Guest post by Sotantar Sood who lived in Kenya until the mid-1960s, attended Allidina Visram High School and returned to Kenya recently after 46 years. Sotantar currently lives in Canada with his family
In February and March of 2012, my wife and I spent 2 weeks in India followed by 3 weeks in Kenya. We go to India every 1 to 2 years to visit my wife’s side of the family. On this trip, after spending 2 weeks in India, we connected to Kenya via Mumbai, on a trip which I called my “pilgrimage of nostalgia”.
This trip had been due for 46 years. After completing “A” Levels at Allidina Visram High School in Mombasa, I had left for Leeds University in 1965. I returned a year later, somehow having managed to wrangle a summer job at the Bamburi Cement Factory. Soon after, in 1967, my father’s retirement came up and my parents left to spend their retired years in India. All of a sudden, there were no family ties pulling me back to Kenya and I felt free to explore and settle anywhere in the world.
However, I was left with a treasure trove of memories to cherish for a lifetime. Mombasa somehow managed to make an appearance regularly in my dreams. Usually this was about swimming in the warm waters, or wandering through familiar streets – the scenery frozen in a time capsule of my mind. During waking hours, I would sometimes daydream about slow languid evenings by the sea, the abandoned ice-factory on Tudor Creek which was our own private retreat where me and my friends could skim stones on the water and also try to bring down mangoes from the wild mango trees. Tropical fruits like guavas, ber, victoria, treats like roasted mohogo (cassava) with chili and lime. Memories of swimming in our own isolated crushed shell beach and crystal clear warm, sea water.
Looking at Google Earth, I could visualize some of the changes that had occurred over time – but still, the excitement built when I stepped into the sunshine at Mombasa Airport – a flood of memories came rushing back, making me eager for the drive through town to our hotel in Bamburi.Driving from the Airport through Changamwe and over the Makupa Causeway gave me the first inkling of the impact of population growth on the City and surroundings. Changamwe was all built up – not what I remembered. The Makupa roundabout was recognizable, but barely. The intersection of Ziwani Road and Makupa Road is now termed “Saba Saba”. I was born in a house just off this intersection – but it seems that the area has changed more in the last 40 years than in the previous 200 years. Going over the new Nyali bridge, one has to pass by the old Allidina grounds. It is hard to figure out from the road where the grounds used to be . Looking at Google Earth, one can see that there is still some open space where the open grounds once stood – but there are now buildings fronting on Ziwani Road.
Our 5 day stay at Whitesands was pretty comfortable – though Bamburi beach is not the quiet, uncrowded place that it was during our school days. Contrary to reports, we did not get hassled by hawkers on the beach. We enjoyed the fresh mangoes, coconuts and Tusker every day – and morning jogs on the beach to get rid of the excess calories. On the following Sunday, I finally completed the main task of our visit – an excursion into town with a car and driver.
Of course, our starting point of interest was Allidina Visram High School – where I had spent 6 formative, wonderful years, received a first class education, played on the championship hockey team and even taught chemistry for 6 months prior to going to University….. I didn’t even recognize the entrance to the School – it was completely fenced off with a small sign announcing the school’s presence – not the open, wide space that I remember. On the road to the old Nyali Bridge are a cluster of auto repair shops, almost stacked one on top of the other. We talked the watchman into letting us in to have a look at the school. Being Sunday, the school was closed – so we could take our time to check it out.Inside the gate, along the side of the access road, there are homes/huts built for the caretaker and families. This all used to be open space. The school building itself seems to be intact, but there are obvious signs of disrepair. We walked to the front of the school and took some pictures. There is still a wonderful view of the Channel and the open sea, but this is somewhat marred by a wire fence (for security reasons, I suppose) going all the way around to the steps which the Scouts had built. We couldn’t go into the school, it being Sunday. However, the school exterior retains its original impressive facade.
After wandering around for about an hour, we tipped the watchman and proceeded past where I went to Primary School (Mbheni, Kaloleni) and where the Teachers Training College used to be. We turned right and proceeded past the Municipal Stadium, opposite which are now bars, shops and crowded apartments. We all remember the Stadium – this is where the school used to hold Sports Day and where I tried my best in the athletic events, where Seraphino Antao used to train on the cinder track …which eventually resulted in a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the 100m, where I saw Kip Keino win the Kenya Championships before he won Olympic Golds.
Then onwards to Hobbly Road quarters. These quarters are still there but look older but also somehow, smaller. We used to live near the quarters, within a short walk to Allidina Grounds. I found the building, but the front is totally different now. The old jamun tree is long gone. There is no empty lot at the side or back of the house. It seems that Mombasa Island has gone in one direction – which is downhill. ..what a pity! In that sense, people who left can justifiably feel vindicated, but there are still pangs of sadness at what used to be, and what is there now. The house that I was born in still sits near the intersection of Ziwani Rd and Makupa Rd. There used to be a huge mango tree at the front, together with a couple of coconut trees and an empty lot at the side with another wild mango tree. The front of the house just had a dirt road – but we did not know any different, and to us, it was heaven as we had plenty of space to play plus neighbours who knew each other very well. As a bonus, there was free fruit in season as well the mango tree to climb. Unfortunately, all that is visible of the house is the corrugated iron roof. There is a tight concrete fence around the house with an iron gate – for security reasons, I presume. The dirt road is paved over and there are no trees any more, just the sun beating down relentlessly.
Driving into town, we took the mandatory picture at the tusks on Kilindini Rd.. This was followed by a drive to Fort Jesus and the Lighthouse. I noticed that Mama Ngina Drive near the Lighthouse was still attractive, but there are many more stalls as you get closer to Likoni Ferry. The Ferry itself is a disaster in the sense that there is a few hours of wait before you can get on to the Ferry resulting in cars, people being backed up in a long queue.
I must say that Nyali area on the mainland is very nicely developed in comparison to the Island. There are some beautiful, large properties, with a nice view of the Nyali channel. We had dinner with a school class mate – his house has a fantastic view of the Channel overlooking Old Town and receiving a daily dose of beautiful sunsets. There are also has some prestigious schools such as the Mombasa Academy and a large and beautiful Hare Krishna Temple, plus the Nyali Golf course nearby. So, people with means can still enjoy a nice life – however, petty crime is a bit of an issue.
After about 5 days in Mombasa, we headed off to Nairobi for a day with my wife’s cousin and then went on Safari for about a week. The Safari was wonderful and to be highly recommended. The various lodges that we stayed at are all up to international standards, and so is the service. Our itinerary covered Mt. Kenya Safari Club, Sweetwaters tented camp in Laikipia, Lion Hill Lodge at Lake Nakuru and of course, Masai Mara Game reserve. Although it was the dry season , we did manage to see quite a lot of game, including the “Big 5″. The Rift Valley is spectacular and the vistas in Masai Mara are compelling. Well worth the bone jarring drive from Narok to the Mara.
After the Safari, we had 5 days in Nairobi. I must say that despite being warned about crime rates, we did not feel particularly unsafe – the restaurants, shopping malls are quite modern and crowded in the evenings. Of course, everyone lives in gated communities with security guards being “de rigueur”. We met some distant relatives who claim that they are “living in heaven” and that “you people in North America work too hard”. On the other hand, I would find it difficult to settle in Nairobi because of the traffic jams, the endemic shortage of water and the nagging insecurity due to petty and not-so-petty crimes.
So it was not with a heavy heart that we departed for Mumbai in order to catch our flight back to Toronto. We were thankful for an amazing , nostalgic, unique trip, but also glad to be going home. At my age, I cannot afford to wait for another 46 years for the next visit – so I have a feeling that we will be going back sometime fairly soon in the forthcoming future!
Tags: Allidina Visram High School, Bamburi beach, Hare Krishna temple, Hobbly Road quarters, Kaloleni School, Likoni ferry, Mombasa Academy, safari to Masaii Mara, Seraphino Antao, Sotantar Sood visit to Kenya after 46 years