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The people of Oklahoma, and the stories they tell

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Mercy Adhiambo
Mercy Adhiambo

Three weeks ago, my flight touched down at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City at exactly 12.43 a.m.  I was coming from a health journalism conference in Cleveland, Ohio, and it took close to eight hours to connect between the two cities – almost the same time I had spent on my journey from Nairobi, Kenya, to Amsterdam when I was coming to America on March 18.

The journey to Oklahoma City was fraught with many twists and turns, both literally and metaphorically. Bad weather, jammed air traffic and a possible tornado caused flights to be diverted, twice, and passengers’ schedules were severally changed to fit into the airline’s program. 

“Oklahoma has never been predictable … you should be ready for anything,” the old man seated next to me said when I told him I was coming here for the first time.

The landing was rough.

Before our descent, the pilot warned that it was going to be very turbulent and shaky. This was after he had spent several minutes hovering around the airport trying to find a landing opportunity amid what he termed as “unpredictable conditions.”

Sometimes, he would go low and we would anticipate the landing, only for him to make a sharp ascent, flap up and go higher.

I had a window seat, and from the distance, I could see Oklahoma City.

From a birds-eye view, Oklahoma at night is a sea of brightly lit buildings clustered together; illuminating the skyline. When you are on a high angle in the blackness of dusk, this big city shrinks into a rhapsody of dancing lights that intensify when you get closer.

It is beautiful!

The landing was steep, rapid and shaky. A child seated behind me let out a shriek when the turbulence got severe. The man next to me grasped his seatbelt tightly.

The plane’s wheels hit the ground, glided on the runway, and then with a slow hum to the gate, it stopped.

I had arrived in Oklahoma City!

The old man who was seated next to me shook his head while getting his carry-on luggage and said:

“These people are crazy…”

I asked: “Why do you say that? Is it because of the delays?”

He paused for a moment and said: “There was no tornado or unpredictable weather … they just didn’t want to serve us beverages like they should in flights … so they just hit the clouds intentionally.”

I smiled and said: “Really! Why do you say that?”

He picked up his small suitcase and said: “They had to put us through all that turbulence to make us believe it is too dangerous for them to give us coffee. I mean, I know the budget cuts have hit everyone, but come on…!”

He shook his head, walked unsteadily off the plane and disappeared into the chilling cold that awaited us outside.

I found his thoughts hilarious, and far-fetched. But somehow, his cynicism gave me a glimpse of the shifts and changes Oklahoma is battling. Through that man, I was able to get a little prelude of what I could encounter here.

There is always uncertainty and fear whenever people are faced with things that shake their comfort. Things like loss of jobs, reduced income and not knowing how tomorrow will unfold have a way of weaving mistrust, worry and cynicism.

When you do not understand what is going on around you, the temptation to weave your own reality and truths can be overwhelming.

I’ve come to realize Oklahoma is going through a bit of a tough time economically, and you only need to interact with the vulnerable to see how deep the fear is.

I saw uncertainty in the eyes of the old man, and I continually recognize that look among several people I have interacted with in my brief stay here.

The day I arrived, I hired a taxi to take me to my apartment downtown. The driver was a young man, maybe in his late 20s, who told me that he met and fell deeply in love with a girl from Oklahoma when she walked into his computer shop in Texas to have her Mac book repaired.

He narrated how they talked while he configured her computer and, by the time she was leaving, they had developed a connection.

A few months later, after several chats on phone and Facebook, he said he sold his business, put his dog on his truck and drove to Oklahoma City to pursue the direction the love they shared would lead him.

When I commented about how impressive that was, he smiled and said: “It didn’t work out. We broke up but I decided to stay. Oklahoma is different, and I love it.”

He didn’t explain what “different” meant. Maybe he wanted me to experience it for myself. However, as the taxi snaked its way towards the sleepy downtown, I was hit by just how different it was from my country’s capital, Nairobi.

Nairobi never sleeps. We wake up to incessant sounds of buses hooting while the touts managing them yell the route numbers. We fall asleep to the same sound, sometimes interrupted by gunshots of police and robbers engaging in combat.

 The smaller public transport vehicles are always fitted with booming speakers and elaborate graffiti that attempt to address issues of oppression, art, politics and sex.

Kenya’s capital never goes to slumber. It is fast. It is furious. We have learned to cross roads when vehicles are speeding by. Nairobi is wild! 

Oklahoma, on the other hand, presented me with a stark contrast. It was peaceful in a way that was scary and unreal.

It was quiet, apart from the driver chattering about his lost soulmate, the friends he believes led to the interruption of their beautiful love story, and his occasional mumbling along to Poco’s “Keep on Trying” that was playing on repeat in his car radio.

When I got into my room, on the 14th floor of a high-rise building downtown, I peeped outside and saw a different Oklahoma City.

There were many construction signs, freshly painted buildings standing defiantly in the abandoned night, a random homeless person staggering on the alley with a cigarette propped carelessly on his lips. Almost like Nairobi, but distinctly different.

To me, Oklahoma, at least the downtown side, personified a city going through changes. It is going through a reconstruction, piecing a new narrative and dusting up from those that are etched in its history, like the bombing that I read about so deeply when I first learned that I will come here.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Oklahoma, beyond all, is the people I meet daily. And the stories they tell me. Strangely, I never focus so much on the ones they verbalize. I feel like the most beautiful thing about the people who make up Oklahoma, are things they don’t talk about in detail –

The story behind the words…

I memorize their stories, ponder about them, and marvel at how much going to an unfamiliar place can teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. 

Mercy Adhiambo is a Kenyan journalist with the Standard Group, the oldest national newspaper in Kenya. She reports on human interest stories, with a focus on topics around the marginalized in the country, crime and religion. She will be working with The Oklahoman until September as part of the Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellowship program, which brings journalists from developing countries to the U.S. to experience how newsrooms in America work. She has been a reporter for four years.

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