A Boyhood in Africa

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

On Holiday in Mombasa and Malindi

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Sometime in 1959 we drove from Nairobi down to the coast to visit Mombasa and Malindi. If Malindi wasn’t as far as it was (is) from Mombasa we might have taken the train. The trains deserve a few words. EAR_Garrat

Garratt Locomotives

Shortly after arriving in Nairobi it became apparent that the English, who’d developed the railroad system, had decided to use some rather unusual locomotives. These locomotives, pictured above, were common throughout Britain’s African colonies. They’re unusual in that they’re articulated into three sections. The boiler’s mounted on a central frame suspended between two steam engines mounted on separate frames, one on each end of the boiler. Water is stored in a tank mounted above the front frame and coal in a tender mounted above the aft. This articulation allows these large locomotives to negotiate tighter curves and lighter rails than conventionally designed locomotives. The objective was to double the power of the largest conventional locomotives that could be operated on the lighter-duty rail lines while reducing the need for multiple locomotives and crews.

Some years later diesel-electric locomotives were purchased by the East African Railroad (EAR) but Garratts remained in service until the 1990s. The newer locomotives were more complex than the Garratts and required more diligent maintenance, an unfortunate fact that’s obliged the cash-strapped railroads in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to bring their Garratts back into service recently. Due to economic issues, petroleum is too costly for widespread use. As a consequence, the Zimbabwe railroads offer commuter rail service to those working in Harare and Bulawayo. Octogenarian Garratts can still be seen chugging along Zimbabwe’s rusty rails.

The road to Mombasa

If memory serves, Mombasa is just shy of 500 miles from Nairobi. It took a full day to drive down to the coast. As on other excursions, we traveled with another US family who drove down separately. In those days the road was largely unpaved except for the first mile or so east of the Nairobi airport and the last ten or so miles on the descent from the central plateau down to the coast. The landscape for much of the trip, except for a few rivers along the way and the final ten miles, was largely a barren scrub. It was dusty, dry and hot as most vehicles in those days weren’t equipped with air conditioners.

From time to time the authorities let contracts to have the road paved though the contracts were usually short-lived. I recall hearing an explanation I cannot verify. Shortly after crews were mobilized, their bush encampments would be ransacked by gangs said to be sympathetic with the railroad workers who feared losing their jobs once it became easier to drive down to the coast.

Malindi We’d rented an ocean-front home in Malindi, some fifty or so miles north of Mombasa. The home was situated on what I estimate was five-acre plot. The home had its own cove separated from adjacent coves by sharp coral outcroppings that ensured privacy. There was a beach but we had to wear tennis shoes when going in the water to avoid getting cut by coral which extended out about a hundred and fifty meters to a reef. At low tide we could carefully tip toe out to that reef where the surf pounded away. One night, during a full moon, we were able to make our way out there by moonlight. The sea lanes ran right by the reef, so close that it was possible to actually hear the rumblings from ship’s engine room and see into the portholes. You could even see passengers walking about the decks and make out the names of the ships if they were illuminated.

The house had two large bedrooms, one for each family. It featured a thatched roof and with the exception of the bathroom, had no ceilings. Because the interior walls were not full-height, it was possible to chuck things from room to room and hear what your neighbors were up to. We had to be quiet. We were cautioned to keep the exterior doors tightly latched to guard against roving bands of mischievous monkeys. We could keep the windows ajar as they were equipped with burglar bars which also served to foil the monkeys’ entry attempts. British pensioners who resided in the area were known to keep large dogs to guard against these monkeys but the monkeys were smart enough to occasionally outsmart the dogs and get in anyway, and when they did, they mucked everything up.

Haile Selassie Oceanic

The Oceanic Hotel

One day we drove down to Mombasa to visit the posh Oceanic Hotel. My father hadn’t troubled himself to tell us why we were going to the Oceanic but insisted that we dress up. Never did that in Africa before! Why? Father had learned from the Consulate staff that Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor, was to make an official state visit. Kenya was still a British colony at the time but arrangements had already been made for an orderly transition to Kenya’s independence. Halie Selassie was in town to meet with Jomo Kenyatta, the man designated to be Kenya’s first Prime Minister. We were in the main lobby when the two men met for the first time. I still had no idea why we were there. My parents stood off to the side while I, at age eight and still quite short, stood beneath one of the landings of the grand staircase which connected to the lobby’s mezzanine. As I was standing there, I saw a group of well-dressed natives approach the staircase and wait respectfully. When they stopped I came out from under the staircase to see what they were all looking at: it was none other than Haile Selassie and his entourage descending from the mezzanine! I was really close to him, probably not more than three meters when he passed by. There was minimal security and we left as soon as the two entourages left the lobby. Dad was full of surprises like that!

Amra

Side Trip to Zanzibar

While we were down on the coast, we took a side trip on a steamer to Dar-as-Salam and Zanzibar. The ship was the British-India Line’s Amra, an 8,300 ton cargo and passenger vessel that plied Indian Ocean trade routes between Bombay (Mumbai) and Cape Town. We spent two days and nights on that ship. We embarked from the Port of Mombasa and traveled overnight to Dar-as-Salam where we were permitted to take leave of the ship by lighter just long enough to get in a quick tour of what passed for downtown. I don’t remember a thing about Dar-as-Salam. That afternoon we sailed for Zanzibar. We were there long enough to hire a taxi for a day-long guided tour of the island. As is probably now the case, the Asian influence was dominant. There was a central bazaar chuck full of souvenir mongers and jewelers always on the ready to sell the innocents abroad something. I remember that father bought mother some jewelry made from sea shells and I got a set of Zanzibar postage stamps. We ate a fine seafood curry and returned to the Amra. That night the Amra returned to Mombasa.

Mombasa revisited

About a year after that family excursion, a friend’s mother asked my mother if I might be permitted to accompany them to Mombasa to spend the holidays. Unlike the US, the British school year starts in January and ends in December. Apparently the British were not as concerned as we were regarding agricultural production. There were three terms (not semesters) each separated by a three or six week (at Christmas) break. It was during one of these breaks that that family was to go on holiday. I agreed to go. As the school I went to adhered to a slightly different break schedule, I was obliged to return a week sooner than my hosts. No problem, an older cousin in Kenya on holiday from England had to return a week earlier to catch a flight.

I don’t remember much about that trip to Mombasa except that we stayed in a home near a beach that was close enough to town to allow us kids to walk to market and go to cinema. For me the highlight of the trip was the train ride back. My friend’s father took us to the train station in the late afternoon to catch the overnight train to Nairobi. Once aboard, we were ushered to a compartment that we shared with two other passengers who attended university in Nairobi. The train remained at the station for what seemed like hours before setting out. It took ages to get up the escarpment to the central plateau and by the time it did, night had fallen. Because my friend’s mother had packed us some sandwiches and a thermos of hot tea, we’d no need to avail ourselves of the dining car. Instead we munched on Marmite sandwiches and drank tea, neither of which I’d yet to acquire a taste for. At some point I decided it was bedtime, not as easy as one might guess as that train seemed to stop at every mailbox along the entire route! When we arrived in Nairobi in the early hours of the next morning, father was waiting.

Post Script

The family that I stayed with in Mombasa on my second trip hailed from Yorkshire. They were the Hensons. The father was an unusually bright and enterprising fellow who made a small fortune in the timber business. He imported various varieties of timber into Kenya for running trim and manufacturing furniture. He also had various varieties of local tropical hardwoods milled for export. His given name was Tim and he was in the Timber business. His company was appropriately named “Timsales”. How fiendishly multivalent of him? I understand that he made enough from that business to retire in Yorkshire well before he turned sixty. There were three children, a daughter named Pam who was a few years my senior (and given to mix sugar in milk!), Clive who was my age (and given to obsessively read constantly) and a younger brother named Keith (given to excessive mischievousness).

My mother carried on a correspondence, typically limited to the exchange of Christmas greetings, with the mother for years after we left Kenya. By the mid-sixties, the father had already made his fortune and was able to retire comfortably on tax-free residuals in Yorkshire. In the summer of 1966 my parents ponied up for airfare to allow me to go to England for a few weeks. The father and Clive were on hand to meet me at the airport and from there it took but a few hours and several train rides to get up to Yorkshire. Clive was on a school break and shortly after my arrival we decided to go on a sightseeing bicycle trip. In those days before the North Sea Oil came in, England was amazingly inexpensive, so inexpensive that I was able to buy a new Raleigh Sports bicycle equipped with a Sturmey-Archer 3-Speed for just Shs. 17/6, slightly little over $2 at the time! We took trains to various points of interest and stayed in hostels for about a week before we ran out of clean attire and were obliged to cut short our travels. We spent a couple days in London taking in the museums and sights prior to my return stateside.

I never saw Clive again. From her correspondence my mother was later able to report that Clive’s reading obsession had prepared him well for university and that upon graduation he landed a job at Rolls Royce. More recently I inquired with Rolls Royce in an attempt to locate Clive but they had no record of him. Perhaps he was a chip of the old block and managed to retire early like his old man with a small fortune to a paradise in an undisclosed location?

Does anyone out there know a chap named Clive Henson who’d be in his mid-sixties with his head perpetually buried in a book?

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Written by GW Abert

March 26, 2015 at 14:37

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