My mother reached the great age of 90 at the end of January. We gave her a little celebration at home and she was spoiled with many gifts. Her sitting-room soon started looking like a florist-shop with all the flowers that friends and family sent to her!
Mum on her birthday
‘Why have I lived to be so old?’ she asked me.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered unhelpfully. ‘Ours is not to reason why!’
‘I think I’m the same age as the queen,’ she continued thoughtfully. ‘But she seems to be in much better shape than I am!’
It is true that the queen is in better health, but on reflection, Her Majesty’s life has been nowhere near as eventful, or stressful, or indeed exciting as the life my mother has lived!
Born in 1927 in Nakuru, Kenya, Mum was the only child of a couple of intrepid early pioneers. They had originated from Scotland and came to seek a better future for themselves in the British colony of Kenya. She was lucky to be the daughter of a farmer and lived her early life on a number of different farms, where they lived in grass huts or wooden shacks while her father developed the wild virgin land. It was a simple and primitive life, but she thrived in the strong African sunshine and had space and adventure on her doorstep.
She must have taken for granted the immense plains that were studded with thorn-scrub, the tawny savannah teaming with game, and the mystical blue hills on the heat blurred horizon. When they moved to the highlands she was old enough to ride with her father around the land he was farming, up and down steep green hills thick with bush and through patches of cool dark mysterious forest.
When Mum grew up and was married, she and my father bought a farm near Thomson’s Falls in the White Highlands. Ol Orien was only a small farm and it was hilly and heavily forested, but the backdrop to the farm was the Subukia Valley, part of the Great Rift Valley. They built a lovely wooden house from which they had the magnificent view of the valley and the undulating hills around which were delicately tinted in pastel blues, greens and greys and seemed to stretch away to infinity. Sometimes on a clear day the sun would glint on Lake Baringo far away in the distance. They worked hard to develop the farm and hoped to have a son and heir to inherit it when they grew old.
Farmhouse, Overlooking Subukia Valley
By 1952 they had two daughters and then the Mau Mau uprising occurred. The terrorists took oaths to rid Kenya of the white man, and under the concealing jungle of the Aberdares and in the forests around Thomson’s Falls, Naro Moru, Ol Kalou and on the Kinangop, the stealthy Mau Mau performed their macabre ceremonies, sharpened their pangas and planned their next gruesome assault on a white family. It was a stressful time for all the settlers, and men and women alike took to wearing guns on holsters around their waists where they were in easy reach if an attack occurred. A number of dreadful atrocities were perpetrated at that time and as a result some of the whites did leave Kenya, but my parents stuck it out even though they knew that there were Mau Mau in the forest at the top end of their farm.
By 1956 the reign of terror was broken, although the state of emergency remained for a while after that. Then at last in 1960 a son an heir was born – someone to take over the farm when Mum and Dad retired.
It was not to be.
In 1963 Kenya was given its independence from Britain. Now the Africans wanted all the land and the settlers became an embarrassment to the British Government. They bought out some of the white owned farms and gave them back to the Africans, but my parent’s farm was not among them. They had to sell privately, but still they did not want to leave the country that they loved. My father worked for the Soil Conservation Service and we moved from the highlands 7000ft above sea level to the coast. The cool pristine air with the sharp cedary fragrance of forest and farmland was replaced by warm humid air, pungent with the tang of the sea, salt and seaweed; while the lush green vegetation that grew up country was exchanged for palm trees and a long expanse of silver white beach.
But after a couple of years Mum and Dad could see that there would be no future for their children in Kenya, so we moved south. After a short time in Rhodesia my father was offered a contract working for FAO in Iraq, so they packed up again and made their home in the Middle East. This was the first time that they had not lived in Africa and it was hotter than anywhere they had ever lived. The locals seemed to be more aloof and tended to be arrogant and not easy going like the Africans, but none the less it was a fascinating country steeped in history. They lived in Djubala, a tiny village about 90 kilometres from Baghdad, and the surrounding countryside was dry and sandy. Outside the village there were flocks of sheep and goats with bells around their necks, and Arabs in flowing garments who rode on camels over the undulating sandy terrain – and often lived in tents. It seemed to them a scene straight out of the Bible.
When they moved back to Africa they lived in Botswana where my father worked on a mine and the air continually swirled with dust; and then in Swaziland where the atmosphere was laden with moisture and dewdrops sparkled like diamonds on the cobwebs in the grass every morning when the sun rose. At last they moved to South Africa – perhaps one of the most civilised countries they had lived in up to that time, and after moving from place to place they decided to buy a plot overlooking the Valley of a Thousand Hills where the view was so breath-taking it made one feel emotional. The thousands of hills seemed to tumble down to the mighty Umgeni River and at different times of the day they took on diverse characters. Sometimes they were mystical, like blue shadows swirling in the mist, and at other times they stood out boldly in sharp relief.
Valley of a Thousand Hills
There was nothing on the land they bought, so Mum and Dad lived in their caravan while they built a house and developed the plot. This was to be their final move, a place where they could enjoy a quiet retirement in a beautiful part of South Africa. They built a lovely little house and due to Mum’s green fingers it was soon surrounded by colourful flowers. They had chickens and a vegetable garden, dogs and cats – now they could sit back and enjoy life in their twilight years.
It was not to be.
After South Africa became independent in 1994, the country became more and more violent. Often old people were the targets of those who were committing the savagery and when one of their friends and neighbours was murdered in a horrendous way, Mum and Dad decided that it would be sensible to leave South Africa. Already all their children had moved to England, so they followed.
Mum and Dad lived in Darlington when they first came to England, but after my father died Mum came to live with me. Now we live in Cornwall and she has spent 90 years on this earth, in several different countries on three different continents. She’s lived in too many houses to count, but she has left her mark on each place in which she’s stayed, and a little of her history has been made in that area before she moved on.
Maybe if she had lived in a palace and been waited on hand and foot she would have been in better health, but she assures me that she has enjoyed her life and wouldn’t want it to be any different!
Now we are considering another move.
‘Do you think I can really move again, at my great age?’ Mum asked me.
‘You’ve moved so often you could do it blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back,’ I reassured her.
So instead of writing I have been sprucing up the house, painting the walls to freshen it up, shampooing the carpets and chasing poor spiders away from the places where they can’t normally be seen and have been living a peaceful life – all in the name of selling the house!
Toto meanwhile, is totally unconcerned. She has absolute confidence in me and will follow me loyally wherever I may go!
In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.