Steve's Yarns-- All those years growing up
and living in Oklahoma, California, Arizona,
Texas, and Africa..... Ain't done growing up
'til I get over on the other side :-)

Steve Van Nattan







By Steve Van Nattan



Rift Valley Academy was a 1st through 12th grade school for missionary's kids. We had three terms a year three months long each, and we had three one month vacations at home with our parents between each term.

This is the British system of a school year, at least it was in the colonial era. Students came from missionary homes as far south as Rhodesia and as far north as Ethiopia, and others came from all over east Africa and the Congo. We had a family of Finish kids who rode horses to school every day from their home far up on the escarpment above the school. Their father owned a match factory, and that was the only non-missionary home involved.

There were 100 of us when I entered the school in 1954 in fifth grade. Today there are around four hundred, and a fair number today come from the homes of African church leaders and even Christian government officials. When I attended the school there were no African kids there, and I suspect that was mostly because the curriculum was distinctly American. In recent years African national leaders have sought entry for their kids so that they could prepare for university in the USA.

The various missions in East Africa used some old logic developed by missions long ago, before my time, to explain why the kids had to leave home to go far away to school. They concluded that missionaries could get a lot more done for the Lord if their kids were not under foot around the house. This was punctuated by the emotional propaganda that souls were more important than your kids. Now, they did not say it that way right out loud, but that is exactly how it shook out. At least, that is how many of us kids came to understand it. The school principal occasionally scolded one of us by telling us that our naughtiness could distract our parents from winning souls if he had to inform our parents of our misdeeds.

The longer a kid took to figure out this godless psychology, the more likely the kid would figure it out after leaving RVA, and those kids almost all became Atheists or secular Christians. By the grace of God I figured out that the logic for my being away from home was not based on anything found in the Bible. In fact, it was contrary to God's command to fathers to raise their own children. This left me open then to realize that my parents did not like the arrangement either, but they were under terrible peer pressure to lock step with the provincial missionary patriarchs who allegedly "paid the price" to serve the Lord in past ages. Seeing my Mom crying on the dock as the lake steamer backed out from the pier in Mwanza almost hurt me more than my own misery at having to leave Dad and Mom again. How blessed is the promise that all tears are wiped away in heaven, for that clearly implies that the ugly tear causing memories will also be wiped away. More on this at the end of this series.

One very ugly syndrome, which I did not understand when I was going though that era of my life, was to see the way some of my schoolmates despised the Africans. I realized many years later that it all had to do with whether or not they figured out the unbiblical rationale they and their parents were submitting to. If they figured it out, like I did, they almost always had a real affection of Africans as friends. If they did not figure it out, they saw the Africans as the reason they could not live with their parents. Some of the kids even made no effort to learn Swahili, the trade language of East Africa, and they seldom learned the tribal language of the people to whom their parents ministered. Oddly, this pattern made itself obvious to us all, in that, those of us who understood the scam aspect of this process considered each other "Wogs" (Africans), and we called each other "Wog" in fun. My brother-in-law still says, "Hey, Wog, how are you?" when we meet.

PARENTHETIC: The word "Wog" is both derogatory and a term of affection. It all depends on the attitude of the person using it. Usually, it was a class distinction thing used by Europeans and was not appreciated by Africans. According to a Cambridge International English dictionary I read long long ago, "Wog" was an acronym for "Worthy Oriental Gentleman." It was used first in India and China among British colonial officials to write or speak about Indians with condescending courtesy. One needs to be sure one is qualified to use it today. An African may tolerate it if you speak of yourself as a "Wog," but only if you love Africa and lived there for some years AND if you learned to speak some African language. Wikipedia has a fair but limited discussion of the term.

My parents always planned vacations and game hunts and excursions for the months of the year I was home, and I knew they loved me. Some parents actually planned their vacations for when their kids were at school. These kids knew where they stood in the system of life, and they often fiercely rebelled later against God.

I would certainly not suggest that God had abandoned us, and I also know that most of the other kids' parents hated the plan. But, in the stuffy colonial early days of missions one was expected to keep a stiff upper lip. Indeed, much of this picture was actually passed down to missionaries from the earliest British era of missions, for those pioneers went first and laid the foundational principles. They also abandoned their wives and kids and left them in England and the USA. After all, David Livingston left his wife and kids in England to fend for themselves, and they had to do without a husband and father so that Daddy could explore Africa for God. God gets blamed for some things he never invented. This borders on blasphemy.

PARENTHETIC: I shall meddle here-- What foolish or arrogant method, or local church activity, are you justifying by claiming that God is being served by your folly? What selfish human endeavor are you claiming God likes because someone got saved? The fact that some small fruit results from your tricks is self-delusion. In fact, it is a tribute that God may chose to work IN SPITE OF YOU and your arrogance. Be careful my friend. A small dose of Calvinism would do you some good.

Years later, when Elizabeth and I went to Ethiopia with Sudan Interior Mission, we told them we would not send our kids to their mission boarding school-- we would home school them. The mission accepted this to their credit, but it was pretty revolutionary even in the 1970s.

So, this explains why we former missionary's kids have so many weird and wonderful experiences to talk about. We actually lived in two worlds-- at home on a mission station watching our parents preach Christ, and away at boarding school trying to survive in a warped but wonderful zoo. Traveling back and forth by rail and lake steamer three round trips a year resulted in lots of opportunities to make and receive trouble, and we now need to dive on in. The order here is rather illogical, but hopefully the stories will give you some interesting distraction.

WARNING: Kids reading here must be cautioned. Trying to reproduce the antics of missionary kids long ago in modern society might get you jail time and being tagged as "potential terrorists."



The engine in the picture at the top of this page is a Garrett 59 Class Articulated. This engine was a 4-8-2 by 2-8-4. The livery was the maroon and black with accents in gold. These engines are considered one of the most magnificent inventions of the whole steam era because of their mighty look and their great power and traction.

This engine during my ara was marked "EAR&H" which stands for East African Railways and Harbours. Under British colonial rule this transportation department combined all rail and lake traffic in Kenya, Tanganyika (Tanzania), and Uganda. The engine at the top of the page shows the Garrett with the original "KUR" markings- Kenya Uganda Railroad. I have a telegraph insulator and a rail spike marked "UR" (Uganda Railway) which I found on the old line below our school.

The video at the upper right is a special train in 2005 with a Garrett engine doing the Mombasa to Nairobi run.


These engines, when freshened up, were authoritative and classy to look at. Nothing said, "The British are coming" like a Garrett steam engine. They were driven by both White British engineers and Sikhs from India. The Sikhs were very clever at anything mechanical, and they were obsessive about keeping rules and polishing their toys. Other Indians were great merchants and financial gurus, but the Sikhs were the only ones to drive a train and make us feel safe.


Photo at left is inside the cab of a Garrett.


The Garrett was used in other British Empire nations and was a favorite on tight curves in mountains and on steep grades. The 16 drive wheels under the oil tender and water tender distributed the drive force well, and the engine could take extremely tight curves because it had a hinge point in two places. The black and white photo at the right shows the articulation factor saving the day. The switchman threw the track switch before the engine had completely cleared the switch. This sent the fuel tender down the other track. If this had been a conventional engine, it would have been on its side at this point. I assume this derailment could only have happened with the train backing through the switch.

The Garrett was like a mule compared to a race horse. They would drag a train through rugged terrain, but they were not very fast.

We were around Miwani Sugar Estates east of Kisumu, after being delayed for some reason, and the lake steamer was waiting for us because we were 90% of the first class passenger list. So, the engineers opened the Garrett up to fly since this section of track is the only really straight stretch in the line. We looked down the train to the engine, and fire was blasting out both sides of the engine. We clocked the train by timing sign posts, and we were doing all of 54 miles per hour. Of course, schedules and speed were not the highest importance in African life-- getting there at all was enough for most people. Again, stiff upper lip, old chap. I have since learned that the all time record for a Garrett Class 59 was set in France at 81 MPH. I have since revised my accusation that they were slow.


Train Amenities

The trains in Kenya were set up on the European arrangement rather than with Pullman cars used long ago in the USA. You were assigned to a compartment with three other people and a door that shut out the world. A narrow hallway ran along the side of the full length of the car between the compartments and the outside windows. When it was time to go to sleep, the African steward would come in and pull up the backs of the seats, and they became top bunks. With we kids seniority dictated who had to climb up on the top bunk. Seniors never had to climb, but if the seniors were responsible that meant they did guard duty also.

Each compartment had its own sink, and passengers took turns in the morning cleaning up there. The sink had a fold down lid which became a desk during the day. This arrangement gave passengers opportunity to become very personal in getting to know each other, or else it made them very edgy about their compartment mates. It all depended on the temperament of the occupants. Electric fans buzzed trying to keep the compartment cool, which worked poorly, and in train stations the windows had to be raised if you didn't want vendors on the platform yelling into your windows a menu of all their tasty snacks, like fried corn and beans, samoosas, jageri, boiled eggs, and all sorts of candy.

One unique vendor often seen was a fellow with a huge selection of the most obnoxious vials of perfume and incense. These were for Indians who lived in East Africa. The Indians were somewhat delinquent in bathing, so they anointed themselves with these rank nasty perfumes and burned incense to their favorite god, and these two odors would cast a spell that sent them to Nirvana where body odor is apparently well received. This sounds politically incorrect I suspect, but this story is about the real world, not your world laundered by your dear social nanny mentality.

The trains stopped frequently because there were many stations, and that gave us around fifteen minutes to get off and wander the platform. Vendors harassed us, and there were a row of kiosks selling all manner of things. We all liked the PK Pellets which were Wrigley's chewing gum, now called Chicklets. Many years later I learned the "PK" was for Mr. Wrigley's first two initials. If your Dad gave you enough allowance for the trip, you bought a Cadbury's Kit-Kat bar. These were in Africa long before they were in the USA. There was also soda pop in flavors never seen outside of Africa. The Indian soda pop makers would think of all manner of strange names like watermelon, ice cream, peach melba, and the name had nothing to do with the flavor which was usually vanilla or lime.

One time several of us boys were wandering up the platform at a stop, and an African came up to us with some pictures in his hand. He had a strange look on his face. As we got near he flipped the pictures over, showed us a naked lady, and said, "Two bob (shillings) for lady picture." We were confused and amazed at this African. What on earth did he think would happen? We lectured him mightily on morality, and the poor fellow wandered off in confusion. This was my first experience dealing with pornography, and I can assure you the vendor had NO business from Africans.

Take a walk from the train station in any direction, and some African woman was pounding out the evening corn meal, eaten at all meals, in a huge wooden mortar, and getting hot she would throw off her top cloth and be naked to the waist. Two bob for a dirty picture? None of us understood in the 1950s that the Europeans in Kenya had already made their mark on the country by paying for this early form of porn. It was our initiation to the ugly world, and in the heart of Africa at that.

The trains had a dining and kitchen car. An African steward walked down the hallway beating on a set of four chimes, bong, bong, bong, playing some tune he invented, and that meant dinner was served in the dining car. In the 1950s colonial era they still had silver service with eight to ten pieces of cutlery and huge lumpy china with the rail company logo on it. The meals were four course, including soup, then a postage stamp size piece of fish with a slice of lemon, the entree, and finally dessert and coffee. The fish was the best part. The entree was usually anything that could be boiled to death, which is classic British form of course. The entree could also be given some character by drowning it in Worcestershire sauce. The coffee was powerfully ominous stuff in a tiny cup. The bread served was dense, VERY dense, but it made good fish bait when soaked in water for a few seconds and kneaded well. This fish bait was used on the lake steamer later to fish while in port.

Breakfasts were started with a shallow bowl of oatmeal that was thin and watery and scarce. The eggs and bacon were great-- one thing the British do well. Don't order the sausages-- they are 40% cereal filler. But, the toast was intentionally allowed to dry and cool before serving until it was hard as a shingle. The British think hot toast is nasty. Don't ask why please-- I never have learned why. The bitter marmalade was great, and I often polished off a whole pot because the other kids did not like it.

The trains cars had restrooms marked "Eastern Type" and "Western Type". The Western Type were familiar enough, but the Eastern Type only had a hole in the floor, raised footprints, and you squatted to use them. They were deadly because if you dropped a wallet or something of value, it was down the hole and out along the right of way and long gone. These toilets emptied right out onto the ground. There was a sign in them reading, "Please do not use the WC while the train is in the station." And, if you wanted to stand and watch a passenger train go by out along the right of way, you wanted to stand very far back from the tracks. The express to flushing was not a train in New York. I am sure modern trains in Africa have more sanitary arrangements today.


Derailment and the Aftermath

We were on our way to school one time, and were approaching Fort Ternan.

Fort Ternan is a whistle stop and only used if a passenger is waiting there to board the train. The curve south of the station had nothing odd about it, but the train stopped very suddenly as we started around the curve. The missionary parent escort got out and walked to the engine, and he saw that is was skewed on the rails. It had derailed, and the British engineer and brakeman had been able to stop the engine before it tumbled on its side.

The Garrett engines had two huge jacks mounted on the engine with heavy steel brackets, and they wrestled them off and under the engine. They then jacked and pried with bars in tiny increments until the front truck wheels were back on the track. The engineer told us the they had a superstition among themselves that the third time an engine derailed it would tumble on over. That engine was having its third derailment. He concluded that because all of us missionary kids were on the train that God was on our side. He was right.

He also said that African herd boys had put rocks on the track in a line, from small to larger, so that the front truck wheels rode up the rocks and fell off the tracks. The boys had probably sat around the camp fire listening to grandpa tell how he and his Kipsigis tribal friends had attacked the railroad construction in around 1900, and the boys wanted to see if they could get in one more lick for the tribal bad attitude.

It took a long time to get the engine back on the tracks, and then we went on up grade headed for Lumbwa. Before Lumbwa was a long steep curved bridge which had been built for the British government by an American bridge builder in about 1897. It had no side rails in those days, and if you looked out the window there was nothing to see but the ground far below. I was rather terrified of this bridge because it seemed very high.

The engineer told us during the derailment event that a train once came down this bridge out of control. They had gotten going too fast, and the brakes would not stop the engine. They put the engine in reverse and went through Fort Turnin at high speed with the drive wheels screaming in reverse at full throttle, smoking and throwing sparks. The train had jumped the tracks right where our train had derailed. I always held my breath going along there from then on.

Lumbwa is named for a ceremony between the Kipsigis tribal leaders and the British railway officials in 1909 when fighting was called off by the Kipsigis tribe who tried to stop the building of the railway through their land. A dog was cut in half and its blood sprinkled around the area. The train station was named Lumbwa (L'umbwa) at that time. Umbwa is Swahili for dog. You may wonder how very proper British colonial officials could participate in a dog sacrifice to seal a peace treaty. Well, the British were masters of mixing African culture with British peculiarities so that the natives would understand the thing.

Lumbwa station was a rambling "dak bungalow" building that wandered all over the hill side because it had been added onto over and over. The dak bungalow in the photo was in the hill country of India. The dak at Lumbwa was sided with corrugated metal painted green. The British colonial masters loved corrugated metal buildings, but they were terribly hot in the sun, and when it rained the roof roared inside.

It was way past the noon dining hour when we finally arrived after the derailment at Lumbwa. We piled out of the train because this was a meal stop for tourists. But, the African cooks and servers had gone home. They were called back with copious threats by the Sikh Indian station master, and they put together a strange meal with the only thing left on hand. Scrambled eggs with strawberry jam in it, and green beans. Jam on scrambled eggs was most peculiar, but the worst part about this meal was that they had boiled the green beans in a tin pot that had been used to hold kerosene. Now folks, I assure you, kerosene is not an alternative for hollandaise sauce on green beans.

We got into Nakuru late for the evening meal because of the derailment also, so the station master arranged for us to walk from the station to the Stagshead Inn in downtown Nakuru. This was a stuffed shirt privileged class inn for British White settlers, farmers and itinerant colonial dandies, and a coat and tie were required. Also, no Africans could eat there in those days.

Here is a gathering of colonial dandies somewhere in the Kenya Highlands.

We all came traipsing in dressed in kaki with no tie of coat, rumpled and weary, and the poor British elite had to put up with a mob of Yankee brats who were starved. The food must have been good because I do not remember it. Hey, when you are a kid growing up in Africa the most notable food is that which tries to crawl away as you eat it or food that burns the roof off the top of your mouth.


Traveling During the Mau Mau "Emergency"

Mau Mau was a rebellion of the Kikuyu tribe against the British from 1952 to 1957. It was called an "Emergency" by the British colonial masters to conceal the fact that it was a small war between the British and the Kikuyu tribe. No other African tribes participated, and the claim by President Obama that his Luo grandfather took part in the Mau Mau is a lot of rubbish. The Luo tribe hated the Kikuyu tribe and had nothing to do with Mau Mau. [ The added details here are free stuff to reward you for reading this. ]

When it was time to leave the school to go home on the train, we went to the train station in open stake bed trucks. We traveled through the forests where the Mau Mau operated, so some of our King's African Rifles African guards came along in another truck. I believe our departure time was concealed for security reasons, and there may have been KAR troops in the forest along the way, but we would have never known that. We were partially sheltered from knowing just how badly the Mau Mau wanted to kill us kids to terrify the British and Americans living in Kenya.

We left Kijabe train station in the afternoon, and we arrived in Nakuru at dusk. During the Mau Mau trains did not run at night. We slept overnight in Nakuru under heavy guard. In the morning we woke up to the PA system playing the Weavers singing on an old 78 RPM recording called "Round the Bay of Mexico" (which I included here from 1950), and for the life of me I could not connect the Nakuru train station, surviving the Mau Mau, with waking up to the Weavers telling me about the Bay of Mexico. As a kid I knew that it was called the Gulf of Mexico, not the bay. The Weavers were from Greenwich Village in New York-- figures.

Breakfast was served at the Stagshead Inn mentioned above, and then off down the line for home.

We were supposed to keep our heads in the train car, but we wanted to see a Mau Mau if there were any. Looking back I now marvel that we never had any issues from the Mau Mau, and I suspect there will be a group of angels in heaven whom we need to thank for doing their good work for our Father in Heaven by keeping us brats alive.



Kisumu is a lake port city on the northeast corner of Lake Victoria and it was the original western rail terminal point of Kenya, Mombasa on the Indian Ocean being the starting point. Going to school, we had to leave the steamer at Kisumu, but before doing so we had about one day in port killing time. The water was shallow, barely giving the lake steamers enough depth to enter the port. The propellor churned up mud so badly that the water was a deep chocolate brown. We decided that was where the RVA staff in charge of our school kitchen got our chocolate milk for Sunday evening meal. It was supposed to be a treat, but the chocolate powder of British origin in the 1950s was grainy, and the cook diluted it too much.

Some of us tried our hand at fishing for catfish while in port. We used bananas or dough balls and a long piece of heavy cord. The trick was to stand nearby, and when a catfish hit the line, grab it and pull up some slack so we could turn the fish around when it got to the end of the line. If we did not do that, the line snapped. If we caught a big one we could sell it to the Luo tribal fishermen nearby for a couple of shillings. The fish they caught was opened up after cleaning, laid out flat, and dried on the hot rocks along the lake shore. The smell was horrendous if a north wind was blowing. I know missionaries who ate that fish in stew with the hard staple mush made of corn meal. They said it was hard to get it past your nose, but in the mouth it was delicious. I decided to take their word for it.

We also would go downtown Kisumu and cruise the dukas (shops) owned by the Indians. We were away from home AND school, so some tricks were in order. I will discuss the tricks we played on the Indian merchants when I talk about the lake steamers and Kisumu port in that section.

Aside from victimizing these poor fellows, we loved the Indian sweets shops. They had amazing varieties of home made sweets that were well worth the investment. Also, the carry-out food shops were a favorite. They had samosas with green fresh chutney, pakora, and other deep fried treats. A cone of jaggery was always fun. Jaggery is a cone of molded cake sugar made from palm tree fruit. It is black as pitch with lots of flavor, and possibly some added biology to haunt a person later.

It is some sort of tribute to the Indian zeal that makes brightly colored food appear in the most drab settings.

You may wonder about the risk of eating these things in a tropical country. We did too, but we also were a bit cavalier about the risk. I estimate I had amoebic dysentery about ten times during my years in Africa. The cure worked every time. Later, as missionaries, my wife and I would eat out in Nairobi or Eldoret and go home and take Tetracycline for desert as a prophylactic.

While in Kisumu a missionary family, the Capens, often invited all of us to their home for home baked cookies or homemade donuts and hot chocolate. They were missionaries of the African Inland Mission stationed in the town of Kisumu. That was really a treat, but we had to walk to their home and back to the lake steamer and be careful not to miss the boat leaving.

The train cars were backed down to the dock where the lake steamer was tied up, and the engineer would go very slow because he could not see where the cars were going. Any pedestrians must be allowed to get out of the way. Gary Lowspire loved to show his great prowess for danger by hanging off the side of the train as it went along. There was a gate which the train had to pass through which was closed when not in use for security. It was very close to the train cars, and Gary one time miss calculated and got clobbered badly by the iron gate. He moaned a while and then told us it was really fun. Hmmm

One of the most colorful things we always enjoyed was an old Luo tribesman who had a huge horn almost as tall as he was. It terminated at ground level in a huge gourd. He blew into the mouthpiece, and he made several very low tones and shuffled his feet which had bells on them. It was quite a concert, and we tossed him coins to keep him going. The old fellow had done this for tourists for years, and his cheeks ballooned out so badly we wondered if they might burst. The photo at the left may have been that very man for the caption says this was taken in Kavirando where Kisumu is located. This photo would have been when he was much younger than when we saw him.

We will return to more in Kisumu a little later.


Tricks and Survival

Any time you send a mob of individualistic highly active missionary's kids on down the line, something is going to happen, and it may not be in the model of the ideal politically correct school boy in your Weekly Reader.

Let me tell you about Gary Lowspire. [ The prudent who know this story will be able to translate Lowspire to recall who this really is. ] Gary's Dad was full of fire and passion for the Gospel and a life well lived. So, it should have been obvious that his son Gary might be the same. The problem was, Gary had not yet "put away childish things," as the Apostle Paul did, and become a man. None of us had, though we were trying. And, who expects young men to hurry this process anyway?

So, Gary made the best of his youth. When we were traveling on the HMSS Usoga on Lake Victoria one time, on our way to school, we were thrown together with British boys on their way to Saint Mary's Catholic boys secondary boarding school in Nairobi. There was always a bit of tension at such times because the British colonial world fostered a sort of static tension between Protestant and Catholic officials, missionaries, and professionals. Everyone pretended to live above it, but it was always lurking beneath the surface.

Well, Gary saw a chance to make a point. At meal time we Protestant kids sat on one side of the dining room, and the Catholic boys on the other side. At the first meal, Gary walked in and sat at a table with the Catholic boys. He made up some tale about his parents being Catholic and in some US social agency. He claimed he was going to Saint Mary's school with the boys, and he eventually convinced them.

But, when the meal was served, which the waiters served in formal fashion, Gary filled his plate and waited until all the boys at his table had all been served. They all bowed and crossed themselves...... except Gary. He bowed his head and prayed, "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?"

He got no further. The other boys cried foul, and accused him of playing a trick on them. Gary admitted it at once and got up, picked up his plate, and started across the room to our side. The Saint Mary's boys told Gary to stay since they thought his trick was worthy of their own prankish style. Gary declined, though I think he regretted it later.

The photo above at the right is the Saint Mary's class that we encountered,
among whom are those who traveled from Tanzania.

Well, that was not the end of the story. The Saint Mary's boys spent the rest of the trip on the lake steamer jabbing at us and we at them. There was an understanding that we must not escalate it to anything really nasty, but things evolve, do they not?

When we boarded the train at Kisumu for the trip up country to our school, there was what Henry Kissinger used to call, "an escalation of hostilities." We all settled in to our four person compartments, but soon "Thump thump" on the door and the patter of feet. We knew who it was. This went on all afternoon, and then the African steward came by tapping out a tune on his four note marimba, the call to the evening meal in the dining car.

We all went to eat, and when Gary came back he tucked a whole loaf of bread under his jacket. The bread was not sliced until just before serving in order to keep it fresh in the tropics. Somehow Gary convinced the steward that he needed a whole loaf of bread. Once we were back in our compartment, we waited for the inevitable "thump thump."

It came. Gary opened the desk top of the sink used for freshening up in the morning. He filled the sink with water, submerged the loaf of bread in it, and checked the Saint Mary's boys' compartment. They were in the next compartment down from us, and they had their window open, as we all did, for fresh air. Gary picked up the well soaked loaf of bread very gingerly lest it disintegrate, he leaned way too far out the window for safety, and our heroic champion in battle, Gary, lobbed that water soaked loaf of Eliot's bakery bread through the boys' window.

We heard some British English that is seldom heard in civilized Catholic company, and after a while we heard a timid, "tap tap" on our door. Gary opened the door very carefully part way, and a Saint Mary's boy, with bits of bread on his lovely red tunic, said, "I say, blokes, could we have off with this?"

Never in the annals of warfare have two adversaries come to terms so quickly and cordially. We boys had just been discussing what the Saint Mary's boys might do to us to raise the level of hostilities. So, we were only too pleased to accept their terms of surrender.

For the rest of the trip we went out of our way to be jolly and kind with the Saint Mary's boys lest the "just and durable peace" turn sour. I would love to hear from a Saint Mary's boy, who by now is retired, and talk about old times. If you are ever in Texas, stop by, and we will break bread together. Well, unsoaked bread actually.



The Train Culture

The trains used a European style of coach. There was an aisle down one side of the coach, and the compartments were entered off of the aisle. The compartments had seats with high backs for the daytime, and at night the high back folded up to make a top bunk. Someone had to climb up to sleep. Seniority bought privileges in our thinking, so the seniors got the lower bunks while the "titchies" (little kids) got to climb. This was sometimes reversed out of mercy for grade schoolers lest they fall trying to go to the restroom in the night.

There were many station stops. This is typical of the colonial era and the present Third World era. This is because the trains are far more important to travel in the Third World where people cannot afford to own automobiles. The bus system was unpredictable in the rainy season, and there was no moving violation enforcement in Kenya long ago on the highways, so busses would race to get to passenger pick up points, and deadly head-on collisions were not uncommon.

This brings up safety.

First, the trains moved slow compared to Europe and the USA. We clocked the train by mile posts one time at about 54 MPH. This was high speed on the EAR&H Railway, and this case was only because we were running late, and the lake steamer would be held up until we arrived because we were the whole first class passenger list.

Second, the trains were very safe because the EAR&H had a fool proof safety system which they inherited from England. The semaphores were controlled by a telegraph system. The semaphore would not move all clear for a through train until a key was turned in a huge slot in a massive red box by the station master and dropped on the correct side. The key was acquired from the engineer by the station master in a hoop pouch as the train moved through the station. The station master then ran inside the station and slammed the key into the slot and turned it and dropped it. The station master also would remove a key from another machine, put it into a hoop pouch, and hand it off to the engineer as the train passed through. This key was then carried to the next station by the engineer and handed off to the next station master. Dropping a key was a national emergency, especially if the engineer missed catching it, because everything came to a grinding stop, and that could cause backups in both directions.

This was cumbersome compared to our present computerized system, but ironically, it was even safer then computers. The only way a train could meet another train in a collision would be if some engineer or station master went mad and decided to make havoc on purpose. In the colonial world people just do not make havoc on purpose. Any compulsion to mad behavior was reserved for the next sun downer (cocktail party at sun down), and a couple of gin and tonics would usually cure the crazies. Now, being stuck on stupid, that is another matter. So the key system even eliminated stupid.

A train became an express only if it was totally maxed out with passengers or when some dignitaries were on board. We had the distinct honor, as White race school brats, of causing our train ride to be a partial express. We felt very important as we roared through several stations along the line. "Wait for the next train, peasant."

I do not recall anyone ever being left behind except Don Hoover, my brother-in-law. The engineers were under orders to see that every one of us got to our destination, so the train might be delayed for someone arriving late. And, what about Don Hoover? The night we were to leave the train station, Kijabe, near the school, we all stayed awake and played games. We had to board the train at 2 AM. One time Don thought he would take a short nap. All of our beds had been stripped and all of our personal effects packed in steamer trunks. Don found two mattresses, sandwiched himself between them, and went off into lala land. We all loaded up on two open bed stake trucks and headed for the train station. No one missed Don because we thought he was in the other truck.

The Principal, Herb Downing, did a head count, and someone was missing. Suddenly, we all figured out that Don was missing. We boarded the train, and Herb Downing rushed back to the school, loaded Don Hoover into his Ford station wagon (a luxury car in those days in Kenya), and he raced the train to the next station, Nakuru. He made it in time, and Don was a bit of a celebrity.

When the train stopped in stations we would get off and walk around the platform and barter for baskets and curios to take home to Mom, or we would engage some African dandy in conversation and hone up our Swahili. It feels good to be a colonial Anglo Saxon brat because even African politicians and chiefs would stop and converse with us. They had mixed motives of course. They might get some juicy bit of intelligence from a missionary kid who talks too much, but mostly, they too wanted to hone up their language skills and see if their English was up to par.

The brave and foolish among us would pop into an Indian duka (shop) and buy samosas or jalebis. The dysentery germs were too small to see, so we did not worry. For the cautious, a banana or boiled egg was safer. The Lou women cooked corn and beans until they were slightly dry, and you could eat them like peanuts. More on snack concerns later.

We met a group of students from Makerere College one time at a station stop, and we got them to talking. They were strutting about feeling very important because they had reached the pinnacle of education for all of central Africa. Makerere College was an extension school of Oxford in England. Well, we missionary brats felt we were at least their equals since we were in a well known and exceptional Secondary School, AND, we were Anglo Saxons to boot. So, we started trying to tangle them up in their words. They caught us, and one of they indignantly said, "Don't abuse me, I am from Makerere College." From then on, we often used that phrase on each other in the dorm.

We always had a missionary escort along, both going to or coming from school. These were almost always parents of some kids traveling, and their kids had the distinct disadvantage of having to behave themselves better than the rest of us. The missionary escort had to make sure we and all of out trunks were on the train, he had to make sure every kid was on the train when it left a station, and he had to pull the chain to stop the train if a kid was missing. The chain somehow ran the full length of the train, and there were pull points in each car. There was a notice on the red opening, "To stop the train, pull the chain downwards."

The escort also had to collect the four gallon tins of peanut butter in Musoma from the Mennonite Missionary peanut farm project. That was top priority, for we kids loved Mennonite peanut butter. This was collected in the port of Musoma which was a port the lake steamer always visited. The fear of losing a kid kept most escorts from sleeping well, and when we arrived at school the escort usually disappeared for a day to catch up on sleep. One trip Frank (Pop) Manning was our escort, and he was exhausted when we arrived at school. A couple of the boys learned where the school had provided him a bunk for a day, and they went there before Pop Manning got there and short sheeted his bed. Pop Manning never figured it out and rammed his legs through the sheet, putting two holes in it, and slept like a baby for hours.

Short sheeting the bed is the art of folding the bottom sheet back at the half way point and then making it appear that it is both sheets. The surprise is startling when a person tries to slide his feet into bed and only seems to have half a bed.

The rail line was famous for its steep grades. This was because the train had to climb a significant grade to the Highlands town of Limuru about twenty miles from Nairobi. The train then went over the top and dropped down to the Rift Valley floor on an even steeper escarpment. Then another steep grade was required out of Nakuru, and finally a long steady drop to the Lake Victoria. This meant we spent about half the trip trundling along at as little as twenty MPH, and then we worried whether the engineer was smart enough to avoid a run away doing back down. Run aways did happen.

The original line was so confusing to the engineers in 1903 that they broke the line near our school, winched the train cars on trolleys up or down a short section of track at about 45 degrees, remade the train on the Rift Valley floor, and another engine hauled the train to Kisumu. The photo at the left shows an engine being lowered down the make shift trolley system.

After the First World War the grade was redesigned without the winching innovation. But, there was concern that in the event of war bridges could be bombed and stop all transportation of troops and goods to the lake in inland areas. In such a case, Germany could easily take central Africa. So there were almost no bridges of tunnels. Instead, there were extremely deep cuts and massive fills. The diggings of the cuts were simply passed forward to the inevitable fill immediately after a cut. So, there were almost no issues of failing bridges and tunnel cave ins.

All of this moving of massive amounts of soil and rock was done by work crews like the one in the photo using "karais" which were huge metal bowls about two feet in diameter. They were carried on the head of the African and Indian workers.

The railway passed along the upper property line of the Kijabe Mission station which included about 700 acres, and our school was on this station. We kids had some good times along the tracks. I loved to hike in the forest above the school which was dense and moderately dangerous due to leopards and snakes. Moderate danger is something the nanny state of this present world tries to eliminate, at least natural danger. Instead, kids in our modern world are in danger of getting hearing loss from overly loud boom boxes, and they are at risk of being sexually abused at home, at school, and at church. And, the people who claim to be protecting them are the most dangerous stalkers. I encourage you to take your kids to the country where they have to only deal with snakes and the beasts of the field.

When hiking, we seldom got lost. The hills and forest above the school were above the railway, so if we did get lost, we could simply go down hill until we reached the rails, determine the grade, and walk right or left accordingly. I got a buzz out of getting myself lost and using this technique to get back to the school. If done correctly, a kid could honestly claim he was lost if he did not show up when expected. Getting lost was a regular past time.

I was in about ninth grade when Herbie Lyon and Karl Uline, upper classmen, invited me to go on a hike. I was delighted. It was not common for the "big guys" to take us younger kids along on a hike. They then took me to a point far up in the forest, and, claiming they needed to empty their bladders, walked a distance away while I tried to be correct and look the other way. They then disappeared.

By the time I figured out that they had abandoned me, and after some brief panic, I decided to reward them for their treachery. I fled the other direction, downhill, as quietly as possible. I knew where there was a five foot diameter culvert under a high railway fill. It was very long, and water trickled down it all the time, and it was a great place for snakes. I cast caution to the wind, and in my mad frenzy to punish Herbie and Karl, I found the culvert and tracked through it with fear and trembling lest a snake bite me. At the other end was the road from the African town of Kijabe to the school. I took this road at a trot and got back to the school and hung out in obscure places. The only part that really made me tremble was that as I exited the culvert I saw the slashes on a tree nearby where a leopard had sharpened his claws.

Meanwhile, Herbie and Karl had second thoughts. They had visions of me falling over a cliff, or being attacked by a leopard, and they went looking for me in the forest. They spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find me and came back to school terrified because they had not found me. They came to supper wide eyed and in a near panic, and when I walked in they were taken with both rage and massive relief. What joy it gave me to see them struggling between wanting to strangle me and hug me. "Where were you, you rotter?" "Oh, I just walked back to the school." They will only now be learning how I did this to them. Herbie, you owe me pie and coffee some time.

Another past time for us boys along the tracks was to throw big rocks from the top of a cut onto the passing empty flat cars and hear the BONG as they hit. Scores were kept, and competition developed. One day, I had not hit one flat car, and as the caboose came along, I threw a huge rock. It hit dead center on roof of the caboose and sunk deep into the insulation used to keep the caboose from becoming an oven. The Sikh conductor popped his head out of the window, saw us kids standing up on the top of the cut, and we had a short lesson in Gujarati words not usually used in mixed company. Months later, when we stood and watched a train go by below, someone might say, "Hey Steve, there goes your rock." My rock-- what a distinction to know that my rock had been all over East Africa. I suspect one day, years later, as they were sending an old caboose to the scrap yard, some employee wondered at the rock and how it got there. Mawe gani hii?

We later came up with an idea for a stunt that would have been interesting. We wanted to make a random sort of round cage of wattle tree branches, and then cover it with brown paper with glue. We would roll it in dirt before the glue dried and make the thing look like a huge boulder. We would put it on the tracks where the train downhill came over a rise so that the engineer would see it a bit suddenly. As he set the brakes, and just before the train hit the boulder, we would jerk the boulder off the tracks, with a string tied to the fake boulder, into a nearby ravine where we would hide. We imagined that the engineer's facial expressions would be worth all the trouble.

But in a rare fit of consideration for humanity, we decided that if the train coming were a passenger train a lot of people could get hurt being flung to the floor or spill their hot tea when the brakes were set into emergency. Alas, some great inspirations must be set aside in difference to the masses.

With all the possibilities for distraction in the Kenya Highlands, our tolerance of boredom was almost zero. So, on a day when such boredom set in like a thick cloud, we kids went and secured several loaves of bread from the pantry. The bread was not sliced until it was used. We took the loaves of bread and headed for the railway tracks. We dipped them in a small creek nearby, and went and stood along the tracks in a line.

Along came a tourist special full of Anglo Saxons looking for adventure in Darkest Africa. Why not give them an experience to really remember?

These special trains were filled with only first class passengers from Europe who were using the railway to tour Kenya. They had a tour guide book which told of sights to watch for along the railway, and there was a lovely entry describing the self-sacrificing humanitarian work of Kijabe Mission Station and the special school for missionary kids there. As the train came along, the tourists sat gazing through the eucalyptus trees at the mission-- loving pious smiles on their faces-- admiring the great philanthropic works of the White race just down the hillside.

Also, they saw a line of very special Anglo Saxon school boys lined up along the tracks with one hand behind their back, the other waving, and smiling sweetly like the young choir boys in Westminster Abby. At the right instant, these boys all launched their loaves of water logged bread, casting their bread upon the tourists. They must have had a story to tell back in the UK at the next cocktail party. Far from being attacked by the Lions of Tsavo, they had been attacked by the bread throwers of the Kiambu jungles. I suppose a complaint was lodged with the colonial authorities in Nairobi, but these authorities had their own sons in the Prince of Wales boarding school in Nairobi, and they would probably only be too thankful it was not their own boys up along the tracks.

Only a rail buff can understand the affection some of us have for "our train."

Perhaps the most benign stunt we played was to lay a ten cent copper coin on the track, sometimes with a piece of tape, and the train wheels would flatten it as it passed. This was later handed to an Indian merchant to cause confusion. The coin was much larger than the original, but usually there was enough of the engraving left to tell it was a ten cent copper. The Indian merchant would complain, and we would reason with him that it was indeed still a ten cent piece-- just suffering from a bit of inflation.

One day Bob C and I decided it would be fun to butter the rails for the up bound freight train. The grade was so steep that if the rails were the least bit damp, the drive wheels would slip and spin out. Sanders were often in use, but they did not always solve the problem, so the Sikh engineers nursed their throttles very carefully.

Bob and I appropriated a pound of butter from the kitchen pantry, and we headed for the tracks. We waited until the downhill train passed, and then we smeared the butter on both tracks as far as it would last. We then went up the hill nearby and hid in the bushes and waited for Mr. Singh to come along with his train. The freight was the usual double header (two engines) with an engineer in each engine. They were doing a fantastic job of keeping up their momentum without quite enough throttle to cause the wheels to spin out.

We speculated that we did not have nearly enough butter, and we fully expected the train to roll right over the spot and keep going.

Alas, the freight came steaming stoutly along and hit the buttered section. The wheels instantly broke free and spun up so fast that it scared us. The engineers stopped the train and got down out of their cabs to inspect the problem. They may have thought some part had broken in the linkage. Alas, they soon saw the butter shining on the rails, and then they both took turns filling the air blue with Gujarati words not found in your Cambridge English to Gujarati dictionary. Then they rustled up rags out of the cab and started wiping down the drive wheels and tracks. Bob and I began to laugh until we had the bushes shaking where we were hiding. The two engineers turned and saw the bushes rocking about and figured out where the butter came from. We then received our second lesson in Gujarati that day.

So, you can see that the railway was deeply part of our school days culture. We did things along those tracks then which would cause a national emergency to be declared today. The nanny state today leaves no room for growing up in a sane manner. This, I must admit, is in the broadest definition of the word sane.

Now, if any of you kids at Rift Valley Academy today are reading here, understand something please. You may become inspired to try some of these tricks. But, the world has changed, and the nanny mind set is now all around the world. This mind set is something exported from America by Liberals who are terrified that the masses at large in this world may run wild and hurt themselves or upset Nirvana. So, some risk is involved if you try these tricks. You may be followed to your room by agents of the New World Order (staff members) and put on restriction for a while.