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Chapter 14


It has been, as I have said, the fashion to speak of Nairobi as an ugly little town. This was probably true when the first corrugated iron houses huddled unrelieved near the railway station. It is not true now. The lower part of town is well planted, and is always picturesque as long as its people are astir. The white population have built in the wooded hills some charming bungalows surrounded by bright flowers or lost amid the trunks of great trees. From the heights on which is Government House one can, with a glass, watch the game herds feeding on the plains. Two clubs, with the usual games of golf, polo, tennis--especially tennis--football and cricket; a weekly hunt, with jackals instead of foxes; a bungalow town club on the slope of a hill; an electric light system; a race track; a rifle range; frilly parasols and the latest fluffiest summer toilettes from London and Paris--I mention a few of the refinements of civilization that offer to the traveller some of the most piquant of contrasts.

For it must not be forgotten that Nairobi, in spite of these things--due to the direct but slender thread of communication by railroad and ships--is actually in the middle of an African wilderness--is a black man's town, as far as numbers go.[6]

The game feeds to its very outskirts, even wanders into the streets at night.[7] Lions may be heard roaring within a mile or so of town; and leopards occasionally at night come on the verandas of the outlying dwellings. Naked savages from the jungle untouched by civilization in even the minutest particular wander the streets unabashed.

It is this constantly recurring, sharply drawn contrast that gives Nairobi its piquant charm. As one sits on the broad hotel veranda a constantly varied pageant passes before him. A daintily dressed, fresh-faced Englishwoman bobs by in a smart rickshaw drawn by two uniformed runners; a Kikuyu, anointed, curled, naked, brass adorned, teeters along, an expression of satisfaction on his face; a horseman, well appointed, trots briskly by followed by his loping syce; a string of skin-clad women, their heads fantastically shaved, heavily ornamented, lean forward under the burden of firewood for the market; a beautiful baby in a frilled perambulator is propelled by a tall, solemn, fine-looking black man in white robe and cap; the driver of a high cart tools his animal past a creaking, clumsy, two-wheeled wagon drawn by a pair of small humpbacked native oxen. And so it goes, all day long, without end. The public rickshaw boys just across the way chatter and game and quarrel and keep a watchful eye out for a possible patron on whom to charge vociferously and full tilt. Two or three old-timers with white whiskers and red faces continue to slaughter thousands and thousands and thousands of lions from the depths of their easy chairs.

The stone veranda of that hotel is a very interesting place. Here gather men from all parts of East Africa, from Uganda, and the jungles of the Upper Congo. At one time or another all the famous hunters drop into its canvas chairs--Cunninghame, Allan Black, Judd, Outram, Hoey, and the others; white traders with the natives of distant lands; owners of farms experimenting bravely on a greater or lesser scale in a land whose difficulties are just beginning to be understood; great naturalists and scientists from the governments of the earth, eager to observe and collect this interesting and teeming fauna; and sportsmen just out and full of interest, or just returned and modestly important. More absorbing conversation can be listened to on this veranda than in any other one place in the world. The gathering is cosmopolitan; it is representative of the most active of every social, political, and racial element; it has done things; it contemplates vital problems from the vantage ground of experience. The talk veers from pole to pole--and returns always to lions.

Every little while a native--a raw savage--comes along and takes up a stand just outside the railing. He stands there mute and patient for five minutes--a half hour--until some one, any one, happens to notice him.

"N'jo!--come here!" commands this person.

The savage silently proffers a bit of paper on which is written the name of the one with whom he has business.

"Nenda officie!" indicates the charitable person waving his hand towards the hotel office.

Then, and not until this permission has been given by some one, dares the savage cross the threshold to do his errand.

If the messenger happens to be a trained houseboy, however, dressed in his uniform of khaki or his more picturesque white robe and cap, he is privileged to work out his own salvation. And behind the hotel are rows and rows of other boys, each waiting patiently the pleasure of his especial bwana lounging at ease after strenuous days. At the drawling shout of "boy!" one of them instantly departs to find out which particular boy is wanted.

The moment any white man walks to the edge of the veranda a half-dozen of the rickshaws across the street career madly around the corners of the fence, bumping, colliding, careening dangerously, to drop beseechingly in serried confusion close around the step. The rickshaw habit is very strong in Nairobi. If a man wants to go a hundred yards down the street he takes a rickshaw for that stupendous journey. There is in justification the legend that the white man should not exert himself in the tropics. I fell into the custom of the country until I reflected that it would hardly be more fatal to me to walk a half-hour in the streets of Nairobi than to march six or seven hours--as I often did--when on safari or in the hunting field. After that I got a little exercise, to the vast scandal of the rickshaw boys. In fact, so unusual was my performance that at first I had fairly to clear myself a way with my kiboko. After a few experiences they concluded me a particularly crazy person and let me alone.

Rickshaws, however, are very efficient and very cheap. The runners, two in number, are lithe little round-headed Kavirondos, generally, their heads shaved to leave a skull cap, clad in scant ragged garments, and wearing each an anklet of little bells. Their passion for ornament they confine to small bright things in their hair and ears. They run easily, with a very long stride. Even steep hills they struggle up somehow, zigzagging from one side of the road to the other, edging along an inch or so at a time. In such places I should infinitely have preferred to have walked, but that would have lost me caste everywhere. There are limits even to a crazy man's idiosyncrasies. For that reason I never thoroughly enjoyed rickshaws, save along the level ways with bells jingling and feet patpatting a rapid time. Certainly I did not enjoy them going down the steep hills. The boy between the shafts in front hits the landscape about every forty feet. I do not really object to sudden death, but this form of it seemed unfair to some poor hungry lion.

However, the winding smooth roads among the forested, shaded bungalows of the upper part of town were very attractive, especially towards evening. At that time the universal sun-helmet or double terai could be laid aside for straw hats, cloth caps, or bare heads. People played the more violent games, or strolled idly. At the hotel there was now a good deal of foolish drinking; foolish, because in this climate it is very bad for the human system, and in these surroundings of much interest and excitement the relief of its exaltation from monotony or ennui or routine could hardly be required.


[6] Fifteen hundred whites to twelve thousand natives, approximately.

[7] This happened twice while I was in the country.

Stewart Edward White

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