A Boyhood in Africa

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

I almost forgot! It rains in Africa.

with 6 comments

Rains

And then the rains came. There were two monsoons, a long one roughly lasting from April to early June and a shorter one in December. The longer monsoon could be epic.

We arrived in Kenya in late November and I recall that it rained nearly every day up until Christmas but I don’t remember it being much of a bother. Due to Nairobi’s altitude, the increased humidity didn’t make things unpleasantly hot and humid. The next April we got to experience our first long monsoon. A few times it did rain for a whole day and there were several nights during which there were torrential downpours accompanied by thunder and lightning. Towards the end of that first monsoon I witnessed a Siafu (red ants) migration (safari).

A year later though, the story took a slight twist. As was usually the case, in April the rains came. The daily patterns changed over the two month monsoon. Early on there would be a late afternoon torrential downpour for about half an hour. A fortnight after there would be a torrential downpour that would last for over an hour followed late in the evening by another downpour. Starting around May it would rain all afternoon and well into the night. That’s when things got interesting.

Father decided that we should have a dog. Dogs were kept outside to deter burglaries. As most yards were either fenced in or surrounded by high hedges, it took some doing for a burglar to gain access. If unwanted guests gained access, dogs could be counted on to either make a loud fuss or simply attack. There were stories about natives sneaking up and using a cane pole covered with razor blades to remove items from inside a home. Unlike the US it was not customary to screen windows. One of father’s coworkers, an English architect, reported that he awoke one night to see his shirt floating over his bed on its way towards an open window. He had the presence of mind to grab the shirt before it could be successfully removed, but managed to cut his hand rather badly on the razor blades attached to the cane pole. Dogs or at least a dog was a good idea.

As noted, windows were not screened. To keep mosquitos at bay, it was the custom to equip beds with mosquito netting. This was part of a three pronged strategy. The second involved enlisting the numerous geckos that roamed the walls near lit lamps to go after flying insects attracted to the light. The third was to light up pyrethrum coils just before retiring for the evening. Just before retiring, one had to unroll the mosquito netting from over the bed and drape it over all four corners of the bed. Invariably there would be at least one mosquito than managed to get in. For some reason they’d always buzz annoyingly around your ears, seemingly attracted to the slight heat generated by the ear’s ossicles in response to the sound of their beating wings. Perhaps they’re attracted to what they think is another mosquito? Fortunately whatever’s at work here allows those with fast enough reflexes to dispatch the little beasts.

Oh yes, the rains!

One day shortly after arriving at school, it started to rain. There were torrential downpours all day. It was raining when mother picked me up after school. It rained all evening and continued to rain all through the night. When we awoke it was still raining. It rained all the next day as well. Continuous torrential downpours to whole time. There was a second full night of torrential rain followed by another full day of rain. And then a third day. And then a fourth day. Starting on the evening of the fourth day, the torrential rain was accompanied by continuous thunder and lightning. This went on for three more days and nights!

There was standing water everywhere! Fast currents of water flowed down the streets, road and gutters. The humidity, normally not an issue, was overwhelming. Mold began to grow on things. Although we had a wringer washing machine, we had no way to dry clothing. Everything was wet. As evening fell on day six, it finally got to the dog. Remember the dog? He had a dog house out next to the servants’ kier. Normally when it rained he’d simply stay inside. It must have been wet in there as well. We awoke to see the dog standing on the roof of his house howling like he’d gone mad. This went on all night.

The next morning there was a reprieve of sorts. Although it continued to rain, it wasn’t torrential and no longer accompanied by thunder and lightning. On this, day seven, it rained all day and well into the night. We awoke to following morning to an unusual sight, the sun. Imagine that, seven full days and nights of continuous rain! And for much of that time the rains were torrential in nature.

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Written by GW Abert

April 13, 2015 at 08:46

6 Responses

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  1. That’s very evocative. I also lived in Kenya as a boy at about the same time.

    Wilson Bertram

    April 13, 2015 at 11:58

    • Whereabouts Wilson?

      GW Abert

      April 13, 2015 at 14:58

      • In Mombasa from about 1955 to 1960 and then Nairobi to 1963.

        I remember the white sands and coconut palms of Nyali beach, and the Arab dhows sailing past and into Mombasa harbour, and the old Portuguese Fort Jesus. I vaguely recall the train up to Nairobi, and the stories of man-eating lions that had delayed the construction of the railway. I remember family trips to the Nairobi game park and to the Rift Valley, and to the roadsign that marked the equator. Sometimes, when I was walking to school, Kilimanjaro would be visible above the horizon.

        Wilson Bertram

        April 14, 2015 at 03:03

      • Yes Wilson, these are familiar things. So far I haven’t included any family photographs because father either shot slides or movies. Last summer I had the movie film transferred to video format but have yet to master the use of the software needed to edit it into something that’s interesting and informative. Before I can post any family photos I need to get my hands on a slide converters. There are a really some really interesting ones including one that shows the whole family lined up at that equator sign and others that show me wearing the school uniforms we were obliged to wear.

        GW Abert

        April 14, 2015 at 08:55

  2. I recall that we also took a lot of slides, but never had a movie camera. I remember one school occasion, I think it must have been attendance at a Royal visit or the Queens birthday celebration, when all the children had little union jacks to wave. It was memorable because a battery of 25 pounder guns fired the salute; they made an incredible noise and shook the ground, so the teachers had to remind us not to flinch each time one was fired.

    Wilson Bertram

    April 14, 2015 at 11:58

    • I too remember a royal visit but the royal was the Queen Mom. Shortly after school was scheduled to start they loaded us up into busses and delivered us to the trade fair facility where we were obliged to sit in rows by class for what seemed like ages under a relatively hot sun before the Queen Mom appeared. When she finally arrived we all stood up and screamed and yelled like banshees. There may have been a few of those “Three cheers for the Queen Mom!” routines inserted in the mix as well. As for the Queen Mom, she seemed pleasant enough, at least from my vantage point in the middle of grassed field along with several thousand other students.

      GW Abert

      April 14, 2015 at 13:54


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