“Is that everything, Kipto?”
Mama Rose Hardie stood in the kitchen of her one-bedroom thatched cottage on the edge of Nanyuki, a market town in the shadow of Mount Kenya, three hours’ drive north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. In her early 60s, she was tall and thin, with a face lined from yours of working outside as a community vet, tending to the needs of both domestic and wild animals.
Kipto, her house girl of indeterminate age, reached into a wicker basket with her dark, wrinkled hand. “For orphan children, sweets, coloured pencils and bouncy balls, and my own biscuits for men in hospital.”
Rose smiled, “Thank you. The men in Huduma Hospice really appreciate your biscuits. And what about the prison?”
Smiling self-consciously, Kipto picked up a plastic bag. “I wash all clothes and put in here.”
Beep beep sounded a car horn.
“That must be Thabiti. Do I have everything?” Rose turned to the table, picked up a pair of red felt antlers, with bells on, and placed them on her fuzzy grey hair. “What do you think?”
Kipto remained silent but pursed her lips.
Izzy, Rose’s one-eyed black and white cat, jumped onto the table and scattered a small pile of paper pamphlets.
“The song sheets. I mustn’t forget those.” Rose stroked Izzy, picked up the strewn sheets and placed them in her basket.
Outside, Thabiti was waiting for her in white Toyota Prada. “Nice outfit,” he commented as he placed Rose’s basket, and the bag of clothes Kipto handed him, in the back of the car.
Thabiti was in his early twenties and his older sister, Pearl, accompanied him. She was sitting in the passenger seat, so Rose opened the back door and climbed inside.
“Chloe,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t think you were joining us for the carol singing.”
Chloe, an attractive English lady in her late 30s, flicked her long blonde hair out of her face. “I wasn’t coming as Dan only arrived home last night. But he went straight out with his mates and this afternoon he left saying he had to meet someone from work.” She pinched her lips together.
Thabiti drove along dark soil tracks, skirting the edge of Nanyuki and pulled up in front of a series of single-storey white-washed buildings which were surrounded by sparse grass and bare earth. A network of paths ran between the buildings marked with round, white-washed stones.
As Rose climbed out of Thabiti’s car, several other car doors opened.
Rose spotted her friend Poppy Chambers. “Poppy, how’s Dickie? And Rufus’s horse, Jemima.”
“They’re both well and I’m not sure which of them is enjoying the break from polo most.” She smiled brightly.
“Rose, so good of your to organise the carol singing again.”
Rose turned to greet her friend Birdie. “Did Ryan enjoy his trip to India?”
“Oh, they all had a marvellous time, although I don’t think the polo ponies they borrowed were up to much and, with Jasper unable to leave his team in England, they were soundly beaten. The women’s team fared a little better and Sophia played in the last match. She was thrilled to score a goal. Her first representing Kenya.”
Rose looked around the small group of ten or so women and suggested, “Shall we go in?”
Thabiti followed at a slight distance, carrying Rose’s basket.
As they entered the first building, Chloe asked, “Where are we exactly?”
“This building is the men’s hospice. The whole Huduma complex is run by Italian missionaries. During the Second World War this was a prisoner of war camp and when the war finished some of the Italian prisoners stayed and set up this centre to care for and educate local people.”
A man wearing a doctor’s white coat walked forward and three blue uniformed nurses hovered behind him. “We’re delighted you’ve come. The children are desperate to see you but if you’re able to sing a few songs for these men, they’d be very grateful.”
“Thabiti, my basket please,” requested Rose.
She handed out song sheets and said, “Let’s start with Once in Royal David’s City.” Rose used her hand to beat them in and the small group of women started singing. Rose grimaced at the out of tune warbling but continued to sing her own, slightly out-of-tune version of the hymn.
All of a sudden, a strong male voice joined in rallying the band of singers who gained confidence and the louder they sang louder, the more in tune they became.
“And secondly,” announced Rose, “We’ll sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”
At the end of the song, Rose turned to Sam, a huge, bear-like man, and said, “Thank you. You saved us from a pitiful singing display.”
Sam smiled languidly. “I love singing Christmas carols. And I like your antlers.”
Rose removed her felt antlers and placed them on Sam’s bald brown head. “For our choral leader.”
He moved his head and laughed at the jingle-jangle of the antler’s bells.
“Is Sergeant Wachira, sorry, Judy, joining us?”
“She’s still working at the station, but her and Commissioner Akida will meet us later, at Cape Chestnut for their Christmas carols and drinks.”
They heard a grunting noise and turned towards one of the hospital beds where an old man held out a hand towards them.
They joined him as he said in a raspy voice. “Thank you for singing. I can rest now. You have given me the gift of peace.” His arm fell to the bed and he closed his eyes.
The doctor ushered them across to another building and as he opened the door there was an explosion of sound.
“Totos, quiet. Let the ladies sing first and then it’s your turn.”
“Presents?” shouted a young boy.
“You’ll have to wait and see. You can’t expect every visitor to bring you gifts.”
With Sam’s help, they just managed to sing Away in the Manger and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem. Rose was relieved when Sam turned to the children and asked, “Who knows Little Donkey?”
The children jumped up and clapped their hands. Some pointed at Sam’s antlers and covered their mouths as they laughed.
Sam grabbed Chloe, Pearl and a reluctant Thabiti and started singing, “Little donkey, little donkey on the dusty road.”
Several children joined in and when they reached the chorus, the children shouted out “Ring out those bells tonight.”
Rose noticed a small boy sitting slightly apart from the other children, but was looking wistfully at them when Rose joined him. “Habari.”
He turned and looked at her wide-eyed. In Swahili she asked him, “Do you want to sing?”
He slowly nodded his head.
“But you don’t know the words.”
He nodded again.
Rose didn’t offer him a song sheet as she wasn’t sure he could read. Instead, she cupped her hands and knocked them together as she had seen children do with the empty halves of coconut shells. The boy copied her as the other children sang, “Little donkey, little donkey.” He smiled up at her and Rose felt a lump in her throat.
When the children had finished singing, Rose handed Thabiti the bag of sweets, coloured pencils and bouncy balls.
“From one child to another,” remarked Pearl as the children engulfed Thabiti and held their hands towards him.
“Children, steady,” called the nurse in charge.
Thabiti laughed along with the children as he dolled out the presents and the sound was contagious, and soon everyone was laughing.
Sam stood beside Rose and commented. “The gift of joy. Priceless.”
The second stop for the small group of carol singers was Nanyuki prison.
Outside the main gate, Sam said, “I won’t be able to come with you into the women’s section so I’ll take Thabiti with me to the men’s. It’ll be an eye-opening experience for him.”
Rose was about to knock on the prison door when a young African woman wearing a tailored suit, with dark hair tied back in a neat ponytail, called, “Mama Rose.”
Rose bit her lip. She thought she recognised the woman, but she couldn’t place her.
“I heard you were visiting the prison today and I wanted to say thank you.”
Rose eye’s widened. “Lelia.”
“You remember me.” Lelia’s eyes sparkled, but the light left them as she continued, “I was one of the women you visited in the prison last year, and helped with your gift …” she glanced across at Sam, “you know what.”
Rose considered Lelia’s appearance and remarked, “You’ve come a long way.”
Sam banged a large fist on the prison door.
“Thanks to you. You gave me confidence in myself and I left Nanyuki and found a job in a law firm. I started with the filing, but now I’m doing some secretarial work as well. And,” her face brightened again, “I’ve enrolled in a part-time legal course starting in January. It’ll take me longer to qualify than a full-time course, but the experience I’ll have from my work will be really useful.”
“And your other work?” Rose raised an eyebrow.
The woman laughed. “My office work doesn’t pay well, and I like nice things. But it’s on my terms now.” The woman clasped Rose’s arm. “Thank you, for your gift of understanding. You were the first person who didn’t judge me by my profession and helped me to see I could do so much more.”
As Sam and the other women entered the prison, Chloe stood beside Rose as she watched Lelia walk proudly away.
“What profession did she mean?’
“The oldest one there is.”
Rose turned and followed the other carol singers into the prison.
The ladies’ area of the prison comprised of two concrete rooms. The smaller one had mattresses spread across the floor and the larger one had been cleared, with the stained blue mattresses leaning against a wall.
Forty or so women and several children stood expectably in the larger room as Rose’s carol singers congregated in one corner. A plump, middle-aged lady stepped forward and grabbed Rose’s hand. “I’m so glad you could come. We’ve had a number of new arrivals and they are struggling with the conditions in here.” She winked, “Old timers like myself are used to sharing mattresses and making do with handouts from kind souls like yourself.”
Rose smiled at the woman before turning to her group. Chloe and Pear huddled at the back, their eyes bulging.
“Let’s start with Good King Wenceslas.”
Without Sam, the singing was haphazard and sounded disjointed in the concrete room. Rose sang louder, but it didn’t seem to help.
Grimacing, Rose suggested, “Let’s finish with We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The choice of song appeared to raise the spirits of the carol singers who nosily warbled and shouted out the words. There were plenty of smiles accompanying the words, “Now get us some figgy pudding.”
The prison women clapped loudly and Rose’s companions bowed self-consciously.
Several of the prison women burst out in song. Others joined in while the younger women and children danced. Rose and her friends pressed themselves around the walls to give the women room.
“Wow,” whispered Chloe. “It puts out paltry efforts to shame. What are these women here for?”
Rose replied, “A variety of crimes. Prostitution, theft and some for more serious crimes, even murder.”
Rose continued, “But many are here in place of their husbands.”
“What?” Exclaimed Chloe.
“If the police know a man has committed a crime, but he’s fled, they’ll often lock his wife and children away.”
“Surely they can’t do that?”
“You wouldn’t think so, but they do. And as you can see, there isn’t enough room for all of them and they are only allowed outside after the men, for an hour a day. Many get sick and die here. And there isn’t enough food to go around.”
A baby cried.
“Surely they don’t allow women with babies?”
“Not often, but this one was born here.”
The dancing stopped, and Rose walked forward as her friends cheered and clapped loudly. “That was fantastic. We are privileged,” announced Rose, opening her arms.
The woman with the baby stepped forward and quickly passed her child to Rose. In her surprise, Rose nearly dropped it. She cradled the small bundle, wrapped in dirty cloth, and looked down at the hard concrete floor. That could have been a nasty moment.
Poppy and Birdie walked towards the women and started passing out clothes from several plastic bags, including the one Rose had brought. With relief, Rose handed the baby back to its mother and rejoined Chloe.
In the corner, two plump ladies laughed heartily as they held up a throng.
Chloe coloured and whispered, “That’s mine. You told me you wanted donations of knickers and they were the only new ones I had.”
One of the women shouted something in Swahili and the other women howled with laughter. Chloe tried to hide behind Rose as she asked, “What did they say?”
“It was a long the lines of small pieces of string being inadequate for their more ample behinds.”
A younger woman grabbed a pair of lacy lilac knickers and immediately put them on.
“Why didn’t she take her old pair off first?” Asked Chloe.
“Because she doesn’t have on old pair. She’s a regular in here, and was one of Lelia’s old work friends.”
“Oh,” replied Chloe.
As they turned to leave, the women who had first greet Rose clasped her hand again. “Thank you for all your wonderful gifts, and especially for your continued visits. It means such a lot to know that not everyone has abandoned us. You give us the gift of hope.”
The final stop for the carol singers was Cape Chestnut restaurant. As Rose followed her friends through the rickety gate into the restaurant grounds, she noted the crowd of people already gathered. They wore flashing Christmas jumpers, sparkly tops and an assortment of festive headgear. She felt slightly sorry for giving her antlers away until a young girl rushed up and handed her a red Santa’s hat. Pulling the hat on, she turned to Chloe who’d been given a headband with two sparkly silver balls.
“Aren’t you going to put it on?” asked Rose.
Chloe pursed her lips. “I don’t really feel like it. Thank you for the carol singing. It was quite an experience and not at all like the UK, but I think I’ll head home.” She handed Rose her sparkly headband and turned back towards the entrance.
A good looking, dark-haired man pushed through the crowd and shouted, “Chloe, I wondered where you’d got to.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Chloe sullenly. “I thought you were meeting someone from work.”
“I was, but first let me get you ladies a drink.”
Chloe stood silently beside Rose as they waited for Dan to return. Around them people laughed and chatted and Rose caught the sweet spicy smell of mulled wine.
Dan returned with a bottle of Prosecco and three glasses. He handed one to Rose and two to Chloe and started pouring.
“Are we supposed to be celebrating something?” Chloe asked bitterly.
Dan placed the bottle on a table and turned back to them, smiling. “I know it’s been a tough year, and I promised that moving here meant we’d be able to spend more time together.”
“But we haven’t,” snapped Chloe.
“I know, I know. Which is why I was meeting someone from the company today. There’s a temporary opening for someone to oversee the logistics of moving large machinery and parts to northern Kenya. The stopping off point is Nanyuki, so they’ll looking for someone to set up a temporary base here and organise the convoys, and their security, up and down from Nairobi. I will have to spend some time in Nairobi, a day or so a week, but the rest of the time I’ll be at home.”
“Congratulations,” said Rose.
Chloe was rigid, and her mouth slowly fell open.
“That’s right, I’ll be here with you. And I know I haven’t been supportive of you and the problems you’ve had getting pregnant, but now we can make a real effort. I’m desperate for you to have my child.”
The crowd around them started singing, “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me.”
Chloe threw her arms around Dan, crying, “Oh, thank you.”
Rose mused, “And she receives the gift of love.”
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