In the shadow of Homa Mountain, near the shores of Lake Victoria, long before I called the San Juan Mountains and southwest desert my home, I saw a tree shaped like Christmas and approached it.
Elijah, my Kenyan host brother, stood atop a distant ridge waving to me vigorously. “Hallo,” I shouted back to him, waving cheerfully. On this bright day filled with horizon, it seemed such a fine idea to bring a little taste of American Christmas to my host family, a parting gift for their year of generosity.
The tree was small, maybe five feet in height and three inches in diameter, so I cut through its trunk with little effort. Dragging the tree half a mile to my home was also easy, since I was very fit, walking miles every week that year to bus stops, the lake shore and the homes of distant friends and relatives.
My host sister met me at the opening in the dense wall of euphorbia that surrounded our compound of huts. Elijah stood behind her, shaking his head and speaking in Luo, a language I had not mastered. No matter. The sentiment was clear.
“Laura Adhiambo,” Mary Auma said sternly in fluent English. “Did you not see that this was the only tree of its kind?”
During my year out of water, I had committed many errors, cultural and otherwise, but, from her tone, I knew this one trumped all. Calm and disciplined, with an inner strength I admired and coveted, Mary Auma had become a hero to me; her disappointment hurt like a slap.
The tree I felled was likely Callitris robusta, which to the untrained, eager eye looks like cedar. Starting in 1950, Kenyan agro-forestry programs distributed several types of trees in South Nyanza, my family’s home province. C. robusta was especially suited to the climate and land and would provide generations of timber and fuel, both of which were in short supply. With visions of a better future, my host family had secured one sapling and planted it near their garden of groundnuts. I deserved the slap.
Later that day, someone leaned the tree in a corner of my host parents’ hut. Embarrassed but relieved, I honored the gesture of conciliation. Pieces of wood and other found items became ornaments. Sheets of notebook paper became stars and snow.
“Tell me about snow,” said Mary Auma, and so I described snowflakes, cold air, wet mittens, white outs, snowdrifts.
As we sat in the mud and dung home with no running water or electricity, contemplating the resource whose life I’d just cut short, everything sounded ridiculous. “We pop corn kernels then string them together with a needle and piece of thread. Also, there’s this silvery metallic stuff, long strings of it, that gets draped on the tree limbs … and red and white candy in the shape of canes … oh, and strings of green and red electric lights … ”
Out of kindness, I believe, my host family did not ask what happened in America to the venerated trees once the holiday was over. How would I explain trees lying curbside waiting for the garbage truck?
Ten days after Christmas, my year in Kenya ended. Our focus now was on the year past, the friendships formed, the miracle of bonds that transcend culture and distance. But when my host father delivered the traditional pre-travel prayer in his shuttered hut, the decorated tree still occupied its corner.
In Kenya 1979, where old tires became sandals and scraps of clothing were endlessly reinvented, I can hope this Callitris robusta had multiple afterlives. Over 30 years later, I imagine Elijah’s capable hands creating a small statue or new handle for the door of his mother’s hut. In Mary Auma’s hands, a branch or two may have helped boil a pot of morning tea, enjoyed then by the entire family while they swapped stories and laughed about the odd American girl who was very sweet, though a bit simple, and so very far out of her home water.
Laura Kerr is a fish in water where the Santa Cruz and Animas rivers flow. This is her first piece for MG.