Karen Then and Now – Follow up
I was pleased to receive the following email from Barbara Black from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada after she read my blog about Karen, then and now. Here’s her email.
“You will have to excuse my barely contained delight at finding your blog entry “Karen—Then and Now.” I am a writer living in Victoria, BC, Canada, currently working on a series of poems based on my family history. My great Aunt Calla, sister of my grandmother Sonia Carlson (originally from Sweden) lived in Karen from the 1920s to the 1960s. With her English husband Fred Head they bought 25 acres in the Karen estate and lived there for many years. My Nana is gone now (lived to age 104) and the only records I have of Calla’s time in Karen are her scant recorded recollections from letters that Calla wrote to her over the years.
I have many questions to ask, but I wonder if there are other sites or books I might look at to learn more about this place and time during the 20s- 60s. Fred Head was a pianist and apparently entertained at many of the diplomatic parties at Government House under Lord and Lady Baring. Do you have any suggestions? As a gardener myself, I am also very interested in what plants Calla might have had on her estate, which was five miles from Nairobi near a game reserve. She also worked at a bookstore called ‘Moore’s’ for which I have found no references at all. So many questions; perhaps you can help?”
I thought my answer to Barbara might interest some other Old Africa readers as well. So here goes.
The white community at the time your Aunt was here in the 1920s, with lots of overlaps and exceptions, in general fit into two categories - government officials and settlers. The government officials worked for the administration, the Governor being their God, hotlines to Whitehall their lifeline. Many were brilliant, young, liberal, sympathetic, efficient Provincial and District commissioners who administered justice, kept the peace and ran the country. The commissioners worked all over the country but the core of the administration lived in Nairobi.
Many of the whites who worked for the administration lived in Karen and were members of the Nairobi Club. The administration tried to make sure the local African population was not to be exploited by growing number of settlers. The administration did not want the settlers to imagine Kenya their country. Settlers had to accept the fact that one day fairly soon there would be a dual black and white government, and eventually an all black government.
The other half of the white population were settlers who had bought farms. Many had second homes in Karen and came down to Nairobi almost weekly for their social life. They would likely be members of the Muthaiga Club.
Both the administration mzungus living in Karen and the settler mzungus who lived in Karen enjoyed the same lifestyle. Land purchases had to be a minimum of five acres so the area wasn’t over-developed. They were allowed to build one house in which they lived and a guest house. Both types of mzungus hired a very large staff. Usually two shamba boys (gardeners - a head and helper). The memsahib of the household would never garden with a trowel or her hands; she would just point and direct. The inside staff consisted of one houseboy who looked after the cleaning and one cook who did all the cooking. If there were any children there would be an ayah. If the memsahib couldn’t drive there would be a chauffeur for the second car. A standing joke at the time was that expats came from England not for the glorious wildlife or coastline but to get away from the washing-up.
With such a large staff it was easy to entertain. Karen residents visited friends twice a week for dinner parties and often entertained twice a week in return. The two vacant evenings would be spent at the club. The memsahib would have bridge parties most afternoons and might well be a member at one of the three excellent Nairobi golf clubs.
In those pre-television days one went to one of the three excellent Nairobi cinemas once a week and one of the two excellent UK provincial-type professional theatres once a week. A magnificent theatre was built by Donovan Maule. All his professional actors came out on contract and many of them stay for a lifetime. Kenneth Mason who acted every week for 30 years and only died last year was perhaps the best loved. The Donovan Maule Theatre experienced a sad ending when it was pulled down after less than 10 years to make way for parliament extensions. Every Christmas there were brilliant pantomimes.
In those pre-Google days, book reading would be an evening’s entertainment. One enterprising friend of mine got the agency for a children’s encyclopedia set of six green volumes and he seems to have succeeded in selling one set to every settler household because if you examine the libraries of any Karen houses that have had unchanged ownership since the 1960s I guarantee you will find a set of those encyclopedias.
Nairobi had many top value 5-star hotels. The New Stanley for example advertised as much smorgasbord as you could eat for 2/50 shs which was still going at 7/00 shs in the 1970s. There was not one set of traffic lights in town. Two Singh policemen with whistles stood on a stand directing the small amount of traffic at the Delamere Avenue crossroads.
Church attendance on Sundays was strictly Anglican and Catholic to a similar pattern of UK, a sprinkling of Anglicans and a church-full of Catholics for their hurried mass.
Everybody, administration and settlers, would drive their families down to the coast for a two-week holiday every August. The administrators would have six weeks home leave every three years. There would be a farewell party at Nairobi Railway Station as they caught their train to the ocean-going liners which would carry them from Mombasa through the Suez Canal to a London dock. When they arrived ‘home’ they would be full of their glorious lifestyle in Africa to start with but as they realised that nobody wanted to hear about it they soon got the hint and shut up.