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The Pangolin in the Room

The morning of the October tour circuit, I ducked under the shade of a hotel lobby where my guests were staying. It was a few minutes past nine and the sun was already performing a fierce and fiery strut across the eastern sky. During my three week break, the short rains had finally arrived. Sporadic as they were, this was a thrilling development. Rain would spur a regrowth, slowly changing the dried, brown landscape into a lush green teeming with new life. 

Buds would bloom, broadcasting their rich sweetness with vibrant, luminous petals and in turn, the nectar feeders and pollen eaters would flock to them like sailors to a siren song. It would be a good trip for birders and anthophiles, and the views wouldn’t hurt either. 

My new tour group was a Norwegian family. Two pairs of old but sturdy parents and four adult children, two of whom had brought their spouses. There weren’t young children on that trip, thank heavens, but there was one loose wheel whose relationship to the group was unclear. He was the children’s age, but did not appear to be tethered to either of them as a spouse. The eldest son and tour organiser had introduced him as we were loading their bags onto the cruiser, but I’d lost the words in the thickness of his accent. This, of course, meant that I would spend the rest of the trip trying to solve that mystery. I had bet going with myself that he would be the most disruptive on that trip.

One of the families had opted for self-driving and would be following us in a Land Rover Defender. It was my first time leading a self-drive tour and I wasn’t sure what the Karlsen’s would make of Kenyan traffic. I planned an early start and estimated that we would have enough time for a lengthy stop at the equator and still reach Ol Pejeta in time to visit the black rhino sanctuary. This took off without a hitch, so much so that when a light shower began spraying us at half past four in the evening, the group was eager to check into their cottage and rest for the day. 

At Elyon House, I washed the road off me and dumped the contents of my travel bag onto the bed. I’d packed a little differently that time, swapping my comfort clothes out for more flattering outfits. Nazir and I had arranged to meet after his shift and it would be the first time he was seeing me out of uniform. Not that it was a bad uniform or anything, there’s just only so much one can do with khakis. 

In the end, it didn’t matter what I wore because it was deathly cold outside and I had to layer up. I hoped that the hooded, shepherd check overcoat was enough to make a statement although I wasn’t sure exactly what statement I was going for. Fashionable free spirit? Boho chic, maybe? I do love chunky knits and I have been known to wrap my unruly dreadlocks in an array of colourful scarves. It’s also my staunch position that a woman cannot have too many kimonos. 

When I drove up to the compound, Nazir was just circling the trailer. He had a towel thrown over his bare shoulder and appeared to have just left the bathroom. He was also wearing what I would later learn was called a dhoti, along with a headwrap around his forehead that left his surprisingly long curls exposed. He stopped and waved when he saw me and I waved back.

“Am I too early?” I mumbled to myself, cheeks heating up with embarrassment. I killed the engine and hummed the last few seconds of Harry Styles’s Sign of the Times. Then Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know comes on and I start to sing along. I’d made this playlist when I took up driving the circuits thinking that I’d listen to it on long quiet drives — I was naïve enough to imagine that I’d ever get to choose the music in the age of YouTube and Bluetooth speakers. I’d long since forgotten about it but now it took me back to a time even before that, listening to X FM on my MP3 player on my way to or from campus. All the matatus played Classic 105 in the morning and Ghetto Radio in the afternoon but I was a rocker through and through. 

I was holding up an imaginary mic and trying to hit the high notes of the chorus, (And if you have a minute, why don’t we go/Talk about it somewhere only we know?/This could be the end of everything…) when Naz opened the cruiser door and slid into the front passenger seat. I hadn’t seen him walk up on account of me fogging up the windows with all my croaky singing. 

“What’s this then? Carpool Karaoke?” he asked and I hid my face, mortified! He spread his arm and I leaned into an awkward one-sided hug that felt like an obligatory acknowledgement that we were well past strangerhood after weeks of phone calls and texts. 

“How was your drive up? All good?” 

“Yeah. Smooth. Same as —” 

“On a sc — sorry, what?” 

“No, I was just going to say it was… the same as usual.” 

“Right. Right, of course.” 

We were quiet for a moment, unsure how to overcome the awkwardness until he said, “So the only thing not smooth in your day thus far is this reunion, is what you’re saying.” 

I laughed, glad to see him uncowed by any discomfiture. It was a skill I’d only seen possessed by comics, winning a room back after a joke flatlined or when a controversial commentary failed to sail. 

“No, not at all.” 

“We’ll find our two-step in a bit, don’t worry.”


“So on a scale of one to ‘I could eat a child’ how hungry are you?”

“Not cannibal level, for sure,” I said, eyeing him.

“No?” he chuckled. 

“No,” I said, joining him. 

“What do you want to do then? Drive around?” I cocked my head to the side, leaning towards a no. “Or I could drive…?”

“I don’t really want to be in the car any longer.” 

“Walk then?” 


“It’s cold out there though. The mountain wakes up at night and then it’s windchill from here to Middle earth.” 

Nazir sometimes used these quirky little phrases that I found odd but charming. They made me wonder how much effort he put into blending in and how lonely and misunderstood he must’ve felt before he learned how to do that. 

“Which way should we go?” 

“Well, we don’t have much sun left. And I’m not fully confident there aren’t snakes out in that grass,” he said. “Out by the main road, is that okay?” 

I nodded, glad to have worn sensible shoes. The rain had petered out by that point. Outside it smelled like wet grass and wildflowers. The alarm chirped when I locked the car as we headed out towards the main road. Fat drops of water hang loose on the tall grass like morning dew. I took my hand out of my pocket and skipped my fingers over it. Some of the drops got caught in our clothes as we waded by but I didn’t mind. A walk under the open sky, good company and an evening to look forward to — I couldn’t have felt more free. 

“So, shall we address the pangolin in the room?” Nazir broke the silence. 

“What on earth do you mean?” I said, laughing for maybe the tenth time in the ten minutes since I’d met him. He nodded towards the ring on my finger and that time I almost wished he wasn’t so forthright. 

“Must we?”

“Yes and no.”


“Even I don’t know what I mean.” He faltered, and I sensed that I had made things murky with my reluctance. 

“Alright. Sure. Let’s address the pangolin in the room,” I drew a large breath in and sighed. “What do you want to know?” 


To be continued…