In our kingdom, coffee beans and a buffalo skull

My First Home
Amy Ning for the Boston Globe

Daddy was the landlord of the apartment complex where I grew up in Nairobi. Today, you’d call him the proprietor or the manager, but it doesn’t much matter which word you use, he was the ruler in our little kingdom and that made me and my younger brother the princess and prince.

Situated near the city center, our compound was a convenient location for businessmen, embassy employees, factory managers, hospital staff, and foreign aid personnel. Every few years, a family with one or two children would move in, but for the most part, my brother and I had to make do with each other as playmates — which was fine with us.

Inside our home the parquet floor shone, the brass handles on the windows gleamed, and the crisp smell of fresh ironing mingled with the aroma of home-baked cookies. Upstairs, my brother and I took turns hiding in the very top of the built-in cupboard and sliding through the bars on the bathroom window onto the roof of the servants’ quarters. Downstairs, Mummy and Daddy talked to the tenants: Itzik, an Israeli technician who had come to set up the first CAT scan machine in a Nairobi hospital. Mercedes, an independent octogenarian with thick glasses who ran a safari business. The Egyptian ambassador to Kenya who always gave us pistachios. Mr. Toh, an employee at the Thai Embassy who sat cross-legged on our couch to watch TV. The Contessa, a French countess who threw water at my brother and me. Barone, an Italian baron who had lost his fortune and drove a
Fiat 500 that was filled with old newspapers. My brother and I were expected to behave whenever any of these tenants wandered in through the back door.

But outdoors (ah, outdoors), here my brother and I reigned supreme. Our favorite haunt was behind the garage where Daddy stored all the spare furniture. Here we built a camp by rolling the discarded hot water tanks covered with peeling insulation plaster into a square. At the entrance, we stood the old buffalo skull, a discarded trophy of a long-forgotten tenant. Gray-black horns pierced by tens of empty honey-colored pupae shells arched above hollow eye sockets as big as my fist.

Further along was the shamba, a vegetable patch that Michael, the twelve-fingered gardener, hoed and watered. Two coffee bushes rose above the cabbages. My brother and I would wait for the white flowers to give way to blood-red berries and then pick open the thin peel and pull out the twin creamy-green coffee beans.

Some afternoons, if we were lucky, for a few shillings, we could buy a two-meter long stick of sugarcane from one of the vendors who occasionally ventured into the complex. Then we would climb onto the roof of Daddy’s garage and spend the next hour chewing on the sweet, woody fibers and spitting the tasteless chaff into a pile.

I often wonder how much my childhood sense of sovereignty contributed to the development of my self-confidence. I often wonder how much the wholesomeness and simplicity of my childhood molded me. But I never wonder about the significance of a warm childhood home. I’m simply grateful to have had it.

Rhona Lewis, a freelance writer, lives in Israel with her family. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at