‘Friends’ gives me nostalgia of Nairobi Nights

Why the soothing 90’s show transports me to summers spent in Kenya.

I don’t know who laughs in all those episodes of Friends. But I would like to thank them. Whatever they’re doing, wherever they are, their hearty, let’s be frank, probably white male laughs soothe me.

The first time I ever watched Friends, as soon as I heard that laughter track – the one from my childhood – I knew I was at home. Mad isn’t it. How can I as a black Muslim woman, be instantly relaxed and instantly at home in the unattainable lives, of Ross, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe and Chandler? But I did.

Me and my siblings would spend hours glued to the television at night

I was a weird child. I grew up watching the Flintstones (I can hear a chorus of yeses) but wait for it, I also grew up watching Yogi Bear, and the Jetsons. Cartoons from another era were the only TV shows I used to watch when we went to Nairobi, where my grandmother lives. Me and my siblings would spend hours glued to the television at night, in the warm Nairobi heat, watching the only English thing we could understand.

The television was small, wooden, flickering: its aerial had to be adjusted whenever the picture would start wobbling. Outside, people would spend the late hours of the night partying, mosquitoes would buzz and our mother would tell us to get into bed, to get under the mosquito nets. Still we would sit transfixed by the neon glow, hands sticking to the linoleum beneath us.

Now with Friends, I am transported to those moments in time.

Yogi Bear

Yogi and his friend the other bears and the rangers chased each other through Technicolor landscapes. Everything was okay in the end with Yogi. He struck up an unlikely friendship with the ranger and together, they got out of death-defying situations.

All day, I would stand next to my grandmother’s stall selling clothes. I would go to mosque during lunchtime. Our mosque was surrounded by sand-coloured unfinished houses. The mosque itself was wooden. It was held together by bottle caps leftover from long-finished Fantas and Pepsis.

We would finally stumble home bellies filled, smelling like oud

We spent hours in there. Oftentimes I would read the same sura over and over to the macalin. He and his son would change roles weekly. I got away with never learning anything; simply repeating the same pages again and again.

And when we came home at night to our hotel room, there was the television, there was Yogi Bear, who would always come on in his spinning green bow tie at the same time every night. In the world of Yogi Bear everything was predictable, and certain.

Whatever he did some slapstick it would be followed by that laughter track. I often wondered who the audience was, if they knew each other, what their lives were like when they weren’t laughing at the antics of a brown bear.

Nairobi

Nairobi was hot, sweltering hot. We lived between the hotel just outside of the centre and my grandmother’s house. Everyone lived in my grandmother’s house. Cats that belonged to no-one lived in my grandmother’s house.

We would eat food, out on a kind of patio, that all the rooms would open onto. My grandmother and her friends would cook large steaming pots of rice on an open fire. At night they would cook incense, large clouds of chemicals would bluster through filling the air, and when we would finally stumble home bellies filled, smelling like oud, we would stumble through our hotel doors.

The only thing I could think about would be Yogi.

Whilst we were waiting for our turn in the small bathroom and the even smaller shower, my mother would turn on the television. Often, we would have missed the evening prayer and more importantly the evening Yogi Bear screenings and the Jetsons would play on our screens instead.

The Jetsons were a family of futuristic space humans. They whizzed around places in a little flying saucer, and lived in tall fancy skyscrapers. Often the dad would get up to some mischief with his friends, and the mum would have to fix it. Think the Flintstones but in space. Actually, I think it was drawn by the same people as the Flintstones.

Now

I was looking for things to watch on Netflix per usual and saw Friends. My eyes rolled so far into the back of my head, it took me a while to retrieve them. But it came highly recommended, so I pressed play.

A character walked into a screen. He delivered his line, another responded, the character paused and delivered his pre-delivered punchline. It was so stale it couldn’t have been funny. But, of course, the audience laughed, and laughed.

And I fell and fell into my childhood.

The pre-arranged jokes, the punchlines so obvious they could have come with a rimshot. Those same laughs echoed back into my past .

I had refused to watch Yogi Bear, Flintstones the Jetsons as an adult. Why? Well, you know when you loved something as a kid, and then later watched it as an adult, only to be disappointed? Yeah, that.  I didn’t want those Nairobi nights to be tainted forever.

I wait to be teleported each night to the city my grandmother still lives in to those people, to those streets, to those memories.

So, I’m glad for Ross and for Rachel, for Chandler and Phoebe, for Monica and the handful of rotating black extras (I see you). I don’t watch Friends for the plot, or even the characters – frankly they’re not as interesting as they think they are.

I wait on the edge of my seat, for the moment the laughter begins. I wait to be teleported each night to the city my grandmother still lives in to those people, to those streets, to those memories.

And each night without fail I am, as strange as it sounds, taken there by Friends.

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