December 29, 2010 | 7:00am
Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a celebrated Kenyan author and distinguished professor at UC Irvine. He's 72 years old and married. He's not a terrorist.
And yet, for an unexplained reason, he and a group of fellow Kenyans were treated as such upon a detoured flight to Lyon, France.
Eleven days ago Thiong'o boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight in Kenya, after having just taken part in the Kwani Literary Festival in Nairobi. He was bound for London and a connecting flight back to Los Angeles in time to be at his wife's side, who was in the hospital facing a four-hour surgery.
Heavy snowfall in London closed Heathrow Airport and caused the flight to be rerouted to Lyon. Upon arrival, passengers with Schengen and European Union passports were allowed to leave the terminal for the evening, put up in a nearby hotel at Virgin Atlantic's expense.
The Kenyans and lone Jamaican? They were escorted by armed French police to a building on the airport grounds, and locked inside. They were provided a thin mat to sleep on and aluminum foil to be used for warmth.
"The cement floor was cold and dreary. It was a winter night after all. The French authorities would not even make an exception for Imani, a one-year-old, who had to share the cement floor with her parents," Thiong'o wrote for The Standard
, a Kenyan website, following the happening.
By no explanation, the next day, Sunday, Dec. 19, the group was moved to a hotel, and on Monday evening, the flight departed for Heathrow. The passengers were again put up in a hotel due to weather delays. Thiong'o was scheduled to leave for LA on Tuesday.
He arrived hours early and was stuck by a "mass of airport chaos." Flights were again being cancelled. By this point, there was no chance of being at his wife's bedside by the time she came out of surgery. He just wanted to get back.
Virgin Atlantic representatives offered no answers, no assistance. Thiong'o went from rep to rep, hoping for some information, but he was met with anger and even a threat of being thrown in jail.
His asthma began acting up, so he returned to his hotel. A fellow Kenyan, who was a doctor tended to him and helped him find a flight out, which was scheduled for Dec. 28.
Out of answers and without a Virgin Atlantic representative willing to help, he contacted his assistant who was on vacation. A short while later he was booked on a Dec. 23 flight, and, finally, five days after he departed Kenya, Thiong'o was at his wife's side.
Virgin Atlantic officials offered no explanation or apology to Thiong'o or his fellow poorly-treated passengers.