A small African village. It is dawn. The sun clambers up over a distant eastern horizon, stealing the darkness from the sky so that cotton-wool clouds blush at its audacity. Shadows dance out from beneath the shade to enjoy the early caress of warm rays. A cockerel crows, hoarsely now; he’s been announcing daybreak prematurely, incessantly, for hours. Smoke begins to drift, ribbons of dove-grey, into a brightening sky. Somewhere a child cries the plaintive, impatient cry children make at breakfast time.
A woman ventures out of her hut. She stoops as she steps through her door and into the morning. She rubs her eyes against the brightness, stretches and smiles, enjoying this fleeting moment of peace before her chores, and her children, begin to clamour for her attention. She pulls her vivid kanga more tightly about her against dawn’s brief and surprising chill.
There is kuni to be cut for a fire; water to be collected; a maize field to weed; a market to attend; a basket to weave; a friend’s hair to braid, whilst she sits, back poker-straight, in the cool cast by a spreading fig. There is washing to be done on the banks of a river where she will gather with the other women, where they will gossip and giggle and sing and stretch brightly coloured laundry to dry on rocks so that the river’s bank is awash with rainbow puddles. But first there are children to feed: uji from a cup, or bread dunked into sweet milky chai.
Her day meanders peacefully, its pace set by the march of the sun as it slips across the arc of a huge sky. Laughter and dogs and the shrill ringing of bicycle bells subside briefly at noon when the heat breathes somnolence into our small village. All we can hear is the interminable hot hiss of unseen cicadas. Even the goats, Africa‘s effective refuge disposal teams, are quietly still, the blue Marlboro bags upon which they were banqueting forgotten for now.
But as squat shadows lengthen and the worst of the sun’s heat evaporates as it collapses syrupy in the west, our village stirs in readiness for night fall: fires are stoked, kerosene lamps lit, men gather to share cigarettes and contemplate their good fortune: the rains were kind to them this year. Women collect children and crisp sun-dried laundry up. The blanket of darkness is punctured by the orange glow of the lamps and cozy glow of camp-fires. The air perfumed with the scent of cooking.
There is peace here. Quiet peace and predictability. Tomorrow will be the same: the business of living – building fires, tending crops, milking cattle, raising children – will resume with its reassuring, uncomplicated pattern.
Now picture this: a gang, high on dope and stolen hope, machete wielding, flame throwing, hatred hurling, steals into our village. Rampage. And screams. Confusion and terror. A mother cannot find her small son, her face stricken with panic and loss; a father is cut down as he tries to bundle his family to safety. Dogs are kicked, they howl in pain and run, tails between legs, to seek cover. Cows pull at their tethers, wild eyed.
It’s over quickly. And then there is suffocating silence. And smoke. And ash. An abandoned shoe lies, on its own – one blue child’s shoe – in the dust. A bucket hastily dropped, so that its precious contents have leaked and bloodied the earth. A dog whimpers softly. A child’s sobs subside slowly. The hush is deafening, it fills the air which so recently beat with the unbearable din of war and fear. African villages are never this quiet: there is always laughter and bells and radios and song and cockerels and dogs and market vendors shouting their wares.
Even the cicadas have been startled to deathly silence.
Picture this. And don’t, please don’t, allow, Kenya’s peace be reduced to implausible archived history, an unbelievable illusion.