The quest today is to find the first home of Emilie May and Fred at Machakos, 46 miles south east of Nairobi armed with this diary entry of 8th March 1924:
‘After a cup of tea we started to our first home. It was awfully thrilling and the road is a very romantic one. After leaving the Fever Hospital it spears to go straight out into the blue towards some distant hills over the plains. The road was not too bad to start with… We rounded a bluff which appears to guard the entrance to a new country, a country of rolling hills. We passed one or two farms and a lovely field of wheat. We saw 2 rows of white buildings, the hospital, a very small red brick bungalow which is the Drs, the red brick DC’s house set off from the road on the left and presently our house… We went up the drive with a semicircular piece of lawn to a long shaped house.’
Finding the house is one challenge, another is getting out of Nairobi. We stop a long while beside the National Archives for an accident to resolve between two micro buses kissing. In this changeable world, constants are nice but not this time. We wait nearly half an hour. The preacher is back on his spot with maybe the same crowd or those who emptied out of the stationary buses. Apparently the two vehicles ‘scratched each other’ – it’s baffling how anyone could tell a new scratch from all the existing ones!
Finally we clear Nairobi and head off down the Mombasa Road – the same road Emilie and Fred set out on that day. Will any of it be recognisable now?
The road is hardly romantic now. It is still dead straight over the plains and the hills scarcely an outline in the pollution from the lorries that stuff the dual carriageway. A large hospital, ageing badly that it could be anything from 30 to 90 years old is the left just before the unbuilt Nairobi bypass. Nairobi’s expanding population has swarmed into breeze block apartments that line the route – one optimistically called ‘South Park’. We move at a slow pace. At Athi Bridge, 16 miles from Nairobi, a welcome new bridge is being built, but it will be too small to cope with today’s capacity let alone the future. We go round the bluff, a prominent bare rock promontory into an area of rolling hills.
Machakos town sprawls two or three miles outside it’s envelope, but at the denser housing we encouragingly pass some low white bungalows. The ones she mentioned? They are in European style. We come to a roundabout with the Governor’s Office to the left and across a high white wall. There are no signs for a hospital. We follow a Mafuta or motorcycle bus along the high wall to the hospital – apparently in it’s original space but now big and unrecognisable, the town has grown into a jumble of breeze block dukas and kiosks full of the noise of buses, cars and motorbikes. Had we come in the original road? We see some old European- style bungalows on a lane off right – one a hotel – we ask there. A man suggests asking at the Governor’s Office.
We circle back and I get out to ask. The Director lives up there, I’m told. He’s busy reading his newspaper so I wait a while. His secretary Mary tells me that the DC’s house and other old houses were still there about half a mile from the roundabout so I left the busy Director in peace to go on with the quest.
We passed the wall to our right – actually the hospital wall – and a little way on the road becomes a shady street with big trees, grass verges, and flowers. People sit under the trees chatting. A red brick house, called DC’s House, is set off on the left, up a sweeping driveway to a handsome colonial bungalow set in a garden with lovely old trees, flowering Bougainvillia in purples, whites and reds and Canna lillies in flower beds.
Expectation is high. We go on. In the next space, that for my grandparents first house, are three Nissan style newish bungalows. I guess their house was knocked down. Nevertheless, compared to the clogged streets and impermanent buildings of the town this is still a lovely place where Monica, Valerie and my mother were born. The photo was taken on Christmas day 1924 when Monica was days old.
Mission accomplished, we set off back to the Mombasa Road to find our hotel. The address is Mombasa Road, Katembu, some directions and GPS coordinates. We enter the coordinates and set off, expecting to be at the hotel within 30 minutes. We pass through Katembu onto the Mombasa road. There is no right turn within 500 metres, the next is over a mile away. For over an hour we take dirt tracks towards the GPS marker and ask everyone – no one has heard of our hotel.
We return to Nairobi and stay in a Convent in Karen – Robert’s suggestion. A great little place with a small white room, a cross high on the wall, and mosquito netting round a firm bed with soft pillows.