When Donanne and I arrived in Nairobi where I would start work as the Africa Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, we loved being in East Africa and living in Nairobi about which we had read so much. We were intrigued to be sharing our lives with people so different from us: Africans, East Asians, British holdovers from the colonial era so recently dismantled. Donanne, daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer who had finished high school in South Africa, was pleased to be overseas again. I was eager to revisit the East African game parks whose denizens had so amazed me when I encountered them, during the annual migration of wildebeest and zebra, at the end of my tour with the United States Information Service in the Congo.
We lodged first at the Norfolk Hotel. It was a real Africa hostelry famous for high-living British colonials riding horses through the dining room in long ago yesteryears. We had a small cottage at the back of the property out beyond the garden where superb starlings jumped around inside an aviary.
There was no heat in our cottage. This was Nairobi, mere miles below the Equator; you weren’t supposed to need heat. There were even open vents at the ceiling for air circulation. But Nairobi lay in mile-high country. It was chilly. We bought East African Standards and Daily Nations so that I could keep abreast of the news. Once finished with the papers, we stuffed them into the air-vents to stay warm.
We had the devil of a time finding a place to live. We talked with estate agents. We rented a car from a place called Odd Jobs on Muindi Mbingu Street. We went house- and apartment-hunting. Alas! without success. Finally we heard of a house, rent-controlled and empty, seven miles outside of Nairobi on Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate. A widow living in British Columbia owned the place and wanted desperately to sell it. But she had been unable to do so for several years. We took a look.
It was “old Nairobi.” That had definite appeal. Constructed of field stone, it offered an adequate living/dining room, a largish master bedroom and two smaller rooms, each with its own wash basin, its pipes presumably attached somewhere in the foundations. The young Kikuyu tending the place seemed awfully nice and probably could be hired as a servant. Hmm.
Then there was the kitchen. It defined the term “basic.” It was dark. The “cooker” was pre-World War II. The basin, apparently on the verge of collapse, stood on two legs anchored to a wall. There was a pothole in the floor.
Should we take the place? We’d had enough of hotels. But no. Seven miles was too far out of Nairobi. Moreover, the place had its own well; the water was potable but bad for one’s teeth. Residents had to cart drinking water from Nairobi. But the deal-breaker was the kitchen. It was simply unbelievable.
I went off to Ghana to cover the elections and the restoration of civilian rule there.
When I returned from Accra two weeks later, Donanne had not been able to find a place for us to live. By then we were frantic to get out of hotels. We took another look at the house at Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate. On the minus side, the kitchen was not to be tolerated. On the plus side, the property was “real Africa.” At seven miles out it would offer tranquility, a refuge from the bustle of Nairobi. Moreover, it was or had been a coffee plantation. Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) had lived on a coffee plantation, probably in a house made of field stone, maybe with a 12-foot-high anthill at the end of the drive just like the one this house featured. Who could forget the first line of Out of Africa, Blixen’s masterpiece? “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot on the Ngong Hills.” We all pay homage to Karen Blixen in differing ways. We paid ours by taking the Rosslyn house.
We took it, continuing to look for a more permanent place. After all, the Rosslyn house could be sold out from under us at almost any time. But it didn’t sell. Finally we settled into the house, expecting to live there indefinitely.
As it turned out, we were not its only occupants. There was a resident upstairs – whom we never saw – living above the ceiling. We could hear it at night. As this neighbor went sliding about its quarters (it did not step; it slid), we would lie awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering if it would emerge. Was it a giant slug? A sloth? A dragon? We never knew.
There were spiders in the house. Not necessarily a bad thing because they kept down insects. But they were very pregnant spiders that kept having babies. Sometimes, returning from dinner or a movie in Nairobi, we would find dozens of tiny baby spiders hanging from the hall ceiling. Donanne would get out the vacuum cleaner, suck the babies into its innards and then seal the machine so that none could escape.
The house had been built in the colonial days. Its water came from a well, not from a city waterworks. Without problems water flowed into basins and then emptied into–- Well, we actually hadn’t inquired into what. One evening I was working on a dispatch in my office, the small bedroom overlooking the expansive yard outside. I heard a strange scratching. Stopped work. Looked about. Was it the sloth? The dragon? Nothing. Hmm. Went back to work. More scratching. More looking. Again returned to work. More scratching, a metallic sound. Then scratching of the sort that might be made on porcelain. I glanced at the basin behind the desk. Something was peddling furiously to escape the basin. A mouse! I jumped clear out of my chair. I yelled with surprise as if I’d been attacked. Donanne came running.
We caught the critter and escorted it from the house. Then we carefully examined the basin. It did not empty into under-house plumbing, but simply into the garden outside. The scratchings I’d heard were those of the mouse making its way up the pipe. We quickly put a stopper into the basin.
The residents along the estate road never paid attention to their American neighbors. (Because we’d like to have known them, Donanne once took a welcoming plate of cookies to a couple who had just moved in. Never heard further from them.) But Thomas, the neighbors’ cat, did wander over, picking his high-stepping way over the tall grass. We like cats, thought it would be fun to have a friend.
Over a period of days we worked at becoming acquainted. We even allowed Thomas inside the house. He so liked it there that he began to mark the territory as his own. We came upon him one day, tail held aloft, one masculine hind leg in the air, anointing our best chair. Wowee! If that was merely marking territory, it very much looked like something else. Yeegads! Was the chair ruined? Would the whole living room smell? Rather too excitedly I rushed at Thomas, shouting and clapping my hands. I chased the poor guy outside. We were too new in our acquisition of wildlife lore to realize an animal would mark its territory. Whatever. Thomas never came back.
Seven miles out proved not all that convenient, more of a problem for Donanne (who was stuck at the house) than for me who used the car to chase stories. When we were in town at night, it seemed like a long drive home along a very dark road. One night driving home we had to slam on the brakes to avoid running into an obstacle in the road. We were not sure what it was. As we moved closer, it became a truck, parked smack in the middle of the two-lane road. Approaching closer, we saw that the hood was up. Still closer we made out the haunches of an African bent over, messing with the innards of the vehicle. We crept past and sent a good thought to him and all drivers on that road.
I will let Donanne describe that famous kitchen:
In retrospect it wasn’t that bad. It included a small fridge, a sink, a cooker, a few shelves, a light bulb dangling from the ceiling – and a pothole in the middle of the cement floor. Filled with crumpled newspapers and covered with a woven mat from the bazaar, the pothole mostly disappeared. The two-legged sink leaned against the wall under a window that opened onto the back of the property. Through it a smiling Laban delivered tetra-pak milk cartons. The cooker was a step up into a shadowy alcove. From its heights its hooded vent emitted strange sounds that made one wonder what might fall into the cook pot. Stirring semolina was not without drama. Something did fall once, black and wiggly, but I don’t know what it was. When it arrived, I left. Best of all, through the open windows of the kitchen and the rest of the house wafted the memorable fragrance of jasmine. We knew that we had no real grounds for complaint. After all, we “had a place [ not a farm] in Africa,” if not “at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” at least on the road to Banana Hill.
After we’d been in the house about five months, we were notified that the widow in British Columbia had succeeded at last in selling the place. We would have to start house-hunting all over again. But wait! Sub-Saharan Africa was an enormous beat to cover. Maybe it made sense for us to wander the territory for a time, visiting the countries I was supposed to cover and sending The Monitor reports about them. I proposed the idea to my editors. With extraordinary generosity they agreed. The housing allowance that I would no longer receive would help defray the costs of Donanne’s traveling with me. So we said goodbye to the house at Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate and set out on eight months of travel.