Conversations with Myself as an Old Woman

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By Eliza DeaconKilimanjaro, Tanzania

Gnarled hands that are surprisingly pale, folded in her lap. Capable hands, although she never liked them despite their ability to reach one note over an octave on the piano. She’s always stayed out of the sun, not for vanity, but because she doesn’t like the sun or the heat---funny for someone who has spent the last 60 years of her life in Africa. You can look like leathery old strips of biltong otherwise, the intense heat of mid-day etched deep into crinkles and creases. Nice faces though, lived-in, they look like they belong here.

Here she became the person she never thought she was before---hidden away, in a too-tall lanky body, by insecurities and doubt, never entirely comfortable in the skin she was born with. It wasn’t so simple, but then this continent never is; it tests and challenges, weeds the strong of heart from those who shy from its extremes. It can drive you mad and it’s easy to stumble, the dusty earth is often rock-strewn and rarely flat.

She often used to wonder if this was a place to grow old; she never wanted to feel fear and it’s here sometimes---visits at night with the winds, with shiftas and waizi . . . thieves who come in when the moon is low, skulking around the perimeters in whispers. The dogs bark and the old Maasai askaris keep them at bay, but they’re still out there. And fear is an unwelcome guest, especially when you know your limitations.

She and the man she loves know of nowhere else to go. This place they call home is just that and has claimed them wholly. They have both been spat off the continent before, thrown out of the land they were bound to. For him, because the colour of his skin was deemed wrong, despite having the right passport. For her, because she was told she had just been there too long. But where else to go? Where else do you find the life that offers you the most extraordinary freedom, whilst always with cruel accuracy reminding you that this freedom comes at a price?

At times she wonders at how she can still find the thrill in that particularly African golden light that comes just before dark, that one-hour grace period when everything else is forgotten and the Gods smile down on all. And the moment when walking on the farm, she startles a wild animal and it’s frozen, staring with wide eyes, preserved in that drawn-out moment until neither can bear it any longer and the spell is broken.

She remembers things: bare feet on wet grass, stepping carefully in the darkness, the smell of sweet wild jasmine and night sounds in her soul, feeling giddy with wildness in the shadow of the mountain. And she remembers a dress covered in a thousand sparkling sequins. As they drove down the long farm road towards a moonlit gathering, it filled the inside of the car with colour, like stars that no-one could see but them.She files away all these memories, carries them carefully in a treasure box, revisits them at sunset when, sitting on the veranda with a glass in hand, the world slows down and sinking back into the past is easy and without regret. Old now, but there is so much that is good here. As much as you can ‘belong’, they know that they have been marked, carry the scars as well as the laughter. There is permanence and stability in its indelible stain and it ties them to that dusty African soil, a compass that always points them home.