Strange things we remember when we are about to say goodbye. Like the first time I saw Sister Elizabeth in the Mother Superior's office. Sisters were supposed to be old in my opinion. She had looked young and pretty, in a cool kind of way. Goodbye was not going to be easy.
Sister Elizabeth rented a car a few days after the Mau Mau raid and told us that he wanted to spend time with us. Wairimu and I felt honoured that she thought so highly of us. We had all become something more than friends in a short period of time. Sister Elizabeth was now family and we would remember her all our lives.
The car was an old black Austin Healey that spattered black smoke and made a whomping noise. The top was down, turning it into a wind-in-the-face sports car. It was parked outside the convent so as not to distract the other Sisters from their time with God. Dressed in a blue habit, Sister Elizabeth led us past the office towards the main convent gate. We walked slowly behind her and watched as she humbly nodded at the other Sisters.
Eventually the gate opened and closed behind us. The Austin Healey was waiting around the corner, out of sight.
"Get in the back girls," Sister Elizabeth told us.
We giggled and scrambled up the beautiful car, bouncing up and down the leather seats in joy. Outside, Sister Elizabeth took off the habit to expose brown cotton pants and a brown safari shirt. She also took off the blue head wrap and let loose her brown hair. We gasped at how beautiful and wild she looked. She winked at us as she packed the clothes into a small bag sitting on the floor between my sister and I. She then jumped into the driver's seat and fired up the engine. We stared at her with open mouths.
"Buckle up girls," she said as she grabbed a pair of sunglasses from the glove compartment. "I want to show you the world away from the convent walls."
The Austin Healey roared down the dirt road and the Sister handled it with one hand like a pro. Her window was halfway down and the breeze lifted her hair behind her. I pictured her in Europe, driving through a fancy city, and in that moment, just watching her, I knew I wanted to be like her.
"Sweets?" she asked as she stretched a loaded hand towards the back seat.
We took the sweets and filled our mouths with saliva. With the sweets came an extra boost of energy and we started pointing at the huts and people streaking by. Without a top cover, the air felt cold on our faces but the excitement kept us warm. I smiled at Sister Elizabeth through her back mirror and she smiled back. There was something about Sister Elizabeth that made us feel comfortable in a way that we didn't around other adults. Around her we could be ourselves, without being cheeky or naughty.
"I know you are wondering about me," the Sister said as she drove around a boy herding goats. "I love what I do. I love being a Sister and working at the hospital. But once in a while, I like to be 'me', wild and free just the way God created me." She chuckled. "When you grow older you will remember this day and wonder about my dual identity; about who we really are in life as opposed to what we let others see. I just want you to know that life should be something you look forward to doing every day when you wake up. You must decide what your story will look like."
I liked what Sister Elizabeth was saying. I wanted to write my story too and I wanted it to look like hers; behind the wheels of an Austin Healey wearing sunglasses, with a big sun hat sitting on the passenger's seat.
Goodbye. This was goodbye and we were well aware of it. Plans were being made to ship us out of the convent due to the Mau Mau threat. The Sisters were willing to risk their lives but not ours. The decision had been made by Mother Superior after the Mau Mau had burned down the chapel. A letter had arrived by ordinary mail signed by Marshall D. Kimathi, a leader of Mau Mau telling the Sisters to go back to Europe and vacate the people's land. As a result, the convent was now constantly patrolled by British soldiers carrying revolvers and prayer meetings were conducted in the dining hall. A curfew was also in place and all Sisters were required to retire to their rooms by 7pm. Roll-call was taken before lights-out, and all doors and windows locked. Marshall Dedan Kimathi was known to have killed many white families residing in farms near the Aberdares Ranges. These farms now lay empty and a wave of fear of Mau Mau had swept over the White Highlands like wildfire.
"Do you know where they will take us," my sister asked.
"I think Nairobi to a children's home far from the forest. The children's homes in Nairobi are protected by British soldiers."
Nairobi sounded like a dream but I did not trust anything I was told anymore. Adults lied to make children feel better and I had discovered this the hard way. Maybe they would separate us again, like they did with our old brother and small sister. Maybe we would be mistreated in the new home. I wanted to go home, back to my father's land, and be with my family. And then maybe Sister Elizabeth could come and visit us all the time and bring us sweets.
"We are going to visit Mathari Boys Orphanage in a few days," Sister Elizabeth reminded us. "It will be a wonderful moment and we will teach the boys about the love of God, and how His son Jesus Christ died to save their sins. But we should also do something special for those boys, to make them have fun."
I thought about seeing my brother again and adrenaline charged through my veins. Wairimu met my eyes and I knew she was having similar thoughts. Seeing Nderitu was going to be the happiest moment of our lives, and with our current predicament of being sent to Nairobi, our brother would know what to do. Together with Nderitu we would find our little sister Wanjiru and bring her home where she belonged.
"We should sing something nice and inspiring," Sister Elizabeth said pensively.
"We can sing the song you taught us the night I was having nightmares," I said.
Sister Elizabeth laughed heartily. "Don't worry Wangechi, I think I have the perfect song. I will teach you both and you will practice."
We drove through the White Highlands and met a lot of British soldiers on high alert. Sister Elizabeth seemed to have picked out this route on purpose for safety reasons. It confused me a lot, the Mau Mau brutality and the size of land that the white people kept for themselves. There was injustice here, and a loss of human unity. I wondered when it would all end, or whether it would ever end.
We saw a lot of buffalos, zebras and gazelles, and squealed in delight. Half an hour later, we flew past the coffee and banana plantations and joined a bumpy dirt road that led us through empty land. There was nothing here but hills covered with green grass and rocks. This land was so bad that it was hard to grow anything of value. Coming around one of the hills, I gasped as a village appeared below us.
"Girls," Sister Elizabeth said. "Welcome to Watene Village."
We half stood in the car and stared outside. I saw a lot of mud huts and a few cows in the field and I was very surprised.
"They have cows and goats?" I said.
"Yes," Sister Elizabeth explained. "I bought this land for the Kikuyu people. I come from a rich family abroad and used my father's money to buy the land. The government does not like that natives are living on my property but there is nothing they can do because unlike the Kikuyu people, I am protected by the law."
"I don't understand Sister," Wairimu said as the car started descending the hill. "Why would you help the Kikuyu people?"
"It's why I came to Africa," the Sister said without pause. "I came to Africa to do God's work by helping people; to build bridges and break down walls. I don't agree with what the Mau Mau rebels are doing but I understand why they are doing it. They want their freedom and the dignity of having a say in their lives. I don't agree with the way the colonial British are treating the natives. They have squeezed them into small reserves and yet the Europeans live on large profitable plantations. This is my way of helping Africa."
I felt warm inside at what Sister Elizabeth was doing. She was unpredictable and perfect, and one day I would grow up to be like her. Her words took away the abrasion of life and gave me hope where there was none.
"Something else you should know," the Sister continued, slowing down the car to a crawl. "There's something in life more important than land."
"Really?" I said.
"What is?" Wairimu asked.
"You are," Sister Elizabeth said. "You... the children... are more important than anything else in this world."
"Why the children?" I asked.
"Because children give people hope. We die and the children live on, and we hope that they do better than we did ... realise that no life is more significant than the other."
"What should we?" Wairimu asked. "Tell us what to do Sister and we will do it."
Sister Elizabeth pondered the question. "Look at me. I came all the way from Europe to help develop Africa. More people should do that so that you children can learn from them. You must believe every time you leave the house that you are a part of something greater than yourself. You must believe that this country belongs to you, because ultimately only Africans can build Africa."
The Austin Healey stopped between the houses and half naked children with over-sized shorts came out running, shouting, "mzungu, mzungu!" (White person) The car was too high for them to climb up and so they resulted to running around it.
"Jambo watoto," Sister Elizabeth greeted. (Hello children) We stepped out of the vehicle and she locked the doors with the keys. She loved the natives but she also knew what hunger could do to the human brain. Hunger made people steal, lie, and even kill.
"Jambo Sister," the children replied, and a few hands dug into her pockets looking for sweets. Surrounded by black children, the Sister looked really white, her moist pink lips clearly sticking out as an attractive feature on her face. She pushed her hair behind her ears as a big bag of candy miraculously appeared in her hands. The children applauded and Sister Elizabeth started handing out the sweets. "Moja kwa moja," she said laughing. (One by one) "Tafadhali." (Please)
I stared at the candy and wondered where it had come from. This wasn't the regular chemical filled candy found in the local shops, this was candy that was brought to Africa by planes, and it tasted like heaven.
"We love you Sister Elizabeth!" the children yelled in English as they ran around her.
"I love you too." The Sister beamed with joy.
Women dressed in long brown dresses appeared from inside the huts, some carrying babies on their backs. The only men to be seen were the old ones and the little boys, as most men had either been arrested by the colonial British or fled into the forest. The people in Watende Village enjoyed the privilege of living on a large white farm, but they were not exempt from the constant British soldiers' harassment, and Mau Mau night raids.
"Wapi Chief Karanja?" (Where is Chief Karanja?) Sister Elizabeth asked the women in Swahili. Her tongue glided and the Swahili words sounded funny. The children laughed and told her to speak again.
A little boy dashed inside a big hut to call the chief as we waited. It was hot as always. That was the thing about Africa; heat during the day and mosquitoes at night, depending on what time of the year it was. And the mosquitoes were mean and tough. They got slapped around and still came back for another bite.
A few seconds later, an old man wearing what looked like a grey blanket appeared. Chief Karanja looked older than his 56 and flashed a toothless smile at the sight of Sister Elizabeth. He reminded me of the old men from my village that used to scare me as a child.
"Mungu ni mwema," Chief Karanja said as he stretched out a boney hand to greet the Sister. (God is great) "Lakini umekonda sana mzungu, kwani hukuli?"
It was too much Swahili for Sister Elizabeth and so she asked Wairimu and I to translate.
"She says you are skinny, and wonders whether you eat," Wairimu said.
Sister Elizabeth laughed. "I'm not skinny, am I?"
"You are," I said. "All white women are skinny."
Kikuyu women were very well fed in my opinion. After the birth of their first child, they never returned to their old bodies and it was downhill from there. Skinny women were frowned upon in the village and husbands blamed for not feeding their wives.
The children ran off to play and we followed Chief Karanja to the gardens behind the houses where I was shocked to see a coffee plantation. The air was fresh in the gardens in a manner that caught our attention, and we took in big gulps. The coffee was an evergreen colour and looked to be four feet tall. Kikuyus were not allowed to plant coffee so as not to compete with the white man but then again, this was Sister Elizabeth's land.
"How long before the harvest?" Sister Elizabeth asked.
The chief walked very slowly with a cane. Behind us, I smiled at a small boy who was carrying a 3-legged stool for the old man.
"Two more years," the chief said. "It's been two years since we planted and so far so good. The British haven't said anything and the Mau Mau haven't burnt down our shamba."
Sister Elizabeth gave the old man an envelope full of money. "Get a few people to clear the bushes and the long grass around the village. It will help to establish a boundary to keep the wild animals and snakes away. Meanwhile, use this money to feed the village."
The old man turned and faced Mt. Kenya. "God Ngai we thank you for this mzungu," he said. And then he turned to the Sister and said with a slight bow. "Asante sana." (Thank you very much)
"Karibu," Sister Elizabeth said. (You are welcome) "The community is stronger when people help each other."
We left the gardens and came to a small building that looked like a dining hall. It was a school. The roof was made of dry grass, the mud-wall reached waist high and wooden logs had been cut to make benches.
"All the children are going to school now," Chief Karanja said. "Even the big ones. They must learn if they are to compete with the white man."
"Even the girls?" Sister Elizabeth asked.
"Even the girls. There are no men to marry them anyway." The old man laughed out loud displaying a very toothless mouth.
"Thank you very much," Sister Elizabeth said. "I wouldn't have been able to convince them of the importance of school. I want my Kikuyus to be educated."
It was the first time I heard the Sister use the term 'my' Kikuyu, and I realised that hers was a world filled with magical possibilities. For her it was personal to make a difference in Africa regardless of what was happening around her. One day she would stand in front of men and tell her story. And while telling it, she would remember the laughter of the half-naked children, and her face would light up like the morning sky above Mt. Kenya. "Africa," she would say. "At a glance you stole my heart."
A few older girls tried to talk to Sister Elizabeth in broken English. Their excited voices filled and charged the air with life in an infectious kind of way. They giggled a lot and their effort to speak English seemed to please Sister Elizabeth immensely, and she engaged them right back. She asked them about their dreams and told them to broaden their horizon. Nairobi was a good dream but attending university in London was a better one. "People's dreams change with time too," Sister Elizabeth explained. "A young boy's dream of having a bicycle matures into a dream of owning a car. A young boy on a farm dreams of being a pilot, while a pilot looks down and dreams of one day having a farm and actually spending time on it." Sister Elizabeth planted seeds of hope in the Kikuyu people and they loved that she believed in them.
Women and their children lined outside the school afterwards and the Sister talked to them, counseling the women and handing out bandages to children who wore them like trophies. The seriously ill were told to wait while the not so seriously ill were quickly discharged.
"Wangechi," Sister Elizabeth called me. "Take these keys. Go to the car and bring me the medicine bag."
"Yes Sister," I said, taking the keys and feeling important.
"Wairimu," the Sister called. "Help me clean these tables please. I'm going to need your help treating the patients."
I walked outside and felt the other children's eyes on me. I met them and saw the envy. I lived with white people and the other children wanted badly to be in my shoes. Unlike the soldiers, white people were famous for handing out goodies to children.
I jogged over to the car and opened the door. The duffel bag was sitting on the floor in the back and I had seen it earlier. I tried to reach it but couldn't and so was forced to climb up to grab it.
"Help!" Someone suddenly screamed.
I froze and quickly looked around me. Villagers were running in every direction with panic on their faces. A minute ago everything had looked and sounded normal, but now it didn't. I looked away from the running people and searched the trees behind me and this time I saw it, a lioness charging straight at me! My mind went completely blank and I failed to register that I was under attack. One second turned into two before I reacted. My hand moved fast and I pulled the car door shut. The lioness was only a few steps away, on its final burst of speed, and the door closing seemed to confuse it. The Austin Healey even with an open top was a high car and the lioness was forced to double back for a leap. I found my voice and screamed.
From my peripheral view, I saw a tall slender figure running towards me at full speed. It was Sister Elizabeth, her hair blowing in the wind, a revolver in her hand. It made sense that she had hidden the gun from every body's sight. For a white woman to walk and drive through the deepest parts of Africa without a weapon was foolish.
The lioness growled loudly, its huge paws clamped onto the side of the car as it tried to pull itself up. Standing on its hind legs, it was just as tall as the car. I saw the sharp teeth and felt the hot air coming through its mouth and nostrils. My back found the leather seat and I stared up in disbelief.
It was a strange sight for a lion to hunt humans. Lions avoided humans and hunted at night or early in the morning. What we were seeing now was a rare incident and all the Kikuyu women and children vanished inside their homes.
I was afraid, in a strange kind of way. I wasn't as terrified as the night the Mau Mau had pulled me out of my bed. I had grown up around animals and I understood how far down the food chain I was. We feared the animals, but mostly we respected and understood their need to feed and survive.
Sister Elizabeth stilled herself and fired twice. The lioness froze, then fell on its back and lay dead. Everything was very quiet after that. I rose slowly and stared down at the dead animal, a part of me not trusting the creature to stay down.
"Wangechi, are you okay?" Sister Elizabeth asked as she opened the car door and pulled me into her arms. I placed my head on her shoulders and felt very safe. A wave of exhaustion hit my body and a rainfall of tears started pouring down my face.
"You are safe now," Sister Elizabeth said. "That lioness must have been very hungry to attack a village."
Doors opened and Kikuyus came out cautiously. They brought machetes and chopped the lioness to pieces, with children darting inside huts to deliver meat and bring back containers. For the next few days the village would feast, and laughter would fill the air.
"People eat lions?" I asked.
"People will eat anything to stay alive," Sister Elizabeth said solemnly.
The Sister, Wairimu and I sat under a tree and watched the villagers. They danced and waved raw steak in the air. Cold air found my nostrils and helped ease my nerves. It worried me how close I had come to death.
"God has a purpose for you," Sister Elizabeth said. "It’s not your time yet."
Looking at her sitting so calm, I finally understood why she had come to Africa. It was her free spirit. No oceans or mere continents could contain her energy and passion. Sister Elizabeth was like a good book and all I wanted to do was turn the pages.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...