Barefoot & Pawprint: A Kenya childhood

Jill Wylie grew up on a remote farm in western Kenya, partly during the war years; read this utterly charming, funny, heart-warming and –wrenching account of a uniquely untrammelled childhood – and you will understand where Jill’s love for animals and her powerful sense of independence came from. Deserves to be a classic amongst Kenya memoirs.

Available from Dan Wylie and direct from .
Netsoka, 2017. 168pp. ISBN 978-0-620-64817-2 


[extract] Slasher said, “Where do I come from?” He always wanted to know about everything.

I told him of Tisette, his mother of mixed blood; and his Alsatian father who had no legal name, but who was sometimes called Brown Wolf when people got tired of saying, “You know the one I mean.” And of their running together in the tall grass of Lumbwa, the land of hills.

After a while he seemed to remember a little. Not being born, of course, but his six brothers and sisters and his mother’s milk in his mouth. But most of all when she came no more. The lean days.

He said to me, “But you were always there.”

I was there before he was born.


Chapter 1

I was in Lumbwa at the same time as Tisette. I went to school there and she belonged to the old Indian dhobi who headed the school’s laundry team.

All the laundry was washed in a river about a mile from the school. It wasn’t very nice down there and I went in the first place only because it was out of bounds. Tisette and I, both shy about strangers, soon got along fine. She was my best friend at school.

We used to go out a lot together. Sometimes to visit friends of hers; sometimes to look for a buck to chase, or a rabbit or a flock of guineafowl. Tisette was practically old enough to be my mother, but when she really got to running she’d leave me in her dust. She was good at catching rabbits, too.

Often we would climb a hill and just lie in the grass and watch the hawks drifting along the wind-paths like dry leaves. In the evenings, from the higher places, we could watch the sun go down over Lake Victoria. The red and gold of it would get right inside us and make us feel like giants walking on the roof of the world.

Lumbwa’s nice. There are a lot of thorn trees which are a nuisance if you are barefoot, but they grow mostly in the valleys. The hills are as clean as thunderheads. The grass grows all the same length and the wind in it looks like a wild animal running there. There aren’t any flat places.

There are leopards in the hills, and buck and snakes. Little furry things live under the bushes and by the rivers. Osprey eagles soar over from the lake. Hunting kestrels hover, their wings vibrating like heat waves. Hawks and vultures sleep on the air.

Tisette and I lived it, but she loved Brown Wolf too. I saw her whispering to him in a hidden place one day. She didn’t know I was looking. Sixty-three days later, right on time, she had eight puppies.

She made her bed on some old sacks at the back of a dark little hut and at first I was the only one who could get near her. I was very proud. I swanked about it for weeks.

The pups were paired up in a cute way, a male and a female in each couple. One pair were like Tisette, black-and-white and bigger than the others. One pair were like Brown Wolf but very small. One pair were black-and-tan and the last two were black with white toes and chests. They were the smallest of all.

They were really too much for Tisette. She was old and thin. The lame foot wouldn’t heal. A bad tooth gave her trouble. Shortly after their eyes opened the black-and-tan pups both died, and I don’t think she missed them.

When the others were nearly a month old Tisette started to teach them to catch the chickens that roamed about the huts. She didn’t have enough milk for them and I thought that was the only reason why.

Then one day, about two weeks later, I went down to see how she was. I had some meat for her I had pinched from the table. I found her stretched out in one of her favourite places and called to her, but I had to kneel down and touch her before I knew she wouldn’t answer any more.