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The nursery school kids at one of my schools take advantage of a rare break in the rain to build sandcastles in the schoolyard.

Where I live, there are two methods of garbage disposal:

1) Wait until no one’s looking then drop it behind a tree (recommended by my landlord)

2) Burn it

Although I’m probably depriving local livestock of forage and contributing to greenhouse gas production by choosing the latter, it’s more fun, and it prevents the neighborhood children from picking through my trash looking for the bundles and bundles of candy/money/magical artifacts I’m surely throwing away every week. So after getting home yesterday evening and before tucking in to some take-away nyama choma, I hauled out two small plastic grocery bags of papers, banana peels, and empty milk packets to the gravelly area behind my building.

It took some doing to get it lit owing to the strong dusk breeze coming off the ocean, but soon it was merrily crackling and sending bits of burning detritus into the sky. Local custom would dictate that at that point I should walk away to attend to some other household chore. However, the girl scout in me insists I stick around to make sure it doesn’t spread to any of the nearby tress/shrubs/dry grassy patches, so I leaned against a wall to watch from a few feet away. Kneel always when you light a fire, I thought silently to myself, recalling the opening words of the prayer we’d been taught to say at summer camp every time we struck a match. Kneel reverently, and grateful be, for God’s unfailing charity …

At this point, I heard a giggle behind me. I turned to see Not-Italian and her posse standing nearby. Not-Italian is a neighborhood Kenyan girl, perhaps four years old, who’s bolder than most and the ringleader of a trio of kids older than herself. I’m not going to disclose her real name because even in my mind I call her Not-Italian.

To understand this requires a story: when I first arrived in August, I found that every time I left my house I was accompanied by teeming hordes of children screaming “CIAOOOO! CIAOOO! CIAOOO!” It was as though I was a cross between the pied piper and an Italian sex tourist (as I’ve said before, most of the tourists here are Italian, and it’s also a region known for child trafficking/prostitution. Great.) After a particularly trying day, I was walking home from the clinic when the usual crew set upon me howling “CIAOOO! CIAOOO! GIVE ME BISCOTTIS!! CIAOOO!” I knelt and explained sternly that I wasn’t Italian, I don’t *speak* Italian, I wasn’t a tourist, and I wasn’t going to give them cookies now or probably ever. They stared in silent dismay as I walked into my house. The next day, I left in the morning and the first thing I heard was “CIAOOO!” from a girl (maybe age 9) sitting on the steps of my building. My little ringleader turned to this girl, shrieked “SHE’S NOT ITALIAN!” and slapped the girl across the face so hard I could hear the smack from 25 feet away.

Hence, she is forever in my mind, Not-Italian.

So anyway, I was burning my trash when Not-Italian showed up with her posse. The others greeted me formally (“Shikamoo, daktari!”) but she simply said, “UNAITWAJE?!?” (“WHAT IS YOUR NAME!!?!”) She has no fear. I set about picking up pieces of paper that had flown out of the half-burned bags to drop back on the fire and she did likewise; while I wadded them up and tossed them from a safe distance, she walked straight up to the flames and dropped them on top. At least, until I yelled at her to be careful. I doubt the Kenyan mamas would like it very much if I encouraged the accidental self-immolation of their children.

When I stepped back to watch, she edged closer and wrapped her hand around my thumb, staring thoughtfully into the flames and chewing on her cuticles. It was cute … for about five seconds. Another little girl sidled up to my other hand, presumably to do likewise, at which point Not-Italian shrieked with the fury of seven hells, “SHE’S MY MZUNGU!!!” and threw a sharp rock at the interloper.

When that kid grows up, she is one to be a force to be reckoned with.

I waited until the flames were all but dead before extricating myself and heading inside to enjoy my still-warm nyama. Before leaving I admonished the children to absolutely not touch ANYTHING after I left; it was still hot, and they could get hurt, or their mothers could beat them for ignorning an adult’s request. It was a direct order. And yet when I turned back for one last glance before closing the gate, there they were, poking anxiously at the pile with sticks. Maybe mzungu money/candy doesn’t burn? Maybe there’s still some hidden treasure to be found?

Next time, I’ll use kerosene.

Kenyan Flag

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Yours truly