Rhoda Brett O'Neil Trayner
Today I find myself catching glimpses of my mother's life on the anniversary of her death. I only have fragments of stories and impressions as most of the traces of her life in Kenya have been covered over by the recorded and unrecorded social changes the country has seen in the last sixty years, the images created by films like "Out of Africa", and those exotic images of Kenya as a tourist destination. In contrast to this invisibility, Mum's Web-page rather weirdly floats around cyberspace six years after she died. More than ten years ago, even before I had heard of the Internet my mum had started her home-page - with photos and exotic backgrounds and ... she even blotted out my face because I was concerned to think of my photo or information online! I can see her now grinning at my indignation in finding she had put me on her page. "One day you'll laugh at yourself!" she told me.
OK mum - so you were right!
Mum was the youngest of seven children born to a tough Irish woman from South Africa. I say Irish because that was the identity my grand-mother hung on to, a descendant of the Irish Owen Rowe O'Neill clan, forced to leave Ulster during the British invasions under Cromwell generations earlier. My grandmother was sent by her parents in South Africa to live in Kenya. She had scandalised the family by falling in love with a Jew and her parents hurriedly found a suitable man and paid him a large dowry on the understanding that he would take her to live far away in Kenya.
My grandmother had five children with this "suitable" man while he was losing all their money in the Kakamega Gold Rush. I don't how, but he died shortly after losing the money, leaving her penniless. She worked behind the bar of the Muthaiga Country Club where the accountant there fell in love with her. He took her and her five children under his wing and they had two more children and lived in Nakuru. I don't remember my mother ever talking about her father as he died when she was twelve and the next few years were spent looking after her mother who turned ill and bed-ridden shortly after his death.
At seventeen my mother then lost her mother and faced the big world of Nairobi where she worked as a telephonist for the Kenya police during the Mau Mau and later as an office secretary until she met my father, the captain of one of the Castle Line ships. Her brothers and sisters all emigrated from Kenya, my dear aunt June in Canada, one aunt in South Africa, the eldest in Spain, one in Wales and two uncles in Australia. With the exception of June, who I met once and keep in e-mail contact, I don't know the others.
Many years later and with four almost grown-up daughters my mum went to England. She struggled to create an English identity for herself and I never thought she had managed until it came to her funeral, where to our surprise, we discovered she had found a place for herself with English colleagues in the place (the Red Cross) where she worked. My mum, who had never finished school, and who had hardly worked before she went to England, had become the office manager with a reputation for being the fundi for managing and "fixing" people and technology.
(Fundi is a coloquial word we often used in Kenya to mean a skilful, fix-it person. In proper Swahili it means a craftsperson - master - who passes on their skills to the next generation - apprentice).