I am terrified of two things: Snakes. Dentists. And maybe not necessarily in that order. But the gap between the two is quite skinny.
I was about 11 years old when my mother took me to a dentist in downtown Nairobi. I thought we were headed to one of those back-alley salons where radio-shows ring out via shrill sounding boxy machines and ladies rap ki-jaluo as they pull and manipulate your hair into a semblance of braids.
We arrived at the dentist’s at about lunchtime. She seemed rushed. She was an older lady of Indian descent. I sat in her chair and she never spoke to me, only to my mother. I was nervous, and I clasped my hands together in front of me as I often do because of nerves. I wished she would look at me and send a reassuring smile my way.
She was complaining to her assistant or receptionist or to someone I could not see about ‘letting people in at lunchtime’. I don’t think we had an appointment.
She proceeded to dip a large silver instrument in my mouth, attacking my teeth. She pushed, prodded, stood up to get leverage and put her back into it. She pulled out some/one (it felt like 4 but was likely only 1). I had teared up, fear clogging my throat, choking back the blood that was gathering in the back of my mouth.
She packed some gauze strips into the cavity left by the tooth she had unceremoniously extracted, instructed my mother on the upkeep of the situation and then had her assistant show us out. Quickly. It all happened in about 15 minutes.
I was petrified.
We boarded our matatu to go home and suddenly my mouth filled with blood.
Every time I enter a dentist’s office, I am hit with that memory of the strong smell of iron and I grimace, feeling light-headed. Tellingly, the only place where I do not crack jokes or attempt to lighten the situation is in the dentist’s office. Not in the chair but as soon as I enter the office. My hands get sweaty, my heart palpitates, my brain imagines my mouth filling with blood like it did years ago in that Number 48 matatu. My mom didn’t know what to do. I recall staring at her and crying silently, tears rolling down my cheeks. The makanga rushed out (we had not left the stage) and came back with a large brown-packed roll of cotton wool he had hastily bought from one of the hawkers near the stage.
I still remember this day too clearly. I still remember that Dentist.