Tonight I drove our large white van, our matatu, from the shores of the Ohio River in Kentucky back to the hotel in Cincinnati by the University. The vehicle overflowed with boisterous joy. Sometimes this week when I drove the Kenyans at the end of the night they spoke softly in Kiswahili, the sounds of thoughtful discourse rumbling in the van behind me. Austin has a distinctive voice, deep with texture, and he often speaks quietly and intensely. I can understand the odd word here or there, a rough idea forming slightly in my mind, but mostly I let my mind float as I drive. I think of my father driving a station wagon full of children after a day of adventures, and I know that sometimes we were still wound up after the event and the car would be filled with joyful voices. At other times we were soft and thoughtful, lacking the need to speak.
I think of this as I drive, and my family speaks Kiswahili and I am content.
Sometimes the van can be silent, with individuals lost in thought or lost in mobile telephones. The voices can be just a murmur, indistinct, meant to share private thoughts, when Kiswahili protects and surrounds. I love those sounds.
Tonight was loud, and it was not an American loud. It was Kenyan loud, with Kenyan laughter dominating. Kenyans laugh so fully, so openly, and they laugh together and I relish the love of this togetherness. This is real. We are in America and we are together and this is real. Austin Opata was on a roll, and he shared a 20 minute monologue, the entire drive back to the hotel a non-stop series of jokes and observations. He couldn’t stop. He was like a stand up comedian, working the van, topping each joke with one even richer, and I smiled the entire time, when I wasn’t laughing along. I laughed at the love of life; I laughed because they laughed, I laughed because he is funny. Some was in English, much wasn’t, and it didn’t matter. These people laugh better than I do, more deeply and more easily, and much more regularly. I am too serious, and I envy their contented joy. I hear Austin say ‘Today is today’. He is right. And then they laugh again, louder and even longer. ‘Aaaiiyyyeeee,’ a sound I hear and can’t write. And more laughter.
The riverboat ride on the Ohio River was exhilarating. I felt young. I danced, I laughed, I saw America through fresh eyes, and I appreciated today. I watch these young men and women and I envy how they engage with the world. Their engagement makes the world smile at them, and they invite laughter and connection with the moment. I watched Babu make friends with a Texan named Mike. By the end of the night Mike made a gift of a selfie stick to Babu. I watched them dance to country music with strangers, openly embracing the sounds and sights, making laughter the universal language. They grab life and swing it in a circle.
We danced on the upper deck, and Cincinnati posed for us. The views of the skyline from the boat, with rippling neon shadows dancing on the waves, seemed painted especially for our Kenyan guests. The city has never looked so bright.
I ran down the two flights of stairs on the boat to go to the rest room. We shared the boat tonight with a bus load of senior citizens, and they were gathered quietly on the first level at the front of the boat, far from the upper deck, far from the music, far from our laughter. A woman was asleep in her walker chair. No one was talking. It felt like they were sentenced to wait, eager to leave, hoping the trip would end. I felt young and I wished I would never grow old. Older.
I ran back up the stairs, to the bright lights, the warm air, the laughter, and the dancing. We danced the Babu in a circle, round and round, sillier and sillier, now, now, now.
Today is today.