And why did I have to be a hippo? Why not a hawk, a hare, a magnificent horse?
When you are young, your name will associate you with one animal or another. Mine was, inevitably and to my great disappointment, a hippo: an animal of thick, grey skin, whiskers sprouting from its cheeks, feet that were far too small for its body. Hippos weren’t even cute, I knew this: their strange mouths, cheeks at the end of a long nose, hid (where? how?) vast discoloured teeth which they used to chomp anything from antelope to zebra. I wanted my name to start with an elegant lowercase h: a letter that also happened to be the shape of a miniature giraffe. Instead I was H for Hippo, stocky and sturdy, like a Kalabari mask from Nigeria.
Hippos eat grass instead of fish, according to Kikuyu legend, because of a deal with God: the hippo wanted to swim in waters cooled by the snow from Mount Kenya but God worried he would eat his little fishes, which were very dear to him. (And why wouldn’t they be? Little silver fish, quick and made of light.) So the hippo promised that, at night, he would emerge from the water “every time that food passes through my body, and I will scatter my dung on the earth with my tail”.