Reminiscences: Early Days


Memories. Why do we remember what we do remember? Memories are scenes we can easily recall, as opposed to the countless events we have witnessed and whose traces are most likely still locked away somewhere in the deepest recesses of the brain. Are the experiences that we can most readily bring up to the surface necessarily the most important? Perhaps not, and certainly we now know (because of psycho-analysis) that many particularly painful experiences are forcibly repressed, though not completely eliminated. Nonetheless, it is perverse to believe that what we cannot easily access is more significant than what we can, and anyway what is important to the child may seem of little interest to the adult, and vice-versa.


My very first memory is of being on a ship passing through the Suez Canal. I must have been three, or at most four, at the time. I can see the colours of the dawn and they are not pink and orange but shades of sandy-yellow and brown. I am fascinated by how slowly the immense ship 1 is moving ― if not quite at a snail’s pace, then certainly that of a tortoise. The ‘banks’ are right there at eye-level; for I am looking through a port-hole of the cabin while my mother is still asleep.
Then the veranda of a small one storey ‘house’, hardly more than a shack; the rickety veranda is cool, deliciously cool, because of the dense overhanging trees. I am cycling up and down on a red tricycle while my mother is having a Swahili lesson. The teacher is a dignified elderly African dressed in a cast-off dark European suit complete with a hat and an umbrella, or at any rate a cane. My mother, a pretty and well-dressed young white woman, is making heavy weather of her Swahili lesson, and I shout out the answers to many of the questions as I tricycle to and fro. I am not sure what the local word for ‘Madame’ was, but apparently the teacher, when reporting on progress to my father, said something like “Memsahib not too good, little boy very good.”
The same veranda but on a very different occasion. I am being held down while an African on his knees is digging out with a wooden spatula horrible things called ‘jiggers’ which get in under your toenails. Presumably, this was a very painful procedure but I don’t remember screaming, only the extreme care of the African. I notice with surprise how much paler the skin of the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet is.

This is Africa, the planet of insects. At night we often heard hyenas howling in the darkness and coming quite close to the Mission settlement, but one gets used to this and no one seems to have actually been molested by one, or by any other wild animal. Insects, however, you cannot avoid. My mother wears thigh-length leather boots in the evenings and we all sleep under mosquito nets, take Palidrome pills at every meal but still usually end up getting malaria anyway. Insects are everywhere, some wonderfully beautiful like the moths that beat against the (probably polythene) window panes and smaller ones that circle endlessly around the kerosene lamps until they drop with exhaustion. Millipedes and centipedes crawl all over the floor, but ants are the worst: every table and chair has bowls of water around the legs and ants still manage to get onto the table and into the sugar and bread.
Third memory. An irate peasant woman with a coloured kerchief is haranguing my mother because the Mission donkey has got into her vegetable plot2. My Swahili isn’t up to this and she probably doesn’t speak it anyway;  my father is away, or at school teaching, thus mutual incomprehension. I watch apprehensively held tight in my mother’s arms. Eventually the local chief arrives to try and smooth things over, maybe compensation is paid.                                                                                   To be continued

  1 The ship was The Franconia, a troop-ship taking African soldiers back to their native lands after the end of WWII, and which also had a few civilian passengers including my mother and myself going out to join my father who was already in Kenya on a Methodist Mission station.
2 Agriculture was at the time, and still is in some parts of Africa, entirely carried out by women.



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