I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in a rambling brick and wood house surrounded by ten acres, one acre of which was garden, the other nine were forest and wild bush and huge trees, with many small animal paths running through it, all leading down to the river. It was a child's paradise for exploration; impalas and gazelles and dik-dik were often startled out of the bushes late in the evening, and porcupines and warthog were regular visitors. My brother and I would spend hours being stealthy hunters in the forest, continually startled by sudden leaping buck or laughing monkeys.
At the bottom of the garden was a river that ran in and out of our garden, then on through the National Park. The river was a path for many wild animals. A crocodile wandered up to the house in the dark one morning and went to sleep by the ironing board. When our nanny finally spotted it, she had been ironing for about thirty minutes, and then she went to hang up the bath towels and nearly tripped over it. we had to call the park wardens to come and take it away. My father wanted his breakfast and my mother refused to cross the main courtyard to the kitchen because the beast would not move.
My most vivid animal memory of that time was the night I had been reading how Winnie the Pooh made the heffalump trap, then waking up to go to the bathroom late at night… And there it was! A Heffalump, a Heffalump was stuck between the huge stone pillars of the courtyard. I woke my older brother and together we crept up on it, in terrified excitement. It was a hippopotamus, which had been scratching itself on the rough brick of the gate pillars, and then had got itself stuck in the gateway! By sunrise it was exhausted, and very cross from trying to squeeze out from between the stone pillars. We had to call a team of wildlife rangers from the park to come and tug it free. This was a remarkably difficult task.
So I grew up in a country full of animals. Even when I was sent off to boarding school at seven years old, the school grounds were a haven for all sorts of wonderful beasts. We would coax huge fat tarantula-like spiders out of their holes by tickling them with bits of grass, and keep them in our desks as pets.
Once a huge troop of marauding baboons ventured across the hockey pitch, snarling and screaming. It was a truly terrifying sight, but in no time there was a counter attack from small boys armed with hockey sticks and stones, and the war of attack-and-retreat lasted much of the afternoon. Some of the baboons were larger, and taller, than the eight-year old boys.
Now the city has spread, and most of the bush is gone. But monkeys still invade the town gardens, and porcupines and mongooses make nocturnal raids on garden vegetables.
Recently we had the unnerving experience one evening of finding the mousetrap had disappeared altogether with a mouse in it. Supermouse?
Next we suddenly head the piano in the next-door room being played in the middle of the night, all by itself! It turned out that the keyboard was on a genet cat's nightly path into the kitchen. We watched the perfectly beautiful animal flowing like water, in through the window, across the piano keys, onto the floor, into the kitchen, up onto the table then over the shelves and countertops, completely unafraid, looking for more of those easy-to-catch-mice!
At 13 I went to Rugby School in England. Less animals. Snow for the first time. And ice, on which we had to play rugby. Aaargh. I had no idea the rest of the world could be that cold.
Then on to London University. where the study of foreign literature was the one school subject in which I found genuine pleasure. When I came home to Nairobi for the holidays I began to collect traditional African stories. There are many stories from the Lake Region where women turn into hyenas at night, and one-eyed ogres eat people, but the stories that appealed to me most were the animal stories. When my first attempts at short stories and radio plays met with success, I decided to be the next great African Writer. Writing however seldom pays the bills, and when office life made me restless, so I moved with my wife Marian to a family house on the coast, built by Denys Finch-Hatton, miles from anywhere. It was a piece of paradise, alive with the most exciting possibilities for adventure. The beach was a half-moon of white sand in a private forgotten bay. The only neighbor for miles was a snake-collector who milked the snakes for their venom. Basking sharks rolled and jumped in the giant swimming pool of a creek, and eerie happenings filled the nights.
Best of all were the secret tunnels, now mostly filled with sand, running from the beach under the cliffs to the extensive 14th century ruined village behind the house.
When Greedy Zebra was published in 1984, the Mwenye Hadithi (which simply means a story-teller in Swahili) series was born.
I began the animal stories primarily to showcase the pictures of the artist Adrienne Kennaway, whose vivid drawings are ideal for children of all ages
I also had a sneaking suspicion that African youth were being seduced by imported lifestyles, and the fashionable cult of animals uglified as cartoon creatures. There was less and less time for traditional stories, which would have originally been told round a celebratory evening fire. The telling of such a story was a great art. In the story, the foibles of village characters, thinly disguised as animals, would lead to a moral lesson.
European publishers unfailingly rejected the sort of African story where a hyena would have his bottom sewn up so he could gorge himself (and then explode all over an unsuspecting crow making the bird black and white forever). So In the best tradition of storytellers the world over, I borrowed bits from the old stories and wove them in with fresh threads of humor and my own motifs, and the Hadithi series was the result. Of all the books, the Hot Hippo is my favorite and the closest to a traditional Kenya story.
I still get very excited when the first copy of a new book I have written arrives in the post, and it seems extraordinary when letters arrive from children all over the globe who have enjoyed one of my stories enough to tell me about it. One of the best things about being a writer is that distance disappears, and the Hadithi stories continue to delight children world-wide.
I design and plant tropical landscapes for a living, but write whenever I can.