By Roy Gachuhi
At the start of my journey here, I drove myself from home to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. On stopping at the security gate where passengers are required to disembark and only the driver is allowed in the car, a very Kenyan policeman who was searching my car made small talk with me.
“Unaenda Mombasa, erh?” he asked. I don’t know what the tell-tale signs of a person going to Mombasa are and which to him I had.
“Arh-arh,” I shook my head. “Brazil.”
“Heh! Brazil?” he asked in surprise, before enquiring: “Huko ni nini kizuri utatuletea?” I was stumped. The question was in the plural: what is good there that you will bring us? I thought, and thought, and thought and I still couldn’t figure out the good thing that I would bring back to them, whoever they were. That good thing, whatever it was, was I going to bring it back to policemen, Nairobi people or Kenyans in general? Who was them?
“Tutaona,” I told him at last by way of cutting it and allowing the queue to move. We’ll see. I am now into my third week in Rio and I still cannot figure out the good thing that I will take back to them. But this much I know: I will not take back home English with a Portuguese twang. Some Kenyans who have stayed in Britain return with British twang although the most common is an American one. I have never heard anyone speak with an Indian or Chinese twang.
When my trip to Rio became a reality, I romantically thought I would master Portuguese with ease. You know, I was a little high school boy when Pele retired from football and to this day, I remember the news accounts of his testimonial match for Brazil.
MOVED HEAVEN AND EARTH
He didn’t finish the match. Somewhere during the proceedings, he collapsed on his knees and started weeping uncontrollably. He was helped back to his feet by team-mates and opponents.
Then he took off his Number 10 jersey and started a lap of honour around the stadium, with tears streaming down his face.
Over and over, as he ran, he kept saying: “Obrigado, meu povo.” It means, “Thank you, my people.” That was my first lesson in Portuguese.
Unfortunately, it is clear that it was also the last. In Rio, I have moved heaven and earth just so as to buy a soda can.
And God worked far less to create the mountains reaching for the sky out of Guanabara Bay and all of Rio de Janeiro than I have had to do just so as to buy a subway ticket. If Vinicius was not with me, I would practically be a mad person – not that I am not feeling like that already.
Preparing to make one of my interview trips, Vinicius sent me a Whatsapp message: “I believe we should meet around 1:40pm on Uruguiana station of the subway. You leave the platform but not the station, and meet me at a stand called Cacau Brasil. It’s inside the underground station.”
I went into panic mode. I wanted to appeal to Vinicius to please come for me at Casa Publica but his instructions were final. Anyway, somehow, it worked. But this much I know: If I ever figure out what I will take back home to Kenya for them, it is not a fancy Portuguese twang.
Roy Gachuhi is in Rio de Janeiro as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica, an independent Brazilian investigative journalism news agency.