write and walk and do what normal people do. Her 30’s were defined by a complex trail of emotions and teaching and tens of surgeries and realignment to a life with a new face and a new way of things. Basically she had her childhood face, her 20’s face and now the 30’s face.
“Do you miss your old face?” I ask.
“If my old face would come with this strong personality I have now then I would take it,” she tells me. “But I know my old face wouldn’t handle this new personality. So, no.”
“Do you sometimes look at yourself in old photos?”
“By the way,” She says. (Again it’s only Kenyans who start sentences with By the way. “I have some pictures of me before the accident, do you want to see?”
“No,” I say.
“Oh come on, you have to see,” she rummages through her fancy brown purse. “Aii, why don’t you want to see?”
“Because, well, this is the face I know now, you are who you are now. I think that’s enough for me.”
“Oh please. You have to see.” She removes a small photo album with a black sleeve.
“No, really, Lydia. I don’t want to see the old you.”
“If you don’t I will scream and people will come and they will see innocent me and think you are trying to harm me.”
I laugh and take the album from her.
“You are about the only person in the whole world who still has a photo album in 2017.” I say and she laughs so loudly.
I go though her old photos; photos of her when she just started out as a flight attendant; bright, dewy eyed and full of promise. Photos of her and friends and family. A studio profile of her with a beaming smile. Photos of her when she first went to the States, wearing these dreadful jeans that everybody wore at that time; frayed at the bottom.
“You were so skinny.” I tell her and she laughs loudly and says, “Oh thank you very much, Biko! Can you blame me?” As I go through her album she tells me that the doctors wanted to reconstruct back my face but they needed to know what they were reconstructing back, so they needed her old photos as a reference point.
“ I think they did a marvelous job of that,” I say she smiles and cocks her head cynically. “No, I mean it.”
“Do you feel that the experience has aged you, that you are more than 40-years of age?” I pose.
“No,” she shakes her head. “I feel 10 years old. You see when I woke up from the coma I was 30-years old but it felt like I was just born again. I feel like I have only been alive for 10 years.”
“That’s some deep stuff you just said, Lydia!” I say.
“Oh I can be deep!” She jokes and we laugh. She adds more seriously, “But when you face death you are just not the same. It changes you in many powerful ways. I don’t hold grudges for instance, I just cut people off. That can be a good and a bad thing.”
“How did the accident affect your friendships?”
“You lose people. My doctor told me not to take it personally because some people didn’t know how to deal with the new me. But then there are those who stayed.”
Nostalgically, Jack Johnson starts playing from the speakers overhead and it momentarily takes me back to 2008 when I went on an assignment at Ngorongoro Crater in Northern Tanzania with a massively talented wildlife photographer from Johannesburg. She had played Jack Johnson from her laptop the whole trip.
“I have lots of metal in me,” she tells me. “My lower jaw here is a metal plate, I have a titanium plate over here on my skull, a have plastic on the side of my face, I have wires holding my cheeks together.”
“So when you go through metal detectors in malls and whatnot, do they go off?”
She laughs. “Actually, no. Those can’t detect them, but at airports, yes. But the tragedy is that when security guards at malls see me they never run those metal detectors against me. They look at me and their human empathy kicks in and I think they never want to offend me which is sad because I could be the best person to carry a bomb into a building.”
“Well, aren’t you dark.” I say and she laughs. “Do people stare at you a lot?”
“Oh people stare a lot.”
“Does it offend you?”
“I don’t know anymore. I’m used to. I guess.”
Lydia laughs a lot. She has these funny self deprecating anecdotes that rise from nowhere like fireflies. For example she tells me about this one day she was getting ready to go into surgery to correct a complication that came as a result of an infection. She had gone through many and she was tired of being opened up, of being prodded with metal. She was tired of taking drugs and injections and waking up with a dry throat. All she wanted was to be normal again but it wasn’t happening and her spirit was tired. She knew she wasn’t going to come out of this surgery alive so she gave out her two phones and shoes and money (3K) to the nurses who took care of her. She told them thanks but she wasn’t going to make it back.
So she goes into surgery and they open her up and somehow she gains a bit of consciousness at the tail end of the surgery as they are cleaning and stitching her up and she hears familiar voices and she is sure she is dead and went to heaven. “I was lying there cold and but I was so happy because I knew hell was hot so I must have been in heaven but I remember being so happy because of the familiar voices, at least I knew people in heaven .” She laughs.
“Just how much of your face is connected to you as a woman?” I ask.
She thinks about it for a good deal then tells me a story.
“At one point I had a hole in my forehead and before it healed I used to cover it with gauze because cerebrospinal fluid would ooze out of it. If you removed that gauze and shone a torch in that hole you would see my brain.” I make a disbelieving face. “I’m serious, Biko. Anyway, this one time I really wanted to go to the salon and you know, feel like a woman and while there my salonist was afraid to put me under the drier so I called my doctor and asked him if it was safe to go under the drier and he said, ‘Lydia if that accident didn’t kill you, I don’t think going under a drier will. So I went under the drier and didn’t die. Even with the extent of the injury on my face, I still wanted to be a woman. I still wanted to do my hair and feel like a woman.”
“What does life mean to you now? I ask.
She thinks about it for so long. She doesn’t have an answer. She just stares at me through her good eye.
“I don’t know what to say.” She mumbles in a meek voice and for the first time I want to reach over and hug her.
I steer the conversation to something sunny. “During this post accident period, what is the one thing that happened to you that made you feel warm inside?”
“I met my husband.” She smiles.
Two years after the accident she saw a friend comment on someone’s profile update who had written, “Clearly nice guys finish last.” He went to his profile (this is stalking, people) and got his number which he had online. She smsed him and wrote, “No, they don’t.”
The next day she got a call at lunchtime from a man who asked, “They don’t what?”
“Who is this?” she asked.
“You sent me an sms saying ‘no they don’t.”
“Oh, you wrote that nice guys finish last and they don’t.”
That guy is called Andrew Gathii.
After speaking to this guy for a few minutes she said she wanted to nap because she was tired and he asked, “You sound like an adult, why are you napping at midday?” and she told him she was recovering from an accident and he asked how bad it was and she said “I don’t have half of my face” and he said no way! He wanted to see her because he was curious so the next day they met at Steers, Wabera street. She carried all her CT Scans to show him the damage to her head. (“You are the first woman in the world to have ever gone on a first date with CT scans,” I told her).
Anyway, they met at Steers and three years later they had a small lovely garden wedding in the backyard of her sister-in-law’s house. She wore a white dress and black wedges that she told me not to write pinched her a good one.
I called Andrew and asked him what drew him to her, what he felt the very first time he saw her at Steers, two years after the accident, with her CT Scans under her armpits .
“First time I saw her I thought her face wasn’t as bad as she made it sound,” he says. “Yes, it was very bad but she had made me believe that half her face was gone. Admittedly she was different, yes, but then I like different.”
“What stood out for you about her?”
“Her zest for life,” he says. “She just had this hunger to live, to overcome everything. I liked that.”
“What did your friends and family think?”
“They were cautiously optimistic,” he chuckles. “ They wanted to make sure that I understood what I was getting into. Some were curious to know what my angle was, it’s unfortunate that we judge what we see,”
“I honestly can’t imagine what the damage to her face did to her self esteem,” I tell him. “ How do you make her feel beautiful?”
“Wow, that’s a great question,” he says then pauses. “ Look, I always tell her that I chose her the same way I choose my investments; the ones that are undervalued, and people tend to overlook. She was an undervalued investment and she has turned out to be the best investment I have ever made.”
“The FB post that brought you together was that nice guys finish last, do you still feel like you are a nice guy and you are finishing last?”
He laughs at that. “ I was young, I didn’t know any better. I’m 36 years old now and I have tried both sides and decided that being nice is good. Being nice isn’t that bad after all.”
“You are an outlier.” I told him.
One day Lydia was at the doctor’s reception waiting to go in. Seated across her was a lady who kept staring at her, eventually the lady came up and sat next to her and asked her what happened and she told her. The lady was so amazed at her courage and strength to face the world after her accident. She said she was waiting to see the doctor because of these pimples she had on her back which she said were “depressing her”
“When she heard my story she she said her she was ashamed for coming to see the doctor because of pimples! She said she didn’t have problems, so she got up and left. ” Lydia says with a smile.
Something extraordinary happened when we sat at that cafe. I realised – with shame – how shortsighted I had been to narrow her into a small corridor of her face at the beginning. And how powerless her face turned out to be compared to her spirit and personality. At some point I became blinded by the scars on her face because they became buried so deep by her buoyant personality, her laughter, her cheekiness and her tonic for living. Her scars became little less than irrelevant and invisible footnotes.
I now realise that sometimes we are unfortunate to have our faces stand in the talent of our spirits.
As she embarks on the 40’s journey – or the journey heading to her 20’s – as she puts it, I asked her what’s the most important lesson she has carried over into her 40’s from her tumultuous 30’s and she said, “I have learnt that God is a gentleman: If you let him, he will take care of you.”
Do you know anyone in their 40’s who wants to share life’s lessons with me? People who want to TALK and go DEEP ? Email me on email@example.com