The girls play Playmobil for hours, sorting small beads and sequins into piles of money, counting the real money in their plastic jars and dreaming of new Playmobil sets. I boil eggs, hang laundry, water my ivy, find comfort in physical tasks, wonder how long my children will find a home in their imaginary world.

P and I walk to the flower vendor. She carries a Blue Band container for her new bottle cap collection. When we pass the guard at the gate, he asks her what she is collecting, admires the one rusty cap in the container. We are startled by a barking dog behind a fence, notice garbage piled in the ditches, buy red and white carnations for her sisters. On the way home, the guard stops us, drops two bottle caps into P’s collection, has tripled her treasure.

The girls argue over whose turn it is to roll dough through our pasta maker, watch the long floppy sheets grow longer with each turn. They spread them on parchment paper, poke crooked rows of holes into them with a fork, ready to become imperfect matzo for tomorrow’s seder.

I am on the back porch, writing messy pages in a cheap lined notebook. M sits down beside me, opens a matching notebook, writes another chapter of the book she says she wrote in her dream last night. It is a romance about two people meeting at a wedding. We write in silence side by side. I write longer than I had planned, unwilling to break this tenuous connection.

P and J pack grapes and string cheese into plastic containers, gather notebooks and pens, shout goodbyes as they begin their day of sister exploring.

We squeeze onto the Lamu couch to watch the Lego documentary, eat rosemary popcorn, exclaim at people’s creativity. Near the end of the film M says “I’m totally going to build more Lego after seeing this,” and as soon as the credits are over, all three girls run to the Lego basket, inspired, unable to restrain themselves from creating.

One of our banana trees falls, pulled over by the weight of its own fruit, its own self-sacrificing biology. The girls walk along its smooth trunk like a balance beam, pick green bananas from the long bunch lying in the grass, unfold the petals of its strange heart shaped flower. They remind me of medical students poking a cadaver, fascinated by the cracks and crevices that have never been theirs to access before. Soon Phil brings out a machete, hacks off giant leaves for the girls to use as sleds, fans. M brings out yarn and we tie the leaves together into a teepee. The girls play house under its curling leaves long after the sky has turned dark.

Phil and I read Flannery O’Connor aloud under the porch light, eat olives and cheese and watch the geckos crawl across the ceiling above us, tense with the possibility of their falling.

Every surface of the house is covered in small ants, some roaming aimlessly over countertops, the keys of my laptop, some condensed into steady rivers up and down the corners of walls, around the door frames. A determined contingent carries a dragon fly, giant and unwieldy, across the living room floor. P gives periodic updates on their progress. We admire their speed and teamwork.

After supper the girls collect mini hockey sticks, two pairs of secondhand roller blades and climb up the hill to the tennis court to play hockey. Their rules are elaborate. The player without skates is the referee, counts down from twenty before dropping the ball, is responsible for running around the fence to get the ball when it rolls off the court. After each goal, the one who scores drops to the cement and starts unbuckling the roller blades, peels off sweaty socks, passes them to the referee to take her turn in the game. Phil and I watch from the steps as their shapes turn blue in the fading light, laugh at their flailing limbs, the way J skates straight into the fence to stop every time.


Without the glaring announcement of snowfalls and colourful leaves, the seasons of this place use more subtle markers. This is the cassia season, when the cassia trees are blanketed with deep yellow flowers, so much yellow you can barely see the green leaves behind the blossoms. It is also the wasp season, wasps suddenly crafting hives in every corner of every house, and the gecko season, and of course, again, the ant season. It is also the season of the pear and the mango, and should be the strawberry season as well if the weather would cooperate. We’ve traded in the four seasons for the four hundred.

The Termite

The termite works its way
out of the clods of dirt
to burst upwards, stretching
its papery wings in the
terrible wetness of that rain
for one glorious dripping night,
then lets its wings fall one by one,
like dried leaves letting go
of their small branch,
leaving the termite to wiggle through
the dark puddles and die,
its great legend already ending,
its turn on the wide stage
over as it disappears under the wet soil
to become food for someone else’s glory,
the earthworm, maybe, or the daffodil.
When did I decide my breathing, walking,
shedding of skin was somehow
more spectacular than
the soaring and falling
of the courageous termite?

Two ibises clatter to the lawn like heavy flapping blankets, their wings noisy and ruffled. They stab their long dark beaks into the ground, somehow find breakfast in all that unmowed grass. The light catches the iridescence in their feathers, like a silk scarf peeking out from under an old man’s baggy overcoat.

P and I fill our bag with a water bottle, two squares of chocolate and Frozen Uno and walk towards the forest. She wants to take one ride on the zipline, but then insists we hurry to the prayer labyrinth “I have so many prayers stuck in here,” she jabs at her forehead with her fingers, “that I just need to get out.” When we arrive at the labyrinth, she kicks off her flipflops, presses her hands together at her heart and walks slowly over the leaves and stones. I follow a few steps behind her, then she stops and whispers, “When we pass each other, let’s hold hands a bit.” At the centre we arrange flower petals into patterns on the stone cross, then hurry back around the winding path so we have time to play Uno. She wins every time.

J collects butterfly wings, notices them in the grass, the dirt, the gravel. She keeps them in the pocket of her backpack for weeks until she remembers to transfer them to the treasure box buried deep in her closet. When she finds a butterfly almost as big as her hand, yellow and still near the swingset, she shows it to her friend who has never held a dead butterfly, is speechless at its fragile colour. J tells her she can keep it, knows that earth treasures are for sharing.

Phil and I sit on the porch in the dark, watch a white tailed mongoose glide across the lawn in front of us, hold our breath as it disappears into the shadows.

Walking Home

Today I walk home from the car mechanic, a road I used to walk regularly but since kids and a house on campus, I’ve been driving instead. I prepare a mug of coffee and settle in to the walk, no hurry to get somewhere, just all that time on the broken sidewalks, morning sun on my cheeks, details to notice. There are so many things I’ve never seen the million times I’ve driven down that road- how the sellers set plywood on empty paint cans on the edge of the sidewalk to make a small table for their cigarettes, bananas. The man (woman?) sleeping under an old masai blanket in a small space created with a scrap of tin and a gap in the fence.

I notice the number of concrete poles along the road that have been hit over by vehicles, and am not sure if they say more about the quality of driving or the quality of the cement. There are women bent over at the waist, pouring chai from brown thermoses for taxi drivers, shoe shiners. The shoe shine station has two chairs covered in white plastic under a small vinyl tent. Men carrying sticks tied together into brooms file into the UN compound, ready for another day cleaning the offices of important people strategizing about how to help the poor.

There are loose wires hanging in tangled swirling knots above my head from the electric poles, cab drivers scrubbing their hubcaps, a small red kiosk called Shamba Boy selling warm Coke in glass bottles. There are two stalks of corn growing out of a crack in the cement ditch, bougainvillea spilling out over the trees in extravagant fairy tale colours. Women in black buibuis step over gaps in the sidewalk, well-dressed couples lean against the trees outside the US embassy. Smoke billows from the other side of the hedge from someone’s garbage pile, birds hop on low hanging branches despite the steady traffic. People smile, nod, zip by on the backs of motorbikes, stare from the windows of their SUVS.

I am struck by the brutal beauty of this place, the outpouring of growth and colour, the hard edges of the lives unfolding on the sidewalk. I am mostly startled by the familiarity of this strange place, how profoundly it feels like my home.

P sits beside me on the couch, playing Princess Uno against herself. At the end of a round she claps and cheers, “I won!” She sips lukewarm peppermint tea, wears tights with pink hearts. Her ankles are covered with the scabs of scratched mosquito bites. She tells me she wishes she had three arms and hands so that she could carry snacks and drinks while she climbs things.

M fiddles fast and intricate melodies, amazes me with her talent as I lie in bed in the other room. But J comes to sit and the edge of the bed and announces that there are tears on M’s cheeks as she plays. Later when I ask about it, M smiles, shakes her head, will not allow us into her private sadness.

When I discover that P has cut crooked squares into all of my favourite pieces of origami paper, I’m furious, scold her loudly, bring her and her compassionate sisters to tears. Days later I see the pile of papers still spread across the guest room bed, brightly coloured patterns, small flowers and stripes. I gather the scraps together, snipped in a moment of five year old creativity, and bring them to the table. The girls and I arrange the pieces into small paper quilt squares, glue them onto a ribbon. I hang the garland above the kitchen sink, smile at the way art redeems us.

J’s arms are full- a blue kikoi, a journal, a pen, her Spanish fan. She asks if she can go into the trees to write for a while. I watch her go, wonder about her fan, am jealous of her time with the trees.

M listens to the Les Miserables soundtrack, sings along, dances with solemn concentration, plays the parts with the worst words over and over.

P writes love notes to her family on small pieces of paper. “I Love Ths Notbk”. Apologizes for being disobedient: “Soi Mom”. I find her squares of communication under the table, in my pockets, wish this stage could last longer than it will.