Francis

Published in Africa Geographic, September 2005

Then

I can’t remember which dusty town in Kenya it was. Naivasha? Nakuru? It could have been anywhere on the popular tourist route of the 1980s. Our bus stopped for us to stretch our legs and to view the usual African curios laid out on the cracked pavement. The usual kids sprang excitedly to their feet. But Francis was different, and I still hold a picture of his lively, intelligent face in my mind’s eye. Skin the colour of barley sugar, a heart-shaped face with close-cropped hair. Huge brown eyes alight with interest. “Where you from?” “England”. “Yes, you know Margaret Thatcher?” “Not personally…” I started to move away. “The British prime minister lives in Number Ten, Downing Street, London”, continued Francis conversationally. “What do you think of Mr Gorbachev? Your Mrs Thatcher says he is a good man. That is interesting!” I stopped and stared at this child. How old was he? Thirteen, fourteen perhaps? “What’s your name?” I asked. “Do you go to school?” Francis nodded. “Come and look at the wood carvings. Very good work.” They were indeed well made. As I turned one over in my hands, feeling the texture and debating whether I needed yet another African artefact, Francis kept up a commentary on the advantages of buying from him. He wasn’t pushy, just quietly confident.

As I handed over my money I said “You know, Francis, you’re such a good salesman I should take you back to England and make you sales manager of my company!”. Then I saw his face. It was transformed with disbelief mixed with suppressed joy. Oh God, he believed me! “What a pity it’s not possible” I said quickly and headed for the bus without turning round.

That’s why I remember Francis. And why I remember his face, as it was at that moment: wide-eyed, infused with hope. And I still feel guilty.

© Hilary Bradt

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