Short Memoir: Footnotes on Kenya

By Gregory r. Patricio

Life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change — John Rohn

Gregory R. Patricio was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1943. At the age of 15, he began his career with Cable & Wireless, and then the American Embassy. In 1976, he immigrated to the USA, and joined Eastman Kodak. He lives in Virginia, USA. At 75, he began writing his memoirs, parts of which have been excerpted here with permission.


In Kenya, segregation was subtle and accepted as the norm with very little opposition from the local Indians. The British further encouraged segregation among the Asians. To be fair the Asian communities, like the Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Khojas and Goans, did not mix too well, due to religious and cultural differences. They had their own clubs, and to some extent schools too. The Goan Clubs, took this division one step further depending, on which village one hailed from in Goa.

I must credit the British for opening up the hinterland, but more for their own convenience and business needs. Strangely the above communities and the British made up the main population in the cities; there were a few Boers (Dutch from South Africa) and Seychellois (who spoke a French patois). In the cities, the African were a minority. They did not venture far out from the ‘villages’. I hesitate to use the word ‘reservations’. I first heard it used in the 50’s during the Mau Mau movement for Independence.

Bachelor life

My heroes are my Mum, Dad and my five older siblings. I am not sure when Pai (from the Portuguese word for father), emigrated to Kenya but I do know that Mai came from Goa to get married in 1923, in Mombasa. My dad was lame, I think from a polio attack. He had to use special boots, it must have taken a lot of courage to leave Goa, but it was the pioneering spirit.  Pai must have come to Kenya, before 1923.

It was customary for bachelor Goans to live together, often called ‘messing’ and develop friendship and kinship. In later years, wives of Goan families would cater for these bachelors with food etc. They used the famous tiffin carriers, which were stacked steel containers packed with chapattis, rice, meat gravy etc. The tiffin carriers are now world famous and a well established, food delivery system, especially in India, England and I believe on the west coast, California, using trains and trucks and bicycles. (Harvard business school did a study of how the tiffin system works – quite complex, nah!  cannot beat Indian ingenuity! ! ! Who Needs Harvard.)

A typical Goan Household

We lived in two rooms — no kitchen — cooked, ate and slept in the same rooms. We cooked on a (Makara) charcoal brazier (jicho), and had a make-shift oven which was a large container, of which the bottom layer was sand. We put the item to be baked inside on the sand layer, covered it with a metal cover and heaped hot coals on top. It worked really well. 

We progressed to the Primus stove, which used kerosene fuel; to start it we had to pump it until a little kerosene collected in a cup at the base, then let the pressure off, light the kerosene which heated the base, then closed the valve and pumped again and now the heated base vaporised the fuel coming and we now had a star-shaped flame at the top. The danger of an explosion was eminent. There were stories of Indian women who wore saris and thus were more prone to these fiery accidents. The jicho still had to be used for baking and heating our bath water in the debbes (4 gallon rectangular tin cans, originally oil containers).

Many Africans made the charcoal by slow burning wood, couple of feet underground, covered with mud and a vent for a little air and another for the smoke. I would see these mounds when my dad would take us for a bus ride to the country. Another reason we took these trips was to collect dry banana leaves for my mum to roll her “biddies”. (Kind of cigarette using whole tobacco leaf.) It was unusual to see a woman of her generation, smoking. I gather, she did this on advice from a dentist. She eventually graduated to a pipe. My godmother also smoked, but she would put the burning-end in her mouth!

In the later years, Goans had servants to do the heavy work like washing etc. Not so strange to see them washing clothes, whacking them on ground or using a danda or rungu (a wooden pole) to beat the clothes — popped a lot of buttons that way. No special detergent, but I remember, for white clothes, they added a blue chalky powder to the water. Some of our good clothes we would give to the dhobiwalla, Indian laundry man. They offered great service, and came door-to-door to pick up and deliver our clothes. The iron we used was very heavy, and it used real red hot coals inside it.

Dishes and utensils were scrubbed using the outer husk of the coconut shell, dipped in ash as an abrasive. This coir or stringy cover of the coconut was also used to stuff mattresses, the wisdom of this was that, it kept the mattresses cool and ventilated, cotton or some other material would make it stuffy, and make us hot and sweaty. Ropes were also made from this fiber. Wisdom of the pioneers. The local Africans knew how to cut glass bottles, to make cups which they would sell. I think they learned this technique from the Italian WWII Prisoners of War (POWs). Our tea and coffee mugs were of cheap, enamel coated metal. We ate, hand to mouth, believe me, this added a unique flavor to the food.

One bathroom and toilet were shared by four families. No hot water taps. The toilet was the bucket system. A platform over a bucket where, you did you job squatting over it. (The guys who cleaned/emptied these toilets were called, ‘night governors’. Squatting, is the natural way, I believe this was the ideal, better than sitting on a toilet. It was considered unhygienic to sit on a toilet that was used by a person before you. Eventually, the bucket system was replaced by a flushing toilet. but again, it was flush to the floor and one still had to squat. The water tank was attached to the wall overhead, a chain dangled down which you pulled. Hence the expression. “Who pulled your chain,” when one talked to much. 

By now our lease on the house in Parkland ended, and a house hunting we had to go. We moved to a place in the newer section of Eastleigh, on the road to the R.A.F. Aerodrome. The houses were all one level buildings, usually with a rectangular courtyard and rooms on three sides, shared toilet and kitchen were at one end. But you know, sports, music, and parties are in our blood and as you cannot keep good Goan guys down, a lot of these courtyards were utilised to play badminton or volleyball, keeping us out of mischief. They were also used to hold parties, and dutifully decorated. These houses in Kenya were built of solid stone upon stone and mortar, no frail wood framework, drywall or sheet-rock. No special sitting room, or bedroom or bathroom or laundry room, hence no my room, your room, arguments.      

Banner image of Parklands School Nairobi, formerly the Dr Ribeiro School, courtesy of Selma Carvalho.