One dreary, icy, unpleasant-to-be-outside January day, I laced up my shoes and dragged myself unenthusiastically onto the treadmill at my local gym. Sighing, I jabbed at the buttons on the machine to start yet another long, boring workout and stared out of the dark windows at the gray day. I turned on my portable cassette player, and as African drums filled my ears, I found a rhythm in my stride.
I began to daydream about Kitale, Kenya, where I had grown up, and decided to play a little game with myself. I imagined the road that led up to my house in Kitale, and I mentally traced the path along a five-mile route that I had run many times as a young girl, in training for field hockey.
Ironically, the field hockey, which had been my sole motivation for running in school, had disappeared from my life. But the habit of running stayed and became part of my daily routine.
As the treadmill churned beneath me, I envisioned the red dirt puffing under my feet. I mentally ran up the hill and turned the corner, passing the houses hidden behind the protective hedges that everyone in my neighborhood grew around their compounds. I saw the flame trees that grew along the road, my feet sliding a little on the brilliant orange blossoms that fall beneath the trees.
Kenyan children, reclining on the grass outside their various houses, popped up and greeted me with little calls of "Jambo, mzungu!" ("Hello, white person!") Some, wanting to practice the English they were learning in school, cried out, "How are you?" I smiled to myself, remembering how I had waved and called back, "I am fine, watoto (children), how are you?" The treadmill beeped, and to my surprise, I realized my usually torturous exercise session was already over. I was ecstatic to have discovered a new way to beat the treadmill blues.
I continued this mental journey every time I climbed onto that treadmill, all through the long winter. Spring finally came, and I raced outside for my runs, feeling like a kid being let out of school for summer vacation.
Though I was no longer bound to the treadmill, I still sometimes played the game of running through Kitale, reveling in outdoor paths that reminded me of Kenya. Though I loved my life here in America, I still often ached with homesickness for Africa. I imagined what it would be like to run that road again for real, and decided to start saving my money for a trip "home."
And this is why, six long years later, I am stepping out of my house in Kitale for real, ready to run the route I have envisioned for so long. I pause, breathing in the fragrance of the wet morning grass, and look around my yard, feeling my memory awaken and acknowledge what has been in my mind for so many years.
I open the black iron gate to the house and step out into the red mud road, gazing up the hill of my dreams. I begin trotting up the hill, my eyes greedily taking in the little details that I had forgotten on my imaginary runs.
When a little Kenyan girl waves and chirps, "How are you?" in her clipped, precise English, I beam at her, skip a little, and shout, "I am fine, mtoto (child), how are you?" She falls back onto the grass, giggling, and I keep on running, feeling as though I could fly. My feet skim over the flame tree blossoms, and I stop long enough to scoop one up, pressing it to my nose and inhaling deeply.
When I am almost finished with my run, I hear a rumble of thunder and realize I had forgotten about the daily rain shower that hits Kitale at about 2 p.m. every day during the rainy season. The heavens open, and I speed up as heavy rain pelts my skin. I feel the empty, homesick place inside me lift and I begin to cry, tears of gratitude and pure joy sliding down my cheeks as I feel that hollow spot fill up.
I run back through the gate to the house and stand dripping outside on the veranda. I wipe away the tears and rain mixed on my face, thinking about how I cannot stay here forever, in this country that is so much a part of me. I know that I will have to go back to my "real" life soon, yet this fact does not devastate me, for I realize now that my home, my Kenya, is always just a memory away.