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Sixty-Eight Years on a Motorcycle

Before i turn off Nandi Hills road

We arrive in Nairobi tomorrow morning. It’s my first time here in 1998. I eat the city with my eyes. Countless cars, people, everything…but the real boundary of my world doesn’t stretch beyond the painful heels my tight leather shoes have given me at no discount.

 

Tall buildings. One of them conspicuously screams at me:

AMBASSADEUR Hotel.

Why not AMBASSADOR? My mind asks. Why French? But before I can get the answer, I hear his voice:

“Wait.”

I wait.

“How much?”

He’s addressing a woman who sells pairs of slippers near the railway station.

“Fifty, sir – fifty only.”

“Is that not too high?”

“Not at all, sir,” the seller says. “To someone else I would sell at seventy shillings – you are my special customer – that is why I am selling less to you only.”

He laughs.

He gives her money, and then gives me the blue pair of slippers.

I wear them.

We board the bus west to Kikuyu Town.

 

I register.

His walking stick taps the school tarmac as he walks away.

The sound recedes towards the entrance.

I turn and look.

His black coat disappears behind the concrete column at the gate – a shadow bombed out of existence…

***

Near us was the small town called “Poto Poto”, several miles west of our village, Odiya. That was where he said the largest colony of wild pigs lived. You had to pass “Kopere”, another small town before you reached Poto Poto. I was too young to understand or dig out layers of time that had piled onto these place names.

***

One morning I left school, travelled to the heart of Nairobi so I could have something specific to boast about to my friends back in the village when we closed. I nearly got lost in the noisy city. I was saved by the French spelling again:

AMBASSADEUR Hotel.

I used the writing to locate the bus station. My eyes caught the bold inscription as I boarded the bus back to school and it went along Moi Avenue.

In the bus, I kept wondering why the name of the hotel was emblazoned in French yet Kenya was a British colony. Was it the same reason as I’d seen BUREAU DE CHANGE at the doors of some banks in Nairobi? I’d seen BON JOUR on Total petrol stations and knew that was a French company. Was AMBASSADEUR also owned by the French?

I did not ask anybody until many, many, many years later, in 2016, when I boarded a motorcycle to Poto Poto Town.

I was going to play witness to something I didn’t know…

I’d googled “NOVELS ABOUT SONGHOR IN KENYA” and gasped as something strange appeared on the screen of my laptop. It read: SONGHOR: AN AFRICAN SAGA, BY ALEXIS MANTHEAKIS. Amazon.com revealed that the saga was set in my village. The latest version of the book was called KILIMANJARO: A COLONIAL NOVEL. The laptop screen said the author lives in Athens.

Alexis’ email address was there.

I could contact him. I couldn’t imagine my luck.

 

I left Nairobi after weeks and arrived home in Western Kenya. It was evening. I had to go and find out for myself what Alexis was telling me. How strange? For the author had just told me that his Greek father, Mr. Manoli Mantheakis, had lived in Poto Poto in the 1940s! He wrote that, on google maps, he could still see their house, and usually dreamt about his late parents every time he did so, remembering the life he’d lived there as a teenager. Alexis sent me photos taken there in the 1940s and 50s. He’d even sent me the book and I’d read it gluttonously, with something much more than enthusiasm.

 

When I left home the following morning for the small town of Poto Poto past Kopere, I didn’t know that I was covering sixty-eight years on a motorcycle. Nor did I know that I was going to unravel the mystery behind those strange names, “Poto Poto”, and “Kopere” –even the French spelling of Nairobi’s AMBASSADEUR Hotel…

The large, white house stood looking at me. A small group of administrative policemen lived in it. Round the windows were baroque patterns, tough, concise, and German-like. I took a photo pointing at a side window. When I sent the same to Alexis, he jovially wrote: “That’s the window of my old bedroom!”

The APs dry their clothes

The Greek author wrote more by email:

“My father escaped Greece which had been under Turkish Ottoman occupation, a brutal regime that had massacred and sold off to slavery thousands of his fellow islanders from Crete. He had arrived in Tanganyika as a poor 14 year old boy, alone, and had walked several times from the coast to Mwanza on safaris. In 1948 my father bought and settled on the Chemelil land, which was 9, 500 acres, and 7 miles across, from Daraja Mbili to Kibigori where the Nandi Reserve began.”

At Daraja Mbili, there are ‘two bridges’ because two streams meet on their journey from the hills of Kenya’s Rift Valley, cruising over the plain Kano land to L. Victoria down in the west. Near Daraja Mbili is the small town of Kopere, on your way from Chemelil Sugar Factory to Nandi Hills. Mr. Alexis wrote that he later discovered why his father had quit Tanganyika and relocated to Kenya.

“My father had a serious dispute with the British governor of the Tanganyika Territory. Manoli went to Parliament in London where he demanded the removal of the Governor. The reply that came after an investigation was: ‘Yes, you are right but His Majesty’s government cannot replace a colonial administration because of one Greek!’ As a result Manoli, who the East African Standard would write about when he visited Nairobi for shopping, referring to him as ‘The Sisal King,’ and my immediate family, left everything in Tanganyika and moved to Kenya where father bought the Chemelil estate, the first sisal plantation in the area.”

Manoli Mantheakis had learnt the sisal business in Tanganyika from the Germans before the First World War, and had started his career as a planter there. At the height of his sisal career, Manoli had over 20 sisal plantations in Tanganyika. In Kenya, the sisal empire would later spread into gold mining, and the Greek family owned Equatorial Gold Mines near the hill to the north of Kibigori, a place today called ‘Magazine.’ Much later they ventured into coffee farming in Ruiru, and hotel business in Nairobi, enterprises which endeared the Greek family to the government.

The Mantheakises had European supervisors. These included: Kefalides (nicknamed ‘Poto Poto’); Paris Mavrelis (nicknamed ‘Mrefu’ because of his height); Dimitri Michalatos (nicknamed ‘Nona’ because he was big and muscular); a South African called ‘Futi Saba’; another South African with a Nandi wife; a Swiss factory engineer, Ralph; a French-Mauritian engineer called Rae; an English former police officer from Kisumu who resigned from the colonial police in protest at the harsh treatment of African prisoners by the British during the emergency, in the name of Queen Elizabeth II; a supervisor from Seychelles; and a mysterious chief mining engineer, Walter, who was said to be the son of King George V of England.

Of the tall white men near the northern hill in those years, Mzee Silwal of Poto Poto told me that day, “Not that they were very big. But they were tall and so straight, and the upper arm was so swollen, that here we gave the name ‘Kipwalelon’ to Alexis – ‘He of the big upper arm.’”

Alexis further wrote to me, “We had perhaps eight European managers and supervisors with their families, several Indians as karanis together with African staff and in total there were 1,500 people. There was a duka run by an Ashabai Patel. Our estate housed several workers’ villages, divided in tribal regions because the workmen did not want to be near the Mavia workers whom we had brought from Tanganyika (they were originally from Mozambique) who scared other workers with their filed teeth and heavily scarred bodies full of tribal markings.”

Alexis wrote that their employing such a huge staff made his father popular with the government.

“We were regularly visited by Chief Elijah of the Nandis and by Luo politicians. Tom Mboya knew my mother and when he saw her with the newly released Cypriot revolutionary leader, Archbishop (later President) Makarios, exiled to Seychelles for leading the EOKA freedom guerrilla movement, Tom asked my mother to intercede for Makarios to get help and cooperation with the African independence movement.”

One of the photographs he sent me captured the opening of Ambassadeur Hotel in 1961. Tom’s father-in-law, Mr Odede, Alexis’ mother, Alexis himself, and the then British governor, Griffith Jones, are all present.

The author’s father died in 1952. Alexis’ mother, Georgia, who had grown the first sugarcane plantation around Daraja Mbili in 1958, and which later expanded southward into what is today Chemelil Sugar Factory after the sale of the land to a consortium of 28 Indian businessmen, left for Nairobi in 1961, where they built Ambassadeur Hotel. At a time when today’s Hilton Hotel was a mere water-logged ground, Ambassadeur was a building of its own class. He said that the chief chef was one Mr. Herman, brought from the kitchens of the famous in Europe. The author wrote that Herman was the cook of the American President Eisenhower, and Chancellor Conrad Adenauer.

“On my floor at Ambassadeur we had tragic and gentle King Freddy of Uganda, exiled from his Buganda Kingdom on Kilolo Hill by Milton Obote. Freddy was now an alcoholic, unable to deal with his exile and in his small but luxurious room in the Ambassadeur, a man who had lost his dignity and identity too. I also saw Serafino Antao, a handsome Mombasa Indian who was a sprinting phenomenon. He was seen by his English trainer who sent him to the Commonwealth Games where I think he came first. Antao put Kenya on the world map, but he started too late biologically – he first ran at 34 – and in a year or two he was spent. At that same time I knew Kipchoge Keino, the legendary Kipsigis policeman whose English senior officer had him run round the playing fields of my old school, Kericho Primary, until he was ready to go to the Olympics, with his large lungs, created by the altitude of Kericho and his stamina from chasing cattle rustlers, making him unbeatable.”

The author had fond memories of Kenya’s Kericho Town. That was where he began his boarding life. Alexis wrote that he attended boarding school from the tender age of 6 at the then European Primary at Kericho (today’s Kericho TTC). He then took the KPE and went to the Prince of Wales School in Nairobi (today’s Nairobi School), from where he went to Stanford University in California.

“The colonial government naturally spoke of the White Highlands, the best agricultural land that they reserved for white settlers, and it was not long before we learned this had been taken from its previous African owners. Chemelil Sisal had been used for grazing before colonization, on a small scale by Nandi and some Luo herdsmen and as soon as we bought the estate we were visited by Chief Elijah of the Nandis who explained that this had been Nandi grazing land before the British took it. He asked our permission to allow his people to continue grazing their cattle there. My father agreed happily as the estate was very large. However it was illegal for Africans to own or graze animals in the White Highlands, and Chemelil was the last such farm, neighbouring the Nandi reserve that began in Kibigori, so we advised Elijah to only allow his people to graze on the north section of the farm that was hidden by some small hills from the main road. Despite this, there were complaints from the English dairy farmers at Songhor and my mother had to pay constant fines for allowing what were called ‘Squatters’ to graze ‘unregistered’ animals on our property. We always had a sense of who the land had belonged to and as a result my mother was always a buffer between the colonial police and the herdsmen, warning them when a raid was to take place. However later the police would use the GSU to come on secret night raids and cattle were often confiscated. Despite this there were herdsmen hidden on our plantation grazing their animals happily until we sold in 1961.”

The writer remembered Songhor, not so much for its scandals and love triangles as for its village surprises involving his love for animals. He recalled how the Nandi, Chief Elijah, once told Georgia that Alexis’ twin sisters were a sign of bad luck in Nandi culture, and therefore the chief had come to pick them up to go and throw down a Nandi rock so the twins could die, but Alexis’ mother calmly dissuaded Elijah.

Of all the animals Alexis saw in Songhor, he wrote that the most mysterious was the Chemoset (the Nandi Bear), which their neighbour, Mr. Perry, shot dead but failed to ferry its bones to the National Museum in Nairobi, and to this day the Chemoset remains mythical even to zoologists.

“I had some guinea pigs when I was at school, and took them home to Chemelil,” he wrote to me. “Some escaped from the chicken house where I kept them with my rabbits. Years later when we moved to a nearby estate a young Nandi boy came to sell me guinea pigs. When I asked where he had obtained them he said in the porini. They were no doubt descendants of the escaped domestic guinea pigs I had raised. Often people would come and offer to sell me small animals, duikers, dik diks that I collected and had in a small enclosure behind out main house at Chemelil.

“One day a Luo youngster brought me a baby leopard he had found but my mother did not allow me to keep it because she explained that leopards could be tamed for a while but at any moment, unlike lions and cheetahs, could turn and attack their owners. I was nine years old and cried and cried but Georgia was adamant and the leopard cub was returned to its mother’s lair. We did however have a Greek friend in Arusha, a painter called Gerakos who had two fully grown lions as pets at his farm and used to take them to town, holding them with a strong neck chain. Needless to say that everyone on the pavement and indeed on the street where he was walking on these visits to Arusha would disappear in no time at all!”

Their domestic servants have stuck in his memory. He said he was brought up by an African ayah, Ayesha, from Tanga, who came to Chemelil with them. Then there was Ramazani, who had started working with Manoli Mantheakis when Ramazani was only twelve. Ramazani left them as an old man with white hair to return to his village in the Pare Mountains in Tanzania, and Alexis always corresponded with him after the former left Kenya in 1965, until Ramazani died. Saidi, a coastal man, also from Tanga, was their main house servant, a man with a wonderful humour but who would always lose his wages by the second or third day of the month because of his passion for cards. Ochuoga was their Luo cook. He was assisted by little Opiyo in the jikoni, and there was Juma, the Nandi dhobi. There were two Nandi korokoni who were there to wake them up if a visitor arrived at night, which happened often in the days of bad roads and no phones.

“I also remember Jakano, our Luo driver who had no fear of driving at full speed in any conditions on the dangerous road, and always had to be told: “Endesha pole, tafadhali, Jakano!’”

Why is Kenya’s ‘Ambassadeur’ Hotel spelt in French? It has to do with Georgia’s toughness. I discovered that Alexis’ mother had grown up in America, and the author wrote that Georgia retained the French spelling to capture the French concept of a five-star hotel, which Ambassadeur was then. Alexis remembered that his British teachers at the Prince of Wales constantly mocked him for it.

Poto Poto Town? The clue is Mr. Kefalides, one of the many supervisors who worked for Mr. Mantheakis. Alexis remembered that, before coming to Kenya, Mr. Kefalides had lived and worked in the then Zaire. There is a region in Congo called Poto Poto. I later found out that ‘poto poto’ is the Lingala (a Congolese lingua franca) word for ‘mud.’ Alexis wrote that Mr. Kefalides was known to have regularly shouted at the African sisal harvesters: “Wewe! Acha kufanya kazi poto poto!” If so, then that was a metaphorical expression for “You! Stop doing an untidy job!” But why would an employee’s name be more memorable to locals than his employer’s? It is likely that Manoli Mantheakis’ death in 1952 (meaning he lived there for four years only, from 1948) gave prominence to Kefalides, who worked there for much longer.

Kopere Town? A neighbour called Mr. Perry lived a few kilometres north of Chemelil on your way to Nandi Hills. I found his old house intact that day. Around it sprang the small town, domesticated into Dholuo as ‘Kopere,’ a contraction of ‘Ka Opere’ – ‘Opere’s place.’ Farther north is ‘Tambul,’ so called after Mr. Turnbull, another neighbour of the Mantheakises…

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Images: Abenea Ndago

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