Kwa Heri Means Goodbye
By Dorothy Stephens
I was thirty-three years old the first time I flew over Africa, through darkness so dense the plane might have been hurtling into a black hole in space. When dawn came and the world finally reappeared, the Nile lay far below, looping like a blue thread through the desert of southern Sudan before disappearing into the broader blue of Lake Victoria. Soon, the Kenya highlands were sliding beneath us, European farms that seemed to unroll for miles, and occasional Kikuyu villages whose round white-washed houses and thatched roofs looked as neat as rows of beehives on the steep green ridges. Everywhere, across the ridges and in the hollows, and then in Nairobi itself, The jacaranda trees floated soft violet clouds of lavender-blue above the red-tiled roofs of the city. It was November, 1957. In a moment the wheels of the plane would touch down and my encounter with Africa would begin. When my husband, Bob, joined the United States Information Agency in the mid-1950’s, I knew that eventually we would be sent somewhere overseas. To London, maybe? Rome? or Paris? “But what if I were sent to…New Zealand, for instance?” Bob would sometimes ask. “Would you want to go there? “Well, maybe,” I’d say. New Zealand–or Australia, or wherever-sounded awfully far away. The farthest I had ever been from where I grew up in New Jersey was Michigan and I lacked his adventurous spirit, or at least I thought I did. Up to then, my world had been small, circumscribed, familiar.
My parents’ most radical departure from our usual vacation at the Jersey shore had been a week at a Vermont lake one summer when I was ten. Bob and I never even discussed Kenya. I had recently read Something of Value by Robert Ruark, a novel about the Mau Mau rebellion against the British colonial government in Kenya, a bloody struggle for independence that had been ravaging the country for the past several years. Ruark described in grisly detail the oaths involving human sacrifice and cannibalism forced by Mau Mau leaders on frightened fellow Africans, and the vengeance of British forces and enraged white settlers who beat, starved, and tortured their African prisoners to gain information about Mau Mau activities. Kenya sounded frightening, a place I never expected or wanted to see. So when I finished Ruark’s book I said to Bob, “You wouldn’t expect me and the children to go there…would you? ”But as it turned out, he did. And so did USIA. Bob came home one evening in the fall of 1957 and his first words were, “We have our orders! A two-year tour of duty in Kenya!” He looked elated. He’d been appointed Cultural Affairs Officer with the United States Information Service in Nairobi (known as the United States Information Agency in the U.S., United States Information Service overseas.)
“Probably one of the best posts in Africa,” he told me. The Mau Mau Emergency was winding down, Nairobi was high and cool so malaria wouldn’t be a problem. “And anyway,” he said, “the government will look out for us, even fly us to the military hospital in Frankfurt if one of us gets sick. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine!”
I looked at two-year-old Kelly, sitting in her high chair, happily banging her spoon in her mashed potatoes. Cathy and Robbie, eleven and nine, burst out with excited questions. “When do we leave, Dad? Will we fly in an airplane? Will we have to go to school? “FINE? ” I wanted to shout back at Bob. How could he think we’d be fine, taking our children to a place where there were probably all sorts of diseases besides malaria to worry about, never mind the threat of Mau Mau.
But like other women of my generation, I had been brought up to believe that my husband’s career was all-important, and that it was my job to help and support him, no matter what. The women in my own family, in fact virtually all those I knew, had traveled this road before me. They provided me with a model for how women lived their lives, their identities bound up in their husbands’ occupations, the places where they lived dictated by their husbands’ jobs.
My paternal grandmother was “the minister’s wife.” She and their children moved with my grandfather every few years from church to church. My maternal grandmother was “the farmer’s wife, ” and spent her whole life on the farm. My mother broke out of the mold briefly by becoming a nurse, but when she married my father, she gave up her nursing and became “the teacher’s-later the principal’s-wife.” And so I accepted, almost without question, that where Bob’s career took us, we would go. Sometimes I worried vaguely about where that might be, how far away from home, family, and familiar surroundings, but I usually pushed the thought away.
It didn’t enter my head that my wishes or needs might ever come first. Now, listening to Cathy’s and Robbie’s eager questions, hearing the excitement in their voices, I was determined not to pass along my anxieties to them. Or to our parents, who I was sure had the same visions of Africa that I had: steaming malarial jungles, ferocious wild animals, savage tribes. Instead, I tucked my fears into a far corner of my mind and, pinning my faith on the United States Government, I threw myself into the dizzying preparations for moving a family of five overseas-and tried to believe Bob’s optimistic words. Fortunately, there was so much to do in two short months that I had little time for worrying. I left Kelly with my good friend Betty Gibbs down the street, and while Cathy and Robbie were in school, I shopped for footlockers and suitcases, for medicines and toiletries and Christmas gifts, for clothes and shoes to outfit all of us for the next two years. The clerks in the stores tried to help me. “What size shoe do you think my two-year-old will wear when she’s four?” I’d ask, and the shoe clerk and I would do our best to guess. According to the State Department’s Post Report that Bob brought home, I’d need some new clothes myself, like a formal gown, “dressy” suits and dresses, high-heeled shoes, a two-year supply of nylons (no pantyhose in those days.) And skirts and blouses for everyday wear, to replace my usual shirts and slacks. For someone who hates to shop, this was one of the more onerous parts of getting ready. The old Woodward and Lothrop’s in downtown Washington, and the Hecht Company in Silver Spring were my salvation.
They even, back then, had friendly saleswomen who would bring things to the dressing room for you to try on. With their help I was outfitted with a black cocktail dress, a red knitted suit, and other everyday and evening wear.We rented our house to an Army doctor and his family, sent Tammy, our collie, off to Bob’s parents in Michigan, and moved Cathy in with Kelly. Cathy’s bedroom became the staging area for sorting out four categories of “stuff: ” furniture, winter coats, mountains of books to go into storage; suitcases full of clothes and personal belongings to accompany us on the plane; footlockers holding other essentials to be sent via air freight, along with my typewriter and Kelly’s crib; and all the rest-children’s books and toys, the rest of our clothes, my sewing machine, pictures, a few lamps and favorite chairs, to be crated and shipped by sea. Somehow everything got done. And even though my house was in a state of semi-chaos, my life turned upside down, my thoughts and feelings a reflection of the turmoil around me, nevertheless, as our departure drew closer, a secret current of excitement occasionally crept through me at the thought of the adventure ahead. We took off from New York early on a November evening. My mother and father drove in from New Jersey to see us off. I was terrified of flying, especially with three children over three thousand miles of ocean. Air travel then was not part of most peoples’ everyday experience, as it is now.
My only previous flights had been short bumpy ones in pre-jet planes between Michigan and New Jersey, replete with those frequent sickening drops every time the plane hit an air pocket, when you think, Here we go-this is it. It hadn’t built my confidence in flying. My father, son of a strait-laced Methodist minister and not much of a drinker (nor was I) sensed my anxiety, though I tried hard to hide it. He took me into the bar at the airport while my mother and Bob entertained the children, and poured a couple of martinis into me. I kissed my parents goodbye a short time later with almost no tears, and in something of a haze, blithely climbed aboard the plane.My clearest recollection of the first part of the flight was the pilot’s announcement over the intercom. “Take a good look down,” he said. “Those are the lights of Nantucket, and that’s the last bit of the U.S. that you’ll see for a while! ”I stared down, my blithe mood gone, my heart plummeting, and wondered if I would ever see the shores of the U.S. again-or indeed any shore-or if the cold waters of the Atlantic would swallow us all up before morning.The old DC7C kept lumbering noisily across the ocean, and eventually Cathy and Robbie climbed into their respective berths-the government sent us First Class in those days. They giggled as they squirmed out of their clothes and into pajamas, apparently not daunted, as I was, at the prospect of spending the night in such a cramped dark space. I finally lifted Kelly into my berth, then crawled up beside her and tried vainly to sleep. Bob chose to doze sitting up in his seat. Several times in the night I peered around the curtain and was reassured to see him there, his long legs stretched out into the aisle, his book sliding down in his lap. Keeping vigil while we slept. During the night and the day that followed, flying in and out of time zones, I lost all track of time and place. Jet lag was a term yet to be invented to describe how I felt. Sunrise seemed to follow on the heels of sunset. Juice, coffee, and rolls appeared at what my head and stomach told me was four o’clock in the morning. We made the necessary refueling stop in Paris, then a short while later it was lunchtime and the Alps were slipping away beneath us, snowy spires gleaming in the afternoon sun. Cathy and Robbie interrupted their coloring long enough to gaze with us, awestruck, at the sight. In no time at all, the runway in Rome emerged in the dusk. We spent the night in Rome to rest up for the next part of our long flight to Kenya. The following afternoon we took off again, this time in an old Air France Constellation, propellers thrashing and engines roaring as it droned its way across Africa, fourteen hours without seeing a light except when we stopped to refuel at Tripoli’s King Idris Airport. There, we were herded into the small cinderblock terminal, a lighted oasis in the black void. Outside, dim orange flares stitched the runway. The African night swallowed everything else. We huddled on cold concrete benches sipping bottles of warm orange squash-that sweet, artificially flavored drink that we would come to know well-and tried to convince our three fretful children that it was an acceptable substitute for coca cola.
I couldn’t blame them for being cranky. I was at a low point myself, here in this godforsaken place in the middle of the night, all of us shivering in the chilly night breeze blowing in from the Libyan desert. Even worse, from my point of view, the captain and crew were lined up at the bar, ordering drinks that were definitely not orange squash. When we finally reboarded the plane, Kelly lay down with her blond head in my lap and promptly went to sleep. There were no First Class berths on this flight. Robbie sat in front of me, casting frantic looks around the back of his seat each time the elderly woman beside him was airsick. A healthy nine-year-old’s need for sleep finally overcame him and he curled up with his head on the armrest and dozed off. Bob, a few rows behind us, was also trying to sleep while near him a baby wailed. Several times he roused himself and came forward to see if I was all right, or walked back to check on Cathy, who had been relegated to the far rear of the cabin. Bob’s efforts to have her seated with us in First Class, as she should have been, had elicited only a flood of French and a shrug from the steward. I wondered uneasily what we would do in an emergency, but Cathy took it philosophically. She had admitted to being frightened during the take-off in New York, but now she seemed to relish the chance to pretend she was a worldly young lady, traveling alone.
Throughout the night, as the hours shuddered by, the stewards served a continuous flow of French wines and champagne. Frequently one would carry a tray of filled glasses forward to the cockpit. Unable to sleep, I watched and worried, remembering the grim jokes about “Air Chance,” and pondered the improbable fact that I, a housewife fresh from life in a house with a picture window on a street in a Washington suburb, was bound for Africa. I had grown up in a small New Jersey town in the 1920’s and 30’s, when there was never to be another war, when the world was safe, life predictable and secure. In my last year of high school, World War II shattered that placid world. Some of the boys in my class enlisted right after Pearl Harbor and were gone before graduation. A few never returned. The war cast a pall over my college years, too, disrupting-or ending-the lives of a whole generation of young men and women. The war, and the Army, brought Bob from Michigan to Rutgers University, where we met on a blind date. I had volunteered to be a Junior Hostess at the local USO, along with other young women from my college across town. Once a week we spent an evening serving coffee and doughnuts, playing records, dancing with the soldiers, and listening while they talked about their homes and families.
Many of them, young, scared, lonely, were stationed at nearby Camp Kilmer, a disembarkation point for soldiers going overseas. One night I met two of Bob’s roommates from Rutgers, where they were all enrolled in the Army’s Specialized Training Program. Both men were shorter than I, and for the next few weeks, whenever I saw them again, they talked about their tall roommate who would be a perfect dancing partner for me. At the same time they kept telling Bob about the tall girl at the USO whom he really ought to meet. He insisted that he had too much studying to do, and anyway he didn’t specially like to dance, but finally, tired of their pestering, he called and asked me to go canoeing. He showed up the next Saturday afternoon, tall as promised, crew cut, studious-looking in glasses, wearing his Michigan State T-shirt–to impress me, he later confessed. We pedaled on bikes to the nearby river, spent the afternoon canoeing, went on to dinner and a movie. By the next afternoon, when we sat by the campus lake holding hands and never stopped talking, it was clear that this was going to be more than a successful blind date. I was still in college when we were married a year and a half later.
During the post-war years Bob went to graduate school on the GI Bill at the University of Michigan and we began raising a family. We lived in Willow Run, in married student temporary housing: flimsy wooden buildings, cold in the Michigan winters, hot in summer, that had been constructed for Kaiser-Fraser aircraft workers during the war. We had no hot water, cooked on a wood stove in the kitchen, carried in coal for the living room stove that kept the apartment warm. Without a car, I lugged groceries, wet laundry, and children across the fields in a wagon in summer, on a sled in winter, while Bob rode the bus the fourteen miles to school.After graduate school, when Bob went to work for USIA, we moved to that suburban house outside Washington. In a row of other houses just like it, with identical picture windows, tricycles on the sidewalks, and sprinklers whirling on the lawns, it seemed like heaven compared with Willow Run. And now…Africa?When the orders came for Kenya, I couldn’t imagine myself living there.
My image of Africa was still shaped by Hemingway stories of hunting safaris and by the Tarzan films of my childhood. What little else I had learned about this “Dark Continent,” other than from Ruark’s novel, came from a few newspaper articles about the Mau Mau rebellion and from the State Department’s Post Report- a meager description of Nairobi and some bare statistics about population and climate. I knew that there were five million Africans living in Kenya, 175,000 Asians (meaning people from India), and 65,000 Europeans (a term universally used for all whites, including Americans); that there were two rainy seasons; that most white people had servants; that our children would attend a European (whites only) school. Sometime during those hectic weeks of preparations, I attended a briefing session for wives going overseas. We were told we’d be expected to make calls on other diplomats’ wives – the American Ambassador’s or Consul General’s wife always first, preferably within forty-eight hours of arrival; that we should leave calling cards; that at dinner parties we would seat people according to protocol, the most important to the right of the host and hostess; that we must not offend local people by wearing shorts in public.
It all sounded very Victorian and somewhat nonsensical, like something out of Alice in Wonderland’s unreal world, but I had dutifully packed my proper little black hat, my white gloves, and my new calling cards, and had put away my shorts. Unfortunately I had learned nothing more about Kenya. Mau Mau was not mentioned at all.Bob, on the other hand, had taken a course at American University on the politics and history of Africa–a general survey of that immense and diverse continent–and had been briefed at the State Department about the current situation in Kenya. As Vice Consul and Cultural Affairs Officer at USIS, he would be responsible for overseeing cultural and educational activities: advising African students, arranging college scholarships for them in the States, giving English language exams, and organizing official visits of American musicians, actors, dancers, journalists, and athletes.At night, after the children were in bed, he filled me in as best he could on the history of the British in East Africa, on the workings of the colonial government, and on the names of a few prominent people and the two largest tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo. The name Tom Mboya was familiar to both of us. He was a young Kenya labor leader who had visited the United States in the fall of 1954, when we saw him interviewed by Dave Garroway on the Today show. Trying to get our bearings, we pored over the map to find Nairobi, Lake Victoria, the Equator, the port of Mombasa. Still, detailed information about life in Kenya was scanty. No recent pictures of Nairobi were available, nor had we found anyone in Washington who had been there.During those long hours on the plane, what lay ahead seemed as impenetrable as the black night outside the plane window. At Nairobi’s old Eastleigh airport, a former Royal Air Force base, the plane bumped along a dirt runway, churning up great billows of red dust, and stopped near the cluster of shabby Quonset huts that served as the terminal.We had arrived.My fears leaped back to life and bunched in a hard cold knot in my stomach. Though the worst of Mau Mau was over, a “State of Emergency” was still in effect. Jomo Kenyatta, alleged leader of the Mau Mau, whom Kenya’s Governor Sir Patrick Renison would later call “a leader into darkness and death,” was in detention in the far north of Kenya, but the last remaining bands of rebels were still being hunted down in the forests and mountains outside of Nairobi.I remembered with horror the story that had circulated recently through the State Department, of the European child riding his tricycle in the driveway of his home outside Nairobi, who had been attacked–and appallingly, unthinkably–beheaded by Mau Mau who sprang from the bushes wielding their pangas.
What were we doing here with three children? I wanted to turn around and fly straight home.Instead, we plunged immediately into a hubbub of arriving and departing passengers, porters, and khaki-clad customs officials. All of them, black and white alike, spoke with a clipped British accent that was hard to understand. They waved us through Customs without even glancing at our bags. Standing outside the gate to greet us were Gordon and Gloria Hagberg from USIS. Their friendly smiles and familiar accents were reassuring, an anchor in the unfamiliar African sea. Gloria, tall, dark-haired, in a yellow shirtwaist dress, took my hand in both of hers and said, “Welcome to Kenya!” I looked into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen and felt I had found a friend.Gloria hurried off to the school where she taught, and the children and I got into the back seat of Gordon’s station wagon. While he and Bob helped the porters stow our bags, I studied this man for whom Bob would be working. Shaggy eyebrows, sandy hair turning gray, a rugged face softened by a genial smile as he joked with the porters in Swahili. Again I felt reassured. For the moment, anyway, we were in good hands.On the drive to the city, I stared out the window at the National Game Park that bordered the road: miles of rolling grasslands studded with dwarfed thorn trees, where lions, zebras, wildebeeste and gazelles roamed, unfenced. Recently, Gordon said, a lion had chased two school boys on bicycles along this same road and into the site of the new international airport, just being built. And the previous year a lioness had wandered into the city and sat down on the steps of City Hall. The game wardens tried hard to lure her back to the park but she refused to budge.
They finally had to shoot her.Numb with fatigue, I listened with a mixture of fascination and foreboding. The scenes outside the window began to blur–the grass-covered plain, the trees, the wide African sky all running together like a watercolor left out in the rain. The animals themselves seemed suddenly bizarre: rhinos with horns sticking from their foreheads; giraffes with outlandishly long necks; huge, ungainly ostriches that looked more like fake Disney characters than the real thing.Beside me, Cathy and Robbie were paying rapt attention to Gordon’s stories. They looked intrigued and not at all scared. Bob, his long frame folded into the seat next to Gordon, was staring out the window, absorbed, getting his first look at Africa. Kelly whimpered in my lap. Not even the sight of a giraffe browsing beside the road could divert her. I rocked her back and forth and tried to quiet her fears–and mine.As we neared the city, bicycle bells competed with honking horns. Trucks, buses, cars, handcarts, bikes, and people streamed around us. Indian mothers in rainbow saris led swarms of solemn dark-eyed children along the roadsides; Indian men in business suits mingled with bearded Sikhs wearing turbans of pale pink or blue. Tall Maasai warriors with mud-smeared hairdos stalked along, naked under blankets slung from one shoulder. Elderly Kikuyu women clad in goatskins, with shining bald heads and masses of wire ornaments and beads, bent over their walking sticks as they plodded along the sidewalks. Some of the younger women wore sari-like kangas, the bright colors glowing against the rich earth tones of their skin. Europeans were an occasional pale glimmer in this river of dark faces.The scene was at once strange and exotic, intriguing and beguiling.
I felt curiosity stirring, and some questions. Would I ever find my place in this unfamiliar world? And how would it feel to be one of the privileged minority here?Gordon dropped us at the rambling old Norfolk Hotel, where we would stay for a few days before moving into our house. The oldest hotel in Nairobi, the Norfolk had opened on Christmas Day in 1904, at the beginning of England’s colonial rule in Kenya. Tudor-style, with dark beams crisscrossed on a white-washed exterior, it became the favorite stomping ground of early white settlers. Elspeth Huxley, who wrote The Flame Trees of Thika and many other books about Kenya, stayed there with her parents in 1913, on their way to establish their farm at Thika. Travelers, big game hunters, and other white settlers like Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa, often gathered on its veranda to talk, have lunch, drink coffee or scotch–or, in the early years, to engage in the antics that established the Norfolk’s reputation as the scene of wild revelry and unconventional behavior.We would hear many stories of the “old days” while we were in Kenya. Once when Lord Delamere, a well-known early settler, was hosting a party at the Norfolk, he was told by the manager that it was closing time. Delamere locked the unfortunate man in the meat safe with some dead sheep and went on with his party. Other high-spirited guests sometimes celebrated Race Week by throwing each other through the windows, and occasionally the managing director of the Boma Trading Company, a local business, rode his horse right into the Norfolk’s dining room and jumped it over the tables. During the Mau Mau Emergency, it was on the veranda of the Norfolk that Robert Ruark gathered atrocity stories from gun-toting settlers for his book, Something of Value.The Norfolk symbolized much of Kenya’s early colonial history, but it had long since settled down to a more sedate existence. We would be likelier to meet tourists having coffee on the veranda than colorful Lord Delamere types.In the courtyard behind the hotel, the roofs of the guest cottages were heavy with masses of purple and orange bougainvillea. Waiters in long white robes and red fezes hurried back and forth with tea trays and clean linens. Bright-colored birds squawked from the palm trees, and beside our door a hibiscus bush bloomed, ablaze with crimson flowers.I stood on the veranda, the morning sun warming my bare arms. The gray November cold of New York was oceans and continents away. The memory of it was slipping into a past that already seemed part of another life.We had survived the long flight across half the world…..Maybe we’d be all right here, too.