Nairobi, Kenya 1957
I shared a bedroom with my younger brother and usually stirred from sleep before him as the house started to waken. Maria’s key in the back door and muffled voices as she prepared breakfast. Karioke’s soft bare footfall on the wooden stairs as he collected shoes to be polished. Each night before bed we put our shoes neatly outside our bedroom door to be cleaned and polished for the next day. It was sumptuous to lie and gaze through windows whose curtains had been drawn back with my face in early morning sunlight. Peering past the shaft of light I’d wonder what new discoveries lay waiting. Nature had only to crook her finger to draw me away from the house into her game.
The outdoors held wondrous mysteries that fed a child’s natural curiosity. As the wind rushed through my wispy hair, I ran over open meadows and down hillsides, arms outstretched dipping and swooping like the swallows I’d seen flock at dusk. There is no memory of restriction and the freedom given an adventurous four year old was perhaps more a reflection of the laissez-faire parenting approach my parents took.
The wetlands at the foot of the property were a haven for a young girl. I squatted on the banks of the creek, and peek into the lives of the creatures that dwelled there. The frog weightlessly pushed off the muddy bank and forged upstream, becoming the arrowhead of the wedged ripples in its wake. I squealed as a toad shot from between my feet to launch itself into the waters. Moments later the waters would be calm as a mill pond. I sat quietly on the bank waiting for the toad to re-emerge before coaxing it from its hiding place with a nudge from the tip of the bulrush, especially picked.
Bullfrog croaks carried on the heat waves. Birds swooped and squawked with excitement. Willow branches overhung the creek, providing a natural supple swing over the creek. Meanwhile, upstream, the creek became a babbling brook where the bird life changed from larger species to those more suited to the dense wetlands. The frogs were smaller too and bright green, they were easy to spot. It was not uncommon to come across a snake sunning itself on the bank close by its newly shed snake skin.
Stepping stones across the river led to a small private island and it offered the perfect spot to observe the wildlife. I lay alternately face up to decipher cloud shapes and imagine stories about them; and then roll over belly down and bury my head into the grass looking for bugs.
So warmed by the sun in my grass cocoon I might have dozed off before waking to roll over, prop my chin in my hands and follow an ant procession. How did they carry objects many times their own size and weight along hidden tracks, did they grow tired? Where were they headed and did ants sleep? When they reached their destination and delivered the load, there was no time to catch their next breath (did ants breath, they must, everything that lives has breath). Back they went to collect the next burden. If you placed a twig on their path it sent them scurrying in all directions as they scrambled to re-establish direction.
Ants weren’t the only creatures with purpose. Bees drew lazy looping circles in the air as they buzzed between flowers collecting nectar as they pollinated flowers. Nectar sacs full they carried treasure back to the hive. Wasps were homemaking, taking mud from the bank to nests in nearby trees. Large droning dragonflies hovered above the water and their rainbow coloured wings caught the sun.
Seasonal changes registered when my clothing changed: red corduroy trousers (a favourite) were for colder days, while shorts, dresses, skirts and short sleeved tops marked warmer seasons.
Lost on my island discovering nature’s mysteries I was often out until dusk when shadows broadened and the mosquitoes started biting. The swallows swooped in great flocks in the early evening, their forked tails disappearing into trees to nest. The cacophony of early evening birdcalls was frightening. I never did like loud noises and when the birds started to flock and hammer out their evensong I knew it was time to be heading home.
Finally, Maria came to find me. Her African lilt carried on the breeze in her sing song voice. Tall grasses swished against my trousers and warm kitchen smells beckoned me homeward as I navigated my way by the shaft of light that filtered through drawn curtains.