IN SEARCH OF MY FILM – A FAMILY’S PAST

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

RECONNECTING

I was taken from the airport to the Milimani Backpackers’ Hostel, right up the road from where our old house to be. So lovely to travel the familiar roads at night, little traffic, a friendly taxi driver chatting away. I am home.

The hostel is a delight – a shambolick collection of funny little sheds, charmingly painted with African elephants. I am in “buffalo” and find my skinny bed, an old tin can as a bedside table, an overhead bulb, a wonky shower and a toilet with no lid. Ah yes – Africa. I am wired up and ready to party. There’s a delightful outdoor little bar and restaurant, where I get the best mango and yoghurt in the world and get chatting to a group of young Danish volunteers, all ready to march out into the bush and change the world. Good luck. They are sweet but naïve, of course. One of them is a film maker and shows me his work – pretty good stuff, done on the fly while traveling around the world. I have to keep on my toes, these young geniuses find it all too easy.

The next morning I am up at 7.30am (yes, me!) running next door to change money at the bank that has replaced our lovely old house. Only our old date palm graces the driveway, there is no trace of our past lives here – after almost 50 years!! Ah well, we come, we go. You hear that, ancestors?? Where are you? Not around here, that’s for sure.

When I return, Oscar is there to pick me up, and talking to an old, freckled, pony-tailed man who I recognize from about 40 years ago. Kevin Wheelock! Raised “up country” on a white farm, has Boer Afrikaner roots, speaks English with the typically clipped, slightly South African accent of white Kenyan farmers. He has started a bamboo plantation down in Athi river, near our old farm and near to where Oscar now lives, at Kitengela. Later in the week, he and I will concoct a scheme to save my brother, who is too isolated out here, too confused, too endangered, and too bloody cranky.

Oscar and I drive out to Kitengela on the worst road in  Africa. It takes over an hour to go ten miles. When we finally arrive at his funny little house, it seems that we have traveled into another era. There are zebra grazing around and monkeys in the trees. The house is a left-over from an American college that leased Oscar’s land and built many of these small houses for staff and students. They are dilapidated now and falling apart, but his is quite nice, with a very high, peaked roof made of local makuti, or thatch, and red stone floors. I sleep in a loft upstairs, and he has a big bedroom and a pleasant living room and deck. It is all in a shambles, though. He moved here last year and after his accident, is unable to sort stuff out, unpack it, get organized, although he has made a valiant effort. So guess who is once again sorting out someone else’s stuff!! My karma, my karma.

Just a few days after arrival, I was picked up at 4am and taken over the Masai plains in an old truck driven by a mad Masai youth who has missed out on his warrior hood. But we do make it to the airport on time and before long, I find myself in Eldoret, in Kenya’s northwestern Uasu Ngisho area. I have come here to film the landscape, because this area was offered to the Zionist Jews by the British in 1904, and I want to include this story in my film. Just an hour after arrival, I’m on my way, driving out out out into the far distant hills and thrilled to be doing what I love best – driving in a new place. The tall eucalyptus trees are lit by the morning sun, the road is lined with fields and pine trees – a very different scenario from Oscar’s plains, as we are above 7000 feet here. I film and film, obsessed with catching the light on the leaves, and must hurry back to the Rosewood Cottages before dark as my car has no lights. Such a delight to rent with no contract, no paper work, probably no insurance, and no lights. I call it freedom. You take responsibility for everything yourself.

Back at the hotel, I meet Zunaiba and Dirgil, a Muslim couple. She is 45, he is 29, but they are in love and I take an instant liking to them. “Do you want to go dancing?” they ask. “What – me???? I am dead on my feet, haven’t even allowed any jet lag, but I must go dancing, so I put on my one skirt and off we go. It’s a club, with fake flames outside the door, packed with young African men and women. I am the only white person. On stage there is a band – 4 guitars, one drum. The music is old Kenya rumba, from way back in the 1950s. It has come from Zaire but developed its own East African rhythms since then and it is absolutely irresistible. The men sing love songs in close harmony and I am on my feet for the next three hours, dancing alone or with anyone who cares to join me. A young man says that he has never seen a “mzungu” or white person dance like an African. Ha! That is the best compliment anyone could pay me.

The next day I am off to the northeast, to the gorgeous Kerio Valley, which is the western wall of the Rift Valley. Winding through crappy little villages and behind smelly lorries, I pass Iten where the Kenya Olympic champion runners are trained, and sure enough, I see a group of men running up the hill almost as fast as my car is going, which is about 10 miles an hour. One of the men is white, tall a and lithe, like a Masai. He gives me a thumbs up. At last I come out to the dirt road that takes me to the Kerio Hotel – the only place where you can actually get a fantastic view of the valley. The light plays games here, running, rippling across the valley floor. Clouds move fast along the ridges, over there a rain squall paints the sky dark grey while over here, the sun blazes down mercilessly. Clacking wooden goat bells trail along the wooded slopes, and far far away, a metal roof sends distress signals in the sun.

I have some fruit salad with yoghurt, nuts and honey, and get chatting to an African man and his niece. She is a student of media and communications at the local college and immediately, I am invited to teach there next year. Ha! Yes indeed I will. I will teach anywhere in Africa that anyone wants me to teach. I head further along the road and down, down to the valley floor to the famous gorge that descends 1000 feet into the rock and is only three feet wide. I have to lie on my stomach to look over the edge. A toucan clacks in alarm. I can see a crocodile down there and further along, where it widens out, some children are playing in the water. I suppose the crocs and the kids are friends.

The next day, Zunaiba and Dirgil take me to the Naiberry Resort – a lovely lodge on a river with a swimming pool and a good Indian curry for lunch. There are Africans, Indians and whites, kids playing in the water. Kenya is truly integrated now.

That evening I head back to Nairobi and another night at Milimani, which is now populated by a diverse group of foreigners, mostly Europeans, doing all kinds of fun stuff. The next day, I hire a wonderful driver called Judas, who takes me to all the old parts of Nairobi that I knew so well. I am filming the various residential areas which were originally planned to be for whites, Asians and Africans. Of course, despite integration, the standards of housing very enormously. My mother had some large part in this planning and always denied that it was along racial divides. “It was along economic lines,” she stated. “Anyone could live anywhere if they could afford it.” Right.

Judas understands exactly what I am looking for. He takes me to the African areas, the African market, to Muthaiga, where very wealthy whites used to live, their huge houses now largely taken by various embassies. We visit the Kenya Girls High SChooll in Kileleshwa and I film the African girls discreetly. They are dressed in the exact same uniforms we used to wear when the school was all white. Grey felt skirts, white shirt, red tie, grey cardigan, white socks, brown lace-up shoes. A t 4pm they are still in class. The school is silent, everyone is WORKING. Then they come out for juice and then it is time for mandatory sports. Nothing has changed. In the huge dining hall, I find my name carved on a board where graduates are listed. The same tables and chairs are arrayed in the same rows. The only thing that has changes is that where our old school “houses” were named after colonial heroes, such as “Delamere” after Lord Delamere, the “houses” now have African names.

The next day Oscar picks me up again in his ratty old truck and we head off to Lake Naivasha, in the Rift Valley. W e climb the escarpment that is the eastern wall of the Rift, then head down again through the yellow acacia trees and along the second worst road in Africa to Green Park – a gated community built by a group of extremely British old settlers and ex-patriots. My friends Jenny and Ian Stoker, who came to Kenya 40 years ago as volunteers, loved it so much that they have built a house here. It is a huge reunion – I have not seen them for 5 or 6 years, and I have invited my old school friend Chrissie, who lives in Nanyuki, to join us. It is a merry group, with John and Sally, other friends, who spent 5 years in Kenya and just keep coming back. The talk is of old times. Chrissie knows everyone in Kenya and drops all these British, double-barreled upcountry names. Tony Fitz-John, Patrick Gilbert-Hopkins – people I knew only vaguely as I belonged to the “urban” Nairobi crowd and most of my friends were not the children of farmers, but of business people.  A clear social divide, I may say. We eat incredibly fantastic fish from the lake and tell silly jokes and at one point, burst into song together – “Jerusalem” was my old school song and everyone knows it. Oh God, it is all SO very British, but such fun. We  have even dressed for dinner, the men in long trousers and shirts, the ladies in dresses.

The next day, we drive down to the lake shore to visit Linda Hopcraft, who has married into the extensive Kenya Hopcraft clan. Her husband is an invalid in Nairobi, and she runs their very exclusive lodge. The house was built of red lava rock by Italian prisoners of war in 1917 and is a lovely, spacious place with arched walls leading out onto wide terraces where you can sit and gaze at the tranquil lake. There are plenty of buffalo around here and just two weeks ago, one of the Hopcrafts was killed by an injured male. We are treated to crumbly carrot cake, shown the old family album and the family tree. Linda is American, but has lived here since 1975. She is tall and large and her shirt is stained, but we love her and she offers Oscar a cottage on the land. Ha! Many people want to save him, I see.

The next day is spent hanging about, working a little. I interview everyone about their memories of Nairobi in the 1960s, and of my parents and our old house – little sound bites that will be woven throughout the film. Another fantastic meal cooked by Sally, who is a professional and author of many well-known cook books. I show everyone the unfinished film – very nervous, as these are people familiar with my family and with Kenya history. They are amazed and intrigued and we sit up until long past midnight discussing the various issues and details of Mau Mau history.

The next day, Oscar and I leave amidst very fond farewells. Jennie and I in tears, such a long history we have! So much love and friendship. But we must go. We are off to see Oria Douglas-Hamilton at the old Rocco farm further down the lake. I am absolutely astounded to learn that Oria – my pal and friend of many years – is now 80 years old. I had no idea she was so much older than I! her parents, Mario and Giselle Rocco, were dear friends of my parents, and we used to come here for Sunday lunch almost every weekend. I met Johnny Weissmuller here – the first Tarzan – when I was a child. The house is an Italian palace, a gorgeous structure with high ceilings, great terraces, red stone floors and shelves carved into the walls for pieces of Giselle’s lovely sculptures. In their youth, the daughters Mirella and Oria painted fabulous murals in purple, silver, midnight blue and black on the walls. Mirella became a photographer famed for her book “Vanishing Africa” and Oria married Ian Douglas-Hamilton – the king of elephant studies. Oria runs a truly exclusive camp up north in Samburu land – her clients the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. She has turned her parents’ farm into a wildlife sanctuary teeming with buffalo, zebra and hippo, and has established a school for Samburu. Her latest protégé, a young herdsman with only two years of official schooling, was accepted into her school, raced ahead in only a few years and has just been accepted to Princeton. These are the amazing stories of Kenya, the light, the love, the indefatigable energy, the brilliance! Despite all the poverty, disease, hunger and corruption, there is magic here. Let me weave my spell for you.

So now I am back with Oscar at Kitengela, sorting through family papers. I was taken this evening on a walk by Peter, a volunteer Masai game warden. Oscar’s land dips down to the river and in the evening, many animals come down to drink. We see two hippo snorting under an overhang. A crocodile, who I saw last week, is in exactly the same place. Not dead, just sunning himself. A herd of Impala races away, leaping over tall bushes, and seven giraffe gaze at us, unwilling to move from the fig tree they are enjoying. A vulture circles overhead. A blue heron stalks around in the shallows. The river is very low, non-existent in parts. But there are definite rhino tracks, lion spoor, buffalo footprints – a host of animals has just been here. No lion this time. The baboons make too much noise, scaring the lions off. It is a charming walk, the sky turning slowly orange as the sun goes down behind the hill. Night comes very fast here. W e must hurry to get back to Oscar’s before it turns pitch black, as we have not brought a torch. Behind me, a male baboon grunts sarcastically. “Leaving already?” he asks. “Good! Good riddance and goodnight!”

 

 

Comments
  1. Ronnie Tuft says:

    Love your life stories. Keep me posted.

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