We Made it Our Home

“I don’ know the answers”, says Mum. She looks crestfallen.

I tell her, ‘it’s not a test, ma, it was just in case you were interested’.

I have flagged the pages of a book with post-it notes and on each note I have scratched a comment, in an effort to guide her reading, lend context. Make it, I hoped, more interesting.

The book I’ve leafed with notes so that the pages are feathered yellow is an old blue hardback that has been in my library for years – and before that, hers. It’s called They Made it Their Home and it describes, in dated lexicon – it was, after all, published in 1962 – the homesteads settled by Kenya’s earliest pioneers. I am hit by the scent of aged paper when I flick it open: something musty and comforting. 

I have flagged the chapter Mombasa with the words: ‘You lived here as a child. Your dad was a doctor here’.   Mum does not remember Mombasa. She does not remember the enormous baobabs that lurched ancient and wide girthed from hot sandy soil, all gone now to make way for spilling urban sprawl. She does not remember a city that 70 years ago was so gentle she and her little sister cycled between home and my grandfather’s hospital. Now it squeals in the heat and bleats with the complaining horns of strangled traffic.

She has no recollection of Machakos and Ulu which share a page because their geography is in proximity. ‘You lived here too’ I write and then boldly elaborate, ‘My dad farmed here’.  The ranch I grew up on was hugged between Ulu’s hills which rolled fat and green in the rains and grew skinny ribbed as the vegetation desiccated in times of drought. My uncle fell into a cess pit as a child in Machakos and my grandparents tended him urgently all night; my mother almost didn’t have a little brother.  The same little brother whom she doted on and of whom last week she said indignantly, ‘Brother? I don’t have a brother!”

Of Nairobi I wrote, ‘You worked here for East African Airways’. Later we shopped there, visited our grandparents in a small suburban house with a garden that smelled of damp earth and woodsmoke which ours on the ranch never did. Mum dragged us to a Nairobi dentist, shopped for fabric in its Bazaar Street and bought us potato crisps with a twist of salt to eat on the way home in the car.   My mother does not remember I am her daughter, why should she have borne any responsibility to my oral hygiene. I will not mention it.

Of Londiani I scribble, ‘My dad’s parents settled here 100 years ago’. My grandmother arrived on the back of a donkey apparently, with her trousseau and minus the barrels of fish she had brined in the eastern highlands of Scotland. Those had been dropped quay side in Mombasa (see above) as they were unloaded and split and the catch slithered saltily back into the ocean. Her first home had an earthen floor and a charcoal and chickenwire refrigerator.

Of Gilgil I write three words, ‘We lived here’. I do not tell her that this is where she first succumbed to Depression, where it stuck out a leg meanly and tripped her up and she fell headfirst into an abyss where it was hard to reach her and harder to understand her. We lived there for six years. She was sick for most of those. I do not remind her, ‘This is where dad went the weekend he died’: driving home he had a car crash. He wouldn’t have felt a thing people told us afterward, as if that were supposed to help. I do not remind her because she does not remember my father or where he is or when he died. ‘He left me, you know,’ she has confided, ‘my husband just upped and left’.

Sotik: we lived her too. Dad was returning there when he died. Mum wasn’t there because she was in Ireland being treated for the Depression which was never treated and which had moved home with us – Gilgil to Sotik. It followed us to England after that. I hoped we had managed to leave it behind with dog eared furniture. We should have locked it firmly into a cupboard – perhaps the one where mum locked all the booze. We only discovered it on loading it into a truck when the tip and rattle of bottles alerted us.

Naivasha was happier for mum. On a farm overlooking a lake. ‘Dad worked for Lady Delamere’ I print on my post-it. My maternal grandmother had a lot to say about that. But I could never tell if the glint in her eye was on account of the delicious recounting of Happy Valley gossip or because she disapproved of the lot of them. Which my paternal grandmother, who shared our home briefly here, certainly did.  My opinion of Lady D was informed by the fact she let me ride her wild polo ponies across the farm and because each Christmas she dispatched a gift for my siblings and I from Hamleys in London. Dad was insulted by this. He got 200 bob.

And finally I have stuck a resistant post-it note into the Kinangop, resistant because the glue is drying and post-its flutter like leaves to the floor unless I press with determination and weight, the tip of my thumb white with the effort of it. ‘MY dad grew up here’ for often Dad confuses her: mine? hers? Ours? Are we sisters?  My father learned to drive here when he was still so small he used to beg some amenable other to sit in the foot well of the truck and work the pedals for him. My uncle at 14 shot a lion to save an Italian prisoner of war from the jaws of fate; the lion had him up a tree and was pawing at his backside to try to retrieve his quarry from the branches. And here my grandfather died of oral cancer, nil by mouth at the end except for the nip of whiskey he sucked through a straw.

“I don’t know any of the answers”, mum says again, waving her hand at me in a gesture of despair.

It’s not a test, I repeat. And then I see, it probably was. Unwittingly, in trying to unearth her roots, I was challenging her memory.

And I am sorry. 


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