In January, 2017, I was discovering a new place. While I was immersed in the culture of Mexico, where I attended a writing workshop, Lizzi, at the same time, was on her way to Africa, but not for vacation. She was going to help.
I kept up on her time there through social media and I could sense the profound affect it was having on her.
I knew I wanted to read one of her stories and one title, in particular, it jumped out at me.
I miss colours, a hard fact of life. I may go to Kenya one day, who knows, but I won’t ever see the colours of Kenya. I wanted to hear someone with a way with words tell me what they saw of Kenya’s colours.
Read the following story by Lizzi that I am honoured to be featuring on my blog today. It’s beautiful.
The Colours of Kenya
I had been travelling for what felt like a million hours, and in spite of having slept on both plane-rides, I was dropping with tiredness. It didn’t matter though, because I was in KENYA!
Getting there had been a long journey, literally and figuratively. The preceding months had been filled with emails back and forth to various Important Bods at the hospital, a cautious raising of hopes in October 2016 (only to have them dashed), and then a sudden YES, ten days before we were due to leave.
The four of us – a consultant, a senior nursing sister, an infection control nurse, and me (a buttinski retinal screener with her own agenda for gathering baseline information on the state of diabetes care on offer at the four hospitals we were linked with) – had been travelling since 11am UK time, arriving in Mombasa at 4.20am Kenyan time. We were at the end of our abilities to communicate clearly, and a sleep-haze had descended over all of us, reducing our words and movements to the very deliberate, or the not-at-all.
Still, landing in the thick, humid Kenyan morning (far hotter than Nairobi, a couple of hours earlier, and far more like the ‘stepping into an oven’ I had expected) at an airport which seemed almost deserted and (I noticed with interest) had not one pane of glass in the building, but a beautiful Byzantine cement filigree over each window-space, was definitely a fulfilment of my hope for adventure.
We piled into the waiting taxi and started off out of the airport, past the soldiers’ huts, and onto a road which wasn’t so much ‘road’, as potholes laced together with concrete. As we left the airport behind us, I was startled by a flash of deep magenta in the middle of a dusty patch of grass. Some kind of shrub with flaming red flowers held itself proudly in the pale morning light. I later discovered it was bougainvillea – a plant very suited to hot climates, with brightly coloured bracts near its flowers in every shade of pink, purple, red, and white – which seemed to grow proliferately throughout the region, providing beautiful splashes of colour in sunlit places.
‘Bougainvillea Kenyavision’ – a close-up of the bright magenta bracts of the bougainvillea flower, against a blue sky]
In spite of my snoozing colleagues, I couldn’t bear to close my eyes and miss out on my first glimpses of what was to become a familiar road between Mombasa (where the hospitals were) and Diani, where our hotel was.
My first impression was that there was paint EVERYWHERE! Many of the buildings were completely coated, often with advertising slogans painted on. In fact, many of the walls suggested ‘If you like it, CROWN it’, advertising the very paint they were (presumably) decorated with.
After a few days of travelling up and down the road, I decided that the predominant colours of Kenya were bright green, yellow, blue, and white, with splashes of orange and red thrown in. If anything could be painted or decorated, it was; from the riotously coloured tuk-tuks with their funny names (‘Jobless’, ‘Father’s Blessing’) and entertaining slogans (“Watch out for the devil – never mind!”), to entire sides of blocks of flats advertising pampers nappies! It seemed to me if anything was still for long enough, it was liable to get a bright coat of paint…or that it had been the case at some point, for nearly all the paintwork I saw was fading a little around the edges, with cracks in the surface and chips of paint beginning to flake away.
‘The Colours of Kenya’ – a man walks past a building painted pale green, with an advertisement for Pampers nappies emblazoned on its side. The ground is bright orange sand/dirt, and rocks lie strewn across what passes for pavement.]
The ground astonished me, too – partly, I think, because I’m not used to seeing so much of it, so close. The places in England where the ground next to the road is just…ground…as opposed to something tarmacked or concreted, are few and far between. In Kenya, the ground drifts onto the road and the tarmac crumbles into the edges of the dust, and everything swirls together as the traffic goes speeding by. The mud is hard and compacted with a layer of dust, which coats the shoes and ankles when walked on. Along the miles of road, it went through almost-white, to yellow, to ochre, to dark orange, to brown, to almost red. I don’t think I have ever seen so many colours of earth in one smallish area, and even though a lot of it was covered in plastic in various stages of disintegration (no council waste collections, no rubbish bins, no method, other than to sweep the trash into a pile and burn it), it was beautiful.
The people were bright as peacocks, or parrots, or any other vividly sparkling kind of bird you can think of. The colours and patterns on their clothes were incredible, mesmerizing geometric intricacies, which utterly delighted me, and made me feel very drab by comparison, in my muted olives and blues. Still, I considered, with my pinky-yellow skin, there probably weren’t many bright patterns which I could really carry off without looking sickly, but I did admire the many beautifully-dressed people I saw.
I realized as the week wore on, that the colours which would look utterly garish in the dismal light of England, were not overpowering in the equatorial sunlight. Rainbows of colour shimmered wherever crowds of people gathered, as the mirages shimmered above the surfaces of the roads. Each morning, I got up while it was still dark, and went for a swim in a pool of incredible azure blue, under a sky which lightened to pale blue, then stayed white for most of the day, fading to blue again as the sun went down.
Much of the rural landscape was dominated by the feathery green fronds of palm trees, with their tatty, browning leaf ends, which rattled drily in the wind, or when shaken by troupes of monkeys blundering through. Even the monkeys were surprisingly colourful – unassuming sandy-brown vervets, when male and in motion, showed bright, sky-blue balls!
The beach was pristine, as you’d expect a proud tropical resort beach to be – luminous white sand, cerulean water giving way to navy further out, sweeping, delicious waves, and green palms bending gracefully into the wind. There was even a delightful smattering of little grey frond-covered huts, to shelter tourists relaxing on their sun-loungers.
I would be fascinated to see Kenya in the rain (were it not for the risk of cholera, which increases considerably in the rainy season, due to the lack of sanitation systems). All of the buildings were spattered with earth, to about a metre high, where (presumably) the previous years’ rains had flung the dirt high against the walls and left it there, a stain bearing testament to time and dust. In England, the rain turns everything to grey, whether it is grey or not…in Kenya, I can only hope that the bright colours stand out more vividly against the gloom, a rainbow promise that the sun will shine again, and life will once more be, if not easy, still optimistically bright and beautiful.
And so I listened to Lizzi speak of what she saw and learned about blindness and eye disease in Africa. I thought of myself and my white cane and my conflicted feelings about having to use one, but then I realized the privilege I have for even having one where so many around the world, those who could really use them, do not.
I wanted to donate, even a small amount, to make sure a cane would be given to a person in need.
A small donation can buy someone a white cane, eye drops for a child, or a magnifying glass to better see the world. It doesn’t take much, but it is very much needed.
I live in Canada and have access to good medical care. I have had the best care when my remaining eyesight was threatened. I only want that for all people.
I want to thank word artist Lizzi for sharing this vivid retelling of her time in Kenya, for all of us who have never seen it for ourselves. That is why I love travel and a world so full of wonder and magic, everyday people going about their lives, the hard things and the struggles, but there is always beauty to be found somewhere.
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