I have very few memories from my days before Africa. It is as if that monumental event of moving halfway around the world took up so much of my 5 year old brain for processing that room had to be made. Things of less consequence were shoved back into the corners of forgotten locations never to be retrieved. As it is, what few memories I have of that time are vague and unsure – perhaps not memories at all, but dreams of memories, and fabrications of someone else’s accounts. It is the same with the trip across Europe to get to Kenya. I remember airports and stewardesses serving strong coffee. I remember taking pictures surrounded by the boys from the other families who traveled with us. I don’t remember arriving in Nairobi. I don’t remember the ride to the Tigoni Hills. But I do remember Brackenhurst, my very first African destination. And I remember the Honeymoon Cottage, my very first African home.
It may seem a bit after the fact to put a couple with their four children in a house for honeymooners, but after all, this was in a way a honeymoon; the consummation of a budding relationship with a new continent. It wasn’t as romantic as it might seem. There was a fire place in the master bedroom that backed up to another fireplace in the hallway to the smaller rooms. If you started a fire in one, without simultaneously starting one in the other, the smoke would be sucked down the unlit chimney and billow out into the house. And even in the midst of a January summer, it was cold without a fire in the mornings. But the setting was everything you would imagine an exotic honeymoon to be: A little round house surrounded by beautiful flowers, manicured hedges, and green, green grass: the wilds of Africa tamed by a European hand.
As I think back to that time, I feel the familiar ache of a life past, but that feeling is surrounded by a blanket of anticipation, excitement, and comfort. Mom and Dad went to language school, Cindy and Eucled went to Rift Valley Academy, Brenda went to Rosslyn Academy, and I stayed home with Mamma Mary. Mama Mary was my aiya. She and her husband cared for me when I would come home from a half day at the primary school in Limuru. The only specific memory I have of her is the day she battled to open a can of plums for me to eat as a snack. Neither of us knew how to use a can opener, but she was not going to be defeated by that. I remember the jagged edges of tin around a hole barely big enough to let the plums escape. That is the totality of Mary memories – conqueror of the canned goods. But the Mary feelings and smells go much further than that. I remember the sense of accomplishment I had when she and her husband taught me my first Swahili words, “Moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano…” all the way to numbering the fingers on both hands. I remember the pride I felt as I showed my parents my new found knowledge. I have a sense of nurture, laughter, and kindness at their hands. And I can remember Mary’s smell. It was clean, and natural, and distinct from the whiteness I was used to. I don’t know whether it was the Lifeboy soap or a moisturizer or if black skin just smells differently from white. I do know that I once hugged an African American acquaintance and she had the same smell. I found myself not wanting to let go of her. That smell embodies all that is safe and loving and warm in my childhood.
My encounter with Mama Mary was brief. For reasons unknown to me, I went from coming home to her in the afternoons to being watched by another woman along with the other primary school aged children whose parents attended language school. However brief, she and her husband were the introduction I had to Africa and Africans. This was the foundation on which all the rest was built. There would be times of confusion, pain and disappointment as I continued my journey in Africa, and then back to the homeland I couldn’t remember. But always at the base, at the cornerstone of the life that is me, is this lovely Mama Mary who is reduced to a few memories, a smell, and the sense that all is well.
We have these moments.