The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Greater love hath no man than he who spent hours and days, and more hours and days transcribing this writer’s Kenya journal. Prior to transcription, and due to various computer glitches, it existed only on reams of faded, flimsy print-out paper. It was just about scannable, which was tiresome enough to complete, but the end result then required hours of copy editing. So thank you Graham.

And for those who don’t know the background to this, from January 1992 to January 2000, Graham aka the Farrell Team Leader, was working out in Africa on various British aid agricultural projects. The first year we were largely itinerant, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway between Nairobi, Kiboko, Taita and Mombasa.

Graham was working on a project to control Larger Grain Borer, a voracious grain-decimating beetle introduced to Africa in a consignment of US food aid. The actual home of this pest is Central America, and Graham had spent some time studying its behaviour in Mexico. He was then employed on a short-term consultancy project by the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, and thence despatched to Kenya.

His main base was the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi, but there was also a field station a hundred miles south at Kiboko, where the Kenyan project staff worked. When Graham had to make a visit, we stayed at Hunter’s Lodge, once the home of big white hunter, John Hunter, and later (in the ‘60s) developed into a small tourist hotel. The place had its heyday around this time, or until the horrendous dirt road to Mombasa was tarred, and coast- or city-bound travellers no longer broke their journeys at Hunter’s Lodge.

sundowner

In our day it was unusual to find any other overnight guests there, although there were plenty of staff, the waiters always smartly turned out in black trousers, white shirts and red bow ties, and ever in attendance in case anyone turned up.

Much of 1993 was then spent in Lusaka, Zambia. Graham was attached to the European Union Delegation, contracted there to organise the distribution of food aid during a period of prolonged drought. But at the end of that year we returned to Nairobi, in the first instance, to close down the Larger Grain Borer project at Kiboko, but later to run a crop protection project which involved British and Kenyan scientists working in partnership with smallholder farmers to overcome various crop and livestock problems. And here we stayed until the start of 2000 when the British Government closed the project down.

While we lived in Nairobi we were housed in a British High Commission house, which also came with Sam, our house steward. He lived with his family in a cottage at the bottom of the garden, but as we never had enough for him to do, he only worked mornings. His actual home was in Western Kenya where he owned three very small smallholdings in different places. Then there was Patrick, our day guard, also provided by the BHC. He never had much guarding to do either, so Graham paid him to look after the garden which he did with impeccable diligence. His home was also in Western Kenya, where his wife and children lived on his own smallholding. Sam told me Patrick had deployed his earnings from guarding and gardening on the building of a good stone house for his parents and was currently building one for himself. He was also paying for his children’s education. While he was working in Nairobi, which was 11 months of the year, he rented a room in one of Nairobi’s slums.

Scan-140809-0043

The following extract gives a few glimpses of expatriate Nairobi life and those cultural events that owe more than a little to the country’s British colonial past.

*

29 August 1994

Months have passed and no journal entries. In June we went home to England for three weeks. It was cold and windy and time was gobbled up visiting family and storming the shops. Then came the weeks of adjusting again to Nairobi living. It seemed very strange that, after all our days and miles of travelling, the only news Sam had when we got back was that the avocado tree had finished fruiting. Otherwise, everything was as we had left it.

And to root myself in once more, I took to gardening. Another effort to get the better of the over-shaded vegetable plot; flower beds cleared for tomatoes and herbs; a new plot excavated under my office window; seeds sown and the ever vigilant Patrick following up with the watering can at dawn and at dusk.

In July we went to the Ngong Racecourse for the Concourse d’ Elegance,  one of Nairobi’s annual multicultural events. It is a specialist car rally wherein owners show off their vintage vehicles including aged safari trucks (one of which had ‘starred ‘in  Out of Africa), wartime jeeps, a venerable Mini, period Peugeots, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Volvos and a red E-type Jaguar.

Nairobi car rally 4_0001

Nairobi car rally 3

Car owners from the Asian community were dressed up as maharajahs and Arabian Nights grand viziers, the Europeans in more peculiar costumes – a woman dressed as a large black spider, one chap in full Viking gear. There was an overall atmosphere of the English Village Fete. The Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals laid on donkey cart rides around the race course grounds; Mr Magic was doing tricks for the children; the East African Ladies group had a charity cake stall. There were welly-wanging contests, face painting, remote control model car races, hotdog stands and Lyons ice-cream carts.

Nairobi car rally 2

Nairobi car rally 4

Nairobi car rally 4_0002

The racecourse itself is a picturesque colonial relic. Stands of gum trees, the tiered main grandstand creeper-covered and housing a shady restaurant, and nearby the race steward’s offices, the Jockey Club members’ precincts, the collecting ring sheltered by mature trees.

We thought we’d like to see what the place was like on race day, so a week  or so later we turned up for the Lonrho races. Kenyans take their racing seriously and the whole ground was humming with activity. The ‘old colonial’ set were very high profile, chaps in their grey plaid racing suits, members’ tickets dangling from lapels, their ‘good ladies’ in Ascot frocks and hats to match. In fact the woman who won the best outfit contest truly looked as if she was anticipating entry to the Royal Enclosure. At such times you can only blink: the British abroad – what are they thinking?

The first race was something of a novelty event being a camel race. The beasts and riders came from the anti-stock-theft police patrol in the remote north. There were four contestants, the riders in  bright racing colours. But the camels weren’t too lively and it took some time to cajole them to the starting line. And even after the gong  had been rung, it was hard to tell if the race had started. Every spectator head was craned, gazing across the course for signs of activity. Time passed. It was thus the biggest excitement when the first camel hove into view. He finally jogged  fast enough to reach the finish line, his rider waving not only arms but also legs to celebrate their mutual victory. It was hard to imagine that these camels ever caught up with any cattle-thieving bandits.

Then the serious racing began, most of the horses from wazungu stud farms up in the Rift Valley, and their riders so slender-limbed and tiny, I wondered if  the race horse owners employed their jockeys from the Okiek community,  the last of Kenya’s original indigenous inhabitants of slight-statured hunters. We sat in the grandstand for a while, watched the Kenyan Air Force band marching on the course between races, listened to the commentator who sounded to be the very same man who serves at every English agricultural show and sporting event wherever it is on the globe, looked at the Kenyan mamas in their elaborate kitenge costumes, had our ears blasted as two Air Force buglers dashed up into the grandstand to trumpet the start of the race,  admired the fine looking Kenyan rider, whose task it is to lead the mounted jockeys to the starting gate,  he sporting his  English hunting pink jacket and tight white breeches – yet another of Nairobi’s cross-cultural phenomena that challenge perceptions at every turn. It was all so absorbing that we didn’t even get round to placing any bets.

Our next trip to the racecourse was in early August, to another extraordinary multicultural event. This time to the Royal Ballet performing their specially created programme in aid of Kenyan conservation, Dances for Elephants. The week’s performances were aimed at raising funds for various Kenyan wildlife projects – rhino surveillance, Grevy’s zebra surveys, elephant monitoring, conservation education in Maasailand. It was the brainchild Royal Ballet Mistress, Rosalind Eyre and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, wife of Dr Ian Douglas-Hamilton, Kenya’s resident elephant expert.

Performances were laid on at several venues: at the racecourse, at the Lake Naivasha home of the Douglas-Hamiltons (complete with picnic hampers), at the Windsor Country Club and at the residence of the British High Commissioner, Sir Kieran Prendergast. Local businesses sponsored tickets so cohorts of Nairobi school children could go to the racecourse matinee and have their first ballet experience.  A congratulatory telegram also arrived from HRH The Prince of Wales, wherein he praised the sixteen dancers’ efforts and generosity in giving up their time. He also said he wished he could be with us, which we could not fail to doubt as we had recently read newspaper reports of another “Diana” scandal looming back in the UK.

We arrived in the racecourse at sundown, and again found the place was thronging.  It was a clear evening and I wondered if anyone had warned the dancers how chilly Nairobi was in August.

The audience was well catered for though. There was a tent serving hot drinks and hotdogs as well as a bar. We had come prepared with our own flask of cocoa, cushions and wraps. The grandstand was mostly filled with members of the diplomatic community and Kenyan professionals from the companies that had sponsored the event, but we could sit where we wanted among the concrete benches of the grandstand. The Jockey Club members’ padded seats comprised “The Circle” for which people had paid 3,000 shillings a ticket instead of our 700  bob. We settled down on Vitafoam sponge mats on the front row.

The stage was ingenious – two flatbed trucks parked tail to tail. Cranes rearing up behind each cab supported the roof and stage light tracking. Either side were the enormous speakers of the sound system that had been donated to the cause by Lufthansa. The racecourse and its stands of gum trees lay to their back and, as the sun disappeared behind them, black kites wheeled overhead,  mewing and on the lookout for abandoned hotdogs.

At dusk the dancing began – excerpts from the whimsical ballet ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’, opening with the zebra dance, “White Mischief”. It could not have been more surreal, of itself and also because there was the stage backdrop of the African plains with the real African sky behind it, and real African ‘sound effects’  of cricket and frog call.

*

Here is a version of what we saw out on the Ngong Racecourse on a chilly Kenyan night (best viewed full screen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh0TPvus7r4

47 thoughts on “The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

  1. What an incredible time….and that film is certainly surreal from where I’m sitting, so it must have been quite something with the real African backdrop

    1. The problem was half the time it was hard to know what WAS real when we were in Kenya. There was so much batty residual Britishness, all mixed up with what is anyway an exceedingly multicultural city…still trying to process it 🙂

      1. Absolutely lovely insights and thoughts about your former life in Kenya, Tish. Thanks for sharing, this is very special and your narrative is excellent. Even the photos have this wonderful nostalgic look.

  2. This was very interesting. The dance …..strange but then art can be that way. I’ve always thought trip to Africa would be nice. I loved the ‘Out of Africa” movie. The house with the lake looks very inviting.

    1. That’s Hunter’s Lodge. It was built beside an old elephant watering hole, i.e. after John Hunter had shot all the elephants in the area – mostly for the colonial game department that didn’t want them invading white settler sisal plantations and orange orchards.

  3. Could life be more different, Tish? Love the sinuous zebra. 🙂 🙂 So was that the start of life as a gardener for you, or did you garden prior to that in the UK?

  4. Phenomenal, Tish. I have some slides of the races from 1980 when I needed root canal treatment in South Sudan and had to fly to Nairobi. I must digitise them.

    1. I’ve found my photos now and posted. Root canal work in Sudan sounds amazingly intrepid, Ian, though I have to say I had the best dental treatment ever in Nairobi, and at two separate establishments. Any yes, you must digitise your photos.

      1. No, I had to fly to Nairobi for dental treatment. The flight was agony as the airpocket expanded with lowered air pressure. But the dental treatment was excellent

    1. I’ve wondered about a memoir, but imagine more a piece of fiction. I struggle with the often distasteful, narcissistic traits of Brits abroad. You will have noticed!

  5. Another lovely glimpse into your African life. The old colonist attitudes were something I personally struggled with during my time in SA. Thankfully Cape Town was much more multi-cultural even then.

  6. This was fascinating! I was in Kenya in 1980, but didn’t get to experience “British Colonial Kenya” except very briefly. And that ballet is brilliant, although as is frequently the case, I want to strangle the cameraman/director who simply didn’t get that dance should always be full body shots.
    Alison

    1. Oh I have that gripe too. They just don’t understand that you need to see the whole set. I remember being impressed by Fred Astaire who insisted on the camera men showing the whole dance floor and in a single take.

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