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Scion of White settler returns after 50 years to trace his roots

By Philip Mwakio | November 1st 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Neil and his partner at a Mombasa hotel this week.
           Neil and his partner at a Mombasa hotel this week.  [PHOTO: Maarufu Mohamed/STANDARD]

By Philip Mwakio

Almost every man alive aspires to trace his roots.

US President Barack Obama proved this hypothesis when he travelled thousands of kilometres when he was a law student and later as a senator to seek his ancestral roots in Kogelo, Siaya.

And for Neil John Perton Ruthven, who was born in Mombasa on January 7, 1959, coming back to Kenya to find his ‘roots’ is all he has yearned for all these years while growing up in his native England.

He left Kenya in the 1960s with the last of the White settler community in Mombasa follwing independence.

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Now a successful lawyer, he is visiting the land of his birth for the first time in half a century to rediscover events, places and people he can only remember faintly from his childhood.

Despite the overlapping years since the time Kenyans were at the height of fighting for independence and with modernity having taken its toll, Neil was able to pinpoint his original home – a grand compound where a one-storey building stands today along Nyerere Avenue just before the Likoni ferry crossing.

A globetrotter who has been to all the six continents, Neil left Kenya aged six after his parents, Stewart and Jean Young, wound up their stay here and headed for their native England.

His father (now deceased) worked for the now defunct Smith Mackenzie Shipping Company located near the entrance of the Port of Mombasa. Presently, the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) occupies the premises.

Well kept photographs

Neil, who has been holidaying at the Mombasa Serena Beach Resort with his life partner, Sally, says that piles of well kept photographs that were in his family’s custody helped him trace his movements during his holiday.

“My father died 10 years ago while my mother passed on in 2011. They kept all the pictures taken during our stay in this beautiful country neatly, including the negatives, exactly as they were,’” he told this writer at the scenic hotel’s beach front.

As he sipped his favourite beer, Tusker, Neil recalled the good old days and flushed out photographs of Mombasa in its prime.

Clean streets, iconic motor vehicles and neat buildings were the hallmarks of Mombasa then.

From the picturesque elephant tusks, the Likoni ferry, Treasury Square, Fort Jesus Museum and the Anglican Church of Kenya cathedral where Neil and his two brothers were baptised, to Mombasa port’s Berth 1 where cruise and cargo ships docked, and the marvellous chain ferry at the old Mtwapa bridge, the story captured in memorable pictures is fulfilling.

“I was my dad’s favourite and used to ride on his scooter going to school,” he recalled.

Neil remembers attending the then Mombasa European Primary School (now Aga Khan School, Mombasa) while growing up in Mombasa .

“We used to travel the length and breadth of the Kenyan coast and by then, most of the roads out of Mombasa were not tarmacked. It is quite impressive to drive out of Mombasa now with well-tarmacked roads everywhere,” he said.

Neil remembers the family trips in their Opel station wagon, which at one time they used to travel up towards Malindi and had to cross the Mtwapa chain ferry.

“Here, a group of men sat at the two ends pulling special ropes that were fixed onto a floating barge. Vehicles were ferried one at a time across the Mtwapa Creek waters. Watching the men pull the weighty barge to and fro was a sight to behold,” Neil says.

He remembered that in their England home, photographs  were kept in large envelopes; some smelled old, some were faded while others had stuck together.

Obvious  reasons

“I did not know many of the people in the photographs but I believe my parents did. My interest turned to looking for what was familiar to me and Mombasa for obvious reasons appeared at the top,” he said.

Neil said he had planned for this particular trip, which saw him travel first to Uganda and later Rwanda before making it to Mombasa out of savings from his job as a law consultant in North London where he lives and works.

“Photographs from my own early childhood days that were taken from family holidays will always form part of my cherished memories as I derive  immense pleasure from just looking at old shots  of myself, even as a small child playing on the beach, places of interest and relatives,” he said.

Neil, who wound up his three-and-a-half week tour of East Africa, heads next for Zanzibar, where his mother used to work.

“My trip there will include going to the church were she married my father, who used to work in Tanga on the Tanzanian mainland, before I return home to England,” he said.

Neil hopes that one day his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren will look through the family album and be curious enough to make the trip down the memory lane, as he did.

“They will not get that from anywhere else, not even a plastic memory stick,” he said. He hopes to return to Kenya in future for another experience.


White settler Neil John Perton Ruthven
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