It is most unusual for us to get presents unannounced, but there they were, popped through the letterbox in a brown paper envelope. Out came a pair of hand-made slippers with tough plastic soles and pink crocheted uppers. Accompanying them was a hand-written letter addressed to ‘Two friends in UK’ and signed by ‘Esakwan’. All quickly became clear; the slippers, which fitted me rather better than they did my wife, were from a remarkable woman whom we met last year while on holiday in Kenya.
Esakwan was the ‘cook-come-maid’ in a once-grand colonial house in Nanyuki, a British army garrison town a hectic four hour-drive north of Nairobi. The house, like the others dotted along Lunatic Lane (named such by the locals!), was owned by a descendant of a white settler family. We were there at the invitation of a guest who was house-sitting while the owner was away.
Esakwan was getting about her business in the background but was, nevertheless, impossible to ignore. She was a tall, handsome, almost serene woman with a kindly, warm, gently smiling face and hard-worked hands and feet. We were introduced and she made us feel at ease. For whatever reason she invited us to come to her new home for a cup of tea if we had a moment – we accepted. Her house had been built by her and her brother and only recently finished. It gave her great pride.
While sitting on the Lunatic Lane veranda our host told us Esakwan’s story. Now around thirty five, she had been orphaned at seven. She had two younger siblings for whom she had suddenly became responsible. Yes, they were moved from orphanage to orphanage, sometimes together sometimes apart, but she remained the mother figure throughout.
The death of the parents was felt by the whole of the community alike. In the early evening the two had gone together to collect water from the local stream, something they had done many times before, but this time they did not come back. They had been killed, gored to death by wild buffalo. These animals, which roam freely in the bush, are known to be ferocious and to kill humans without provocation, some say as if out of spite. Her parents would have known all about their behaviour and would not have stood a chance. Now an adult, Esakwan lives with her own two daughters aged around eight and ten.
At tea we discovered that her new house was tiny, made of wood and corrugated iron and sat in its own small yard. With its beaten-earth floor and drapes instead of window panes, the single room was divided by curtains for privacy. With no inside loo, no electricity and no running water – it was a 50-metre walk to a nearby tap. With the kitchen outside, living there would have been hard. Nevertheless it was theirs, and a major improvement on the overcrowded community-living of just a few months earlier
Despite the circumstances, she managed to make the room look lovely and spotlessly clean. With a neat tablecloth over a box – if I remember correctly – a set of tea cups, some homemade biscuits and enough chairs to go round, tea was served. The girls were quiet, well behaved and still in their school uniforms. Esakwan proudly showed us round the house and yard. It was an extraordinary hour. Here was a strong, courageous, brave, woman struggling and succeeding.
After a quick chat while the girls went to look for their school work, Rohan and I decided that we would offer to help pay for running water to be brought to the house. The offer was accepted and over the next days and weeks negotiations began. Overall it would cost around two hundred pounds – for Esakwan a sum that would be out of the question.
Just recently we heard that the water had been installed. For all sorts of reasons it would have been an enormous relief to them all. No doubt each time that she or one of her daughters had collected the water, they would have been haunted by the story of the parents/grandparents. Obviously the slippers were by way of a thank you and they would almost certainly have been made by Esakwan herself. They will always be very precious.