A Boyhood in Africa

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

Forty pounds of rhubarb for a shilling!

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If memory serves, my family ventured into the Great Rift Valley four times, once soon after arriving in Kenya, two more times on the trip to and back from Kampala, Uganda and one final time to make a second courtesy visit to an agricultural mission located on the east escarpment.

Coinage

Coinage

The coinage used in British East Africa deserves some discussion. As in the UK, pounds and shillings were used but they didn’t trouble themselves to use pence or farthings. Despite that, in school we were obliged to master basic feats of accounting using all four denominations. Presumably to keep things simple, in East Africa shillings were subdivided into one hundred cents. In those days East African pounds matched the value of British Pounds which roughly equated to around US $2.60.

There was something rather curious about the coinage. Just four coins were minted, a penny, a five cent piece, a ten cent piece and a shilling. British coinage including threepences, sixpences, florins (two shillings) and half crowns (Shs. 2/6) were also in circulation but rarely seen. The indigenous smaller denominations were minted of copper and featured central holes that allowed those who processed them to store them on sisal strings hung about their necks if they so desired. The shilling was minted in silver and was typically only used by those of European or Subcontinent descent.

The Agricultural Mission

As far as I can remember, this mission had been setup by some North American church as a means by which to introduce Western agricultural methods to the natives. Both times we visited the mission, it was managed by an apple farmer from Southwestern Michigan. Although we didn’t spend much time there on our first visit, this time we spent the better part of the day and, in addition to being served lunch, were treated to a rather comprehensive tour of the facilities. I don’t remember what they grew there and I doubt that whatever it was that it included apples.

One thing did stand out though. As there were no electrical utilities serving the area, the mission was obliged to use a diesel-powered electrical generator. That generator was one of the items that was brought in during the Michigan farmer’s tenure. It was housed in a small out building that featured flip-up side half-walls. They only ran it for a few hours each day to support crop processing operations.

By the time we left, the sun was low in the West. As sunrise and sunset occur with some rapidity at the equator, father decided that we best leave lest we be obliged to make the ascent up the escarpment in darkness.

The rhubarb

About half way the escarpment up my parents spotted a pair of native boys standing at the side of the road next to a couple of bushels of something later ascertained to be rhubarb. At my mother’s insistence father stopped to ascertain the quality of whatever it was they seemed to be hawking and if deemed acceptable, negotiate a transaction.

There was an apparent language barrier. Or so it seemed. After my mother had found the rhubarb to be acceptable father attempted to negotiate purchase. He held up different copper coins but was unable to ascertain how much some finite amount of their rhubarb could be bought. Finally he held out a shilling. Those kids had apparently never seen a schilling before and suddenly become especially exited. Then, as one of the kids grabbed the shilling, the other emptied the entire contents of their two woven cane grocery pockets into the back seat of the car where I was seated. Then the pair of them bolted out of sight into the bush. They had, possibly for the first time, a shilling and we had forty pounds of rhubarb!

“OK, what are we going to do with all this rhubarb?”

Because rhubarb doesn’t keep, we had to share it with others and can as much of it as we had jars. On the final leg of our journey home we stopped by a family we knew from Texas. Their mother was happy to take as much of the rhubarb as my mother would give her. In the days that followed mother worked to can as much of the rhubarb as she could. A day or so later that lady from Texas stopped by with several rhubarb pies and some cobblers she’d made using some Southern recipes. My mother baked up some desert treats as well.

I recall eating deserts made with rhubarb for weeks!

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Written by GW Abert

March 30, 2015 at 09:58

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