Letters from Sonja: The People of Kenya
Sonja meets various people in Kenya and refuses the accommodation given to her and her husband who is to be transferred to Mombasa- a move that could threaten his career.
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First published: May 18, 2005
Click Here: Previously on "Letters from Sonja"
When I first came to East Africa the beauty of the region, the scenery, the vegetation and the animals overwhelmed me. Most of all, however, I was interested in the people, especially in the African people. Africa interested me since my childhood. It was so far away and completely out of my reach. I had only seen German people until the end of World War II, with the exception of one Russian family and some prisoners of war. I saw the first non-European people when the French troops marched into Stuttgart and brought with them soldiers from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Actually die Americans should have taken Stuttgart, but on the morning of the day the Americans would have marched into Stuttgart, the Germans blew up the Koenig-Karl-Bruecke, a bridge over the River Neckar, so the Americans could not cross the river Neckar. The French troops, coming from another direction, then made it to Stuttgart before the Americans.
Many horror stories were told about the French troops. I must say, my family never had any bad experience, but I was always very scared of the Moroccans. Whenever I saw them coming I would quickly walk over to the other side of the street. Sometimes I even started running. They had a very unfavorable uniform. On top of their actual uniform they wore a wide coat with a hood and turban. Everything was khaki colored. Looking back, I think that this uniform alone made them look so frightful. I never came into contact with any of them.
I also never had anything to do with any Algerian but a young Tunisian one-day came to our house. The soldiers very often just went into people's houses. Gerd, my little brother, was playing on the street. He had the house key in his pocket and knew nothing better to do than to open the door for the Tunisian. I was scared. He came into our apartment and sat down at the table. My mother kept very calm. She did not know any foreign language and I, at that time, did not know any French, just a little English. The Tunisian knew a little German and a little English and a conversation started somehow. We found out that this young man was homesick, longing for his mother. He also told us that he has a sister about my age. After a while he left again. Some weeks later the French troops left and the Americans came. They too had non-white soldiers- African Americans and Puerto Ricans.
During the war we had taken some of our belongings to my uncle on the Schwaebische Alb, some 70 km away, and also to an aunt in another village. As soon as we could get a pass to visit our relatives, my mother, her sister and myself went to collect our belongings, or what was left of them. The Moroccans had taken much of everything. They even took my schoolbag and my very nice Atlas. It was war, and looting is part of war.
Although we had transportation for most of the way, we did not have it all the way. From my uncle's house to my aunt's house it was another 20 km that we had to walk. We also had to walk quite a big stretch on our way back to Stuttgart. We had put our remaining belongings on a hand-wagon, which we had to pull. Our feet hurt and my aunty and myself started exchanging our shoes. This did not help much. So we walked barefoot. I was getting so tired that at one point I decided to stop the next car that comes along, even if Moroccans were driving the car. It was a truck driven by two African Americans. They stopped. I talked to them in English and although I could hardly express myself, they were amused. They offered to give us a ride. My mother, the wagon and myself had to go on the back of the lorry while my aunty had to sit with the two soldiers in the cabin at the front. We hoped they did not do any harm to my aunt. Just outside Stuttgart, we had to get off, as they, of course, were not allowed to take anybody in the car. They had really helped us a lot, and we thanked them.
I tell you all of this to show you my little exposure to non-Europeans and the difficult circumstances in which I met them in Germany. And now I was in Nairobi. This again was not so easy, as 1953 was the time of the Mau Mau and an Emergency had been declared. I only met men during this time.
Fortress at Lari after the masacre (picture was taken before my arrival).
Click here to see more images on the Lari Massacre and if you chose to do so, you may sign up with BritishPathe to watch free video clips of the time.
To start with, there were my helpers Juma, a Luo from Kisumu, who helped me in the house and, Mwinzi a Kamba from Machakos, who helped with the garden. Conversation was somewhat difficult as Mwinzi did not speak a single word of English and I did not know any Swahili. Juma became my teacher. He wrote words down for me to learn and when I was able to say "asante sana" instead of "thank you", his face really lit up to a bright smile.
On November 4th, 1953, I wrote home as follows:
Swahili is a cute language. I like words like
bibi = Frau(wife),
dudu = Kaefer(insect),
takataka = Schmutz(dirt),
maridadi = Schmuck/Tand(ornament/jewels).
The word "maridadi" is especially so plastic to me, that sometimes I am not sure anymore, if this is a German word or really Swahili.
The Europeans often complain about the Africans, who work in their houses. But why should I be prejudiced? I have nothing to complain about. Juma is clean, I think he is honest, and most of all he is very cheerful. As he teaches me Swahili I try to teach him housework the way I would like it to be done. At home he wears rather worn out clothes. He is wearing one of my aprons now. He thinks this to be funny, but I haven't got the long white "nightshirt" which they call "Kanzu" .
Juma, who has now got a Kanzu, serving food on the balcony in Langata.
When Juma has his day off and goes to town, he really looks very smart. Not only is he wearing shoes and socks then, but also a "Junghans" wristwatch and sunglasses. He does not walk to town, but rides his brand new bicycle. He also owns a mechanical gramophone.
Juma told me about life in his village and about his sister, who makes clay pots. He also explained to me why the Luos have their front teeth missing. Apparently they used to pull out the front teeth, so that in case a person was very ill, they could infuse the medicine. He also told me, that he is married. Later when he came back from a vacation, he told me, that he got a second wife now. Soon she came from Kisumu to stay with him for a while. She was a very young girl.
Mwinzi on the other hand, was still very young. He had not been working before he came to work for us. While I improved my Swahili, Mwinzi learned to speak some English. My Swahili unfortunately never became very good for I never bothered about the grammar at all. The English of both Juma and Mwinzi improved constantly. I always thought, that the Africans have a natural talent for languages, probably because most of them knew several languages, mainly their tribal language, then Swahili and very often at least some English.
Mwinzi with a puff adder he has killed in Langata.
We had bought a bow and three arrows to send them home for my brother. The string of the bow broke, but Mwinzi fixed it. He had to take a normal piece of string. The original string was, I think, made of an animal sinew. It was very interesting, how he rolled the string on his thigh. That way it became greasy from his skin. He then attached it to the bow. He took his work very seriously.
Mwinzi then gave us a shooting demonstration. It was evening and almost dark. Mwinzi was in his element! He was shooting the arrow so high that we could not follow it anymore. Suddenly Mwinzi starts walking straight as a dart to exactly the point, where the arrow landed. The precision in which he would locate the arrow was astonishing. It was an amazing demonstration.
Whereas the Masai had spears for weapons, the Kambas were using bow and arrows. Both, the Masai and the Kambas, used the poison they got from the Giriamas from Mombasa
Machakos - Mwinzi brings his parents to meet us.
One day we drove to Machakos and took Mwinzi with us. His village was called Kilungi. In Machakos he got out of the car and said that he was now walking to visit his parents. We fixed a time, when he should be back. When he returned his parents came with him to greet us and they brought us a chicken as a present. We were so pleased. It was so nice of these people.
Juma stayed with us, until we left for our first "long leave" in Germany in autumn of 1955. After returning from Germany we moved to Kampala. Juma did not want to come to Kampala and instead went back to Kisumu. Mwinzi came with us to Kampala and he stayed with us until 1957 when he went back home.
Then there was Peter, a Kikuyu, who came regularly to our house to sell vegetables to me. Some of the vegetables were quite exotic to me, but he advised me on what I could do with them. We always had a good chat including some gossip. Peter knew everything that was going on in the neighborhood. Kitisuru, where we lived, originally was a coffee plantation. The houses were built on 10-acre plots. The neighbors were quite far apart. I did not really know anybody there, but Peter always kept me up to date.
Peter selling vegetables to me in Kitisuru.
One day he somehow got warning that the police was around. He let his bicycle fall down and started running. I picked it up and took it to the back of the house. After some time, when the alarm was apparently over, he came again to collect his bicycle. He often told me about the difficult life of the Kikuyus. Kitisuru was actually next to the Kikuyu reservation. He told me for instance, that one of his children died as his wife were not allowed to go to Nairobi to see a doctor. I further learned from him, that it was absolutely forbidden for a Kikuyu to grow even a single coffee tree in his shamba.
On January 1st, 1954, Peter's youngest son had his second birthday. He invited me for this occasion. I would have liked to go there very much, but Hubert thought, it was not such a good idea to pay a visit in the Kikuyu reservation during Mau Mau. I found it very interesting, that Peter organized a tea party for his little son, whereas so many Africans did not even know the date of their birth.
In June of 1954 we tried to find a smaller house, as the present one was getting too expensive for us. In the end we moved to an even bigger house, as it was such a good offer. The house is located in Langata, 11 Miles outside Nairobi. It belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Armand Denis, who were very famous wild life photographers. Their young cameraman was Des Bartlett. I very often see his wildlife films on TV even today. They traveled the whole world but liked Kenya best and built this huge house for their retirement. Mr. and Mrs. Denis had designed the house by themselves. It was built of the stones from the building site. We knew the architect who supervised the building of the house according to the plans of the Denissens. He offered it to us for next to nothing. They needed a caretaker. The Denissens were very interesting people and very kind. Michaela Denis was rather eccentric in a way, but she loved animals and had an extremely nice way of dealing with the local people. They let us use their brand new and very big American fridge with a huge freezer compartment. Every time they came to Nairobi, Armand Denis went into my kitchen, opened the refrigerator and said, "Like in a show room!".
In 1955 my husband was to be transferred to Mombasa to become the workshop manager of CMC there. We flew to Mombasa one day. This was my first flight and it was very bumpy! The house the company was offering us was in a very bad state. I refused to stay there. At that time our new car had arrived from Germany and could be collected from the harbor. I went back to Nairobi that same day with Hubert. Originally we had planned that I should stay in Mombasa and get the house ready. Back in Nairobi some of the other Germans said, I would be ruining the career of my husband. I certainly did not want to do that and so decided to go to Mombasa again by train to have a second look at the house. Maybe there were things that could be done to make it more accommodating or else we could try to find another suitable place for us to live. When I arrived at CMC, I was told that the house was no longer available. In addition, I now had nowhere to stay. In came a lady customer of CMC and when she heard the story, she offered me to stay in their guesthouse. On the way there, upon her advice, I bought something to eat for myself. The guesthouse was very far away from the main building. The lady was Mrs. Blunt, wife of Commander Blunt. Commander Blunt was a White hunter and the next day they expected some clients to take them on a hunting safari. I was really scared, all by myself in this house, which had no glass windows, but just holes as windows with some wooden shutters for the night. I went to bed with a box of matches in my hand and planned to light up the whole building if somebody was to come. I tucked myself in with the mosquito net and fell asleep with the matches in my hand. The following morning I wanted to make myself a breakfast and found out, that the loaf of bread I had bought, was more or less eaten up by ants. I did not have a car, nor could I drive one at that time, so I was stuck in this house with all kinds of crawling creatures and outside, in a pineapple plantation, there were baboons.
Soon I got a visitor, who wanted to sell me fresh fruit and vegetables. I did not want to show my money and so I told him that I had no money and therefore could buy anything. He must have felt very sorry for me as he left me some fruit without pay. The next day he came again to see how I was getting on and to bring me more fruit and vegetables. He also showed me his shamba. He supplied me with fruit and vegetables as long as I stayed there. I am still ashamed of my lie.
The telephone in the main house was out of order so I could not contact my Hubert in Nairobi. As soon as the phone worked again, I rang him and told him, that I wanted to come back, because there is no chance of me finding another place. The plane was booked out, and so was the train, but Hubert told me that some of the drivers of CMC were in Mombasa to bring up some new Land Rovers in a convoy. He said that he will arrange that I can come to Nairobi with them and told me that Wilson, a very reliable driver who was in charge of the convoy, would take care of me.
Wilson came to collect me and the convoy could start heading for Nairobi. About halfway to Nairobi we stopped for the night at a terrible English hotel in Mtito Andei. The Africans were fine for the night. They had made arrangements there with some friends. I, however, was stuck as the manager of the hotel told me that everything was booked. So I sat near the bar, were drunken Englishmen were hanging around. I never liked drunken people and felt very uneasy, until an English lady came up to me and asked me if I would like to share her room. There were three beds in the room, and we only needed two. So I was relieved and had a good sleep for the rest of the night. The following morning, the first thing the unfriendly manager did, was to ask me to pay for the room. I, of course, paid him but I was more than glad when Wilson collected me and we could drive on to Nairobi.
Wilson was a Luo. He told me a lot about the Luos sometimes making me uncomfortable around him. He wanted to tell me, what would happen to him, in case he killed me. I was so scared, that I did not hear anymore. I tried to hide my discomfort, and the conversation went on. He certainly did not mean to scare me, but just wanted to tell me about their strict customs. He also told me about his four wives and explained to me that each one of them had a certain "department" to take care of. It seemed to be a very practical arrangement.
When we arrived in Nairobi, I looked more like a Masai than a mzungu, because I was red everywhere from the red African soil.
Wilson later became a car sales man with CMC.
We went on many safaris and had the great pleasure of meeting some Masai. On one occasion we came near a Masai settlement where some festivities were going on and there was a lot of singing and dancing. Some girls came out of the scrubby enclosure. They were just as curious as I was. While still singing and dancing they started touching me and stroking my hair. When they were satisfied that they had inspected everything very carefully, they retreated, laughing a lot.
I also met children on various occasions. Near Nairobi lived a German taxidermist, Paul Zimmermann. Originally he was sent to Kenya by a German University but liked Kenya so much that he either stayed there or returned for good. During World War II he was interned together with all the Germans then living in Kenya. When we met him he had his tanning factory outside Nairobi and also his studio where he prepared the animals. He was a gifted artist and was working for most of the European Royals as well as the Shah of Persia. He could have become a millionaire, but money did not mean anything to him. He always had a bundle of notes in his pocket and when he walked through the housing estate for his workers he would just hand the money to people in need. On one of these rounds through the quarters of his employees, he took me along and showed me his private school. Every child of his workers could attend this school for free. I was surprised how eager to learn these children were. Mr. Zimmermann or "Bwana Simama", as his employees and their families called him, was very proud of these children. All his employees were Kikuyu, during this time of Mau Mau, and all were very loyal to him. In his last days, when he was very ill with Diabetes, he stayed in a hotel in Nairobi and a Kikuyu woman took care of him until he died. His factory was sold to an American company.
And then we met the first Muganda. He was Paul Kibukamusoke. He was the office manager of the architect from whom we rented the house of Mr. and Mrs. Denis. Hubert went to this office regularly to report what was going on in Langata and to pay the rent. We were also taking care of some animals that were kept at the house in Langata. Hubert told me about the pleasant Ugandan he had met. One day he took me along to this office and there I met Paul Kibukamusoke as well as his Luo friend Norbert Okare. I asked Hubert, if we could invite the two to our house and he agreed.
Paul and Norbert came visiting us one Sunday afternoon for coffee and later for dinner. We talked about many things, listened to music and had a really good time. Paul told us about his brothers and how he had left Uganda to go into exile to Nairobi when the Kabaka himself, was exiled by Governor Sir Andrew Cohen. He also told us, that he would go back to Uganda as soon as the Kabaka returns.
Being the days of the Mau Mau, Norbert told us how during the night the police often dragged them out of their house.
Suddenly a car drove up and I was wondering who it could be and how they would react to our visitors. They were a Jewish couple, she from Poland, and he from Czech-o-Slovakia. He was an engineer with East Africa Railways and Harbors. With these people it was absolutely no problem that we had African visitors, although this was very uncommon in those days. They, too, enjoyed our guests. This couple left before dinner and they invited us all together for dinner at their house for the next Sunday, when we again had a very pleasant evening together.
Paul and Norbert stayed until 1 o'clock that night. Norbert even helped me washing the dishes.
Norbert started writing to my little brother. When we went on "long leave" to Germany he wanted to give something from Africa to me, to take to Germany. The time was short and we had to meet in Nairobi so that he could give me what he had for me. It was impossible that we just met like normal people. Norbert asked me to go to the post office and wait in front of our post box. He was on the other side of the street. When he saw me, he crossed the road and while passing me, handed me a parcel and off he went. It later turned out, that the parcel contained a crocodile handbag. This was a very humiliating situation. Neither Norbert nor myself had to hide anything. We just wanted to meet like normal people. But this in the British Crown Colony of Kenya in 1955 was not possible. It also would have been impossible to go to a restaurant together. An exception was the airport, which at that time was in Eastleigh. So when we departed for Europe, both Paul and Norbert came to the airport to bid us farewell. Quite a number of Germans came there too. Paul and Norbert sat at a table by themselves. That was so embarrassing.
Paul told us, that by the time we come back, he would be in Kampala again and that he wants us to meet his king, whose brother Lincoln went to school together with him at King's College Buddo.
Norbert and myself had quite an intensive correspondence in the years to follow. He had so many ideas and we talked these things over. Whenever we came to Nairobi in later years, we met there. At some point my brother came to East Africa too and later lived in Nairobi with his wife and children. I, of course, introduced them to Norbert and he became a guest in their house too.
Unfortunately both, Paul Kibukamosoke and Norbert Okare later were killed in road accidents. What an unfortunate coincidence. Norbert was killed in a car accident on 17th November 1994 on the Nakuru/Kericho road and Paul, when crossing a road in Kampala as a pedestrian. I only learned about Paul's death in April 2004. I still don't know when and exactly where that tragic accident happened. My sister-in-law had last seen Norbert in February 1994, during a vacation in Kenya.
Nobert's Death and Funeral announcement.
As I have talked about the Mau Mau, I have attached some pictures. This was a very cruel fight on both sides. It was the Mau Mau who suffered most. The fight was very unequal. One side had all the weapons in the world including bomber planes, the other side had nothing but very primitive weapons.
Train derailed by Mau Mau outside Nairobi.
It is very unfortunate, that in every nation there are people who can be manipulated. And in every nation there are people that are willing to do the cruelest things. I only wish people one day would learn from history. So far this has not happened.
Mwinzi Looking really smart- Langata.
Mwinzi with his parents.
With the children of Machakos.
Another picture of the derailed train.
Masai looking at the VW engine and calling, "engine nyuma!"
Hubert looking at the earring I got from the Masai.
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First published: May 18, 2005