Saffron watched the dust bouncing off the scorched soil, shifted sideways by the sheer force of the drops. It was mid-March and the start of the season of long rains. The cool relief was welcomed in by the open arms of the children who danced in celebration, barefoot in the dirt. The classrooms had cleared at the sound of the first taps of water on the school’s tin roof. Soaking up the cool splashes through their skin, the children revelled in the refreshing break from the long, hot season. As their teacher looked out at the gossamer of grey clouds gracing the sky, and to the sandy soil churning into terracotta clay beneath the playful pound of excited feet, a memory from her own childhood flashed into her mind.
She closed her eyes to hear the sound of slamming doors in her past. Voices were raised and she realised that no-one would be coming into the garden, to push her on the swing, as promised. Six-year-old Saffron had stood up, and walked back as far as she could manage, with the wooden plank resting half-way up her back. She knew that to get the biggest swing she would have to run and jump as high, whilst holding on to the ropes. If her arms held out she would get the best ride. If she missed the seat, she risked thudding to the ground and bruising herself. With an explosive spurt and a determined tug on both ropes she had succeeded in hoisting herself onto the swing. The young girl had closed her eyes, gasping at the breeze on her face and enjoying the free-falling rush through her small body. When the ropes reached the apex of the movement, she had thrown back her head and flexed her feet out in front, parting the air and soaring through the wind, fuelled by her success and the freedom of her flight The sound of screeching tyres had ruptured her joy. It was her father’s car, leaving the driveway for the last time. The swing slowed to a lull. She hung her small head. The clouds cried, their tears dripping over her sad shoulders. An hour must have passed as she twisted on the swing, scuffing her shoes up in the mud, weighted down by her waterlogged cardigan. Eventually her mother appeared at the door. Red-eyed, she summoned her daughter inside the house, scolding her for the stupidity of sitting in the rain.
No-one interrupted the joy of the school children, who had now gathered into groups amidst the rains and were engaging in their usual play-ground games. Saffron looked on at their laughter and smiles. She followed the flow of the hand clapping and gestures of the girls standing in circles, and watched the wide- eyed expressions of the boys slipping and sliding on the rain-soaked tyres suspended from the trees, exuberant and carefree. Childhood memories could be the source of deep-seated terrors, or a store of timeless treasures. Saffron’s mind was too full of the joy and laughter of the children that she had witnessed over the years, to allow her private sadness to surface.
Her attention was diverted by a truck pulling into the compound. It was bringing an important delivery, a new volunteer. She watched the driver jump out from the cab and gesture to one of the five men sitting on the open back. There was some shuffling and bending before a large suitcase was handed down to the driver. A young girl emerged from the passenger seat of the cab. She wore an inquisitive, if weary, expression. Her loose linen clothes were travel-creased. She looked up at the sky, as if to check that it was the source of the water falling on her head; a confused look passed over her face. Saffron waved a welcome, recalling the day she had first arrived at the compound.
It was thirty years to the month that she had embarked on her journey to the African continent, where she learned that the rain was a blessing, not a curse. Her early years in England had been spent under a constant cloud. When the muted shades of the watercolour of life eventually ran into one shapeless, grey smudge, Saffron knew it was time to seek a clearer vista. Leaving a lacklustre job and a loveless relationship, she had packed the first twenty three years of her life into a case and walked out, leaving her umbrella in the hall stand. The images of the life she left behind were now a hazy blur in her mind; however she could still recall every detail of her arrival in Kenya and her journey to the school. Travelling north out of Nairobi, the roads soon gave way to rough tracks. Wide awake, courtesy of the jolt of the bus, the hot sun had evaporated her outer film of sadness and reignited her will. She saw this opportunity as a way to dry out from the pervasive damp of her past, and warm up in anticipation of the future. For the final trek of her destination, to the school at which she was to become a volunteer, paid in food and accommodation, Saffron was reliant on the goodwill of a complete stranger. Kamau was the young driver charged with the task of the safe delivery of the new teacher. He had honoured his responsibility on that occasion, becoming a valued advisor and trusted confidante for the three decades that followed. On arrival, she had been greeted by a sea of children, from which one orphaned boy had broken free and ran towards her. She had knelt down and looked into his shining eyes, asking, “What is your name?” “Habib,” he had whispered in her ear as she wrapped him up in her arms. From that moment, he would always be seen walking alongside her, holding her hand or sitting at her feet. When he became frail, she carried him on her hip.
Saffron’s early days at the school became filled with the vibrant colours of the African landscape. She pressed her toes into the rich, ochre soil, bathed her soul in the depth of the crimson sunset and stared endlessly into the timeless deep of the night skies. Adjusting to external life on the equator also forced an internal shift on the psyche of the young woman. She had become far more balanced in her approach to life; her pace of mind had slowed and her body had synchronised with the rhythm of the sun, the moon and the seasons. She had settled into her own skin and inched closer to the hearts and minds of her new family, shadowed always by Habib. Painting the walls of the school building in yellow, she encouraged the children to make their own marks with hand and foot prints in bright, primary colours. As soon as each pupil learned their own name, they were allowed to paint it, along with the date, on a memorial wall. As the years passed, she became one of the few constants in the lives of the pupils whose families struggled with poverty, illness, starvation and death. Saffron addressed each child as an equal and offered the same opportunities to all. Some walked miles every day to attend school, and just a smile or a word from her could make it worth their while. Against the backdrop of the violent, political struggles for power, the school became a safe haven for those whose lives were blighted by the greed and corruption of others. When she heard of conflict, Saffron counted her blessings and invested more of her energy into the creation of the school, which in return witnessed a steady increase in the number of keen students. As the national mood darkened, she painted colourful murals on the classroom walls and encouraged the children to sing louder. When people covered over the names of the pupils whose lives had ended too early through illness or violence, she simply repainted them in their rightful places.It had rained on the day she had repainted Habib’s name on the wall, and for the first time in five years she had felt a chill enter through a crack in her soul.
Kamau had become a constant companion. Together they spent many hours trekking in the bush around the compound. He teased her about the lions lurking in the flowering Acacia thickets, when all she had spotted were the bees harvesting the white blossom to make their honey. He showed her where the valuable Miraa leaves grew, before they were harvested and transported around the country to feed the habits of Khat addicts. Also he had taught the young volunteer useful words in Kiswahili. Having explained how the local culture and customs informed the role of women in the rural community, he had raised an eyebrow when Saffron had invited the mothers of the children into the school to learn about sexual health issues and to practice basic literacy skills. Reserving his judgement as to the wisdom of her actions, he waited until he witnessed the positive results in the local community, where the women became better equipped to look after themselves, and the wellbeing of their families. From thereon in he supported all of her initiatives, including the nearby forestry programme. As a part of the country’s Green Belt movement, Saffron volunteered the services of all those in the compound who were fit enough for the heavy manual labour. He praised her wisdom when, in repayment for their efforts, the compound received valuable resources for their agricultural and planting projects. Together the two worked tirelessly to build a sustainable way of life for the villagers. They drilled bore holes to ensure a regular and plentiful supply of clean water and prepared the land for irrigation. Fencing projects ensured greater success in the rearing of cattle and goats. Saffron knew that the protection of the environment was a crucial factor in the construction of the social and economic infrastructure of the country. During the food crises and floods of 2004 and 2006, Kamau’s strength had helped to steady her nerve and hone her focus on the rebuilding work necessary to reinstate the life that had already been ten years in the making. He had his finger on the community’s pulse and Saffron offered creative solutions to the on-going social and educational issues. Her Women’s Good Health Group grew in popularity when the laughter from the room spilled out into the compound. Those who were suspicious about the initiative noticed how the women in the group smiled more freely and eased each other’s burdens.
Kamau also had a special place in Saffron’s heart. Opportunities for intimacy were few and short-lived due to the communal nature of life in the compound. They savoured the moments by the fireside, reflecting on the tribulations and triumphs, amidst the comfort of its warm glow and the reassuring scent of wood smoke. The couple had also made excursions into the capital to attend conferences and collect resources for their environmental projects On these occasions they had dined alone and stayed together overnight in a hotel in a quiet street, run by a cousin of Kamau. It was the one occasion that her beloved had taken the trip alone that would be forever etched in Saffron’s memory. That day, her dreamscape of life, the country and its people changed forever. Life went on, but the world had permanently shifted on its axis. The news of his unscheduled stop-off in the city shopping mall would forever ricochet around her mind, along with the ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs’ that tormented her, alone at night. Oblivious to the siege and the slaughter of seventy innocent people, Saffron had watched anxiously waiting into the early hours for his return, fear seeping into every inch of her soul. Eclipsed by the news of his death, she slipped into a waking sleep, losing her faith in the sun to rise. It was the chatter of the children that woke her up in the mornings. She was carried on the constant of their acceptance and optimism. When she slipped, there was always an open hand offering to help her along. Saffron had considered once more packing up her life and moving on. Her uncertainty had reverberated around the compound and echoed in the hearts of those who knew her. However, the nine months of her grief was a relatively brief moment in the psyche of a people whose fates had long been tied to the tumult of diaspora and natural disasters.
Now she walked out, pausing ritually in the rain, allowing it to wash her clean. The children had gathered around the new volunteer, clamouring for her attention, shouting ‘Jambo,’ and stroking her long, fair hair. She was already welcome in their world, and in their hearts. “Welcome! The children believe you have brought the rain with you.” Saffron explained to her new colleague. “You are the first blessing of the new season.”
(c) Helen Noble 2014
(c) Photograph courtesy of Caitlin N Noble