Karen 'Then and Now'
It occurred to me as one of the geriatric ‘Staying-oners’ in Kenya, who has lived in Karen both ‘Then and Now’, that those who were there then might be interested in a familiarization with the modern Karen and the younger generations who are there now, might be interested in the old Karen.
Any Old Africa reader, even those who have only passed through Karen once or twice on the way to the Ngong Hills to photograph herds of buffalo, will know the South Western Nairobi suburb is named after the Baroness Karen von Blixen.
Karen’s house has now been turned into a museum. Her stories about her time in Kenya have received worldwide acclaim. She writes for many who after they have departed ‘Out of Africa’, find that they have left their hearts behind.
Karen has always been at the heart of the white man’s influence in Kenya. This is because, unlike the other two countries associated with East Africa, Uganda and Tanzania, in Kenya freehold land has always been available to purchase. Karen is 6000 feet above sea level and only 100 miles from the equator. The area enjoys 300 sunny days a year with enough rain to keep everything green, but not enough to inconvenience you. It has the ideal cool, pleasant climate and only 1 in 100 residents own a raincoat.
I can think of no settlement anywhere in the world where things have changed over the last 50 years as much as they have in Karen. Because this may not be fully appreciated by some Old Africa readers, I think some detail of the amazing changes of Karen might be of interest to them.
Less than 50 years ago, at the time of the London’s Lancaster House conferences, land in Karen was worthless. No one could be persuaded to buy any of it. Today, less than 50 years later, it has some of the most high-priced land on the continent and to buy a four-bedroom house in Karen today will now equate with UK prices.
Before WWII, Mr. Patel, whose son still runs Karen Provision Stores, handled about thirty customers a day; his was the only shop in the village. Today’s Nakumatt, a mega-chain store of Tesco proportions, and the expanded Karen Provision Stores, have between them twenty cash counters, which are busy the 24/7, as well as a yard and shop of one of the largest building suppliers in Kenya. Karen boasts three banks, three chemists and two cyber-cafes to name but eight of the numerous retail outlets and service centres.
Fifty years ago, Mr. Patel was the only dispenser of fuel in the neighbourhood from hand-operated pumps. Today, there are 24 petrol pumps alone in three large filling stations, within a hundred yards of Karen shopping centre, each pump having at least one vehicle behind it most of the time, meaning that the twenty-four pumps are operating virtually all day long.
Karen residents must be amongst the highest ratio of owners of large luxury four-wheel drive vehicles compared to saloon cars anywhere in the world. Four out of every ten cars you see is a mega off-roader. Fifty years ago, a new Land Rover retailed for the equivalent of Ksh. 20,000. Today it is two hundred times as expensive.
Fifty years ago I should imagine, under a hundred cars in total per day rolled through the Karen crossroads. Today there is an unending stream driving round the roundabout. Then there were no buses and perhaps one matatu an hour leaving for Nairobi. Today there are a permanently at least twenty matatus blasting their horns for customers during daylight hours, and numerous bus routes terminating there.
Fifty years ago mzungu workers in the Industrial Area would pop home the 12 miles to Karen for their lunch hour. Today, such is traffic density, Karen residents working in the Nairobi Industrial Area have to leave home by 5 am to be in time for work at 8 am.
When we arrived in Karen fifty years ago, we occasionally had lions at the bottom of the garden, many trees had leopard living in them, and giraffe were everywhere. Today, the giraffe have been enclosed at the Giraffe Centre. You will only find warthogs and vervet monkeys around, and a few Sykes monkeys which are now very rare.
The name of the settlement is both interesting and significant. Plenty of people have towns named after them. Queen Victoria had a score named after her. Karen’s name was rather more unusual. The Baroness Karen von Blixen only spent sixteen of here ninety-two years in Karen. The suburb now bears her name and her house has been turned into a national museum, honouring a person who later wrote long and lovingly about the area. But at the time she left, she was a failure having been unsuccessful in growing coffee, departed ignominiously like a scolded dog with its tail between its legs, About the only thing her notoriously unfaithful husband gave her was syphilis, for which she had to return to Denmark to seek a cure. The haughty Danish Baroness was for the most part not liked by her contemporary English settlers, particularly after she embarrassed them by going down on her hands and knees begging to their governor to grant her a favour.
Readers will no doubt be pleased to hear however, that Karen still has a rural feel. Children still exercise their ponies in the Karen country lanes, passing only Universities, colleges, seminaries, monasteries, nunneries, hospitals, churches, mosques and many a new magnificent residences, facing the Ngong Hills. The water supply for the new houses is supplemented with fifty South Korean water tankers, but you can no longer find a buffalo within 50 miles.
In case readers are imagining me as a smug property speculator and business adviser, allow me to conclude with a small but interesting cash value example over the same period. Fifty years ago when my wife and I sold up in the UK to settle in Karen, I was very pleased with myself when I managed to sell my pride and joy, a 1927 supercharged Alfa Romeo, which I raced at Silverstone sports car meetings, for £150. I had bought the car a year previously for £100. Last year my sister sent me a copy of the Winchester Gazette, recording the annual Goodwood Auction sales of vintage cars, and it had a photograph of my old Alfa, recording without surprise that it had been knocked down for six million pounds! You can’t win them all!