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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Julie Lake's Christmas Story

For something a little different - Julie sent me this some time ago. I liked it so much I asked her if I could publish it here, and she agreed. At this time of the year it's appropriate. 
   Julie Lake was a former student of mine. We are about the same vintage, i.e., not quite doddery but edging towards it! (Oh, OK, she does cycling and kayaking etc and I don't....) Quite by chance, she was also a friend of my sister Kay, for they were well known horticultural experts and used to judge gardening competitions around the country, in tandem as it were. Here's a Christmas story from her, in her own inimitable style. 

Julie and Bob Lake

Christmas at the farm was always a very musical occasion and we spent it there every year of my childhood.  My mother would have much preferred to spend it among her own friends, at the coast, but never dared quite oppose Flora on this.  Especially as Flora had my father’s support, for he believed strongly in the family nature of Christmas, despite being an atheist.  
   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.
   Still, there were memorable moments.  Such as the time we saw four cheetah just at daylight, on a slight rise near the side of the road, poised and alert and looking straight at us. And the time we came round a corner and found a large bull elephant blocking the road, stirring up the red dust in anger so that my father had to back up to a safe distance.  Large herds of elephant were quite a common sight along some stretches of the road and the damage of their passing could be seen all around.  
   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. 
   However fretful or tired we felt by the end of the journey, this would all change the moment we turned into the farm road that led up the hill to Matu Maini.  There at the end of the long drive of eucalyptus trees was the house that held all our memories of Christmas past, as well as our hope of Christmas present. 
   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.
   By this time we children were in a state of frenzied excitement that would last all through the next day, when the whole farmhouse would be in a flurry of preparation.  On Christmas Eve we would gather round the tree – a large pine trucked down from a plantation in the cooler hill country north of Nariobi -  and then the African children would arrive, to sing carols outside the door.  They sang some of these in English but Flora had translated others into Kamba and Swahili; and thanks to German Richard they could also sing O Tanenbaum quite creditably in that language.  
   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 Boxing Day meal was as large and sumptuous as the Christmas dinner, except that it was served cold and out of doors and all the European staff and their families attended.  As well as several neighbours.  The African workers had started the tradition of holding their own feast in the labour lines where most of them lived, with sheep and goats roasted over open fires and a bullock donated by Flora.  We white farm children would wander freely between both feasts, munching as happily on roasted mealies as we did on cold potato salad and ham. 
   And of course there was music; more carols and excerpts from the Messiah or one of the Passions, well rehearsed beforehand by Flora and the rest.  And then a general singsong of old and new…my father would always get us going with You Are My Sunshine and Have You Ever Been Lonely and the rest of us would do our party pieces.  One of mine was The Little Match Girl sung with appropriate pathos. German Richard always gave his rendition of the Klein Zack song from Tales of Hoffman.  Aldo predictably and enthusiastically gave us both Santa Lucia and Return to Sorrento, proving afresh each Christmas that not all Italians can sing.  The Hungarians and Poles sang incomprehensible songs in their own languages. 
   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. 
   The real star of these Christmas shows was always Flora and the pleasure they gave her warms my memory now.  I can see her, constantly smiling, constantly on the move, making sure that everyone was having a good time.  It was what she loved most, to have the house filled with music and her friends and family all about her.  Though there must have been sadder moments because looking through the diaries for that time I do find an entry, probably written late one Christmas night after we had all gone to bed, saying simply: “How Alex would have enjoyed the singing. I can’t help thinking of him every year at this time and that it is so sad (sic) he is not part of our little international community.”
   Music was not confined to Matu Maini’s small number of Europeans.  The Kamba would celebrate Christmas not only with their usual feast but also with a tribal dance.  These ngomas were fine affairs, attracting people from the farm’s own squatter population and from villages further afield in the reserve.  Ngomas were held not only at Christmas but also at several points throughout the year, to mark a significant wedding or some major external event, or for what seemed to be no apparent reason except the desire to gather together and dance. 
   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!  :)

Bob and Julie Lake

Publishers of the GardenEzi easy gardening ebook series
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1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an amazing life! Thanks for sharing - makes me feel so very ordinary!


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