Magazine article The Spectator

Home, Sweet Home

Magazine article The Spectator

Home, Sweet Home

Article excerpt

Kenya coast

We are gathering to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday at the home where we grew up on Kenya's coast. She is one of the serried ranks of great Mums, who more than generals or MPs deserve to be in Who's Who. She was born in Lahore, daughter of an Indian Army colonel; served in a women's unit in Burma while still a teenager; Aden, Baghdad and Kurdistan with my father; raised four children on remote farms in East Africa; built three homes of her own design; farmed cattle in Devon while we schooled; helped my Dad as a volunteer helping the poor in Uganda and northern Kenya - and much else besides.

'An asteroid is passing very close to the Earth,' she announces as we exit the Range Rover after the drive from Nairobi. On hot nights she sleeps on her flat roof under the stars. 'My favourite stars are like friends. But I'm worried about this asteroid . . .'

I have brought her a present: corms of dahlias, anemones and begonias. Will they grow here on the Equatorial Indian Ocean seashore? 'My dahlias on Mount Meru were the biggest anybody has ever seen,' says Mum. When I think of her, I am always reminded of her garden. Next to the path down to the white sand beach are 12 baobab saplings planted in a circle. She calls them the Apostles. She got very annoyed today because she claims a host of large land snails was sucking the sap out of one baobab, causing it to wither. She also frets if the grass gets too long, because it might attract a pair of spitting cobras that recently killed a neighbour's dog. We dismissed these concerns, until my wife Claire walked up the path at dusk and felt a serpent slither across her foot.

At dawn, the moonflowers stay open for a few minutes. There are crimson gloriosa lilies - Kenya's national flower - hibiscus, petrea, jasmine and many colours of desert roses. She has the reddest desert rose I have ever seen, which the late botanical British consul used to loot quietly for cuttings. In the spreading branches of a fig tree to the right of the house are enormous, multicoloured, bird-catching spiders in their trapeze net-sized webs. Clouds of butterflies drink nectar, orioles and coucal birds flop about in the trees, cicadas sing and at night fruit bats squawk and choirs of frogs sing arias. …

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