Thursday, October 29, 2020

Bill Pagano: son of an Italian PoW in Kenya


Bill Pagano

Pictured is a Lancia I built in 1958. That’s me in the driver’s seat. Loved racing!

Bill Pagano

Pictured is a Lancia I built in 1958. That’s me in the driver’s seat. Loved racing!

MINE IS a long story. However, I will try and write a bit at a time. I am 85 years old but thank God my memory is still perfect.

My father was born in Italy in 1912 and my mother in 1915. I was born in 1935.  My father had to join Mussolini’s Italian Army in 1939, just before my sister was born, he was sent to Africa and later taken prisoner in Asmara, Ethiopia.

The British and the Allies captured thousands of Italian soldiers in North-Eastern Africa and elsewhere. Of these, some 55,000 Italian POWs were sent to 11-camps (all built hastily) in Kenya. He was held captive in Naivasha, in the Rift Valley, around 90 km from Nairobi (beautiful area). At the end of the war, he had managed to get a job with a Mr Taylor in Kinangop, in what is today Nyandarua County.  (The county is located on the northwestern part of the old Central Province and contains the Aberdare Ranges).

While my mother and I were in Italy, for six years, we did not know if our father was alive or dead. The last time we heard from my father was at the end of 1939. He was away fighting for the Duce (Mussolini) My sister was born in June 1939 and, according to my mother, he was sad for not being there to see his new-born daughter. It was 1946 when we eventually heard from him. A Mr Taylor wrote through the Red Cross,

We did not know what the letter said because none of us could speak, read or write English. My mother had to walk 10 miles to find a gentleman who could read the letter. He had lived in America and spoke good English. It was a Mr Taylor said in the letter that my father was OK and in Kenya and that he would be coming home soon. Mr Taylor said in the letter that he was sorry to lose my father and he hoped he would return to Kenya to work for him again.

As soon as my mother returned home, she ran to the priest to cancel the funeral arrangements she had for my father. My father came back in June 1949. He was a carpenter and knew a lot about construction and buildings. By then, Mr Taylor’s daughter and son-in-law, Mr Durie, had bought a farm and wanted my father to be in charge and take care of their farm. The Duries were looking after Mr Taylor’s farm.

Two years later he applied for a Government job with the Public Works Department and was sent to Eldoret. I followed him and got a job with Cooper Motors. My father and his road crew took care of the repairs to the road from Eldoret to the Equator (there is still a sign advertising the Equator). In the end, he got a big job. He had to build a big, big bridge with railway tracks underneath. There was a significant camp of Mau Mau detainees nearby and, every morning, he would send three lorries to pick up the detainees to work on the bridge. He had to hire four white people, including my uncle. Three years later, I went back to Italy on vacation for six months, all paid for by Cooper Motors.

When I came back, my father and I finished building the railway bridge and decided to start building contractor business, with me as a sleeping partner. However, by then, he needed a vacation and went back to Italy for six months, all paid for by the PWD.

Dad got a big contract to build around ten dormitories with new toilets, a sewer system and a Catholic Church at Kitale. My uncle joined him full-time and he continued working for the P W D. He sent an SOS to relatives in Italy to help with the building work. Soon we four relatives arrived. We soon had a two-storey building of our own. The second storey housed a bar and restaurant called Pagano’s and it soon became popular. On the first floor, I had a grocery store in partnership with an Indian friend. I also had a transportation business with three lorries working almost 24 hours a day.

I was 23 years old with too much on my young shoulders. The weekend was my time off if I did not have to do police duty to give the full-timers a break. Otherwise, I would go dancing on Saturday nights. On Sundays, I would love to play tennis.

Finally, I need a break. There was an opening for a Service Manager in Tanzania. My boss, Mr Sparrow, recommended me for the job. After a month, much to my father’s disappointment, I got engaged to a Scottish girl and took off for Dar es Salaam.

I went to Dar es Salaam because I needed a break from my father’s businesses. In Dar I was very well-liked and I lived with a Maltese family. After a month, I was more like a son to them. I met my General Manager who was German but spoke fluent Italian. I was happy about that and thought we would get along very well. He gave me the bad news that he had already hired a service manager. However, he said, I was more than welcome to stay and straighten the place, as they were losing money at the workshop and the spare parts department.

I told him that I was more than happy to stay and would try to straighten things out. It took me three months to do just that. I hired new people and couple a stealing from the parts department. I went back to Kenya for Christmas and officially got engaged to my girlfriend. Meanwhile, in Eldoret, from April to December our lorries lay idle in the parking lot. My brother-in-law was supposed to take care of the repairs when needed. So many things were not same anymore.

My father told me that he planned to return to Italy to start a business over there. I told him I would return to Kenya but could only do so after I finished my contract with Coopers. I left Dar in April on good terms with the Manager.

My father was Pasquino Pagano and my mother’s maiden name was Ida Maria de Santo. We arrived in Kenya on my 14th birthday on October 1, 1949, from the Port of Brindisi to Mombasa. A year later, my mother and two sisters and an uncle joined us.

Leaving my little hometown of 800 was very hard on me. We were just one big family, especially during the war.  We were occupied first by German soldiers followed by the Africans, the Indians, the English and finally the Americans. There was some fighting. The Germans were in my town, Liscia, and the English in Palmoli where my father was born with the River Trieste dividing the two towns. So, I was not a stranger to people from other countries.

On the Lloyd Triestino, my father met a fellow POW who was going to be working on the farm next to us. My father’s boss, Mr Durie, had paid for three train tickets in advance as he also knew my father’s friend’s boss. We went to the train station only to learn that there were no tickets. For three days we at a hotel in a single room as we did not have much money. We lived on the bread and cheese we had brought from home. Finally, the tickets arrived, and we were on our way to Nairobi. My father’s friend’s boss came to get us and took us to the Duries’ farm in Kinangop

My uncle went to work for a Mr Nightingale. In Naivasha, my very first job was as an apprentice mechanic, also on a farm, and I lived with an Italian, Mr Petrarca, who was in charge of the repair shop. Mr Hughes, who owned the farm, was a Major serving in India. He was a terrible man, as I remember. The first thing he told me was not to talk or have any contact with black people. Otherwise, I would be fired. He used to whip black people every day when they made a mistake. Three months later, I had an accident on a wood planer. I chopped off the tip of the left middle finger and a little off the sides of two other fingers. Mr Nightingale took me to a hospital in Nairobi and his son took me to my father’s place. Dad did not have a car and could not come to see me at the hospital.

Three months later, I went to work in Naivasha in Gordon’s Garage and stayed with Mr and Mrs Brown. As mentioned, after two years in Naivasha, we moved to Eldoret.

I won the first Mount Elgon motor car rally in 1957. Earlier I lost out in the first Coronation Safari (later East African Safari, Kenya Safari) driving a Volkswagen. I won the rally with a friend of mine and when we arrived at the finish, there were no English people to welcome us. There were only a few Indians and Africans. That was because I was of Italian prisoner of war stock. There was a lot of discrimination in those days.

They even announced an Englishman as the winner of the race in the East African Gazette. They did send a little cup as the winner of the race. I still have it. They misbehaved again when the Queen Mother came to Eldoret. I was to drive the Land Rover I had prepared for Her Majesty, as I was also a part-time police officer. They took me off that detail. I loved what I did, and I would do it again. Sorry, excuse my grammar, never did go to an English school.

(Discrimination in Kenya in those days should not have come as a surprise to anyone. However, as far as the Italians are concerned, it was not that long ago that they were killing British soldiers and their allies. The colonial government and settlers were angry that their paltry funds were spent to meet the ongoing costs of caring for the POWs. The British government in London was otherwise engaged.)

The settlers did not want to see white men working with Africans on the farms as menial labour. They did not want the Italians loose with their womenfolk who were in charge of the farms while they were away fighting for Queen and country. After all, most Italians had the reputation of womanisers. Most of them were pretty handsome and charming to boot. Still, if there was a white settler around, there were no problems. Italians were normally good dressers and stylish dancers. However, they were racist too because they did not actually treat their Indian and African camp guards with any kind of decency.

I am being neutral and have been all my life! When the Italians were in Somalia, the Mussolini army-built roads, a railway, schools and much more for the Somalis. Not like the British, they ruled half of the world, Africa, India, Australia and a lot more. They built nothing. Remember the old saying, empire on which the sun never sets because somewhere in the empire, the sun was shining.

 When the Italian ships went through the Suez Canal on route to Mogadishu, Somalia, they had to pay in gold. The Mussolini army did not cross over to Kenya, Uganda and so on. The British did cross over in wanting to take over Somalia. There was killing on both sides. The Italians soldier were taken to camps as prisoners to Kenya. The African Guards were well trained by the British to maltreat the prisoners by ransacking their tents, looking for unusual items, like radios etc. Some of the POWs were beaten regularly beaten by the askaris, my father told me, amongst other things.

 A fellow prisoner found a roll of wire and pretended to have a radio. He ran the wire from the inside of the tent to the roof. The askari saw it and reported to a senior officer. When they pulled the wire from the ground, they found nothing. When they pull it from the roof, they found a big carrot attached to the end of the wire! As if to say, you are nothing but a carrot!

 It is a known fact that Italians are womanisers as you put it! The ones who worked on the farms were too scared to approach the English Ladies. Because their husbands were away in the army, it was the ladies who made the first move. Some of the husbands found out and those innocent Italians were marched to a different camp with more punishment from the specifically trained askaris. You also forgot to mention all the good the Italians did just for some food and a place to sleep. As I said, they built the only stretch of good road from Naivasha to Nairobi (on the Rift Valley escarpment). Two Italian prisoners were killed by lions in the process. They also built a beautiful little Catholic church on the escarpment. Still there today.

 We had an Italian soccer team in Eldoret and played against the army team from Gilgil. We lost and I ended up with a black eye. Never played soccer again preferred tennis because that is where the girls were.

 I went to Dar es Salaam because I needed time off from my father’s businesses. I Dar, I was very well liked and boarded with a Maltese family. After a month, I was more like a son to them. In Dar, I also met my General Manager, a German who spoke fluent Italian. We got on very well. He told me that he had already hired a service manager, however, I was more than welcome to stay and straighten out the place. It took me three months. I went back to Kenya for Christmas and officially got engaged to my “wife”.

 From April to December, my father’s lorries were idle in Eldoret. My brother-in-law should have looked after their maintenance and other work. Things were not the same anymore. My Father was planning on returning to Italy. I told him I would return to Kenya, but I had to finish my three-year contract first.

 For the next six months, I took over as Service Manager at the Nakuru Branch, as the German Manager was going back to Germany on vacation. On my way to Eldoret, I stopped to meet my new boss, a Mr, Reynolds and the Service Manager. I could tell, I wouldn't get along with Mr Reynolds, and we didn't. HE DIDN'T LIKE ITALIANS! I did take over for six-month and then left to be with my family and fiancé in Eldoret for two weeks.

 I had many friends in Nakuru, and stayed with M. and Mrs Lamb, (Frank Lamb's brother was a teacher at Hill School). They were nice.  As I had lots of free time, I rejoined the Kenya Police and I was able to give the locals a break on weekends, or I would go back to Eldoret. I met Daniel arap Moi through a friend, played billiards with him a few times, later he became Kenya President...

 I eventually left Coopers and returned to Eldoret. My “wife” and I got married in February 1961. We had a lovely reception at our restaurant (now called Black Bamboo Bar) for about 150 guests, with great food. My wife and I went on our honeymoon to Nairobi and stayed at the Equator Inn. Six months later, Dad sold the building and was anxious to return to Italy. My Mother went by plane and my Dad went by ship as he had seven trunks of stuff to take. He and my wife went to Mombasa. My wife was delighted to visit Her Mom and Dad.  Her father, Mr Clark was the first Railway Master in Eldoret and later the Port Master in Mombasa. Dad left, and I had to take over to finish some work and sell the remaining property we had.  In September, my wife left for Italy by plane and a month later I went by ship. On November 22, 1961, we were at my uncle's doorstep in East Hartford, Connecticut, USA.

 My wife’s maiden name was Irene Clark. Next February (2021), we will have been married 60 years. Our daughter was born in 1966. She has two grown children. My son, who was born in 1968, passed away in 2019. I worked for a Jaguar dealership for 22 years. In 1981-82, I had two lower back surgeries and, a few years later, I had a quadruple by-pass. My doctor advised me to give up mechanical work and I went to work in a bank as a security guard, because of my Kenya Police experience. Three years later, I was in charge of the bank’s security. I retired at the age of 62 in 2007and moved to Florida, where we enjoy the sun just as we did in Kenya.





A me and teacher from Hill School. Bill in the US.

A part-time policeman and Bill wedding in Eldoret



  1. The Italian connection.
    Bill has some interesting stories to tell about Italian prisoners of war and their descendants. I have known some Italian prisoners war that settled in Mombasa. Some were settled in Portreitz are where they lived comfortably. There was an old man (at least when I knew him) he owned a Transport company called over land Transport company with Red Fiat trucks, then there were the Italian engineering fellows who were Fiat cars and trucks agents they lived in Nyali. One was called Bonano and the others Espozito if my old memory serves me right, and then there were the old chaps of mother star Engineering and Muri Salvage Company and Outrigger hotel at Liwatoni. I wonder if any of them still alive today. When I last saw some of them they were truly old. In my next letter I will tell you how my connections with Italians started. This my Email

  2. My mother was born in eldoret,1945 she doesn't remember her italian father but has a few details about was pompilio barretto or boblio barretto.he later worked in kitale with Hill Barrett & Co Ltd, as a mechanical engineer.



  This invaluable collection of photos was sent to me by David Mungai. He says it is “for the acknowledgement of Kenyan History, the celebra...