I’d been hospitalized for five days with pneumonia, serious at my age of 92, and then sent for rehab to a skilled nursing facility at the life-care community where I live. In the small hours of the morning, on the first night I was there, the ceiling light in my room clicked on and a voice with a familiar accent said, “Good morning!”
I squinted in the glaring light. The night nurse was smiling down at me, teeth gleaming in a friendly face framed by waves of black hair. Her name tag swung on a cord around her neck.
I sat up and blinked. No wonder I had recognized the clipped British accent. Eddah Ngugi. I knew from her name that she was a Kikuyu from Kenya, where I had lived almost 60 years earlier when my husband was in the Foreign Service. Our two years there, and subsequent long visits, had left an indelible impression of a people we loved and a country we had left reluctantly after our tour of duty was over.
I dredged up a greeting, one of the few Kikuyu phrases I remembered. “Wi mwega, Mama,” I said.
Eddah froze, the little cup of pills in her hand hovering in midair. She stared in astonishment for a moment, then burst into laughter. An elderly white woman waking up in the middle of the night, in Peabody, Massachusetts, and greeting her in Kikuyu? Who would have believed?
“I lived in Nairobi a long time ago,” I said. “And that is almost all the Kikuyu I know.”
We talked for a few minutes about places we both knew. “Where did you go in Kenya?” she asked. “I grew up in Thika. Did you go there?”
“Of course! My children’s school was on the Thika Road.” I stopped to think. “I’ve been to Nyeri and Nanyuki, Limuru and the Rift Valley, Nakuru and Kitui and Mombasa.”
As I kept reciting names, Eddah’s smile grew wider and wider, her head bobbing as she recognized the familiar places.
“I knew some of your African leaders when they were young,” I told her. “Tom Mboya, Dr. Kiano, Dr. Likimani.”
She shook her head in amazement. To her, they were legendary names.
Other patients were waiting, so Eddah picked up her tray of medications and turned toward the door. “Thii na wega,” I called after her as she was leaving. Goodbye. Go well. She was still chuckling as she went down the hall.
The next night, again in the small hours of morning, I heard “Wi mwega! Good morning!”
I looked up sleepily. Another nurse was smiling at me from behind Eddah’s shoulder.
“This is my friend Sarha,” Eddah said. “She, too, is Kikuyu from Kenya. She works on the next floor.”
Sarha and I exchanged Kikuyu greetings, and I showed off my modest vocabulary: Ni tuthii, or “Let’s get going,” and a Kikuyu blessing, Tigwo na uhoro. They could hardly contain their amusement and delight at this unexpected encounter in such an unlikely time and place.
Our nocturnal chats continued for the rest of my two-week stay in rehab. Our visits ended when I recovered and left, and I haven’t seen Eddah or Sarha again. But for me, these middle-of-the-night meetings were nostalgic reminders that took me back to a life-changing and exciting time, long before Eddah was born and in a Kenya she never knew.
Dorothy Stephens is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.