Our friends’ Land Rover breaks down on the side of the road that runs along the floor of the Great Rift Valley. We pull off the highway, park in the dust beside a field of corn. Jeff has gone to a nearby town for a radiator hose, returns on a motorbike, squeezed between two strangers. He is holding his hat, laughing. The men work under the hood with grease-smeared fingers. Our girls play tag around the vehicles, careful not to run too near the highway where lorries and matatus careen by in noisy exhaust. J finds a branch of thorns, carries it like a torch. M pokes in the dust, discovers a broken bit of brown glass, polishes it and tucks it into her pocket, a roadside treasure. JK pulls plastic dinosaurs from the backseat and the girls create a prehistoric world. A man walking by with a white plastic bag bows to them, asks them their names, the names of their dinosaurs. Phil and Mel sit in the shade of a yellow acacia tree. It is dry, hot. Dust devils sweep by, force us to close our eyes. We read books, eat trail mix, attract an audience of young boys, leaning their long limbs on each other, watching our strange festivities in silence. Phil offers them rice cakes. They accept the dry tasteless discs with wary gratitude.
I sit on the shady bank of the Malewa River with friends. We drink white wine from silver cups, watch monkeys clamber down the steep wall of the gorge. The girls collect smooth round stones that glisten like black jewels, then fade to grey as they dry. The late afternoon sun shines in yellow stripes above the river.
We celebrate P’s birthday on purple Masai blankets in a shady circle of mangrove trees. Eden hangs a homemade birthday banner, I tie our colourful garland to low branches. P wears her felt birthday crown and counts its five pink hearts. She is giggly, jumpy. Girls, still muddy and glistening wet from the river, crowd around her on the blankets and watch as she pulls gifts from tissue paper: books, a purse carefully crafted from flowered duct tape, a tin treasure box. Adults sit around the circle on camp chairs, laugh at her commentary, sing loudly when I pull brownies from the back of the car. P glows with all the honouring, yellow weaver birds chirp in the branches.
The girls want to swim again so we stand on the rocky shore of the river and listen for hippos. We see ripples in the shade, wonder if our minds are playing worried tricks. Then just as we decide it must be safe, a hippo, ears alert, round eyes glaring, emerges from the water a few yards in front of us, exhales in loud warning. We step back, whisper fiercely at the girls, scramble up the bank. My heart races long after we’ve told the story at the campsite and appeased the girls’ disappointment.
Driving home along the Rift Valley escarpment, a police man standing on the side of the highway waves us over. Phil pulls the Subaru to the shoulder as I search for his license. The police man smiles through the window, complains about the heat, examines the pages of Phil’s tattered license. He is satisfied, hands it back, then asks if we have something extra to eat. I pass him a rice cake from my depleted snack bag. He laughs, thanks us, wishes us a good day. I vow to bring better snacks on our next trip, explain unfair wages to the girls as we drive away.