A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

British Colonial East Africa – First Encounters

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I was concerned about moving to Africa. I feared that I’d be unable to communicate due to the language barrier. I first raised this concern to my mother weeks before our flights to Paris and again on the eve of our flights from Morocco to Kenya. For some reason it never occurred to me that there’d be similar issues with France, but Africa was a different story. My mother assured me that there’d be no problem because English was spoken in Kenya. Oh really?

“But mom, I’m an American!”

No matter how often she explained it, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that we in America spoke English. Looking back though, I must conclude that my concerns would soon be at least partially validated once my parents enrolled me in Nairobi Primary School. George Bernard Shaw is attributed with saying: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Mr. Shaw’s sage remark certainly hit home with me!

One encounter stands out. It was when a school mate posed a question. As I hadn’t picked up from the inflection in his voice that he was playing the smart-aleck, I answered in straight-up manner. His response: “Not half you did!” caught me quite by surprise and gave me quite a jolt. This was one of my first introductions to that English dialect then spoken in the some UK circles and the Crown Colonies. Soon I’d get the hang of it, so much so that my version of the “Cut Glass” was, despite being crisp enough to qualify as such, was far too inflected for my friends back stateside to understand on the occasion of our family’s first home leave.

I don’t remember much about the flights from Morocco to Kenya but recall that we first flew from Rabat to Rome where we stayed for a couple of days. While there we went on one of those guided bus tours that feature tour buses equipped with curved rooftop windows to enhance one’s viewing experience. We were shown the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza del Campidoglio and the Forum. I recall that my mother wondered why the Romans never troubled themselves to repair all those ruins. She made similar observations when we were in Paris except that there she wondered why they didn’t replace all those old buildings. These observations were to have a subtle but profound influence that would only be shaken decades later by a stiff Beaux-Arts education! Early on the day we left Rome my father took me to tour the Central Train Station or “Roma Termini”. It was less than a decade old then. It was stark but yet of appropriate scale and elegant. As we walked down one the adjacent sidewalks we came upon a small store window within which was a miniature train set, possibly my first sighting of a Märklin “Z” Scale model train. I suspect we flew to Nairobi on an Ethiopian Airlines DC-7.

The flight from Rome to Nairobi was what we now refer to as a “Red Eye”. In those days of propeller-driven aircraft, flights were much longer than they are today. We arrived in Nairobi’s Airport, then called “Embakasi”, around mid-morning and once through customs, met by members of the Consulate staff who whisked us downtown where we were checked into the New Stanley Hotel. That afternoon we were taken on a tour of the Nairobi Game Park. I never saw so many animals in one place before. And mind you, these were wild animals. At one point my father explained to me that in just a few hours I’d seen more wild animals that he’d seen in his entire life.

We only stayed in the New Stanley for one night. The next six weeks would be spent at the Norfolk (pictured above), a place of legends if you agree with the lore. It was straight-up British Colonial. In addition to the usual three meal services, the dining room hosted formal teas, the first, termed “Elevenses”, late in the morning and another around four in the afternoon. There were two dinners, an early one for mothers or nannies and their children and a one later for adults and children over the age of 12. The later one was somewhat formal as gentlemen were obliged to attire themselves accordingly in sport coats or blazers. Ties or ascots were obligatory. It’s been said that Englishmen of some status aren’t given to recognizing their children until they reach their twelfth year. Perhaps their curious custom of discriminating against the young’s to blame?

English food was an interesting experience. I suspect that there’s a kind of fiendish genius to the English. They went to all the trouble at breakfast to toast bread only to cool it down needlessly on those damnable toast racks! And then there was this peculiar thing they did to butter. By some method unknown to me they formed butter into rather attractive little shell-like shapes that were placed in little ice-filled bowls so they wouldn’t melt. Now this is where the fiendish genius shows its evil side: try buttering that cooled-down toast with that near frozen butter! I don’t think I ever managed to pull that off without having the toast shatter into a shower of bite-size bits.

That aside, the kitchen staff always served an awesome “Madras” style curry complimented by a full range of Indian condiments at both lunch and dinner. That curry was always just one of the courses available. Curiously, the last course of the dinner service wasn’t a dessert, rather it was “Cheese and Crackers”. Accordingly, the saying “From soup to nuts.” doesn’t translate well into their English. After the evening meal it was the custom for men and women to withdraw into separate rooms, the women to a Lady’s Drawing Room and the men to a bar decorated to the hilt with interesting memorabilia. In that bar the men were given to sip whiskey or cognac, smoke cigars and spin tall tales of the better before times. And though I wasn’t yet old enough to sit the late service, my father was able to persuade the Maître d’ to allow me in on occasion anyway.


One of the treats of the late service was the chance to see and possibly meet some of the British pensioners who’d taken up residence in the hotel. Among them were none other than the legendary “White Hunters” of lore. Perhaps you remember a cartoon character known as Commander McBragg (pictured above) from the Bullwinkle show? That Commander McBragg character seems a fitting stereotype by which to describe these gentlemen. The Norfolk’s dining room and bar served as stage central in that World of Commander McBragg. It was not unusual to hear these elderly gents reminisce about sporty encounters they’d had in the Khyber Pass while serving as officers in the King’s Gurkha Regiment or some such. These stories, I’m told, have had some lasting impression.

We were guests at the Norfolk long enough to have stayed in almost every one of the larger rooms or suites they had. And although staying at the Norfolk is now one of those things that’s on some people’s bucker lists, I was quite relieved to move out to what would be our home for the next two years, a flat just off Ngong Road on the way to Karen.

There was another peculiar custom, not unique to the Norfolk, that I feel obliged to relate. That would be the morning tea service. At night, before retiring, it was the custom to leave one’s shoes out in the corridor next to the door for the staff to shine. Promptly at 0600 there would be a knock on the door. It was a staff member bringing the tea service. He also returned the shoes, nicely shined to spectacular Number 8 finish, and brought in the morning paper if one was available. As we’d no taste for morning tea, my father asked that this service be omitted. After a few days the staff at the Norfolk knew full well not to trouble themselves with our room, especially after my father was given to throwing his shoes at those who dared enter. Later, when on safari for example, we would stay in bush hotels, typically flotillas of round huts arranged around central buildings. Before venturing back to our hut after dinner, father would always ask that the tea service be omitted.

Invariably the next morning, promptly at 0600, there would be a knock on the door.


Written by GW Abert

March 12, 2015 at 11:49

Posted in Africa

2 Responses

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  1. Hi George. Like your “friends back stateside,” I don’t understand your reference to “Cut Glass.” Does this have to do with variations in English as spoken by different “glasses”?


    March 12, 2015 at 18:17

    • The “Cut Glass” accent: each syllable is pronounced with a deliberate precision. Unique variations are spoken in both Oxford and Cambridge. By its clarity, it can be distinguished from a vast array of working class accents common to London and the south of England.

      GW Abert

      March 12, 2015 at 21:28

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