A Long Time Ago in Africa


Scan-130520-0013 (2)

Well this is what happens when you fiddle about in Windows Live Picture Gallery. I rather like the effect – posterized for posterity, an arty rendition of UK expatriate in 1990s Kenya. The original shot is thus pretty old, just like me. I was standing in the back garden of our house in Mbabane Road, in Nairobi’s leafy Lavington district, under the loquat trees. The house is gone now, and I can see from Google Earth that Madison Insurance who owned the compound, have given it over to some development of upscale townhouses. Across the road was  the run-down state primary school. I imagine it is still run down. My days back then had a daily soundtrack of children’s voices – chanting times tables mostly.

In the photo I’m wearing a self-made suit (tunic and pants) of batik cloth created at a workshop by street boys trying to get their lives together. And I’m wearing a string of Kazuri Beads, glazed ceramic beads, made by women trying build themselves and their kids a future. Kazuri means small and beautiful. The little factory in Karen, Nairobi was a joy to visit. The workshop shelves were lined with glass jars of bright beads, rather like a picture book sweet shop, while at benches in the the airy room, women created beads and threaded necklaces in colour schemes of their choosing. I’m only sorry that I seem to have no photos, but if you go to the link you can see the factory today – much expanded and employing men too.


I still have the beads and the suit, and still wear them too, although the batik cloth is a little thin, while I, sadly, am not.

And now here’s a picture of our house – home for seven years.

003 (2)

It came with the usual services that accompany the living quarters of TCOs (Technical Cooperation Officers) working for Her Majesty’s Department for International Development. These included a well secured compound perimeter with lights, a 24/7 security guard, house alarms (checked monthly), internal security gate, barred windows, guard dog, and regular applications of pesticide by Rentokil. Phew. We did not like any of  this much, although we did like Patrick, our day guard, such a tall and gentle man. It was hard to imagine him fending off intruders. He had a farm back home in Western Kenya where his wife stayed in the good stone house he had built for her, along with their three children. He used to go home twice a year to plant or harvest his maize crop.


To make up for all the oppressive security, during the day I used to walk around the district on foot, roaming along the avenues. I wasn’t sure what it was I supposed to afraid of, although I did know that people did have their homes broken into, and that expats who insisted on driving large new Land Cruisers were often relieved of them (on their own compounds) by guys with AK47s, and strangely enough, soon after said expats (usually diplomats) had arrived in country and taken possession of the new vehicles via customs and imports at Mombasa port. The word on the street was that these robbers were highly connected. Very highly connected. This situation frequently reminded me of one of my father’s favourite sayings: the fish goes rotten from the head, although one would have been foolish to say this too loudly, or even at all back then.

Farrell Team Leader, Graham, had a works Land Rover for work, but otherwise we drove a battered Suzuki jeep. It had some interesting features. A previous owner had cut a hatch over the back seats, and made a fibre glass lid to go over the top. For game viewing you could simply unclip it. I didn’t drive it much, because that was the really scary thing – Nairobi driving. I often used to ponder if I could get to places by driving on the very wide pavements. Once when I forgot I was in Kenya and slowed at a zebra crossing on a city highway to let a pedestrian cross, the poor woman looked as if she would faint. I was lucky that  the Suzuki and I didn’t get flattened by a Tusker beer truck, while I and the woman stared at one other in a state of frozen confusion, neither of us able to move.

The other thing that used to scare me about driving was that parts used to fall off the Suzuki. G’s nonchalant response to my concern was, ‘Well if you were still going, you obviously did not need it, whatever it was.’

On the whole, then, it was better walking. I could peep through the cracks in the big steel gates that protected ambassadorial and diplomatic residences, and count the excessive number of garbage bags put out for BINS, the private refuse removal company. I’d see street kids and Maasai, greet the security guards who sat out on the neatly trimmed verges and chatted house to house. I was intrigued by the barber who had turned a fallen flame tree into a salon, and  I liked the smells of all the garden trees – cypress, frangipani, the warm musky smell of fever trees. When the rains came the streets would be filled with silvery clouds of termites on their nuptial flight. At dusk, the frogs in the Nairobi River way below our house would strike up frog songs that resounded across the valley. The crescent that adjoined Mbabane Road was called Applecross – a bizarrely English name that evoked pastoral perfection of the sort that had never existed outside colonial settlers’ minds.

When we took over the house from G’s predecessor we also took on the resident house steward, Sam, whose homeland was in Maragoli in Western Kenya. He had long worked for expatriates, but back home and also on the borders of Nandi he had small farms – three in all. His first wife lived on his ancestral land in what had been the Maragoli tribal reserve in colonial times. He still called it ‘the reserve’. He said he had poor relations on the other smallholdings, but they were not looking after the land properly and this caused him much concern. Apart from home leave, he stayed in Nairobi with his second wife, living in the servants’ quarters at the bottom of the garden. One reason for staying in Nairobi was so his three youngest children and a grandchild who had come to live with him could go to school across the road.

Now meet Sam, with guard dog Kim. We eventually had to hand Kim over to a vet, this after he started attacking children who came to play with Sam’s children on our compound. The vet told us that some German Shepherds were prone to this behaviour, and once begun, this was not a habit that could be broken. She told us she would try to send him to a rescue centre that kept such dogs, but otherwise he must be destroyed.

002 (2)

We did not ask which of these had been the outcome, but after having one sweet little girl’s face stitched up at the hospital we could not risk it happening again. Luckily the dog missed the child’s eye and the wound healed well. Here she is then, Sera, fully recovered with only a hint of a scar under the right eye.Zaina and Sera 2

And next comes Silas, Sam’s youngest son.

012 (2)

And Sam’s grand daughter, Zaina playing badminton with Silas on the back lawn.


Then Sam off-duty out on Mbabane Road. He only worked half days as we didn’t have enough house work.



And  this is Francis, who stood every day on the corner of Mbabane and James Gichuru and sold us The Standard and Nation newspapers. He turned the newspaper round deliberately because it was featuring the British envoy, a man somewhat outspoken on Moi regime corruption.

007 (2)

And finally me again, not looking quite so postered  (but oh, so much younger) with poor old Kim, and those Kazuri beads again. Interesting days.

Tish and Kim the dog

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell



Looking for Smut: Work on Kenya’s Highland Farms

Valentine’s Day Runaway


Flickr Comments ‘A’ words – go here for more bloggers’ ‘A’ tales and photos

22 thoughts on “A Long Time Ago in Africa

  1. I still have the beads and the suit, and still wear them too, although the batik cloth is a little thin, while I, sadly, am not.

    90’s Tish was quite the cutie, if I may be so bold?

    Yes, we do reach a stage where our back often goes out more than we do! And when people say “Get in shape” I tell them,round IS a shape.

    It is funny, in a slightly disconcerting manner, that no matter how us Brits write of our experiences in Africa – and of course I am still here – there is a feeling that all that is missing is the Pith hat… dontcha know, what?

    1. Yes, pithhelmetitis – sounding a bit like a helminth (parasitic worm) invasion – but in Kenya the DC’s still wear ’em on ceremonial days. And all cos the Europeans had an obsession about actinic rays.

      Thanks for the cutie compliment, altho like pith helmets not at all pc, Ark. But then who cares! Get one’s compliments while one can, even if they are back-dated. 🙂

  2. What a fascinating read, and I love the photographs of you and all the people you were associated with. What a different lifestyle…Thank you so much for sharing this. Janet

  3. This post brought back “all of it” for me!! All the people who we had around us in the countries we lived in. Everything that went on. Our day guard in Zambia, Albert, became a truck driver after we left. A wonderful young man who learned to drive very quickly. We always had a “large family”…so many memories! Thank for this great post, Tish! Ps. you look great on the “poster”!

    1. Yes, Tiny, ‘bringing it all back’. Not sure why this post emerged as I had no notion of writing it when I sat down at the computer. All these lives we’ve had and are having. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Noel. I much appreciate your insider appreciation! Have seen recent YouTube vids of city centre snarl up, and how people say it takes them hours to get to work on matatus. I wonder if you will get the promised new transport system. It was being promised in the 90s, and before that, if I remember rightly.

      1. Nothing happens here. Many promises but nothing. There was a time when they wanted to ban the small 14 seater matatus within the city centre and nothing came of it.
        All they do is eat and eat.
        It is worse when it rains. There is a gridlock that lasts hours.

      2. Well, I’m sure you’ve thought about this as an architect, and it doesn’t help much my saying it – but the city was designed to serve the administrative and commercial interests of the few – all the roads leading into the centre where they get jammed up, and with little opportunity to create any kind of real flow. But a tram system – wouldn’t that be marvellous.

      3. A tram system would be marvellous.
        the city was planned with extensive green areas, wide roads and streets but those who built the city grabbed the land sold it and now there are no areas to expand the roads

  4. A = AFRICA what else; thanks again, Tish, for your great storytelling! “At dusk, the frogs in the Nairobi River way below our house would strike up frog songs that resounded across the valley…” me, searching for your memories about music in Africa…

  5. You really bring the place and its people alive with your poetic descriptions. So much has changed everywhere in the world in the last 20 yrs. Thanks to a billion more people, the world can’t help but become more crowded and polluted.

  6. What great stories and photos, and characters Tish. I’ve been thinking about you as we’re cooking up a scheme to possibly spend 3 months in South Africa later this year, as we need to exit Germany after 90 days. It appears you spent most of your time in Kenya and thereabouts – for us the leading consideration is traveling with kids and doing our due diligence for all the obvious reasons. Have you spent any time in South Africa by any chance? My 10 year old really wants to see some wildlife as she’s on a crusade to stop the violence against elephants, or at least wants to initiate her crusade. – Bill

    1. Hello Bill. Sorry I’ve been slow getting back to you. Have been away. No, I don’t really know South Africa, but there’s a great blog De Wets Wild – an insider South African family’s wildlife safaris.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.