My favourite Christmases are in Nairobi. This is how it goes. We gather in the suburbs, at my sister and brother-in-law’s hotel, which they close for the holiday. It has giraffe and warthog on rolling lawns under the shadow of the Ngong Hills. There are butlers, a genius chef, and it’s the only place that has enough bedrooms to fit all of us under one roof. As December progresses, friends and family disembark from British Airways with offerings of walnuts, cherry brandy, gravadlax and Stilton from the Harrods food halls. On Christmas Eve, the turkey turns up still alive, blinking, riding pillion on a bicycle pedalled by a man in car-tyre sandals. The tree is a casuarina festooned with cotton wool, or it’s a whistling thorn, Acacia drepanolobium, all covered in swollen galls that are ready-made baubles if you spray them gold or silver. Since nobody on the roads is sober, we avoid all travel and the Daily Nation, with its chronicles of mass death on the highways. We sing carols to the accompaniment of tree hyraxes and bullfrogs at night. And year after year, my mother will forget that I’m no longer 12 and will give me the latest Guinness Book of World Records.
As the flaming pudding arrived at Christmas lunch last year, each of us hoped to find the Kenya shilling piece and the good luck it promised. Twelve months later, has it done whoever found it (because it wasn’t me) any good? I’ll say that we’re all healthy, I hope happy and, touch wood, this year we’ve been spared the tragedies that beset life in the Tropics. But we’re all skint. To be sure, I don’t know anybody in Kenya who isn’t broke, thanks to the hangover from Moi’s dictatorship, together with the damage inflicted by fears of al-Qa’eda attack and the war in Iraq. In Kenya we always look to a brighter future, but I think the truth is that we’ve always been on the ropes.
Elspeth Huxley famously wrote: ‘Africa is a cruel country; it takes your heart and grinds it into powdered stone — and no one minds.’ Her father was a gentleman officer, yet he ended up living on biltong and mealies in an earth-floored rondavel with tea packing-crates for furniture. Trevor Sheen, an Irish contemporary of Elspeth’s parents who farmed at Njoro in the Rift Valley, said, ‘You can’t describe yourself as broke unless you can’t pay the interest on your fourth mortgage.’ Life at Njoro, Sheen said, involved ‘days of toil and nights of gladness’.
I don’t think much has changed since those days. Here people take life as it comes. I don’t need much. Give me a grass roof over my head, a plate of ugali (cornmeal) and the odd warm beer and I’d be happy just sitting there in the sunshine, wriggling my bare toes and waiting for the mangoes to drop off the trees. Masses of people here have less than that.
When we’re broke in the family we head for our mother’s place on the coast. Life is so much simpler on the beach, where you eat fish and rice and you don’t have to wear shoes. The problem is that this year everybody en masse has decided to head there, so we can kiss goodbye to our family Christmas in Nairobi. Instead, it looks as if we’ll be fighting over the three spare bedrooms in Mum’s house. Last time this happened Claire and I — before we had our two children — drew the short straw. We ended up sleeping on the flat roof, beneath the constellations and the spreading branches of a fig tree. It sounds better than it is; fruit bats eat the figs and defecate on the roof. The garden is always full of camping Kenya cowboys or my sister-in-law’s girlfriends, who my brother calls the ‘piss cats’.
And Christmas lunch at the coast is always chaotic. Turkeys are rare at the coast and so need to be bussed down from upcountry. Then it must be frozen before it decomposes in the heat. Somebody forgets to take it out of the freezer in time and one 25 December we found ourselves at 4 p.m. staring at a massive, rock-solid bird defrosting on the bonnet of my Range Rover. Plum pudding and port in the 100-degree Indian Ocean heat don’t really work either. Every year the siblings exchange a flurry of emails saying, ‘Let’s agree to give each other very small presents since none of us has got much money at the moment.’ And every year, there’ll be a mountain of stuff under the tree. And however broke we are I bet the same will be the case this Christmas.