When I think of my childhood in Ethiopia and Kenya, I mostly remember red dirt — the kind that comes in a deep, bright shade of brick that every child of Africa knows so well. Dry and relentless, red dirt moves in clouds with each breeze, creating thin veils of dust on every car windshield and house window and permanently marking children’s clothes with its brilliant streaks. Over the years, I had to throw away many pairs of pants that turned bright orange at the knees.
The changing of red dirt marked the shifting of seasons. During the dry season, it is a powder-like, paler version of itself that glides effortlessly through the air, dusting benches and patio furniture. In the wet season, it is a dark red paste that covers car tires and children’s soccer balls, sticky and stubborn.
As a kid, I felt the most like myself when I was outside and insisted on walking around barefoot. “You’re going to cut yourself on something sharp,” my mother would warn me, and I often did — I have the scars and tetanus shots to prove it. She would try to deter me by creating scenarios in which poisonous bugs or worms would get in my feet; in which case, she would remind me, there would be nothing she could do other than take me to the hospital, where my feet would be at the mercy of the doctors.
I remember how hot and dry my feet felt at the end of each day — how impossible the dirt was to wash off before coming into the house, a practice my mother imposed so that I wouldn’t stain the furniture. The soles of my feet and the space between my toes always ended up a muted, orange color, no longer covered in dust but still marked by the hours I had spent exploring.
Since moving to the U.S., my feet spend most of the year confined to thick socks and winter boots. I had been led to believe by the Christmas films and animations I watched as a kid that winter in the northern hemisphere was nothing but snow-blanketed rooftops, crackling fireplaces and infinite amounts of hot chocolate. I was not ready to face the teeth-chattering, watery-eyed mornings waiting for the school bus or the cold weather migraines caused by windy New Haven streets or the permanently clean feet.
My first experience with American winter was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived for a brief period during kindergarten while my dad completed his master’s at Harvard. Far from home in Ethiopia, one winter night, the fire alarm in our apartment building went off. We walked outside, my mom holding my 8-month-old sister in her arms and my dad holding me in his, the enormous red-brick building towering over us. Suddenly, I started screaming and crying bloody murder, yelling that my tongue was on fire. I felt my mouth burning from the cold and the wind, a sensation so foreign I barely had the words to describe it.
After Massachusetts, my family and I relocated to Kenya for five years. These were some of the most formative times of our lives; my sisters and I grew up in Nairobi, a cultural amalgam of American and European expats as well as Kenyan and other African citizens. For holiday breaks and summers, we would take short flights to Ethiopia and spend time with our relatives and friends. No matter where we were, we never escaped the red dirt or the African sunshine.
I was 12 years old when we moved to New Jersey, and winter was just as dreadful as I remembered, though now there were new everyday tasks like shoveling snow and defrosting car doors with hot water in the mornings. My mom, my two sisters and I had just moved halfway across the world to a state where we didn’t know a single soul. We braved the harshness of winter on our own while my dad continued to work in Africa, visiting us every few months.
That first winter after we moved was especially difficult. For my family, adapting to the cold meant creating an entirely new way of life. We found ourselves thinking about things that we never needed to before, like if we remembered to park the car inside the garage so it wouldn’t be covered in snow in the morning, or if we had put enough layers on to make it through the day. Scratchy wool sweaters and bulky winter coats replaced orange stained pants; hours spent outside each day were limited to swift walks from the house to the car.
The childhood I had known — filled with outdoor dinner parties, year-round tree climbing, and orange stained feet — was replaced by confinement to our dining room table each night for nine months out of the year. Our old social habits didn’t fit into our new climate; the customs of those around us no longer made sense. At school, I struggled to make sense of my classmates dressed in basketball shorts or skirts on 30-degree days as I shivered in double-layered pants. On snow days while other families went sledding, we did everything we could to avoid the cold.
When we were living in Kenya, my sisters and I attended the same school, where we would often run into each other during the day; now, each of us were new kids at separate schools, dreading every day and struggling to make friends. With my dad away for work, my mom spent her time taking care of us and trying to make the days feel less lonely: making our meals before school, dropping us off in the mornings, going to our sports competitions and staying up with us at night while we studied.
Every morning on our quiet drives to school, I would stare at the piles of snow heaped along the side of the road, all of us too cold and tired to speak. With each new snowfall, the piles grew murkier, taller and more intimidating. As the months of winter dragged on, the swelling heaps cast their shadows onto passing cars and blended into the overcast winter sky, enclosing us in a tunnel of alabaster.
White, loud and immovable, the presence of snow demanded constant acknowledgement and sacrifice. The arguments I had with my mom about walking barefoot, or about the orange stains that were all over our Kenyan home, had become obsolete in our new American reality. A life speckled with red dust and marked by the warmth of the African sun — a life that felt so natural and uncomplicated — had passed away ungrieved, leaving behind its fragments within each of us.