Past echoes in infamous Kenyan club

Once a month or so, Chaz puts on a jacket and tie and meets up with his old high school chums Anthony and Stuart at Nairobi's Muthaiga Country Club.

"It is all about misbehaving," proclaims Anthony, with a grin. "What we do sometimes," Stuart adds, "... is put butter pats on the carnations on the dinner table and then throw them up at the ceiling to see if they will stick."

Welcome to one of the last vestiges of colonialism, an African anachronism.

Built in 1913 among leafy ficus trees in a remote, exclusive part of Nairobi, the Muthaiga club - like similar clubs built about that time in Zimbabwe and South Africa - was conceived of as a place where white settlers could kick back, socialize, and talk about everything from cricket to Mother England.

Muthaiga, more than any of the other clubs in Kenya, became known as a center for white parties, intrigues, and outrageous behavior, ranging from silly pranks to wife-swapping. In its heyday during the 1930s, the club wrote James Fox in his novel "White Mischief," was "a place beyond the reach of society's official censure."

Today, the club is a study in the past trying to hold the present at bay.

Although blacks are now allowed to join, the membership remains predominantly white, and all the staff are black.

Like most of their fellow members, Chaz, Anthony, and Stuart are the sons of European settlers who arrived on the continent in the early part of the century. They are known here as "KCs," or Kenyan Cowboys. A privileged few among Kenya's largely impoverished population of 30 million, the 5,000 or so KCs are generally wealthier and better educated than most in the country. Many live a freewheeling sort of life with safaris on the weekends, trips to Europe in summer, and lots of evenings in between at the club.

Discrimination against Africans, like discrimination against Asians and Jews, officially ended in the late 1960s. Women, meanwhile, were allowed to become members in their own right two years ago - and today the club is more of a mix of the society around it - although certainly not a reflection.

"This used to be a bastion of white supremacy," says Tom, a young Kikuyu member, who like others interviewed for this article declined to give his full name.

"But as nationalism in Kenya got strong in the '60s and '70s, they had to let us in. They had no choice. That is when my father joined."

For up-and-coming Africans at the time, it was about making contacts and advancing themselves.

"When you're a businessman, you don't care if you are really welcome or not," notes Tom. "But I have always felt out of place here."

The club's past includes figures such as Hugh Cholmondeley, the third Baron of Delemare, who, with his upcountry settler friends, would amuse themselves with activities such as shooting live rounds into the stuffed lion displayed in the hallway, throwing gramophones out of ballroom windows, or setting dinner chairs in a row and then pushing them around the club, chugging and hooting like a train.

The Muthaiga club today is far more tame, but retains an air of all that it once was.

The bowling green and wine cellar look the same as they did half a century ago; the only paper available at tea time is The London Times; and conversations over afternoon bridge invariably have something to do with the weekend polo match, or the children's boarding school. Men must wear a jacket and tie and remove their hats for dinner; and women are not allowed in the men's bar.

The rulebook says firearms must never be left unattended, nor nannies left unpaid if they accompany children to the swimming pool.

Meanwhile, young rowdy KCs, like Chaz and his friends, are allowed to drum up whatever mischief they desire. "They [the staff] probably think we are bloody immature. But you better believe we are going to be charged for all the damage in our next dues," says Chaz.

Boniface, the African bartender working in front of a colorful poster advertising "An Evening of Elizabethan Music," does not say a word as Chaz continues his discourse.

As matters get progressively rowdier, Boniface adjusts his green bow tie, and rings for a fellow employee, who emerges from the billiards room in a red bow tie and matching jacket with a mop and silently wipes up the wood floor, careful to sidestep Greg and Anthony, who are busy mock wrestling and laughing hysterically on the worn rug.

Tom says his club membership is of increasingly less value to him. "I find it too colonial. It's passe. They are trying to recreate something that does not exist," he says, adding that he intends to end his membership this year. "I would rather take my kids somewhere where they will see other blacks besides the waiters. Otherwise they will be messed up," he says. "That club is for them, the whites. We have no business there."

Ian, another African member, sees it slightly differently. It is an elitist club, argues this successful businessman, but no longer racist.

"How can you reflect real society when you are an exclusive club?" Ian asks, adding that despite some raised eyebrows among his African friends, he feels comfortable at the club: "Just perfectly fine, and good in fact," he says.

The average African Kenyan apparently does not resent the club, or - if he or she is aware of its existence at all - is simply apathetic about it.

"I have never been there and am not really curious," says Susan Mavungo, who works at the bank at the small commercial center, a two-minute walk away from the club.

"I guess it's like Martha's Vineyard, where all the fancy folks in America are gallivanting. People on the street say, 'What does that have to do with me?' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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