'We travelled to Nairobi a couple of times and stayed in the Kiltegan Fathers' house'

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'We travelled to Nairobi a couple of times and stayed in the Kiltegan Fathers' house'


Frank remembers teaching at a missionary school in Kenya.


Frank Gaynor


Trinity College Dublin




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Frank Gaynor

Is Part Of

Adolescence and Early Adulthood


Life Story

Spatial Coverage

Kenya, Africa

Temporal Coverage


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On day three Fr. Fintan arrived and brought me to the minor seminary at Matunda Catholic Mission, a couple of miles from Hoey's Bridge and 15 miles from Kitale. This area is part of the Eldoret Plateau, then known as the White Highlands. At roughly 2,000m above sea level it has an excellent climate. There was a good tarmac road all the way from Kitale to Nairobi. Matunda Mission and school were on a sisal estate of 14,000 acres (a neighbouring sisal estate occupied 35,000 acres). There were two miles of dirt road from the Mission to the main road. The minor seminary was a secondary school for boys who had shown some interest in Catholic parish activities and it was hoped that one day some of them would be ordained priests. Fr. Fintan was a man of action with a busy schedule. He was principal of the school and had a good teaching load. He was also parish priest and manager of a number of primary schools. His work around the mission was made that bit easier by the fact that he had a very good command of Swahili. He lost little time in presenting me with my teaching load, which was mainly English and maths. I had no previous teaching experience. The school aimed at preparing the boys for the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate (COSC) which was roughly equivalent to the British O Level. On the morning after my arrival at the school, by 8am I was sitting in a classroom, totally unprepared to teach anything, with 20 black faces in front of me. All I could see were 20 pairs of whitish eyes staring at me. The rest was a blur. When the word Mozambique popped up in my first English lesson I was lost for both pronunciation and knowledge. This alerted both me and them to how little I knew about the East coast of Africa. It is interesting to recall that the second lesson I found in the Longman's book we were following was How to Build a Kafir Hut. Gradually I moved on from seeing black faces and white eyes, and began to communicate with individuals who came from a number of different tribes and were both interesting and likeable. Without praising my teaching they let me know that they preferred my style to that of my predecessor who, they said, always positioned his substantial frame between the class and what he had written on the chalkboard. I taught maths to Form 4 and enjoyed that very much. At 22, I was the youngest person in the classroom. Discipline was never a problem. For my students English was at best a third language. Each of them had at least one tribal language as well as Swahili. When reading their English essays I never seemed to get past the chore of restructuring sentences. From the recommended list of books I chose The Old Man and the Sea because it was a relatively short book. I soon regretted my choice and never forgave Hemingway for all the technical fishing terms he packed into such a short space. I shared accommodation with Vincent and three or sometimes four priests. That worked out very well. Vincent tended to be away working on vehicles. The priests accepted me as one of their own. I enjoyed their company and I learned a lot from them. Soon after my arrival Fintan gave me the keys of a relatively new Ford Anglia and asked me to go to Kitale to collect teachers' salaries from the bank and do some shopping for the house. I had very little driving experience. On the first straight stretch of road I got a slight shock when I noticed that I was close to 80 miles per hour. Kitale was a clean busy town. It had garages, hardware shops, a hotel and two sports clubs, catering for the 300 white farmers and their families in the area. It also had many Asian shops catering for the general population. When I arrived at the butcher's shop it was full of customers. The white butcher beckoned for me to come to the counter to be served. As he did so all his black customers withdrew, leaving a clear passage for me to walk forward and be served. There was some talk about starting a boxing club for the boys at Matunda. I went into an Asian store to enquire about boxing gloves. The asking price was 300 shillings. As I tried to make it clear that I was only enquiring the asking price came down and down. I bought the gloves for 60 shillings. That experience left me confused as to how to go about paying a reasonable price for anything. I was used to shopping in Mullingar where the asking price was the selling price. During my first five months most of my travel away from the school was with Vincent. Vincent had a girlfriend in Dublin. Most days he drove to the local post office in the hope of receiving a reassuring letter from her. When I opened the little steel door on Box 28 and found a letter from my mother inside, which happened about once every three weeks, I marvelled at the wonders of this great communication system. At weekends we regularly travelled together to the cinemas in Kitale and Eldoret. Frequently on our way to Eldoret we would see a herd of about 40 giraffe near the main road. One night in January 1964 as we left Eldoret after being at the cinema we were stopped at a roadblock by men in uniform. Within seconds there were guns pointing at us through the windscreen and the side windows. We were greatly relieved when they proceeded to politely ask us a few basic questions, told us that they were on the look - out for John Okello, and then allowed us to proceed. A week or two earlier John Okello had led a bloody revolt on the island of Zanzibar. On Sundays we sometimes drove over 50 miles, half of it on difficult dirt roads, to St Patrick's, Iten, to play football with the Irish Patrician Brothers there and some priests. This school later became famous for the number of Olympic medal winners that received their secondary education there. Vincent fancied himself as a driver. One Sunday, as we headed for Iten at high speed, we had a lucky escape at a railway level crossing. At one stage we were sharing the track with a moving train. Fortunately there were no injuries and we soon had the car back on the road. I recall one evening, soon after my arrival, as we were driving in Eldoret two girls at a street corner waved at us. I waved back and they smiled. I said 'They must know us'. Vincent said 'Not necessarily; they are just hoping that we will pick them up'. I was still very innocent. We travelled to Nairobi a couple of times and stayed in the Kiltegan Fathers house. I liked Nairobi. It was relatively small. It had an impressive network of roads and roundabouts, and it was very safe. I remember leaving a city - centre bar at 2am and walking for 20 minutes or so in comfort to where our car was parked. On Saturday mornings I loved to sit at the Thorn Tree, outside the New Stanley Hotel, and watch the world go by - a good mix of Africans, Asians and Europeans. A drive to the airport was considered a treat, and a visit to the local Game Reserve was always rewarding. In 1964 a convoy of Afrikaner farmers were preparing to leave Eldoret and travel overland to Johannesburg. They approached Vincent to see if he would travel with them and help repair their vehicles along the way. Vincent discussed the offer with me. He was tempted to join the convoy but only if I travelled with him. We tossed the idea around for a few days and then decided not to go. One evening I went with Fintan to visit a neighbouring farmer in the hope of establishing a source of maize for the school. At the farmhouse one of the servants directed us to the sitting room. As we sat there in considerable comfort the owner of the farm, a lady, entered the room through a large open window, accompanied by two big dogs. She was wearing jodhpurs and smoking a pipe. She talked about some difficulty she was having with locals who were stealing cobs of maize during the night. The previous night she had gone out on horseback with a gun and fired a few shots where she heard some noise in the maize. She was not sure whether she had hit anyone or not. Later she went along the perimeter of the maize but did not come across any bodies. About six years later she was brutally killed by an intruder. The police were assisted by dogs in hunting for the killer. When they found him they allowed the dogs to savage him more than was necessary. When he had recovered sufficiently from his wounds he was tried, sentenced and hanged. At another farmhouse we met an Irish couple, with Derry accents intact, who were retiring after 35 years in Kenya. The husband offered me his twelve - bore shotgun. After much correspondence and a couple of visits to the relevant office in Nairobi, I was issued with a gun licence. I kept the shotgun locked away in a safe in my bedroom. I loved getting up before sunrise and going out with my shotgun and walking for hours through the sisal, over the hills and around the dams. The mornings were cool, sometimes cold. There were not many people around. The rising smoke helped me identify where the houses were. Guinea fowl would rise noisily out of the grass and wild ducks would circle the dams. Occasionally some small antelopes would go skipping over the hills. I felt free and safe and experienced great happiness on those glorious mornings. It was just wonderful seeing the sun rising and feeling the first heat of the day. Fintan used to tease me about how little meat I brought back to the table. On reflection it seems extraordinary that I could wander around with my shotgun, feeling completely safe and totally relaxed, only a few years after the Mau Mau fighting had ended.


Irish Research Council for Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (IRCHSS)

Research Coordinator/P.I.

Dr Kathleen McTiernan (Trinity College Dublin)

Senior Research Associate

Dr Deirdre O'Donnell (Trinity College Dublin)


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