Kengeleni – my first love

When my mother came to Mombasa after her marriage in Mumbai in 1975, she lived in Tudor  with my father, his three unmarried sisters and her parents in law. My father’s elder brother – A******* – who later returned to England as a solicitor in England, lived in the adjoining house with his wife and three children.

In photo albums, I have pictures of my mother, draped in an orange sari (which I have since inherited although the silk material did not age well and has rough rips along the seams), with the typically Indian large hoop earrings and an ornate gold and bead necklace around her throat, arriving at Tudor, standing at the stoep to the house, observing all the traditions and ceremonies as she first enters her marital home.

My sister and I were both conceived in Tudor, and we took our first steps in that house surrounded by my father’s family. My mother talks of how even from a young age I was very attached to my sister, how I idolised her, would willingly allow her to trick me out of all my Smarties, let her push my diaper padded bum down the stairs and giggle with each bump. For her, I was a brand new playmate – her very own toy. And for an only child, it was an invaluable gift.

In 1981, my parents moved out of Tudor and into Z***** building (near the old bridge), which caused a terrible family row because my parents had dared to separate from the family home. A couple of years after living in Z***** building, we moved to an apartment in Karimi house, right next to the legendary Tusks on Moi Avenue. And after that we moved into our own home: Kengeleni, a bungalow nestled at the end of a long driveway, overlooking the Indian Ocean and the island of Mombasa from the mainland.

Our Kengeleni home was right after the turn off from Nyali bridge, next to the large iron bell from which the area took its name. The 2 foot large bell, suspended between two pillars, is now a protected national monument but in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, it was tolled to alert people to the coming of the slave traders.

The name stuck for us and our home was always Kengeleni to us, even after the old Nyali-new Nyali definitions developed with their divisive social innuendoes.

Even today when the beauty of the area has been sullied by the matatu stand on the corner, the bar with swimming pool where families throng on the weekend, the fruit market which meanders down the street and leaves a sticky, pungent smell in the air, and the overnight apartment buildings which have squeezed themselves onto every vacant plot of land – no matter how small – with their dirty washing fluttering from the balconies four floors high.

My sister M***** and I never really enjoyed Kengeleni as children would such a beautiful home and garden. Memories of our years in Kengeleni during Mombasa Academy were sullied by the unhappiness of the family situation we found ourselves in.

When I was 11 and M***** 14, we left Kengeleni and moved to boarding school in upcountry Ruiru – never realising that in many ways, that would be the last time we could call Kengeleni home.

And so whenever we returned three times a year for brief end of term holidays, the accumulated changes in the area seemed all the more obvious. And after that when we returned once a year on holiday from university in South Africa, Kengeleni had lost its magic for us.

The house had witnessed too many arguments, departures, tears and sorrow for it to ever represent our childhood haven. And eventually we stopped coming home at all.

I returned to Kenya four years later after my undergraduate degree but even then I was haunted by the crushed dreams and unshed tears of two children pining for a mother, and just three months later I moved to Nairobi for work. The presence of my father’s second family in the same compound were a constant reminder of how we – his first family – may have been a youthful mistake, unwanted even. And so late nights at the radio station where I had started to work were always preferable to returning to a 4 bedroomed empty house that whispered too loudly.

That was 10 years ago. Kengeleni slowly aged and crumbled under the weight of its memories, and the absorbed sadness of the years that had passed. The hurt, the betrayals, the tragedies. I still think of her as the third sibling in the tragedy that afflicted my family.

She was mine and my sister’s last childhood home because it is where our childhood ended; where we were forced to grow up almost overnight.

When I last saw Kengeleni she was a shadow of herself – fissures in the walls, rusted sliding doors, peeling paint, a cracked parking area, demolished kitchen, creaking taps, yellow water-stained bath tubs, green and black moss patterned pots, tracks of anthills leaning against walls, barren flower bushes, brown twig filled lawns, bald patches of earth where once there was a lawn, drooping Travellers palm leaves and a bracken filled pond.

Kengeleni had become an old lady trying gracefully to cling to her happy past, determined to ignore the effects of time and rigidly losing the battle.

In its heyday, Kengeleni was a garden of Eden. And she grew into splendour as we grew into teenagers. Every moment of hers seemed to echo one of ours.

From the planting of palm trees which were knee high then and when we finally left towered over the top of the house, its fringes caressing the balcony walls. To the building of the pond and filling it with fresh water Tilapia – which unfortunately we could never barbecue because they had small bones and M***** kept insisting we couldn’t eat our pets.

I remember when we converted the doors and windows facing the seafront into sliding net and glass doors so that whatever the time of day, we could enjoy the salty fresh sea breezes carried off the east coast of Africa and into our home; the building of the long expanse of the external kitchen which ended up spanning the entire length of the house from parking garage through to the back garden and was filled with coolers of cider, jumbo prawns and Tuskers.

Even developing the unique coastal feel in the house with Arabic/ Swahili wooden threaded furniture from Lamu, woven sisal on the seat and back of the rocking chairs, wooden carvings on the walls, the ornately cared black wood writing bureau, the doughnut cushioned armchairs in coffee coloured fabric, the twirled poofs with a leather top for the feet to rest on, and the pseudo pornographic Coco de Mer (joint coconuts) from the Seychelles.

Upstairs all three bedrooms faced the sea and every night we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean, even though Bahari Club and their enthusiastic deep sea fishermen separated us from the beach by approximately 500 metres. A tall wall divided our house from the Club, and on the wall we could regularly see the resident monitor lizard sunning itself, the pranks of the vervet monkeys clambering all over it, swinging in the branches, lapping at water from the bird bath and cleverly evading the lazy flicker of the monitor’s tongue.

Once when we first moved in, we thought about using the monkeys as target practice with an air rifle but that is as far as it ever went. And the monkeys lived happily in our trees, trooping in in the mornings with their tiny bald babies – pink with furry black tufts of hair –  clutched tightly to their chests who were left to play for a while in an open part of the garden, before being bundled back into their mother’s arms and carried home.

Kengeleni was fringed by the tulsi plant which is a mosquito repellent and so in the evenings, after the setting of the sun, the spicy fragrance of the tulsi would intertwine itself with that of the flirtatious raat ki rani from the bushes outside the living room window and float into the house on the wings of the breeze. On a still night, it would even permeate our bedrooms on the 1st floor.

The asmini flowers would have already been picked – it was an evening ritual in our house – and one that Pappa believed encouraged the plant to flower. And so every evening the flowers from the day before would be pushed to one side of the etched wooden plate in which they sat, to make room for the new buds. Sometimes we would sit the wooden asmini plate on top of a glass of water because the sweet fragrance attracted a horde of small red ants.

Pappa was so strict about this that if he ever saw an asmini flower on the bush – a small white flower with tiny, tender petals among dark green leaves – he would get very upset.

When I moved back to Kengeleni after Rhodes, I would go into the garden in the evenings with a bowl from the kitchen to pick the asminis but by then the asmini plants had stopped flowering – too many years of waiting for the daily caress only for it to never come, and four years later it gave up hope, just before I returned

Of the three bedrooms upstairs, the one on the extreme left was the Master bedroom, had its ensuite bathroom, a small private balcony facing the sea and opened up a large balcony which overlooked the parking, driveway and all the way down to the main road. The other two bedrooms shared a stretch of balcony – but that never stopped my sister and I from clambering across from one balcong to the next while my father enjoyed his afternoon siesta.

Balconies held a fascination for us and some weekends, we would even climb onto the hot, corrugated tin garage roof from the main balcony, and hang our fishing rods ( made from hockey sticks and string) off the side into the neighbour’s compound. We only ever returned to the house when the tin roof became too hot and burnt our buttocks.

As a child I suffered terribly from eczema. It was worst on the inside of my elbows and the backs of my knees, and I went through absolute agony with the heat in Mombasa. The urge to scratch, the final relief of scratching – often in the middle of the night when my conscious defences were down and my sharp nails could tear away at the soft skin – and then the final sticky relief when I felt the blood oozing out, only to see the mess I had made of my arms and knees the next morning. And this happened night after night. The regular bleeding and scarring left a lot of scar tissue and I could not wear shorts or short sleeved shirts in public, which with the Mombasa heat made the desire to scratch even worse as any material would cling to the skin and aggravate the sores even more.

The solution that my family recommended were daily baths in neem water, and so every evening I would immerse my body in a tub filled with warm green water. Some neem leaves would have turned dark green from the hot water and would float on top while the water soaked remainder settled at the bottom. While I played in the garden, the neem water was slowly stewing for a whole afternoon in a charcoal heated sufuria in the yard.

Luckily, one holiday in Lamu a doctor friend of Pappa’s – Dr Kanti Chudasama –  joined us and as I timidly splashed in the sea, careful not to let the sea water reach my knees because then the burn would be unbearable, he saw the rash behind my knees and prescribed an ointment which cleared up the eczema in a week’s time. But the neem bath ritual had become so regular that its bitter smell still lingers in my nostrils all these years later.  Since then the many cures of the neem tree (40 to be exact), called dawa muarbaini, have transitioned from traditional healing practices into the mainstream.

But for me, it was always the neem trees of Kengeleni that had healed me first.



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