Letter from Lake Naivasha
Catherine Robertson travels to Kenya to shed light on the shadows in her family history.
I manage to get into a fight both coming into and going out of Jomo Kenyatta International airport. The arrival spat is with a sweaty Dutchman who’s behind me in the customs queue. To be fair on him, the level of organisation in here does not encourage calm. Many hundred people funnelled into random lines. Multiple forms to fill out; I finish the first page of the longest while waiting in line, turn over and find the back has already been completed by a citizen of France.
My husband holds my place while I grab another from the form-dispensing woman, who has to look hard to find a completely blank sheet in the pile on her desk. Visas (which we didn’t know we needed) can only be paid for in cash: euros, US dollars or pounds (which we don’t have). I’m allowed to leave the customs area and visit the bank in the concourse, which seems contrary to modern airport security practices. Now, finally, I’m at the head of the queue, but an airline official is suddenly beside me, pushing a woman in a wheelchair. It’s my turn, but I hesitate – she should go first, right?
‘Why don’t you move?’ shouts the Dutchman. I point out the wheelchair woman, but he continues to shout at me. I tell him to shut up. He tells me I’m a disgrace to my husband, who turns around and gives him the kind of look that only someone of Glaswegian parentage who grew up in Wainuiomata can deliver. The Dutchman shuts up.
‘Four fingers on the pad, Mama,’ says the customs woman. ‘Welcome to Nairobi.’
We landed at two and it’s now four, but our driver, Paul, is still waiting with his van. He takes us on the new bypass, and we climb steadily uphill. We pass a corrugated ghetto, a bus in a ditch, the ‘Artificial Curious Wildlife Centre’. We are passed in turn by approximately one million matatus, taxi vans owned by private co-operatives, each hand-decorated with jaunty slogans. ‘Life changes: never say no u don’t now tomorrow!’; ‘addicted to Jesus’ in the shape of a purple Adidas logo.
The roadside stalls, dukas, also sport hand-painted signs. Some obvious: ‘Pub’. ‘Internet’. Some less so: ‘Apple God Kiosk’. ‘Tomato Butchery’. We arrive at the top of the Escarpment and there is the Rift Valley, stretching all the way to Israel. We descend the road that’s all narrow tight bends and see a car overturned down the bank. Two weeks later, a tanker carrying chemical gas skids out of control on this road and crashes. The fireball kills thirty people.
After two hours, we take a road that’s more pothole than asphalt and slalom down it, dodging sheep, people, motorcycles and more matutus, hang a right, bump along a cholla cactus-lined gravel drive, stop outside the high security gate. The guard, Geoffrey (pronounced Gee-offrey; Kenyans apparently like to sound out all their vowels), smiles and lets us through. Another half-kilometre, past a weaver, potter and farm shop, an old Rover P5 in a shed, and a hut with a garden filled with small children who, we soon learn, have been using up all the tank water, and Paul halts on grass, the edge of farmland. Tall acacias* framing a slice of Lake Naivasha are beyond, and before us is our host Elli D’Olier, née Van de Water, and her anxious yellow dog.
I last saw Elli in 1982. I was 16, visiting with my family. She’d moved from America four years before, and married John D’Olier, whose Irish grandfather was given a plot of land in Kenya after WWI. I remember John as a fit and brown cheerful man, who drove me home from the Naivasha Country Club New Year’s celebrations, even though he was so drunk he could barely form words. In 2010, family and friends were on the Masai Mara, celebrating John’s 60th birthday. Bandits set upon them. John was shot and killed. Elli stayed because her grown children had returned to live in Nairobi. And because this has been her home for almost forty years.
I’m here to ask Elli about my mother, and the time they both spent in a fundamental Christian organisation, Moral Rearmament (MRA), from the mid-50’s to mid-60’s. I have a freshly minted research grant courtesy of Creative New Zealand, and Elli is the first of three women I’ll be interviewing, each in a different country.
Moral Rearmament – where to start? It was founded in England by an American, Frank Buchman, called originally The Oxford Group, and renamed just before WWII. Buchman concluded that the ills of the world could be solved if people submitted themselves to be guided by God. Literally: followers had a time each day to sit quietly with a notebook and jot down whatever God told them to do. MRA recruited all over the world, including New Zealand.
My grandparents joined in 1950, moved from Christchurch to Auckland in 1952, left (‘abandoned’ in her words) my 15-year-old mother with an MRA family and went overseas to spread the word. My mother spent the next 12 years in MRA, most of that time in America, in their training centre in Mackinac Island, in the middle of Lake Huron. Men and women were effectively segregated – sex was discouraged even amongst married couples. You were told what to wear. You were chastised publically for any failing to live by MRA’s four foundation principles: Absolute Honesty, Absolute Purity, Absolute Unselfishness, Absolute Love. You worked for them but you earned no income. You were rarely alone, inside or outside the centre.
In 1964, now a spinster-risk at 27, my mother accepted a proposal of marriage by letter from another New Zealand MRA-ite whom she’d met only a handful of times. My grandparents and my parents-to-be returned to New Zealand in early 1965, and in October that year, for reasons only partly clear to me, my grandfather resigned them all from MRA.
I was born in 1966. My parents and grandparents shared a house until my parents finally divorced in 1989. For most of my childhood, MRA was not spoken about, only hinted at in passing comments, usually my mother’s. All four are now dead. I left it too late to ask the important questions: Why did they join? Where did they go, who did they meet? What was day-to-day life like in such an organisation? Why did they resign? Do they have any regrets?
I know my mother’s answer to the last one. MRA cast a shadow over her whole life. It made her feel afraid, ashamed and, much later on, perhaps too late – angry. It made her retreat from the world, and hide her artistic talents. It led her into an unhappy marriage and crippled her emotional growth. It made her, especially in my teenage years, hard to live with.
Elli was brought up in MRA – her parents joined when she was a baby, and she chose to join it herself when she was 16, working in the office on Mackinac while completing her high school diploma. On that family trip in 1982, she was the first person I’d ever heard speak openly about MRA. In my memory, her opinion of it was entirely negative, and I expect to corroborate that when I interview her.
We sit on her covered verandah in chunky wooden chairs made by a friend (her husband built the house). Hanging from an outer corner is a feed tray that attracts primary-coloured weaver birds, turquoise and copper superb starlings, and a noisy hornbill who lives in the lakeside acacias below a pair of fish eagles, whose howling monkey-like call Elli has as her ringtone. Yonder is the lake, and you can hear the chatter of men in boats fishing for the carp that’s taken over. Barely a kilometre to the left is Sanctuary Farm, home to giraffe, hippo, wildebeest, zebra.
The verandah is a distracting place to sit, and I don’t notice that the battery on my recording device has died. I suspect it’s been affected by my reluctant psyche – I’ve put this interview off for three days, and we’re only here for six. The first two we spent on safari at a nature conservancy where we saw the big five: elephant, lion, water buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard. Paul the driver was our safari guide. His van may be no match for the matatus but its roof pops up, and he’s been driving around this conservancy for ten years. Other guides radioed him to find out where the animals were.
I noticed a constant urge to compare the landscape with New Zealand. That flat tundra-like plain with the mountain in the distance looks a lot like the Desert Road. If you ignore the elephants ambling across it. And those lions over in the corner, the impala, warthogs and jackals…
It’s probably some kind of mental defence – the need to find the familiar in the strange. And to make the strange familiar. To get quickly to the point where you can greet people with ‘Jambo’ without blushing and mumbling.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve put off this interview with Elli. The familiar to me is the story I’ve cobbled together from my mother’s usually oblique comments, a few documents and a smidgeon of unreliable Internet research. My mother was more forthcoming in her later years, but I still left it too late to properly question her. She died of cancer in 2013, and in the months leading up, I didn’t want to send her back to any dark places. I believe the story I have is the truth of her experience – that it was all bad – and I’m not sure I want anyone to contradict that. It feels as if it would dishonour her memory.
Of course, Elli tells me a different story. Yes, MRA was restrictive, and epically conservative even for the 1950s. Yes, she was constantly hauled up for misdemeanours, mainly talking to men – ‘I talked to everyone all the time, that was the problem!’ – and she was disgusted by the public tearing-down of others. Yes, MRA people were unhealthily conflicted about sex – ‘Oh, my God, they’d have these women’s meetings and force you to say whether you masturbated. I volunteered for kitchen duty so I’d never have to go.’ Yes, it could definitely be considered a cult.
But she’s glad she joined. MRA gave her opportunities rarely available to young, single women at that time. Elli was posted to Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, London and Holland. She acted in MRA’s propaganda plays, and loved performing on stage. She lived in grand houses and met influential people from all over the world. She formed friendships that have lasted to this day; an MRA friend’s wedding was the reason she first came to Kenya. When she wanted to resign, MRA did not object.
I see why Elli’s story and my mother’s might differ. Elli joined of her own free will, and my mother did not. Elli’s parents supported MRA but stayed outside the organisation. And then there’s Elli herself – forthright, funny, full of energy at nearly 75 (her children are planning a big bash for the following weekend), and in love with her adopted country despite the fact it’s dangerous. Her husband was killed, her daughter’s school bus was hijacked, hippos and poachers come off the lake, and on our first evening, she picks a caterpillar off my chair because if it’s tiny glass-like spines got in my eyes, the spines would have to be surgically removed.
My mother shut out the world. Elli invites it in, even if it drinks too much and becomes aggressive, like the neighbour we had dinner with (who was on her best behaviour that evening: five whiskeys but no abuse).
Do our experiences shape our personalities, or are some personalities so resilient and forceful that they simply cannot be dented? Perhaps that’s another question I need an answer to.
Leaving Kenya, a traffic jam makes us an hour late to Jomo Kenyatta International, the taxi drops us at the wrong terminal which we don’t find out for another 45 minutes, the Emirates desk has a staff of two and a queue of hundreds, and I get into a fight with a woman for cutting in front of her. She was on the phone, yakking, and the gap was getting wider. Why didn’t she move?
*In Kenya, the answer to the question ‘What is that tree?’ is always ‘Acacia’. Except the ones that look like cactus candelabra. Those are Euphorbia.
Catherine Robertson is the author of four novels. She is a well-known reviewer and contributor, and is currently Chair of theWellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell