Ain’t No Mountain High Enough in Motherhood

By Wakanyi Hoffman

My daughter recently summited to the top of Mount Kenya, the third highest peak on the African continent.

She did this with swollen, frozen hands that could no longer fit inside her woolen mittens after 3 nights of camping in the bush, each day hiking upwards towards the peak. A school trip unlike any other.

Mt Kenya, Luisa Espovito MelvinImage courtesy of Luisa Espovito Melvin

On summit day, she crouched hands and feet down, crawling on unseen icy rocks in the darkness for an ascent that begun at 2.00 am.

“I nearly fell off the mountain mom!” She exclaimed casually, as she babbled nonstop about the experience, as if the thought of the near-fatality should be assuaged by the fact that she didn’t actually fall.

Or that I should rest content in the assurance that thankfully her teacher who was crawling up behind her managed to foresee the missed calculation that my daughter made when she turned her head-lamped forehead skywards instead of below her nose. She had tripped on an unseen rock, falling to the side, into the arms of Ms. L.

She had then picked herself up and proceeded upwards to the peak on Point Lenana where she sat poised atop a rock, with her face turned towards the morning sun, having conquered many of the world’s mountain climbers’ wildest dreams, at the age of twelve.

‘How far down would you have fallen?” I asked in a feigned monotone that matched her casual one.

“I would’ve fallen to the side, all the way down to the top of another huge rock,” she replied, then changed the topic to describe the vibrant gold, black, red and purple hues of the magnificent sunrise that painted the morning above the cradle of humanity, reflecting tenderly onto the frozen glacier lakes below.

She knew that she had pulled and snapped a mother’s heart-string, for a vision of the near-missed mighty fall of my Afro-curly haired girl with gluten-intolerant-rashed mixed-race coloured cheekbones would recur all night in my dreams.

I would picture Ms. L collecting mittens fallen from too-fat fingers, frost-bitten now, clasped onto a rock in the shape of a professional mountain climber.

Face down. No, face on top of the fat fingers. She would’ve definitely cushioned her face with her hands. Eyes shut, lips pursed into a smile. A theme song still sounding in her faint but never-giving-up warrior heart.

I would awaken myself from this nightmare to see my baby girl resting beside me, all accumulated 30 kg preteen mass of the once teenie weenie 2.7 kg of the baby born labeled ‘small-for-dates’ on one spring morning in Nairobi.

“Are you sure she’s not a preemie?” I had asked the doctor in the after-birth.

“She’s small but not premature,” He had said to me, a small light in his dark pupils peering into a brand new space in my heart, hypnotizing my mother senses into a blissfully numb, all-accepting oxytocined mother-brain.

‘I am a mother now,’ I would try to convince myself when what I truly felt was as though the real mama waited outside that birthing room door. I would picture her wide-eyed and all-knowing, plump-faced, soft motherly smile, cuddly cushy love handled arms, big milky leaky boobs, fat fingers best suited for firmly grasping a slimy, wiggly, tiny, little baby inside a slippery, soapy, baby bathtub.

But I had the manual. The ‘What to expect when you’re expecting’ and ‘Dr. Spock’ and my mother.

“She’s so tiny!” Mom exclaimed upon seeing her newest granddaughter, middle-named Wanjiru for ‘the one born in the dark’ after her, with dark navy eyes that would fade into dark brown pupils.

“The doctor said she’s not premature,” I explained, jovial, but not too excited, mature, middle-tone, with the ‘I know what I am saying because I am now the wide-eyed, all-knowing, newborn baby manual-reading expert’ look on my face.

Mom had been sitting outside the birthing room since she received a text at 5 am saying her baby girl was at the hospital in labour. She had not slept for 3 nights since I broke the news that I would have to be induced for the ‘too-small-for-dates’ overdue but not preemie baby girl whose pink colour-cordinated nursery had been prepared since the initial baby announcement. Even the woolite baby delicates soap powder came packaged in a baby pink-coloured box.

I didn’t ask her to come into the birthing room because it was now time for me to ‘do my  big girl thing’, the grown-up baby girl of hers, ready to birth my very own fully formed baby girl.

I had initially prepared to go with my baby girl up that mountain until I asked for her opinion, to which she diplomatically replied, “No, mama, this is meant to be a bonding trip for me and my friends.” It was her turn to do a ‘big girl thing’.

But ain’t no mountain high enough, if you lead, I will follow…

Marvin Gaye’s no. 1 hit and The Gilmore Girls‘ TV show’s theme song begun their harmonic remix inside my head.

Looking at her still-too-tiny fingernails, still-too-soft hands, brown eyes, big recently-trimmed curls sitting atop a head short of me, I struggled to contain the adrenalined fear forming inside my head. My wide-eyed, older, wiser, mature mom-face betrayed by the conflicting, self-doubting, mom-guilt that has remained perpetually trapped inside my throat since she emerged out of me in under 3 hours of the lamaze-breathing, intense-focused, ballerina-postured baby bump sitting atop a not-firm-enough blue exercise ball, doula-hired, husband birth partnering, also masquerading as the paparazzi of the manual-led natural birth event that was captured in under 40 minutes, before the battery power on the video camera died. Just in time for the baby’s first dramatic cry. To later be used as the official birth video of future lamaze classes.

I didn’t go up that mountain with her, but I did move into her bedroom where I lay awake inhaling her lavender-scented pillow case for the 3 nights that my now overgrown preteen but not yet adult big girl had embarked on a mountain climbing expedition 3,500 meters, 16,000 feet above sea level.

I cried when I saw her face emerge from behind the crowded mixture of fellow anxious moms, dads and 12-year-old mountain climbing returnees like herself.

“Describe the experience in one word,” I dared her.

Fu-rd?” She said, a contemplative eyebrow raised towards the blue, afternoon sky.

“Fun plus hard equals furd,” she explained, stepping out of the car back home, happy to get her face licked by Thomas the ‘butler’ dog who was barking madly all over her.

Then she turned around for a hug and broke into tears.

“Did you cry going up?” I asked her.

“Not until I got to the top,” she revealed, as I wiped the pool of salty wetness collecting down on her collar-bone, towards the back of her neck, where she still smells like a fresh new baby.

As I held her at night and sat watching her evenly-timed breathing, legs sprawled wildly as she always did as an infant, it dawned on me that motherhood has so far been a furd journey towards the miraged mountain peak.

It is filled with near-falls, fat fingers, cold fingers, all clutching and crawling up towards the top, to the place where every now and then the cradle of humanity can be viewed in clarified hues of a rarely seen sunrise.

dawn mt kenya


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Mixed-Race, Meghan Markle and the Complexities of Identifying as a Global Citizen

By Wakanyi Hoffman

I watched the royal wedding between Meghan Markle and Prince Harry inside a tent on the shores of L. Naivasha, in the middle of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. My two oldest children were sailing with their father while I had been left to devise creative ways to entertain our youngest two for the rest of the day. We couldn’t be on the boats with the big kids nor could we brave the blistering heat outside anymore. Our tent was set up, but as this was only an overnight trip, we had opted to bring limited supplies of clothes and toys. The Royal Wedding offered the best entertainment alternative for the three of us, as we huddled close together in front of a tiny, low-battery-mode iphone screen inside the tent.

naivashaOur family’s 12-person tent pitched above L. Naivasha

Meanwhile, inside another larger tent was a group of adults huddled around a laptop which one of the parents of the sailing cadets had generously offered as a ‘big screening’ of the global event. Nobody was missing out, not even the lot of us oddly mixed up nationalities and ethnicities gathered in a remote village in the middle of Prince Harry’s supposed first love- Africa. Not even the fish eagle sitting atop an acacia tree in the middle of the lake, inspecting his prey from his vantage point. Or the regal water-buck staring stoically back at us from a stone’s throw distance.

waterbuckA lone water-buck seen walking towards the lake below

And as if the stars were aligned to bring us into the virtual spaces inside Windsor castle, my two little royalists had found some fresh white roses oddly scattered in the garden, very similar to those used for the exquisite royal wedding flower arrangement. It is on this lake that the world’s second largest export of rose flowers is made. As I watched in amazement as my little children made an ikebana-worthy bouquet, I wondered whether it was these same flowers that had in fact, made their way to Windsor castle for that day. Our modest bouquet was delicately balanced atop a sleeping bag beside the tiny phone screen to complete our ultimate royal wedding experience. Even the internet connection kept up throughout the ceremony as did the battery power, although it did eventually give in and the screen blacked out right at the point when the newly weds went on a carriage spin around Windsor.

“It’s a gorgeous day in Windsor, isn’t it?” Said my 6 year old, stressing on the ‘gorgeous’ in her most British of accents, which she has picked up from 2 years of living and attending a British school in Kenya. Her little 3 year old brother was glued to the screen, in the same way that he would have been glued to a screening of back-to-back episodes of Peppa Pig. For him, any screen time was better than none at all. But as time went on, he really got into the pomp and wedding hype, constantly asking, “Where’s Meghan?” As if he was asking for his older sister who could have easily been mistaken for a younger version of Meghan Markle, bearing that ambiguous ethnic identity that children of mixed-race are dealt with from birth.

I marveled at Meghan’s shiny, straight hair, which gave no evidence of her ever having curly-textured hair and her perfectly form-fitting wedding gown, which transformed her into a living and breathing princess, every inch of her elegant and dramatic veil seeming to glide in tune with her stride. My dress-up-ready little girl marveled at the sparkly tiara asking, “Are those real jewels?” Little brother found this the opportune moment to boldly announce that he is never getting married! Little sister chuckled and said, “I am getting married to a prince!” Her petite face was beaming with a sparsely toothless grin so genuine, that her big brown eyes appeared to be enlarging right in front of my very own. Even her golden curls seemed to be covered by a glistening halo the colour of the rainbow from the blinding sun rays peeking through the tent window. She was the perfect image of cuteness overload as she slyly asked if the newly weds would have to kiss in front of everyone. She blushed when I confirmed that they would and quickly puckered up her lips to her little brother who, despite his squirmy protests was secretly desperate to get to that kissing part too. They both impressed me with their relentless patience until the very end, when the new Mr and Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor exited the cathedral and satisfied the world with the anticipated smooch that sealed their matrimonial engagement.

We cheered as loudly as the crowd at Windsor. The folk in the larger tent cheered even louder, cups of teas and beer mugs clunking in unison. At that very moment, the skies over L. Naivasha were the same bright blue as those above Windsor castle. It appeared as though the entire universe had conspired to paint even the sky, the colour of happiness for this ridiculously adorable couple who seemed to genuinely present us with a perfectly blended swirl of two starkly and culturally different worlds.

sailing blue skiesThe shores of L. Naivasha with the cadets sailing on the Naivasha Yacht Club boats

Days later, it would seem that every news article was tasked with regurgitating every minute detail of the Royal Wedding. But a particular article penned by a Nigerian writer caught my eye. It was a critique intended to inform the rest of the world what Meghan Markle’s racial identity was supposedly symbolic of and why the royal wedding should be of no significance to black people. Evident throughout the piece was an intentional means to disqualify Meghan as either black or white, by repeatedly highlighting her ambiguous mixed race identity. While it is certainly not lost to the world that Meghan is neither black or white, it is what the writer, who identified strongly as a Black British Woman was rightfully protesting, which was the media’s attempt to present Meghan as the token ‘black’ princess inside the British Monarch. Joining the rest of social media’s vessel of noisemakers globally deadlocked in heated discussions about Meghan’s role inside Buckingham Palace, this writer expressed disdain with mainstream media’s insinuation that Meghan would somehow become a source of hope and solace to other black women around the world. She shredded apart any media agenda likely to portray this union as the colonists’ undoing of any past injustices or that by having a ‘black’ woman in their inner circle, other black women, particularly in the UK would come to see themselves as worthy of finally having their rightful seat inside Buckingham Palace, dusted and presented to them in a celebratory homecoming fashion.

While I could not possibly deny feeling infuriated by the sensationalist global media’s gross feasting on the emotional racial scars of the past, I knew it was their intended ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ factor, to constantly remind the world that there exists two superficial worlds based solely on the insignificance of our skin colour. I was however astonished by the boldness of the author, to publicly bear the burden of educating the world about how mixed-race people perceive themselves given that she can only truly, speak for herself as a British woman of African descent, who also happens to be categorized as black. The piece made me hugely uncomfortable, with the sort of elemental negative undertones that point to a deep non-acceptance of mixed-race people by both white and black folk. It also pointed to the false way in which we are all often pigeonholed into identify ourselves based on colour, which in itself is a problematic and inconclusive evidence of our being.

President Obama was not black enough for African-Americans, nor was he ever considered remotely ‘White’ by White America, despite having been raised by his mid-western white mother. The article made me want to scream, “Who speaks for the mixed race?” in the same way that renown postcolonial critic Gayatra Spivak dares Western scholars of Development Education to answer the question, “Who speaks for the subaltern?” when they attempt to write about the postcolonial, indigenous woman.

My own children are half-Kenyan, half-American. They get their kinks from me and their blonde highlights from their blue-eyed father. I shall never attempt to explain their ethnic ambiguity as I would only be speaking from my individual perspective, which is Kenyan-African and not even African-American, which is how they are profiled in US airports, upon entry into their passport country. But I have borrowed this quote to give a direct response to anyone struggling to classify them on the racial colour-wheel:

mixed race quote

Identity of any kind is so complicated, yet I think there is beauty in Harry’s and Meghan’s burden from now on to publicly define their interracial union based on how they share their love with the rest of the world. This is much in the same way that any other couple, whether interracial or from one race, straight or gay, has to define their unique coming together to those in their world. But for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, their fairy tale wedding is only a precursor to the love story they will forever be tasked with writing under the glaring eye of such public scrutiny, whilst in the process of privately discovering who each other truly is. While Meghan is quoted as identifying as a ‘strong, mixed-race woman’ on the outside, the public is yet to discover the depths of her inner strength which hopefully will go beyond her make-up brand and products for her textured hair.

Before he left the White House, President Obama was interviewed by Trevor Noah and asked to explain how he managed throughout his time in Office, to be both- to sit so comfortably on both ends of the racial divide, navigating this discourse with such admirable ease. In true Obama-fashion he gave a simplistic yet philosophical answer. He said:

“My general theory is that, if I was clear in my own mind about who I was, comfortable in my own skin, and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives; that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and slavery, but that the progress we have made has been real and extraordinary. If I am communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots, or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to learning and caring about equality and justice, and that I can win them over, because there is goodness in the majority of people. I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I’d be okay.”

That sums up my argument, that humans have depth beyond our superficial skin colour and that if  you are able to represent yourself as who you truly are on the inside, then without any doubt, the person judging you will have to judge you based on other things first before your skin colour.  It is therefore unnecessary to have any woman, black or white, whether living in the UK or not, educate the world on what Meghan’s skin colour does or doesn’t do for black women because identification remains perhaps the only authentic and deeply personal human accomplishment that each one of us must earn. And if we are to be true to ourselves, one very rarely describes themselves based on skin colour. Simply ask any child to describe their new friend at school and they will almost never begin with, “My new black friend” or “My new white friend”. They will describe the experience they had with their new friend, or the cool and amazing things the new friend can do. Sometimes they may mention where the friend is from, but only as an anecdotal evidence of their ethnicity. After having lived in six countries on three continents, I have perfected the art of this social experiment with my own four children.

When my 9 year old son recently said to me, “Mama, do you know that it is virtually impossible to imagine a colour that you haven’t ever seen?” I realized that indeed, the oldest human that was found inches away from where our tent was pitched on that historic wedding day would not have been able to conceive of another skin colour beside his own.

It had occurred to me that day while looking out into the infinity line of L. Naivasha that we were sitting upon the cradle of humanity, where the first human fossil was discovered. The irony is that the first human would not have been limited by his skin colour when endeavoring to claim an extraordinary existence on the world’s deepest and longest valley full of wildlife.

In short, Meghan is not limited by the ambiguity of her ethnic identity in her quest to carve out a life inside the world’s longest living monarch.

Also, neither she nor Harry are obligated to represent black women or white men. Given their public, globetrotting lifestyle, it would be logical to expect that their circle of friends is rich in diversity and cultural experiences. It would not be surprising to hear Meghan and Harry identify as world citizens first and foremost.

I did not watch a mixed-race woman walk down the isle to meet a white prince hopeful that my mixed-race daughters would ‘see’ themselves represented by Meghan’s particular skin colour and wish the same for them.

If there is anything to be learnt about the discovery of the first human fossil on African soil is that black, white or mixed-race are all too simplistic and limiting identifications for any human to fully experience life on this planet, with all its boundless and oftentimes, mysterious possibilities.

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Debunking the Myth that Global Citizenship is Privileged

By Wakanyi Hoffman

My 11 year old daughter and her father have just returned from a trip to England and Scotland to scout and feel out potential school options for her upcoming secondary school education. These are boarding schools, whose names are laced with prestige, privilege and elitism at their hems. They are situated in idyllic countryside settings that date back to the origin of the English empire, where English roses, daintily sculpted with nostalgic delicate fragrances, frame their manicured lawns against the views of the famed rolling hills. It is also where Harry-Potter’s Hogwarts-themed boarding houses have been graced by the footsteps of generations of royalty both current and old.

And yet we are not royalty. Or wealthy. Just an ordinary, millennial middle class-family that has chosen an  intentional nomadic lifestyle while working in the humanitarian sector. We consider ourselves global nomads, not distanced from my maternal Maasai grandfather, who hailed from Kenya’s famed pastoral tribe. If he were living in our modern world today, he would fit the mold of a true global citizen, solving today’s problems for future generations to come, having himself pioneered girls’ education in a remote village in colonial Africa as was dedicated in his eulogy more than four decades ago.

Given his status in society, my grandfather was an elite. He came from a wealthy family whose livestock could only be counted in herds of cows and goats and the expanse of his family land could not be marked by a spear thrown with the stamina of the greatest Maasai warrior, no matter how mighty. If these educational opportunities had been within his reach during his parenting times, he too would have similarly explored these schools for my mother. He was always well ahead of his time, a futurist who saw the impending new world and ensured that his vision was aligned with it, for himself and for his offspring.

However, his remaining relatives form the diminishing indigenous communities being threatened to extinction by our modern technology. They are neither wealthy nor educated. At least not in the way that the modern society would perceive wealth or education. Not in goats and cows or spiritual wisdom. They may never see the inside of a formal classroom in a Scottish castle. But their distant relation, my 11 year old, just might.

Like many other jet-setting expats, our chosen family lifestyle is considered elitist- such a relative description considering that it is the nature of our work that facilitates this lifestyle choice. But given that my daughter and her father were retracing the steps that the Duchess of Cambridge took in her preppy boarding house, we would fit the image of the elites of our world, a world that is completely the opposite of the Duchess and nowhere close to that of my ethnic warrior tribe.

Elitism, Prestige, Privilege- are all the terms we have used to describe the likes of the Duchess on a global arena, but not a Maasai warrior chief amongst villagers in colonial Africa.

As an expat family that is also intercultural and interracial, we are aware of the box into which our seemingly privileged Third Culture Kids, also known as TCKs, are thrown into. They are privately educated amongst top society’s privately educated, they live in the upper ends of the housing catchment area in different countries, thus by default, their friends are the elites of their society. This budding future generation of global citizens is largely unaware of the connotation of such words as privilege when they play together in the school’s playground.

For privilege, as advised by James Baldwin to Margo Jefferson- the best-selling author of Negroland, is provisional. In their revelatory conversation on power and privilege, Baldwin, a renowned social critic of America’s racial discourse explained further to Margo, an African-American and also a renown cultural critic, that ‘Privilege can be denied, withheld, offered grudgingly and summarily withdrawn.’ Thus privilege is somewhat a social misconstruction. Like the concept of power, it is a kind of goal that the human race is hard wired to achieve. In our modern world, we give it noble definitions such as enlightenment, but fail to see that those considered as enlightened- the revered leaders, priests and philosophers of our history also strangely live a privileged lifestyle. So why do we frown upon privilege as the mighty fall of the wealthy elite, if privilege is not necessarily measured in wealth?

Baldwin sheds the light upon this by explaining that it is entitlement that we should be against. Entitlement is the evil opposite of privilege that is ‘impervious to the kinds of verbs that modify privilege.’ It divides rather than unifies and reduces the wealthiest to a despicable level. His advice, whether you feel privileged or not is that, you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. And if you happen to be at the top of the food chain, accept your social duty of elevating those steps below the same ladder that another above helped you climb.

I have struggled throughout our decade-long expatriate lifestyle to come to terms with what is readily within our reach. I have wined and dined with royalty in Nepal and the Philippines, lived in nice homes that are peculiarly always adjacent to a slum, like in Addis or in Nairobi, my current city- a constant reminder of the wealth gap. In Thailand I found myself attracting friends from the highest ranking members of the Thai royal family by default because their children and mine sat eating pad thai noodles in the same tables at their school lunch cafeteria. Unlike the out-of-pocket paying families high up on that social class ladder, the prestigious international school that my children attended was paid for by our employers. Once inside, the khaki school skorts and pants that our children wore unified and diminished their status and those of their royal friends to students. The teachers could not tell them apart and this was one of the draws for sending the wealthy kids to this particular school- that they were treated as ordinary. Outside of the equalizing school fence, our gross income was never revealed and we shopped for milk, cheese and cereal in the same organic shops, often times complaining about the prohibitive cost of feeding our children pesticide-free food.

I have had the same conversation with my housekeeper in Kenya, our current home, with whom I am divided by that road between my high income rental property and her low-income rental property. We complain about rent. All the time. We complain about school fees. All the time. It is all relative and it is all based on a commodity that we are all in perpetual search for- more cash to pay off our ever increasing bills. We are united in our middle class status. Hers in the slums, mine in the posh estate. A dirty river runs between the two.

When I explained to her how scared I was to send my daughter to a boarding school in the UK, she asked, “Do you have to pay for it?” I told her that she might get a scholarship. She looked at me, dead-pan faced and said, “But you know that the scholarship is a privilege you cannot buy, something she will have to earn.” There once again, she reminded me, without even knowing those words had been spoken by an individual far wiser and more intellectual than both of us combined that privilege IS provisional. It can be earned. And everyone has a right to earn it. It is when the privileged become entitled, demanding to be treated better than others because they are North and you are South, or they are rich and you are poor that then privilege becomes a divisive evil.

As a self-proclaimed global citizen, I have gained an increasing awareness of what both my privileged nomadic expat lifestyle and my limiting black African heritage present as my outward identity. The line that divides the two is where my provisional privilege is earned- where I am judged by who I am on the inside. It is where I place the axis that marks my human connection to another, that allows the other to grant me privilege to be a friend, a comrade who can occupy any amount of space in another person’s life. I am not entitled to that privilege and indeed I too grant it selectively.

The decision to grant another person access into your world is determined by your level of understanding of the other. Depending upon how your life’s journey interconnects with another’s, you can both mark E for Empathy where your paths intersect. For Empathy is what grants you freedom to understand that you are both equally privileged to have met, whether in a classroom inside a Scottish castle, or under an acacia tree in Africa’s vast savannah.

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If I was ever so unfortunate as to be forced to describe Kathmandu in one word, it would have to be “still”. In the midst of the chaos of daily life, the gaping beggars that decorate the streets, the rickshaws domineering Thamel, the market district, the gemstones kiosks lined along tourist terrain and our old house nestled smack in the midst of the mixture of city life-meets-would-be-suburb, a little oasis that appears from utter blues on a half acre plot, complete with pomegranate trees heavily pregnant with fruit begging to be picked, “still” is what comes to mind.

I think back to my first Nepali encounter. As the plane finally touched down on the dusty airport, I managed my way out onto an awaiting bus on the runway. On one arm was two carry-on bags. On the other was a toddler, 18 months old to be exact. She had impressively endured 17 straight hours from Dulles to Doha, and another 6 from Doha to Kathmandu. My belly rumbled with butterflies, anxious about this new unknown world that was to become my home for two solid years. When my husband confirmed that we would definitely be moving there, the most I had heard of Nepal was with the remote reference to Mt. Everest. Even then, I was unsure of the exact proximity of the world’s highest peak to this magical place. Google informed me that they were one and the same thing. I made a mental note to peak Everest but I never did. But I did trek up thousands of steps along the Anuparnas, circling the Himalayas with a 5 month baby in a baby Bjorn, taking nursing breaks with breathtaking views of the most magnificent mountains one can ever be as fortunate to see in a lifetime. Then waking up to the imposing sight of the mystical Machapuchre.

The butterflies filled my empty belly. An empty uterus, to be exact, for I had just lost our second baby to a miscarriage. I was still dealing with the after effects of the procedure that I had endured two days prior to boarding the plane with my toddler. My husband was waiting for us on the other side.

Nepal provided the stillness that I needed to get past that dark cloud of having lost a baby.

“Are you coming to visit?” Asked a kind, young, carefree backpacker.

“I’m here to stay.” Was my simple reply.

While I couldn’t say for certain what that meant- here to stay- it offered some strange sense of comfort, knowing that I was going “home”. This would be our first official expat posting as a family of three. Prior to this we had lived in Nairobi, Ohio and Maryland, but never in a country foreign to both my husband and I. Nepal provided an urgent new beginning.

With our few belongings and young marriage packed up in an air freight that would arrive just three short days after our touch down, I was excited to start a new life in a house that came fully furnished in someone else’s taste. A built-in tv cabinet on the wrong side of the living room meant modifying our set-up. A fireplace that let out more smoke than fire meant relying on gas heaters and hot water bottles as our main source of warmth during those harsh winter months, with the fireplace lit for pure aesthetics. It gave the illusion of a warm house, which, when my mother visited, she would ever dangerously close to the source of the smoke, keeping one side of her body warm while the other faced the cold living room.

Yet in spite of the hardship posting that it was, Kathmandu was the best place that we have ever lived in.

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Imagining a global village

It is tough to imagine, but I can still remember a time when I never owned a phone. Not a mobile phone, but a landline.

A few years ago, we took our then 7 year old daughter to a meeting with an accelerated learning specialist at her school in Thailand. She asked her a few questions, two of which were, if you were to go back in time, which period would that be, and if there was an old technological gadget you would like to learn how to use, what would it be? Our daughter answered the dinosaur era for the first question and an old-fashioned telephone with “the circle thing with the numbers in the middle that you have to turn around to dial”.  Apparently to her, the dinosaur age is at par with the usage of the oldfashioned corded telephones.

Still, I did not grow up with a phone in the house. There are no vivid childhood memories of sitting by the sofa waiting longingly for the phone to ring. Not because those were relic times in which I grew up but because a phone, a landline, was not a necessity. It was a toy that I marveled at and played with in my mother’s office on the rare chance that I found myself visiting her there. My mom worked all her life as the secretary to the Chief Medical Officer at the University of Nairobi’s Health Services. Her phone etiquate was something which to this day, I chuckle about. It is in the way she tends to speak in perfectly polished English to a stranger on the other end, belying her ethnicity as a postcolonial African senior citizen.

Whenever she would leave me in her seat unattended, I used to dial 1 and continue to speak, in my most intellectual and polished way to her boss. He would ask me simple stuff like my age, my name, the name of my school, my grade and whether or not I was working hard. I would jovially answer, “Of course!” to the last one, slightly offended that he would doubt my work ethic. Didn’t he see how hard my mom worked? Surely he must know that a product of such a hard-working woman was nothing short of earning ‘Most Hardworking Student’ title. Then my mom would show up and tap my little hand and proceed to apologize to her boss for my inappropriate behavior. He would always say that he didn’t mind. I didn’t mind it either. Infact I welcomed the audience very much. It was the opportunity to be listened to by a real and very important adult, for I held him high on that pedestal that is designated to enigmatic characters such as principles and priests, the sort one never imagines eating juicy mangoes with their bare hands with the pulp dripping down their arms (the way that I did as a child).

I am a mother now and my oldest three children play with my phone all the time. They also eat whole, peeled juicy mangoes in the messy way that I did as a child. My six year old often dials international numbers and speaks with her cousins, grandparents and friends scattered all over the world in the six countries that we have lived in as diplomatic expatriates. Like my mom did, I playfully tap her hands and hung up unapologetically. Because it costs a lot of money to call internationally from my cell phone. Then I turn on Skype and she talks for hours on end for free.

Imagine if Skype was a village gathered in a circle and every child from every homestead took turns to sit in the middle and recount an interesting, made up story.

What a fantastic fantasy. Both the child’s fairytale and the idea of a Skype village.

I get this feeling that we have complicated our little ones’ childhoods so much in a quest for smart parenting. I have certainly over-saturated my mind with facts and figures regarding the art of parenting our ikids.

Yet a nagging feeling tells me that the simple thing that our children crave the most is an audience with us. Human beings who can dedicate their time and space to listen to them speak. When they speak, they speak like all children do. They speak childishly from the heart. They speak with innocence. When they speak. If they speak.

I enjoy hanging around older parents to get a sneak peek into my fast-approaching future as a parent of an iteenager, hoping that in the next year or so, Snapchat will be totally uncool and Facebook will be an embarrassment to our igeneration. What I hear is always the same conclusion. Teenagers don’t speak to adults. They exist in another world with only a select few of their friends, if ever. A shocking number of them exist in other worlds inhabited by only themselves and the latest bot technology.

What we seem to forget is that we are so consumed with finding ways to give our children a better audience with the internet as our village, that perhaps we have actually exercerbated this teenage silence. Maybe he’ll speak Mandarin in 14 days if he uses this latest app, or maybe my toddler will memorize his times tables in 6 weeks if I pay for twice weekly Kumon lessons. But the honest truth is, we haven’t asked the children what they enjoy most from us.

The answer to this came in a rare revelation from my oldest son 4 years ago. It was the UN’s International Day of Teachers and if you went to the UNESCO website, you could pick a pretty post card in various languages to send to your teachers. He was only 5 years old and needed help typing. When I asked him what he wanted to say to the headmistress at his small British school in Thailand, he said, “Tell her that I like it when she joins us at playtime and listens to us.”

Imagine that!

He did not ask to thank her for allowing them to watch a movie on a school day when it was parent-teacher workshops, he did not ask to thank her for the brand new iPads that they are now allowed to use in their early years class. He asked me to thank her for using the most natural form of human interaction. Listening.

Now let’s ponder this incredulous idea.

Imagine if there was a global curfew on technology. That after dusk, all form of technological gadget shuts off automatically and we are all forced to speak to and listen to each other speak.

I believe that’s the world our children are imagining when allowed the rare occasion to daydream. If my five year old preschooler then, now a typical ipad-crazy third grader, could acknowledge feeling nice when an adult is listening to him, then some nonverbal communication is getting lost in the translation of our tech lingo.

My own house is home to all form of technology. Ipad, iPhones, blackberry, laptop, Mac desktop, tablet and an old-fashioned landline. Yet there is a standing rule. No technology is allowed until Friday night movie. This is the day that we make a fuss about by taking turns picking the family movie. We have had our fill with Disney shows and are slowly moving into more real-life films. This rule has held its ground since the birth of our first born more than a decade ago.

Our children interact with technology on a daily basis in their schools. Our 6 year old can effectively navigate a few educational apps downloaded for entertainment on that mommy-is-at-her-wits-end occasion. When they go to play dates, we know that they might play video games, maybe even ask for it but hope they ask to play outdoors instead. At home, technology occupies that back burner on our family stove. We dedicate the front large burner to stories, books, stories and more books.

We have attempted to recreate that lost village gathering at dusk, as the last sliver of light vanishes into pitch darkness, when the stories of the day, some invented, others relived, begin to take their form.

When the lights go off at bedtime, I sit on a bright pink and green polka dotted bean bag beside a fading night light under a staircase and begin to tell the children stories that I invent along the way. The children lay silent, the night remains still. So still that we can hear the creatures of the night. The squirrels scatter, the birds lay in silence, the nocturnal tree hyrax, a furry cuddle-ball hiding in a hole during the day, but a monster with a terrifying, murderous scream at night, all begin their nightly routines. When we lived in S.E Asia, we imagined the snakes and a monitor lizard or two, slithering about in our car park searching for their prey. Back in Kenya, we can hear the laughing hyenas inside the Ngong Forest that sets the backdrop of our backyard, or imagine hearing the silent preying footsteps of a svelte leopard, freshly escaped from the Nairobi National Park, a stone’s throw away from our newly rented home.

One by one an eyelid is shut. My children fall asleep in pitch darkness, just as I imagine they would, if we lived in a Maasai village, a mere hour drive from the shining lights of Nairobi’s bustling city life into the renown African wilderness, where stories like ours are recounted by children who may never know of a Skype village.

I imagine them all as one global village of storytellers.

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