In 1966 my father transferred work from Mombasa to Nairobi, where I think his position was General Manager. Since I was also starting at boarding school in Nairobi, the move coincided at the right time for the family, although I think my parents moved in when I was at school.
The Mombasa – Nairobi road
Less than a third of the 300 mile road between Mombasa and Nairobi was tarmac and the rest was dirt (murrum). On average the trip would take about 8 hours. The trip was broken up by various milestones: Voi, a small town around 75 miles west of Mombasa, Mtito Andei, a small settlement almost half way, and ‘Hunters Lodge’, a safari hotel which was 75 miles out of Nairobi. Coconut palms grow in abundance on the coast, and when driving to the coast from Nairobi, we played a family game of ‘spotting the first coconut palm’ to relieve the monotony of the endless road. Since the road splits the Tsavo National Park into two, east and west, it was quite usual to see elephant and other game, whilst driving.
The journey to Nairobi to start school was particularly memorable. About a third of the way, a passing car dislodged a stone which was catapulted onto our car and broke the windscreen. We stopped and removed the broken glass but had to drive the remaining 200 miles with the dust swirling into our faces. When we arrived at Nairobi we were covered from head to foot in red dust. Passing vehicles were not the only danger, local ‘totos’ (small children) would play a game of throwing stones at passing cars. They had no idea of the danger they were causing.
Breakdowns on the road could happen easily and most times passing motorists would stop and help a fellow traveller, as was the case on a previous trip to Tsavo, when we got stuck in soft sand on the side of the road. It was common to travel with a tow rope in the boot in case of emergency, and an extra gerry can of petrol was essential.
On a different occasion, we were travelling on the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa. The train being run by steam, required a number of stops to take on water and fuel (coal, but also wood as that was more available). We woke up and sensed that the stop had taken too long. It turned out the reason was that the oncoming train was passing through a cutting in a hill, when it hit an elephant. We were delayed 12 hours as the remains of the elephant were cut up by local Africans and removed. No mean task I suspect. During the 12 hour wait, our train had to keep moving down the line, as the train toilets emptied onto the track and the smell was overwhelming. By the time we passed the spot where the accident happened, the carcass had disappeared; no doubt the local population had a feast for many days afterwards! The waiters on the train were shouting out the windows, offering money for the meat.
Arriving at Nairobi we stayed with Uncle Len and Aunty Maureen, whose house backed on to the Kenton grounds as I was starting school the following day. Len was my father’s cousin, a kind and godly man (he was my god father) and I was fond of him. They were Patsy Weeks’s parents. He had suffered polio as a child and had callipers to enable him to walk and an old Ford Prefect car that had the accelerator, brake and clutch converted to hand controls. He once gave me 20 shillings if I could recite the Ten Commandments and the Apostles creed. Maureen was welsh and was renown for her lack of cooking skills. When extra guests turned up unexpectedly, she padded out the curry with Brussel sprouts – cooked for 15 minutes in the pressure cooker!
The house at Davidson road
I had once overheard my parents saying that this house was more ‘upmarket’ because it had a bidet. They were right, although I had no idea what a bidet was.
One of the features of the house was an attractive front lawn, and since my father had recently taken up golf, we created a small putting course on the grass. Later when my brother had a present of an air rifle, we also created a small shooting range complete with aluminium ducks that were hinged onto a board. I had acquired three guinea pigs as pets, although sadly during this time a civic cat or something similar broke into their runs and killed two of them, which was upsetting. Along with the cat ‘puddy’ who had made the trip from Mombasa, we also had a hen called Mabel (as she was an old woman). Each evening my parents would walk around the garden looking at the flowers and the cat and the chicken would follow them. Mabel disappeared one day. We asked the house boy and the gardener if they knew what happened to her and apparently no one had seen her! I just hope whoever put her in the pot had a guilty conscience!
David and I shared a bedroom, as we converted the third bedroom for the model railway, which was quite substantial. This worked well, except that David and I would argue about a clock that ticked very loudly. One of us had to have it in the room and the other couldn’t sleep with it ticking!
I had bad reoccurring nightmares and would end up sleep walking into my parent’s room until they managed to coax me into waking up. It was always the same dream. Someone whose face I couldn’t see would stretch out his arm and move it slowly in an arc. I had to look at his finger and couldn’t look away no matter how I tried. I realised later that it was as if I was being hypnotised although I couldn’t articulate that sensation at the time.
Since David and I were both at boarding school and had left friends in Mombasa, I don’t recall us having many friends of our own age in Nairobi with whom to play with during the holidays. There were one or two of course, but this wasn’t unusual. In the main our parents were our companions and we did a lot as a family.
My parents had bought a small Mirror Dingy, and we would go fishing on Lake Naivasha, which is about 50 miles from Nairobi, where we would catch Bass and Tilapia, camping overnight on occasions. Swimming in the lake was hazardous, although we did from time to time. Hippos were common away from the boating bay, but what usually put you off swimming were the leeches. After you swam, you would need assistance in removing the leeches that were attached to various parts of your body. Being blood suckers, they wouldn’t be pulled off easily, however a quick tap with a lighted cigarette would remove them with no problem. Once or twice we went water skiing which was fun. One day, David was sitting on a pontoon, waiting to be towed. The boat pulled away unexpectedly and David’s swimming costume caught on a nail on the pontoon. He let go of the rope and ended up suspended upside down on the nail with his head in the water and his skies in the air!
Other activities that our parents took us to included the local snake park. On a Wednesday they would ‘milk’ the snake’s venom which was used as an antidote. This would require the snake handler making the snake bite into a piece of plastic covering an ordinary water glass. The venom was then collected in the glass – a delight for small boys!
Back at home we had a gramophone, or more correctly a radiogram as it also had a long wave radio included in it. It was really a piece of furniture as it had a wooden lid and stood on legs. You could load up a number of records onto the spindle in the middle and when it had finished playing one record, another would drop down onto the first and it would play the second disk. Too many records stacked up would result it the disks slipping on each other and the audio result was hilarious.
Watching planes at Nairobi Airport
From time to time my parents would take David and I to the airport to watch the planes land or take off. There was an open air ‘waving base’ situated directly above the passenger entrance to the terminal where you could wave to the passengers as they walked across the runway to the waiting planes. On average there was a plane landing or taking off every 30 – 40 minutes, so my mum and dad enjoyed a quiet beer whilst David and I had an exciting time watching the planes approaching, landing and then taxiing in. When it was time to go home, we would plead “can we wait for just one more plane, please?!”
I came across some film clips, by the News Group Pathé, which shows Nairobi in about 1966, I have edited some of the clips together to give an idea of how the city looked at the time.
However it was television which was so novel for me. We got our first set around 1969, when I was eleven. The single channel aired by the Voice of Kenya (VOK), was bilingual, although they did have two radio stations, broadcasting in both English and Swahili. The TV started at 5.30 with children’s programmes alternating in English and Swahili. Swahili programmes were aired until about 8pm and English exclusively after that point. This led me to assume that Africans went to bed at 8pm!
We held the VOK in great affection, because although they tried hard, general standards were amateurish, naturally so because the TV station was in its infancy. It wasn’t unusual for the main film of the evening to be shown with the film reels in the wrong order, necessitating an apology and a re-run the following day. At some point, it was decided that violent films should be censored, and the offending part of the film cut out. The result was that an actor in a fight would swing his fists, but the film would very abruptly jump to show the victim on the floor, with no actual physical contact taking place. Technical faults and breakdowns in transmission were common place. There must have been an aquarium in the studio, because all of a sudden a programme would come to an end and the TV would just display a live fish tank that was obviously used in emergency!
Local programming, especially dramas were very much home grown. TV plays tended to feature cardboard props, which swayed about or fell over and tortuous dialogue. The latter not surprising, since English was the third language learnt by locals, after their tribal language, then Swahili. One particular TV drama featured a line which became part of family folk law, which went “her-way, deed choo kerrnot tekka tha jobba ma fathah hoffered chew?” which translates, “why did you not take that job my father offered you?”
At New Year, the VOK would organise a charity fund raising programme called ‘ring-us-up’. People would pledge money to hear records, and there was also a live auction on new years eve, which – being New Year – would often be hilarious. My father once donated a men’s urinal for sale. He had a subtle and unsubtle sense of humour combined. The ‘taking the piss’ joke was probably missed by the local African presenter, but amongst the ‘mazungu’ (white population) it was understood! Every year for some time afterwards, the urinal was redonated. Whether it had been used during the intervening time, is not known.
It was a treat to go to the cinema in Nairobi. The show always started by playing the Kenya National Anthem, and everyone was required to stand. Whilst we could get mainstream UK films, usually two or three months after they were released, it was the adverts that I always remember. Many were simply slides which were projected, often back to front then hurriedly changed! Here is a typical clip from the time.