Driving out of Nairobi
A Journey in the Footsteps of a Character
Leopard at the Door begins with a journey. Rachel – the young girl in the novel – is returning to the family farm in Kenya in 1952, after five years in England. Two years ago, I embarked on a road trip to retrace her footsteps. Like Rachel, I spent my first night in Nairobi, at the Muthaiga Club – that famous bastion of colonial life, opened in 1913 by settler farmers. It is a pink, colonnaded building sitting placidly in an oasis of well-watered green lawns, stubbornly holding back the chaos and fumes of Nairobi’s rapidly developing urban center. The rooms within are paneled with dark wood, lined with photographs of English men in cricket whites, and an old display cabinet at the end of the corridor holds a lion’s head shot by a white hunter in a bygone era. Life moves slowly at Muthaiga, and the air is warm. Dinner is served on a squeaking trolley, and just outside on the darkened terrace, a man sweeps up the jacaranda blossom, in a rhythmic, soothing motion. Flicking through the pages of Karen Blixen, it was difficult to believe that Independence had changed this country; population explosion and telecoms seemed to be words from a far off future.
The following morning I set out on Kenya’s notoriously lethal roads, for the long drive to Rachel’s farm on the edge of the Rift Valley, in what was formerly known as the White Highlands. Beyond Muthaiga was Nairobi; a city in overhaul, crammed with cranes and half-erected concrete blocks. Music – reggae, raga and harder beats – boomed out of passing cars. We drifted into a traffic jam, sun radiating off glinting metal. A pick up truck with fading blue paint panted out clouds of black smoke, the back crammed arm to arm with thirty guys talking, joking, sleeping. Nairobi has a sweltering, infectious energy.
We drove out of the city with the windows wound down, a grey dust sifting through the windows, growing redder as we left the city. The road was bordered with billboards, carcasses of empty buildings plastered over with painted advertising, shops with corrugated roves, their walls a lurid pea-green, blue, red. Women sprawled on a stretch of lawn set back from the road, in smart city clothes, laughing. We overtook a lorry, driving into the black smoke which pumped out from under its tyres, then slowed down for a security check point. A large printed sign read, This is a no corruption zone. Giving and Receiving money is strictly prohibited.
The landscape became more rural, the density of buildings outside Nairobi giving way to lush vegetation, banana palms and fruit trees. Terraced fields were patched across the lower slopes of a mountain, and schools were advertised, their metal signs painted in the large formal, faded lettering of the colonial era. “Secondary school: day and boarding,” and “The East African Leadership Academy.” I wondered how different this was from the Kenya of 60 years ago. How much of this would my character have seen on her way back to her farm in 1952, after six years in England?
We passed football pitches behind a sagging wire fence, kids in uniform kicking a ball on a dusty pitch. Flat topped acacias cast their shade over villages nestled into the landscape, metal roves winking in the sun. A man walked behind a herd of sheep, a stick resting along his neck and shoulders. The sheep stood bleating on the side of the road, their wool filthy and matted, until he beat the earth around them and they stirred into scattered motion. Everywhere was a riot of colour. Women with babies strapped to their backs were wrapped in brightly coloured scarves. It had rained and the grass was an iridescent green. Cow hides dried on the side of the road. A man was fixing upturned bicycles under the shade of an acacia, while a woman squatted beside him cracking open coconuts. Over a bridge, and a muddy brown river. A boy far below bent down and dipped a yellow drum into the river to collect water. Cactuses with bright yellow flowers sprouted from the bushes. The wooden shacks had their slatted sides hand-painted with Safari.com.
I spotted the first giraffe, its long neck stretching up like the leafless trunk of a tree. We drove on through the urban sprawl of what was once the tiny colonial town of Nakuru until an hour later we were deep in the bush, on a dusty, pot holed track which stretched as far as the eye could see. On into a land of staggering beauty, scarcely changed since time began, into the heart of my story.
The drive remains with me, a vision of Kenya’s past and its future, and the very foundation of Leopard at the Door.