It was a huge move for my parents to emigrate to Kenya. The world these days is so small that it is difficult to describe what this meant for them and for their friends and family back in the UK. There were no direct flights to Kenya, but you could travel by sea plane, which took three or four days. Most travel was by sea, through the Suez canal, which took nineteen days. Kenya was a colony of the British Empire at that time, so it was considered quite safe, although the Mau-Mau uprising had only been quelled a few years before. The Mau-Mau was a violent rebellion directed at the colonial rulers, by the Kikuyu tribe in the main, who were seeking independence.
The first home my parents were to have in Kenya was a small flat, in a block in an area called Tudor, which is on the northern side of Mombasa Island (see the map above). I don’t have any recollection of our time at the flat and I am not sure we lived there for long before we moved to a bungalow in Tudor Road, not far away. Tudor Road is now known as Mboya Road, after a well known Kenyan politician and former freedom fighter, Tom Mboya. He was gunned down in Nairobi in 1969 in what was commonly decided to be a political assassination. Coincidentally Eileen Hogan lived on Tudor Road only a few years before, when the Ennis family moved from Changamwe (a district on the mainland just north of the Island) into Mombasa, following the attack they suffered during the Mau-Mau uprising. Looking at Google maps now, it would seem that the plot of land has been divided and other buildings have been erected in the garden.
The most attractive feature of the bungalow was the front verandah, and since it was so hot, we spent most of the time either there. It overlooked the front garden, which typical of Mombasa consisted of a thin base of soil on bedrock of coral. Surprisingly many trees and plants did grow in that environment. There were a number of Guava trees in the garden, which produced a lot of fruit. I never liked them much and clearly the next door neighbour didn’t either! Since the trees bordered her plot, guavas would drop off the branches into her garden. From time to time she would throw them back into our garden with the shout “these are yours I believe!” I always admired her attitude and in later life wondered if I could do the same when our neighbours allowed their cats to defecate in our back garden.
The guava trees were very good for climbing however. David and I used to wake up early as it was so hot and would frequently go into the garden dressed just in our underpants and climb the trees. It was about six o’clock one morning that I remember David being on a branch slightly higher than mine, when I slipped fell out of the tree and landed on a stone, breaking my arm and collar bone. I couldn’t have been more than four years old but I remember the pain very clearly. We woke my parents up, and rather blearily they realised that my shoulder was quite wonky. In the dash to the hospital I remember urging my father to ignore the traffic lights. I was attended to by Doctor McVicar, who had a squint in his eye which meant he kept winking at us.
After I was strapped up, he told my parents that he may have to break and reset the bone, but since he was winking at them they didn’t know if he was serious or not. I spent the night in hospital, and was given ‘junior scrabble’ to play with. I spent the next six weeks or so strapped up, unable to climb trees! The subsequent back issues, and scoliosis of the spine that I have had as an adult, is in all likelihood connected to that event!
David and I spent many happy afternoons playing in the enclosed verandah at the back of the house. I adored David (‘Day-Day’ to me) and he invented great pastimes such as turning our tricycle upside down and putting dominoes in between the tyres and the mudguard. When you turned the pedals really fast, the wheels made the dominoes shoot out of the mudguard like a machine gun! However, I never caught on when he used to say to me “I got all the toys out, so you can put them back again!”
There weren’t many ways to keep small children entertained in Mombasa, so virtually everyday our mother used to take us to the beach. There were only a handful of hotels on the coast, as there were no ‘package’ holidays and no tourists to speak of, so we had the white sands and rolling waves to ourselves. I think most of my life at that time was spent on the beach, it was truly an idyllic environment to explore and play and was probably the easiest method for my mother to occupy her two small boys. We were thoroughly sun tanned all the time, and learnt to swim at an early age
Sometimes we would go to the Mombasa club (above) and swim in their pool. We knew it as the ‘chini’ club. ‘Chini’ means ‘down’ in Swahili and to get to the club you had to go down many steps. It was (and still is) a private members club, and at the time was the last bastion of the colonial era with it’s Men’s bar and strict dress code. The pool situated on the edge of the water line, was filled with sea water. It wasn’t uncommon to find fish and sea weed in the pool, I distinctly remember seeing a ‘puffer’ fish once in the pool. We knew to avoid it, because of the sharp spines. Apparently however, almost all pufferfish contain tetrodotoxin, a substance that makes them foul tasting and often lethal to fish. To humans, tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote! ‘Health and Safety’ was unknown at that time! We just used our common sense!
At other times we would travel up to Malindi which is a small town further along the coast. Malindi has a very shallow beach which means the tide comes in very fast. We were there on one occasion and playing with our parents in the surf. We were a long way out to sea since it was so shallow. All of a sudden a huge wave broke over us and I let go of my father who was holding me. I was taken by the wave and rolled over and over, eventually being deposited on the shore line, a long way up the beach. I suppose I must have been around four years old and was lucky I didn’t drown. My poor parents had to cover around a couple of hundred yards to find me. It would have been an agonizing few minutes for them, trying to run but only being able to progress at a slow wade. I am sure they, like me, never forgot the experience.
To get to Malindi, or anywhere on the north coast of Mombasa, you had to cross a number of creeks that led inland. One of these, at Mtwapa had a ‘chain’ ferry. This consisted of a pontoon which was attached to a chain which in turn was secured at either side of the creek. It could take about four cars at a time, and it was manoeuvred by a team of around half a dozen local Africans, who would make a circular line and pull on the chain to move the ferry forward. They chanted as they pulled the ferry along, accompanied by blasts on a conch shell.
The other method of crossing the creek was by a suspension bridge. This allowed one car at a time to cross the water and the suspended road way would dip with the weight of the cars as they negotiated the bridge. The bridge was constructed out of the remains of ‘Bailey’ bridges a type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge, developed by the British during World War II.
There weren’t many cars in Mombasa at that time. David and I used to have our own version of ‘train spotting’. We would write down number plates of cars we saw in town, in a little note book. There was great excitement if we saw the same number plate twice!
There was a small ex-patriot community in Mombasa and my parents had a circle of friends who like them, had small children. Baby sitting was rare, on most occasions we would go with our parents if they went to some friends house for dinner. We would be allowed to stay up for a short while, playing with the other children, but then we would be put to bed along with them. It was delightful to hear the clink of glasses downstairs, the whiff of cigarette smoke and the comforting sound of the adults talking and laughing as we drifted off to sleep. We rarely woke as we were carried to the car and our next waking moment would be in our own bedroom.
There was no television, and so sometimes my mother and father would go to the drive in cinema. Since the weather was almost always hot and dry, the drive in was a favourite venue for them. However, on occasions, during the monsoon it would rain, and they would watch the screen with the windscreen wipers going! It didn’t spoil the evening. They didn’t have carry cots or anything like that for David and I, so they used to get an empty drawer from a chest of drawers and put a blanket in it and place us on the back seat and take us with them. (No seat belts of course!). In later years we were able to stay up on the back seat of the car until the credits rolled at the beginning of the film. It was a great night out for us as well, as it usually meant a sausage in a roll and perhaps a swig of dad’s beer before bed if we were lucky. The drive in cinema only seemed to play one record before the film, ‘Apache’ by the Shadows which echoed over the vast car park. To this day, when I hear that record, I think of the Drive In at Mombasa.
Generally in those days the cinema was quite amateurish. The adverts before the film were usually ‘slides’ project on the screen. It was quite common for an advert on a slide to be shown upside down and hurriedly changed! The films were often 1950’s Ealing productions, they were always accompanied by a ‘funny’ (a cartoon – often Tom and Jerry), and a ‘short’, which was a ‘B’ movie. Along with this was a newsreel, by Pathé news, giving us the British national news from about two months ago, narrated in a very ‘clipped’ upper class British accent. Since there were no foreign newspapers, this was the only way of knowing what was going on in Britain.
I came across some film clips, by the News Group Pathé, which shows Mombasa in about 1962, I have edited some of the clips together to give an idea of how the town looked at the time.
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