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June 2014 travel news 23
in days gone by
Daffodils in a Kenyan Garden
by Juliet Barnes
The Church of Goodwill - Kekopy
In the 1970s my father and I were grinding up hills and lurching into valleys in a rally
car, way off the beaten path, writing route notes.
We were between Nakuru and Ol Kalou, near Dundori, the Rift Valley dropping away
dramatically behind us. We were somewhere near Melangini, my mother’s childhood
home. My mother has a painting of the bamboo bungalow, dwarfed by colourful terraces
of flower-filled beds. They’d even grown daffodils, English cherries and quinces. I’d
flicked through dusty albums full of black and white photos: my mother and her siblings
wearing toupees and khaki shorts down to their knees, riding horses or bicycles or
playing in a dam.
Now I persuaded my father we should try to find the house. I’d never been to Melangini,
yet some strange instinct made me determined that the vague track on our right should
be explored. When the car could go no further, we walked down a nettle-lined path until
we stumbled upon an old, empty bamboo house, with a rusting tin roof. A chilly wind
moaned through the old branches of the massive gum trees behind.
Fifty foot high cyprus trees blocking the view could once have been a neat trimmed
hedge and under the blur of nettles were the hidden shapes, perhaps, of garden
terraces. One valiant blue lupin struggling through the weeds was all the proof I needed
and when we got home, I described it to my mother who was aghast: “Yes! That’s our
old house at Melangini.”
Over a quarter of a century later, my mother’s two sisters and brother came from
England, South Africa and Australia to stay with my parents in Kenya. It was forty-five
years since they’d all been together. Over the champagne at a celebratory reunion
lunch they agreed to go and look for their old childhood home.
We turned left in Gilgil, just past the railway line on an increasingly bad road, scarred
by alternate rains and neglect. As we slowly climbed those high ridges towards Dundori
my aunts and uncles recognised things - the Allison’s house, the Clark’s drive and the
hedges of Freddy Jones, an eccentric bachelor neighbour. Now a huge new elaborate
church rose beside his abandoned home.
The mantle of indigenous bamboo forest they remembered had gone, replaced now
by plantations of fast-growing trees. The view took my breath away, as much as the
altitude, as we levelled out on a ridge.
Below us you could see the shimmering forms of Lakes Nakuru and Elmenteita,
surrounded by the fascinating shapes and steps of the Rift Valley’s escarpments, hills
As if that wasn’t enough, behind us rose the high ranges of the Aberdares and Kipipiri.
“You can see Mt. Kenya from here on a clear day,” my uncle pointed to the bank of
cloud to the left of the Aberdares.
We went too far, then backtracked. It was impossible to tell where Melangini had been:
the old landmark of eucalyptus giants had gone, while a newer rush of growth had
blurred, even re-moulded the once-familiar features of this landscape. I asked a woman
who was walking along the road in worn, canvas shoes. She shook her headscarf-
Three men walked towards us: one wore a shiny fake cowboy hat. They were all
younger than fifty – and it was over fifty years ago that my grandparents left. “Platt!”
they repeated the name then shook their heads. One said: “...but there’s a very old
house that belonged to a white man down there: near Dundori Centre.” Martin, who
was sitting in the front, leant over: “Nyumba ya melangi,” he said – house of bamboo.
“Oh melangi!” their faces lit up. Yes, yes, it was here – not far. “In fact it is that small
road, just over there.” They walked ahead until we came to a track that turned sharply
right before a small wooden building with a child’s swing beside it: a crooked, crudely
painted sign told us it was a nursery school.
We jolted through a jostling muddle of moonflowers and nettles, as far as we could, then
walked. The initial reaction of my mother, aunts and uncles was that it was too small –
The Platt family in the 1930s
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