Saturday, 1 July 2017

Kenya Diaries: What I Got Up To In Keleswa

It was the last day of March when we travelled to Samburu, a rural county in northern Kenya. We saw the sunrise as we waited to go, and then it was north to the heat. Strange, that in the southern hemisphere north is hot and south is cold. All our books have winter-locked norths. In Kenya, the land grew browner as we climbed the map.

Somewhere between Nyahururu and Maralal the tarmac came to an end and we bumped along, dust rising and sifting around us. We drove through a bleached landscape of rocks and stricken, thorny trees. Further south, where it was greener, we’d seen zebras and camels and a giraffe from the window. Here, nothing. But as the evening approached, the sun low and golden, we reached paradise again without warning. Bright green hills, the green of summer, through which the thin road wound like a white ribbon. Looking at those hills I thought I could almost be in Scotland.

By the time the sun set, pink and purple, the land was flat and brown again. It felt like the sun was the last outpost of beauty. The night fell flat and sudden like black paint. Sometimes I saw men with fires by the roadside, a momentary glow on their hollow faces and the dead trees. Guns on their backs. We reached Tuum after midnight. It was still hot and unloading the bus took an hour. In the light of torches the sandy ground was pale, the whole place ghostly. We were spectral humpbacks with our big rucksacks.

Tuum is one of the biggest towns in Samburu: one street of shops beneath a huge mountain. A Northern Irish missionary family has lived there for twenty-seven years, and we were on their compound. Fields surrounded us, spiked with thorny trees, Land Rovers scattered about. There was a church and a primary school. That first morning a camel strolled by my window. Without the drought, it would have been an idyll; with it, it was beautiful, but for the parched, dun ground.

I know I've shared this picture before, but it's quite beautiful, isn't it? That window was my bedroom window!
The heat was everywhere. I’ve been to Singapore, where air-conditioning claims each room; to Portugal, where the stone houses keep the cool deep inside. Here there were tin roofs and heat inescapable.

I slept in a cottage on the edge of the compound. It was beautiful – stone floors, white curtains, a candle on the table in a wonderful green glass holder – and by day could have been an upmarket holiday cottage somewhere in the Highlands. In the daytime, only the lack of running water marked the difference. But at seven each night the sun disappeared, and then it was dinner by head-torch, washing up in the dark in cold water. Dinnertime washing-up in Samburu was one of the hardest things I did in Kenya. Electricity after dark is an enormous blessing. At first the torchlit meals had a flavour of Famous Five adventure, but soon it was just exhausting. The toilet was a long-drop in a hut outside. Unlike the others, ours had no cockroaches, for which I was thankful. There was a bird with a nest in there. I like to think she and I became good friends.

On Sunday we went to church. It was the type of African church I’d seen before: hours of singing, going to the front to introduce ourselves, a doctrinally questionable sermon in translation. A film of heat over the room. At the front there was a wooden cross, draped in tinsel. Do the Samburu people know Jesus? Some of them, certainly. But for a lot of Kenya, Christianity is like whitewash, painted over the spiritist religions already there. The people of Tuum came to church on Sunday, but at night I could hear them singing to the mountain, praying to it for rain. Jesus is, to that mindset, one god in many, a talisman or an increased chance at good luck and divine favour. We prayed that He would reveal Himself as the way, the truth, the life.

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I finished my novel on Monday, on the veranda outside the cottage, moving my chair several times to follow the shade. A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. I now know that isn’t an absolute truth. I also see with new eyes the joy of a room to myself!

On Tuesday morning we went to the villages.

We left Tuum in Land Rovers, luggage, food and coal tied to the top beneath dirty foam mattresses. A truck with drums of water, and our boys balanced unsafely on the railings, went ahead. Sometimes we had to push them with our fender. Once they got a puncture and we stopped in the road, and I thought, what now, in the shimmering noon heat of this vast land? But the tyre was fixed and on we went, past the pale skeletons of trees.

Stopping to fix the tyre
We were in four teams visiting four villages. I was going to Keleswa.

It was not what I was expecting. I pictured houses and people, but when the trucks pulled up all we saw was one long, low stone building. This, we were told, was the primary school. There were bullet holes in its walls, from old “village wars”; it sounded like a child’s game, until you saw the scars in the wood. The village proper was a short walk away.

We girls slept in the school. Some villagers swept it for us – the first, but by no means last, instance of their extraordinary kindness. That first night was perhaps the hottest I have ever been, sharing a mattress with my teammate Lucy. There were four girls in our team, two British and two Kenyan, and those evenings, after we sent the two boys to their tent outside, were some of the weirdest, most hilarious I have ever experienced. Four of you sharing two raw mattresses, sleeping under mosquito nets, unshowered for four days and dirtier than you’ve even been, stinking of the insect repellent that mingled with suncream in a film over your skin. I have rarely laughed so much.

In the morning the children came to school for the last day of term. We sat in. They sang, the African singing where one leads in a high, clear voice and the others respond: a joyful beat, almost like chanting, but music, echoing with a thousand years of earth and blood and the beating of a camel-skin drum. 

The blackboard was scuffed and faded, but I could read: God called Samuel how many times? What is a modern house made of? When the children had sung the teacher called them out in little groups, commending those from each class who had received the most marks in the term. I was happy to see that, though so dirty, their clothes so torn, both boys and girls were smiling to be praised for learning. The school has been there since 2006. But it only goes to Class 3, aged maybe eight. No further. The children left, and we walked to the village.

On the road – which passed through a dry riverbed – we met an old man with a staff and a checked shuka tied around his waist. He turned and came with us, our guide.

The first thing that hit me was the smell. The village was paved in goat dung. Children flocked everywhere. The man led us through, past the tiny woven houses like overturned canoes, and we shook hands with all the women. They were beautiful – all had shaved heads, skirts and shukas in three bright patterns, and huge beaded necklaces like big red collars. The children followed us. Beneath a tree children sat, a girl among them with a baby on her knee. I assumed she was one of them until, at the baby’s cry, she put it to her breast. She looked about fourteen.

There were no men, apart from our guide – out tending the animals, he said, or else searching for water. Dotted about the village were goat enclosures: ovals fenced with bleached thorns. I kept thinking they looked like giant crowns of thorns.

When we returned that afternoon we sat with them. Only one girl in our team, Junesi, spoke Samburu, though some villagers had basic Swahili. They were ashamed, they said, they had no food or drink to offer us. But the next day they gave us water, the most precious gift of all. It was almost incredible that they would do this, but they did.

The next morning children came, and we played catch and football. They wanted to hold my Bible, my notebook. Back in March a friend had sent me postcards of Scotland, and the children gazed at them. How hard for them to imagine a green country so far north, where the rain is always falling. One girl, who looked eight or nine, was wearing a red beaded collar and silver anklets. Junesi said this means she has been “bid” by a moran – a young Samburu man – and will be married to him. Probably she has already been circumcised.

That afternoon we returned to sit with them, again singing and preaching and praying. They told us they know God, though they have no pastor, and no Bible in their language. But they sang of Him.

They showed us into their houses. I – 5”2 – ducked to enter. The heat was like opening an oven. The house, called a manyatta, had two rooms: one with a dirt floor and a fire, one covered in skins and blankets for sleeping. But there were also little shelves with plates, one ingeniously crafted into a mug tree. Everything was made of woven wood, solid and impenetrable but for the diamonds of sunlight slicing through. There was a hand-sized window in each wall. The women made these manyattas. The women are very strong. The manyattas had roofs tall enough for me to stand at the highest point, long enough for me to lie down. But the two we saw were two of the biggest in the village. Most of the others were tall enough only for a child to stand.

They told us that seven or eight people live in each house. For them the concept of “indoors" means only cooking and sleeping; other than that, life is an outdoor pursuit. As ever I thought of Woolf: a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. Not strictly true, of course, but how do they make art? Or rather, what is their view of the artist? Because art surrounds them – their necklaces, the houses, their singing and playing the drum – but all of these are made or practised communally. No one sits alone to write verse or play an instrument. Storytelling is purely relational, not the domain of the hermit writer locked in a room of one's own. To them, the idea of penning a novel would be as alien as snow, Shakespeare or the sea. And perhaps it's true that you cannot miss what you've never had. But what if these children have longings they cannot fulfil in their present life, longings they cannot even name – to make art, to see places far away, to travel over the horizon and find the world in all its wonder? In some other world, would they have been actors and scientists and playwrights? Maybe. But then, these paths are not choices. 

This is poverty: not having a choice. For some, their way of life is what they want – to be one with the land, a man and his goats climbing mountains while the birds cry and the red earth sings. But others would choose differently, if they could. Choose to stay in school beyond the age of eight. Choose to see other skies than the sky they have known. What about the girls, who cannot choose not to have their bodies mutilated and sold at primary school age? They are locked in a life they cannot leave: choicelessness.

As we were leaving, little girls in red necklaces stopped me at the gate and put something round my neck: a string of red, green and white beads, adorned with silver discs and fastened with a button. They were giving me the loveliest thing they had, and I've taken it home with me, here to Britain and my future. By the time I graduate, some of those girls might have children. We walked on, through the white sand of the riverbed, away from them.

That evening we climbed the mountain overlooking our school to watch the sun set. Stones clattered behind us as we walked, the dry and dusty land falling beneath our feet. From the top, we could see that the flat-topped trees grew almost geometrically. A tiny camel browsed among them. The white sun sank in a pink sky, and on the horizon mountain ranges faded in blue, grey and violet. I thought of the mountains of my home.

Julie, Lucy and me on top of the mountain
That night it rained. It woke me, pattering on the tin roof, and I thanked the Lord, “who sends rain in season.” When we got up the land smelled different.

We packed, and villagers came to see us go. The day before only the boys had played, the shy girls staying in the shadows, but now the girls sat with us, flicking a stone back and forth. They told us their names, but other than that we couldn’t speak to them. They were beautiful and wide-eyed, their heads shaved close. One sat beside me, fingering the ridged strap of my flip-flop. When our hair blew into our faces, they pushed it back.

They gave Lucy a necklace like mine, of brown beads, and a man with a little English asked us what we’d give in return. I took a postcard from my Bible: the Fairy Pools on Skye. “This is my country,” I told them. They were amazed by the water and the colours, emerald and sapphire.

I didn’t want to leave them, these lovely girls, soon to be robbed of their childhood. FGM is against the law in Kenya, but without it a Samburu girl cannot be married – a Samburu man will be killed if he sleeps with an uncircumcised woman – so they continue to do it to their daughters. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ will break this cycle of pain.

So we drove away in our Land Rovers, to be reunited with our friends with hugs and shouts, to swap stories of those incredible four days in a world we’d never imagined. Completely new to us, yet the people of Samburu have been there for thousands of years; the people we met in Keleswa lived this life before I ever knew I’d go to Kenya; they are still there now, unchanged, when I have changed so much. If I returned in twenty years, would Keleswa be the same? Maybe. And how should we want that question to be answered? How to reconcile the poverty and brutality with the beauty of their village, the love in a community whose people are everything to each other? I finger my necklace and think of those little girls in red collars, fastening these beads around my neck. There is no easy answer, except to remember that God’s grace is boundless, and reaches everywhere.


Stay tuned for further adventures in Kenya! To read my first Kenya post, click here.


  1. I could only see a few of the pictures for some reason, but the ones I did were beautiful. Your words though, Emily! I feel like you transported me there with you, I could envision it all so perfectly. I hope you never doubt that you are a writer, because I have never read someone's words and felt so enamored by them.

    I almost cried at the end thinking about those poor kids whose life is already more or less decided for them, it's heartbreaking.

    1. Skye, this is pretty much the loveliest comment I've ever had! Thank you SO much! You are too kind <333

  2. First off, great creative nonfiction here. Have you read any of Winston Churchill's journalism? It reads kind of like that.

    Hearing of such places and cultures always reaffirms for me what social responsibility is, what the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30 informs. Even as we who do not live in poverty have many choices, we ought to live so that we may do as much good as we can with what the Lord has given us.

    1. Thank you so much! I haven't, but that sounds like a compliment!

      This is so true. “From those to whom much is given, much will be required." That has been a life-changing verse for me.

  3. Your descriptions paint such a vivid picture- with both the beautiful and the bitter, the sweet and the serious.

  4. YOU'RE BACK AND I'M BACK AND YOU'RE GOING TO OXFORD AND THIS IS ALL SO EXCITING. I GOT A HIGH DISTINCTION IN MY ART FOUNDATION COURSE WHICH I AM RATHER PROUD OF. kind of scared to start history in september now though my brain has been inactive for a year.
    Also i'm 19 on tuesday and i started driving a few days ago and i'm terrible and it's terrible but i'm determined to get the hang of it.

    1. I AM AND YOU ARE AND YOU GOT A HIGH DISTINCTION HECK FLIP YOU HERO. Not surprised, though, your art = my favourite thing ever. Seriously, you're amazing. But looool about starting an academic degree TELL ME ABOUT IT HOW DOES ONE ESSAY?

      Happy belated birthday! And well done on the driving. I haven't, uh, started that yet ... WHOOPS!

  5. I wish I could see the pictures, but I really enjoyed this post. That's such a culture shock. I didn't even know girls could be circumcised. O_O

    1. So sorry not all the pics appeared! But yes, I know. It's unbelievable.

  6. DUDE THIS WAS UTTERLY AMAZING!!!!! I like can't even do English. Your writing is amazing and a;dafa jdslafk; je;lk wjO1!!!!!! CANNOT WAIT TO READ THE NEXT ONE!


  7. Wow. This is really amazing. I remember you telling me a lot of this. But it's still so interesting to read again. The fact that they've been living that way for so long with no other choice is sad. But the simplicity of their lives is beautiful. It really is another world.

    1. Absolutely another world. Tradition is such a hard area to navigate -- should we be wanting to break away from it, or preserve it? In every culture it feels like we want to do both. It can be hard to tell which traditions are good and empowering, and which are bad and enslaving. Some elements of tradition and culture -- for example in Samburu -- are both beautiful and brutal, sometimes inexorably.


Thanks for commenting! :)