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The Girl In The Planet Pyjamas by Helen Moat

The Girl in the Planet Pyjamas

By Helen Moat

Caroline unravelled from a tangle of ragamuffin children onto the compound of caked earth and crumbling concrete. She was an explosive meteor shower in her thin psychedelic planet-themed pyjamas zig-zagging across the yard, shooting a ragged football and darting through the ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ older boys. She was there, then gone, before reappearing on a rusty metal slide, skinny limbs flailing. I lost her, then saw her again arching a rainbow across the yard on a tyre-swing and tumbling blurry cartwheels, feet to the sky.

Helen with Caroline in Kenya A dark shadow blocked the sunlight. I looked up and there was Caroline, standing stock-still in front of me. She glanced at me shyly and offered a “Hello.” Then she pulled me down on the step beside her, gripping my hand with expectation.

With every overland truck that stopped by Mji Wa Neema, Hope orphanage, in the ramshackle Rift Valley town of Gilgil, Caroline scooped up another handful of English words and stored them like nuggets of gold in her head.

I offered her words in a story:

“Once upon a time there were three bears…”

Caroline cocked her head, puzzled.

“Do you know what bears are?” I asked.

She shook her head no and I started again:

“Once upon a time there were 3 simba - Mama Simba, Papa Simba and Baby Simba. One day Mama Simba made a pot of ugali for breakfast, but it was too hot (I flapped my hand in front of my mouth), so they left the ugali to cool and went for a walk on the plains…”

Caroline listened, mouth forming a perfect ‘O’ as I mimed my African version of The 3 Bears.

Upstairs in her dormitory, Caroline showed me all her belongings contained in her bedside cabinet: a set of clothes, a knitted teddy and a well-thumbed magazine about space. As my son sat huddled together with Caroline, pale  Caroline smiling with Helen's son Patrick porcelain skin and fiery-red hair contrasting with rich deep mahogany, I heard Caroline’s story: Parents lost to AIDs and an alcoholic grandfather who scarpered; three children left alone, uncovered and taken to the House of Hope.

In Africa, I had sailed on dhows, eaten baked fish on sandy atolls and snorkelled in the Indian Ocean. I had camped out in the Serengeti bush with nothing between me and the lions, ridden across the grasslands on a camel and danced with the Masai.

But it is Caroline I remember best of all: rough, tough, fierce and bold - a survivor.  

Back in England, limp yellow leaves drip from the branches of my cherry tree. Here the night nips. 6000 miles away, the paw-paw tree in Caroline’s compound is laden with fruit. There the night wraps the red earth of Kenya in an ink-blue blanket of warmth. Above Caroline’s tree and mine, a pale marbled moon hangs suspended between the stars.

As I look up into the sky, I think of Caroline in her psychedelic, planet-themed pyjamas, and I wonder if she is looking up too. And it occurs to me: we may live in different worlds, separated by continents, but we share the same view. 

Local recommendations in Kenya:

Ali's Place is exactly what it sounds like - Ali's Place. Ali is a local man searching for hungry travellers, always armed with a guestbook and menu showing them the delicious food on offer cooked by his wife at their home.

For guided tours around south west Kenya, look to Voyage Afrique. They will take care of all accommodation and transportation in safari vans with very knowledgeable and helpful drivers.

To browse all locals from across the world, have a look at our worldwide map.   


As a child Helen’s father drove all over Ireland in his tiny Morris Minor (5 kids in the back). Rather than putting her off travel, she got the travel bug and hasn’t stopped travelling since. She is also an addictive writer and has won prizes in numerous travel writing competitions. Her pieces have been published on several online travel e-zines and in The Guardian and Telegraph, as well as Wanderlust magazine. 

You can read her stories at: