I thought I had chosen Caroline. But looking back, I realise - Caroline had chosen me.
When I arrived at Hope, Caroline was amongst a tangle of children unravelling onto a compound of caked earth and crumbling concrete. A purple meteor shower in her thin psychedelic planet-themed pyjamas, chunky navy cardigan and sturdy black school shoes, she was zigzagging crazily across the yard; shooting a ragged football; darting fearlessly through the mean-looking ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ older boys; cascading down the rusty metal slide and arching across the sky on a tyre-swing. Then there she was, stock-still in front of me. She glanced up shyly and offered “Hello”.
I was visiting Mji Wa Neema, House of Hope for street children in Gilgil, a busy ramshackle town of low-lying buildings lining dirt roads in the Rift Valley, Kenya.
Caroline pulled me down on the step beside her. She took my hand, full of expectation. With every overland truck that stopped by, she scooped up a handful more English words and stored them like nuggets of gold in her mind.
I offered her words in a story.
“Once upon a time there were three bears…”
Caroline cocked her head, puzzled.
“Do you know what bears are? She shook her head no.
“Okay… Once upon a time there were 3 simba - Mama Simba, Papa Simba and Baby Simba. One day Mama Simba made a pot of ugali (maize) for breakfast, but the ugali was too hot (I flapped my hand in front of my mouth), so they left the ugali to cool and went for a walk on the plains…” Caroline listened, mouth forming a perfect O, as I mimed my African version of The 3 Bears.
Upstairs in her dormitory, Caroline proudly showed me all her possessions contained in one small bedside cabinet: a set of clothes, a knitted teddy and a tattered magazine about space.
“You are interested in space?” I asked. Caroline nodded her head vigorously and her eyes shone like the stars she loved.
As my son Patrick sat huddled together with Caroline, pale porcelain skin and fiery-red hair contrasting with rich deep mahogany, I was told Caroline’s story: Parents lost to AIDs; an alcoholic grandfather who scarpered; three small children left to their own devices; found and brought to the House of Hope.
In Africa, I had sailed on dhows, picnicked on sandy atolls and snorkelled with a kaleidoscope of fish in the Indian Ocean. I had watched lions in the Ngorongoro Crater, camped out in the Serengeti bush, rode across the grasslands on a camel and danced with the Masai. But it was Caroline that made the biggest impression of all: tough, fierce, bold, and life-embracing.
Autumn in England: limp yellow leaves drip from the branches of my cherry tree. Six thousand miles away, the paw-paw trees in Caroline’s compound are laden with fruit. Above our trees, a pale marbled moon hangs suspended in a star-strewn sky. As I gaze up, I think of Caroline, and wonder if she is looking up too. We may be worlds apart now, but we share the same view.

H Moat

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