Lunch with Grace



Today I’m having a long lunch with Grace. We’re sitting in the poolside restaurant at the Hilton, where I ate yesterday: it’s got lots of green vines and shrubs and some beautiful red and bright pink flowers. It’s well shaded, though the temperature is only in the low 80’s. The menu is eclectic–curries, sandwiches, salads, and lots of fresh fruit and vegetarian dishes as well. Grace, who lives in Nairobi, has never eaten here, and is surprised by the reasonable prices. She agonizes over her choice–a club sandwich or a quiche. She finds the Western food enticing, while I appreciate the French and African dishes on the menu.

Grace is almost 50 years old, she tells me. I am surprised: she is trim, well-dressed, and has beautiful firm features. Her skin is a gleaming, dark color and her hair is — well, individual. It’s tightly braided in mini-ropes, with streaks of red. It suits her personality: she’s clearly an independent, individual woman.

I tell her I would have guessed she was 35 years old. She says, “It’s because I walk a lot. I can’t afford to get my car fixed, and so I either walk or take the bus. Most Kenyans do.”

Grace is a professional valuer. That’s not really an occupation which has a US counterpart: she values property for loans, estates, and sales. The subject property could be land, houses, even cars. She’s hired as an independent expert by people who need the service, and she often finds herself on a bus, traveling to distant communities in Kenya, to examine a piece of land or a pickup truck, and then writing a valuation report and trying to collect her fees from her client.

“Well, I had this guy yesterday,” she says. “I had to take an hour bus ride, and value his property. He said he’d pay me $400, and he put $50 down as a guarantee. I delivered the report to him this morning, and now he says he can only afford to pay me $150. I do need the money, too.”

Valuers in Kenya are an interesting lot: in order to be qualified a candidate must attened 4 years of college with a specialized course of study. Then comes a 2 year apprenticeship. Finally the candidate applies for certification, and takes an exam. Grace must renew her certificate annually to continue to practice. Right now she’s in business for herself, but she’s applied for a valuer’s position at a local bank.

“I can only stand to work for somebody else for a couple of years,” she says. “Then I go back to doing my own thing.”

“Her own thing” is being a single mom to a teenaged daughter whom she is maintaining in a private boarding school. Her daughter is her best friend, soon to graduate from secondary school and head for college. “I’ve never been married,” Grace says. “I really embarrassed my parents. They were very strict with me (and my 9 siblings) and never quite got over the fact that their youngest daughter had a child out of wedlock.”

Grace tells me that she grew up on a farm. Her father owned a string of small retail shops as well as the farm, so they were a fairly well-to-do family. “But all of us kids had to work on the farm, planting and harvesting and tending livestock. We were paid, of course. But we didn’t have any choice in the matter. I hated it.”

Two of her sisters emigrated to the US, she says. One lives in Atlanta, the other in another southern state. They are professionals, one has a nursing degree.

“Why didn’t you go with them?” I asked.

“I just didn’t want to. I love my country, and I have a way to make a living here. My parents were alive then, too, and I was growing close to them again. I just didn’t need to go that far away.”

Grace looks at her sandwich. “Wow. I talk too much. I haven’t eaten half of this, and now I am not hungry.”

“Take it home,” I say. “It will be a good dinner.”

“I’ll need it then,” she says. “I’ve got to go and see if I can get some more of my fee from my client.”


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