Day one – Nairobi

In the hotel garden two sun birds play catch between the hibiscus, the orange beak of the East African thrush pecks for worms in the grass. The background music changes from upbeat jazz to something Richard Clayderman might play – inoffensive and easily ignorable and a world away from Nairobi’s hot dusty streets. In those streets, smart ladies in suits totter in ankle breaking heels along uneven pavements ignoring shabby disabled men asking for money and hawkers selling dusty ties, shoes, toiletries on mats. A large brown/black bird hovers above an acacia tree beside a stream strewn with rubbish. Bashed up micro-buses press in equal measure on the accelerator and the horn, the air thick with their black exhaust. Thin much washed shirt sleeves are the only cleaners on the bus windows. Even the bougainvillea flowers look grey. At every junction and roundabout the traffic waits, perhaps some will remain stationary long enough to read the books some of the hawkers sell car to car. Then a smart young man in a beautiful pink pressed shirt crosses the road in front of us – his shoes so shiny that a mirror could be dispensed with. It is a sight as welcome as water in the desert.

Privilege for the few versus poverty, the reality for the many, is stark in this city. The few are tucked away in Muthaiga, Karen or Westlands in high walled compounds imprisoned by security guards and high reinforced gates – or hotels like mine guarded by barriers, bomb detectors and security fences. The rich pay much to sleep easy in their beds here and drive locked in high SUVs. Only security guards and house help walk their green hushed streets.

We went to Nairobi centre – a bustling centre according to the guide book. They lie. Nothing bustles here. The people walk slowly, gracefully, the women clutching mobile phones or each other, chatting ceaselessly. We crossed many streets at will, green or red pedestrian lights, to reach the National Archives and MacMillan Central Library. The traffic is stopped patiently at every road junction, engines running. The place has the same feel, the same hot spicy smell mixed with petrol fumes, as other centres built by the British at the end of the 19th Century – Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Dar-es-Salaam and others I’ve not been to I expect. It’s KL’s Batu road without deep storm drains and Chinese kedai. Deep shady walkways with small shops offer anything you may want and much you don’t. It’s very walkable provided you watch your feet for uneven stone pushed up by tree roots, tree roots and open hatches for underground electricity bays. A large group of people are clustered round an invisible man. ‘An accident?’ – ‘No, a preacher’ says Robert, our driver.

At the National Archive research library I ask to see The East African Standard newspaper between 1926 – 1938. ‘Research permits cost 100,000 KSH for a year’. ‘I only need it for two hours.’ ‘Maybe one of the Researchers will lend you their permit, I’ll ask.’ The room is cool from one windows. Three older men sit at long wooden tables with piles of books. To the side are old dusty computers and much used mice. An old, thin man, a belt holding up well-gathered trousers, comes over to hear my request. He lays his hands on the reception table – long delicate fingers and clean worn cuffs. His eyes are faded from too many books in poor lighting, ‘The micro fiche are dim. Better to go to the MacMillan Library next to the Mosque. They have the originals.’ His faded voice match the research library.

We recross exhaust perfumed streets and down a long covered pavement in deep shade passed dukas selling the latest phones, wireless sound systems, men’s tailors, women’s clothing.

The public library was once a handsome place. A large imposing entrance in classic style built in 1930’s by sponsorship from lady MacMillan, the Governors wife. A few people sit at the dusty tables. Broken tables and chairs are piled in children’s book area. This library has not been stocked with books for many years. The librarian takes us into the basement filled with the smell of decaying print – silver fish must be flourishing in this forgotten uncherished history of this young nation. It’s not the history of the people in power now.

Research MacMillan LibraryFor three hours we pour over collected binders of newspapers, 1926, 1927, 1930, 1934, 1938 and inhale the preoccupations of the early settlers to the certainty of another war. The adverts react to their needs: Agricultural machinery, health products for tooth ache and cuts, guns, cars, cigarettes, shipping lines and sea mail deliveries, luxuries from home – Lipton tea, Quaker Oats, Brands of marmalade dominate in the early days. Later the adverts move to golf, running shoes for sports events, columns about dogs. The wireless begins to edge in. By 1934 it commands three columns and the radio programmes are printed, news of aeroplane flights and airmail overtakes sea mail, and the movement of swarms of red locusts across East Africa are tracked and broadcast. By 1938, there is little local news. The settlers farms are mostly in hock to the bank after the Great Depression and world commodity price collapse – the adverts reflect this. Farm sales, health preoccupations, times of sailings home dominate. There are no adverts for golf, guns or high end cars. No columns devoted to the care of dogs. The paper looks to the whole East African region and the whispered fear of war.

By late afternoon we call on Sylvia Davidson. Her father bought Kama Koia Farm in 1938. That year my grandfather held a shareholders meeting on 12th December 1938 to wind up Kama Koia Limited, the company that owned the farm. The shareholders were Frderick Chater Jack and his brother Arnold. The company wound up on 4th January 1938 and the family sailed for England eight days later taking the train from Kitale through Nairobi to Mombasa.

Sylvia Davidson mapSylvia is a sprightly 89 year old, as sharp as a tack. Her father, Mr Gantz, came to Kenya in 1936 to hunt big game and decided to stay. The family, including 12 year old Sylvia, followed in 1938 – the same year he bought Kama Koia Farm. It cannot be a coincidence that that is the same name as my grandparent’s farm. I know from Notices in the Kenya Gazette that there was a meeting of shareholders of Kama Koia Farm Ltd on 12th December 1938 and that the company was wound up on 4th January 1939. Fred, Emilie May and the four girls left Kenya for ever on 12th January 1939.

“The farm is not near the Kama Koia River. There was no house or gardens there and no vegetables or horticultural business.” She said taking a large area map with land registry numbered plots. We orientate it to Emilie May’s schematic sketch map that she sent to her father. The Kama Koia Farm that the Gantz family bought could be a subdivision of the Kama Koia Farm owned by my grandparent’s and the timing looks more than coincidental. Amazing.

Sylvia invites us to the Muthaiga Club, the oasis that Fred and Emilie May escaped to for all-night dancing, fine dining, champagne and Society – the high life they both aspired to. Children were not allowed so they remained at the farm in the care of the nanny. The club was established in 1914 and by 1933 it cost 300/= KSH per year to be a member and had 500 members. Its president was Lord Delamere, head of the so-called fast Happy Valley set. Today the club still oozes privilege and money. The golf course is still there, but is now separated from the club. We are signed into a book by Sylvia ‘Don’t dance in the tables or break anything, I’m responsible for everything you do.’

The male only Members bar is now part of the dining room – jackets required, women in smart casual dress – and the ballroom is used for concerts such as a piano concert a couple of days ago that Sylvia went to. It’s hard to imagine the dances in the partially lit room I saw. Things have changed these days, women are welcome in The Members Bar and children can go to the new Pinks pool and restaurant building to the back.

I order a pink Gin, it seems fitting for the surroundings, and it arrives with hot cashew nuts. The dark wood panelled room looks out over a wide shady verandah with members having sundowners. The Muthaiga Club is modernised, but didn’t take much imagination to see game hunters and settlers having sundowners around us. Indeed young man in khaki bush trousers buckled into a smart leather belt and loose shirt comes in with round canvas bags. He’s bronzed, lithe of body and looks just the part. ‘A large pink gin,’ he orders and gives his membership number. “I’ll just freshen up.”

It’s still the place of privilege and status, but the money is equal and everyone can join who can afford the eye watering cost. To protect them, security is obvious and high with barriers at the gates, bomb detection checks and high wire topped with razor wire all round.

Tomorrow we start the quest to find Emilie May.

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1 Response to Day one – Nairobi

  1. Sue Brock says:

    Hi Hilary ! I have just jopined the blog. My first time ever. That is why it has taken me so long! I am very excited and want to saver every moment of your journey so I will engage little by little so I wont get over excited !

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