Unfortunately for her, it started with my feet. Stella has been a spa therapist at Tortilis Camp, in a conservancy bordering Amboseli National Park, for 11 years and we met when she gave me a much-needed foot massage (amazing for me, less so for her).
But as her hands worked their magic, her story touched me too. In many ways, our lives were worlds apart. But, as she spoke, I discovered that we were both mothers, and that we were connected by our determination to be good role models for our children.
Born in Thebunyol, in the Rift Valley, Stella is one of six children, three of whom have fled the nest. Her parents are now retired, so it’s down to Stella and her older siblings to return the support they were given in earlier years: “I send money home for my parents and so do my siblings. They looked after us and now we look after them.” It’s how it works.
Stella joined Elewana when her son was just one year old and had her second child, a daughter, six years ago. So how does a single mother raise two children and work full time, particularly when work is some 900km from home?
It comes back to that African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. African culture recognises that parenting is a shared responsibility. Stella’s children, Wayne and Joy, live with her parents, and are being brought up by them and her two younger siblings.
“When Wayne was born I thought I would find something close to home but the better jobs are away,” she told me. “It’s hard sometimes, but the children are proud of me and my job, and they know why I have to be away. It is about providing for my family and securing a better future for my children. Everything I do, I do for them.”
Stella works in shifts, spending a few months away from her family at a time. “I speak to [my family] every day, on the phone or on a video call. It’s difficult being away from home for long periods, but I love my job.”
About that job. “When I was young my neighbour had a job talking to people who had problems, and healing people through her touch. I sat with her sometimes and wanted to help people too. When I finished school I decided to go to college and learn to be a spa therapist, and then I got a job with Elewana at Tortilis and have been here ever since. I went home just before Joy was born and had four months off but then returned to the job I love.”
All of her time off is spent with her children. “I keep them close to me because I’m away so much. I talk about my job a lot because I am very proud of it, and my children are proud of me too. When I’m at home I do treatments on my family and Joy sometimes tries to copy me.”
The hard part is returning to work. “Joy gets upset, asking me why I can’t stay. It does make me upset but I know I need to do it, and I know they’ll understand when they are older. And I do love my job. I love helping guests to destress and seeing how much better they feel after a treatment.”
Joy’s children are both at school; Wayne will be moving up to high school in a couple of years. “Wayne wants to be a pilot,” Stella told me. He doesn’t know any, she added, “but why not?”. Well, it would save her a 12-hour bus journey each time she wants to go home… Stella laughed: “Yes, that would be much better.”
Stella’s hopes for her children are simple. “I want them to be strong, and to achieve their goals. I tell my children that they need to work hard, but that anything is possible.”
Now that I’m back home, the memories of Amboseli’s wildlife and those formidable views of Mount Kilimanjaro have stayed with me, but – perhaps even more so – so have my conversations with Stella. She clearly loves what she does. But it’s not without costs of an order impossible to imagine for a privileged guest passing through.
She lives in a world of different, difficult challenges – of considerable family responsibility and great personal sacrifice. But ultimately our conversation boiled down to a clear, shared ambition: to do the best we possibly can for our children, to try to lead by example and to encourage them to follow their dreams.
So I’m looking forward to boarding an Air Kenya flight in future years and hearing Captain Wayne’s voice making the announcements. If he’s inherited his mother’s dedication and commitment, it’s only a matter of time.