When you enter a tuck shop at Kenyatta University, a wee store where someone behind security bars sells you things through a little opening, I am always off my game. There are two shops I stop at somewhat regularly on campus.
I am not a Kenyan. As I look through the bars at things on the shelves, I don’t know what things are always, and I don’t know what I want. But I know when I arrive, and I know when I should be served next. Something inside me dies a little when someone enters the shop and steps in front of me and orders first. It happens all the time in Kenya. I am standing and waiting, hoping to ask for a bag of milk, practicing the Kiswahili in my mind, ‘Maziwa moja, tafadhali’, a bag of milk, and people enter and step in front of me and get served first. Like Harry Potter, I feel as though I am wearing my invisibility cloak. They see me and then step in front of me. I am too polite to say anything, but it hurts a little.
It happens all the time and I don’t like it. I have an innate sense of fairness, a sense of order, and something seems broken when someone else pushes into your time and space and takes it from you makes it theirs.
I am from Buffalo, New York, not New York, New, York, but today my New Yorker escaped unexpectedly. I was waiting at the busy counter in the Xerox Shop on campus, the Documentation Center, and I was waiting and waiting. I was next to a small female student and the two of us were invisible. Well, not invisible, but we were polite and patient. Sweat was pouring down my back in the cramped and hot shop, and my glasses were fogging over near my nose. It was crowded and stuffy and there was no rhyme or reason for who was served by the one woman running the only machine in use. As I stood at the counter with the patient student a group of four entered, went around the side of the counter, and were served first. They each had jobs to be copied. Then a woman entered, clearly faculty, and went behind the counter and was served ahead of us. Then another faculty member entered and had her entire register book Xeroxed one page at a time. Then some boys entered and again walked around us and pushed their way to be served next. Twenty five minutes passed.
And then it happened. We were ignored again when an elderly man entered and handed his job over our heads to the worker who ran the machine. As she turned her back and placed his job in the machine I heard myself shout ‘HAPANA!’ That means ‘NO!’ in Kiswahili. Everyone turned and looked. Again I yelled ‘HAPANA!’ In English I said ‘HAPANA, this girl has been waiting longer than I have and she is next, and then it is my turn.’ It was silent and awkward for a moment.
Reluctantly my job was completed, before the girl who was waiting before me, who was slowly served, and I left in a muddle, contemplating kindergarten thoughts about ‘fairness’, and ‘wait your turn’ and ‘let others go first’ and patience in general.
‘HAPANA!’ I shouted in a packed Copy Store in Kenya. It felt good.