Ever since we were college roommates, Sarah had wanted to visit and see where I grew up, especially Mwanza, Tanzania. Five years later, she was in Nairobi and we had bus tickets for that night.
But earlier that week, we had gotten food poisoning on safari in the Maasai Mara. We realized our stomachs were not up for a 12-hour overnight bus ride. The food was coming out of the end that you can’t very well lean out of a window without, well, consequences.
I tried to get through to customer care to move our tickets, but each time I called, the call dropped instead of putting me on hold. (I later found out that the help line was down whenever the electric or internet cut out at headquarters.)
We both got on antibiotics and I booked new tickets for the following day online. I got a message saying the payment confirmation I had received did not count as a ticket. We tried to pass by the office, but downtown Nairobi was so crazy and crowded that Sarah was getting anxious. We couldn’t find any parking and we hadn’t finished packing, so we decided to arrive a little early to the station to pick up the tickets.
A few hours later, we piled into a taxi with our luggage, and found ourselves in a very busy part of downtown Nairobi at 8pm at a hole-in-the-wall office. I had hoped for a nice waiting room like the one I’d used with a comparable coach company last time. Downtown Nairobi is notoriously unsafe, especially after dark and as white girls. Just the previous week someone had slit my backpack and stolen my phone downtown in broad daylight. Our return trip was supposed to arrive back here at 2am. I was nervous, but I figured it was too late now.
I showed my payment confirmation and was informed that they had received my money, but they had gotten a new online system six days ago and some online and Mpesa payments were not showing up. So our seats had been sold to someone else! The next seats available were several days later, so I got back in the car and said, “Sarah, we’re not going to Mwanza tonight.”
Back home, we evaluated our options: a cheaper bus company and changing buses at the border or an expensive flight with an overnight layover in Dar es Salaam. We compromised and booked an online shuttle to Arusha and a flight from Arusha to Mwanza. At 8am the next morning, we were on the shuttle, and I was texting everyone I knew in Arusha for recommendations of where to stay.
When we arrived, I discovered that I couldn’t buy a local SIM card because the shops were closed on Sunday, and for the Eid holiday on Monday. I borrowed someone’s phone to call a college friend and got a taxi to meet her at a café. The café had wifi, so I could take Whatsapp calls. “What if we don’t have a place to stay?” I worried. I took a deep breath: “Trust God.”
A local missionary family told me that they were now mostly living in Kenya. However, they had arrived that day from out of town. Their house was an explosion of packing to travel again the next day with guests, but they offered us the one empty room in their guest house! I’d met a Muslim friend last year through a mutual friend, and she invited us to join her family that night for a goat barbeque to celebrate Eid!
In the thirty minutes between dropping our things off at the guest house and going out for Eid dinner, I asked another missionary family on the compound about lodging on the way back. She offered her phone number, but I said I didn’t have a SIM card. Then she offered me a spare SIM card! The Muslim family picked us up for dinner and stopped by a supermarket, where I was able to get phone credit.
We sat on the back porch of a family I had met only once a year earlier, feasting on nyama choma (goat). The family cracked jokes, translated for us, and invited us to sample delicacies like lychees and saffron ice cream. They all piled in the van to escort us home. Cruising through Arusha after dark as we blasted Hindi beats, I was brimming with joy and gratitude.
The next morning, our flight on Precision Air – notorious for its delays and cancellations – had no hiccups. Sarah’s only disappointment about our original itinerary had been not getting to see Kilimanjaro, and we had found out it was usually too cloudy to see from the ground anyway. But because we ended up having to fly, our plane seats gave her an incredible view!
We ended up with only 48 hours in Mwanza, but I managed to show Sarah all the people and places I’d hoped to. My Muslim childhood friends there were from a different part of Islam, so they were celebrating Eid the night we showed up! We enjoyed another family barbecue and meaningful conversations about Eid and elder care. They told us they’d travelled with the same bus company from Nairobi and their return tickets had been sold to someone else. They’d also been told there was a new system only six days old – two weeks ago!
The next day, Sarah got to see the Bible school where my parents taught, which was in session and a good friend was teaching. We met the pastor and his wife, as well as another dean who happened to be visiting. We toured my house – at the last minute we got permission from the current residents – and ate dinner with dear Tanzanian friends. I showed Sarah where my family sailed on Lake Victoria, and she bought local fabric to sew into a dress to wear for my wedding – in faith!
On the morning before our return flight, we squeezed in a tour of my school and bumped into a friend’s mom. “Are you ever in Arusha?” she said, “My daughter is there now.” I had assumed she was living in Dar, but I got her number. A few hours later, we were having lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years! She was still the same funny and sweet friend I’d remembered, and Sarah loved meeting her. I had one gift left in my luggage – a copy of my book. It turned out she’d followed my book release very closely and it happened to be her birthday. What a perfect gift!
The missionaries were surprised when we showed up at the guest house, because they had been expecting us the following night. I must have been frazzled and confused the dates when I came through earlier! But the guest house had space so they graciously put us up anyway.
After Sarah and I arrived home, the missionary found out that the shuttle we’d taken was actually a scam posing as the shuttle we intended to book in order to steal their customers. It turns out the real shuttle didn’t have online bookings at all!
Just before this trip, I’d been reminded of how God leads us step by step and weaves together threads of our experiences in ways we only realize in hindsight. This experience reminded me that in God’s providence, our detours can be providential:
If we hadn’t gotten food poisoning, we would have taken the bus, and who knows what would have happened downtown at 2am in Nairobi. If our tickets hadn’t been double booked, we wouldn’t have gotten to see Mount Kilimanjaro or experience such incredible hospitality – including double Eid dinners and reunions with both college and high school friends! If it hadn’t been for the scammers, we wouldn’t have been able to book a shuttle online the night before at 9:30pm. I’m not sure I want to credit God with planning that, but he somehow used even the bad things for our good!
Usually I like to control and plan out my life, but on this trip I had to take it a step at a time and just trust God to get us to the next stop. God provided everything we needed – but not a moment too soon. Yet if everything had gone according to plan, we would have missed so many opportunities to say “WOW God” along the way, whether it was the gift of a SIM card, the hug that was ten years overdue, or the majesty of the mountain rising above the clouds. Maybe in the rest of my life, I need to take a deep breath and say “Trust God”.