Four days on a beach in Mombasa leads back to Njabini and Flying Kites. Only this time, we’re prepared for the Gimwa, our home away from home. We’re not surprised when it takes two hours to check in, or when the shower drips on our head in the middle of the night while using the toilet. The very damp towels we’re supposed to use to dry off no longer annoy us and we anticipate the cacophony of early morning roosters and wild dogs. We even look forward to the curdled skin floating on the chai tea in the café; we know the line dancing music videos that repeat on the one snowy Gimwa television channel, and we’ve come to terms with the fact that Ruth and Mary, the Gimwa servers, aren’t at all happy to see us.
But the children are. And that’s all that matters. They clamor for our attention as soon as we arrive back on site. Some remember us, some don’t, but they love us just the same. Before long, we’re trading stories about the mountain, playing nail salon or kicking soccer goals in tribute to the ongoing World Cup. Ah, welcome back!
There’s a different vibe on this visit. All of the Kilimanjaro climbers have gone home, a number of volunteers have completed their stays, and Kites founders Leila and Justine have made their way back to Newport. Even the in-country directors are off-site, pushing forward with a local program called Oasis in Nairobi to unite the surrounding orphanages in practice and standards. I imagine this is what regular days feel like at Flying Kites. Lazy, organized, quiet. The eighteen boarders have all of our attention today—Sunday. They come out to greet us one by one—Rahab, Moses, James, John, Mary, Benson, Joseph, Sara, Lucy, Lucy Obama, Miriam, Hannah, Ann, Alex, Isaac, Daniel, Rose, and the newest alum, Eve*.
In the month since we’ve been away, a lot has happened. Eve is now in temporary Kites custody. The chief of Njabini stepped in on her behalf; her family didn’t put up a fight. It took a little getting used to, seeing Eve in clean jeans and a baby blue fleece. No more filthy school uniform, no more cowering in corners along the main Njabini road. Her smile spoke volumes but it was plain to see that life, albeit a past life, had taken its toll. In the period of an hour, Eve could go through any range of emotions, usually unprovoked. She might be happy and giddy, then argumentative and belligerent. She pushes and she yells. Then, she cries. There’s a lot of distrust in Eve’s eyes, but she’s figuring out how to get along with the others. You can see that she wants to learn; her English is fantastic. Thinking about how little language she had when we met her in Njabini speaks to her desire to fit in, to learn, and to grow. I shudder to think of what would’ve happened to Eve had Darryl and I not come to Kenya. It gets me every time.
As we’re laying on blankets in the sun after lunch Ann, a stunning beauty of eleven years old who has been braiding my hair turns to me and says:
“What did you do to your legs?”
I look down at my legs, unsure of Ann’s meaning.
“My legs? Why?”
“They don’t look like regular mzungu (white person) legs.”
Bashfully, she gestures to the fair-skinned Bethany. Then, her gaze turns to Darryl. I laugh.
“I went in the sun and I got a tan at the beach.”
“Oh,” she says but she looks confused.
“What’s tan?” she asks.
I realize she’s never seen a beach and I feel guilty.
When she sees me writing the conversation down, she asks if I’m writing what she said to remember her. Yes, I say. I want to remember you forever. Slowly, she takes my pen and asks to write in my book. Then, she proceeds to write the rest of our conversation.
“What’s your favorite colour?”
“My favorite colour is red,” I reply.
“What’s your favorite color, Ann?”
“I said magenta,” she writes.
“I want to remember you forever, too.”
I turn away because there are tears in my eyes and I don’t want to have to explain.
Seeing Ann write in my notebook prompts Lucy Obama to beg a turn with my pen. Daniel has my camera, Eve has my sunglasses, Alex has my sneakers, and now Lucy has my notebook. It’s hard to keep track. After scribbling behind the shield of her elbow, Lucy’s head pops back up.
“I wrote you a letter, do you want to hear it?”
“Yes, of course, Lucy Obama!”
“Dear Marie and Aunty (I assume this is Darryl)
My name is Lucy. I live in Flying Kites. I love you so much.
Baboons. Warthogs. Giraffes.
Dik dik. Cheetah. Elephant. Impala. Zebras.”
Huh? Confused, I take my book back. Lucy is giggling uncontrollably. She has written on a page opposite my safari notes. She’s copied all the animals, and all my notes, into her “letter.” Then, she grabs the book back. “I love you,” she writes again. As Rahab takes a turn in my notebook, Daniel shows me the 100 photographs he’s taken during our writing session. Daniel might have a career as a photographer; his montage of a Flying Kites Sunday evokes the freedom and playfulness of being a kid. So many years past my own childhood, it was wonderful to see myself through childhood’s lens. Especially the lens of these children: the beautiful children of Flying Kites.
Rabab keeps it simple.
My name is Rahab.
I am seven years old.
I don’t want to leave.
We may have been prepared for the Gimwa, but saying goodbye to these sweet, little faces isn’t something I’m ready to face. “It’s so sad, when everyone leaves,” says Ann, eyes turned toward the ground. Rose is hysterical, Daniel won’t meet my eye; Eve is visibly upset. The children who have spent more time at Kites seem used to the transition, but it doesn’t make it easier on Darryl and me. “We love you so so much, we love you so so much!” sing their little voices in song as we pull away in the Flying Kites vehicle.
I only hope they know how much we love them in return.
*Name has been changed.