Whenever she had the choice, my mother preferred taking the train over the arduous six-hour bus ride, or even the elitist hour-long flight from Mombasa to the capital city of Nairobi. 

The East Africa Railway, engineered by the British in 1896 and largely built by immigrant Indians, was responsible for the exodus that brought my ancestors to Kenya. It represents, even now, the romanticism of colonialism -- a different type of mechanical snake, one which undulated through the verdant land its creators once tried, albeit in vain, to tame.  As the seductive plains opened like thighs, Africa enveloped us in her limbs. Years from then, in another corner of the world, even a faint smell, a flash of sight, a distant sound, would send a chill of nostalgia up some part of my body, and for a split second, standing in a crowded mall or in the elevator of some skyscraper, I felt as if I was back there; that it had somehow, miraculously, transposed itself onto my realm.

I had found freedom in geography only to be forever captured in the memories of the home I left behind.  In my dreams, I still ride the railway; listen to all the sounds and senses that are Kenya: the Swahili songs from the village women clad in colorful and light cotton batiks, delicately balancing baskets of fruits and vegetables on their heads; the urchins and villagers who kept pace with the train, awaiting the arrival of fresh customers at stations to buy their hardboiled eggs, biscuits and roasted maize pressed with lemons and chilies; at dawn, the animals of the land responding to our exhilaration with pure indifference; and upon arrival, the chaotic sounds of reunions, departures and coolies competing to ferry our luggage to the car.  And always that smell, that distinct perfume of Kenya, a smell of salt as the breeze came off the ocean, of food cooking on wood fires and mingling with diesel smoke, of the sweat of hard labor everywhere.

As we chugged along such a journey, my mother could always be counted on to tell me two things.  That it was on such a ride one balmy evening, albeit in reverse direction, that I had been conceived, a story which increased detail and waned in credibility. 

“You know,” she said, her eyes widening and one hand flipping up to express amazement. “We never even had, you know, proper intercourse!”

She maintained that on that life-altering night, simple peripheral contact had impregnated her, lending an almost mythic prowess to their virility and a sense of destiny to my close-to-immaculate conception. 

“Your father and I, all we had to do was touch each other and I would become pregnant!”

Contrary to expectation, such details never made me feel even faintly uncomfortable. Rather, they served to inspire me in finding such a marvelous love story of my own.

Perhaps the memory of their lovemaking that night is why melancholy would unfailingly seize her at certain points along the journey and she could be found staring out the window at the fleeting land, her tongue struck silent in her mouth; like she was, years after my father’s demise, reliving that very experience in the same compartment.  It was the same look that came upon her when, listening to an old cassette of filmi music on what we called an impressive 3-in-1 (radio, tape and record player), a song that my father had loved would come on unexpectedly. At such  moments, it was enough just to look at her and know that so much of her innocence, her idealism of love, her zeal for life (a part of herself) had also died with him. At these moments she is completely lost to world that has carried on without his existence, and she could not fathom why.

The other thing she liked to tell me, and which only worked when I was a child, was that if I didn’t obey her by finishing everything on my plate, the two legendary man-eating lions which had killed over a hundred people during the construction of the great railway would tear in through the compartment’s formidable window and gobble me up instead.  I was a scrawny child and she blamed me for making her look bad since all her in-laws had to do was take one look at me and accuse her of starvation.

"There," she said, one hand hoisted up to my mouth with a hillock of rice and the other pointing out to the impenetrable darkness beyond the window, "I think I see them right now."