Each time you blinked there seemed to be more. Great flocks of women, hundreds, thousands, funneling down from the hills and highways and side streets of this city, picking their way past the newspaper hawkers and vendors of roasted corn, through rush-hour traffic, down Muindi Mbingu Street, through morning air that smells of car exhaust and dust and sweat, past the office of the president, to the great ocher plaza of the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
By 9:30 there were nearly 10,000 of them, and when they had cleared the bottleneck of security and smoothed their skirts and trousers and cleared their throats and adjusted their papers, they looked around and seemed quite intoxicated with their number:
Indian women in tightly bound saris, wiry Masai ladies in high, beaded collars and cotton robes, Americans in blue jeans and backpacks, Europeans consulting their French-Swahili dictionaries.
If nothing else went right during the chaotic unofficial forum that opened here today, the week before the official U.N. conference to mark the end of the Decade for Women, they'd made it this far in greater numbers than anyone had expected.
"We have a new anthem," an Australian woman shouted as she clambered to the bank of microphones at the podium. "It's a very popular song called 'We Are the World.' We've changed the second line to 'We are the women,' and the next line is, 'We do two-thirds of the world's work, so let's start living.' Sing!" she commanded.
The row of Kenyan women behind her did not appear to know the words. They clapped and swayed anyway. And things took off when dancers, naked to the waist, pranced in singing and shouting and shaking their feathers.
The feeling at the University of Nairobi campus, where the forum is being held, is part Woodstock, part fall college registration and part tent meeting.
Women wander about in confused clumps, consulting schedules that are already out of date, and drinking gallons of lukewarm Fanta and eating sugary cakes. Angela Davis is here, so are Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan (who convened a seminar beneath a tree at the university).
At the last gathering in 1980, American Jewish women and Israelis clashed with Palestinians, who showed up in force at every gathering that could be associated with their cause. They reportedly heckled the Jewish women and refused to let them speak.
This time the American Jewish women are planning ahead. Today they met with the unofficial Israeli delegates to map out strategy.
"We don't want to be alone this time," said Mimi Alprerin, cochairman of the American Jewish Committee delegation, the largest American Jewish group at the forum.
The major-domo of the forum is Dame Nita Barrow, a prepossessing Barbadian woman with a voice like a foghorn who has confronted criticism over accommodations and other logistical problems by scolding delegates and press alike for being faint of heart.
"It is not going to be a bed of roses," she thundered at a press conference Tuesday. "We promise you that you are part of one of the greatest meetings of the century. The women on whose backs all civilization and commerce has depended, who were said not to be able to speak for themselves 10 years ago, are here today. It is not a meeting, it is not a conference, it is an encounter and a happening.
"It is not a jamboree or a circus," she amended moments later. "It is a meeting of the minds of women. You are having the first taste of a glorious adventure."
There are two ways to deal with being one of a handful of men in an auditorium of 10,000 women. You can panic, or you can try to relax and enjoy the proceedings. The Hon. John Kasyoka, minister of the Kenyan Censorship Board and the voice of Kenya Broadcasting Network, settled on the latter. When the women sang "We Are the World," he clapped along.
Like most employes of the Kenyan government, Kasyoka has been working around the clock for the past few weeks, preparing for the crowds.
"I have been to the airport today," he said, holding his head with his hands. "They are still coming."
He and a crew of 30 have been screening the 180 films imported from more than 100 countries for the Women's Film Festival. Only one film has been rejected, he said, a Norwegian film. "It was pornographic. This we cannot allow."
The fact that the forum and conference that follow are being held on African soil is of great significance to the African delegates and women from the rest of developing world. Today the Kenyans pleaded with women from Western and Eastern Bloc nations to use this conference to focus on the problems of African women: clean water, electricity, basic health care and food.
On the discrimination front, two male photographers, one from Time magazine and one from Newsweek, were forcibly ejected from a meeting of the American Lesbian Group. And yesterday Dame Nita Barrow refused to allow a group of lesbians from the Netherlands and New Zealand to distribute literature titled "Women Loving Women."
For every moment of political theater there are hundreds of quiet encounters here, in the hallways of the university, on the broad lawn, between women who have never seen each other before and who probably never will again.
"Hello, I am from London and I am collecting information so I can send you information on female circumcision," said an expatriate Arab woman to an elderly Masai woman on the lawn. "We think it is wrong, we have to stop it. As a woman I am circumcised myself. I have plenty of trouble with it. Will you fill out this questionnaire? We will help you stop this practice. We can send someone to help you."
The Masai understood no English, so the request was translated by a Nairobi University student named Lorna Seneiya.
"She lives in a village, you cannot mail her anything," Seneiya told the Arab woman. But the Masai woman had listened closely. She was silent, then she spoke. "Since you are so far away, how would you be able to send someone?" she wanted to know. "Would they stay just a short while or would they stay longer?"