‘Though a tree grows so high, the falling leaves return to the root. ‘ African Proverb
If you were to ask me ‘who is an African’? I would give you Chelenge Van Rampelberg, statuesque artist, mother of three, earthy grandmother. She stands against the sky , one hand holding up her walking stick, besides the gnarled tree; her dog Chui nearby. They are watching us skip across the stones in the shallowest part of the river. Her neighbour, the park ranger is escorting me along a track crossed by monkeys overhead, a warthog jaw, horn still attached, underfoot. I carry with me a gift bag of kienyeji – indigenous – eggs, cuttings from her food forest and seeds of indigenous greens which she says are rabbit food, taking root and flourishing by themselves.
Chelenge has been sleeping and painting from her verandah, the bedroom relegated to dressing up this season. Under a cover in the garden, lies a log that is being carved. That she lives and works with the elements, oozes from her very being. Surrounded by young acacias and crotons is the home gallery she’s built. Around the ox blood red screed floors of our childhoods, under the thatch typical of her people – the Nandi, are her sculptures, paintings from other artists she exhibits and the furniture that her former husband made.
We’ve walked around her studio which she is expanding and had coffee in the banda overlooking the Nairobi National park. I drink my coffee black along with filtered rain water, she’s collected from her roofs. Chelenge takes her coffee with lemon juice. Chui gets lucky and has one of our biscuits. Over the horizon, she points out ostriches building, hoping it attracts hippos. Her work has been possessed by animal spirits. In 2013, she did an exhibition of wood cuts and etchings entitled ‘Gorillas on my mind’. Right now, it’s elephants.
Enthralling stories pour out of her as she explains how she was brought up barefoot in Baringo. Born the twin that survived in a large extended family, she was surrounded by nurturing. Without television or radio, she swam in streams, swung from trees and hunted with the boys. Sometimes, you didn’t want to fall asleep in case you missed a story, she tells me and awoke only to find the storytelling still apace. From one to the other person, we listened.
When her son was just two and a half years old, she went to collect him from school but he wouldn’t come home with me she explains – he wanted to play with his friends and come back on the bus with his older sisters. He wanted to grow up so quickly it broke her heart, she cried in the car going home and that was the day she began to paint. Not knowing what to buy, she went to a hardware store for oil wall paint and 20 metres of canvas from Biashara street, nailed it to the wall and began to tell the story of her and sorrow. She hid her canvasses under the bed until her husband found them one Sunday morning and told the aging curator, Ruth Scheffner of Gallery Watatu.
Ruth told her that “she could not plant a seed and stand on it”. It was like hearing my grandmother, Chelenge reveals. So, I laid bare my hidden dreams and walked away, from Farasi Lane to Wangige, some eight kilometres and back seeing nothing. But then, I was naked for seven years; unable to produce anything, so I looked after my children and cooked with a passion. My husband began to make his furniture; the kids and I would hold the wood for him. One day, I saw a paint brush floating towards me and I knew I had to start painting again. Those were the good old days.
Except for a couple of weeks on an etching course, Chelenge is entirely self taught. There was a half dead avocado tree that threatened to crash into the house, she begins. I called in the tree surgeons to take off the dead branches, thinking of firewood. But, as the pieces fell to the ground I saw shapes and so I began to carve.
Before all this, her evident talent is shown by the request from a bride to be, who had found her jewelry at the African Heritage House and asked for her to make a wedding necklace. The Nandi, she’s told me were the first of the nomads to settle with the missionaries, but they are closely related to the Maasai. Sharing a similar culture, she fits in to this feral Maasai homeland. Many famous African artists like Paul Onditi and Peter Elongat have made their homes nearby.
One camping afternoon about 3pm, after taking a shower she sat in the sun to dry her hair and found a big male baboon observing her. She had seen the baboon before and at first there was fear in both our eyes she says, but they both decided to stay put and then relaxed for a while. But the baboon began to look bigger and bigger to her and when he stopped staring at her, she decided to pick up the camping chair and walk back towards the tent. She noticed the baboon following her, slipped and fell on a rock. The baboon approached her and moved his head quizzically from side to side, she said – I felt it would be an indignity to scream so I waited until he had left and then screamed for help. She broke her leg and damaged her spine, her bladder fell and I became a vegetable, unable to look after myself. She discloses. Through the pain, I saw a vision with a beautiful voice that was man and woman at the same time showing me a freshly dug grave. This pushed me out of that helpless state, I managed to get to a hospital for help and today I walk ten kilometres everyday. “A long walk is where you find yourself”, she tells me.
It was her husband’s neglect after her accident that ended their marriage, and now she is pouring the trauma into the colours of a collection of paintings, to be shown in the future. “I am healed, I have created my childhood here” she says looking about at the wilderness around us “and I’m happy”.
Chelenge’s Guest Cottage is ideal for a couple and available for weekend breaks.