|Julie and Bob Lake|
We would drive up there the day before Christmas Eve, the boot of the car (a Morris Oxford, now, bought spanking new to replace the old Ford and to celebrate my father’s first major promotion) filled with packages. On the roof rack was strapped a huge wooden trunk, wrapped in sacking against the dust, that contained all our clothes. Most of them my mother’s, for she liked to dress well and change frequently, even in the country.
The rest of us made do with shorts and tee-shirts. Throughout the long, hot, drive that took about six hours if the road was dry we sang carols or played games devised by my father to keep us quiet. There was no room in the car for our ayah, Amelie, who was given Christmas off to visit her own family. This left my mother to cope, for once, with the needs of her children until we could be handed into the care of Saina, wife of my grandmother’s head houseboy.
The most popular pastime, better even than Twenty Questions, was game spotting for money. My father paid us a certain amount for each animal sighting; ground squirrel or mongoose was worth ten cents (there were ten cents to the Kenya shilling), baboon or zebra or common antelope were all worth fifty cents, elephant was worth a shilling. Payment was for each separate sighting; he did not, quite reasonably, pay for numbers and so in a single sighting a herd of Thompson’s gazelle counted as one.
The biggest game of all were lion, leopard and cheetah, which were worth a whopping five shillings a sighting. He was cunning, my father, for there was little game to be seen along the road for the first part of the journey up from the coast through the fertile and well-inhabited hill country. Then followed the dull, flat expanse of the almost waterless nyika that so taxed the early settlers who made the trip on foot before there was either road or railway. Rhino, buffalo and lion were all plentiful in this type of country, but kept themselves well away from the road and out of sight in the thick, thorny scrub. It was possible to score, here, but not likely.
By the time we reached the higher country and the great plains of the Athi, where game of all kinds could be easily seen, we children were usually asleep, bored and worn out. On the way back, it was my father’s practice to start long before dawn so that we would be well into the nyika, and animal oblivion, before it was light enough to see.
Where this occurred my mother would not let us stop, not even if one of us was carsick or desperate for a pee. There were few amenities along the Mombasa-Nairobi road in those days; a hotel at Voi where we sometimes stopped for refreshment and a clean up on the way home, a roadhouse at Mtito Andei which was roughly halfway. Mostly we carried food with us and a thermos flask for tea, and orange juice that was always warm from the sun and slightly fermented, stopping at the side of the road where, very occasionally, another car would pass by in a thick cloud of red dust.
Though neither ancient nor noble it had by then acquired the grace of a true country house, the grey stones and white trim speaking of comfort within. From the spreading cape chestnuts and other trees behind the house to the vast sweep of lawn and flower-filled beds that surrounded the other three sides, everything was in startling, yet pleasing contrast to the harsh and dusty landscape through which we had passed. We could not wait to clamber from the car and throw ourselves on to that soft grass; to run down the scented paths and bury ourselves in the whole wondrous greenness of it all.
I was a child of Africa and very much alive to its beauties, yet the cultivated charm of my grandmother’s garden ravished my soul. Because of it, I came to see horticulture as the highest and most civilising of the arts, and I still hold that view.
It would then be the job of my brother, my sister and myself to distribute small presents to the children. The weather was always very hot but this did not stop us pursuing all the traditions of an English Christmas. There would be stockings at the end of our beds when we woke up and then the opening of the “big” presents around the tree before breakfast and then we would be free to play until the Christmas luncheon, which was only for the family and perhaps one or two select friends such as Lady J.
There was always a turkey, flown out from England, along with a great hamper of luxuries from Fortnum and Mason – smoked salmon, stilton and other cheeses that we couldn’t buy in Kenya, and whisky-flavoured Scottish marmalade and chocolate biscuits. There was a great ham, too from one of the farm’s own pigs, and Christmas pudding with five-cent pieces in it for the children.
In the early years of my childhood there was always a shoot on Boxing Day, with all the hunters up and gone by dawn leaving my mother alone to sleep in. My father would go out with the guns but rarely fired one himself, preferring to drive a vehicle and take photographs. The quarry was usually antelope but larger game was also taken. I was allowed to take part in these hunts from the age of twelve and could hardly wait for it, though the practice was stopped shortly after that time as no longer appropriate, or permitted without adequate licenses. My ambition, then, was to shoot a lion but I never did so. Lion on the farm were protected by Flora, unless they took to killing cattle. Leopard, too, were no longer shot or trapped or poisoned. There were fewer of them now and Flora valued those that remained, even if they still made occasional forays against the chickens or the pigs, or took an occasional calf.
The English accountant and my father would get together like a couple of crooners and do numbers by Bing Crosby and Perry Como; sometimes they could persuade the accountant’s wife to join them and she could do very good impressions of the female singers of the day – Rosemary Clooney, Ruby Murray, Alma Cogan. I can see her up there now, blond, slightly tipsy, singing a Jo Stafford number with her husband and my father making the “boo-boo-boo-boom” sounds in the background.
Inspired by the applause this earned her, the year I turned twelve I gave what I thought was a rather professional rendering of Fever that I had been rehearsing in front of the mirror for days. It was not well received; my father thought it far too explicit for my years and Flora said it was a shame to waste my talents when I could sing Linden Lee so nicely.
There would be much excitement among the servants and farm staff for several days beforehand and on the dance day – or night – the crowd would gather on a piece of flat ground about a mile from the house, not far from the squatters’ huts. Beads, skins, feathers and other finery would be put on. Instruments would be warmed up, especially the drums for the traditional kilumi songs and dances, which were left all day in the sun before use.
Preliminary stampings and whirlings would take place among those planning to perform. Old men would gather in one part, old women in another, to cackle and urge the dancers on, or else assess the individual performances. Sometimes they would join in, intoxicated by the rhythm and the increasingly frenzied drumming. But mostly dancing was for the young, as it is everywhere. For that brief time of the dance the young men would be warriors again, as they had been before the British imposed peace on the land, and the maidens would release themselves in the dancing before submitting forever to a life of servitude and drudgery.
There were different dances for different occasions: the nduli where circumcised youths and maidens chose their mates; the kisanga danced at Matu Maini when there was a good maize harvest. Though as it involved an animal sacrifice – usually a goat – we children were never allowed to watch.
NOTE: I put the following in from Julie's email sig - a little promo for you, Julie! :)