Reaching for the sky in Kenya

 

WithCarolineReaching for the sky

Caroline unraveled from a tangle of ragamuffin children onto the compound of caked earth and crumbling concrete. She was an explosive meteor shower in her thin psychedelic planet-themed pajamas: zigzagging across the yard, shooting a ragged football and darting through the ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ older boys. She was there, then gone, before reappearing on a rusty metal slide, skinny limbs flailing. I lost her, then saw her again, arching a rainbow across the yard on a tyre-swing and tumbling blurry cartwheels, feet to the sky.

A dark shadow blocked the sunlight. I looked up and there was Caroline, standing stock-still in front of me. She glanced at me shyly and offered “Hello.” Then she was pulling me down on the step beside her, gripping my hand with expectation.

With every overland truck that stopped by Mji Wa Neema, Hope orphanage, in the ramshackle Rift Valley town of Gilgil, Caroline scooped up a handful more English words and stored them like nuggets of gold in her head.
I offered her words in a story:
“Once upon a time there were three bears…”
Caroline cocked her head, puzzled.

“Do you know what bears are?” I asked. She shook her head no, and I started again:
“Once upon a time there were 3 simba – Mama Simba, Papa Simba and Baby Simba. One day Mama Simba made a pot of ugali for breakfast, but the ugali was too hot (I flapped my hand in front of my mouth), so they left the ugali to cool and went for a walk on the plains…”

Caroline listened, mouth forming a perfect O as I mimed my African version of The 3 Bears.

Upstairs in her dormitory, Caroline showed me all her belongings contained in her bedside cabinet: a set of clothes, a knitted teddy and a well-thumbed magazine about space. As my son sat huddled together with Caroline, pale porcelain skin and fiery-red hair contrasting with rich deep mahogany, I heard Caroline’s story: Parents lost to AIDs; an alcoholic grandfather who scarpered; three children left alone; uncovered and taken to the House of Hope.

In Africa, I had sailed on dhows, eaten baked fish on sandy atolls and snorkeled in the Indian Ocean. I had camped out in the Serengeti bush with nothing between me and the lions, rode across the grasslands on a camel and danced with the Masai.

But it is that dirt yard in a small town in Kenya, I remember best of all. And Caroline: rough, tough, fierce and bold – a survivor.

Back in England, limp yellow leaves drip from the branches of my cherry tree. Here the night nips. Six thousand miles away, the paw-paw tree in Caroline’s compound is laden with fruit. There the night wraps the red earth of Kenya in an ink-blue blanket of warmth. Above Caroline’s tree and mine, a pale marbled moon hangs suspended between the stars.

As I look up into the sky, I think of Caroline in her psychedelic, planet-themed pajamas, and I wonder if she is looking up too. And it occurs to me: we may live in different worlds, separated by continents, but we share the same view.

About the Author:  Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. Helen was runner-up in 2011 British Guild of Travel Writers Competition and was highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing Competition in 2013.

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