On my last trip to Northern Kenya, I spent one night out in the desert and it changed my understanding of a story I have heard since I was a young child. We arrived at a small village not too far south of the Ethiopian border in the afternoon. In the local language, the town’s name means ‘windy’, and it could not have been more accurate. It was flat in all directions, volcanic rocks and thorny shrubs littered the landscape, and the wind was a constant presence.
After our meetings were done, we checked in at our hotel – one of two in this town on the main (though still dirt) road from the south to the north. The hotel was six simple rooms in a line, a latrine, and a shower room, all surrounded by a wire fence beyond the generous rock yard. Each room had two simple twin beds, each with a pillow, a towel, a bar of soap, and a portion of toilet paper. Simple, but clean and thoughtfully laid out. That night a feast of goat (100% free range and organic) was roasted over the open fire, which we shared from common plates with our hands. And then I turned in for the night, placing the stone behind my door to keep it closed since there was no latch.
Half of my hotel room. And this is with the wide-angle lens.
At 3:15 am, I suddenly awoke to the sound of voices and a rock scrapping on concrete. My door was being opened. Groggy but suddenly wide-eyed, I called out to the person pushing my door open.
“We heard there was a bed available in a room with a woman. There are two women who have just arrived and both hotels are full.”
Well, yes, there was a bed available. Not knowing quite what to do, I said as much and promptly cleared the bed of my things (I had been using as a make-shift dresser), and crawled back into my bed to await the arrival of my new roommates.
My groggy mind was filled with random thoughts. Did I not pay for this room? They must have come in on one of the cars that travels through the night – much cooler than during the day. Where had they come from and where were they going? Does the whole village know that there is exactly one mzungu (white person) woman and the exact room where she is staying? If it was me, I would be so grateful to share a room with a stranger too. And, mostly, I was just stunned.
Twenty minutes later the two women arrived, closed the little window, curled up in the twin bed, and promptly fell asleep. The next morning I left before they woke, so I never actually met the women that were my roommates for four hours, but I doubt I will ever forget them.
Since I was a child, I have heard the stories of Mary, Joseph, and the birth of baby Jesus. When Mary was pregnant, they traveled to Bethlehem and there was no room in the inn. An innkeeper made room for them in the stables. By squeezing them in where there was a bit of space, he provided for a woman who labored and gave birth to a child. Although I have shared my home with many (beds and floors), I have never been woken by strangers in a hotel room. I cannot help but wonder if this was more like the story of Christmas than I had ever before imagined.
Strangers helping. Shared spaces. Confused thoughts. Unknown roommates. Midnight awakenings. Star-filled nights.
This year, the Christmas story came alive for me, and as I await Epiphany, I keep wondering what it would have been like if I had stayed longer in that windy town in my shared room.