Life in Nairobi

After a while in Tigoni Mabel decided to look for a job and Nairobi was the obvious place to find it. The idea was to capitalise on her Spanish and English knowledge. She started doing translations for Spanish-speaking embassies and very soon she got a permanent position at the Embassy of Chile. After a while she moved to the Commercial Section of the Embassy of Argentina where she remained for a few years.

Luckily, John, a neighbour at Tigoni gave her lifts to work mornings and afternoons, as I was busy at Muguga and regularly traveling to Intona. Despite John’s kindness and flexibility there were days that the arrangement was not possible and I needed to drive to Nairobi to take her or to collect her. Sometimes I would be delayed so she would be stuck in Nairobi! Although we enjoyed the relaxed and picturesque life at Tigoni we decided that it was time to move to Nairobi.

Although still very manageable at that time, Nairobi had moved on from its origins as an offspring of the Uganda Railways to a vibrant city. It had started around 1899 when the railways work arrived to the then known as mile 327, a treeless swampy area watered by the Ewaso Nairobi river that in Maa (the Maasai language) meant “cold water”. At that spot the railway construction work was delayed while the engineers tackled the steep and difficult climb to the highlands ahead on their way to Uganda and from a railway depot the city grew.

Through the landlord of the building occupied by Mabel’s office we found a suitable flat located on Bishops Road, behind the then Panafric Hotel. Our move was very simple as all our possessions fit in our VW kombi and we negotiated for the flat to be furnished with the essential gear and household appliances. We soon realised, however, that we lacked a few more “essentials”.

We did not have curtains, cushions and other domestic necessities so Mabel went to look for the needed materials to make them herself and this is how she discovered Biashara (Business) Street and its great assortment of cloth shops where she not only managed to find what she wished but also became a frequent visitor returning there again and again in search of materials for her dress-making as well as to get the colourful kangas [1] that she loved and still keeps to date! She was always well treated by their owners, mainly Indian settlers that were tough to bargain with. She kept visiting them to the last day as it was there that she got all needed materials for our move to Ethiopia in 1988.

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One of the first kangas that Mabel bought in Nairobi still with us today! The inscriptions can be translated as “youngsters do not change their character”.

After a while we realised that we also needed a carpet for our sitting room. As new ones were rather dear to us we searched for a second hand one. We found one at an auction place and we managed to outbid the competition rather easily. When we put it in place we realised that it stank of dogs and it would be difficult to keep it at the flat. So smelly it was that our cats would refuse to step on it and would stay well clear of the sitting room! We sprinkled a couple of kilograms of coffee on it to try and neutralise its stench but, eventually, it had to go.

We were now living in a large capital city and we enjoyed the experience. Nairobi had a nice air about it and it was not yet as large and car-choked as I found it to be more recently. The amount of people walking around was, however, staggering. Particularly in the mornings while driving to Muguga I could see the long lines of people that were walking from the outskirts to their jobs in the city and the impression was such that these became imprinted in my mind to the present day!

We had not visited the Nairobi restaurants very often while in Tigoni as we were reluctant to drive back home at night. So, moving to Nairobi meant that we could start dining out. Although we found the Tamarind beyond our reach, there were others we could enjoy such as “El Patio” a place that served some nice dishes including paella. We also gradually started to visit some of the Indian restaurants that were accessible and served excellent food.

We also found a special local restaurant on River Road (not really a safe place at the time) that was opened all the time and where we sometimes dined while returning from safaris. Amazed at it being always open we eventually learnt the reason: its door had been removed!

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A newer kanga from Kenya. It is written “your patience is a worship of god”.

Soon, Mabel also discovered “La Trattoria”, an Italian place that made excellent ice cream and reasonable pizzas and, with Ranjini, she would frequent some of the hotels such as the Hilton and the well-known Norfolk (built in the early 1900’s) that offered good Kenya tea (served English style) accompanied by first class cakes. I also enjoyed the occasional Kenya coffee and the New Stanley hotel with its huge fever tree was my favourite.

After a while Mabel also started a “Cordon Bleu” cookery course. During each of the classes she would return home with the dishes she had prepared so we took this opportunity every Wednesday to invite friends to join us for a meal!

Gradually we got to know good supermarkets and butchers and, again, Mabel began to explore the latter in search of the meat cuts that she preferred from our South American days. She found a “tame” butcher that allowed her to venture into the cold room to choose what she required. That was the way we acquired “matambre” (flank steak)[2].  This is a superficial and thin ventral muscle that -if not care is taken to remove it- it can be damaged or even removed with the hide. Mabel managed to get it and it became known as “Mabel’s cut” among the Latin American consumers that soon were ordering this speciality as well!

Fruit and vegetable markets were really fantastic and it was great fun to shop in them. The Westlands roundabout area offered a great shop run by a Sikh gentleman that had great quality and excellent client service as your shopping would be carried by a “helper” in a “kikapu” basket [3] to your car.

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A kikapu.

Outside that shop, a gentleman we came to know well constantly shouted “sweet peas madam, sweet peas madam” as he would follow you to the car. It was difficult not to buy his fresh peas as they were the sweetest I remember! The Central Market on Muindi Mbingu Street was also an enjoyable experience as there was an amazing abundance and variety of produce that was staggering for us, some that we had never seen such as mangoes, papayas and other tropical fruits.

Peter, our housekeeper, came with us to Nairobi on loan from our Tigoni landlord until we found a replacement as he was needed back at our former house. He stayed a few months traveling all the way from Uplands and basically helped Mabel with the cleaning of the flat. He insisted on walking with her every morning to her office in the centre of town and back home in the afternoons as a true bodyguard!

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A newer kanga bought in Mozambique in 2012. Its message refers -as far as I could gather- to Valentine’s Day! Things change…

Eventually we found someone to replace him and we sent him back to Tigoni with a heavy heart as he was a good man. So, a Peter left and another one arrived. The new Peter was a “supercharged” one and luckily for us, he only lasted for six months! It happened that he was the cook at the Canadian High Commission but, as there was no Head of Mission at that time, he was idle and wished to earn some extra money until his new boss would arrive.

We took him on the understanding that he would return to his permanent job whenever he was needed while we looked for a permanent worker. Not only Peter could cook well, do the shopping for us and kept our small flat squeaky clean (I am sure he cleaned it about three times a day as it was very small compared with the Ambassador’s residence!). He was constantly walking on “polishing shoes” shining our floors that looked as shiny as slippery to walk on! He brought to our lives the usual colonial custom of waking you up with a tray of tea at 6 am. without hearing anything, we would find the tea tray ready every morning.

The time for spoiling came to an end after about five months when Peter announced that a new High Commissioner was about to arrive. Fortunately, he brought a replacement that was also a Peter! The third Peter was somewhere between the previous two and perfect for us. He could cook well and did not bother with polishing the floor at all times. We liked the early morning tea and we asked him to continue with that tradition! Kenyan tea was very special and we really enjoyed it. He stayed with us until our departure for Ethiopia when we passed him to our good friend Susan.

The move to Nairobi also took us out of the British- and settler-dominated Tigoni into a cosmopolitan city. There were already international organisations based at Gigiri and their number was increasing. It was like this that we got new friends from other parts of the world, including a few from Latin America, of course. In particular we befriended the very few Uruguayans and Argentinians with which we had more affinity.

As some had “proper” houses with BBQ places, we re-encountered some of our culture through weekend gatherings to enjoy good “asados” (wood grilled meat) and some excellent Argentinian wine to go with it, courtesy of a few diplomatic friends we made. Carlos, one of them from Argentina had persuaded one of the main butchers called Gilani to make sausages following his own recipe from Necochea in Argentina. These were “real sausages” unlike the ones we found in the Nairobi shops that were made following the British recipe, something totally different and -for us- inferior.

It was with a group of Argentinian friends (headed by the Ambassador at the time) that we managed to organise ourselves to watch the 1986 World Cup games where Argentina played. Most of them were during the small hours of the morning and we “negotiated” to go an watch them at the studios of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) where a small crowd of us (as well as some Kenyan employees of KBC) would seat in front of their recording monitors!

Argentina did well and reached the final that was broadcasted live by KBC and that we all watched at the Argentinian Ambassador’s residence after enjoying a great reception at lunchtime. It was a very dramatic final but Maradona helped Argentina to beat Germany and we forgot our regional rivalries to celebrate the title together as a Latin America community far from home.

I also started playing tennis on some weekends at the Nairobi Club and we also discovered learnt the Carnivore restaurant in Langata where, for a fixed amount of money, you could eat as much meat as you wished. The menu included meat from domestic and wild animals and we went there a few times although we found it to be too much meat! However, it was a very popular eating venue for the Latin American community. Eventually, as the winners in the casino, some of them were from entering the restaurant as they consumed too much meat! Being a resourceful bunch they managed to circumvent this problem by booking the place under fake names and continue to visit it!

During our time the National Museum offered a great introductory course to Kenya known as the “Know Kenya” series of lectures. In this was we enjoyed great educational lectures on many aspects of Kenya, including those delivered by Mary and Richard Leakey on the evolution of humankind. Mary’s husband (and Richard’s father) was the famous Louis Leakey that had already died by then. He was a famous anthropologist that was born in Kabete and greatly advanced the study of hominids. He was also responsible for bringing Diane Fossey and Jane Goddall to Africa to study large apes.

Another hitherto unexplored asset of Nairobi was its National Park located a few minutes from our house. We started to frequent it and, after a few visits we bought a year permit for our car to enter the park freely so this became a favourite outing. As the place was on the way from the airport, from that time onwards we started bringing our overseas visitors home by driving them through the park to give them a taste of the bush a few minutes after leaving the airplane! They loved it and helped making their stay even more memorable.

We spent many hours at the park as it offered all desirable wildlife with the exception of elephants. I will tell you a few stories about our visits in future posts.

Before we handed back our beloved kombi to FAO at the end of my FAO Fellowship, we managed to acquire a Land Rover and I described the process in https://bushsnob.com/2017/07/20/buying-a-car/. Later we bought our first new car, a Peugeot 504, together with Paul (see: https://bushsnob.com/2018/01/21/simbas-bush-baptism/). The Peugeot was, at the time, the most sought after car in Africa, known as “Simba” because of the lion of its make. We enjoyed both good and bad times with it.

With the new car we were able to travel faster and longer trips became more feasible, particularly reaching the coast where we managed to explored a few places. I also had a spell of bad luck when I had the only crash I had ever had (see: https://bushsnob.com/2018/04/28/collision/) and also the only robbery we suffered during the years we lived in Kenya: my spare wheel was stolen while the car was parked at our parking place in our flat! So much for the security guard!

The “Drive-In” cinemas, in particular the Fox Drive-In on the way to Thika, were places we frequented often as we did not have a television at home. It was a popular place where you could enjoy a tasty meal while watching a good movie. The food had Indian influence and the potato “bajhias” were fantastic. There was another drive-in cinema on the way to the airport that we also tried but only once. We were very impressed about the Indian food served but did not suspect that the programme was aimed at the Indian community showing Bollywood movies! We left during the first interval after finishing our meal!

So, life was going great for us and I am sure we would still be in Nairobi if it would not have been -again- by FAO. The manager of a project in Ethiopia had suffered a serious heart attack and needed to be evacuated for medical attention and FAO needed a replacement rather urgently to continue with a tick survey and population dynamics study. When the position was offered to me, after a lot of thinking I accepted it.

It was a risky decision as the contract was for an initial period of eighteen months but the salary offered was very good for my standards so, after over seven years in Kenya, we took the short flight to Addis Ababa to re-join FAO, this time as a fully-fledged employee. Little I knew then that I was going to stay with FAO in various capacities for twenty-five years.

 

[1] In Ki-Swahili a kanga is a piece of colourfully printed cotton fabric, about 1.5 m by 1 m, often with a border along all four sides (called pindo and a central part  the mji which differs in design from the borders.

[2] The panniculus adiposus is the fatty layer of the subcutaneous tissues, superficial to a deeper vestigial layer of muscle, the panniculus carnosus. Together they make the cut. It is also known as the “fly shaker”, because it is the muscle used by the animal to twitch to repel insects.

[3] Several kinds of baskets were in use in Nairobi those days. A kikapu was a simple straw-woven open basket.

 

4 comments

  1. Oh, so nicely written, full of things which we came to know, mostly thanks to your (you and Mabel’s) advises or to common activities! Yes, the bajhias were tremendously good at the Fox drive-in. We went there with ScoutSpirit for the release of Out of Africa! A great time as we could see our favorite landscapes… Ngongs hills and Oloololo escarpment and other places filmed in a beautiful way. So many other things to say… but you tell them so well, I will just read and enjoy. Thank you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much. It was a great time that I find difficult to describe! So many things and so many memories… However, life goes on and we still enjoy it despite the years!

      Like

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