As we get closer to Kawangware, the streets get tighter. Sugar cane grows on the earth verge at the side of the road. Vegetable gardens, neat and ordered and stand to attention in tight rows. A woman, just beginning her garden, pulls up weeds in a sea of weeds.
The shop fronts are painted with bold and beautiful signs. DARLING! WE CARE HOW YOU LOOK, MOST PERFECT PAINT SHOP, KLUB LONDON. The walls are painted with instructions. ABSTAIN. BE FAITHFUL. USE A CONDOM (we presume this is multiple choice).
The market is crowded with people. Open grain sacks are packed together, cells in a school biology diagram. Sofas and armchairs in loud animal print look like resting leopards, a furniture safari. Mattresses piled high make me think of the Princess and the Pea.
After the market, Kawangware Public Primary School is spacious and calm, with grass playing fields and two covered courtyards. Some of the children have been making paper kites, studded with bougainvillea flowers, fitted with tails and tassels. One boy’s kite is covered in numbers, a page from a maths book. They run together towards the fields and the kites dance at their shoulders like landing birds.
The smaller kids are shy and daring at the same time. They wave and smile and push the braver ones amongst them forward to say HELLO and HOW ARE YOU? Then they crowd around us, ready for a conversation.
Their names are Tabitha and Michael and Esther and Joyce and Cynthia and Adam. They love stories. They love magic stories and animal stories and adventure stories and funny stories. Sad stories they don’t like so much.
A teacher welcomes us. His name is Edward. His tie is covered in trumpets. He is a good teacher. You can tell just by looking at him. His voice is gentle and he makes the children laugh.
The head teacher’s name is Miriam. She invites us into her office for tea and boiled eggs and bananas and sweet cakes and soda. From the windows of her office you can see the children playing. But the first thing I notice is the trophy. I can’t take my eyes off it. It is huge.
The girls’ choir competed at national level in the Kenyan Music Competition. They sang a song called Sweet Spring. Miriam says they will sing it for us before we go.
We leave the office and go to meet all of the children in the courtyard. Wangare tells them a story about a farmyard. They make all the right animal noises at all the right times. Then we give them some books, and guess what they do? They READ. Right there in the crowd with all the pushing and jostling they stop still and read. The books enclose them in quiet islands. The books keep them in story bubbles, small pockets of peace. This is why we came.
And then the choir sings.
When I am old and replaying the better snapshots of my life, the Kawangware Public Primary School Girls’ Choir will be there, singing.
It is the Sweetest Spring I ever heard.
The trophy isn’t big enough.