The first home I can remember in detail was a grey stone bungalow. The floors were of glistening herringbone parquet, except for the kitchen, which had polished red tiles.
The driveway to the house was lined with spiky sisal plants with long stalks of creamy bell-shaped flowers. Two shallow steps led up to the front door and into a wide corridor. Turning right took you to the kitchen, from where there was a door onto the garden. Beside the kitchen was an airy pantry, and behind that, our dining room, with windows looking onto the garden. When you came in through the front door, walking straight ahead led into a large, bright living room, with French windows onto the garden. If you turned left from the corridor, you’d find three very large bedrooms, a bathroom and toilet, and a range of fitted cupboards.
At the time it seemed a very beautiful and luxurious house, such a contrast to the dull, pebble-dashed semi-detached we had left behind in south-west London. The garden was vast, but not very attractive. There were a few prickly giant cacti and a clump of tall bamboo, where the cobras lived. The lawn, such as it was, was more brown than green. Beyond the lawn was a large uncultivated wasteland. Outside my bedroom window a pepper tree rustled in the breeze.
1954 – outside the bungalow in Lower Kabete Road
From our house it was a five minute walk to the handful of local shops. Driving past the greengrocer after midnight, any night of the week, you could see the Asian owners polishing and displaying their fruit and vegetables. There was a butcher, an ice-cream parlour, a modest general store and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
For a short while it was a peaceful and very happy house, until fate lobbed a grenade into it, it all fell apart, and I lost my mother. Despite that, I still have some good memories of living there. The house that was my home for nine years was in the Lower Kabete Road, in the Westlands suburb of Nairobi.
In May of this year my memoir was published, partly covering my life in Kenya over twenty years, and I had a yearning to see the house again. I went to Google Earth to look for it. I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. The whole area, once sparsely inhabited, was unrecognisable, crammed with new buildings and new roads, and Nairobi city was just another modern metropolis.
The little collection of Westlands “dukas” had vanished. Now there was a vast shopping mall. Westgate, a few hundred yards from the house in Lower Kabete Road.
Two weeks ago, Westgate Mall was the scene of the Al Shabaab attack.
Watching the reportage, I was dismayed how that once quiet little corner had become the scene of such carnage. As well as killing and maiming those victims caught there, it also destroyed the memory of my childhood home, where the most traumatic moments of my life happened, Whenever my mind wanders back there, it only sees a ruined building pouring smoke, bodies, blood, shattered dreams, broken lives. It somehow feels personal, and also puts my own loss into perspective. RIP, victims.