The Dress

As he was going back to Europe in a week, my colleague asked me about presents for his children. I suggested he buy something typically African, and definitely not plastic. He agreed with me and asked if I had any ideas. For his young son, I recommended he buy a toy vehicle made from wire and strips of rubber. He thought this was a great idea, but what about his daughter. “Does she like dresses?” I asked. “Oh yeah, she loves dressing up,” he replied.


On the trek back from the market, we passed some clothes shops. “Now those are cracking frocks if you had twins,” I said, pointing out two gorgeous neon-pink dresses on display at the side of the road. The bodice was fitted and made from a cheap satiny material with a diagonal of purple flowers from top right to bottom left. The skirt part was frilly stiff gauze, like a ballerina’s tutu. I think it is called tulle.


“No, no, no!” he replied. “I like this one, it’s much more classy.” He examined the stitching on a smaller dress, much less ostentatious. It wasn’t frilly. The skirt part had pleated broad bands of dark blue, light blue and silvery-grey and the bodice was dark blue. I think it was fake organza. But, like John Snow, I know nothing.

The mannequin looked like a female version of the horror-doll, Chuckie.

Well, yes, it was more classy, but would she like it? “Why not take a photo of both and message her? Get her opinion. Better than buying something she will never wear, yes?” I asked. He dispatched photos of the dresses on his phone and then started worrying about the size. “It is probably too small for her,” he said.

By now the shop assistant had sniffed out a possible sale. “How old is she?” “Six, but she is the size of a five-year-old,” he replied. “How old does the girl mannequin look to you?” I asked. “Is she about your daughter’s size?” He wasn’t sure. “Do you have a photo of her on your phone?” He did, but it wasn’t much help. The shop assistant wanted to see. “Yes, that will fit her,” she said. We weren’t as sure.

“Do you know how tall she is?” I asked. “About one metre, one metre ten,” he replied. The shop assistant came out with a tape measure. “Can you measure the mannequin?” he asked. The assistant measured the length of the dress instead, shoulder to hem. “How much is that?” he asked. “Seventy inches,” she replied. “Seventy inches? That’s as tall as me,” I said. “It must be centimetres. But measure the girl.” The mannequin was about a metre high from her beige boots to her balding pate.

The phone vibrated. “She says she likes the pink one,” said my colleague. “But I hate it.”

I said that I detested My Little Pony but that’s what my girls wanted and that’s what they got at Christmas. You have to respect a child’s choice, even if it rankles.

A little boy came out of the shop and gawped at the mzungus debating the relative merits of two dresses. “How old is the boy?” my friend asked. “He looks about six. Let’s get him to try on the dress.”

“That would be torture. You can’t do that,” I replied.

“Well, we could just hold it up against his body,” he said.,

“Sorry, but that is almost as bad. How about you hold it up against your body instead?” I said.

He laughed and said that he would need to get precise measurements from his daughter’s mother so he could get a bespoke dress made. “Any colour you like, as long as it is pink,” I prompted, as we walked up the street.


Post script: He took the measurements to the seamstress who made a beautiful bespoke dress, not quite as lurid as the first dress, but more frilly and pink than the second dress. When he gave it to his daughter, she was so delighted that she refused to take it off for the rest of the day. Result.



I enjoy looking out for interesting slogans in Embu.

A school bus had the slogan “Grade Grabber” printed onto the rear mudflaps.

One of the boda-boda drivers had “Invisible” written on his windshield, hardly good for custom. Another had “Sir Stain” and “Loverboy” written on his.

But my favourite was a small plaque fixed onto the handlebars saying, “Why worry? Telephone God in prayer.” I asked the driver what was the number to call. He said, “JESUS 1000”.


On a matatu: “Thug Angel”

On a car rear window: “Glory be to God” and underneath, “Thanks God”.


On a hearse “Bye Bye Funeral Services”

How about a slogan on the side of a van, promoting white processed bread?


Occasionally it is difficult to work out exactly what a slogan means.


Or a roadside sign shop?


Weddings and bath mending?

Finally, what men want:



Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors in the lost gardens

Twenty-five years ago, Tim Smit and John Willis decided to untangle the willow trees of the gardens of Heligan, a beautiful spot near Megavissey on the south coast of Cornwall. A century ago, 22 of the gardeners tending the gardens went away to fight in the First World War. 16 were killed and the gardens went into decline. The restored gardens are now a major tourist attraction.

During the restoration process, a privy was discovered with an old “thunderbox”.

  A motto etched into the limestone walls in barely legible pencil still reads “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber”, with the names of those who worked there signed under the date – August 1914.  (

The story of the gardens is displayed on doors.



Nice Rice

Twenty kilometres west of Embu the land is flat. It is perfect for growing rice. Rivers flowing south from the slopes of Mount Kenya provide plenty of water for irrigation. I prefer to cook the Pishori variety of rice, as it is thin-grained and fragrant, almost as good as Basmati rice. For small quantities, I buy the rice loose in the market. However, when buying sacks of rice to take to Nairobi, we call in at the Nice Rice Factory.



Farmers also grow sugar cane and vegetables in the rich, black cotton soil. At the entrance to the Nice Rice Factory, there was a kiosk selling crushed sugar cane juice, sometimes flavoured with beetroot, ginger and lemon juice. An advertising billboard extolled the medicinal virtues of the juice.



Four girls promoting the sale of cane juice were listening to music and chatting. They called me over to try a sample. Unsurprisingly, it was sickly sweet. The price of 500ml of the full strength cane juice was a very reasonable 100 Kenyan shillings. It was very popular with wasps. The girls would only agree to a photo if I bought a drink.

Other outlets dilute the juice by soaking partially crushed canes in water and squeezing them through the rollers again. They also add lemon juice to offset the sweetness.

Thursday Doors

Thursday Doors – the bunker

Subterfuge: deceit, cunning, trickery, deception, bluff, craftiness. During World War 2, the southern coast of England was the target of German bombing. On Nare Head in Cornwall, this bunker is all that remains of a sophisticated decoy site, built to lure enemy attackers away from areas of strategic importance.


Brits have always been good at devising cinematic special effects. A crew of four Naval intelligence officers controlled a set of flares and lights on the cliffs, ten miles to the east of the port of Falmouth. When the crew was alerted to an impending night bombing raid, they would activate the effects to simulate lights in the docks, railway tracks and stations, with explosions and fires from fake bombs. The German bombers would unload their bombs onto the mayhem, confident that they had hit the target.

The last time the system was activated was on the night of 30th/31st May 1944. By this stage in the war, British decoy sites had been attacked 786 times. Installations like this probably saved thousands of lives.

In 1962, during the Cold War, the site was converted into a deep survival bunker. In the event of a nuclear attack, three soldiers from the Royal Observer Corps had enough supplies to live for three weeks underground. They could monitor the levels of radiation during this period, but what would they have done when they emerged to a post-apocalyptic wilderness?

Shop doorway in Portscatho
Kenya Medical


There was an external fixator holding his fractured tibia together. Pus was oozing from where the stabilising rods entered the skin. On standing, he was clearly in pain.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was hit by a car two months ago,” he replied. He went on to talk about not being able to work and the financial effects of his injury.

“Will you get compensation? Was the driver insured?” I asked.

He became evasive and didn’t answer my question. When I pressed him further, he said that the driver was a powerful man, who could make life difficult for him.

“Is he a witch doctor?” I asked.

“He is in the mirror business,” he replied.

This set me thinking. Mirror business? Something to do with magic based on your reflection in the mirror? Or something about selling mirrors, surely a niche market?

It was only a month later, when our vehicle was passed by a reckless speeding driver, that I had an epiphany. Our driver said, “That crazy boy is transporting miraa to Nairobi for the morning market.” Miraa (not mirror!) is the Swahili term for khat (or chat, qat, kat, qaad – choose your own spelling), the leaves of a shrub. Chewing the fresh leaves produces a stimulant effect somewhere between a strong cup of coffee and amphetamines. Latin America has coca leaves; India and South East Asia have betel nut; East Africa and Yemen have khat.

Low bushes of khat seen from the road in Embu County

Khat has been used for thousands of years in the Horn of Africa. Men get together and chew the leaves (sometimes the soft branches, too), keeping a wad inside their cheeks. The leaves contain an alkaloid called cathinone which causes feelings of well-being, excitement and friendliness, stimulating conversation. These effects are quite rapid, kicking in after just 15 minutes.

Khat also suppresses the appetite and dries out the mouth, so users often drink coca cola to mitigate these effects. Other sympathomimetic effects are dilated pupils, increased pulse rate, high blood pressure and diminished sex drive. Like cannabis, a small proportion of people have a genetic predisposition to develop psychosis, which may be temporary or permanent.

The leaves are gathered in the early morning and laid out for sale on plastic sheets at the roadside. Buyers pack up the leaves carefully to avoid bruising and arrange for their rapid transport to Nairobi for the morning markets. At the end of the day, more leaves are collected and brought to market at Embu. There they are packed and loaded onto trucks for overnight transportation to Mombasa at the coast.

I rarely go into the centre of town after dark, but driving back from a late clinic last week I saw a thriving night market, with clothes, electronics, shoes, food, hardware on sale. Enterprising stallholders had seized an opportunity to relieve the farmers of their earnings from the sale of khat.

Last month I was talking to a county health official who asked me what I knew about khat. I told him that I knew very little about it other than it had been classified as a drug of abuse in UK.[1]

He said that the Kenyan Government has a different view; it is an important cash crop. Indeed Meru and Embu Counties provide ideal climatic conditions for the cultivation of khat. He then asked me if I knew what pests attacked khat shrubs, and whether chemical spraying could deter or treat the infestation.

At first I thought he was asking for horticultural advice, but then I realised that people don’t wash the leaves before chewing them. Users could be at risk of organophosphate poisoning if the bushes had been sprayed. According to Wikipedia, organophosphates kill over 200,000 farmers in developing countries every year.[2] Perhaps we need to add treatment for inadvertent organophosphate toxicity (atropine and pralidoxime) to the cache of drugs we keep for use in emergency situations.


[1] Five years ago, after lots of discussion in Parliament, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, decided to ban khat as a class C drug.

[2] Recently, a California court ordered the agrichemicals company, Bayer/Monsanto, to pay cancer-sufferer Dewayne Johnson damages of $289 million. “Roundup”, an organophosphate weedkiller, had been labelled as safe, despite the WHO warning it could cause cancer. The court ruled that the carcinogenic properties of Roundup had been suppressed by the company.