I grew up on Syokimau Farm in Kenya, not far from the Ngong Hills.
My mother and I lived in a converted chicken slaughterhouse on the former sisal plantation about 15 miles south of Nairobi. The whitewashed walls were high and the building cavernous. A swing hung from the ceiling in my bedroom and the concrete floors, painted glossy black with a small, red heart in the center, were perfect for a tricycle. The driveway circled a roundabout filled with zinnia, euphorbia, and frangipani. Further, bright pink bougainvillea bushes hid an excavated hole that was our trash pit, and beyond that, down the gently sloping hill, the reservoir.
It was on Syokimau that I learned to ride a bicycle, where I ran barefoot in the princess dress my mother made for me when the Bolshoi Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty came to Nairobi, and where I became so proficient in mimicking the call of the hyraxes sunning themselves on the rocks that they would call back to me. My best friend Anwyn’s father, Lew, studied ostriches and once brought home three eggs from an abandoned nest. He gave one to my mother and me and we held it between our bodies in bed, keeping it warm, and, when it began to hatch, we picked pieces of thick shell from its wet, matted feathers and new skin. Anwyn and I fed the chicks — scruffy and musty-smelling — with droppers and guarded them from hawks and dogs, both domestic and wild. My chick died a couple of days after hatching, and Anwyn’s a week after that.
Ayah Tina scared Anwyn and me with stories about Baba Yaga and the witch of Syokimau, who could take the form of a bull. These witches were hungry for ill-behaved children, especially those who stayed up past bedtime, and if we were still awake when Baba Yaga came by there wouldn’t be much she could do to protect us. We squeezed our eyes shut, willing ourselves to sleep, but too terrified to let it come.
Lions sometimes escaped from the wildlife park across Mombasa Road and came over to the farm, hungry for the cattle, giraffes, and antelopes that drank from the large water tank at dawn. While hyenas sang in the dark, the lions slept behind our house, their bodies pressed against the cool, stone wall. Lying in bed, I could hear their deep, grunting breaths on the other side.
In the evenings, we used to walk together to the cho, the outhouse some 25 yards away that faced Mount Kilimanjaro. But that was before primate researcher Melanie Fuller’s remains were found a short distance from her broken-down car. So now we squatted in a row just outside our front door to pee — my mother into an old coffee can, myself into a pink potty, and our black and white Border Collie Helen on the ground.
My mother grew up in a tony San Antonio neighborhood, in a large, red brick house with maid’s quarters and giant white columns. She was educated in private schools, spent summers at lakeside cabins in Michigan, and attended debutante parties at country clubs. Boyfriends were introduced by who their parents were or which fraternity they belonged to. She escaped as soon as she could and was now cleaning fossils for paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. I would ask for stories about her childhood, enthralled by her descriptions of the truck that played music and delivered ice cream to children’s houses, the soft grass lawns with no thorns, “TV dinners” — trays of frozen food, each in their own compartment, and television! A box in your home that played moving images of a giant, yellow bird. Like a movie, but smaller. Much smaller. I couldn’t wait to see it all for myself.
One night, my mother found four-year-old me sitting on the bathroom counter, playing with an empty bottle of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin. I had eaten the contents, about 30 of the sweet, orange tablets. She stuck her fingers down my throat, fed me a raw egg, and held me upside down by my feet, shaking me, but I wouldn’t vomit.
Telephone poles hadn’t been installed as far as the farm and my mother’s bright yellow Renault 4 was in the shop, having been rear-ended and flipped a few weeks before. Our nearest neighbor was a mile away.
I’ve heard the story from her countless times. It was the height of the rainy season, everything damp and green. The sky had been dark and the rain falling for several hours already. There was no moon, no stars. My mother carried me on her hip past the fragrant pepper trees in the roundabout, her other hand holding the flashlight that dimmed a few minutes before fading out completely. The rain poured on, impervious to my mother’s growing panic. She walked the dirt road and crossed the bridge over the quickly rising reservoir, passing through the hall of acacia and eucalyptus trees. Black cotton mud grabbed at her Bata flip-flops, pulling them off. She would not let herself think about the lions or about how it was getting harder to keep me awake. What would so many aspirins do to a small child? She couldn’t see her own hands in the pitch-black night and had to rely on her feet and memory to guide her down the road. I tucked into my mother, enveloped in her warm sandalwood scent. The brass and copper bracelets that covered the length of her forearms pressed against my legs, familiar and reassuring.
My mother carried me across the farm, from one neighbor’s homestead to another, willing someone to be home. How much time had passed? Thirty minutes? More? Finally, she saw the glow from a kerosene lantern. An hour later, we were inside the bright, dry Nairobi Hospital surrounded by the sharp scent of Dettol disinfectant and the quiet bustle of nurses in white uniforms, their faces shiny with Vaseline. Over the next six months, my mother rushed me back to the hospital for a calf sliced open by a rusty can, a foot caught in a motorcycle wheel, and bee stings to which we learned I was highly allergic. Adventures aren’t without their dangers.
When my mother and I left Kenya, we traveled north through Yemen, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, hitchhiking on lorries and buses crowded with goats, chickens, and people.
Rudimentary guesthouses offered pallets on floors and flat rooftops — guests side-by-side, lulled to sleep by the sounds of snoring, murmuring, farting. For breakfast, we would eat watery porridge in tin bowls or yoghurt in clay bowls and sheets of chewy flat bread, warm from the giant brick ovens. Hot tea was served in glasses and my mother taught me to sip the liquid through a sugar cube held between my teeth and to tear off pieces of bread using just my right hand.
After many months and several long plane rides, we eventually ended up at my mother’s childhood home in Texas. While my mother thought it an “overindulgence of opulence,” the house was even larger and more wonderful than the out of focus photograph sent by my grandparents had led me to anticipate. It mirrored the home of Dick and Jane, the towheaded girl with the too-short pinafores, Father, Mother, and Spot, the dog — characters from the primers my mother taught me to read while waiting for buses in dusty villages and careening around suicidal mountain curves in the Hindu Kush. But our return was short lived and we soon left for Peru and later for Zambia.
When I turned sixteen, I begged my mother to let me finish my last two years of high school in the United States. My expectations of America and its high schools were formed almost exclusively from Beat Street, Breakin’, and the movies of John Hughes. What to my mother was uninspiring about America was to me exotic. Please, I begged, can we just be normal for two years? My mother took this to heart and we moved to Baltimore, Maryland.
People talk about appropriating other cultures; well, you’ve never seen someone grab onto a culture as hard as I did American. I obsessively studied Yo! MTV Raps and Family Ties. I dyed my hair black, listened to Anthrax, sniffed rush, and shopped at vintage clothing stores. Encouraging the affections of drug dealers and wannabe ballers with names like Noonie and Chin Chin, I rocked doorknocker earrings and gelled my curly hair into finger waves forced flat against my head.
I was increasingly resentful toward my mother about our bohemian lifestyle and swung between aloof and explosive. Did we have to be so foreign, so ethnic, so different? We didn’t even have a couch, just pillows and Afghan rugs on the floor. Our house smelled like curry and she sent me to school with lunches of black bread and salami. I vowed that my own children would not be subjected to this unconventional life. I would be married and at home waiting for them when they returned from school, wearing a skirt, with snacks prepared.
After college, I moved to New York, seeking the structure of corporate life and the comforts of materialism. I climbed the ladder at an entertainment agency. There was a dress code and office politics. Business lunches and long hours spent behind a desk. The goal was to make lots of money. It was a career path my mother never would have chosen and I loved it.
But sometimes, riding the subway home or lying in bed at night, memories would flit through my mind: the smell of maize porridge cooking over a charcoal fire, or my childhood feet toughened from exploring the thorny fields without shoes, chicken that tasted like fish for the scales and remains they were fed, or the musky taste of freshly pulled milk.
Anxious for a different setting, I headed to Austin, Texas, a two-hour drive north of my mother’s ranch. After all these years, my mother had returned to her childhood country. She wanted to be close to her parents, whose health was declining, and to pursue a lifelong dream to build and run a working cattle ranch. Real ranchers — not of the “all hat and no cattle” variety – are inextricably tied to their animals and land. If there’s a more grounding endeavor, I don’t know it. She had decided to establish roots just when I had become an adult.
I bought a used Ford Explorer, adopted a stray cat, and accepted a job at the Austin Film Festival, an organization that paid a third of my New York salary. Then I met Johnny — artist, skateboarder, musician, teacher.
Raised in Missouri, in the American heartland, Johnny traveled every opportunity
he got. He had camped in Alaska, studying the Aurora Borealis in the dead of winter. Floated down the Nile, sleeping on the deck of a faluca. He would go weeks without changing bed sheets but bristled at fingerprints on his computer screen. He teared up at ‘Lost Dog’ signs on telephone poles, disdained sarcasm, and when we argued, almost always said sorry first. One year and one week after our first date we were married. Ten months later, our daughter, Willa, was born.
When Willa was seven, Johnny and I took her to Kenya. We were excited to introduce her to Africa while she was old enough to appreciate it and young enough for it to not feel foreign. And I was anxious to see if it was how I remembered.
The first time we passed Syokimau, in a bus on our way to Lamu, I almost missed it.
I had been waiting for a stretch of savanna, but Nairobi — and its telephone poles — now extends well past the land where a little princess once chased after wildebeests. Nairobi, too, has reached for more. Syokimau has developed into a residential area surrounding a commuter train station. The station was built to alleviate the staggering traffic, but it appeared vacant when we saw it and we later heard from friends that it is rarely used.
My mother emailed us from Texas frequently, eager to picture exactly where we were and what we were doing. Did ugali and relish taste the same? Was the Supreme restaurant in Nairobi still there? What was the cost of a movie and what were they showing? Were we going to go to Syokimau?
The second time, returning to the capital, we stared hard at the station, searching for a glimpse of the fairytale farm of my childhood, our view hazy through a scratched window and crowded matatus pumping out fumes and smoke. There is nothing left of it. No curving dirt road or agave plants ready to prick anyone who wanders too close. No tank, no cows, no lions. Looking out the window at the standstill traffic around us, we watched drivers read newspapers, apply makeup, and talk on cell phones. One driver appeared to be sleeping. A woman in a skirt suit and white heels, braided hair piled high on her head, walked on the dusty path along the side of the road. She disappeared into an opening in the high bush.
The last time we passed Syokimau we were returning to the airport to come back to the States. I had asked our driver if he would pick us up a couple of hours early so we could go to the station. I wanted to walk around and see it up close. Maybe I would be able to determine where my house, the old chicken slaughterhouse, had been.
When the driver picked us up from our hotel the traffic was so thick that it took us 30 minutes to go two blocks. The sky was blackening, storm clouds obscuring the stars and moon. Rain fell and blurred the red taillights in front of us, despite the furious beating of the windshield wipers. By the time we made it to Mombasa Road, I knew we didn’t have time to stop. Already, we were barely going to be on time for our flight.
From the front seat, Johnny turned to me and said, “If you really want to stop, we
“There is no time,” the driver said.
Johnny said again, “We can stop.”
I shook my head, my throat tight. I couldn’t speak. I pushed my forehead hard against the window, hiding my tears from Willa and trying to distract the ache in my heart with the pain of skull against glass.
What did I think I would have found there, standing on the earth of Syokimau? Something to repair this feeling of being untethered, this sense of not belonging to any one place? A connection to my roots, an identification of my true, pre-adapted self?
Or perhaps something less dramatic: the overdue acknowledgment that I had had an extraordinary childhood that I hadn’t known to appreciate until now. The hot salt stung and no matter how hard I dug the heels of my hands into my eyes, I couldn’t stop the tears. Syokimau was gone. I had left it for normal and could never go back.
Maya Perez is a writer and producer. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, Electric Literature, and Misadventures, and she is co-editor of the books On Story: Screenwriters and Their Craft and the upcoming On Story: Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films, both from University of Texas Press. Maya is also a producer for the Emmy Award-winning television series On Story: Presented by Austin Film Festival, now in its sixth season on PBS. She is a former Sundance Screenwriters Intensive Fellow, New York Stage & Film Emerging Filmmaker, and was named one of MovieMaker and Austin Film Festival’s “25 Screenwriters to Watch” for 2016. Maya is a graduate of Vassar College and the Michener Center for Writers.