Home' Travel News : June 2013 Contents 42 travel news June 2013
June 2013 travel news 43
Had you decided to dine at Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel in 1904 you might have regretted
it. There were few, if any, trained cooks in the colony of British East Africa at that time;
and the only chefs were those that had been brought out from India to work on the
Uganda Railway, better known as The Lunatic Express. In the early years, these chefs
cooked for the railway workers; later they were engaged by a Goan by the name of
Mr. Nazareth, who ran the so-called Dak bungalows, which provided the catering for
the railway in the absence of dining carriages. It was one of Mr. Nazareth's chefs that
Mayence Bent, doyenne of Nairobi's Stanley Hotel, enticed into leaving the railway and
running her kitchen.
The kitchen of the Stanley was a dark and odorous realm of soot, smoke and paraffn
tins stuffed with burning embers which acted as stoves. Mayence Bent's weekly menus
were bizarre by anybody's standards. Firstly they were constrained by what she could
obtain from the local farmers; and this fuctuated wildly. One month it might be cabbages
and chickens, another it might be tomatoes and goats, and a third it might be nothing at
all. Secondly, the menus depended on what could reliably be brought by the train from
Mombasa; and this was mostly tinned goods.
The butter, which came from Bombay in tins, was known as 'axle grease' due to the
fact that it had melted and solidifed so many times on the dockside in Mombasa that
it had eventually turned grey and glutinous. There was tinned 'bully' beef (corned beef
or 'boiled' beef of dubious provenance), tinned salmon, tinned sardines, and tinned
meatballs, many of which were served at the same time.
There was also a plentiful supply of tinned peaches and tapioca pudding, and according
to the training of Mr. Nazareth who was raised in the traditions of the British Raj, custard
was served with everything. That apart, the Stanley prided itself on its goat stew, which
was traditionally served for Sunday lunch and was, by all accounts, watery, grey, greasy
and ghastly; but nobody dared complain.
Life at the Stanley Hotel was chaotic. There was no reservation system and those lucky
enough to secure a room often arrived to fnd their bed occupied by a snoring drunk, or
a family of fve sleeping on the foor. When Captain E.L Sanderson arrived with his wife,
Helen, in Nairobi in 1904, for instance, they found all the hotels full and it was not until
the Captain collapsed on the foor from fever that another guest offered them his room.
'It was quite bare,' said Mrs. Sanderson, 'the windows with no curtains, opened on to a
blind alley leading to the bar. I had to go to bed in the dark; fve men were sleeping on
the foor of the next room. There was no sitting room, only a small bare place where we
ate very tough goat.'
Those brave enough to do so complained to Mayence's receptionist, Biddy Mason, who
was an ex-slave from America. Typically, when called to attend to a drunk in someone
else’s bed, she would bolt up the stairs, roll the drunk in a sheet, yank him on to the foor,
drag him out of the room and bump him down the stairs on to the street. Not surprisingly,
this often resulted in fghts: fghts with Biddy, fghts with the drunks, or both.
For all its faults, however, the Stanley fourished, not least because it was the only
decent boarding house in a town where new buildings sprang up every other day, where
many arrivals were forced to live in the tents of a shanty town called Tentfontein on the
fringes of the swamp, where the streets were open sewers, and where lions regularly
roamed in search of prey (though generally by night).
Still a shambolic shantytown built from rusting iron sheeting, sackcloth and wood, Nairobi
was plagued by fres and, in 1905, a particularly virulent one swept down Victoria Street
and engulfed the Stanley Hotel. There were no fre engines and water had to be taken
from the swamp in buckets and passed hand to hand – so the fre raged unabated. Amid
the fames, Mayence Bent could be seen hurling her enamel chamber pots, of which
she was inordinately proud, over the frst foor balcony and into the street. They were
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