A Lemon Tree Grows in Iten


I am standing barefoot in my mother’s garden-barefoot so as to feel the soft wetness of the earth beneath my feet, and even more so that I should feel younger again-be the little boy who used to run around this same garden many years back, searching for fruits. There are many fruits here-lime, orange, peach, plum, apple, guava, liquorts, avocado, lemon and mango. It is the lemon trees, though, that grew the tallest and yielded the most succulent fruits. Iten favours lemons among fruits.

There is only one lemon tree remaining now however. The rest have perished to a mysterious disease that made their stems rot. This one lemon tree remaining was the tallest amongst the other lemon trees. She too has been ravaged by pests and that mysterious withering of leaf and stem that destroyed the other lemon trees, but somehow, year after year, she manages to push out of her twigs those phenomenally luminous leaves, some of which blossom with tiny white flowers. I call her she for I have always taken her to be a woman, an earth woman-tall, and elegant, walking with a distinct firmness in her steps. I have not seen her face though-that bit escapes the scope of my imagination.

She is sort of a representation of all women I met in my childhood. The ones I liked that is-warm and polite, humble and hardworking, with ready laughter. The Itenian laughter is unmistakable. My lemon tree stands at the bottom of our bowel-shaped land.  When it is evening and the shadows are collecting and you squint your eyes enough, you might see the ghost of a river flowing down the incline of the land, towards the rift valley escarpment. And indeed, there was a river here where I stand, if the stories I was told was true. A strong river, that rushed west from the Cherangany hills, as clear as glass and with enough ferocity in it, that it took with it drunken men and fine oxen, and even once, a full-grown bull elephant with the longest tusks ever seen.

I play out on this landscape the narratives of my childhood-stories told to me by my mother in the calm nights of my childhood but which still babble fresh in my mind.  Some stories were genuine-stories about my great grandmother, standing on a hill with a polished spear and a shield, reflecting the sun’s glaze downhill, as she screamed, calling onto Keiyo and Marakwet warriors that they were being invaded by Karamojong men. Tales about my great great great grandfather Rumbas, falling in love with a girl and having not enough cows for the dowry and having to walk over a 100 kilometres away to work as farm help amongst the pokots and raise his own herds (sounds quite similar to the Isaac’s story). And one of my favorites, at the time of my great grandmother’s birth, a time of severe drought, when parents would sell their children in exchange for food, and my great great grand-father not willing to consider this option, but taking his spear instead to go hunt a buffalo, and provide food for mother and child.

These stories and countless others are re-enacted on the land-long-gone experiences that call out to my imagination like ghosts from the past, hinting about themselves, but vanishing like dew before they fully condense. Never showing their faces but leaving me with a nagging disquiet in my heart. One of the central human acts is that of habitation, calling a small space in our massive blue planet your own, finding peace with it. Those who walked before me, ancestors who now are in the realms of the dead, called this land their own. Their herds grazed in its pastures, and they sought food and raiment, companionship and riches in its spaces. I wonder if it gave them peace. I wonder if they ever thought of those who walked before them as I do. I wonder if they felt so possessed by a place as I often do feel.

There are no answers to these questions, and so I write, word by word and sentence by sentence, to construct that which can never be finished, to grasp at the wind.

I write because I there is a lemon tree in my mother’s garden that has defied disease and countless pests, and kept her leaves glorious and shining, pushing out tiny flowers that keep calling bees from afar.

I write because I remember the joy of finding a fat sweet potato under the earth and rushing with it home, covering it with hot ash so that it could bake.

I write because once upon a time, a woman came to our house in a brown sweater and black rubber shoes, and sat with my mother on the grass, and laughed over a joke that I cannot recall. I write because that day my mother told my sister to make them some masala tea.

I write.


Author: Kiprop Kimutai

Present, Kind, Loving, Centered, Connected

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