British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Kuldip Rai Moman
Season of Green Leaves
Kisumu
"Only stay quiet while my mind remembers
The beauty of fire from the beauty of embers."

John Masefield.

There was freshness in the sunshine. A waft of breeze blew from the lake shore. The place was Kisumu, earlier known as Port Florence. It was January 1938 and I had completed my nineteenth year.

After an interview, the head of the Post Office, P.G. Carmichael, a marvellous fellow, got me tested in Morse Telegraphy and Typewriting. His was a fascinating way of assessment. After calling a senior telegraphist, Mbalire, he placed 5 one cent pieces on the palm of his left hand and gave a go-ahead nod to signal. At the end of every 60 seconds he would transfer one of the five, one cent coins to the right hand pocket of his jacket. When the last cent got into his pocket my receiving test in telegraphy was over. And then the trial in reverse, that is, I was the signaller, and Mbalire, the transcriber.

I can still listen to the music of the Morse, gat gat gar, gat gat gat of that bright morning. From the Telegraph Office window, I can see the vast expanse of Lake Victoria Nyanza. Thus I set out on my career as a Postal Clerk and Telegraphist (Learner) at a kingly wage of 50 shillings a month in the Posts and Telegraphs Department which covered His Majesty King George Sixth's territories of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika.

We used to have an All Up Air Mail service and you could send a letter, Par Avion, throughout the British Empire, including Australia and New Zealand and the tiny isles of Pitcairn, Tonga and Samoa in the Pacific by affixing a 20 cent postage stamp.

Season of Green Leaves
Mending Cables
Amrik Singh with driver Umari and two office messengers would go to the airport to fetch the Air Mails. On return around seven in the evening, mail bags from all over the universe were counted and ticked in. Their seals were thoroughly examined to make certain they were not tampered with. Thereafter, the opening process would ensue. The bundles of letters were passed to various racks for sorting. I recall we had a rack destined for Tanganyika. The sorting at this fitting was considered difficult and therefore important.

I would like to mention that the Postmaster was an exceptionally conscientious, very efficient and meticulous person. After his daytime normal working hours as chief of the station, when the dusk fell, he would come to the sorting office. In those days of yore, there was no electricity. He had taken it on himself to light the petromax lamps. I can visualise him pumping these lamps vigorously. He would then go home, which was next to the Post Office, across the green fence. He would come back after having his dinner and would go straight to sort mails for Tanganyika. Later, when he proceeded on home leave to UK, I took over from him the sorting on this rack which had 48 pigeon holes. I felt I was a cut above others! It may be of interest that I was allocated his government house as well. The reason was that it was a so-called European house in an Asian housing area. Imagine a 50 shillings-a-month clerk occupying a four bedroom house, with a garage and a garden on the verge of a city park. By any stretch of imagination, I did not need accommodation of this dimension. I shut the whole house but one bedroom for my use.

Season of Green Leaves
Kisumu BOAC
For some time, I was assistant to Amrik Singh in despatch of airmails. Some of the staff would do sorting of letters in the post office boxes. After a space of over half a century I remember certain boxes, e.g. number 47 was District Commissioner, Central Kavirondo and number 40 was John L. Riddoch Motors. Most of the box renters of my day in Kisumu have vanished into oblivion. It may be they no longer exist any more on this planet. Due to prolonged working hours, my overtime used to amount to one hundred hours monthly. Calculated at 30 cents an hour, I was paid 30 shillings which was a colossal addition to my salary.

During the Christmas period we dealt with heavy mails. On Christmas Eve a desire took hold of me that we continue sorting the mails throughout the night till daybreak so that I could hail the sun on 25 December, rising from the East. It was a warm tropical night. There was a mango tree outside the office. At times I would go to the door to feel the swish and rustle of the leaves and inhale the fragrance in the wind. The staff felt weary and we left before dawn. My yearning to see the Christmas sun rise did not materialise. All those who handled His Majesty's Royal Mail that night have departed to their sojourn in the sky.

I was keen to move to pastures afresh and applied for a transfer to anywhere in Kenya or Tanganyika. Instructions came from Nairobi asking me to proceed to Rumuruti. I had packed my bags when a telegraph message, known as an SG was received cancelling the move. It so happened I never got a chance to see Rumuruti. Eventually, I was transferred to Nyeri as an assistant to the Postmaster. Nyeri, as is known, is a pleasant and beautiful spot. The wind whispers a melody in your ears, the whole day.

Season of Green Leaves
Baden Powell's Grave
Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts Movement, is buried there. The graveyard was 500 yards from my octagonal shaped residence. After the day's work, I would go to the cemetery which had enchanting surroundings and looked like a park. You could watch the hills and dales and on a clear day gaze at the glistening, snow-clad peaks of Mount Kenya and the white clouds floating in the sky. I would sit, or rather squat, at the foot of his grave and provide company to the great man who has his eternal abode there - away from his native land. One evening I dozed off and fell asleep. When I awoke, a dark night had descended and I found myself in the silent domain of the dead.

I had a built-in wanderlust and invariably thought as to how I could have a career whereby I could travel to varied places. In sickness or annual leave whenever a replacement was required, Nairobi Head Office was supposed to provide a relief to the post offices under its control. An idea struck me that Nyeri was ninety miles from Nairobi and midway between Nairobi and many of the post offices in Central Province and further afield in the Northern Frontier District. It would therefore be expedient and economical if a relief hand was stationed at Nyeri. Accordingly a communication was sent to Nairobi. I had never expected the scheme would work but, as luck would have it, the Head Office commended the proposal. An additional member of staff was posted at Nyeri and I was ear-marked as relief Postmaster. I must say my heart leapt up.

A new post office was lately opened at Kiganjo where there were some complications. I was asked to inspect that office and submit a report to Nairobi. On receipt of my account, I was told to take over Kiganjo temporarily. Subsequently, the arrangement was made permanent. I was flabbergasted. It amounted to that I was once again stuck to a particular office. All my dreams of journeying to different post offices were shattered and came to nought. I was at square one. I thought I had lost the Kingdom of the NFD.

Besides an assortment of shrubs and flowers on the hill slope, I had planted a variety of vegetables. An off-shoot of a streamlet flowed softly by the side of my house. I would put a stone in it to divert its course to water my garden. While going to Kiganjo I had taken a small suitcase, contemplating I would be back in a week's time. I never returned to Nyeri to live in my house. In retrospect I feel melancholy and in the flight of my fancy I see jasmine, marigolds, gardenia, runner beans, turnips and parsnips in my shamba. One sows and the other reaps.

Season of Green Leaves
Mount Kenya
We had twenty thousand Italian evacuees at Kiganjo who were brought there from Eritrea, Somaliland, Ethiopa and Libya. They left long years ago; the grass has overgrown their camps. I remember an episode when three prisoners of war escaped from their camp and hoisted the Italian flag on Mount Kenya. At our telephone exchange, we had overheard Major Ridgeway, the Commandant of the Italian Evacuee Camp, who had a commanding voice, exchanging information about the getaway. One of the escapees, Felice Benuzzi, subsequently wrote the tale of their escapade and adventure in No picnic on Mount Kenya which is an interesting classic.

After a year's stay there, I was transferred to Nairobi where I was asked to act as relief Postmaster for outstations. At times I would reach a new place at an odd hour. Arriving somewhere unknown in the darkness after midnight added to my excitement. There was rapture in those safaris.

Due to the wind of change, along with hundreds of civil servants, I retired prematurely. Thereafter came a time when I would travel four thousand miles a month. Every night I would sleep under a new roof, in a different village. In the morning when I got up I would rub my eyes and make an effort to determine where I was. I lived at many sites and belonged to them. If I did not visit one of these, I missed it. I have left segments of my soul in those desolate, forlorn parts beyond the horizon. I watch Kitui, Kitgum, Kaabong, Moroto, Mbarara, Moyale, and Morogoro dancing constantly on the screen of my mind. There were many meandering paths I saw while driving. I was always in haste and thought I would come back and roam there another day. It was during the night when I passed the location on my return trip. They are awaiting me to follow them.

Time fleeted away swiftly, and then came on the scene His Excellency, Field Marshal Dr Idi Amin Dada. It was the 5 August, 1972 when an announcement was made ordering all British Asians to quit Uganda. I thought I may never see the country again and decided to visit some of the areas and the bends on the twisting and turning roads across the skyline and to say farewell to the graveyard of my memories. I took to the road and drove, or rather wandered, aimlessly without a destination for a fortnight.

During chilly nights in London I dream of lost Africa. All my thoughts revolve around the old country. I loved every moment I was there. Karen Blixen in her book Out of Africa has summed up her sentiments; "Everything you saw made for greatness and freedom . . . Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart . . . you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

I look back to days of long-drop lavatories, light from petromax and hurricane dietz lamps and rain water pouring down from heaven into the tanks as elixir. A longing comes over me to see once again long forgotten faces and places from the dim, hazy past. The smells, sounds and sights from far away, agitate me in slumber.

"Oh call back yesterday
Bid time return"

Shakespeare

A few keys of my former dwellings, for no reason whatsoever, have been lying around. With the passage of time I do not remember which doors they opened. They seem familiar, I try to fit them to the gates of an era which has fled.

"A rainbow and a cuckoo's song.
May never come together again".

W.H. Davies.

map of British Empire
Map of South-Western Kenya and Lake Victoria, 1948
1955 Map of Nairobi Region
Colony Profile
Kenya
Uganda
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 72 (October 1996)
Other articles by Author
25 Years in Slumber
Train to Iganga


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