Tuesday, 25 July 2017

What I Learned On My Gap Year

1. The world is bigger than you realise

Now obviously I'm going to talk about Kenya here, but first, let's slip back to those far-off autumn days when I worked in a lowly shop. Last September and October, I was a shop assistant in a cheap little shop in Glasgow selling tacky jewellery, sparkly shoes and other low-grade paraphernalia. It showed me a side of the city I'd never seen before. If you have the opportunity to work in a shop, take it! Because meeting the general public each day, with their needs and their desires, is a wonderful way to learn about people.

Also I went to Kenya.

The clouds are different there. More tousled. The skies are huge, because so much of the land is so flat. Once in Tuum, Samburu (Kenya's the rural north), I stood upon a mountain and thought about the size of the view. Here in Britain, the horizon is always so much closer; my eye is brought to a stop by a mountain range, or mist, or the sea. But looking out over Samburu, the land rolled on for hundreds of miles. I have never seen the world like this before. It is vast and beautiful, and it made me realise how great and mighty God is, because He made it all.

2. A woman does not need money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction // you are capable of a lot

It was Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, who said that's what a writer needs. But in Kenya, sharing a tiny room of four, I wrote a novel. That's one of the things Kenya taught me: to make the best of any situation. Sometimes, what once seemed impossible becomes normal. You are capable of far more than you realise.

Really. I lived without electricity and running water for a month. At one point near the end of my trip, I slept in a goathouse for four nights. That is the weirdest place I have ever slept! When I got there, the man who owned it said, “you will sleep here. Sweep it, but don't sweep the yellow powder in the corner, it's toxic. Oh, and walk around to kill the goatworms." Yellow toxic powder? Goatworms?? But by that point, I was up for anything! And, by the light of a dodgy solar-powered lamp, I swept happily away. (Avoiding the toxic powder, of course.)

3. Books really are friends everywhere

When I slept in that goathouse, I was working on a farm in a village called Waso Rongai. I'd get up at 6:30am and hoe fields, and during the hot part of the day, I'd return to my raw mattressed goathouse bunk bed and read Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I remember, back in my long-ago no-thought-of-Kenya life, looking at Uprooted in Waterstones and thinking how I'd like to read it. Little did I know then that I'd plunge into Novik's fairytale world of trees and magic in between watering and planting kale in the wild north of Kenya! I loved that book. Similarly, I sat in the shimmering, solitary heat of the village of Keleswa, where I met tribespeople and had saw a life I had never imagined, and read The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan. Percy Jackson won't desert you, friends. Books are timeless.

Peter, me and Gerald in Keleswa. Not sure what I'm writing, but I can see my copy of The Idiot against the wall! (Cream/dun cover with a red border and a black circle in the middle. See it?) That was the book I finished before diving into The Son of Neptune.
4. Don't get dreads in Africa if you're white // your appearance is not the be-all and end-all

So a sad thing has happened to me. I no longer have dreadlocks.

Basically, Caucasian hair needs to be crocheted into dreadlocks, whereas African hair can just be backcombed, waxed and twisted. Because I got mine done in a salon in Nairobi, they did it the African way. But as the weeks and months went by, it became more and more apparent that the dreads were just unravelling. Also they were gross (full of sand from a recent beach trip, for example) and I was too scared to wash them.

So yesterday I washed/combed them all out!

MY HEART IS BROKEN I'm trying to take the philosophical view.

Which is that it's fun to do fun things with your hair when you're a teenager! It's good to experiment, and I'm still glad I got dreads in Kenya, for the story. Now I just have to live the short hair life for a bit until it thickens out again (I lost a lot of my hair yesterday in the combing process. I mean, a lot. My bathroom bin looks like it has a puppy in it), and then I shall merrily dread again! Properly, this time.

OK but you know the really important thing to learn? Your hair is not that important. It doesn't define who you are. Take risks with your appearance and have fun, because ultimately, it's what's inside that counts.

5. God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good

That's a saying in Kenya. One person says, “God is good!" and the crowd replies, “all the time!" “All the time!" cries the leader, “God is good!" choruses the crowd.

Really. I have learned so much about God's sovereignty. The two weeks we spent running kids' camps in Samburu were some of the hardest two weeks of my life, and I remember looking at the clock during sessions and literally just praying, “Lord, please get me from now until lunchtime." And He did! Every time! The more I live my life, the more I can praise God for being with me every step of the way.

Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
(Psalm 139:16)

Isn't that verse amazing? God has planned it all. Yesterday, today and forever.

6. It's OK not to swim in the mainstream

I used to think that taking a gap year was a horrific perversion of the True Course of Life. “But I want to go to uni!" I said. “Not put my life on hold for a year!" Here's what I've learnt: you do not have to sit on a conveyor belt like a bit of sheep intestine being turned into a sausage. You do not have to do what everyone else is doing. Sometimes the unexpected path is the most fruitful.

7. Don't take education for granted

Having a Proper Adult Job like a Proper Adult is exciting. Getting paid is exciting. But sometimes I used to stack shelves in my shop jobs, or wash plates in my Kenya school job, and think, “remember when I used to go and paint and learn about books every day?" When I was at school, I think I took my education for granted. And I cannot wait to start uni, to be back in the world of academia! I want books.

Sunset in Keleswa
8. Don't settle

Why did I take a gap year?

In 2015, when I was still at school, I applied to read English at Oxford. I got rejected.

Before the rejection, I was quite philosophical. Here's what I said on this very blog, December 23rd, 2015:
 I'll find out next month if I have a place or not. A lot of people have said things to me like “It must have ruined you for anywhere else", or, “you'll be so disappointed if you don't get in." I loved it so much that it must be easy to imagine crushing disappointment. But the truth is I won't be heartbroken, not in the slightest. Before I'd even sent my application I knew very, very well that the chances of my being accepted are extremely small. This doesn't upset me, because I think it's very foolish to stake all your hope on something you might not get. If I don't get in I'll still have my family, a country at peace, my novel, books, Jesus. It's called perspective.
At that time, I really did think I'd go to uni in 2016 regardless! But when the rejection came ... I mean, in one way, my past self was right. I wasn't heartbroken. But I did have a strong feeling: this isn't over. So I took a year out, I reapplied, I worked, I went to Kenya. And guess what?

I'm going to study in Oxford in October.

Oxford - Bridge of Sighs Less than an hour and a half, makes a great day out
[source] // The Bridge of Sighs
The other day I was in Waterstones in St Andrews and, on the table beside which I sat, there were some lovely red hardback editions of a book called Lyra's Oxford by Philip Pullman. I've never read any Pullman, but I picked it up and read the epigram, which quoted from Baedeker (a historic travel guide):

“Oxford, where windows open into other worlds ..."

It was a moment of serendipity, a breath of the future with its beautiful cobbled streets.

So don't settle, because if you pursue what you want, you might just get it. (A side note: if I hadn't got into Oxford, I'd still be mightily glad to have done this gap year. It was not a means to an end. Getting into Oxford is just an extra gift God has given me. Isn't He amazing?)


What have you learned in the past year?

Cow/unicorn, I love it.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Kenya Diaries: What I Got Up To In Tuum

During the month of April, I lived in Samburu in rural northern Kenya. I posted the first part of that time here: going to live in villages with the Samburu people. After those four days we returned to the town of Tuum, to the compound of some Northern Irish missionaries, to run two children's camps.

[Thursday April 20th]

I’m sitting under a tree in a blue plastic chair. A camel is browsing not many metres away.

Camels are fantastical creatures, like something from a myth or a dream: their series of curves like an undulating sea; the long, swinging, wrinkled necks that don’t look like they should hold the head; the way they sway when they walk. Their skinny legs, ending in huge, bell-shaped hooves; their pronounced knees. Their round noses and smiling mouths. Isn’t it amazing to think that the God who made stags and goldfinches and porpoises and all the other animals of Scotland also made the animals of Africa? That He created such distinctly beautiful landscapes: the mountains of home, and the bleached vistas here with their regular, flat-topped trees? And elsewhere there are icebergs and rainforests and prairies and turquoise-lipped beaches, and all in the same world. It is a vast and wonderful place, and He made it all and dwells in it all. And still our planet is only a blue speck in His universe, wreathed in clouds.

There are two bulls who live in this compound. I think every camp should have a couple: walking to a teaching session, it lifted my heart to see one strutting across the volleyball court. One is horned and black and entirely amiable. The other is brindled, red-eyed and not to be trusted. Ten minutes ago I sat here, about to start writing, when I looked up and saw him bearing down on me like a warship. I scarpered, and he began to sniff, worry and eventually knock over the chair on which I’d been sitting. Talk about near death experiences.

It is mid-afternoon, and after two back-to-back camps, the final busloads of children have gone. I feel like a deflated balloon, or maybe a long-term prisoner who has been released and emerges, blinking, into a forgotten sunlit world. The time before camp is a far-off memory.

The camel is eating shoots, its black feathery tail flicking.

Last week was the junior camp; our theme was Who Is Jesus? My group was all girls (apart from two little boys added the next morning). I was glad when I saw all the skirts filing past. Girls are much easier to understand. They were sweet and they loved me; by day two, one of them announced, “you are my mother”. I wonder if she had a real mother. There were sad moments like these, for example when we played a game involving choosing a character (lady, lion or warrior). “Who do you want to be?” I asked my girls. “I want to be a mzungu [white person],” one replied. I didn’t have time to talk to her about it. 

I pray they learned about Jesus. Sometimes they seemed receptive; other times they appeared to have listened and responded to nothing at all. But there were nearly four hundred of them; surely one child must have come to know the Lord in a new way, and if they did, our work was not in vain.

It was a strange dynamic; I felt like less of a leader than a teacher, sleeping up in my separate house, eating away from them. As with every aspect, it was nothing like camp at home. But I hope they felt loved, and enjoyed themselves.

One particularly brutal feature was the 6am devotions and exercises. We only had to do this one morning each, but for the children it was the daily routine. We started before it was light, the children huddling in the church like little ghosts wrapped in shukas, wan and sleep-hazed. After singing and preaching we ran and played games, and saw the sun rise over the mountain. The land is still and hushed then, in reverence of the light breaking out of darkness in hues of pink and grey. In such light worlds are made.

When the children departed we wanted to fizzle out like spent toys, but we had to wind ourselves up again in preparation for youth camp. These ones were older, wilier, harder to impress. Some of them were older than me.

One thing that made me laugh on the first night – something that has struck me throughout this time in Kenya – was how the English Premier League has infiltrated. A boy, one of the campers, came up to me. I said, “Supa?”, which means “Hi, how are you?” in Kisamburu. He said, “Manchester United?”

Over the camp we studied 1 Thessalonians. Did they learn? Were they changed? It’s so hard to say. Kenya is a confusing country. Churches are everywhere; buses blare synthetic worship music, their windows plastered with stickers saying IN GOD WE TRUST and THIS VEHICLE IS PROTECTED BY THE BLOOD OF JESUS. Christian Religious Education continues all the way through school, and pretty much anyone you asked on the street would tell you they loved Jesus. For high schoolers, owning a Bible is a legal requirement. But when the whole education system is based on learning by rote, it’s quite possible – even common? – to slide through school without really learning who Jesus is, CRE lessons notwithstanding. On camp, when we tried to do Bible studies with the youth, it was plain they’d never done anything like it. We were trying, almost desperately, to show them that truth and joy and life can be found in the Bible’s own pages, that God is not a thing we have to learn from others, but can learn through His Living Word. We studied a passage from Mark 1, trying to help them see that in the text itself – not through a pastor’s words, not through a school lesson, but in the text – it says Jesus is the Son of God. “What does this mean?” I asked, wanting them to find a response in the passage.

“It means He died on the Cross for our sins,” a girl replied.

Yes, of course, that is what the Son of God did, but she hadn’t got it from those few verses; it was answer she had learnt. Her concept of Christianity was a collection of empty creeds and confusion. I can only pray that these teenagers will open their Bibles and be amazed by the living and active Word they find, shining there with a light they have never yet seen.

A combination of poor English, shyness and disinterest made the teenagers hard to befriend. Interacting with the children was easy – they stroked my hair, and if we didn’t speak the same language we made faces at each other until we both laughed. Not so the youth. All my early efforts at conversation were met with silence or laughter. But I learnt that you should always keep trying, because on the Tuesday afternoon my efforts paid off and at last I made friends with a group of fourteen-year-olds.

Felister, Alice, Rafaela, Gladys, Lydia, Pauline, Christine and Lucy. They taught me words in Kiturkana, and when I told them I’d done Spanish at school they asked for each word “in Spain”. Every time someone drifted past where we sat on the ground, the girls beckoned them over and, pointing at my knee, say, “say in four languages!” “Acong, goti, knee, rodillo”: Kiturkana, Kiswahili, English, Spanish. It amused us all no end. They wanted to know everything – my parents’ names, how many brothers, how many sisters, nephews and nieces, what grades did I get in school, had I been to uni, how old was I, what was my surname, how much did it cost to get to Kenya from the UK, even what were my dogs called? Then they could rattle the details off in quick succession.

The next day I saw them again and they tested me on Kiturkana words – mountain, tree, sky, child. I taught them to say “¡Hasta luego!” They were some of the best girls I’ve ever met. Being with them was the best time on that camp.

[Saturday April 22nd]

On the last afternoon it rained. I was chopping carrots when it began. At first it was light, dancing in the sun and the wind in frenetic diamonds. Then it grew heavier, and there were real puddles, great drops splashing in them and rippling out in circles. It was the first time I’d seen rain in puddles since leaving home. It was almost British. And yet, standing in the open kitchen door, I could feel the heat of the sun, yellow through the water.

We ran outside, laughing and shouting, and found a tiny, perfect rainbow stretched over the valley, so close we could have run to the end. It was a flawless curve, the colours jewel bright against the dark bruise of the sky, and I thought of Noah emerging from the ark. For him it was the first sunshine after the horror of the rain; for us it was rain after relentless sunshine. For all that, I don’t think our feelings were very different.

Now the teenagers have gone, and here we are, and it seems ever stranger, this mini Gap Team life. Real life would never be like this, the lack of autonomy most of all. But I have love this micro-climate existence, all the same, the community of it, the love, my team, the unending cycle of laughter. I am used to being a team member. It will be so odd to go back to being only myself.

I just frigging love camels, man.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Why You Should Be Reading Skulduggery Pleasant (Really)

None of us have enough books to read, right? Our TBRs vanish before our eyes. We sit around asking, with desperation in our voices, “what shall I read next?!"

Image result for yeah right gif

OK, yes, I know that in reality your TBR is so tall it overtops Kilimanjaro and when you climb to the top you need to take an oxygen pack for the thin air up there.

But that's no reason not to start a new series!

And that series should really be Skulduggery Pleasant.


“But why?" you ask. Here it is, folks: nine books, nine reasons.

1. Skulduggery and Valkyrie (Or “My Best Friends" As I Prefer to Call Them)
Stairs," Valkyrie said, disappointed. 
Not just ordinary stairs," Skulduggery told her as he led the way down. "Magic stairs." 
Oh, yes." 
She followed him into the darkness. How are they magic?" 
They just are." 
In what way?" 
In a magicky way." 
She glared at the back of his head. They aren't magic at all, are they?" 
Not really.”
Skulduggery and Valkyrie's friendship is one of the best friendships I have ever read. And it's unique. How many other 400y/o skeleton / teenage girl dynamics have you read, hmm? He's not her mentor, but he kind of is. He sees her through her teenage years and is with her every step of the way. They teach each other about themselves. And the banter is off the charts.

Funny Pictures Of The Day – 50 Pics
2. The Humour // That Flavour of Satire

You know what's amazing? Landy's masterful blend of fall-over-laughing comedy and sweeping epic. These books have deep, dark, fascinating themes -- they really wrestle with the darkness within us all -- and yet ... the title character is a skeleton? Called Skulduggery Pleasant? There's a scarred tailor called Ghastly Bespoke? Doesn't that seem almost farcical? Yes. Yes it does. And that's why the books can be so serious, yet so funny. Landy's own weird brand of hilarity allows him to go deep into the human heart, without being pretentious or heavy-handed. (I love all the names, by the way. Vex. Rue. Sanguine. Wrong. Sorrows. Frightening. All people you'll meet and love.) 

“That's beautiful," Valkyrie said, looking at it. 
“Isn't it?" China said. “This necklace has cost two very fine men their lives. At times, I wear it in tribute to their sacrifice. Other times, I wear it because it goes with this skirt.”
3. All the Characters 

Every. Single. One of them. Mostly the books are told from Valkyrie's POV, but we have a heap of other POV charries and they're all precious. Personal favourites include Ghastly, Scapegrace, Fletcher Finbar, Saracen, and the Monster Hunters.
“You're not used to early mornings, are you?" 
Finbar shook his head. Early mornings were invented by the system to keep the people occupied. But not me. I'm on to them. They're not gonna catch me napping. Metaphorically, like. Obviously, they can catch me physically napping like, four or five times a day, but, metaphorically, I am so far beyond their reach.”
(I love Finbar.)

Imagine the many stories this simple cafe board could prompt! If you have a novel idea and need some Writing advice, feel free to browse our services online.. http://www.rowanvalebooks.com/writing-advisor-service
[source] // This makes me think of Scapegrace and Thrasher, AKA my only loves.
(Seriously, the Monster Hunters, though. They're these two nerds who wear fandom T-shirts and hunt monsters and write books about them. Their books are called Monster Hunting for Beginners, Monster Hunting for Beginners is Probably Inadvisable and Seriously, Dude, Stop Monster Hunting. I'm in love.)

4. The Parents

Yeah, maybe they should go under Characters with all the other characters, but DESMOND AND MELISSA ARE SO FAB THEY DESERVE THEIR OWN BIT. Because where are the loving, supportive, great parents in YA? Dead, that's usually where.
[Valkyrie going on a date]

Her dad frowned at what she was wearing. 
“It's a little black dress," she told him. 
“It's a little too little," he frowned back. “And where's the rest of it? I can see your knees." 
“Don't be a prude," his wife said ... “You look lovely. Tell her she looks lovely, Des." 
“You look lovely. I do the think the knees are a bit much though." 
“I'm just expressing an opinion, that's all. Personally, I think knees should be kept for the eight or ninth date, or the wedding day. As a nice surprise, you know? Oh, my darling, you have knees! I never would have thought!'"
5. The World // I Love Parallel Dimensions

OK SO THE WORLD IS UNIQUE AND INCREDIBLE. The magical community exists hidden in our world.

And as the series continue, dimension shunting gets introduced, and MAN OH MAN is all I'm going to say.

Also. Sorcerers live a lot longer than mortals, so most of the MCs are centuries old. There was this war centuries ago which most of them fought in. Over the series, we slowly hear more of the war's history and see how it casts its shadow over the present. And I love that sense of history. The world is so rich and well-developed. And the magic. Asdhkglkj. I'm coming onto that.

6. The Epic-ness // Rotating POV

I love the third person rotating POV -- it lets Landy build up this wonderful sense of a sweeping epic. Sometimes we dip into the heads of tiny minor characters, just there for a scene to make a point before vanishing forever (normally getting brutally murdered, that is). In other books it's irksome to get passed around so many people's heads, but Landy treats every voice with his matchless trademark humour. There's never the moment you get when you're reading A Song of Ice and Fire and realise you're stuck with another chapter about Davos Seaworth, making you consider throwing yourself off the Iron Islands because you're so bored. Or when you're reading Heir of Fire or Queen of Shadows and your heart beats faster at every glyph, pleading with the powers that be that you're not about to be dragged into the world of Manon I'm-Turning-To-Lead-With-Boredom-I-Just-Don't-Care Ironteeth. That never happens with Skulduggery! Each and every character is fabulous.

Also, I find it fascinating that we never get Skulduggery's own POV. He's the title character, but we only see him through other's eyes. I'm so in love, guys. How do you fall this hard for a fictional skeleton?

7. This Bit of Life Advice from Ghastly
“How do you deal with that [a broken heart]?" 
“I drink a lot of tea. I've been around for a long time. I've been in love too many times to count. I'd like to say it gets easier, but it doesn't. The pain you're feeling now is the pain you're going to feel again and again. The advantage of having lived through is that I do know I'll come out the other side. The pain lessons.You manage to distract yourself until the distractions become more important than the thing you're distracting yourself from."
I love him with my whole heart. 

what can I say?: a novel idea : advice time
[source] // it's so true though
8. The Themes

The Skulduggery books take your classic theme of Good vs Evil, pick it up, turn it around, give it a good shake, and leave us quivering in the wake of the rawest, realest characters with the biggest choices to make. It really wrestles with the human condition, with the darkness within.
Mankind is not an animal."
Oh, it is, Greta. It's a scared, dangerous animal. ... He thinks we're going to live in a kingdom of the righteous, of the noble. But we're not like that."
Landy doesn't shy away from the reality that humanity is basically evil, and I commend him for that. There is nothing wishy-washy or sentimental about these books. Skulduggery and Valkyrie are detectives, but it's not all glamour and clever one-liners. “We do the jobs no one else wants to do," Skulduggery tells her (I'm paraphrasing but this does happen)“so that they don't have to."

9. The Magic

Last but not least. The sorcerers of Skulduggery's intoxicating world throw fire and bend air. There are Sensitives, peeking into the terrifying future; some of them can rewrite your mind. Everyone's gifts are different: Anton Shudder, the man whose dark side takes physical form and roars out of his chest to destroy his enemies; Billy-Ray Sanguine, tunnelling through floors and walls at lightning speed; Tanith Low, walking up walls as she brandishes her sword.

One of my favourite bits is reflection magic. If you're a teenage sorcerer who can't tell her parents that she's out saving the world, what do you do? You cast a spell on your mirror and let out your reflection, a simulation who pretends to be you. Reflections are its, not human, but they do the job now and then. And when you put them back in the mirror, you absorb their memories, allowing you to continue your double life. But don't let the reflection out for too long -- the more it acts being human, the more human it becomes ...

Names have a powerful magic in this series. Every sorcerer has a true name. If someone else learns it, they can control you utterly; if you learn it yourself and seal it, you become virtually invincible. Identity is a key theme of the series, which ties in beautifully with the coming-of-age feel of the novels, tracking Valkyrie from the age twelve to eighteen. The magic is unique and stunning, and so is her journey of discovering who she is.

Artist unfortunately unknown:


Well, are you sold? I'm just in love with these books, folks. Piece of advice: read them in a short space of time. Back in the Stone Age when they were coming out and I was reading them as they were published, I forgot the plot every year, so, don't do that, yeah? Just commit! Forget the size! Plough ahead! (Oh, and as with most good series, they start out kinda cute and it's only really Book 3, or maybe even Book 5, that stuff seriously Amps Up, so PERSIST, OK?)

Right, I'm done. What's the one series you would like to shove down my throat just as much as I would like to shove Skulduggery down yours? And what's the key element of making a good series for you?

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.

Displaying IMG_3614.JPG

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.