On that day that I left for my first ever trip to Egypt, my sister Gish escorted me to the airport. She always did this back then. Whenever I was traveling out of the country, papa would pray, then Gish, myself and any other visitors who happened to be visiting us at that time would pile into Ngash’s taxi - it was one of those black London taxis - and we would drive off from Umoja to the airport.
That day, after they waved bye through the glass walls at the airport, Ngash dropped them back home.
My boss Charles Sebukeera was also flying on the same flight, which made me a bit nervous. Although he was quite easygoing, he was still my boss, so there was a mountain of respect between us.
When the history of Africa’s environmental assessment is written (maybe I should write it one day?), Charles will be one of the top three lead characters in that book. He has been part of Africa’s environmental assessment journey for almost three decades now.
That morning as we waited to board, Charles and I talked a bit about the Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, whose production I was spearheading, then strolled into the Egypt Air plane and disappeared into our respective seats.
When we landed in Cairo, I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was in Egypt! The land of pyramids. I could literally hear my heart beating in my chest. Even before reaching the immigration desk, I instantly texted Papa to tell him that I had landed in Egypt. Then I looked behind me and smiled at the three men and one lady who were behind me in the queue.
“Is it your first time here too?” I asked the guy immediately behind me. He had a shaggy beard and professor spectacles. And a deep frown that he instantly dished out after grunting a singular word, ‘no.’
We matched out of the airport right into the welcoming party’s smiling faces and outstretched hands. Two gentlemen ushered us into a black car and we drove off into the open arms of Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak’s photos were everywhere - on the billboard, sidewalks, building walls - everywhere. During the first decade of his reign, Kenya’s former President Moi’s photos had also been everywhere but not to this extent.
Looking at President Mubarak’s photos caused me to remember about his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat. He had led Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. He is one of my favourite presidents from Africa, with my all-time favorite being the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso.
President Sadat once said that, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, make any progress.” Can I hear an Amen to that? If you desire progress in your own individual life, your community or country at large, focus on changing the fabric of your thought.
After checking in into a swanky hotel, I literally jogged into an elevator, as if afraid that it would leave without me and I would miss my room. Thankfully, my room was waiting for me when I matched into it two minutes later. I felt as if the walls had an extra shine to them. The room seemed happy to see me. The large bed cajoled me to lie in it instantly, which is exactly what I did. Within seconds, I leapt up and dashed to the window to see Cairo, half-expecting to see some pyramids in the distance. I was particularly eager to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was the tallest man-made structure on earth for over 3,800 years. Makes me wonder if the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, will still be holding this record after 3,800 years! It may not even survive for a fraction of that time. Time will tell.
Of course I didn’t see any pyramids from my window. Just nondescript buildings that could have been in Nairobi or Lagos. But I felt the thrilling vibes of being in Cairo, Africa's largest and oldest city. I couldn't help but agree with the Bantu Poet Bwak, who wrote that, 'like the Nile that flows through it, Cairo glows with shimmering life.'
From the corner of my eyes, I noticed a TV remote on a shiny wooden study table. It was one of those big remotes with one million buttons on them. After a long search, I found the power button, pressed it and smiled with satisfaction when the TV came on and poured out an avalanche of Arabic. I increased the volume, eager to soak in as much Arabic as I could.
The following day, I met amazing young North Africans who were attending the Africa Environment Outlook for youth meeting that I was leading. There was Saada from Sudan; Medhat, Shaimaa, Suhayla, Asmaa and Mahmoud from Egypt; Sofian from Tunisia; Khaled from Libya and Muhammad from Morocco.
Shaimaa had a cheeky glint in her eyes that mirrored mine. My heart instantly whispered to my mind that Shaimaa and I belonged to the same emotional tribe. For the five days that I was in Cairo, our eyes locked several times and uttered words that our mouths couldn’t or wouldn’t. She was my protector in the busy, crowded streets of Cairo. Whenever we had to cross the crazy roads, she would practically hold my hand as Mahmoud kept vigil. These two were utterly incredible. I owe my enduring love of Cairo to them.
Sofian from Tunisia was a big, quiet guy. Probably had the spirit of an elephant hiding somewhere in his soul. I would have told him this but he only spoke French and Arabic. Back then, I hadn’t started learning French, so the only French phrase I knew was 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' I definitely wouldn’t use this on Sofian. Google its meaning.
Then there was Sohayla from Egypt. The dimple on her right cheek injected an extra sparkle into her smile. Even now, ten years later, I can still see that smile glistening from a corner of my mind. I can also clearly see Asmaa another Egyptian lady, shy but quite cheeky. Her tender voice has stubbornly refused to depart from my ears. Mohammad Hassan, her country mate, was a bearded young man who could easily have won the title of the most jovial in the group. He was one of those people whose faces are permanently in smile mode. Leading this team as the north African sub-regional coordinator was Medhat Nagi, a recently graduated lawyer. He had a calm soul that helped in shepherding the occasionally boisterous meeting. The final member of the team was Mayar Sabet, who was the editor of the youth publication that this youth process was going to produce. Her deeply analytical mind was a marvel.
This was the dynamic team of young North-Africans who ended up writing a critical chapter of their region’s environmental story. I was privileged to lead and partake in this endeavor. And to exchange those sparkling looks with Shaimaa as our eyes spoke in a beautiful language that our tongues couldn't taste.
Dahlia and Suzanna from CEDARE, were amazing hosts. Their story will come soon. CEDARE was and still is, UNEP’s Collaborating Center in North Africa.