My Life in Kenya
By Greg Patricio
Part One (Pre. 1951)
I was born on Jan. 5th. 1943 towards the tail end of World II, in Nairobi. Although Kenya was far from the battle front, we had to blackout our windows and often heard the wailing of the warning sirens at the fire station. The Italians invaded Kenya – they took Moyale and Fort Harrington eventually liberated in 1941. Malindi was also bombed. Hence, Kenya had a lot of Italian POW’s. They were detailed to build the road along the Rift valley escarpment, going North. Halfway they constructed a little Chapel overlooking the Great Rift Valley. It was a stop for many of our trips and picnics. Looking down was a terrific view of the Great Rift Valley, which stretches for over 3000 miles, starting in the Lebanon and via East Africa, south, to Mozambique. The “Axis” Italian POW’s were from the North African front, mainly Somalia, Eretrea and Ethiopia. Rommel was further, to the north. During this period, food was rationed, and families were given Ration Coupons, I do not know how this sticks in my mind, as I was about two years old. The African Regiment that fought the Germans & Italians was the K.A.R., King’s African Rifle’s. (There were some Goans, in the K.A.R. my brother-in-law, Vincy and his brother.R.I.P.) They also had south African and Rhodesian soldiers in Kenya – the KAR also served in the Burma campaign alongside the Gurkha regiments.
Kenya… Yes, we have snow! Mount Kenya is snow-capped, elevation 17,000 very hard climb, a couple of my buddies and I hiked up to its base, it was amazing how the vegetation changed as you kept climbing.
Neighboring Mt. Kilimanjaro, 19,000 ft. it is a little easier climb, although it is the highest mountain on the Africa continent. A factoid, it is second closest mountain or point on Earth that is closest to the sun, the Equatorial bulge made this possible. The Masai, call it “Ngaja Ngai” House of God. Sadly Mt. Kilimanjaro, is now slowly losing its snow cap. The name Kenya, is derived from the local Kikuyu language Kere Nyaga which means “Mountain of Whiteness”
The Equator passes right through the middle of Kenya, yet the weather is nice and cool, not hot, humid and muggy like so many Equatorial countries, as Nairobi, is on a plateau, the elevation is 5000 ft. above sea level. Most of the good land was settled by the “mzungu, (white settlers) Colonialists” who grabbed and usurped the good land which they called the “White Highlands”.
In Kenya, segregation earlier on, was subtle, and was accepted as the norm, with very little resentment by the local Indians and Africans population. The British, rulers, encouraged this segregation among the Asian and other communities, including the local African tribes. Their philosophy was to “divide and rule” We termed it, “Colour Bar”. To be fair the Asian communities, like the Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Khojas and Goans, did not mix to well, due to religious and cultural differences. They had their own clubs, and to some extent schools too. The Goan Clubs, took this division one step further depending, on which village one hailed from Goa.
The result of the expropriation of land, segregation and lack of representation – resulted in the Mau Mau, uprising, sadly they were quite vicious, and regretfully, massacred many of their own. But they did pave the way for “Uhuru” (Independence). India supported them. This in response to the appeal by Mr. Pio Gama Pinto (A Goan) to President Nehru. Most Goans took the “middle road” and sat on the fence.
(My car registration, tag is “UHURU”.)
I must credit, the British for opening the hinterland, but more for their own convenience and business needs. Strangely the above communities and the British made up the main population in the cities; there were a few Boers (Dutch from South Africa) and Seychellois. (who spoke a pidgin French patois). In the cities, the African were a minority. They did not venture far out from the ‘villages’, I hesitate to use the word “reservations” I first heard it used, in the 50’s during the Mau Mau, revolt, for Independence.
Kenya is noted for its game parks (savannahs/grassland) and beautiful tropical beaches. unfortunately, we
could not afford to visit the game parks and lodges, nor did we have the means (Cars etc.). We did take holidays to the beaches of Mombasa and Malindi. The journey was by choo-choo train, monstrous fire breathing coal fired steam engines, as it started to move, you would see sparks fly from the steel wheel on the rail track, smoke and steam, huffing and puffing, the trip took overnight, 14 hours for a distance of 275 miles or about 6 to 8 hours later on, when we had cars, and then, you may have had to dodge giraffes, lions and an elephant or two, the road sign also said “Rhino’s have the right of Way”. The road was not paved, there was a section of 10 miles called Mackinnon Rd. that war tarmacked. On the train, trip, dinner was announced by the catering staff walking down the train tinkling on a xylophone…but we could not afford eating in the dining carriage, we packed sandwiches etc.
On our return trip we would be loaded with baskets of fruits, and delicacies like Halwa, (a Jelly like sweet) which the Coastal Arabs were experts at making, they would pack it in special woven container made from the palm frond. Another commodity was cashew nuts, salted dried fish, like mackerel, shark and ray fish. Fruits, custard-apple, mangoes, passion fruit and granadilla, madafus,(tender coconut), centras (tangerines). We would pack these in a kikabo. (A large basket woven from the palm frond)
My favorite was Toddy, the sap from the stalk sliced off which would have produced the coconuts. The toddy tappers collected it in a gourd. The best was the morning collection. It was sweet, slightly sour and bubbly… Champaign of the God’s. In Goa it is used to make sannas, a kind of steamed bread. If toddy was left too long, it turned to a popular Goan Vinegar. A little-known secret, Feni, one of Goa’s famous liquor was available in Mombasa, you had to know where to get it, one had to drive to the mainland, then a long pow, wow, before they would sell it to you. Illegal Local moonshiners. Where did they learn these techniques? Men’s natural talents! for raising his “spirits’. In Nairobi they brewed alcohol from maize (corn meal) and honey. (Pombe/Chaanga)
In Mombasa and Malindi, our accommodations were in rooms rented by folk who had settled there, and rented out rooms. They would also serve us our meals. In Malindi and Mombasa, it was a common sight to see the local women (Giriama) go topless, it did not bother or faze anyone, I am sure it must have bothered some more strait-laced missionaries. Quite a contrast from the local Muslim women wearing the buibui and the hijab.
My heroes are my Mum, Dad and my five Older Siblings. I am not sure when Pai (from the Portuguese word for father), emigrated to Kenya… but I do know that Mai came from Goa to get married in 1923 in Mombasa.
Yes 1923, Africa, was still the, Dark Continent…and as my dad was lame, I think from a polio attack, he had to use special boots, it must have taken a lot of courage to leave Goa for fame and fortune, but it was a gung-ho, pioneers spirit. Pai, must have come to Kenya, before 1923 and after kind of looking around, then asked my mum to travel to Kenya.
It was a custom of these bachelor Goan to live together in a group called “messing” and developed a lot of friend and kinship among the Goan bachelor immigrants. In later years wives of Goan families would cater to these bachelors with food etc. Yes, they used the famous Tiffin carriers, which were stacked containers, with chapatti, rice meat gravy etc. The Tiffin carriers are now world famous, and now well established, food delivery system, especially in India, England and I believe on the west coast, California, using trains and trucks and bicycles. (Harvard business school did a study of how the tiffin system works – quite complex, nah! Cannot beat Indian Ingenuity! ! ! Who Needs Harvard.)
My two Brothers and three Sister, Heroes, grew up in a two room quarters, no separate kitchen…just two rooms! How did they manage this; without squabbles etc. I was a toto (child). so, could be shoved around, did not know any better. My brothers Dominic and Bernard, were more of the studious types, (had to be), Bernard studied Chemistry and Dominic Accountancy. Bernard, studied by candle light, he collected the wax dripping from the candle wax from church (he was an altar boy) and used this wax (melted) to make a kind of lamp. My sisters had to leave school early, I think for financial reasons. I, only went up to grade7, as I failed the KPE, (Selection Exam for Grammar School. ie.High School). About 30% of our class failed, other schools had a higher failure rate, hence, a lot of costly Private Schools blossomed, and exploited this situation. (Our class was the first, exposed to this hurdle.) I was lucky to get a job with Cable & Wireless, and succeeded very well.
Time flies and fleas hitchhike…
My sister, Lucy got married, and moved up stairs which was now vacant, and so did Dominic, he wanted a room to himself to study. He became an Accountant, studied further and qualified as a Company Secretary a very prestigious achievement, hence he worked as a top-level administrator in the Kenya government and later for the for the Sultan of Brunei. After this he went to London, but could not get a job to his liking so he volunteered, with a missionary organization and was sent to Tanzania to work as an Administrator for a Hospital.
Life goes on and light, travels. We still lived in two rooms no kitchen, cooked, ate and slept in the same rooms. Cooked on a (Makara) char-coal brazier. (Gicho). We had a make shift oven which was a large container, the bottom layer was sand and we put the item to be baked inside on the sand layer, covered it with a metal cover and heaped hot coals on top….It worked really well. We progressed to the Primus stove, which used kerosene fuel, to start we had to pump it until a little kerosene collected in a cup at the base, then let the pressure off, lighted the kerosene which heated the base, then closed the valve and pumped again and now the heated base vaporized the fuel coming and we now had a star shaped flame at the top. The danger of an explosion was eminent. There were stories of Indian women who wore saris and thus were more prone to these fiery accidents…. The Gicho still had to be used for baking and heating our bath water in the debbes. (4gallon rectangular tin cans, originally oil container). Many of the Africans were talented, they made the charcoal by slow burning wood couple of feet underground, covered with mud and a vent for a little air and another for the smoke, I would see these mounds when my dad would take us for a bus ride to the country. Another reason we took these trips was to collect dry banana leaves for my mum to roll her “biddies”. (Kind of cigarette using whole tobacco leaf). It was unusual to see a woman of her genre smoking, I gather she did this on advice from a dentist. She eventually graduated to a pipe. My godmother also smoked, but she would put the burning end in her mouth!
In the later years folk had servants to do the heavy work like washing etc. So strange to see them washing clothes, whacking them on ground or using a danda or rungu, (a wooden pole) to beat on the clothes…broke a lot of buttons. No special detergent, but I remember, for white clothes, they added a blue chalky powder to the water. Some of our good clothes we would give to the “dhobi walla” Indian laundry man. They offered great service, and came door to door to pick up and deliver our clothes. Dishes and utensils were scrubbed using the outer husk of the coconut shell, dipped in ash as an abrasive. This coir or stringy cover of the coconut was also used to stuff mattresses, the wisdom of this was that, it kept the mattresses cool and ventilated, cotton or some other material would make it stuffy, and make us hot and sweaty. Ropes were also made from this fiber. Wisdom of the pioneers. The local Africans, knew how to cut glass bottles to make cups which they would sell. I think they learned this technique from the Italian POW’s. Our tea and coffee mugs were of cheap, enamel coated metal. We ate hand to mouth, believe me, this added a unique flavor to the food.
One bathroom and toilet were shared by four families…No hot water taps. Water was heated in 4-gallon debbes (square metal can) and heated on a charcoal burner. The toilet was the bucket system. a platform over a bucket where, you did you job squatting over it. (The guys who cleaned/emptied these toilets were called, “night governors”.(our boogeyman) Squatting, is the natural way, I believe this was the ideal, better than sitting on a toilet. It was considered unhygienic to sit on a toilet that was used by a person before you etc. Eventually, the bucket system was replaced by a flushing toilet. but again, it was flush to the floor and one still had to squat. The water tank was attached to the wall overhead, a chain dangled down which you pulled. Hence the expression. “Who pulled your chain” when one talked to much. But it was a good, time, a happy time, where every other mother, was your mother… You know! we were not spoon-fed, no, no Siree! we were hand fed, they would make a ball of rice and shove it in your mouth, and before you could swallow it, in came a bit of savory meat or fish or pickle…there was haste, but no place for waste. what a wonderful life…Waste not, want not, was the policy of the day. I would not change it for anything. “No, no, I don’t like it “I won’t eat it” was never ever uttered. To this day when I open can of soup I rinse it and make use of the water…. Now my dog also helps with yogurt containers etc. licking them clean.
Breakfast was toast… made over the charcoal fire with a wire mesh netting over it, we had to scrap the charred layer, then had it with butter and jam…tasted soooo good. We as kids drank coffee. Seldom had bacon…. I was amazed when I first had scrambled egg at my godfather’s home, wow, my taste buds were surprised. but when I mentioned this to my mum, she was a little disgruntled. (Eggs were tested for freshness by putting them in a large bowl of water, they floated if bad, also checked by holding them to a light to see no dark shadows.)
No computers, tablets or phones, we interacted with one and other, played with marbles and old bicycle rims, old tennis balls, string puzzles, and paper origami, of course never called it that. We made our own catty-stick (Catapult), cutting strips for old inner tire tube, leather from old shoes, and Y shaped branch. The Guava tree was supposed the best and strongest. We played out in the mud, no lawns. hence, we probably developed a strong immune system.
Ohhh yes! Doctors made house calls, with their black bag and a Warm Hug.
Yesssiree, most of fruits and vegetables, meat like chicken was organic, Mutumia, (old African women) came house to house selling home grown fruit and vegetables etc., then let the haggling and bargaining begin. Looking back, I kind of feel sorry for them as they had to travel from the country carrying their produce (in a bag strapped to their foreheads) and often a toto (baby) strapped to their back. Their produce was carried in colorful baskets, which they weaved from the Sisal fibers.(Agave). Not sure if it is the same plant family that the Mexicans make alcohol and a healthy sweetener.
Chicken was my favorite meat, sooo tasty and chewy, had to cook it longer than the chicken we now get grown in chicken coops, that just disintegrates if cooked a little too long. We shared our backyard with these chicken, it was soo cool to the mother hen with fluffy chicks, a little scary too, as the mother hen would attack you all fluffed up, if you got to close to its chicks. Pork we had on festive days, and we used all parts of the hog, “from the snoot to the toot”. Could not afford the prime cuts, used a lot of organ meats and also the whole head, amazing how much meat there was there…made cutlets from the brain, was cooked like an omelet. The original famous Goan dish Sorpotel using liver and fatty meat, (in Goa), even used some the blood to make the gravy. The intestines were used for sausage casing. (Chorizos)
Life goes on. Frogs croak, but do not die.
During school holiday I went around barefooted… was tough for a few days until my heel and skin hardened... We used leather sandal shoes (beach type) for daily school use. Had the luxury of a pair of white tennis shoes for my First Holy Communion. Later on, we had leather shoes…Yeaaah… aaand they were “custom made to measure” by the local shoe makers…Every Sunday morning we had to polish our shoes, before going to church. Last day of school we had to take brown shoe polish, to polish our desk, clean out the inkwell etc…(ink well… we were not allowed to use ballpoint or fountain pens). When school holidays started, Mia would dose us with caster-oil, uggh, or with milk-of-magnesia, to clean us inside out, and again, just before going back to school. There was also a bitter potent made by soaking special herbal wood chips that we were dosed with.
Nothing was wasted, men came by to buy empty glass bottles and newspapers. Some vendors came to exchange their ware for old clothing etc., this trading, was called “mallie for mallie” ie. treasures for treasure. Men came with a big wheel to sharpen knives etc. The pop bottles had a round glass bead as a stopper, the opener was a gadget that pushed the bead in releasing the gas….what a wonderfilled life, no stress no mess, No haste, no waste, was the law of the day.. My mum and dad raised 6 children, it could not have been easy, I never heard them argue or quarrel. Pai, did enjoy his daily dose of brandy.