KENYA





NAIROBI As we flew south from Ethiopia, over the Chalbi Desert, and past Mt. Kenya, then lowered toward the Maasai plains, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with the thought "I’m home! I’m home!" At Nairobi airport, "No cigarettes; no liquor" worked its charm again, and customs didn’t open my bags. There was good old Bob Murungi waiting for me in the crowd behind the ropes, lifting his baseball cap to catch my attention. We got into Jane’s familiar brown Toyota which I’d ridden in Baton Rouge many times with her while she got her master’s and Ph.D. degrees there as a Fulbright scholar. It was still giving good service after fifteen-plus years. We went out to Kenyatta University, which we entered through gates manned by guards in uniform. It’s a huge campus twenty miles from town, having once been a British Army barracks, and their home is at the far perimeter of it where residences (formerly officers’ homes) are on a grid pattern of streets now named for African countries and fruits. Jane had just gotten back from teaching a class. Big hugs, big lies traded about how you haven’t changed a bit since I was last there in ‘83 (actually her only change was a perm), and big welcome back. And after the dusty drive from the airport it was a physical pleasure to have her offer a cup of tea (of course) and a bath upon arrival — aah!

Pineapples, bananas, corn, rice, coffee, tea, passion fruit, and flowers in acres of greenhouses — these were the crops Jane and I saw next day from a small bus we took upcountry toward Mt. Kenya, to their retirement home they’ve been building out in the country, slowly over many years. It is in the southeast foothills, on the road to Meru. They call it their Shamba, which means garden. I’d been eager to see it, having heart about it from Jane in Baton Rouge and being with her when she went to buy locks to send to out to Bob for all the doors. When we got off the bus, it was only a short walk down a country lane to their huge metal gates set in concrete abutments with a five-foot leaf shape molded in them. A little rapping roused their watchman to greet us and open the gate, and in we went. It’s a pretty and a large house. The grillwork, necessary protection found on all Kenya homes, was decorative white wrought iron, reminiscent of New Orleans to me. There’s a large, glassed-in, round sitting room projecting from the front of the house, looking out on flower gardens all around. Everything is built with generous proportions, and includes bedrooms for their daughter and three sons, all grown up now. We rested, and ate a picnic lunch and explored the gardens. A short bus ride farther up the road we visited the 100-year-old church they were married in.

Late in the afternoon we caught another bus to go home. These buses are safer to travel in than Kenya’s infamous smaller, cheaper matatus, the freewheeling private vans that jam on as many people as possible, usually don’t pass brakes inspection, or much else, always speed, as though to keep ahead of the police, and have many lethal accidents. On its way down toward the plains, the road from Mt. Kenya switches back and forth traversing many ravines with coffee and banana plots planted up and down their sides. I got a seat in the very front of our bus with the driver, right up over the engine, with only the huge windshield between us and the road, and we seemed to swing out over nothing under the front wheel at outer turns, rather like being on a roller coaster. I asked the driver how many years he had driven the bus, and with a wry grin he said "Can’t remember but somewhere around twenty." He had to get the tout to come up front to translate our exchange because my Swahili was incomprehensible to him and still very rusty, it being only my first time to use it in seventeen years. It was fascinating to watch the symbolic language he exchanged with oncoming drivers, using headlight blinks and hand gestures. Some made him laugh out loud, and I wondered if they were commenting on his suicidal white passenger.

Seated next to me was a guy who was industriously chewing small twigs taken from his coat pocket. These were picked from a bush grown throughout the area called miraa. It’s called "green gold," and is harvested and sold mostly to Arab countries. It’s a stimulant, curbs appetite, and they say it makes people fierce, ready to kill even relatives at the slightest provocation. There are at least fifty assault cases reported every week to the two police stations in the growing area, the paper said. Pickups and trucks transporting miraa bound for Saudi Arabia, driven by miraa-fierce drivers, still imperiously dominate the roads, as they did in ’83, outmaneuvering and outspeeding even the matatus.

Back in Nairobi, my guardian angel got some more international work one day. We were going to go in to town, and were prevented by a student riot as we headed toward the entry gates of Kenyatta University. A relative of Jane’s whom I’d met on the previous evening’s walk, flagged down our car and warned us that students had captured the gates. We took a side street and parked where Bob could go on foot and have a look, and sure enough, students had massed, were carrying large stones, had hijacked a truck, and chased off the security guards. Being once burned, twice shy, Bob turned the car around and we returned to their house, more than a mile from the gates and a much safer place to be. As a matter of fact, he has been more than just once "burned."

Recently they woke up during the night to find burglars sawing through the exterior wrought iron grillwork on their bedroom window. The would-be intruders would have been at the living room windows if they’d just wanted the TV and video, so, based on how other such stories have run, he was pretty sure they were coming for him personally. He got a pistol out of his bedside table and shot toward them. They left. But now he fears that since they’ve learned he has a gun, they’ll return armed next time. So he’s acquired two dogs, Spike and Hercules, gangly pups with big grins and big feet, and full of beans, who look more like they’d like to love a person to death than bite them. But they do bark at night most ferociously. Their night watchman, who takes over from the daytime guard, was nowhere around during the incident. He claimed next day that the intruders had threatened him and he’d gone for the police because there was a small crowd of them, but Murungis think he was just in cahoots with them. So now they have a new night watchman, and every evening Bob takes a bow with some arrows and a very big, very bright flashlight out to him. Also, we slept every night with all the windows closed and bolted, no matter how hot or stuffy it got.

Anyway, when we turned the car around and returned to the house, we went in and watched reports on TV of students from the University of Nairobi rioting in town, also armed with large stones. In past demonstrations, they’ve trashed or abducted vehicles, and the police and the military were called out to restore order. Students and police ended up in hospitals, not a thing to get mixed in with. Jane and Bob wondered whether this might blow up into a real attempt to oust President Arap Moi, since the country is falling apart. He was just "reelected" for another five years, the elections being outrageously rigged. An ousting would be great for the country, but what’s more likely is that he’d impose an authoritarian clampdown on all liberties. This time the students were rioting to protest the actions of politicians and friends of the president who have been selling off parts of a national forest within the city limits to wealthy developers and pocketing the proceeds. In the end, the student riots were quelled, with students and police ending up in the hospital again, and the outcome of the illegal hijacking of forest property was not resolved. People continued building on the properties, under police protection.

Well, there I was, back in balmy, breezy, sunny, beautiful as ever Kenya. Took pictures next day where we lunched with Bob’s niece, Doreen, under huge yellow-trunked, towering acacia trees at the UN compound where she works. The big trees reminded me of the ones on the sports grounds at Narok where I remember camping with Mother and Daddy when I was a little girl, and getting splinters in my bum from sitting on orange crates for camp chairs. I love those yellow trees with their feathery, tiny, pale green leaves. The British colonists dubbed these yellow trees "Fever Trees," because they thought they caused malaria. What caused it was their pitching their camps where the trees grew, down along river banks where mosquitos thrive.

Rena and Jay once gave me a blown-up picture of white flowers with a yellow center that smelled so good and grew on low bushes, which they photographed on their honeymoon in Hawaii. There’s a grove of seven trees of that flower, frangipani, right by Murungi’s entrance gate, with the sweet blossoms all way up too high to pick! Their poinsettias are also out of reach, 15’ to 20’ high.

My idea of recording this whole journal on tape fell apart because sleep happened instead. But one evening at Murungis’ Bob got out his guitar and played some elegant classical Spanish pieces and I taped him. So that’s what the tape recorder came to be good for — music and bird songs.

Another evening there at Murungis, fitness-buff Bob was showing some floor exercises to Barbara, a very Americanized niece who was living with them while attending college. She pulled a muscle and couldn’t turn her head easily for a couple of days, which made Bob feel awful. When I was first getting acquainted with Barbara, I thought she said her mother likes opera, and I was very surprised. When she asked if I do, too, I said I really only enjoy the orchestral introductory music, but not all the singing. She looked a little mystified. Later I discovered that she was talking about Oprah on TV, whom she called Opera. Jane and Bob and apparently everybody all watch "Opera," as well as a string of other U.S. TV shows, like Friends and Sienfeld.

Back to Bob’s being more than once "burned." One time back when he was Assistant Vice Chancellor there at Kenyatta University (which post he’s since been demoted from because he refused to go along with the corruption required), he had to announce a government imposition of new fees. The students stoned him, clipping off the tip of one earlobe and causing other painful bruises. Another time when he was in that office, he was run off the road by political enemies’ hired thugs, but a passing funeral procession included friends who recognized his overturned car and rescued him out of it. Years ago, Bob left a lucrative teaching position in the U.S. to come back and contribute his talents and career to his country.

Now he wanted all the AARP information I could get sent to him in case they decide to retire in the U.S. where their kids are. Their pension system is next to worthless, and things keep looking worse politically rather than improving. He’s one who researches everything thoroughly. For example he had high blood pressure trouble and took firm control, curbing it by cutting out all salt and fats completely, and doing exercises. He eats arrow root and cod liver oil with his breakfast, and has robust health.

Things soon quieted down enough for us to go into town so I could meet my second Nairobi hosts, the Mburus, who also live quite far out of town at Kikuyu. I had been temporarily out of touch with them, but at the last minute, Rosa Mburu phoned and made contact, thanks to Marla’s sending the Murungi’s phone number to the Mburus by email from California. We arranged to meet them next day at the Mayfair Hotel.

We left my biggest suitcase at Murungis’ so I wouldn’t have to cart it to Mburus’ and then all the way down to my brother Roy’s in Tanzania and back with me on the bus, as I would be returning to their house after Roy’s to catch my flight to South Africa in a few weeks. So we went off to the Mayfair Hotel with only my two smallest suitcases. I bid Murungis a temporary goodby, and met up with Mburus for my week’s visit with them: Rosa, Mburu, Kendi, and a niece living with them to help care for granddaughter Kendi, who is Jessica’s age.

We lunched in grand style at Karen Country Club, established way back before Out of Africa’s Karen von Blixen/Isak Dinesen bought her coffee farm nearby. We had a delicious buffet meal, all very hoity toity. There were weathered old whites lunching at the verandah tables overlooking the golf course. Many looked like left-over ex-colonials who had probably been coming there since they were youngsters, back when it was strictly for white settlers. Now, African golfing buddies of Mburu’s came in off the course and greeted him in passing as we ate. A former public health colleague of his from Norway was having a family reunion at the next table. We lost Kendi, and found her at the swimming pool where she takes lessons. She had taken off long stockings and shoes, and cooled her tootsies.

It was a long hot dusty drive out to their house. The road was even worse than in ’83. Their house, so new and almost empty of furniture then, is now thoroughly, luxuriantly furnished with things from several African countries Mburu’s been working in with USAID. Some were museum quality pieces. They have a new building under construction by the servants’ quarters which is to include a studio for Rosa’s batik and tie dying hobby which she picked up while they lived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She gave me a Tanzanian outfit she’d made, and I practically lived in the pants the rest of my trip, with an Ethiopian Wildlife Society tee-shirt.

Kendi is a very self-confident kindergartener. Hyper, smart, resourceful, totally preoccupied with her own imaginative play at times, interested and demanding of adult attention at other times. She built a little house of chairs and cloths right in the way of traffic between kitchen and dining room the last morning, and was busily going through a day’s schedule of cooking with toy pots plus real ones, going to "bed," cleaning, and goodness knows what, all oblivious to the rest of us. I got the sense of Mburu’s feeling a lot more bamboozled by her than he was with his own kids, Mugure (Kendi’s mom), Martin and Tanya, who are now all grown up and in the U.S. working. I missed some of the relaxed fun and go-with-the-flow that he had with them. Rosa says none of their own were as much of a challenge as this child is, and Rosa’s a tough school teacher! Keep tuned!

All of what were just beginnings of landscaping around the house in ’83 are now full, luxuriant flowerbeds, flowering bushes and mature trees. We took a photo of Pongo and Peace Bear, plus Kendi’s own Peace Bear, with Rosa’s cows when touring her shamba below the house, and later another with Kendi and her kindergarten class

Rosa was again in a servant limbo, looking for a replacement for the current unsatisfactory worker, just as she was back in ’83. It was similar to Jane’s problem with her cook, Pinky, whom she recruited from out in the country. She was getting sloppy and bored with her job once the novelty of living in town had worn off. Jane’s sending her to tailoring classes so she’ll have a livelihood when Jane fires her and gets a new girl. This is a recurrent problem in both households.

Rosa took me to the Giraffe House gift shop. We saw some tourists feeding giraffe, but we got there too late for the tour ourselves. The grounds of the stone mansion are the site of Raising Daisy Rothschild and other books by Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville about their pet giraffes. It is now an educational nature center, established by them as a place where African children can learn about wildlife and its value to their country’s economy, which is based on tourism. Most Africans never see the more exotic wildlife, and when they do, they see them as predators who ruin their crops or raid their livestock.

Rosa also took me to the offices of the African Academy of Sciences. We met Serah Manycky and gave her the lion story manuscript by my elusive Maasai author, Eliud. I’d lost contact with him lately, but hoped to find him on this trip. She was interested in his stories for a proposed magazine for teenagers named Team. I crossed my fingers.

Mburu is running his consulting business in public health from home via email, fax and mobile phone. Regular phone is undependable. (Especially when I sent them the wrong number for Murungis on my itinerary, anyway.)

I was having no luck at getting through to Roy by either phone or email. Finally did by email by way of our old nursemaid, Sophie’s, granddaughter, Irene Jacca, who lives right there in Nairobi. She works for HDL, the Kenya equivalent of UPS. The day before I was to take a bus to Tanzania, she relayed the message to me at Mburu’s that Roy’s son-in-law, Steve Simonson, would meet me at the bus stop in Arusha, and they’d keep me for the weekend there at their home, Olasiti. Then I’d go on to Roy and Betty’s for almost three weeks, in Moshi right in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. Yahoo!!

The Davanu shuttle bus took me from the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, to the Novotel in Arusha, via Athi River, Kajiado, Bissel, and Namanga, the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania. The smooth, newly black-topped road off the Nairobi-Mombasa road at the Athi River turn off, showed that they do know how to fix roads after all, although you wouldn’t know it in Nairobi. I wanted to photo every fever tree we passed; many were flanking the road out of Nairobi. After the Athi turn off into dry scrub country, almost immediately we saw a billboard totally in Maasai, my very first.

Rolling Maasai plains, scrubby trees, infrequent herds of cattle, goats, zebra! Almost missed the zebra, they were so well blended with the plain. Felt so good to be doing this by road again, as I’d done so many times with Mother and Daddy in the past. Even better than flying over it as I did in ’83 in the Flying Doctors plane, exciting as that was.

Slowly we left the Aberderes Mountains behind us on the far horizon north of Nairobi, the Ngong Hills slid past on the right, after Lukenia on the left, then, over some low horizon bumps dead ahead, Kilimanjaro!! Way higher than I expected, again, as it always was. I saw it before the bus tout pointed it out to the other riders, heh heh.

I relished the excitement of looking out for and finding wild life again, even if only zebra, tommies, and impala, Maribou stork and baboon livened it up a bit. I had thought I’d catch some sleep in the bus to Arusha after talking with Rosa until the wee hours the night before, and thought I’d read the paper Mburu bought me, but NO!! Too much to see. Saw two Africa Inland Church buildings at Bissel, one new, and one little and old — was that one Daddy’s, still there after 45 years? YES! Roy told me later, so I photographed it on my return trip.

At Namanga, the border crossing, I spoke in Maasai to some endasati, dear old Massai grannies, selling beaded stuff, and smelled their dear old familiar oil and ochre odors. Started seeing Maasai red shukas (togas). In fact, beyond Namanga on the Tanzania side, we saw throngs of ilmuran, warriors, in ochre shukas gathered in clumps at buildings far off the road. I heard later it was a tax revolt. They were gathering to refuse to pay some tax.

Kili grew on the left horizon to its full 19,304 ft. height as we approached Mt. Meru just west of it, with Arusha at its base.