Picking up on wisdom of the ages by sitting with the elders

Overheard statements come back to us long afterwards sometimes

In Summary

How I came to be known as “the tape recorder"

Image: Ozone

My mother used to tell me I was one of those children who — given the choice to play with his agemates or sit with the grown-ups as they chewed the fat — would pick the adult company over the children every time.

One of my aunts even christened me “the tape recorder”, as it seems I would repeat conversations heard at these sessions word for word at times, when it might not have been convenient for everyone present.

For instance, if she and my mother had been backbiting one of their other sisters, when the sibling in question showed up, I would go on to relate the whole of the earlier conversation, causing embarrassment all around. And people wonder how I ended up being a news reporter!


Some of the other adults thought I was clinging to my mother’s skirts for reassurance and safety, but as the years have unfolded, it would appear I was busy soaking in information that would eventually become useful to me and others.

This came back to me the other day during a conversation on Twitter. The topic of the musical My Fair Lady came up as one of my Twitter correspondents was trying to place the show in Kenyan culture.

Immediately, I responded with a story about people from my parent’s generation (they would be in their late 70s and 80s now), who were privileged enough in the early 1960s to get Kenya government scholarships to Britain and her dominions, such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Before going overseas to pursue their education, they would first be sent off to what may have been referred to as a foundation course at Jeanes School Kabete (later the Kenya Institute of Administration and now the Kenya School of Government).

At Jeanes, they would receive lessons to help them acclimatise to social and cultural conditions in Britain and the other countries. This included teaching given by a Henry Higgins-type figure on dining table etiquette.

If you know people from this generation who went through Jeanes, it would be instructive to note how they handle cutlery and see how they differ from their non-Jeanes peers. These are the lot whom, in the words of the Sting song about Quentin Crisp (look him up), “don’t drink coffee” but “take tea”.

The whole idea may sound preposterous today, but to understand it, you need to look through the eyes of the missionaries and colonial administrators who set up such courses and didn’t want their “colonial charges” to stand out unnecessarily, in an age when manners of this sort were deemed to be the height of “civilisation”.


I had assumed my interlocutors would be aware of the whole Jeanes School era. But after further discussion, I realised this was one of those things I had picked up from hanging out with the “wazee” as they reminisced about their “good old days”.

Later, after our chat, just to be sure I wasn’t talking nonsense or dealing with false memory, I looked up Jeanes School and discovered that they existed in Nyasaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, better known today as Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.