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Stand in the Place Where You Live

Stephen Derwent Partington, aka "Mr. Steve"



FROM: Mr Steve, Principal, Lukenya British Curriculum


TOPICS: The rediscovery of nearby wonders; the brilliance of ‘here and now’

Good Morning, Pupils,

I hope that you and yours are well.

Last Sunday afternoon about ten of your teachers went on a well-spaced(!) 10-15 kilometre hike around Lukenya Hill Farm, in part because we wanted some fresh air and exercise, and in part because we wanted to relearn local walking routes that we could take pupils along on Sundays once school reopens.

Lukenya Hill is so very close when we’re at school, but do we as a community take any notice of it, or do we too often stay within the fences and just take the surrounding landscape for granted? I think we take it for granted.

When I first came to Kenya, I did what British tourists do: I visited parts of the country, taking pleasure in the diverse range of landscapes and cultures, and I also felt very excited by ‘our’ Lukenya Hill, its human and natural history, so much so that I once thought I’d write a Local History of our special inselberg – Google ‘inselberg’!

But after a few years, I started to take everything for granted and no longer took wonder in our rock. I stopped pausing to look at the sensational things that it boasts. And it does indeed boast some fascinating history…

For example, did you know that dotted across the ranch are a number of archaeological sites, excavated from the 1960s to today, where the habits of prehistoric humans were discovered? For instance, under some of the overhanging rocks in the caves, the bones of huge extinct zebra-type animals were discovered, and other animals which prehistoric humans killed and ate there.

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Also under those overhanging rocks you can find ancient rock art. It’s very basic rock art – hand swirls and such things – but it’s one of the densest concentrations of rock art on the whole African continent. Equally fascinating are the ‘forgeries’. A slightly eccentric white settler, who was also an artist, is said to have created an amount of more complex ‘fake’ rock art in order to make the place more attractive to visitors! Other ‘painted objects’ around the Hill area include props that were used while some REASONABLY famous films and series were filmed here, such ‘Young Indiana Jones’ – er, ask your parents!

The Lukenya rock faces are some of the Mountain Club of Kenya’s most popular climbs, and have been since the colonial period, when numerous of the ‘mad and bad’ settlers and colonialists came to land on the former airstrip at the top of the hill, to spend weekends with the former owner, a Mr Dunman. You might not have noticed it, but as you turn off the Mombasa Road towards school, there lies, on the right-hand side, a large cubic stone which reads, ‘Dunman: 1 Mile’.

Although some local memories vary, much evidence points towards Dunman having been a very unpleasant man. Do you or your parents remember those recent ‘Mau Mau’ Trials conducted in the UK just a few years ago, which the British lost, causing the British to apologise, give a small amount of compensation and contribute money towards memorial statues and the like? Well, MANY of the appalling crimes exposed in those trials came from the Lukenya Prison, which was ‘hosted’ by Dunman.

The remains of this prison lie at the foot of Lukenya Hill, near the Boys’ School. Have you ever seen those very white rocks as your drive to the Boys School? It was there. Although Dunman and the British in general tried to dismantle the prison soon after what they euphemistically called ‘The Emergency’ and as Independence approached, some things still remain: rusted metal shackles; blast-holes in the rocks, which the prisoners also hacked; an old washing area; even, reasonably recently, a former British army helmet was unearthed. Some of the old prison doors remain as kitchen doors in our school Managing Director’s house, which is the former colonial bungalow of Dunman!

Who can imagine the terrors that were experienced at Lukenya Prison, the records of which have probably been destroyed? Some things we DO know include the fact that it was designed as a relatively low-level prison, mainly for Kamba ‘Mau Mau’ sympathisers who might have provided food and the like for fighters. One of the great Kenya Land and Freedom Army leaders, General China, once conducted a raid against Lukenya Prison.

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Mau Mau fighters, Kenya

The top of the hill boasts great views. From it on a clear day you can see the Aberdares and Mount Kenya, but also Kilimanjaro, which is also visible from our school from time to time. Further, our hilltop offers the best possible view along the Kapiti Plains towards Tanzania – it’s no surprise, then, that President Theodore Roosevelt placed the base camp for his famous hunting expedition at the base of Lukenya Hill, from which he travelled south. Its brilliance as a look-out post also contributed to Lukenya Hill being an important ‘watchtower’ during some of history’s Kamba-Masai wars

Finally, there’s the flora and fauna. Of course, some of the large fig trees anchored into the hill’s rocks became important Kamba shrines, but the plants and wildlife are fascinating in their own right. The hilltop has some rare plants, but also isolated pockets of rare animals, such as the reedbuck and a few leopards. A rare species of eagle is known to have made Lukenya Hill its base, and the area around the hill is thought by snake enthusiasts to be one of the continent’s few isolated habitats for the black mamba. More rarely, lions might pass through – some years ago, before we built our electric fence, I had to escort pupils early to the dormitories, as two lions were spotted nearby. They were removed and became part of the late minister Mutula Kilonzo’s menagerie.

Now, I’ve not even mentioned everything! Any single one of these things is arguably interesting enough in its own right to make our hill a fascinating place to walk around, but ALL OF THEM TOGETHER means that our hill has one of the richest human and natural histories of any other hill between us and Mount Kenya or us and Mount Kilimanjaro. And we live and study here!

Yet, we take it for granted.

Nothing should be taken for granted, or assumed to be so ever-present that we fail to realise the importance of it, or its beauty and wonder. And when we take our immediate environment for granted, it’s not long before we start taking those PEOPLE we live with for granted.

You see, WONDER – that ability to feel awed and amazed by the world – is one of those great attitudes and emotions that keeps us young and that keeps the world alive to us, whatever our age. And it’s easy to become what is called ‘jaundiced’, or immune to the world’s brilliance, blind to its immediate pleasures – it’s easy to find ‘Here’, wherever ‘Here’ is, booooooring. When this happens, we turn into junkies, into addicts of a sort, and we keep looking for ever more exciting experiences elsewhere when, perhaps, the simple experience here at home COULD have been enough.

Yes, it’s of course good to travel abroad, to enjoy the wider world and to broaden our minds by encountering other peoples and lands. And yet, we should always ask ourselves, as the sages of old always did: ‘Before I venture too far abroad or into too wild a set of pleasures, have I REALLY given a chance to the Here and Now, to where I presently live, to the locality in which I find myself?’ I mean, why travel to Dubai to buy a hundred useless shoes, trousers and handbags, when here at Lukenya I have all the historical wonders that Kenya has to offer, here in a small area, at no cost?

And when you ask yourself that question, you start to feel a little bit silly at wasting so much time and money on ‘elsewhere’, when here was always enough, or should have been. You see, the trick is to open our eyes, and to celebrate our own great worth, and never to denigrate or downplay our own value or the value of ‘here’. If we think of where we are, of Home, as less worthwhile than ‘elsewhere’, well, we end up with a life of feeling unfulfilled, of believing that we must always be busy seeking the Great Yonder. No: home has its value, and is always underexplored. So, EXPLORE IT and APPRECIATE IT!

Wherever you live, you’ll find your own little ‘Lukenya Hill’, your own small place of stories and joys. Think about it. Just sit there, while you’re under lockdown or curfew, and think about the place you’re sitting NOW, the house with which you share a family or guardians. How many joys has that structure experienced, whether your family are the first occupants or not? What sort of a history does your estate or wider neighbourhood have? Who or what walked this land on which your house or apartment block stands, years or even eons before you got here? What plants, what beasts, what people? What events occurred here, where you are now?

All this is yours to think about, to study, to reflect upon and to take pleasure in. To WONDER about.

Every patch of ground is what the postcolonial scholars call a ‘palimpsest’. A palimpsest is a piece of old paper, from the days when paper was rare and expensive, on which successive authors have written and erased letters, maps or whatever, so that underneath what is PRESENTLY written, the echoes and ghosts of what was previously written still faintly exist, never to be fully erased. That’s true even of your house or apartment block, wherever it might be located – over the eons, so many things have happened there, precisely where you live. It’s also true of people around you and their life histories, perhaps people who you take for granted – Year 11 Literature students, think about our poem ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ and how the elderly character insists on being read as a complex, rounded person with a full and diverse life history despite the nurses’ habit of reading her ONLY as what she presently appears to be, a crabbit (or bad-tempered) old woman.

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The Archimedes Palimpsest is a medieval parchment manuscript from the 1200s that includes seven scientific treatises by Archimedes on subjects like equilibrium. Some of the writing in these papyrus books covered earlier writing that had been scraped off so they papyrus could be used again.

Thinking about these things causes great wonder, of a sort that re-enchants the world. And when your world is re-enchanted by the power of your own meditation upon it, well, that world becomes beautiful and your own thoughtful life becomes meaningful. So, do it. Do it now, and do it throughout your life. Be at ease with where you are, and fascinated by where you find yourself, wherever that may be, because ONLY yearning for elsewhere is always a false pleasure of the sort that cause distress, unease and restlessness. Dream big, yes, and love the idea of the whole glorious wider world, and travel, and yet: never be afraid to say, ‘This is where I am, this is where I belong, and this is the place that fascinates me. I am never self-satisfied, but I am content’. In fact, taking a deep interest in where you live, its history and its own diversity, might just help you to grow more understanding of OTHER places and ‘other’ people elsewhere, which is never a bad thing in a gloriously varied world. But start Here, start at home.

Here’s a short poem by the Chinese poet Wang Wei, who lived about one thousand three hundred years ago, in 701-61, which has this looooong title: ‘In Reply to Su, Who Visited My Wheel-Rim River Hermitage When I Wasn’t There to Welcome Him’:

I live humbly near the canyon’s mouth

where stately trees ring village ruins.

When you came on twisted rocky paths,

who welcomed you at my mountain gate?

Fishing boats frozen into icy shallows,

hunting fires out across cold headlands,

and in all this quiet beyond white clouds,

wild gibbons heard among distant bells.

In this simple poem, Wang Wei demonstrates his knowledge and love of his humble home, even when he’s at a distance, and he takes wonderful pleasure in thinking that his visitor, who he wasn’t present to welcome, was at least welcomed by beautiful scenery and the pleasures of nature. The poem is a simple list of the small pleasures offered by the Here and Now. And perhaps that’s what we ALL should be – we should be able to appreciate the joys of the immediate areas of our lives celebrating our privilege of being able to take joy in where we are, avoiding the agony of always longing to be somewhere else, where we believe ‘the grass is greener’ or ‘the handbags, shoes and trousers more fashionable’.

When you return to Lukenya following this school closure, I hope you will feel at home again and that you’ll be pleased to be here, as your teachers will be pleased to have you back, and that you’ll be eager to rediscover the wonder in this little patch of Earth that we all, sometimes, take for granted.

Have a reflective week, and be happy,

‘Mr Steve’, Principal.

Stephen Derwent Partington is a poet and regular contributor to Journal of the Plague Year.

Stand : Sly and the Family Stone

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