When Baba (my paternal grandfather) died, Daddy (my dad’s eldest brother, E***** – like his own children we also called him Daddy because it was the name we had heard him being called by most often) came down from Canada with his son S*** with plans to run Baba’s Bondeni shop for a couple of months. I was too young to remember what was going on. (With the passing of my grandfather, the troubles between mum and Pappa had escalated and less than a year after his funeral they divorced so to my sister and I, everything else was a greyish blur.)
Daddy moved into Tudor, the 9 bedroomed J***** family home, which he had designed, and in what was then a leafy and upmarket suburb of Mombasa.
A short while after Daddy moved into Tudor, Pappa visited and saw a metallic brown Peugeot 305 parked in the Tudor drive way. Daddy had bought it from an expatriate in Nyali. Licence plate KXZ 373, it was a left hand drive – and probably because they were used to the left hand drive style in Canada, Daddy preferred it even though in Kenya it was the wrong way around since we drive on the left hand side of the road.
Daddy felt he had clinched a bargain: a left hand drive from an expat, a chance to mingle with a group of people that he had a lot in common with having lived overseas most of his life, and the comfort of navigating strange roads in a familiarly built vehicle.
Some months later, Daddy left suddenly and returned to Canada where he remarried, ending any plans he may have had to run Baba’s shop. And because he left so suddenly, he never had the chance to sell the Peugeot so it was parked at Pappa’s place in Kengeleni. Daddy called Pappa and asked him to look for a buyer. He suggested taking it to Nairobi, to his new wife’s brother in law, who was an electrical engineer. Daddy was confident that his brother in law would be able to find a buyer for the car quickly.
So when the school holidays came around, Pappa had the Peugeot serviced. As an imported car, it was not customised to tropical weather, its shock absorbers were not suited to the Kenyan roads and there were few mechanics who were familiar with the electrical parts of an engine. Even the power steering was an odd phenomenon at the time, and the left hand drive made it even more of an oddity.
The service completed, we shopped for road trip supplies and early one morning set out for Nairobi. It was a square boxy sort of car, but long, with belt buckle like metal door handles which you put your hand through and pulled towards you to open. The upholstery was cream in colour and rough textured, with curls of wiry thread repeating in a pattern. Poky and not at all comfortable especially in the Mombasa humidity. And even less so with my eczema which just needed an excuse to get all inflamed and itchy.
Pappa was driving. He had on his driving glasses, and his leather gloves were in the pocket of the door. My sister was in the front seat in her jeans and a peaked cap – the safari look. She had a book with her – I was the only one in our family afflicted with carsickness and could barely read a map in a moving car let alone a book. I sat behind. We were going through our “fight to sit in the front seat” phase and as the elder, she always won … but truth be told, I loved to sit in the back, watching the view from the right window and then the left, enjoying the breeze on my face, watching the faces in the clouds scurry past, passing refreshments to the driver and co-driver … and catching as many snoozes as I wanted. In between cat naps, I would squeeze myself into the space between the two front seats, and firmly anchored, gaze ahead onto the road.
We took the drive easy, spending the first night on the road. At Voi I think. A beautiful small town, two and a half hours from Mombasa, but on much higher ground with cool breezes and wonderfully chilly nights. Voi is blessed with a rich, red fertile soil where fruit trees flourish, and one of the most delicious of its fruits are the baby tangerines, naartjies in South Africa, with a thin, bright orange skin, the juiciest jewelled insides, and plump segments divided by a thin tissue-like white membrane.
Some hours into the journey, the Peugeot wasn’t performing as well as it should have. My sister and I could read the signs very well, more from my father’s face than from the sounds of the car. His brow furrowed, his stories trickled to a stop and he hunched forward towards the steering wheel, opening and clenching his big hands creating a loud cracking noise from the knuckles.
We had passed Hunter’s Lodge, which is around 2 hours from Nairobi, and entered a quiet patch of road. You could pick up the Nairobi radio stations, but it was a deserted stretch of savannah grassland, waving yellow golden, sheltering small animals like gazelles and zebras. And after more than four hours of sing-songs, Name Place Animal Thing and I-spy, my sister was anxious for some music. So she leaned forward to put the radio on, and barely had she done so when my father barked at her to shut it off. We were both stung from the reprimand, but more than that, we realised that something must be seriously wrong with the car for him to have reacted like that. It hit us then that Pappa was not sure whether the car would make it the last 160 kilometres to Nairobi and that there was a good chance we might spend the night on the road. And with two young girls in the car, he was worried.
The last cluster of hills loomed ahead of us. Blocked ahead and behind by huge trailers, we slowly chugged up and down the hills, unable to indulge in a burst of speed and escape the black diesel fumes of these road millipedes. With each coast downhill, the tension released a little as we saw ourselves nearing our destination. As we reached the area around Athi River, the stench from the Kenya Meat Commission wafted across to us, and then the tobacco fumes from the BAT (British American Tobacco) plant.
Our moods lifted as the cool evening breeze that is so distinctively Nairobi swept across the road. The cooler temperature was sure to help the car too, we hoped. We pulled into the outskirts of Nairobi and passed the international airport; every landmark was an achievement. We reached the Nyayo Stadium roundabout where the gruesome marabou storks in their undertaker jackets nested in the trees, squirting their acidic droppings onto the tarmac below, staining it white. The Peugeot started to murmur a little and our breath stopped in our throat. With every moment in traffic, every gurgle of the engine, every bubble of the radiator, Pappa would rev the car harder trying to keep it alive. But with each rev, the temperature of the water also shot higher and higher into the red. Silvery wisps of steam were wafting out of the engine. The people in the cars next to us kept glancing around with every rumble. One more roundabout and we reached Uhuru Park, after which there was a clean stretch to Westlands which was our final stop. We were sure to make it.
Idling at that roundabout, three to four cars from the traffic light, the Peugeot stalled.
Except for the bubbling from the radiator, there was silence in the car. My hands were tightly clenched around the front head rests and my heart was in my throat. My sister was just as nervous. Neither of us knew where to look. We were both silently reciting a tasbi under our breath, hoping the car would restart as Pappa tried the ignition again and again.
He looked round at our worried faces, and with a small brave smile on his face said “Beta, say your salwat” (a prayer invoking the blessings of the Prophet’s family). That worried us even more. Stalled in Nairobi traffic with strange cars walling us in on all four sides. No familiar faces. On a highway with no shops on the sides of the road. We were town mice stranded in a strange city. So we fervently said our salwat as Pappa tried the ignition again with his foot flat down on the accelerator. Once. Twice. A third time.
And then almost magically, we heard the engine turn. There was a short blast from the exhaust, my dad plunged it into first gear, and then quickly into second, then third, and then fourth hoping to reach a cruising level which would be cooler on the car than the high consuming first gear.
And with a short murmured, “Not to worry children” we charged into the roundabout, and thankfully the traffic parted all the way to General Mathenge road in Westlands.
Our ears were sensitively tuned to the sound of the radiator and the engine – both my sister and I crouching forward on the edge of our seats. We had barely pulled into the compound of Chandu uncle and Indira aunty, Pappa’s friends in Nairobi, driven the car into the corner of the garden and opened our doors when we heard the radiator collapse.
The hosepipe burst from overheating and it let off a cloud of steam so loud it sounded like a very angry pressure cooker with just one explosive whistle. I suppose if our faces had not been so thoroughly caked with journey dust that they were frozen into immobility, we would have looked either startled at the sound or relieved that it had happened after we arrived and that we were not still stranded on the highway. Either way, there wasn’t much of a reaction on our faces. Nor even a curiosity to look under the bonnet or peek under the car. We stolidly moved to the boot, removed our bags and headed into the house.
I don’t remember how we returned home to Mombasa but some time that week Chandu uncle had the Peugeot repaired and dropped it off at Daddy’s brother in law’s place.
Sadly, some months later, things curdled in Daddy’s marriage and his brother in law, whom he and we had had so much faith in, never sold the Peugeot. Pappa found a driver to bring it back to Mombasa and had some patchwork repairs made to it. Luckily, Ute, Pappa’s lady friend du jour, offered to buy it since she preferred a left hand drive.
For many years, I would see her driving around Mombasa in it, happy and content but all I could remember was our road trip.