When Donanne and I went to look at the house on Rosslyn Lone Tree Estates, we met a thin, young Kikuyu with a well-modeled face and dark, alert eyes. He fetched the keys from the servant’s quarters behind the house. They dangled from a piece of bent wire. The young man led us to the entry porch and unlocked the door.
Donanne asked, “Do you live here?”
“Yes,” he replied, pushing the door open and stepping back from the threshold, obliging and respectful.
“Is it a good house?” I asked.
“It is a good house,” he answered, his face open and so honest that it told both all and nothing about him. “It is all right.”
The house stood on a five-acre plot of ground at the end of a lane of jacarandas in rolling country planted with coffee. An orange-brown anthill, maybe eight feet tall, stretched beside the front walk. There was room enough for us to live well and for me to have an office, and the rent was controlled.
While we toured the house, the young Kikuyu sat on the porch in the sun. I glanced at him through a window and wondered if his life would become involved with ours. We liked the house and eventually decided to take it.
Interviewing a prospective servant in Africa, I had heard, you looked him squarely in the face, trying to see what was there and not there. You took from him worn references withdrawn from a plastic bag or a wallet or a leather pouch, carefully unfolded them and read the statements of employers whose firms had transferred them elsewhere. You asked yourself questions: Is this man honest? Trustworthy? Of pleasant disposition? Will he steal sugar? Clothes? The checkbook? If I am fair to him, will he be fair to me?
Of course, we knew that the prospective servant was not someone we invite to dinner. Yet if we employed him, we were inviting him to share our lives. It would be at least a matter of weeks before we learned to know him as a servant. As a human being we might never know him at all.
When we took possession of the house on Rosslyn Lone Tree Estates, the young Kikuyu caretaker was still living on the place. We asked his name and heard him answer, “It is Robin.” When we inquired about his references and examined them, we discovered that the name, in fact, was Laban Waithaka Muturi. We looked carefully at him and he bore our scrutiny. We asked if he would like to work for us, mainly caring for the grounds as he had already been doing. He said, “It is all right,” which meant that he would. We decided to try the arrangement for a week to see how it went.
It went well. At the end of the week I typed out a letter of agreement between us. We would pay Laban twice a month at the same rate he was being paid by the absent owner. He would (1) care for the garden, (2) clean inside the house on request, (3) wash the car, (4) act as watchman when we were gone, (5) burn the garbage and (6) do other chores as requested. His hours of work would be 8:00 a.m. to noon, 2:00 p.m. to 4:30, Monday through Friday. He could remain in his quarters and friends could visit him, but “there will be no drinking of alcoholic beverages on the premises.” We agreed to pay for two shirts and one pair of trousers immediately and to finance two other garments when a probationary period was concluded at the end of the first month. They would also provide a bag of charcoal. Grounds for dismissal were enumerated: failure to perform duties, incompatibility, drunkenness, rowdiness.
I doubted that so specific a contract was necessary. But colleagues assured me it was a must. The worst possible nightmare that could befall an expatriate was to have a servant make an official charge that he had been cheated. Such charges were usually levelled just before the expat left on a transfer. Without a contract both parties had signed, the expat got caught in the con game. He paid exorbitantly just to get out of the country.
We did not really share our lives with Laban. He spent much of his time tending the long, broad lawn. There was no mower. Laban cut the grass with a long-bladed implement having a curved and sharpened end. He stood upright, swinging the implement back and forth, slowly cutting the grass.
Sometimes I watched him and wondered how I’d like that job. Laban had some education, at least enough to speak English. Didn’t this mowing crush him? Didn’t he find Lone Tree Estates rather isolated? What did he do for a social life? For friends? And yet, I would remind myself, Laban had a place to live and a job on the money economy. At least theoretically he was no longer tied to the land. Sometimes watching the man, I would wonder: Who is Laban anyway?
We really could not answer that question. That fact was borne out when we made our first trip. We went to Arusha where I would pick up stories about the East African Community and add to work I’d been doing about poaching problems in game parks. We would be away a week and would leave Laban in charge of the house and property.
But the day before the trip was to start – a Saturday – I was overcome by reservations. “Do you think this is really a good idea?” I asked Donanne. “Leaving the house this way. We really don’t know the guy.”
“I think he’s honest,” she said. “Anyway, what’s there to take?”
“Clothes. Furniture. What if we come back and the house is empty? We’d have no idea where to find him.”
So I spent Saturday afternoon lining up a guard from Securicor. I felt badly, distrusting Laban who seemed so honest, but I wanted to be sure.
The next morning when we were about to drive away, Laban waved and called: “Hoping to see you again.”
Then the house was sold. My editors generously agreed that I should spend the next six to eight months touring my sub-Saharan territory. Since there would be no housing allowance to pay, the paper agreed to finance Donanne’s travel. We put our household goods and belongings into storage and would live out of suitcases.
But what would happen to Laban? By then we felt affection for him. We knew now that he had a mother and a sister on a shamba near Limuru a bit north of Nairobi. Laban sometimes visited them on weekends and would bring greetings from his mother. Sometimes Donanne sent return greetings and even small presents.
We hoped our departure would not push Laban out of the money economy back into the subsistence one. But that seemed likely. I gave him a letter of recommendation and assured him that we would employ him again once we returned to Nairobi. We got his address – Kiroe Township – and said our goodbyes, feeling a little as if we were abandoning a friend.
We were not settled again into a house in Nairobi until 18 months later. I wrote Laban in Kiroe Township, saying, “If you do not have a job, would you like to come and work for us?” The letter sent our regards to Laban’s mother and sister and closed with words Donanne and I often repeated to one another, the words that Laban had used in sending us off on our first trip: “Hoping to see you again.”
I had doubts that the letter would ever reach its destination. But only a few evenings later who should come pedaling down Riverside Paddocks toward the small bungalow we had rented? Laban Waithaka Muturi. He had ridden in from Limuru, the bicycle his Pegasus, flying high in his triumphant return to the money economy. A grin spread the entire width of his face. “Hello!” he called.
“Habari!” I answered, ushering him into the drive. “Nice to see you again!”
“My mother sends her greetings,” Laban told Donanne when she came out of the house.
“Please give her our greetings,” she replied. “We have a good place for you.”
Laban grinned and exclaimed, “Nzuri sana!”
Laban rejoined the household. He occupied more spacious quarters than those at Rosslyn, received a fifteen percent raise and two new sets of work clothes and was living now in a neighborhood where he could strike up friendships with other workers. He worked for us until we left Nairobi. Alas! I cannot find a picture of him.
Next post: The Rosslyn house gets sold. Donanne and Fred leave Nairobi and hit the road for eight months of travel around his territory. First stop: the Zimbabwe ruins.