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Old Africa books

Old Africa books are well-told stories in the same tradition as the shorter pieces

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Old Africa magazine seeks to tell the story of East Africa’s past through well-written stories and vintage photographs. Founded in October 2005, the first issue featured a story about the Royal Navy’s ill-fated attempt to launch a naval presence on Lake Rudolph (now Lake Turkana) and an account of the Kedong Massacre. Since then the magazine has published stories and photos from Kenya’s diverse ethnic groups – African, Asian and European – to preserve East Africa’s history. 


Odoriferous Mombasa

Odoriferous Mombasa In the first decades of the twentieth century Mombasa was often a far from pleasant place to work or live in. The old town had a graveyard where leg and skull bones stuck out of the thin layer of soil. In the Old Harbour there was a large deep tank filled with shark oil, used to prevent marine growth in dhow hulls. During the northeast monsoon the stench from this tank blew across the town. The streets were stacked with mangrove poles that had lain in shallow water for months and smelt as bad as the shark oil. Some godowns were stocked with dried shark emitting a stink even worse than shark oil or mangrove poles. At the entrance to the old port, in Vasco da Gama Street, the lower storeys of some of the houses were stacked with bags of molasses. When it was particularly hot the molasses turned into a runny liquid and escaped into the street. The town had no piped sewage disposal because the water supply coming from the Kwale hills (two-and-a-half million gallons) reached only the port, railway, industry and main thoroughfares, together with Mrs Lund’s steam laundry. The rest of the town acquired water mainly from wells and roof catchment tanks — large concrete reservoirs from which water was pumped into small tanks in ceilings. When there was a tropical storm, a common occurrence at Mombasa, the roof tanks overflowed and the water descended via pipes into the street where it would lie stagnating for days, providing a lovely breeding ground for mosquitoes. In the dry season people carried water home...

Hugo van Lawick, Wildlife Photographer

Hugo van Lawick, Wildlife Photographer One of Hugo van Lawick’s wives, Jane Goodall, is perhaps better known to the public than he is. But van Lawick’s work was important in bringing the issue of conservation to the forefront of people’s interest. Hugo was born in Surabaya, Java, on 10 April 1937, the son of a Dutch pilot. His grandfather was a general, the head of the Dutch equivalent of Sandhurst. On her husband’s death in 1941 Hugo’s mother moved the family to Perth, Australia, before the Japanese invaded Java. Hugo subsequently moved to England, where he was sent to boarding school until World War 2 ended and the family moved to Holland. He was not successful at school, having difficulty with reading, and left at sixteen. He spent eighteen months in the army. He started to photograph wildlife in Holland, moving in 1960 to Nairobi to become an assistant to Armand and Michaela Denis for two years. He then worked for the Game Department for a few months, staying with the Leakeys. He made a lecture film on Leakey’s work for the National Geographic Society (NGS) early in 1962. He argued with Leakey about whether man started as a scavenger or hunter. Leakey preferred the former, saying that man’s early tools were incapable of opening antelope or other large prey, whereas Hugo maintained that chimps did so, by catching and eating small antelopes, monkeys and other animals, tearing them apart and then eating them. The NGS hired him to make three more films, one on Jane Goodall, working with chimpanzees in Tanzania. He borrowed money from his grandmother to...

The Donovan Maule Theatre

The Donovan Maule Theatre Many of you will remember Nairobi’s Donovan Maule Theatre. My abiding memory is of us Kenya High School girls trying to persuade our headmistress, Miss Stott, to let us go to see Lock up Your Daughters there in 1960. She eventually relented. Who were the couple who founded the theatre? Donovan Maule was born in Brighton on 24 June 1899 and his wife Mollie was born in London on 24 June 1897. Both came from theatrical families and toured the country with their parents. They were married in 1920. Donovan Maule joined the army in World War II and ended his army career in Egypt as director of drama, Middle East Land Forces. He and his wife Mollie then sailed to Kenya. They docked in Mombasa on 4 September 1947 and made for Nairobi, but found that the theatres there had all been converted to cinemas during the war. They proposed to start a professional repertory company in Nairobi and began by doing a broadcast for Children’s Hour at the Cable and Wireless transmitter at a tiny studio at Kabete. They had to make all their own sound effects. To make ends meet they began their own drama school using a space in front of the screen at the Capitol cinema. Their first play was The Dear Departed. The Theatre Royal had become the Cameo cinema but the Maules decided that this was a better venue for them, though they could only use it for matinees so that films could be shown in the evenings. They began to build their own theatre in 1949 –...