Clipboard in brick red

We proceed fast on board the white Toyota, “wiggling” in an asymmetrical way due to the uneven ground. Traditional music in the background, car radio at maximum volume.

All around beyond the sides of the red earth road, a dark green, intense, intricate. Above us a sky heavy of rain, but not yet ready of freeing it.

Father Nazario occasionally looks at me smiling with those big white teeth, of a good man, happy to proceed proudly in his territory, in his “county”, like an evolved Robin Hood that dispenses aid to the needy families of the villages in the forest.

“Colored” families. Curious children, happy men and shapely women scrutinize me with their big dark eyes, but I do not get embarrassed. I smile at them: this is a powerful weapon, which melts all tension or shyness.

Others walk under their baskets full of tea leaves, others move shaky on those 70s bikes too unstable under the weight of people, jerry cans, tubes, boxes.

Awesome! I feel in a movie – maybe I am actually – and unbeknownst to me – I am one of the main characters.
I would like to make ten, a hundred, a thousand photos, but Father Nazario proceeds at too fast speed and the few pauses required to take pictures of tea plantations, although granted without too much difficulty, I know will delay his planned program and his arrival at the dinner organized by the Archbishop in Embu.

So those strong images full of emotions will remain etched only in my memory.

The long road uphill, a harmonious up and down, a red tongue that crosses the “immense” green and on the edge small figures that proceed slowly, steadily, towards the horizon.

Those small and thin forms stop there, but only for my eyes, set on a blue-pink sky that looks like a brushstroke on the wall of a bedroom of those who do not want to know if the baby will be male or female.
I ask myself this instant: am I in heaven? A paradise less sweetened by what we often imagine, but a paradise of shapes, gestures, slowness and everyday life.
Father Nazario approaches three children who have empty baskets. I arrive at a breath from the ardor of asking to take a picture of them, my hidden finger turns on the camera and waits.
Black eyes that “pierce”, skin hardened by the sun, infinite sweetness in their weariness.
I wait, I look at them, they look at me and I would love to take them with me, far away, even with a shot to be seen when I am sad, when the melancholy and loneliness take your stomach and blow a fist that does not give escape.
They smile at me and I smile. They are very long moments. At a certain point, reluctantly, I set the camera and frame them with the only means that cannot make mistakes: I look at them with my heart, with my senses, I welcome them with my smile. Done, taken! A snapshot that will remain with me forever, without testimony except that of my words.

There are various levels of sharing, of communication and of respect. I am happy because I make “the best choice”. They greet us with their hands dirty with dirt and we move away roaring on that Toyota that looks like a mambo room or something very similar.

We are facing a motorcycle with two people and – across the rack – a plastic pipe that seems very long to me, so much to think that this time even the good father Nazario will have to give up and back off.

Instead, with absolutely coordinated moves, without losing too much time, the bike is miraculously behind us and the Toyota proceeds on the climb, faster and faster for fear of sinking into the mud and no longer come out.

On the sides, hidden in the clearing, small huts sprout here and there, smiling characters busy in the most diverse activities greet us warmly. Maybe I’m really in a movie.
And shortly afterwards, in fact, a “surreal” scene that maybe only in Africa can happen or that maybe just there, in Kairuri, makes sense, because already in Nairobi the epilogue would be very different.
At a hairpin bend of the muddy road, two motorcycles with passengers and bulky goods in tow, in a completely involuntary way, touch eachother mirrors and slide to the ground. I expect them to get up by cursing and blaming each other. I forget that we are in Africa: everyone is smiling!
The woman dressed in colorful local clothes, wearing make-up and well-groomed, takes off her beautiful “western-style” shoes with a slow and resigned gesture and stays with her dark small feet “soaking” in the brick red pulp that is not really nice. We ask if help is needed, but everything seems already fixed. The two drivers quickly pick their “race machines” up and retrieve the goods scattered all over.
I cannot hold back a laugh, while Father Nazario raises the volume of the radio and, still smiling and saluting (a bit like the Pope from the popemobile) resumes his march.
And indeed it looks like a movie when we cross the gate of the parish of St Ambrose.
The young “black” priest (I confess, I wonder, “but how black is he?”) solemnly, raising the left arm, indicates a point in the garden. “That is the tree” he says, referring to the tree to which the compound keeper was hung, killed a few days earlier and then left hanging during the night. He found it in the morning – he tells me – along with the slaughtered dog.
I ask not to add further chilling details and – if possible – not to leave me alone for a long time in the car in that place. “Only 5 minutes”, the time to leave a fish in the fridge (I’m afraid I misunderstood, but also repeated the word sounds just like fish). Soon after he is out, smiling.

It is time to return home, to my sisters and my children, to my African nest, a magical place full of poetry. In the evening at dinner, I tell without shame about the daring images that I passed in the afternoon.
A privilege, of course, I cannot think that it can be anything else but a huge privilege.


Luciano Zapponi

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