School Girl in Black and White 1 – Rucinga Island Kenya – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com
During my final night in Rusinga I was approached by a group of schoolchildren.
“Anika! Anika!” they called out. I stopped to talk despite my eagerness to return home before a deep darkness had settled in.
They’d heard I was to leave the next day and heard the reason why. But they didn’t fully understand. I was bombarded with questions about families, death and funerals. I explained typical rituals in America and compared them to local traditions filled with music and days of gatherings. I told them Grandma was still alive. The ring I wore was hers. The necklace I wore each day for over two years matched hers and Mom’s. I was going home because even though she was still alive, she was very sick and would die soon. And I wanted to say goodbye.
I told them she was my best friend. And I told them I love her.
That was the first part they didn’t understand.
I pointed at my chest and told them the heart is where you find love.
I took a stick and drew a heart in the sand and told them this is what love looks like.
I grabbed the hands of a stubborn young girl, pulled her close and wrapped my arms around her. And told them this action is called a hug.
The girl fought back at first, swatting away my arms as if they were mosquitoes who’d snuck through oversized holes in her protective netting.
Rather than insisting an embrace, I turned slightly and reached around the shoulders of her younger cousin. The boy too was hesitant, but had learned to trust me and held on to my pant leg. I slowly reached down with both arms and wrapped them around him tightly.
“Thank you for the hug,” I told him.
His arms were limp, unsure of an appropriate response. I gently lifted his hands up one by one and placed them onto the soft spot under my ribs.
“This is a hug. And we give these to people we love.”
I squeezed him just a bit to show that hugs are anything but painful exchanges. He smiled and looked at his sister, who gave him a harmless shrug aside and soon took his place.
When hugs were finished and all were satisfied, the children began repeating the word. Love. As I help up my camera in promise of a final photograph, they began to sing and dance with their newly-learned phrases. As the sun set and the moon’s glow took over, they began a chorus of “I Love You, Anika” followed by a song they’d learned in school.
Only an hour earlier, they wouldn’t have been able to express their feelings physically or verbally. But with a few gestures and explanations, they were able to relate to the meaning of Love and show me its true power.
A group of kids I spent a week with in Rusinga, Kenya. They turned dark days into light – they let me teach them how to draw, how to hug, and the meaning of ‘love’ then immediately turned around and showed me they understood better than ever – Click to view the short impromptu video we filmed during our final evening together:
The next morning I welcomed goodbye hugs from Marie and Robert. I held back tears as she cradled my face and whispered, “Stay in Africa until you reach home.”
I nodded and climbed onto the motorbike’s seat of ripped plastic and torn tape.
It was a phrase she’d told me two nights earlier as I stood in the doorway to her kitchen: a mud hut with an iron pot settled on top of three burning logs stacked together. At the time, I had just received news through a long line of connections that my grandmother’s health was rapidly declining. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months earlier, just days after Mom had finished up her own chemo and radiation treatments. She’d been fighting hard and remaining positive from the very first day, but doctors had given her a disgusting prognosis : one to two weeks more.
We’d talked just the week before. She updated me with news from her doctors appointments and her plan to stay in New Mexico with Grandpa for a while more, rather than continue traveling to and from Arizona as they so thoroughly enjoyed. I told her she didn’t sound the same, but luckily the line cut out and she didn’t hear.
I’d just sent her a postcard from Madagascar telling her that I had meant what I’d said, that I love her, and that I couldn’t wait to see her in July. And that this year I would make no plans for after my travels in Africa but to spend them with her and Grandpa in New Mexico. I’d told her the same the year before, but she declined the offer. This year, her stubbornness would not be accepted and I would be there as soon as my pre-booked trek through Africa was finished.
I was still cringing that the (faux) ruby from her ring, which I have worn every day for three years, had gone missing a few days prior. I still wear the ring, just without the ruby.
She told me she’d received a package I’d sent from Myanmar with a selection of knicknacks and a string puppet common in the country where I’d lived; one which she told me she’d hung on the fireplace.
At the end of the phone call, she told me she was proud, told me to be safe, and told me she loved me. I thanked her and repeated the same praises.
Click on a photo to see the images from Rusinga Kenya up-close:
She has always been my idol and inspiration, and I have done my best to remind her of that every chance I had. She was the crazy woman who bought season tickets to Gopher Football Games and invited her young grandchildren to join in the crowd of rowdy college students at the Metrodome every other Autumn Saturday. And she was the one who encouraged her daughter and granddaughter to follow in her footsteps, creating a lineage of Big 10 Gophers three decades deep. Yet, she was the only one of us who proudly sported the license plate “#1 Gopher Fan.”
She brought us camping each summer, showed up unexpectedly at choir performances and swim meets, and encouraged us to make life sweeter by serving sugar rather than dressings on iceberg lettuce salads. She taught us to canoe, to cross country ski, and to look closely for agates and pussy willows while on walks through the forest. She was afraid of nothing and excited about everything.
While all my high school friends were partying in Cancun during Spring Break, she drove Mom and me to Branson, Missouri and Phoenix, Arizona to relax at the pool and dazzle as retired Las Vegas stars lit up the night. She took me shopping for my Senior Prom dress and even picked out a matching suitcase so I could safely bring it back to Minnesota.
After University I moved to Texas and was stoked to know that at four hours away, she would be my closest relative. We both did our best to visit whenever possible, and she came to understand that if I said I’d left directly from work, I’d end up stopping for far too long during the drive. Still, she would wait up and greet me on the patio overlooking the Sandia Mountains no matter the time. Along with her husband, the most polite man I’ve ever met and the one who’s set the bar for anyone I’ll ever consider marrying, we’d enjoy puzzles, gardening, and golf. We’d go to the salad bar for dinner and load up with brownies and ice cream for dessert, she would talk and teach about her garden, pick loads of fresh peaches from the tree and bake unbeatable pies. We’d go for car rides in Grandpa’s pristine Model-A, and would wake up at the crack of dawn to help the hot air balloon crew she’d joined since moving to the Southwest. And whenever there was extra room in the basket, she’d tap me on the back and say, “Annie, you get in there,” joining whenever possible.
Each year for Easter she’d send her grandchildren bunny figurines with our names and the year written underneath. She read with us Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Little House on the Prairie, and would turn the words of Dorothy Seymour’s Anne Likes Red to the more accurate “Annie Likes Pink”. As a graduation gift, she quilted a full-sized patchwork quilt in pinks and yellows and included her constantly repeated phrase in the bottom corner. “Anne likes red, but Annie likes pink”.
She was a woman of many talents and loved her family like no other woman I’ve ever met. To say she was my greatest inspiration would be an understatement. She was my best friend, the most consistent being in my life, and someone I talked about with everyone I met. I have always been proud of her, as much as she has been of each one of us.
After I decided to move abroad and begin Miss Maps, she encouraged me to travel safe and remain smart, to stay out of unsafe areas and to follow my passion. She didn’t always agree with my decisions to move to Kuwait or to hitchhike across Europe by myself, but I tried to reassure her that she’d taught me well and that my adventurous spirit was a result of her own. She became my greatest fan and printed out each article I published to bring to her weekly coffee meeting with friends, read it to them and show off photographs I’d collected from around the world.
And now, there was little time left for her to light up this world with her smile.
Click on a photo to see the images from Rusinga Kenya up-close:
“Stay in Africa,” Marie repeated, “until you reach home.”
When my mind would drift to thoughts of her and Marie noticed my eyes glossing over, she’d calmly call out, “Come back to Africa.”
I knew what she meant.
As long as I could keep my mind in Africa, I could stay calm. Rather than worry if I would make it in time, something I had no control over, I could stay in the peaceful village on Lake Victoria.
The journey home was long and miserable. A bus ride meant for 32 was crowded with 59, most of them boys from a boarding school making their way home for Easter holiday. During the twelve hour drive, I turned toward the window and swept tears from eyes for ten of them.
A tight connection in London caused me to miss my connecting flight and the subsequent, meaning I arrived in New Mexico after over 48 hours of travel, loads of tears, and little sleep.
Mom and her sister-in-law were waiting for me at the airport. My baggage had not made the connection, so I had to first file a report. The urgency of time was incomprehensible to all parties. When we finally arrived home Grandpa flung the door open and I ran to Grandma, kissing her on the lips and resting my head on her chest. It sounds a lot more elegant than it was. Basically, I rag-dolled myself over her, trying to share every ounce of her unbelievably strong spirit. “Oh Annie,” she whispered in my ear over and over again. I finally pulled myself off of her and we locked eyes. She smiled and we looked around the room. Grandpa, Mom, Uncle, and my amazing brother had made it from Ohio, Iowa and France and were seated around. Others had been to visit earlier in the week and even more were calling to share the love. The puppet from Myanmar was on the mantle just across from her. With mention of each family member and each memory, she smiled even wider.
Click on a photo to see the images from Rusinga Kenya up-close:
The next day we continued to sit near her and share memories with each other and with her. I sent with her heaps of promises for delightful future relationships, family ties and escapades. I promised more than anything to make her proud.
It was my first experience truly saying goodbye to someone and I wish we hadn’t had to, but am more than grateful we could be there with her and amazed that she stayed until we had arrived from worlds away to give her a final hug and kiss.
Sunday morning, she used her final breaths to say “I love you” to her family. As my brother and I sat with her afterward, we gazed out her bedroom window and looking back at us from the front garden was a small bunny. Just like the ones she had given me each Easter. It looked in at us and happily hopped away.
That night, we ate dinner on her fine china (the one she’d promised to use, as it’s useless if only collecting dust), went for a ride in Grandpa’s Model-A, and spent time as a family that we haven’t had the opportunity to do for several years.
As I walked on board the plane to return to Kenya two days later, I felt the necklace around my neck and the ring on my finger. Though I don’t need material things to remember her, they do serve as constant reminders that she’s been with me every step of the way and will continue to be. She has taught me what love is so that I can show it to others around the world. And knowing what a fan of Miss Maps she is, I’ll now be dedicating it and my travels to the woman who has inspired them from the time I was old enough to unroll my own sleeping bag.
Now, as I continue travels through Africa, I see signs of her presence each day without trying. And every time my mind drifts into thoughts of sadness for her passing, I remember the happiness of her existence. I’m staying in Africa each day, despite where my mind leads me. But the best part? This time, I’ve got another Guardian Angel keeping me safe.