When our family returned to Kenya in the 1960s, the country was in a state of turmoil as the Mau Mau uprising continued. Africans were rebelling against British rule and they were forming themselves into terrorist-like groups to rid themselves of the British. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania took up arms to regain their independence from Britain who, in 1895 annexed the region, naming Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania the East Africa Protectorate.
The secret society, drawn predominantly from the Kikuyu tribe, required members to take an oath to drive the white man from Kenya. When freedom rallies overtook the streets Uluru was the crowd’s chant as they marched defiantly against armed forces.
Our games sometimes took on role-playing the things we heard our parents discussing and there were times when children chanted Uhuru as we waved sticks and bats about in pretend combat, which is cringe-worthy knowing what I do now.
Mau Mau were armed with firearms and their traditional pangas (handmade machete-like instrument used for harvesting crops and cutting scrubland in times of peace). Fear was endemic as the aggressors targeted the white or any African who refused to take the oath.
Children do not understand the prejudices or race or class. They understand the norm. Discrimination, segregation and having domestic help was my childhood norm. While I did not consciously participate in these prejudices by dint of birthright I was part of a system that perpetuated the disadvantage. Maria and Karaoke were two Kikuyu people responsible for keeping our home ticking along. Without their work our family could not have the lifestyle it did. We were white, and we were privileged.
Maria undertook the work traditionally carried out by the woman in the home, while Karaoke was responsible for the kitchen, heavy duties around the house, garden and outside home maintenance. While Maria and Karaoke – and all other domestic servants – were not considered part of the labour force they were treated ‘as part of the family’ and their relationship with my parents was amicable and at times jovial. As an adult, I understand my parents’ treatment of Maria and Karaoke to have been paternalistic and am appalled when I remember they spoke of them as the girl or the boy. Maria and Karaoke were older than my parents.
Maria and Karaoke maintained our home on a strict routine of domestic tasks completed on a daily, weekly or monthly roster. Karaoke prepared all our meals, conferred with my mother about weekly menus and purchased ingredients from the grocery lorries that regularly turned up at the back door. The Sammy’s clanging bell could be heard several streets away as he touted the day’s fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and dairy products. Sammies were of Asian ethnicity. Their produce had no fixed prices and there was nothing to bring a smile to the face of a Sammy more quickly than a hard haggle. While my mother was known in the street for the prices she paid for her fresh produce, Karaoke, whose haggling was every bit as loud as the Sammy’s, was adept at keeping within the weekly allowance. He managed the grocery budget which he received in exchange for the list of every purchase with the amount recorded alongside.
Karaoke was well qualified as a cook and houseboy and came highly recommended with reference papers that entitled him to employ a kitchen toto (apprentice) for whom my parents paid. However, the toto’s wages, duties and living arrangements were at Karaoke’s discretion. It was the toto’s job to maintain a tidy pantry, a spotless kitchen, peel vegetables, and wherever possible pre-empt his master’s every whim.
Karaoke’s Toto would have been fifteen years old and when I think of how hard he was worked for so little appreciation I am amazed he remained with Karaoke as long as he did. It would not have been easy to rise to the older man’s expectations and there were occasions when Toto disappeared for a week at a time. It was a matter of great pride to Karaoke, having a kitchen toto and he could have shown some appreciation and exercised leniency. That was not Karaoke’s way, he was a hard task master. However, Toto kept returning and I wonder whether he realised the training he received from Karaoke would certainly guarantee him employment when his term was over.
Back then employers of domestic servants provided whatever clothing/uniform they required their servants to wear around the home. This was not the case with Karaoke who had his own standards. Not only did he provide his uniforms he paid another’s toto to launder them. Karaoke dressed for dinner, even if the family did not. Resplendent in starched whites he tended us at mealtimes as if they were royal occasions, instead of dinner for a young middle-class family. A red cummerbund circled his trim waist and a black-tasseled red fez adorned his bald head and so he faithfully waited on us … with dignity and poise.