She wasn’t at all beautiful, not in any way, I thought. But there was an attractiveness about her, a pleasantness that, though it could not make up for her total lack of beauty, still had a certain charm.
She illuminated everything on her path with a charm that made everyone roll with her vibe. I couldn’t notice her on the first day primarily because she was un-present; in that, her presence didn’t make an impression on me at all.
But then I did. Maybe it was the second or third day. She had bumped on me during tea break. She wanted some honey and as she reached for it, she hit my tea mug unintentionally. Not much of the tea spilled on me but the mere act drew my attention to her. She had her badge hanging by her neck and from the tag, I made her name as Liz. Liz Laleti.
“I am so sorry,” she profusely apologized to me as she reached for a serviette to clean up the tidy mess she had created.
I set down my cup and looked at her smiling, at least to reassure her.
“Its okay,” I said as I took the serviette she was offering to clean up my hand that had been holding my cup.
“Must be the pressure of the presentation coming up…” I continued.
She looked calmer as one of the waitresses came with a mop to clean up the spot on the floor the tea had spilled. She was smiling.
“My name is Liz, Laleti,” she said as she smilingly stretched her hand to me.
I took it and looking into her eyes, introduced myself.
“…. And I am Kelvin, Mtwana.”
“I think I saw your name on the programme, that’s why I referred to it earlier.”
“Yes, I am doing a presentation on contemporary development models and the most applicable ones to developing countries of Sub Saharan Africa. I am so sorry for spilling tea on you.”
“It’s okay. It was a small accident, good thing no one is calling an ambulance for me.”
She laughed. The kind of laughter that involved a stretched smile and an inaudible voice because she was covering her mouth with a handkerchief. She then set down her cup and looked towards me.
“I need to go and do some final touches to my presentation. I hope we can bump into each other later.”
“I hope so too. Please don’t spill anything on me when we do.”
“I will do my best not to. Thank you. See you later.” And she left.
That was our first encounter. The first of the only three we had during the entire three weeks I was in Cape Town.
The second one would happen after her presentation. I was seated on tables among those at the front and I could see her eyes darting around until they settled on me. She smiled and looked elsewhere as if she hadn’t even seen me. But immediately after, I sensed a bit of settlement of her eyes. From their corners, she could see me and I figured that settled her anxiety.
As I was headed out for lunch after a lengthy discussion of Rostow and other economic rockstars, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Looking back, I was met by a smile I didn’t expect.
“Hey, how did I do?” she asked as she caught my stride and started walking side by side with me.
“You weren’t that bad,” I responded and smiled at her.
“haha, I expected that based on our earlier encounter.”
“You were magnificent. You seemed to understand, in depth, what you were moderating on.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I do. Where did you go to school?”
“I did my undergraduate at Dar Es Salaam University, my MSc at the University of Nairobi and I am pursuing my Doctorate at the London School of Economics,” she responded in a way that radiated pride and achievement.
“That’s quite an academic background. What about work?” I asked before we joined the queue that led to the serving tables.
“I have been in academia mostly but I recently joined ICRAF as head of Research. I have talked too much about myself. What about you? What’s your background?”
“I don’t think I have achieved as much as you have but I recently graduated with my second MSC in Development Economics. My first was on Geographical Information Systems with a specific focus on mapping economic indicators. I have studied in South Africa all along but I recently got an offer to do my Ph.D. at Oxford. However, I couldn’t manage to do so because of commitments elsewhere.” I responded as I picked up a hot towel from one of the waiters.
When she didn’t respond, I looked back to find her staring at me disbelievingly.
“Is anything the matter?” I asked.
“Is that what you call a lack of achievement?” she asked as she took a wet towel to clean her hands.
She smiled coyly, but then again, I had only ever seen her smile once, some hours back. She was never caught staring at someone, though I had caught her looking towards my direction earlier. Here she was, donned in elegant sharpness, wit, and intelligence that was threatened by my achievements or lack of them thereof. The way she looked at me was very observant. As if she was studying every single bit of me until she had a picture of them wherever she went.
Her hands were small, but I am sure that through them, big things had passed through. They tended to disappear in the white towel as she cleansed them of imagined impurities, germs, and filthy organisms. She was articulate when she addressed me next.
“I am impressed. You are too subtle.”
The lunch felt like a first date. Giggles, interest in knowing about each other, leaning ins when someone was making a point, blushes when I complimented her hair, or her brow, or her command of English… At times, unconsciously, she fidgeted, adjusting the strap of her dress and applying another coat of wetness to her already moisturized lips.
The third encounter was on my door, on the last day of the conference, with her leaning against the door frame and me opening up at 11 pm.
She looked ravishing in a strapless black dress, a matching clutch bag, red heels, and redder lips. An aura of thrill and adventure emanated from her mere presence.