My memories of the long-ago era of coloial Kenya are filled with nostalgia. I was born into a humble and innocent family in a magical, evergreen, tropical land of sun: my memories are full of love and unity, rich anecdotes, and pleasant flashbacks of my yesteryears. To me, my early years were truly a golden age. Even today, the golden, tropical land and sun bring warm memories to mind and almost resemble the setting of a James Bond movie. The adventurous stories still linger within me, adventurous because I was innocent and not expecting them, of course. One memory in particular stands out involving a special soldier that was my uncle Yousef. To me, soldiers meant wearing sharp uniforms and movie heroes and, above all else, the delicious treats they brought home to us, their families. I can still taste them: rainbow-colored bubble gums, vanilla ice cream wrapped in colorful tinsels–they still leave a lingering taste of sweet youth in my mouth as I think about it. Even now, whenever I travel to Europe or London, I’m always trying to look for that particular taste, the candied delights of British ice cream. That’s how deeply the memories of that era are steeped into my memory. I remember the festive ceremony of the Queen’s coronation. The city of Nairobi was decorated with British flags, which were flying on all the posts, and the city had come alive with music. Children and students were being given rich gifts of colorful pencils, chewing gum, and British candies and cards with the British flag and Queen Elizabeth Coronation pictures embossed on them. These souvenirs and little recollections of that particular era are precious treasures I still hold in my memory. They mean a lot to me, reflecting back on some of the most unforgettable and sentimental emotions that I experienced in my life, which these emotions and love contributed most to my character development. I grew up in an extended family of aunts, uncles, and a lot of cousins: that was the norm of my life. My mom and dad were the most loving, emotional, and dedicated parents, treating me and my three siblings, my sisters, as precious gifts. Mom was overly protective and was like a shield, trying to ward off any harm from reaching me–which I must confess made me Mother’s baby and very needy. Growing up in a joint family was the best thing that happened to me and to most of my cousins. When I talk to cousins who I grew up with, and who equally shared the same time and experience with me, they feel almost the same as I do. The unconditional love from all my aunts and uncles, the protection from my aunts and my own parents, which was so necessary at that time, and being a part of a big family sharing and acquiring information all contributed to the man I later became. The amazing dinners and lunches with exotic gourmet dishes brought the whole family together. Each night, we met to share love and delicious meals in the company of all. It was the best time of the day, and we all looked forward to listening to the most exciting, adventurous, and colorful narratives from my cousins and uncles– the great deeds and relentless adventures of Sinbad and Alibaba and the forty thieves. It is in that spirit that I wish to share my own stories–tales from a place of love and adventure, a place long since changed beyond recognition. It is the story of my life, and it has been a wonderful adventure I would like to share with you.



“Listen you kids, are you ready for a surprise?” said Uncle Yousef. “Yeee!” We, the nephews and nieces, were always ready for surprises from him. “So here, take your pick from the goodie bag!” “Oh, can I take two jelly beans?” said my cousin Zinat, while emptying the candy bag into her mouth. “And I will take the strawberry mix,” I added. “That is okay, now let’s give surprises to everyone!” exclaimed Uncle. Everyone was delighted to see Yousef. “Yousef is here! Mummy, Uncle is here!” all the kids shouted. “Oh my God, you look so thin!” said my mum, when she hugged Uncle. “Have they not been feeding you well?” “Okay stop,” said my uncle. “Well guess what? I’m here finally for good, thank God!” And that was how my uncle Yousef, a soldier, my pride, and a great companion to everyone, came home from his service in the military. For some reason, the reunions with him remain more strongly in my head. I grew up with fond memories of very active interactions with my mostly upbeat and joyful family, a large extended group of cousins, aunts, uncles, and neighbors who each contributed their unique and yet loving and compassionate senses to the family unit. We lived in my uncle Sadique’s house, which was built on an extensive plot of land. There were five units, each accommodating a separate family, composed of Mum, Dad, and kids. It was a small community where everyone looked out to help each other; each part of the day was full of fun and excitement. My immediate aunts (my mum’s sisters), Aunty Gham and Aunty Amina, Uncle Sadique, my mother, and our very chubby and chatty neighbor Sakina, each with their children, made this unit almost a colony. I was fortunate to share warm relationships with all my cousins; most were my age or younger, but a few older ones always enjoyed the leadership role among the cousins. I was very spoiled and pampered by the community in general, and by my parents in particular. I was also always given special care and attention by my sister Iqbal and my older cousins, which would create some jealousy among my other cousins. This sometimes led to arguments between the kids, and their mothers often got involved as well, trying to protect their own children. But life there was still a lot of fun and built a strong sense of unity among the families. Celebrations and big festivals, like Eid, Christmas, and New Year’s, were marked with extreme euphoria and exhilarating celebrations–everyone enjoyed the festivals. These events held very special places in our lives, and our community focused on these celebrations most of the time. Months before the actual celebrations, the preparations would be marked with great energy and enthusiasm, finding the most unique outfits to wear. And the food was unforgettable–like chicken plow, roast chicken, lamb, and desserts. Sometimes, my dad and uncles would surprise us kids by treating us all to the latest movies, which was a special treat for me, and I looked forward to it. 

I remember hiding in the back seat of my uncle’s black Ford sedan to earn a free trip to the drive-in cinema, followed by appropriate punishment of course for being a stowaway. Uncle Sadique stood out in our family community, as his complex and overriding disposition made him less affable than some. He had a keen affiliation for pets, especially dogs, and was obsessed with growing his own greens in his small garden. We were given special warnings not to mess with his garden or touch any of his animals, which included a family of ducks, a dozen chickens, a lone mongoose in a cage, English budgies and parakeets, guinea pigs, velvet monkeys, and rabbits. Of course, it was natural for us as young kids to try something that was out of bounds and explore the unknown, which was Uncle’s animals and garden. The surest way to get a kid interested in something is to tell them to stay away. One expedition exploring Uncle’s garden turned into quite a nightmare. My cousin Khalid, who was the mastermind of our young gang, came up with an adventurous idea: to play with Uncle’s most precious African Grey parrot. We had learned in our bedtime stories, narrated by our grandmother, that parrots were spies and agents in Aladdin’s story. Khalid was the captain of our group and led us into the garden expedition. So the plan was created, in the woods, and once at the garden, Khalid tried to hold a conversation with the parrot, but it wouldn’t talk. He finally opened the cage door, and, to our horror, in a heartbeat the colorful bird flew and perched on the tallest branch of the nearby tree. Khalid sent his comrade, my cousin Shaky, to bring the parrot down. Shaky was rather clumsy but took the challenge and started scaling the tree. Unfortunately, the nightmare continued: Shaky came screaming down from the tree and landed flat on the ground. This brought everyone in the houses out. There was so much mayhem and drama. We were all reprimanded, but the ordeal was not over yet, because we had to face the big giant–our uncle Sadique. After dinner, my uncle ordered us all to his court, and it was almost like a roller coaster experience. Khalid received the worst of my uncle’s wrath; he was caned and grounded for at least a day. It was a terrible experience for us at the time. But now, of course, whenever this story is repeated for the pleasure of our young generation of family members, it is received as a very interesting narrative; and Khalid shines most as a hero to the other kids. Khalid was popular for exploits like this when we were younger, and also because he was inventive, witty, and known for his hilarious jokes. I admired him in my own way and loved his sense of humor. He was also a strong buffer for me, in school, which was good because school was difficult at times. My cousins and I attended an extremely strict, parochial Catholic school, St Teresa’s Boys School, where the headmaster believed in the power of the cane, being a very stringent priest and disciplinarian. He had no hesitation to use corporal punishment to maintain law and order in the school and kept a ledger of our sins in his dreaded “Black Book,” a list of the whole year’s infractions among students. It included all of our transgressions, like missing homework, no uniform, etc. It also noted the physical and mental punishment that he inflicted; just the sight of that book was a warning to us all to behave. But even against this dangerous man, my cousin Khalid would protect me. One experience that lingers in my mind was when one afternoon, I was summoned by the headmaster to join the queue lined up in front of his office. I was nervous, but the minute I saw Khalid with a beaming, encouraging smile, it put my nerves at peace. Khalid excused himself to come and talk to me. He looked at me, held my hand, and said, “Listen, don’t worry; it lasts only a few seconds, and you won’t feel any pain. Here, eat this, your favorite strawberry candies.’’ My ears were burning and my heart was palpitating, and before I knew it, I was bending over in front of the oppressor, as tears were rolling down my face, and I was looking for my mother all over. But the words of my cousin, and the sweet taste of the strawberry candy, made it endurable. My mother’s warm and reassuring embraces and a box of Dolly Mixture sweets from my dad made me forget the cane’s marks when I got home.



The late fifties, early sixties marked the glorious and golden era of my teens. I was influenced by the pulsating and heart-throbbing music and evergreen songs of legends like Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, and, later, the Beatles, who had stormed not only the music industry but brought in a new wave of music into the minds of all young boys and girls. We impersonated and emulated them, forming very strong emotional affiliations with Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard, whose song “The Young Ones” was the catalyst in shaping my musical passion. This was the impetus for me to immerse myself into playing songs, as I learned to strum the guitar during this time. My passion for music and playing guitar has contributed immensely into making the most important decisions of my life, and also in attracting people to my music and to me. It created an euphoria for people of my age, among boys and girls. However, teen years can be a very volatile time and it is very natural to form strong, emotional attachments with people that you admire; you look upon your role models and get infatuated with music stars and family members alike. This was the case with me. I looked upon my oldest cousin Gafoor with admiration. As my role model, he was also my friend, and I adored him immensely.

 My other older cousin who also equally impacted my life and thinking was Zaffar. Zaffar was a few years older than me, but we went to the same school, and there was a strong sense of competition between us. We were young and of an age where such feelings of competition were natural and instilled the confidence and stamina to be go-getters! Gafoor and Zaffar, were like strong pillars and played pivotal roles in reshaping my thinking. Saint Teresa’s Primary School had both positive and negative memories that made some lasting impacts on us, the students. Our very strict headmaster and his equally professional staff played huge parts in grooming me for adulthood, both mentally and physically. The school had high standards and expectations and the students and teachers worked relentlessly to keep up with the expectations of the school fraternity. It’s true that I was subjected to corporal punishment, which, in today’s society, would be considered a breach of human rights. But I came through it okay, with my general academic achievements and goals and my overall holistic growth stronger. We studied hard in school and afterward spent time in sporting activities, such as soccer, marbles, fishing expeditions, hide-andseek, and a very amusing sport invented by young boys called “seven stones.” And of course added to that was going to the Western movies, which was a very popular Saturday morning outing for all of us. Our community was an eclectic mixture of people. Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, was extremely heterogeneously populated. Our immediate neighbors were a mix of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and locals and colonial whites. Life was colorful but humble and enriched with love, community, and compassion. And the landscape was marvelous, too: I still remember the abundance of green, tall, and huge trees laden with colorful flowers. It was almost like living in the midst of a jungle. Casual visits of antelopes and even exotic snakes were rare but scary treats for us kids. Imagine growing up in a world so close to the beauty of nature! Despite the beauty, those years were actually quite difficult for our country–during the fifties and sixties, Kenya was struggling to transition into independence from the British. Nairobi was experiencing conflicts and was in the early stages of development. We kids knew of this, but it was background knowledge for us and did not take away from the wonder of our teen years, which included the marvels of our wonderful country.