Sunday, 8 December 2013

Winter in Kisumu

Friday was the last day of school and Father Christmas called by to visit the children. The high schoolers were having a minor dubstep rave in a dark classroom, and the little ones were waiting in various degrees of excitement and terror. Santa arrived on a school bus, with his nose protruding from the mouth hole in his beard, and the kids streamed out to have a look. A child next to me muttered in disappointed tones, ‘That’s not Santa Claus! Santa’s white!’

I’ve spent six or so Christmases in Kenya, but it still felt odd watching Santa plonk himself down under the spreading mango tree and begin handing out the presents to the kids, while sweat traced a damp finger down my spine. No snow in sight, and no firelight.

But sure, the sunsets are pretty much worth it.

I have never thought of myself as much of a Christmas person, and have been surprised to discover a homesickness I didn’t expect. I miss the Christmas market, and mulled wine. I miss the snow, and walking barefooted through it late at night. I miss driving Spike down the motorway after a late-night visit to Rebecca, warmth puffing at my feet, the lights of Belfast silently doubled in the water.

But I look at the tilled earth, like red velvet cake, and it raises a feeling within me that nothing in Northern Ireland ever has. Ever could. The malarious sunsets, the outcry of birds and cicadas, darling breezes from the lake. Tropical flowered hedges, brighter than chemicals or flavours or dreams. The sweet-smelling rains. Dragonflies in their hundreds perched delicately on young blades of grass, shredded sun. Their wings all shades of Olympic medals: bronze and gold and bright, water-gleaming silver. I watched until something disturbed them and they fluttered in piercing unison, throwing their reflected lights all around the garden and on me, the watcher on the other side of the fence.

It stormed ferociously the other night, slicing through the thick, soupy heat, and I felt like I could breathe for the first time in days. I pulled in great lungfuls of coolness, to chill me from the inside out. The papaya tree outside my window nodded alarmingly. As I showered, rain sprayed in the window, freezing me all down one side. And I cherished the cool against my skin. Lovely cold.

Normally, I wouldn't be valuing cold like this in December. But that's the best thing about change. Nothing like a bit of seasonal gratitude.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Saturday by the Lake

Kiboko Bay, after a bone-shaking tuk-tuk ride on the dirt road, is incongruous in its luxury. A small pool gleams bluely next to the lake. The noise isn’t birdsong, it’s more like bird-uproar, they are exuberant. Above me, the flamboyant tree is oddly Christmassy, but simultaneously not at all, tiny leaves smaller than a child’s fingerprint, great pods hanging ponderously down.

The breeze is strong here, and I can see my shadow’s hair blowing wildly, tugged out of its messy knot. And my starry earrings are blowing too, casting pale quick lights on the page of the diary where I write.

But it is the music of the wind chimes that makes me feel hushed and blank-hearted, as if the watch on my wrist is meaningless, and my to-do list is a mere extravagance.

I wonder if Queen Victoria ever dreamed of her lake, and if her staid, modest, loving soul was stirred by the sight. That little plump woman with her affected voice would have been horrified by primitive Africa, and yet I believe Lake Victoria would have silenced her with wonder.

I walked down to the water’s edge, telling myself that the crocodile I saw last time I was here was a mere monitor lizard, to stand on a boulder at the lakeside. And there were these dragonflies – pink, their bodies striped and their wings diffused, but pinker than I could believe. It’s funny how in Britain, when we speak of a pink bird or flower, often we mean pinkish, off-pink, a faint tint of blush. Even a robin’s red breast is nothing on the scarlet of my bearded barbets. But in Kenya, colour is overripe, true and feverish, unforgettable. Those dragonflies were fuchsia, pink as a child’s party dress, pinker than flamingos.

We went on a boat ride, to which I objected, since I will always think of our voyage on Lake Naivasha as a near-death experience – the look in that hippo’s eyes! But it was a peaceful trip enough, not a hippo in sight. We saw hyacinth, with its lilac flowers and leaves curved like a hand. It’s bad for the lake, they say, but I thought it would be wonderful, to see the lake blossom like an oasis, like a wildflower meadow in spring.

Back on solid earth. My soul quieted by the spread of shifting sky and water.

And the flamboyant’s petals are wrinkled as a dress left on the bedroom floor all night. Pollen staining my fingers poisonous orange.

A snatch of wind chime lullaby on the breeze.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


It rained this afternoon, and I pulled on turquoise rainboots, unclenched my umbrella and stepped outside. The scent of rain hitting scalding earth drifted towards me. Petrichor rising, blood of the earth, scent of dust and thirst, not sweet at all and yet so sweet it could be music, dazzling and painful and thirsty and home all in one. I feel like I could live on this aroma, eat it, drink it. It makes me feel so strong.

Warm steam curled around my legs. The road shone, every clean wet pebble blue-silver beneath the semi-sun, the lake molten silver on my right. A raindrop landed on my back and rolled slowly down my spine, making me shiver. Grainy mud spattering on the back of my legs. My glories, so splendid at eight this morning you’d swear your eyes were malfunctioning, now curled in upon themselves. Surely Solomon, in all his glory...

Cold Diet Coke burnt a path down my throat. Mzungu the rabbit licked my ankles. The kids, all eager, bright smiles and greetings, sweet lazy so-and-sos who haven’t yet glimpsed the toil of their futures. I find myself liking them more than I was ready to. They are so young, they hold nothing back, their stories tumbling over each other, and each wants to be heard, to know, to be known. They are peculiar, beautiful. And even though I know better than to patronise them, I still marvel that each child is so different.

Lightning glinting silently in the sky after dinner, and not much later, it pours and floods the floor to the starboard of my bed. I close the windows, rain falling on my arms and my hair.

And the night blows in, smooth and velvet on my face, starridden, strange, immortal.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Being young and RVA

Every so often, when I least expect it, I'll be working or playing or dreaming or walking, and it hits me in the back of the knees and almost brings me to the floor. And I miss that past so much I could hardly breathe, and it seems so INCONCEIVABLE, almost RIDICULOUS, that I’ll never live that life again. The boys wholeheartedly-important and the ugly Aeropostale T-shirts and tight jeans and the cafeteria food, the rush and the line, cutting in line and cutting my skin, I just can’t believe it’s over. Eucalyptus trees and dramatic crushes, arrival day, that excitement, and dorm cleanup and wanting OUT to see the boys and to run across the rugby field in rain and starlight.

The smell of fire. Killer hill. Birds so loud in the trees there’s not a moment of silence, and colobus monkeys. Caring community. Pikis. Ah, I want back all of a sudden. I want back.

And wanting to be in love so badly that I thought my heart would break. Those romantic images I’ve sensibly replaced with the hope that maybe someday I’ll find a friend close enough that we can unite our stories. I don’t dream of roses anymore, or stars, or (help me FORGIVE ME) I don’t dream of African soil.

Picking roses. Thorns tearing the palms of my hands. Picking all the old-fashioned and tropical flowers out in the garden to leave at the grave.

Studie. Or more precisely, studie bridge, where we sat for hours on warm dusty concrete. Talking to people you’ve been with for years is different. It’s so much newer than you’d think it could be. Those conversations, they went deeper than any I’ve had before or since. We told each other everything. Those half-sacred conversations, and our explorations searching for something new. Roofward we went, of course. The sky was the only hope of something untouched, untameable. We climbed the siren tower and our legs hung loose in the winds and the singing from AIC. We lay on our backs on the sun-baked sloped tiles of the cafeteria roof. We found a make-out spot behind the pond, with an oddly placed clock, and climbed on cylindrical logs to break into the mattress room, where I began to wheeze at once as dust rose to shape the light.

We were fire-new to feeling, then. And there was feeling, and hormones, and emotion all bottled up. Since our parents weren’t there, we raised one another, little wolves all teeth, and were all unadulterated, we were so black-and-white. Things were right or they were wrong and WE KNEW the difference, even if no one else did. Like animals, they put bars all around us, and we battled and fought the metaphorical ones and surrendered to the physical ones. We were just kids, after all. We weren’t that strong. And they told us we were bad, and we believed it. We were slutty, because we longed for someone to want us. We were female, and they said boys clouded our minds. We were weak and made weaker. They told us our purity was the only gift we had of value.

Hang on. I mustn’t get too dramatic. We’re not in those days anymore. They loved us as well. They wanted the best for us. They knew they’d caged us right next to each other, boys right girls left. I suppose they were scared all our feelings would combust. Mine did. They didn’t shatter cage bars, though. Those red-hot feelings just shattered me. And I was badly burned. I carry the scars to this day.

Physical scars are not that big a deal, though I have them too, ugly white-purple markings. But what’s worse are the scars of starlight and the stripe of milky way in the far north of Kenya, fine lines across my heart. The scar of DESIRING EVERYTHING and receiving so much but not – not-what-I-wanted is a stab wound with still-ragged edges. I tried to be stronger than the people who told me I had to fall into this mould to deserve love, and I AM, I AM STRONGER. But I still haven’t found what they have. Yes, I’m not strong enough to disdain a man’s arms and his strength. That’s true, too.

I lie here in marshmallow winter duvets like a snail out of shell, naked in the nightdark, easy to kill. And I don’t know why I suddenly miss this place, this school among volcanoes and hot springs and the valley, the great scooped out savannah. It’s good, though. I mustn’t forget how I cherished it. I mustn’t deny that it’s forever lost to me.

Tyre swings and ankle-turning stones, starry nights and ten pm curfews. Senior store and banquet and Sadie Hawkins and interim. They’re over.

Of course, we move on. But there's no forgetting our youth, is there? I miss them. I miss them. I’ll miss them always, let’s face it. Nothing is the same. I’m not the same, and neither are those girls who were my dearest friends. We have all lost it. That innocence. We have all grown old.

We were so raw then. We were so raw.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Sugar Sundown

The nice thing about a teensy miniature school is that Mum and I could take the five children in year 6 on a school trip to the sugar factory without inviting anyone else.

We watched the sugarcane transform into rough golden sugar, which we were invited to taste (the kids didn’t stop at a couple grains like Mum and I did). The muscular men hauling massive sacks streamed with sweat, and I thought ruefully of the sugar I put in my coffee. The faint salty flavour I occasionally notice isn’t just my imagination, then.

This evening the sunset was even more beautiful than usual. The last few days, Kisumu has been harshly, unfailingly clear-skied, but tonight the clouds came out to play. The fading sun set each one on fire.

I caught sight of it from the kitchen window. We are gifted with a masterpiece of nightfall practically every evening, and I’ve become blasé about them, as if these concerts of light and shadow are ordinary, glancing past them to slice onions or boil potatoes. But tonight I followed the display upstairs, climbing the spiral staircase from shadow into a glorious rose-light.

On the roof you can see for miles. The sky was too poetic to be called orange: flames made tender, tearing at my heart. The wind rose, tangling my hair, and a quintet of sparrows flew across the sugar-gold sky with such exquisite joy I could hardly bear it. Light leaking into the lake. The sugar sundown set yearning ablaze in me.

There is more than what we see. And the unseen grows clear as the sun goes down.

Psalm 65:8 - Those who live at the ends of the earth are in awe of your miraculous signs. The lands of the morning sunrise and evening sunset sing joyfully.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Meet Mzungu

Look at this cute little face.

I’m not really an animal person, but I just cannot resist this adorable cuddly creature. This white rabbit is the school pet, and I daily attempt to defend him from abuse.

For obvious reasons, I have named him Mzungu.

I visit him every day. Best bunny ever.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Kisumu weather

In the early mornings, the lake is hazy and it’s almost cool. Then the heat begins to build. By afternoon, I’m limp and thirsty, the lake is asparkle and I can see hippos swimming in the shallows from my desk.

As a result of the climate, just about everyone is a bit ripe. Obviously I am the exception to this rule and remain daisy fresh at all times (by showering two to four times daily). When my kids stroll into the classroom after PE, it’s all I can do to refrain from holding my nose. Instead, I swiftly open all doors and windows and give the poor little stinkers a strained smile.

It rains every afternoon, cooling the air and soaking the earth. One evening, it stormed so fiercely that it flooded the floor in every room. The lights flickered and died. We ran through the house shutting windows, even as the wind tore the screens out of our hands and slammed them wildly. I’ve never seen anything like the lightning that night. You could have sworn it was daylight, a brief, ghastly daylight, so bright the papaya tree in the window leapt out at us, leaves like knives. We lay on the sofas and watched the storm break, praying no fisherman was caught out on the water.

The sun sets over the lake each night, and each night the sunset is different. Some nights violent and deadly, some riotous, some ethereal. Gold, and purple, and crimson, the colours of royalty. There are evenings when the sky is soft as velvet, soft as fingertips, tangible and eternal. There are evenings when the light slits the sky, sharp as scalpels, tracing bright slashes through the clouds and tossing rays into the water.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Tragedy at Westgate

On Monday, two days after the siege began, we went for a walk down dusty Kisumu roads, dragonflies lazily circling our ankles.

A heavy drop on my head and then, rapidly, violently, rain blotching on my back, spattering on my bare arms. We took shelter beneath a bougainvillea tree, next to a ditch heaped with splendid pink blossoms. Beautiful, dead.

A crack of thunder drove us back into the open. By then, the roads were red rivers. We were wrapped in my sodden indigo scarf.

And it would not leave me. The string of no-no-no on my lips, the fierce disbelief burning in my chest. Westgate, starry lights overhead and icecream and those gleaming pink floors. Those expanses of shining floors are stained with blood, and they will never be clean. The front steps where I skipped up, feeling light and cool and young and happy and free – and a picture on KTN: a dead man lying on those same steps. My whole body filled with horror.

We have seen the pictures. The innocent. The children...

We Are One, they all cry, and I cry it too, my heart thundering with harambee and gratitude that I am part of this land, that Kenya is mine and I belong to your red earth, your jacarandas, your cicada song and your mighty sun –

I am proud of this bravery, this heroism.

But Kenya, beloved, let us remember to grieve, too. Let us withdraw during these days of national mourning. Silence us, Kenya, let us remember what we’ve lost.

And justice. In this courage – the strength to keep moving forward, to banish our fear – let us seek the white flame of justice. We cannot forget the lives snatched away. A thousand deaths remain unavenged in Kenya's recent past. No more. No more.

We Are One.

And never, never, never again.

'Shall I leave their innocent blood unavenged? No, I will not.' Joel 3:21

Thursday, 19 September 2013


Grey-backed mouse birds in the papaya tree outside my window, landing on rotten branches, squawking when they snap. A parrot – my first parrot in a long time – perched on the power line, in front of the lake and the sunset. The sun was so bright behind it, I could not see its colour, only sensing it faintly, tugging at my senses.

I bought several long, long skirts in an attempt to be culturally appropriate, so I feel faintly ridiculous, and yeah, OK, maybe a little princess-like as I sweep along the rocky dirt path outside our askaried gate. Dragonflies flit around my skirts.

Some are jet black, with dark-tipped wings, like miniature fighter jets. Like the birth of three stripes, and when they’re flying fast they seem continuous. I found the other dragonflies boring enough, with military green bodies, until one flew right through the sunlight and its wings gleamed – pure gold! They are gorgeous, precious. Hundreds swoop around my feet.

Cordon bleus: tiny sparrows with dull brown wings and china-blue breasts hopping through frangipani branches. Birds that look like crows, till the sun flashes on their feathers – they glisten blue. I named them navybirds, and found out their true name is ‘superb starling’.

The yellow weaver birds, miniature sunshines, are eternally busy constructing nests. I spot an iridescent green butterfly as large as my hand flapping drunkenly over the grass.

I can’t deny that there’s astonishing beauty all over the world. But I’m quite sure God let His imagination run wild when it came to Africa.

Saturday, 14 September 2013


On Friday, we left at 6am for a hectic drive to the airport. Schoolchildren walked through the night in uniform. Motorbikes with full beam lights careened towards us, like stars made very mobile. My stomach and fists clenched when a human silhouette appeared faintly ahead of us – be careful, be careful, that’s a person!

We flew to Nairobi, past a bare-headed Kilimanjaro. Nairobi gets its fair share of hate. Perhaps it even deserves it: a city built on a swamp and on the misery of the poor. Still, Nairobi was my home for five and a half years – or maybe more like two, depending on how you look at it. And despite everything, I love the feverish sunsets, I love the hedges thick with dust, I love the petrol fumes hanging weightily in the air, I love Java House.

Little had changed. The traffic was worse than ever, and the roads were riddled with potholes. It took one sweaty, grope-y matatu journey with twenty others to remind me how much I adore tuk-tuks. Personal space for the win!

I’ve walked these roads most often with a small hand in mine, and I missed that hand – that beloved presence – more than I can say.

I met with two dear friends that I’d left behind a year ago.

I talk to Natalya so often on Facebook that she feels like a next-door neighbour. She is probably the most brilliant yet unassuming person I have ever met. She is also an accomplished globetrotter and a Rhodes Scholar. She is always sympathetic, always interested. We had spoken so recently that we didn’t have to waste much time on ‘catching up’ – we skipped straight to the present, and got really giggly over our eccentric fellow customers.

Then Michelle, my very first friend at boarding school. We have been friends for almost ten years, navigating so many transitions alongside one another. Childhood to adulthood, Africa to the West, back to Africa. We both returned often to see our families, so she’s one of few I’ve seen yearly since we graduated.

There’s no one quite like Michelle for laughter and ditzy chat. She went into spasms of delight over my earrings: ‘Oh my gosh! Are those owls?  They are so cute!’ It’s probably obvious that she uses more exclamation points, spoken or written, than anyone else I’ve ever met.

We were only there a night. Mum’s hand tightened on mine as we rose, and Nairobi disappeared into a fog of pollution and memories. The airplane lurched. The wings cut through the clouds as though we were divine.

Thursday, 12 September 2013


I casually sprayed four or five ants. About a hundred came boiling through
a gap in the screen, apparently keen to die as one.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

lizard droppings and sky

I’ve just noticed there are lizard droppings on my bedroom floor.

The view from the plane was rough fleece and cumulus. Dawn brought combinations of pink/navy, blue/ethereal white, then a submersion in golden mist as we sank through a cloud into drab, yellow-tinted Nairobi, all ragged wet shrubs, an array of tents, and a soot-stained building site where International Arrivals used to be.

No more sipping on Java House passion juice while waiting for flights. Instead, several sluggish buses. The bus which waited when I dragged my 20 kilo hand luggage down the steps was captained by a guy in military fatigues who had to be shaken awake. Apparently the roar of an arriving 747 wasn’t sufficiently alarming to rouse him.

Finally, sleepily, I made it to Kisumu, where Mum and Buddha the taxi driver picked me up and took me to our new home. I napped, rode in a tuk-tuk (not sure how to describe this – a cross between a motorbike and Mr. Bean’s car?), picked fallen frangipani and saw Lake Victoria from above, a breach in the clouds pouring orange light down onto the water in straight sweet shafts.

Then the sky turned cloudy-lemonade-yellow, the papaya tree standing out sharp and black.

Now I’m lying in bed, trying to decide if I'm imagining a faint bad smell, or if there’s another lizard taking a sneaky dump behind my bed.

There better flipping not be.