Don’t you love friends? The way they are always there for you when you need them most and the way they make you feel better about your more questionable decisions, or listen to your endless rambling? And most of all the way they call you out when you have been really lazy and not written on your blog for ages and ages.
“I visited your blog the other day,” said my friend, “and I was pretty disappointed.”
Busted. I changed the subject by telling her about a photo I had seen on Istagram that was taken by someone who had gone on a pilgrimage of sorts to see the late, great explorer, Wilfred Thesiger. That did the trick, and we chatted until she had to go and she said, “One day, I’d like to hear the story of how you met him, again.”
In 1987, we were living in Nairobi and I was in 6th grade. My father was a reporter for Time Magazine, covering all of Sub-Saharan Africa. He was always busy – it seemed as if coups d’etats broke out every week, or at least any time we attempted a family vacation. When my father was home, the evening news via shortwave radio (a huge device that sat atop a chest of drawers in my parents’ room) was a sacrosanct occasion, treated with utter silence. We usually left him to it alone, but we all sprawled on the bed together to listen to Alistair Cooke read his Letters from America once a week. Not to sound too crusty around the edges, but these were the days where news bureaus had telex rooms.
Therefore, I am not exactly sure how my father came to discover that Wilfred Thesiger was living above a gas station in a town called Maralal, up in Samburu County. It certainly wasn’t the internet! But we had a constant procession of visitors passing through for tea or dinner – reporters, aid workers, lots of priests, monks and nuns, anyone with interesting news to share. We also had regular visitors. We could always expect Maryknoll priest Father Quinn at the door on Sunday afternoons, calling “Hodi!” and awaiting our welcoming call of “Karibu!” He would ply us with tales of how he had used his Black Stone to help people bitten by venomous snakes – there were plenty of those about; I grew up keeping a sharp eye on the ground in front of me.
At any rate, someone must have told us over tea or a succulent roast beef (we ate the most insanely opulent Sunday dinners back then – roasts with Yorkshire puddling and gravy were de rigeur) that they had spotted Thesiger in Maralal, and that got the wheels in my dad’s head spinning. War and famine were his bread and butter, for better or for worse, but he did the odd profile piece as well. So it was that he, my mother and I headed up to Maralal in search of Wilfred Thesiger.
When we moved to Kenya, my parents had the brilliant idea of allowing me to choose my own school, and I chose to attend a Catholic convent school, mostly because I liked the idea of a school uniform, I think. Anyhow, in our geography lessons, our teachers would dictate notes about Kenya and we had to write them down, complete with red margins and double underlining where required, and many many maps of Kenya. I had a cardboard template in my notebook that I traced around and would then fill in the appropriate geographical feature, for example the fresh water lakes of Kenya. The largest of these was Lake Turkana (Lake Victoria is bigger, but not all of it is in Kenya) and Maralal is to the south of that.
It was a long time ago now, and I don’t remember a lot about the actual visit. I am left instead with feelings and impressions. This is what I can recall: that Thesiger was very tall and gnarled like a tree; that he was sharing a house with Samburu men that he said all snored at night; that he took us to a place called the End of the World, a dramatic escarpment that we sat at the edge of, with stippled clouds overhead and a rocky shrubby valley down below; that he walked very fast. For some reason we met up again in London, for tea at Brown’s. My father was stressed out because we were running late. We took a cab there and passed him striding down the street and although he was some way away, he came through the door only seconds after we did. And while we had tea, he said something I always remembered. The conversation had turned, somehow, to the topic of sleep and I remarked that I could sleep anywhere without trouble. He looked at me and said seriously, “That is a great gift.” and from then on I treated effortless sleep as just that. It is my great natural talent, sleep.
The impact of meeting him continued later, as I read what he wrote and came to understand through his own restlessness and adventure that there is something that all we seek that will put us at ease. It might seem crazy to cross forbidding, uncharted desert by foot, but it made perfect sense to him. For most of us, it might not take something quite so extreme – running in the woods might work, or a sense of connection with a community, or a feeling of contributing to social justice, or a garden.
I didn’t know what I was looking for in my life until I found it. We were visiting our land for the first time (or, the area at least – we did not actually know which bit was ours until we had moved here) and as we rounded the curve in a road there were cliffs overhead, forest to either side, and the hot dry air was full of the chant of cicadas. A wild grape vine hung from a tree by the side of the road and we ate warm, sweet purple grapes from it. I felt something unlock inside me and I had the unexpected thought that I may have found my home. I felt a sense of freedom, of being away from everything that weighed me down – traffic, my job, other people. It was a feeling I had known while I was growing up in Kenya where I used to stare out across wide open spaces, all the way to the horizon, and was uplifted by how small it made me feel and the feeling of space it created in my mind. When I came to our garden, I remembered that feeling again.