Tsavo

This is where Africa sprawls carelessly; as if there is still so much wild space, she can afford to throw herself with abandon from horizon to horizon. She fills my lens, the tip and spill of her, hills and valleys and a scrambling blur of sage bush threaded with the red ribbon of a road.

My home now is to the west, the other side of Kilimanjaro – it’s as if I am looking at the mountain the wrong way around. But the home where I grew up is just north of here, close enough for a day out when I was little. And sometimes we did just that. 

But more often we packed a coolbox and a bag and we came here, to where I am now, the same camp, almost unchanged except for big box mozzie nets – to replace the tight little tuck around your bed tent type I grew up with. And the kitchens – now I must suffice with a tiny galley and a two ring burner where once we had the use of the now locked outside kitchens complete with Dover stove.

Whenever I come here I feel nostalgia tug at my heart and memories overflow. The cottages bear a reassuring pared back austerity, just like when I was little (those nets aside) so that I can briefly imagine nothing has changed. I sit and look at a view dad would have watched, binoculars to hand, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth dropping ash. Mum fed us a supper of Rice Crispies as the western sky pinked and pencilled my mountain’s profile blacker. I open my beer now and raise a silent toast to dad. Is he here? Do I drink amongst ghosts? 

When I go home mum will not understand where I have been.

Tsavo, I will say.

Tsavo – whose name is synonymous with big tuskers and Finch Hatton’s affair with Karen Blixen. Tsavo where man-eating lions terrorised the labour building the railway line, the one that ran through the farm I grew up on just north of here. They were particularly ferocious, those lions, on exactly our bit of line, picking off the haughty Englishman who’d been dispatched to dispatch them. So that forever we could refer to our man-eating lions even if they came decades before we did. Once, game driving in this park, not far from where I sit now, we came upon a lioness on an anthill keening.

“Why is she making that noise, Dad?” I wanted to know.

Perhaps she has lost her cubs, said Dad.

The lioness fixed an amber stare upon my little brother sitting on mum’s knee, wearing a lion-cub coloured sweater.

“Perhaps she thinks Robert is her baby,” said Dad.

“Perhaps she might eat him,” I suggested gleefully. And mum spun round to give me a stern look.

Mum will say, when I relate my Tsavo stories, ‘The name sounds familiar’. 

But she will not remember dad here. Or the spare little cottages and the flocks of greedy, beady eyed superb starlings who hopped – still hop – about the verandah for crumbs, or the patient vigil I embarked on aged five to feed a squirrel with my hands and which I finally succeeded in doing, many patient, sitting-still hours later – an encounter dad caught on Cine so that forever afterwards I could watch myself, gappy toothed with pig tails, still as a statue, a smile splitting my face as finally that tiny animal took a corner of bread from my small fingers. I could watch it all the way to the end and then watch the blister and scorch of it as the film skittered in the reel and stained the white wall sepia and black.

I try it this time, a steady hand held out to a squirrel and she inches forward and rises to take the slice of banana I hold out to her. Either the squirrels are tamer or I have learnt to sit still (“See that, Dad?” I want to smile).

I want to take the picture home, show Mum, remind her of the last time. But she will look blankly at me and shake her head.

No. I do not remember.

And I think: that’s what has happened to this memory for mum. It’s scorched to white-nothingness. 

Like all her memories.

2 Responses to “Tsavo”

  1. Addy Says:

    Dementia is so cruel. My sister-in-law’s partner has it and can’t remember what he did 5 minutes ago. Your tales remind me of my daughter’s trip to Tanzania in 2014 when she visited Moshi, worked in Arusha and climbed Kilimanjaro.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    I am so sorry Addy. It is a horrible illness. I remember our conversations about your daughter being in the north of Tanzania. Well done to her for climbing it. I never have! I worry to do that might spoil my view with memories of exertion!?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: