Down memory lane: When Sh17 fuel took one from Nairobi to Namanga and back

Douglas Kiereini (bending) with his Yamaha 180cc in 1971. PHOTO | COURTESY
Douglas Kiereini (bending) with his Yamaha 180cc in 1971. PHOTO | COURTESY  

During my days in secondary school in the 1960s and early 70s, it was quite easy to get a job in what was known as “vacational employment”. This would take place during the school holidays for those in high school and university, the idea being to groom students for eventual permanent employment when they finished their studies.

Kenya had just gained independence in 1963 and many multinational and local corporates were eager to employ Africans to reflect the face of the new dispensation and the official government policy of Kenyanising employment.

In fact, I remember multinationals like Shell, Caltex and Brooke Bond coming to Alliance High School seeking the best students, many of whom secured permanent jobs on the basis of their “mock” examination results even before they actually sat the final exam at “O” or “A” levels.

When I finished my “O” levels in 1971, I got a vacational job at Sapa Chemical Industries Ltd, an agro-chemical supplier. Their offices were situated on London Road (today’s Lusaka Road) towards the City Stadium and had adjoining godowns served by a railway siding.

I worked as a formulation clerk after being quickly promoted from a tally clerk on account of my apparent mathematical skills.

It was Friday December 10, 1971, just before the Jamhuri Day holiday and since December 12 fell on a Sunday, Monday the 13th was a public holiday, so this would be a long weekend. My fellow bikers decided to take advantage of the long weekend to visit a friend in Namanga and they invited me along.

My salary at the time was the princely sum of Sh300 per month and as you can imagine there was not much of it left by the 10th of the month. I was determined to ride my Yamaha 180cc twin motorcycle to Namanga with my friends who had much bigger bikes: Triumph, BSA, and Matchless ranging from 350cc to 650cc in various trims.

My friend Hanif rode a Triumph 650 kitted out “Easy Rider” Peter Fonda style, ape hanger bars, extended and steeply raked front forks, tear drop tank ala “stripes and star spangled banner”, low seat, backrest and sissy bar!

Bushy eyebrows, sunken, emotionless eyes, deeply furrowed forehead, thick horn-rimmed glasses, plastic, almost malevolent smile; this is the man I had to convince to grant me a salary advance of Sh40. He was a third generation Kenyan Indian whose family had come to work on the railway in the late 1890s.

After much reflection, I dared to approach Mr Venkataraman, the chief accountant at Sapa Chemical Industries. Mr Venkat, as we called him, always wore the same grey suit and a sleeveless black button-up sweater inside his jacket. He was a smoker and his clothes and office reeked of stale tobacco.

I presented myself in his office and after what felt like the Spanish Inquisition, he reluctantly wrote out a petty cash voucher for Sh40, which he required me to sign.

He then reached over to his antiquated safe, turned the combination dial and, alas, produced two crisp Sh20 notes, which he handed to me with the caution “don’t make this a habit.”

I dared not show my glee in his face for he might have just changed his mind; he enjoyed this feeling of power and control over people. As soon as I got out of his office I kissed the two bank notes and knew I was headed for a fun weekend. I filled my tank with fuel worth Sh10 that evening.

Saturday morning, 7am and eight of us met outside the New Stanley Hotel, which was one of our favourite rendezvous where, believe it or not, there was a parking lot specifically reserved for motorcycles with space for about eight bikes. We had a wonderful ride down to Namanga via Kajiado, breathtaking scenery, winding roads, wildlife et al! The road was quite new then and there was very little in the way of vehicular traffic.

Our host was very generous, slaughtering two goats for us in the course of the weekend. We camped out under the stars and all we had to pay for was the beer at Sh2.20 per 750ml bottle.

We made two excursions across the border to Tanzania under the cover of darkness and got up to a bit of mischief. We were quite the life of the party particularly with our fancy and noisy motorbikes.

Monday 13th December and it was time to say goodbye and head back to Nairobi. I topped up my tank with fuel worth Sh7 and we were off.

Back to work on Tuesday and I still had Sh5 from my salary advance, which was enough to last me the rest of the week. Lunch in Industrial Area ranged between 10 cents to 50 cents, depending on where you ate!

How times have changed!