Rags to Riches no more

Rags to Riches no more

The phrase ‘from rags to riches’ has stood the test of time since it was coined in the Georgian days of the English speaking world to describe the one in ten thousand fortunate working class person who had overcome all the barriers the ruling class had thought out to stop him and had succeeded in climbing the ladder to material success. In Kenya, however, this has ceased to be true. The gap between the developed and the developing world is becoming wider every year, despite half a century of promises that it would soon close. The tiny number of the establishment ruling corporate capitalists became fewer and fewer and each is becoming richer and richer and they have now closed their ranks completely so that not even one in ten thousand could join their ranks. The strange thing was that the increasingly impoverished proletariat in the developing world was actually becoming better dressed. The reason for this was that clothing sold from High Street shops of the developed world were later being donated to groups like Oxfam, which collected large quantities of clothing from the idle rich, who discarded articles of clothing they had become tired of, and which they no longer required, not because the clothes were worn out but because they were ‘out of fashion.’ Hundreds of shipping containers containing used clothing crossed the seas every month from the developed world to the developing and the income bracket of the working classes discovered that smart clothes now in piles in what the Kenyan’s call mitumba markets were now available at reasonable prices. A Saville Row suit, for example, whose...

Eccentric Pioneers

Last Sunday I went to lunch with ex-DCs Peter Fullerton and John Golds. There was talk of old times in the Tana River area, and of Kenya’s Governors Sir Evelyn Baring and Sir Patrick Renison. As ever, the eccentricities of early pioneers were in our minds. I am reminded of H.M. (‘Black’) Harries and his family, about whom Elspeth Huxley’s mother Nellie was so funny. Black Harries was a firm believer in heat treatment for arthritis. He got into bed with five labradors on top and a bottle of port. His wife, enthusiastic about his ideas, had her own version of treatment. A visitor, having been told that she was in the garden, could not find her. He returned to the kitchen where the cook directed him to look just to the left of a little gateway. There he found a large compost heap, with a hat on top, and, beneath the heap, Mrs Harries. Black Harries used to say, ‘I have a bath once a month, whether I need it or not.’ Black Harries owned the neighbouring farm to Nellie at Njoro. After he had been jailed for six weeks he went to South Africa, selling the farm on easy terms to Cockie Birkbeck, who married Blor Blixen. But Cockie was too idle to send the quarterly cheque, so the farm reverted to Harries, who returned to Kenya. Nellie said she had to shoo the ducks off the Chippendale chairs if she visited the Harries...
Marmite and Kippers

Marmite and Kippers

Once upon a time, a few years after WWII, when Socialist Britain had got its act together, supermarkets had already begun their war on the English village post office and shop. Halfway around the world in Kenya, the colony still depended on the efficient, hardworking and honest Asian shopkeepers for its expat needs. These capable men were invariably referred to by the supercilious, white colonial customers as dukawallahs. The phrase implied an inferior intellect of the shopkeeper to the shopper, whereas the opposite was more usually the case. It was in the decade from 1950 – 60 when Kenya expats, particularly safari operators, were often asked over the telex by incoming visitors whether there was any commodity which the tourists could bring with them which they imagined must be unavailable in East Africa at that time and the residents would therefore welcome them. Typically all American clients brought their personal supply of toilet rolls and all males inquired if there was the correct voltage available in the lodges to operate an electric shaver. This hang-up lasted for the entire decade despite the fact that even then expat facilities in colonial Kenya were equal if not superior to those of other colonies like Australia or Canada and included motor racing, rugby and repertory theatre. There were, however, occasional hiccups in the supply of certain commodities and it was then that the telexes rattled with Kenyan expats calling for kippers and Marmite. Ironically, the tables have now turned and the African hypermarkets like the Nakumatt chain stores often have a more comprehensive range of goods than do their European equivalents.  There...
Culture Stress

Culture Stress

I grew up in East Africa speaking a local language and associating with a large variety of African people. Since attending college I have spent 40 years working in Africa in many different roles including teaching, translating and administration. For many years I directed courses for incoming expatriates – both missionaries and college students. I gave a number of lectures on culture stress (often referred to as culture shock) and how to deal with it. One would think that with this background I would be somewhat immune to culture stress myself. However, an experience in England reinforced the fact that adjusting to another culture is an ongoing struggle. A number of years ago my family and I spent two years at Oxford University where I was doing graduate work in social anthropology. We enjoyed our time there and I felt I had a good understanding of how society worked at Oxford. Several years later I returned to the University to submit my thesis, the final requirement for my PhD. After reading the thesis my tutor deemed that it was ready for examination and asked me to prepare it for submission. I immediately started the involved process of filling out various forms and getting the manuscript ready for binding. One of the forms asked how many words were in the final product. I stated that there were 130,000 words – taking pride in the amount of material I had written. Several days later I received word from the graduate committee that my thesis was too long and not approved for submission. The committee would meet again in a few days...
Aerogrammes – Communications Of Yesteryear

Aerogrammes – Communications Of Yesteryear

When my wife and I turned up in Kenya in the mid-1950s overland from the UK, it had been arranged that our best friend and his wife also from the UK should follow us out. My best friend duly arrived but without his wife. An annulment was arranged and he soon became engaged to an expat teacher at the Kenya High School by the name of Jill and I found myself best man to my best friend the second time that year!It turned out that Jill left behind in the UK an elderly, widowed mother, of whom she was very fond. Her mother was of a determined independent nature and had scornfully rejected life in a care home and found herself a bed-sitter in the Lanes of Brighton. She insisted on communicating with her daughter as frequently and as economically as was possible. Every Sunday afternoon my friend drove his wife from Karen where he worked at the Duke of York School to the spacious and empty old Nairobi Post Office car park. They would then make sure the Kenya Post Office delivery van had arrived from Nairobi Embakasi Airport after having collected the mailbag off the East African Airways from London flight which landed at 14.30 hrs. Sure enough every week by 4 pm local time there would be a letter to Jill from her mother in their Nairobi post box. Sunday evening would find Jill answering the letter and the reply was airmailed Monday morning and delivered to Brighton in the afternoon post on Wednesday, and so the cycle continued.Jill soon discovered there had recently come on...