British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Kuldip Rai Moman
All I seek, the heaven above.
And the road below me.

R L Stevenson

There are pages of the book of life we like to turn often. When I awaken in the morning, I keep my eyes shut and peep through the haze of time. I am lost in a reverie and traverse a distance of two score and seventeen years. My mind meanders to an enchanting world that has dissolved and shall not come into sight again.

Call of the Road - an Elegy
Nairobi Head Post Office
In 1944 I was clerk grade two and was based at Nairobi Head Post Office. My salary was one hundred and seventy seven shillings a month. I was marked as relief and was happy in performing wandering assignments as it afforded me an opportunity to move around and dwell at different parts of the country.

While acting as relief postmaster at Nyeri Post Office in the Central Province of Kenya, I received a telegraph message from Nairobi, saying my next move was to go to Kitui to relieve the Savings Bank Van clerk Mr Sequeira. I took the train to Thika where the Postmaster, Mr Verma, was kind enough to provide me accommodation at his official residence.

In those days, there did not exist a satisfactory mode of public transport. Mr Verma arranged a lift for me to Kitui with a lorry owned by a Somali. The Somali was glad, considering it was a privilege to carry me as I was supposed to work in the District Commissioner's Office. When I was ready to hop on his vehicle with my suitcase and my dog, Jack, he came up with a pretext that due to unforeseen circumstances, he had to decline me the ride. The fact was, he did not wish Jack to accompany me. A dog for a Somali is a filthy creature. Incidentally, Jack had cruised with me for some three thousand miles. Subsequently, I found another conveyance.

After driving on solitary, desolate, abandoned, empty, isolated roads in the dark for ninety two miles, we reached Kitui at 2 am. In the pitch gloom, I had to locate the house of DC's clerk, Mr Almeida. He was courteous enough to put me up with him for the night.

The following day when I got up, the sun had marched in the sky for three hours. I felt an invigorating briskness in the ambience and walked to the DC's office. Mr Almeida introduced me to the DC and I was handed over the schedule of my safaris in the district.

Call of the Road - an Elegy
Post Office Savings Bank
During the second World War, the Post office had launched Savings Bank Vans which operated in certain districts of Kenya and were supposed to encourage the public to save money to help the war effort. They were under the jurisdiction of the Post Office Chief Accountant in Nairobi. But for day to day working, they functioned under the District Commissioner. The DC would draw a programme for every month. In fact, it depended on the interest, initiative and enthusiasm of the Savings Bank Van clerk as to how much area he wanted to cover in the DC's domain.

For five days during the month, we would accompany the Family Remittance Officer and the Veterinary Officer. The former would pay a part of the salary of persons at the war front to their family members. The latter would pay for the cattle purchased. More than three weeks of a month were left uncharted. When the red van was not on safari, I was to help in the DC's office. As I was a Pitman's Advanced typist, I manipulated the typewriter.

I suggested to the DC that instead of the van clerk and his staff remaining at standstill for most of the month, I would like to introduce his van throughout the district. He was pleased and approved my proposition. He took a keen interest in our activities. I would report to him what places the van visited or how many people approximately we approached.

On arriving at our goal - it could be the chief's office, a market, a village, or a gathering somewhere, according to my whims, we would come to a halt. I would explain in Swahili the purpose of our visit, that is, to save money with the Post Office or rather with Bwana DC's gari. I would further add that the same would help their kith and kin at the war zones. The interpreter would translate my version in the local dialect, Kikamba.

I would then be ready at my counter table fitted inside the van. I would enter the amount deposited by savers in a new pass book. The deposits were generally one shilling. After taking the depositor's specimen signatures, I would enclose the book in an envelope and hand it over to him. It was an enormous investment for them. I could see a shimmer in their eyes. I am certain hundreds of these pass books were never used or saw the light of day. The one shilling deposits are still lying with the Post Office.

These simple, innocent, honest folk would offer chickens and a small basket of eggs to support the war. My staff would covetously look at them. But they knew I was watching.

Furthermore, we distributed literature as to how the war was progressing. A Swahili newspaper Pamoja particularly comes to mind. At these congregations, the vendors would sell their wares. I recall bright, glimmering, multicolour bows and arrows. Regional foodstuff was also available.

In addition to Savings Bank transactions, I had a stamp album from which I sold stamps. A small letter posting box hung outside the van for posting letters. In a way, we were a travelling post office.

There were four persons with the van. The clerk, that is me, was overall in-charge. The others were: the driver, an interpreter and a porter or an all purpose hand. For a perennial clerk meant for a sedentary job, to have a momentary season of drifting days is a stroke of good fortune. I was cheerful.

We would return home at dusk and I would manage to have a so-so meal. The Indian doctor at the government hospital and his spouse entertained me a number of times for dinner. I remember the twinkling, trembling stars in an empty sky from their garden. I may mention that on the first day of my arrival, I was allocated a large government house. For two nights a week, I would sleep away from our base. It could be in the rest house controlled by the chief. In absence of any accommodation, I would pitch my tent in a windswept field in the midst of nowhere. I can still hear the lullaby and hustle and groan of a fierce, howling, screaming wind blowing the whole night. I slept like a log. Jack provided me company.

Call of the Road - an Elegy
On one of the safaris when the morning was silent, clear, fresh and radiant, I saw a herd of giraffe galloping in the wilderness and took out my 32 shillings Kodak box camera to take a snap. Five minutes in the jungle, I realised I had lost my bearings. I decided not to move further and stood still. The van driver, sensing there was something amiss, sounded the horn. I was not far from the road it turned out. The giraffe still trample about in their territory but I am not there!

Along with the Family Remittance Officer and the Veterinary Officer, I recall an evening when we watched a batch of young, glamorous, attractive girls dancing. Their manoeuvres and movements had a bewitching effect on the large number of onlookers. I know their place has been taken over by fresh damsels.

If the van could retrace its wheels and I could touch the dust of Akambaland, I would ask the lanes, the roads away from the beaten trail, the tall, towering beasts and the sun that shines there, to tell me how I looked when they first gazed at me and how I am now. The caravan of life moves on. I wrote my diary at irregular intervals. There is a note dated 29 August 1944 10 pm. 'A trek of 50 days including Nyeri is over. At this time tomorrow I shall be in Nairobi which is not to my liking. I am going to look at the moon and sleep.' Latterly I was paid a travelling or a relief allowance of one hundred shillings for this period. I thirst for the wheel of time to turn back and I could once again put up a safari duty claim of two shillings a night!

I look leave from the DC and turned to waive adieu to Mr Almeida and the office staff. I was parting with sadness. I hoped I would return there another day. I never did! At night, I roam the road beyond the rainbow to Kitui. Where are the people, the places, the paths I came to know long ago and far away? A tale only is left.

O how I would like to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track.

A Vaughan

Colonial Map
1955 Map of Nairobi Region
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002


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