Travels in Africa has never featured the Africans we shared our lives with in Nairobi. Since we’ve been dealing with our domestic life there, we start a series of posts about them. A great disappointment of our time there is that photos of these dear people have not survived multiple uprootings.

He was a thin, young Kikuyu with a well-modeled face and dark, alert eyes. We had come to Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate to look at a house that might work for us. It was owned by a woman, now resident in British Columbia, who wanted to sell it, but had had no success. When I told the young Kikuyu we’d like to see the house, he returned to the servant’s quarters behind it and came back holding the keys on a piece of bent wire. He led us to the entry and unlocked the door.

“Do you live here?” Donanne asked.

“Yes,” he replied, pushing the door open and stepping back from the threshold, obliging and respectful.

“Is it a good house?” I asked.

“It is a good house,” he answered, his face open and so honest that it told both all and nothing about him. “It is all right.”

Donanne and I had not been in Nairobi long. We were looking for a house with sufficient space for a journalist’s office. The house stood on a five-acre plot of ground at the end of a lane of jacarandas in rolling country planted with coffee. Beside the front walk an orange-brown anthill reached toward the sky. There was room enough not only for an office, but to live comfortably, and the rent was controlled. Those were the advantages of the house. A disadvantage was that it was so far out of town. But we had dreamed of living on a plantation in Africa.

While we walked from room to room, the young Kikuyu sat on the porch in the sun. As we decided to take it, my eyes fell again on the young African. I wondered if his life would become involved with ours.

When we took possession of the house on Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate, the young Kikuyu was still living in the servant’s quarters. Would he be someone who might work for us?

We had heard that when interviewing a prospective servant in Africa you looked him squarely in the face, trying to discern what was there and what was not there. You examined worn, oft-folded references from former employers transferred elsewhere. You asked yourself questions: Is this man honest? Trustworthy? Of pleasant disposition? Will he steal sugar? Chocolate? The checkbook? If I am fair to him, will he be fair to me?

We realized, of course, that the servant was not someone we would want to invite to dinner. And yet, if we employed him, we would be inviting him to share our lives. It would be at least a matter of weeks before we learned to know him as a servant. As a human being, we might never know him at all.

We asked the young Kikuyu his name and heard him answer, “It is Robin.” When we examined his references, we discovered that, in fact, his name was Laban Waithaka Muturi. We studied him carefully and he bore our scrutiny. I asked if he would like to work for us, mainly keeping the grounds, as he had already been doing. He said, “It is all right,” which meant that he would. I suggested that we try the arrangement for a week to see how it went.

It went well. At the end of the week I typed out a letter of agreement between myself and Laban. We would pay him twice a month at his present wage. He would care for the garden; clean inside the house on request; wash the car; act as watchman when we were gone; burn the garbage and do other chores as requested. His hours of work would be 8:00 am to noon, 2:00 to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday. He could remain in his quarters and have friends visit him, but “there will be no drinking of alcoholic beverages on the premises.” We agreed to pay for two shirts and one pair of trousers immediately and to finance two other garments when the probationary period was concluded at the end of the first month. We would also provide a bag of charcoal. Grounds for dismissal were enumerated: failure to perform duties, incompatibility, drunkenness, rowdiness.

I doubted that so specific a contract was necessary. But colleagues assured me that it was a must. The expatriate’s worst nightmare was to have a servant make an official charge that he had been cheated. Usually such charges were leveled just before the expat left on a transfer. Without a contract both parties had signed, the expat got caught in the con game. He paid exorbitantly just to leave the country.

Once things became routine, Laban spent most of his time tending the long, broad lawn that stretched down from the front of the house. There was no mower. Laban cut the grass with a long-handled implement having a curved and sharpened end. He stood upright, swinging the implement back and forth, slowly cutting the grass.

Donanne sitting on the lawn Laban tended

Donanne sitting on the lawn Laban tended

Sometimes I watched Laban work. I wondered how I myself would like to be in his place. Laban had some education, at least enough to speak English. Didn’t this work crush his spirit? Didn’t he find Rosslyn Lone Tree Estate rather isolated? What did he do for a social life? For friends? Then I would remind myself that Laban had a place to live and a job on the money economy. He was no longer tied to the land. Watching, wondering, I would ask: Who is Laban anyway?

My first journalist’s trip out of Nairobi – Donanne would accompany me – was to Arusha in Tanzania. We would be away a week and leave Laban in charge. Alas! The day before the trip was to start, I was overcome by reservations. “Do you think it’s really a good idea,” I asked Donanne, “our leaving the house this way? We really don’t know the guy.”

“I think he’s honest,” she replied. “Anyway, what’s there to take?”

“Clothes. Furniture. What if we come back and the house is empty? We’d have no idea where to find him.”

I spent the afternoon before the trip, arranging for a Securicor guard to watch the house. I felt badly, distrusting Laban, but I wanted to be sure. The next morning as we departed, Laban waved and wished us well. He said, “Hoping to see you again.”

Of course, everything was fine. Weeks passed. We got to know each other better. Laban would bring us greetings from his mother when he went home over the weekend to the shamba. We came to feel an affection for each other.

Then something quite unexpected happened. The woman in British Columbia found a buyer for the house. We would have to leave. What would happen to us? What would happen to Laban? Would he be thrown off the money economy and find himself tied to the land once again?