When Rhodia Mann moved to Kitisuru 20 years ago, her house was said to be at the far end of Nairobi.
“There was even a wall at the end of our road that marked the edge of the city,” says the world-travelled jewellery maker, writer, former safari guide and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Kitisuru has changed a lot since then. She’s got neighbours now who live in mansions surrounded by high walls and electrified fences. The one thing that hasn’t changed are the trees that first attracted Rhodia to move to that area in the first place. ‘‘The most magnificent one is the giant Bombax,” she says. “I believe it’s the oldest one in Kenya. I’m told it’s well over a 100 years old,” she adds. Noting that the tree is not indigenous, Rhodia believes her Bombax probably came from India a long time ago.
“Most of the trees in my garden are exotic,” she admits, laughing that her trees are rather like herself.
Not that she sees herself in that light, but as she’s travelled to so many far corners of the earth in her lifetime, she’s frequently been described with that adjective. Certainly her Bauhinia tree is exotic, not indigenous.
Also known as the Hong Kong Orchid tree, Rhodia’s Bauhinia grows right outside her dining room window.
Its bright pink flowers have made it a favourite all over the world. But for Rhodia, one reason she loves it is because, like the bombax, it grows of its own accord.
“The Bauhinia is the one tree that I planted. Otherwise, I don’t pretend to be a gardener,” says the Kenya-born ethnographer who, over the years, has spent months at a time away from Nairobi.
She’s either been traveling up north to stay among the Samburu (where she’s been adopted and renamed Noongishu) or flying to places where she’s collected beads of all sizes, shapes, materials and ceremonial significance.
She’s written about Samburu in books like ‘Safari to the Stars: Secrets from Samburuland’, ‘Talk to the Stars”, “A Woman of Two Worlds” and “Ice Cream in Sololo” which is actually about her time researching the Borana people. And she’s also written about beads in her book ‘‘Ushanga: The Story of Beads in Africa”.
Rhodia has also made films about the Samburu, one of which will be shown September 1 at the International School of Kenya where she recently established a Museum of Samburu Culture in a corner of the school’s library. The documentary film entitled ‘Butterfly People: the Samburu of Northern Kenya’ was scripted, produced and directed by Rhodia with assistance from Mohammed Amin’s film students.
But in spite of having spent so much of her life up north (where she first went with her father when she was just nine), Rhodia is grateful for the bright blue agapanthus plants that grow all over her front yard and even at her front gate.
“During the rainy season, everything in the yard turns blue. It’s beautiful!” she exclaims.
But so are the flowering Monstera Deliciosa plants that grows in a giant cluster on Rhodia’s front lawn. Nearly twice as tall as the diminutive mistress of the house, the monstera is originally from Central America.
But again, nobody knows how it arrived in Kitisuru, only that it is one more beautifying feature of Rhodia’s front yard.
So while Rhodia’s also got mats of Kikuyu grass in her yard, it’s the trees that give her end of Kitisuru the natural elegance that’s most memorable.
But if someone hasn’t been impressed as yet with all the plants and trees that grow gracefully in Rhodia’s yard, one finally needs to take a left turn as you walk off the veranda towards the Bombax. In the distance, at the far end of her land is a monster mango tree, the biggest one that I have ever seen. It doesn’t quite rival the Bombax in size. Nonetheless, it’s a monument to nature. It’s also exotic, originally coming from India and Myanmar (formerly Burma).