Lena and Flora

Childhood in an African village


What to expect?

There she sat in the VW-bus, squeezed between volumous baggage: a small girl with short straw blonde hair and fresh blue eyes.

Meanwhile the car had left the tarmac and rumbeled over a rough road to that - still many kilometers away - house, that was supposed to be her new home for three long years to come.

Mud huts, maize fields, coffee trees, banana trees, grazing cows and waving school children drew past; viewed by her parents with mixed feelings of curiosity and fear. Because from today onwards one had to live in this remote area with completely unknown people in a totaly strange culture.




Arrival at the village

Lena behaved like always. She fidgeted about, like always, and she talked all the time , like always. What brought about, like always, disapproving glances from her mum.

Would we be suffering from water shortages? What would the hygienic conditions be like? Would their be children to play with for Lena? Would she be bitten by dangerous insects and snakes? Crime was said to be a big problem - would a child be target? Here was the Mau-Mau area, a movement, which was by that time reagarded as brutal.

The rumbling died down. We branched of from the dust road, drove down a gateway and stopped in front of our house.




The fence

The luggage was unloaded . Lena put down her backpack. The landlord unlocked the doors and showed us everything. The bus drove back. We were on our own.

Exitedly Lena inspected everything. Then it was time to unpack and locate our things, and first of all to clean, because the house had been unoccupied for a longer period.

In the middle of this jumble a little blond girl disappeared unnoticed and slowly went over to the barbed wired fence, which together with a hedge and some mango trees made up the border to our neighbour. Since quite some time a handful of children had been standing there looking over curiously with their dark eyes.





The children were all barefoot and one had a running nose. Communication turned out to be quite difficult. They spoke Kikuyu and tried some few English words. Lena spoke German and also knew a very little bit of English.

After the first mutual examination the neighbour's children managed per Kikuyu and symbolic language, to cause Lena to pick up one of the littered maize straws. "This one?" she asked. "This one!" came the echo from the other side of the fence. Then they all ran up and down this side and that side of the fence among loud shrieking with delight, "this one"- shouting and with fluttering maize straws. Later they shifted - still applying the well tried "this one" communication - to branches, stones and some of Lena's toys.




The house

In Kenya it gets dark early in the evening. We were lighting candles and kerosin lamps. Water for washing and cooking we had brought into the house by bucket. Later we installed a hose pipe and a hand pump. The landlord had built in a WC and a shower for us. We had to use water very sparingly.

After supper Lena tucked away the contents of her rucksack into the inbuilt cupboard in her room. Washing, teeth brushing, then the burglar bars were locked and the doors closed. Soon Lena was fast asleep. We had removed the large spiders in the house. They had turned out completely harmless.



A hole in the fence

After some days the neighbour's children dared to come over to us. The German-English vocabluary increased, also because Flora joined the group. She was eight years old and was at school almost until evening, where she had already learned some English.

Lena however did not dare to go to the other side. The children's parents were too much of respectabilities to her. When a quarrel arose Patrick Wanyoike could for example yell: "I go and hol [German: get] my mother!", and then Lena disappeared.

But after some weeks the ice was broken, and Lena scrambled through the fence.




Soon Lena came to like the mother and became the seventh child of the family. Enthusiasticly she helped with the housework: fetching water from the small river, preparing the meals, sweeping the hut and looking after the youngest. But her favourite occupation was herding the cows.

When Flora came from school, there was usually still time to play. Then the housework was on schedule again. Supper had to be prepared.

After three months Lena spoke English fluently, after three more months Kikuyu. Soon she came only home to sleep.




Flora (Florence Wanjiru)

In the whole gang Flora had the most important position, because she was the eldest. She demonstrated how to play catch, hide and seek, mother and child, school, ball, cow and similar. She showed cat's cradle and made simple toys from cans, bottle caps and maize straws. Lena admired her, and both developed a deep friendship. Rarely one could be seen without the other.

When Flora had somewhat less duties, she was allowed to sleep at Lena's place.




Milking with obstacles

Lena knew all the cows by name. Some of her toys ended up in cow stomachs. She was able to differentiate between Sungura (Hare), Jatta and December by the sound of their mooing. Her dream was to milk one of them. But this was strictly forbidden for the children.

Once however Patrick and Lena felt courageous enough and started to twitch the udder of a cow. See, some milk came out. Lena dashed into the hut to get a bowl. In her hastiness she stumbled and hit a table leg with her head. With a big bruise and tear stained she came back home.




Seeing the doctor
One day one of Lena's big toes was swollen. It seemed there was something in. The inflammation became more and more threatening. So we drove to see the doctor in Nairobi. This was usually a days trip and during the rainy seasons it could even be impossible at times.

The doctor used a needle and removed the cause of the evil: a jiggar. Lena cried and kicked with all her might and had to be held by three persons. Jiggars penetrate into the skin at the finger- and toe-nails and cause small puss pimples. If seen in time they can be removed painlessly with a small needle.

Lena got jiggars repeatedly. Now we were alerted, checked her nails regularly and removed the jiggars while she slept. But soon she learned to remove them herself (see photo).




By the river

Especially during the dry seasons the children had to go to the river to fetch water. Equipped with small plastic containers they ran down the steep 300 meters through the farm to the tiny and narrow river.

Here they loved to loiter around. Lena managed the trick to fall into the tiny trickle repeatedly. The children also drank water from the creek, which we had Lena forbidden explicitly. Some day she confessed that she did it though, and we panicked - would she get a bad diarrhoea with fever? Luckily nothing of that sort happened.




The boxing calf

We were staying already some time in Kenya, when a calf was born on the neigbouring farm. It was a male one and full of spirits, so for example it had thrown over Lucy at one occasion. One day it had escaped unnoticed from the guard of the children, who were supposed to look after it and appeared at our water tank. We feared it might break the tap and could thus spill all our water.

This would have been a real catastrophe. So we wanted to chase it back, when Lena came running: "Watch out! The calf is boxing. We will take care of it." And then the shorties hustled the dangerous creature past the astonished parents off the premises.




The market

Now and then Lena accompanied Flora's mother to the market place which was three kilometers away; usually to help her selling vegetables. On one of these days pupils from the surrounding schools had come together to conduct a culutural festival and were now roaming the market place.

On seeing Lena they were immediately dashing towards her while yelling "Muthungu" (European). Lena got closer to the mother, who had problems to restrain the children from pulling Lena's hairs, touching or pinching her. When even trodding on the diposed produce the seller, an elderly man boxed their ears. The children dispersed in no time and Lena drew a deep breathe.

As usual they came back home shortly before it got dark. Later on Lena often went only with Flora to the market in order to do some small errands.




The kindergarten / pre-school

The kindergarten was on the next plot down the road. It was a dilapidated looking mud structrue with a rusty corrugated iron sheet roof.

After we came to know the teacher of the kindergarten, Lena wanted to attend. During the first time she kept close to the teacher and was even allowed to sit together with her in front of the kids, because she was quite besieged by the other children.

But soon this changed and then together they played and learned the figures and the alphabet.




Richard Muchiri gets his own hut

According to tradition sons from a certain age onwards get their own hut on the parent's farm.

When Flora's big brother was supposed to get his own hut, all children took part in the preparations with zest. First of all trunks and branches were gathered and used to construct walls from rough meshwork and the roof mounting. Some days after corrugated iron sheets were nailed onto the top of the structure and then came the screamer: a pit was dug and in there clay with a little water was stamped barefoot. This material was used to plaster the walls.

Richard was greatly admired by all children.




Lena attends the village school

After one year in the kindergarten Lena wanted by all means to start school. She was only 5 1/2, but Patrick was to start school and for sure she wanted to emulate Flora. We were afraid that she would be besieged by huge crowds of children. The neighbours suported Lena's position, and so I went together with Lena to see the headmaster. He sent for the teacher and without much ado she took Lena by the hand and off they went to class.

I had some uneasy hours in my project. At lunch time I collected her with our car. During the breaks she had stayed in class with the teacher. But after a few days Lena was something normal at school and sensation was only caused when I picked her and her friends with the car or the motorbike.





Over night at Floras

It was not only Flora sleeping at our place, also Lena slept sometimes at the neighbours place. Sleeping place was scarce, several children had to sleep in one bed, and so this opportunity was only there when e.g. the parents would travel to visit grandmother and grandfather in Nyahururu. Then Wairimu, who also helped in our house, would look after the children.

All worries, which we had in the beginning about Lena, turned out to be completely baseless. She had well adapted and enjoyed life at the African countryside. Concerning illnesses she had mainly to cope with coughing and bronchitis, because in the morning it could be quite cold in school.




A snake

At one day suddenly a cow shied, which had just nibbeled at some leaves in the hedge. The children got attentive and ran there. Looking closer they were shocked: there was a snake in the branches. Immediately they alerted all neighbours, who came running and slew the snakes with sticks. Thereafter it was burnt on the spot.

This was the only snake, which Lena saw there. We could not find out as to whether it was poisonous.





After three years we had to go back to Germany. Some weeks before in our project I had a longer talk with one of our customers. Shortly before he left, he asked: "By the way, how is our daughter?" I didn't understand. "Your child," he said, "is called 'our daughter' by us because she is just like our children."

It touched me. We had been received lovingly by the people in Kenya and parting was hard for all of us.

(Photo: View from our house to Mt. Kenya at an exceptionally clear day.)

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