Navel Gazing: Kenya

I had a farm in Africa.

No, not really.

But, I visited a farm in Africa. In the seventh grade, my dad and mom spelled a missionary couple in Kenya, Africa who were overdue for furlough, and I got  to spend a few months in fairyland, as I remember it. Let me begin with the tea trees. Green. Fragrant. Sunny. Hilly. A perfect playground for a not-yet-young-adult  to romp and play Maid Marian and Robin. My flawed remembrance tells me a young Christian owned this plantation and all the American missionary families were invited to a day in the country. I remember fancy tents. And elegant royalty-types in jewel-tone outfits. And talk of a local dish with blood and stomach parts that my father was lucky enough to claim “allergies” and avoid without insult. I was a kid. I ran without shoes and had blonde hair.

(If that ending confused you, you have never visited a developing country with blonde hair.)

I taught Kindergarten while in Africa. To one student. Joy. That was her name. It was like playing school with dolls, but immensely more satisfying. My mother taught me how to plan a lesson. I was bossy.

Our apartment had a claw foot tub that I spent hours in. And a round washing machine from the 1930’s that had a mechanical wringer attached. I don’t remember anything else. The laundry was simply done.

Our apartment complex smelled like Indian food. That was what my mom said.

I rounded up all the missionary kids and directed a play, with costumes, and held tea parties. But I don’t actually remember drinking it. I think the pot was filled with Coke. I remember baking for the parties. And I demanded ice cream, but I don’t think the country had ice cream. My mom made a freezer ice cream with chocolate cake and chocolate sauce. Like Shoney’s  Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cake. The cake was a victory because of the altitude.

I made crayons. I melted old crayons and filled little pans with the wax and made an army of crayons. These all went into a trunk-like suitcase my dad said I could fill and take back home with me.

I was the world’s best haggler. Dickerer. Bargainer. Huckster? Open air markets filled with colors and odors and black skin. And everything cheap! Laughter at my audacious price propositions. It was all a game. My favorite items were plastic and metal. Dishes. Enameled dishes painted in bright flowers. And a rainbow of plastic plates. A whole set over time. Into my trunk suitcase for home. And carvings from wood and sand stone.  Gorgeous wood. My dad had an eye for the true artist. I just loved the haggle game – undercut, laugh, offer a bit more, laugh, walk away, return at the call, think about it, agree, deal. Laugh. Pay. Price tags are depressing.

Banana and tomato sandwiches. That is truth. But I asked, “please no bananas.” What kind of weird missionary mother passes off banana and tomato sandwiches for a snack?! Not mine. I stayed with the other missionary family at times. The family of my little student, Joy. We built a fortress in their compound in the three-foot-space between the buildings and the outer fence. We had shelves and barricades, and my dishes, and bits of rubbish, and wars. Our compound verses there’s. I don’t remember who they were.

I took walks with my dad through the town. I saw houses of tin… the patchwork of metal from coffee containers and oil cans. Red mud. Green trees. Bare feet. Bald heads. Huge grins. “Would you like some tea? Or biscuits?” We didn’t visit often. It came at too dear a price for the family we visited.

childrenBabies were scrumptious. Rolls of plumpness and dimples and bright eyes and ready smiles. Mothers looked for little helpers, blonde or shaved, no matter. “Give me that baby!”

Warthogs. I loved those little critters. I own a little warthog carving to this day, cut in a little hut in Africa. I recently found a card kept as a keepsake from a single missionary -Karen?- with whom I must have chummed with. It had a batik warthog on the front and a packet of grape powder candy tucked inside. A token of my obsession? I’ve lost that memory. Sorry, Karen?

masiamadaentranceVisiting Mt. Kenya  and Masai Mara Game Park. All the white people with us. I climbed farther than anyone. With dad. We reached 15,000 feet elevation. I was told that was amazing. I was told it was amazing I didn’t get altitude sickness. I was the amazing kid who climbed Mt. Kenya. And I saw herds of wildebeests migrating in the distance. And drank from snow streams. And argued with baboons over picnic scraps. And gazed at miles of jungle from the mattress laid in the back of a white pick-up truck. And learned the true terror of Africa are hippopotomusses (I wanted you to see my spelling effort with that one.) and bull elephants. When I see a sparse, grassy hill with small trees and rocks scattered here and there, it reminds me of Kenya. From the back of that white pickup.

The tea plantation owner must have took a liking to my father. We stayed at the Treetops-affiliate hotel (I googled it – Outspan?) on his dime. Luxury. Swans made of meringue. Chocolate fountains. Crisp rooms. Open verandas. Tile floors. Green lawns. The daughter of this wealthy family (perhaps her name was Agnes?) bought me a cat’s eye bracelet in the gift shop. My mother was not happy. I remember all the stones fell out over time. Kinda like my childish memory. Which I also blame this wealthy family for losing. That truck suitcase packed with my memories and purchases in Kenya? It got bumped for a large, brass clock decorated with a lion killing gazelles gifted to my father at the last minute before boarding our flight to the US. My father did not ever pay for over-baggage. So, my trunk got left in exchange for that stupid, gigantic clock. (It was two feet by four feet – huge!) I resent that clock, and all my lost memories.

Why were we there? My father held Bible institutes for the national Christians and helped in the local church. I have many memories of our dining table full of people with open Bibles, tablets (the paper kind) and loud conversation. Meals shared. Happy talk and Kenyan humor. My mother and I taught missionary kids. All I remember of the church was concrete walls, no windows and vibrant singing.

Who knows if my memories are right. But if not, the wrong ones are lovely.



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