2013 has been challenging, hectic, tiring and emotionally charged. It has made me examine things in ways I’d never previously thought of, and I’ve learned so much that I begin to wonder if I knew anything before. It has also been the best year of my life so far. This is because the things that tire me out and make me think until I can feel my brain wearing out are the same things that make me feel sick with excitement and determinedly alive.
To write in detail about everything that has touched me this year would be to write a book, not a blog post, but there are moments, perfectly preserved in memory, that in many ways sum up the whole.
An evening in Kenya, in a village where all that can be seen for miles is dramatically orange earth and the jagged forms of rocks and thorny trees, and every step I take on the sandy ground crushes herbs that perfume the air with something viscerally affecting. It was dark in a soft, inky way that drew all the anxiety from my body, and momentary silhouettes of bats appeared against the glow drifting from a dying fire. There were tiny, unsteady camping stools and a big, shallow dish of ugali which caked my hand in sticky, floury residue as I got distracted from eating by murmured conversation with people I’d known for hours who already felt as comfortable as friends. It was a moment so painfully perfect that I had to breathe even deeper on the beautiful, smoke-smelling air to keep myself present and dry-eyed.
Around six in the morning on the coast, standing in companionable silence with three friends as the sky changed from pink to freshly washed blue and the fishing boats gliding with only the slightest of oar sounds came into ever sharper focus with the light. We dug our toes into the sand and peered at the cartoon-perfect sea life through the warm, shallow water as the heat started to press down on our skin and the first of the day’s camels passed by with their odd, lilting walk and glanced at us with disdain. As we walked slowly away from the sea, a troop of vervet monkeys straggled across our path, spindly babies chasing each other back and forth while sensible adults looked us up and down for a fraction of a second before walking smartly on their way.
Driving slowly through an oak forest in Morocco, in the expectant cool of an early summer morning, straining my eyes for a glimpse of beige hair against the bewildering, countless greens and greys and finally, finally, seeing my first wild Barbary macaques as they picked through the leaf litter in the weak sunlight. Then, later that day, in a cool dark classroom overlooking the mountains, painstakingly cutting out monkey masks for wide-eyed and faintly amused children who giggled and jostled and proudly wore them home.
Standing in a forest in Cameroon and feeling the strange peace that stills everything slightly before a storm. Watching and waiting and wondering whether to run inside yet as leaves started to swirl from the trees, eddying to the ground faster and faster until the first fat drops of rain hit the backs of our necks and we broke into a run, laughing and tripping over our own feet as the path turned into a river around our ankles and the thunder cracked above our heads. As we huddled under the veranda, dripping, shivering and marvelling at the buckets of rain, gorillas chest-beating behind us reminded us where we were, and all we could do was grin.
These are the moments that I think about when it’s cold and grey and I begin to suspect I imagined my favourite places – that they can’t possibly exist. They are the moments that make me want to sob when I consider the possibility that some people and places are at risk, but also make my heart race and make it impossible to sit still when I realise how much hope there still is, because I wouldn’t have experienced them were it not for the people that care. They are the moments that make the prospect of a new year dizzyingly exciting, because I know I am in love with these places and projects, and that will never change.