Pioneers at Peponi

When my sister and I went to boarding school in Ruiru, it was on the recommendation of our headmaster at Mombasa academy, Dr R****** W******, a doctor of Archaeology, who had turned to Academia. He and his wife E******** were taking up a new post at Peponi School around twenty kilometres from Nairobi. The school was owned by the P**** family, relatives of the K********, and it bordered Brookside dairy also owned by the K******* family.

My father’s friendship with Dr W******, and his inability to raise two teenage girls as a single father, meant that he jumped at the chance (a product of boarding school education himself, he was a firm believer in the strengthening power of the experience). And so one Friday afternoon he picked us up from school along the leafy Corral Drive in Nyali, even though it was mid term, and told us it it would be our last day at Mombasa Academy. That Sunday we arrived at Peponi School to start a new chapter in our educational lives.

I was terrified. The only school going experience I could remember was from Mombasa Academy, where I had studied since the age of 6. The years before that in Coast Academy were a bit blurry. And the transfer happened just months after my mother had been sent to India – again – so my sister and I were both emotionally fragile. To top it off, we had shared a difficult first experience of boarding school in Nairobi at a much younger age, and memories of that tainted our impressions of Peponi.

In 1984, when my sister was 7 and I was 4, my parents were going through a difficult time in their marriage, and decided to send us to boarding school in Nairobi. They put us onto the train with a guardian who travelled with us to Limuru and enrolled us at Green Acres.

I don’t remember much of the experience. Just being very unhappy. The cold weather, missing my home and being bullied. One night my sister and I, desperately unhappy, tried to run away together – naively believing that home was a walking distance from Limuru. We were caught of course, wandering somewhere in the wet forests around the school, and sent back to Mombasa. The Green Acres uniforms sat in our cupboards for years, a little needed reminder of that experience: a long sleeved, dark green V neck sweater, white short sleeved cotton shirts and dark green cotton pleated skirts. So the thought of returning to boarding school in Nairobi was filled with painful memories, even though we were older: I was 11 and my sister M***** was 14.

Peponi School had been open for around a year or so when my sister and I joined, but it was only a day and weekly boarding school then. There were no facilities for full boarders which my sister and I were supposed to be, but Dr W****** had promised my father that they would be set up in a matter of months. So for the first month or so, my sister and I spent the weekends with family friends in Nairobi who lived on General Mathenge Road in Westlands: Chandu uncle, Indira aunty and their daughters Dalu and Mina who were in their mid twenties.

The family had been relative strangers until that interlude, and with all the other changes that were happening around us, it meant that we did not adjust well. Their house was very cold, and used to the humid warmth of Mombasa where we spent entire days playing in the garden, my sister and I would huddle in the back room and spend most of our time reading. We were not comfortable enough with the family to sit and watch TV with them, and the only time I remember sitting in the garden was with Indira aunty when she was frying potato and mohogo crisps on the charcoal jiko. Once, I remember visiting the temple with her on a Sunday afternoon.

But it wasn’t a good fit for us, and the last weekend that month we spent with Chandu’s unmarried brother, Kishor, at his flat in Hurlingham near Yaya Centre. He was a hands off sort of guardian and perfect for my sister and I who preferred to lose ourselves in books. And his flat was much warmer and received more sunlight. I remember eating steak on the balcony one evening when a kestrel swooped down and stole a piece off a plate.

It was the first time my sister or I had seen a bird of prey that close. That weekend was also the first time we had a chance to observe the Nairobi crows with their elegant, white ruffs around the neck. Mombasa is over run by raven black crows – which were apparently brought to the Kenyan coast by boats from India that carried them to curb the onboard population of rats – so this aristocratic looking crow was fascinating to us, and starkly different from the scruffy, two-legged creature that hopped around the Mombasa municipal rubbish bins.

The next weekend, while Peponi was making the transition to full boarding facilities, Dr W****** made some special arrangements for us at the school. The dormitory was kept open over the weekend, and we had our meals with William (Bill) and Jean McEwan, the caretakers of the school. An old Scottish couple, they were kind and gentle. And my sister who was intensely missing our dogs at home, instantly bonded with their Jack Russell Skipper.

There were two other full boarders with us: two brother from Egypt, Khalid and Achmat. Khaled was in my class and Achmat was in Form 3 with my sister.

This was a much better arrangement for us, and the McEwans, in their quiet manner seemed to understand what my sister and I were adjusting to better than anyone else. And the freedom of the school grounds and having our own – if limited – belongings around us was assuring.

We were the pioneers of Peponi school. I was the 5th student in the first form, with two boys: Romin and Khalid, and two girls: Sheila and Susan. Romin was a day student while Sheila and Susan were weekly boarders and returned to their families in Nairobi over the weekends.

The boarding facilities were simple. A limited number of rooms in a raised, wooden structure that looked more like a lodge than a dormitory, and green verdure all around. Timetables were also flexible with evening prep sessions in the library, and meals in the one roomed cafeteria. When the school began to grow, the original boarding block was converted into a sanatorium and the farm house building which had served as the main class room block became the reception, staff room and library.

My sister and I spent many happy weekends with the McEwans, helping in the garden, walking around the huge undeveloped compound, and as many hours discovering the quiet nooks of the school: the huge jacaranda and flame trees that shed their purple and orange flowers every storm and created a carpet of vibrant velvet colour on the rough murram roads; the big tree outside the head master’s office where we held some classes; and the undisturbed field filled with waving grass fronds and rain puddles that stretched all the way to the main gate, and a little further to the Nairobi-Thika highway.

The peaceful hours we spent was exactly what we needed to adjust to a different climate, a different school and a new lifestyle – far from Mombasa. It made for the perfect transition period, and I spent hours in those fields – and continued to as the school developed – feeling the crisp Nairobi breeze on my face, tracing the tiny droplets of water as they fell from the raised tank in the far corner of the field, and watching the rest of the compound from my hidden vantage point.

All too soon the school expanded and when we returned from our July-August holidays, it was to find a plumped up student presence and fattened staff base. My Form 2 class had filled out with students from Banda, Braeburn, Hillcrest, and St Andrews Turi.

January 2 2013

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