Memories of Mikuyu Wildlife by Ann Churcher

June 1, 2015 | By | 14 Replies More

Half a mile from the back of my new house in Africa is the Likangala River, a tributary of the Shire. People are frightened to go there after dark. Daddy says bad men came down this river, long, long ago, to capture people and turn them into slaves. Some say it’s haunted, that mysterious dancing lights appear at night on the farther bank luring you to follow. If you swim over to these will o’ the wisps, you will disappear; you will never be seen again.

‘Wake up. Wake up, Mwana.’

Mwana means child. Mummy calls me that because I’m only five. It’s still dark this morning as she shakes me out of sleep. I’m getting up this early to hear the dawn chorus down beside the river. When I step outside, the air is still cool with night and the grass is wet on my legs. The world looks different, softer.

We set off along the half-mile of narrow track that leads through the long grass to the water. Daniel, who is from the Yao tribe, goes ahead barefoot with a yellow torch. He bangs his stick to ward off snakes.

‘Very important to do this,’ he explains. ‘Snakes feel the drums through the earth. They run away, quickly, quickly.’

Then he curses loudly at the baboons that come from their trees to watch and chatter at our strange outing.

It feels like forever for my small, tired feet to cross the fields to the woods. The elephant grass is so high. The band of trees that marks where the deep brown river runs through the red sand stays so far away. Before we get there, the sky turns pale yellow, and the first bird begins to sing. Then another. And another. Soon every bird in the world has joined in an almost unbearably loud hymn to the dawn that makes my head spin and my blood race.

As the sun appears, red, just above the long grass, we reach the shining Linkangala. We sit high on a rock overlooking the spangled water, listening to the concert. There must be so many birds to sing so many different songs. I didn’t know birdsong was so beautiful. As the sun rises higher, the sound gradually dies away.

I scramble down the steep slope to the edge of the water to trail my hands in its coolness. The mica in the sand around me sparkles like fairy gold. I gasp at the treasure but, as I bend to scoop shards of the gleaming metal, my mother laughs, and the baboons mock me with cackles of wild glee.

‘Fool’s gold,’ Mummy says. And she tells me that this is mica, not real gold. But I put some in my dressing gown pockets anyway.

‘Fools gold, fool’s gold, fool, fool,’ shriek the baboons at me. All the way home these creatures boo, chatter and grimace; their teeth bared under their long dog-like muzzles; their naked pink bottoms flashing rudely at me as they leap from branch to branch, driving the humans out of their forest.

My new world is filled with noise. There is no silence in Mikuyu. The general background din of crickets and cicadas that Mummy calls ‘zizitters’ grows deafening after rain. When a storm has passed, and the rain eases to heavy drops on our tin roof, the ‘zizitters’ are joined by a thousand frogs. And the noise swells to the primeval tumult that the baboons must have heard when they first came to the river.

At night we light the paraffin lamps. Round each one, insects swirl in a vast circle. Moths and great flying beetles fly in a noisy, hypnotic ring. I try to count them but I lose count after forty. A few of them are so big that I scream if they land on my hair. Brown and green geckoes make sudden dashes up the walls to dine on this nightly feast. Their little feet stick tight as they turn, halfway up, and crane to watch me with their bright eyes that never shut.

The mosquitoes invade the house in spite of the screens that have been put up on the khonde (as I’ve learned to call the verandah). They make me itch dreadfully; Mummy scratches her bites so hard, they bleed. Daddy goes round with puffers of DDT, sending plumes of fine white dust into the house. It settles on all the surfaces and lies like powder on our hair.

In the night the rains come. The torrent falls on the tin roof. The sound deafens me and booms in my ears. We can’t talk. Nothing can compete with the din. After the rain I slip out of my room, down the hall, and go with Daddy through the French windows at the end of the living room out onto the khonde. The air is full of a heavy wild scent that I’ve never known before, and the stars blaze brighter than I’ve ever seen in the suddenly clean night. The crickets and frogs set up such a deafening chorus that I put my hands over my ears.

On hot, damp nights, these creature musicians become the orchestral backing to an astonishing light show. Small green lights pulsate and dance all over the garden as great clouds of fireflies light up in courtship. I beg to stay up late after supper to watch the performance. The female glow-worms crawl on the ground. I creep through the wet grass around the house on my hands and knees to inspect them carefully. What kind of magic are they using? Up close to these creatures, I watch in wonder as their glowing abdomens pump fluorescent light to their dancing firefly suitors in synchronised ecstasy.

‘They’re trying to attract a mate,’ says Daddy, ‘so they can make baby glow-worms.’

Dot-dot-dot. Dash-dash-dash. Dot-dot-dot. I know that means S.O.S. because I’ve learnt Morse Code.

‘Sink or swim,’ I say. ‘Save our souls.’

An S.O.S. of love.

Ann Churcher is based in England and has written numerous articles and two books: Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second (Virgin Books) and A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD (Nick Hern Books) She writes, directs and teaches voice and acting. Follow her on Twitter @MelChurcher

Ann Churcher has been published previously with When Women Waken.

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Category: Prose, When Women Waken Literary Journal, Wildlife

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  1. Memories of Mikuyu Wildlife | Words, words, words... | June 20, 2015
  1. candice falloon says:

    wonderful story, full of magical words i have never heard! what special memories, so rich and exotic for a child to experience. how lucky were you to grow up in such a environment, full of truly wild animals and histories as old as time . i especially loved that you truly grew up with a kaleidoscope sounds, animals, insects and stories, a tapestry that truly was woven into all that love that you remember so well.

  2. Doris Emmett says:

    What wonderful descriptive language in this write…I felt like a childyself seeing it though the writer’s eyes. Hearing the cacophony of nature’s sounds and delighting in them as well!

  3. Ann Churcher says:

    Thank you so much Candice and Doris for your lovely words. I had a wonderful childhood – so lucky!

  4. Susan Windle says:

    Beautiful, Ann. Love the child’s eye perspective of this wild and magical place. And the powerful finish. Save our souls, indeed!

  5. Mel Churcher says:

    Thank you Susan – so glad you read it!

  6. Mel Churcher says:

    Recording & Video…

    In case anyone likes to hear things read…here is recording of my piece, ‘Memories of Mikuyu Wildlife’

    If you prefer it in video form with snapshots here is that version…

  7. Julie Pimblett says:

    I was totally caught up in this story. Somehow you were able to put grown up words into the head of a child and it worked!! Wonderfully evocative story. I wanted to be there. Thanks

  8. Ann Churcher says:

    Dear Julie – thank you so much! It’s interesting trying to write through a child’s eyes. So glad you think it worked.

  9. Enjoyed reading this. Reminded me of travels in Tanzania.

  10. Sue Robinson says:

    What a beautiful and evocative memory retold in a lovely, inclusive descriptive style. I felt I was next tdoor to you as you walked along.

  11. Ann Churcher says:

    Thank you for lovely comment:)

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