How a couple’s tenacity saw the birth of Kabete vet school

Dr Igor Mann l
Dr Igor Mann looking on during the signing of a funding agreement for the Animal Health and Industries Training Institute (AHITI) at Kabete. He was the founder and first director of the institute. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

While researching for a forthcoming article I came across the name of Dr Igor Mann again and I thought it was time to tell the story of the Mann family and their immense contribution to Kenya.

Born of Jewish immigrant parents in 1906 in Poland, Igor Mann trained in veterinary medicine and by the early 1930s he had set up a successful practice in Warsaw. Unfortunately, when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, igniting the start of World War II, Igor was forced to flee to Romania where he established a new clinic in Bucharest.

It was while there that Igor met the svelte and charming young Erica (born 1917 in Vienna) who had just completed her studies in architecture at École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Immediately besotted, the two were married within weeks after their first meeting.

As the war intensified, six months later in 1940, they were forced to flee Bucharest, embarking on an epic two-year journey that would see them cover 7,000 miles in search of a new home away from the persecution that was going on in Europe.

Travelling under aliases, they were ferried by boat across the Danube one night, then through Bulgaria and across the Caspian Sea to Turkey. Sailing to Cyprus, where like many boat people of more recent times, they were rejected, their boat continued to Palestine. After spending a year in Palestine and Egypt, where Igor wrote a book about ancient temple cats, the couple boarded a British ship bound for South Africa, a popular destination for Jews at the time.


Refugee camp

At some point before reaching South Africa, Igor was taken seriously ill and the couple were offloaded onto the mainland to receive treatment. When he had recovered sufficiently, they made the long journey northwards taking them to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) where they were held in a refugee camp for a year.

Finally, Igor was flown to Kenya and installed in a mud hut in Athi River where he was given three months to “prove himself useful to the British Crown” or else! He made himself indispensable immediately, and in September 1942, Erica was allowed to join him.

Erica always longed to come to Africa and was equally at home getting her hands dirty as she was reading esoteric philosophy.

By a stroke of good luck and because of Erica’s knowledge of English, Igor secured a job as a meat inspector at Liebig’s Canning Factory (later Kenya Meat Commission) who were supplying corned beef to the British Army in Burma and North Africa.

Igor took an interest in diseases that were transmitted from animals to humans and this was to become his focus for the future. While he inspected carcasses, Erica assisted him in the laboratory.

Soon thereafter, the colonial administration set up a town planning department in Nairobi and Erica got a job as a planner. She designed early African housing estates such as Jericho and Ofafa. Although the British authorities were reluctant to accept her qualifications, she proved to be an excellent planner and became the senior planning and development officer for many projects including the masterplan for Nairobi in 1948.

Prefabricated huts

The offices of the town planning department were in prefabricated huts near the Central Police Station and Erica would hitch a lift at 5 am each morning from milk and sand trucks at Athi River to get to work in Nairobi and catch the evening train back home.

In 1952, Igor found work with the Department of Veterinary Services in Kabete and the family moved to Nairobi.

Erica and Igor fought their way through the discriminatory British system which often referred to them as “bloody foreigners”. Having suffered so much themselves they would not tolerate any form of discrimination. Afternoon tea at “The Mann’s” became an institution and apart from professional colleagues, artists and actors, young Kenyan politicians like Tom Mboya felt at home there.

Erica took a deep interest in traditional African house designs, repudiating any idea that they were “primitive” writing and lecturing on the subject. She kept in touch with the ideas of architects and thinkers across the world and promoted the work of “ecological” and innovative architects in the magazines she founded: Build Kenya and Plan East Africa.

In 1952, Erica started planning work on the municipality of Mombasa and the coast province, moving to central province in 1962 and North-Eastern in 1972.

After independence in 1963, Erica and Igor were happy to work with the new African government. Later that year Igor was ironically awarded an MBE by the British government for “services to the Crown”.

In 1965, Igor founded the Animal Health and Industries Training Institute (AHITI) at Kabete, becoming its first director.

Award winner

After retiring from AHITI in 1973, he worked as a consultant for World Health Organisation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation as global co-ordinator of research into tropical diseases transmitted from animal to man and became a UNDP global award winner.

In 1972, Erica founded the Council for Human Ecology an NGO for empowerment of women and environmental protection.

Igor Mann died in 1986 and his ashes were scattered over the ornamental map of Africa at AHITI.

Just before her death in 2006, Erica Mann was honoured with the title of Architect Laureate of Kenya.

Igor and Erica remind us that we can turn around a desperate situation in a hostile environment by sheer hard work and determination. Their contribution to Kenya during both the colonial and independence periods is immeasurable.