Our housekeeper, Mrs Willoughby, packed the large blue suitcase, with metal expanders, while my mother ticked off items from the list as they were placed in the suitcase. It was the first of many occasions on which I watched my mother and Mrs Willoughby make neat stacks of clothing on the bed. When both were satisfied everything I possessed was adequately named, by either a label sewn onto the garment or with an indelible ink marker, Mrs Willoughby carefully stacked the clothing into the suitcase.
I could not have anticipated the enormity of what what lay ahead or how those years would be so ghastly. I stood at the end of my mother’s bed and watched the suitcase fill little realising the impact of being sent away from home. Few life events have been as overwhelming. The reprieves from the awfulness of Kaptagat Preparatory School were not worth what my father told me was a ‘wonderful privlidge’. The concept of privilege was way above where my five year old head was at and I remember thinking other children must have bad homes if they were happy to leave their families.
My father worked away from home for weeks at a time and left us in the care of Miss Willoughby. When my mother was unwell she relied on Miss Willoughby to maintain the home as well as care for my brother and I. She did things with us that my mother would not have been able to do because of her illness. We spent afternoons in the botanical gardens across the creek from our duplex apartment, learning about bugs and birds and how to trick the venus fly trap into closing its ‘mouth’. When Mrs Willoughby was not tending to my mother or organising the household we played board games, dress ups and she introduced me to paper cut out dolls.
“Why can’t I stay here with you, Daddy and Tony?” I asked my mother.
“It’s too dangerous. You have to go away. Daddy and I want to keep you safe.”1
“Well, why isn’t everyone going?”
“If you get me your radio, I’ll tune it to the station that I listen to at night,” said my mother. I was frightened of the dark and slept with the transistor radio beside my bed listening to a music station, the light on the transistor’s dial was a comfort.
“It won’t be the same as being here”.
“Well, when you miss me, you can turn the radio on and I’ll be listening. It’ll be like we’re together.”
“But I won’t be able to see you.”
“But you’ll know that I’m listening and you won’t feel alone anymore.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“Well, just try it and you can write and let Daddy and I know if it’s working.”
That was the end of the conversation.
“I’ve given you your own little jar of special cuticle cream. Each night before you go to bed remember to use it, like I’ve taught you.”
She wasn’t getting it. I would have no trouble remembering my family.
“Just think, it’s only twelve weeks, and you’ll be home for school holidays,” she continued.
An ordinary school week was an already dreadful experience but I came home each day.
Possibly, there was no more remote school than Kaptagat, 200 miles north west of Nairobi where my family lived and fourteen miles from the nearest town of Eldoret. The school was established and ‘owned’ by Jim and Jane Chitty and recognised by the Kenyan Department of Education as being ‘efficient’. A British Protectorate, Kenya followed a British education curriculum delivered with structure and discipline and detention for those who fell short of the teaching masters’ expectations. I spent a lot of time in detention. In fact, I went home at the end of each term with all my pocket money. When other children were lining up to buy tuck shop treats, I was in detention ‘doing lines’.