The Menegai Crater, Nakuru

Philip was assigned as our guide. Vital stats given : Kikuyu, 36 years old, three children – two girls one boy of 10 years – ‘he is going to be a doctor, it’s good for a family to have a doctor.’ The girls? No particular ambition. ‘Does he want to do this?’ “He’s a good boy.”

No comment.

We load Philip the guide into the car and drive up the Menengai Crater, actually a shield caldera built up by fluid magma basalt flows. This gives it a flattened undramatic shape, not the classic steep volcano shape. It last erupted a million years ago, but the caldera was formed 2,000,000 years ago. Vital stats for the caldera: 90 square km circumference, 485m to caldera floor, four fumeroles with a measured temperature of 94o C, about 70 lava flows on the ridged caldera floor. It’s one of the best preserved calderas in the world – not that the guide had this information, this comes from John Seach, volcanologist, on the ‘net.

Menengai craterThe guide took us round the rim away from the carpark and showed us the densely farmed area just out of the caldera. These shambas (African family smallholdings) (he said) were white settler land given as compensation by former Mau Mau fighters to the end of fighting: “Imagine if someone came to your house and stole it from you, would you not fight to get it back?” A reasonable point of view – except the land was originally Maasai land. The white settlers took it, paying the British colonial government for the land under the soldier settlement scheme lottery.

According to a long time Kenyan settler whose grandfather bought land in the Cherangani Hills north of Kitale, the Maasai were moved out, causing great deprivation, into the Mau Highlands. When the farms were nationalised, after independence in 1963, the Maasai would not buy back their land and farms, their tradition is pastoral with cattle not farms. The Kikuyu though did have the money and did buy. It is now Kikuyu land.

While it is not true that the British paid compensation, or this particular land had been Kikuyu before the white settlers, it is true that the Kikuyu, a people of about one million, had become economically disadvantaged during the colonial times. The guide believed it and maybe it has become the new truth.

Researching on the ‘net, consensus appears to be that Nakuru was at the heart of the Mau Mau struggle – both an independence movement and a civil war.. The fighters met in a large cave – said to hold 2000 people – on the eastern side of the Crater. This was a brutal battle in which the Mau fighters murdered hundreds of white settlers and thousands of Kikuyu. The British response was equally barbaric with Mau fighters held in inhumane concentration camps. Neither side held the moral high ground. Today the caves have been cleansed with a new name, The Sacred Caves, and is a popular church.

The guide then told us that the guiding fee was just for the information at the rim (and did we want to buy from the tourist kiosks at a better price?) and the walk down was extra! Since he had already told us that normally he would be expected to walk up with tourists, this as a bit of a cheek from a less than impressive guide. We said that we didn’t need him to walk down with us, we would go alone and he said he might as well come with us. It was not a good start to the walk.


The caldera has much degraded secondary forest of predominantly eucalyptus, bushes and scrub grow up to its rounded top. Apart from a view of the caldera itself, the only other noteworthy thing was a huge signpost giving distances to London, New York, Cairo and many others.

Menengai signpostThe road goes to the southern rim ending with desultory kiosks selling small things and drinks and a half-built Eco-Lodge and bar. A Danish environmental company planted eucalyptus in collaboration with the National Park. It’s surprising that native trees weren’t planted but presumably they had valid reasons. At first sight, the area was disappointing.

Nor was the view what I was expecting although it was big and deep. No one lives in the crater, but an electricity company is drilling 3km into the thermal vents to use the volcanic heat to generate steam for electricity. There were about five drilling platforms there so far and platforms for many more. A small aircraft pilot we met in Kitale said that he has noticed an increase in sulphur in the air when flying over the crater since the holes were drilled.

According to Wikipedia, Menengai is two words – ‘Mene’ being ‘corpse’ in the Maa language, and ‘Ngai’ being ‘God’ in Kikuyu. One Maasai legend is that the steam rising from the crater floor are the souls of dead Maasai. The useless Philip said that the Maasai had ‘fought each other to the death or had had accidents or died of negligence’. His version of the meaning of ‘Menegai’ was ‘No God’.

It took an hour at the tail end of the afternoon to walk down the mountain to the hotel through scrub, bushes, grass and eucalyptus – a bit like a stroll in the New Forest minus the horses. An aardvark had made deep holes in the path chasing ants but we didn’t see it or any wildlife, just cows, goats and people picking up wood for fires. It was just as well that Philip accompanied as there were lots of different paths including to the Mau Caves some two hours away. We gave him a tip, of course.

How much of the information about Masaai, MauMau fighters and the settle out at the end of the colonial period is true? It would take a lot of research to know, we settled for a cold Tusker beer at the hotel in the lovely garden watching iridescent flocks of Starlings, the active orange beak of the East African Thrush pecking at the lawn and Yellow Weavers chattering in the nearby bush.

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The Rift Valley, Hells Gate and Planet Fries

Nuns and priests – Limuru – Rift Valley – Railway & old road alongside – Lake Naivasha: Sanctuary Farm & Hells Gate – Nakuru: Millimani Hotel and Planet Fries.

It’s certainly a novel experience to wake up in a convent. I opened our bedroom door to black-suited priests, with bibles clasped in both hands over portly bellies, parading to a meeting. Starched white cuffs and dog collar provided a studied dignity. They returned my greeting with nods worthy of the Pope. The dining room is set out like a canteen and most people have finished breakfast – it is only 7:30 so I guess convents get up early. On a nearby table, a priest is holding forth to four attentive men about creating presence at a baptism. It is a Roman Catholic convent so I should not be surprised that the physical work is being done by headscarved young women in long skirts wearing smiles in their eyes. It was these ladies who ensured that we and the men were fed and watered, that tables were laid, the phones answered, the floors cleaned and swept.

We set off at 9:30 past St John’s Parklands, one of the oldest churches in Nairobi now, where Fred Chater Jack and Emilie May were married on 1st March 1924. Our journey today is to the Rift Valley, Naivasha and Nakuru – the same route Fred and Emilie took often travelling from Kitale to the Muthaiga Club.

01-03-1924 EM wedding day-1On the way we pass Limuru where the couple had their honeymoon. The diary entry mentions bungalows, gardens, a fresh breeze but no name. It may well be Brackenhurst, a religious retreat and conference centre, which was a hotel with bungalows with gardens in the 1920’s. Today modern large meeting halls replace the bungalows and the wind carries more than a whiff of exhaust.

The road goes down into the Rift Valley on a gentle incline. The single track one metre gauge railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, built between 1899 and 1903 at a cost of £5,317,000, goes down with us. It will remain our faithful companion for most of our trip to Kitale. Until 2012 an up train and a down train ran everyday plus some freight trains. Today the descent into the Rift Valley is a shallow incline and no obstacle, but it took ingenuity to lay the rail tracks from May 1900 – November 1901. An incline lift was required to lower wagons and material into the valley and then a temporary road from the foot of the lift to the point of the permanent line. The lift consisted of four portions with a drum at the top of each, round which a steel rope was passed. The railway wagons were run up and down these – full wagons down hauling up empty ones.

We part with KSH 500/- (£3.00) to enter The Sanctuary Farm on Lake Naivasha – an exclusive hotel run by a long time settler family offering horseback riding among zebra, giraffe and wildebeest. There were many takers. It’s not the Serengeti, but it’s quite pretty. Water Hyacinth is strangling the swampy ground on either side of the road onto Crescent Island, but we baulk at paying $30 each just to walk for half an hour among zebra within a former polo pitch – the same entrance fee for nearby Hell’s Gate National Park. It’s the only way to see Lake Naivasha though as expensive hotels vie with Rose growing enterprises and there is no public land at all.

The National Park runs east/west along the course of a wadi – a dry river bed that becomes a torrent after rain. At that time it cut deep into the earth leaving basalt stacks standing proud in the landscape. In 1882, Gustav Fischer and a surveying party came here mapping a route from Mombasa to Lake Victoria and Uganda. They were slaughtered by Maasai. The 25 metres high basalt Fischer Tower at the National Park entrance is his memorial.

Warthogs and piglets, usually three piglets, are out in large number, their tails upright and stiff as they run. The piglets being comical miniature copies of mum. Impala in large herds graze alongside Plains Zebra, Wildebeest and Rothschild Giraffe. Large lumps of obsidian, a black vitreous rock that resembles bottle glass and forms in volcanic rocks, jut out of the crumbling yellowy country rock. It’s sharp. I can see why it was used as a cutting tool like Flint.

The lower gorge is filled with a gaggle of schoolchildren from Eldoret dressed in green skirts, white shirts – and amazingly in this heat, some are in dark green sleeveless jumpers. It’s about 10 – 15 metres wide of rocky slipperiness and a comforting trickle of water. The sides rise above our heads with many steep emergency exits. It was not hard to imagine the danger if there was rain. I’m sure I would become as a gazelle if I needed to flee this spot.

‘We’re trained to hear the water coming. There are over 100 emergency exits. In 1992, four students were caught and died here because they didn’t have a guide.’ Says Francis Ooloowente, our 23 yr old Maasai guide. Many generations of his clan live here, maybe his ancestors had come across Fischer that day. The Maasai have adapted to modern times. Francis is Christian, will have only one wife and doesn’t value wealth in numbers of cows. He’s studying mechanical engineering at the nearby university in order to work for the local thermal energy company. University fees are KSH 80,000/- (£600) per year, a huge amount for his family, so he is guiding to help with the cost.

The gorge opens onto a confluence with another wadi – the Devil’s Bedroom. It’s wide here, about 40 metres wide. The flow of the hectic current traced in the swoosh of sand riven in the outer curl and rising 15 meters up the high wall as both rivers fight their way down against the flow of the rival water. Over the years, the turbulence has eaten 30 meters into the earth.
Gorge Hells GateWe walk up The Devil’s Bedroom, narrow, high sided, with deep crumbling black silt on the inner bend “Quick sand,” says Francis. This would not be a good place to be caught. The high-sided cliffs, ten to fifteen metres above, lean towards each other leaving about one metre of sky. High above us, ledges afford viewing positions of the river in spate and time for graffiti on each level with dates. The river must be a dramatic sight. I know where I would like to be to experience the drama. After 300 – 400 metres the gorge ends in a high rise of rock and opens out. There must be a wonderful waterfall to see – if you were the right side of it. The school children use ropes to haul themselves up and out of the gorge, they’re doing the long walk. Thankfully we chose the short walk!
schoolchildren Hells GateThe thermals are down the main gorge – four outlets of hot water with one close to boiling point. ‘We used to boil eggs in the mouth of that spring,” Francis points to a small bush laden with whitish fruit that birds do not eat either. “This is Ol-Morijej, the poison arrow tree. We mash the root and dip it onto our arrows when hunting. Once we catch an animal we quickly slit its throat and drain its blood. Then we make a deep wide cut round the place the arrow went in.”

The sandstone scramble path out of the gorge is crumbly underfoot and the drop steep and rocky. Well anchored rope give confidence, but the path has eroded away from its endpoint requiring clambering without the illusion of a safety net. At the top it’s about a mile walk back to the car and ranger point. We pass many bushes used for medicinal purposes, I write the description and Francis writes in the Maasai name. Stomach aches and indigestion relief seem to be the major preoccupations: Ol-Tubelei, Sodom Apple, a medicinal plant for stomach aches. Ol-Moloij, Terpenith tree – terpentine for stomach upsets. Ol-Kiloriti, Acacia Arabica, for digestion problems.

“This bush,” says Francis scrumpling sage green leaves with a light green underside between his fingers, “is our perfume. We use it after we have killed a goat to make our hands smell sweet and as an underarm deodorant.” The smell is pleasant, fresh and tangy.

We stopped by a Whistling Acacia, heavy with thorns. “This is Ol-Kineloluai, the ants make their home in these black galls and bite the nose of giraffes who eat the leaves.”

We arrive back at the car and drive back through the wide plain of the upper gorge and onto the congested road to Nakuru. In the cool of the late afternoon baboons and warthogs have spilled out of the National Park and are on the verges ignoring the bicycles and buses going by.

We finish the day at a Formica table in Planet Fries, Nakuru, a friendly local restaurant offering fish, beef or chicken cooked BBQ, Maryland or wet – wet means cooked in gravy. I think we’ll take our chances at the hotel tomorrow night.

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Machakos – The quest starts

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.

DC House MachakosExpectation 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.

1924 Xmas Machakos first photo Parents & MonicaMission 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.

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Maps of the Journey


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Day two – Nairobi

Today we managed two things:
Fighting the traffic to research the minute books of the Kenya Hoticultural Society 1927 – 1938, thankfully contained in three slim volumes. My expectations are low, which is good because there are only two mentions of Kitale horticultural association – asking permission to be an affiliate branch on 6th January 1928 and in July 1930 noting that Kitale HS was particularly strong. It is clear that Kitale and the Trans Nzoia is very remote from Nairobi. There are even fewer mentions of my grandparents – a letter on 6th May 1932 from Emilie May asking to be considered as an apprentice judge – she must have been taken on as both she and Fred were listed as judges for the Lamuru horticultural show in the meting of 4th September 1936. There are many references to the Sutton Challenge Cups, given by Leonard Sutton (my great-grandfather) at the Nairobi Horticultural Show on 2nd December 1932. It was Emilie May’s great desire to win one of these but she never did.

Bumping along atrocious roads passed ribbon shanty to the Ngong Hills at the rim of the Rift Valley. Religion, health and education dominated the roadside adverts and buildings. Numerous schools linked to various saints and churches – Presbyterian, Anglican, Seventh Day Adventists, Kingdom focus Church, Redeemed church Gospel Rima, Deliverance Church Eldorator, Blessed Worship.

The road ended in a dirt road going along the rim of the Rift Valley. The late afternoon haze simmered blueish over the valley and the ridges beyond. Expectation and anticipation are funny things – perhaps I had expected something more dramatic after reading Emilie May’s letter of 6th March 1924:

‘then the road began to descent and unite suddenly we got a most stupendous view over the valley far below us and then some hills which looked like tiny ridges. It was too wonderful for words even at the time – the sort of awful quiet and remoteness which quite silence one.’

Ngong hills with turbinesPerhaps it felt anticlimactic because it was very hazy, and the swooshing wind from some dozen turbines towering 40 – 50 metres above us coupled with the stiff wind was distracting. These turbines reminded me of a journey from Turfan to Urumqi years ago, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.  That day in April we crested a hill andthe tops of the turbines rose like space ships in the arid brutal landscape. A sight so surreal I remember it as yesterday.

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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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Finally leaving England

The ‘Guildford Castle’ spent January 31st at anchor off Tilbury and inching passed the Isle of Wight on the morning of February 1st, the fog. lifted. By coincidence, on the same day separated by 92 years, that my grandmother Emilie May Sutton started her journey, we’ll start ours.  That’s the only similarity in the journey.

It took another 25 more days before Emilie May reached Mombasa, and a further two before the train pulled in to Nairobi station at 12:30. We will fly for 8 hrs in the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, we will queue for quite some time to be fingerprinted and processed into Kenya. My grandmother’s arrival was altogether better:

‘The entrance to Mombasa is quite one of the most beautiful things I’ve see, and I feel it quite useless to try to descript it. Anyway, we steamed right up to the land – so close, that I could recognize Joyce on her verandah, and was almost certain of Fred in a car. Then we turned sharp left, and kept close in under the land and cars and motor bikes kept level with us round the side of the island. We finally anchored off Kilindini, and at once the doctor’s launch came alongside, followed immediately by the Police one. I could see Fred sitting in it, and then he came on board, exactly after Capt. Scott Higgins, who is the Policeman. Oh, it was quite too wonderful. We went to the cabin – etc!!! The rest is left to your imagination. Anyway it was only about 7 o’clock when he came on board. We had plenty of time, and got my emigration form and passport done.’

Emilie May’s letter to her father on 25th February 1924

We queued for over an hour at immigration and were very thankful to meet the lady from  the Norfolk Hotel and leave the airport. Travel is faster these days, but it has certainly lost its romance and much of its appeal. Since Emilie May spent her first night in Nairobi at The Norfolk so it seems fitting that we should too.

On 1st March 1924, Emilie May Sutton married Frederick Chater Jack at St John’s Church, Parklands. The wedding had been delayed by the fog in Tilbury.  The reception and photographs was at The Norfolk Hotel. It’s still one of the best hotels in Nairobi.
01-03-1924Marriage invite1

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Setting Out

Today is 30th January 2016 and I’m reminded that it is exactly 92 years since eleven people and my grandmother, Emilie May Sutton, caught the 10.00 am train to Paddington, London, in freezing fog.’We took a bus from Rikards [near Paddington Station], as there was no boat train owing to the railway strike – only charabancs from St. Pancras – a long drive all thro’ the city & down Commercial Road to East India Dock.’ There she boarded the “Guildford Castle” bound for Mombasa, expecting to sail late that afternoon to marry a man she hardly knew and start a new life in Kenya. She was 24 years old.

She put the wedding cake into cold storage on the boat, had lunch with her family and waved goodbye to them in mid-afternoon except her chaperone Aunt Hilda Parkinson. She started the first page of her diary to record events from the sea journey to marriage, married life and the birth of the first child:’At 6:15 we shipped anchor & went out into the middle of the Dock but there was still a very thick fog & when we came back from dinner we found ourselves back by the side again. Very depressing. The cabin is very nice & I got fairly comfortable on the top berth.’ Unfortunately not quite the exciting start she was hoping to record.

I have that diary and many of her letters to her father (and some of his to her) until June 1932. They were stored unopened in an attic for over 30 years in a dispatch box sized tin chest, exactly square and squat in unadorned dull grey metal, until I found out about them in a chance conversation. There was no huge old padlock or lock requiring a fantastical ornate key, only a small metal catch to help lift the lid. There was no writing on the box. No name. No instructions. No ‘Not To Be Opened Until After My Death’. Nothing. It was not spectacular at all and I could see why it had been ignored for all these years. Its ordinary smallness was its most distinguishing feature.

The chest’s contents spanned more than a century. Each envelope had a written note in spidery blue ink of its contents on the outside. I recognised my Grandmother’s distinctive style. Inside, the contents were collated around an individual subject, event or person. Every letter and every photograph had explanations or names, usually identified by initials, written at the top of the letter, in the margin or on the back. Into this chest went her mother, her father, her brothers, her husband, her children, herself: my Granny’s world collapsed and ordered into a tin chest.

It did seem a bit surprising Granny chose such a very small container to record so many lives and so many events. Each deposit appears chosen for a reason and consciously saved. But during her life, my Grandmother had never talked about Kenya, her husband or her father — nor were there any artefacts, paintings or photographs referring to Kenya.

I took the contents of the chest and another back home. It seemed such an amazing story about an austere dour woman I knew well because I spent much of my childhood in her house — quite different from this young woman eager on the advent of an adventure. I resolved to go to Kenya and find Emilie May.

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