A Nairobi farmhouse with a Hollywood past

Friday February 10 2012

Sonia Ryrie outside the picture perfect farmhouse as it is today. Picture: By a Correspondent

Winding away from a well-traveled Nairobi avenue along an unpromising potholed cattle-track called Farmhouse Road, one travels uphill to well… the farmhouse.

A perfect stage-set for “imperial nostalgia” theatre, it is jokingly described by the indefatigable Sonia Ryrie, its current owner, as colonial baronial. Over the years it has been used in gripping true-life as well as scripted dramas on upper-class life in the city. The celebrity house as target of Hollywood blockbusters saw its last significant role in The Constant Gardener. One can easily see why.

The farmhouse is an enchanting Victorian-Edwardian plum-cake; at age 90 its elegant facade and handsome white-pillared veranda still sitting pretty between two well-proportioned bay windows of hand-hewn Nairobi bluestone. Furry, flowering trees slope gradually earthward in a feast of resplendent visuals. Missing only are the straight-backed men and women on horseback galloping through treed acres of coffee in lines of undulating green covering the landscape for as far as the eye can see.

If only stones could speak!

A handsome young British Army officer stationed in India was as were so many of his class and proclivity drawn to Kenya, already-renowned for its spectacular herds of game and even wilder women.

Major Andrew Anderson, later nicknamed Mguu, (“lame-leg”) was a Big Game Hunter who came to bag a trophy elephant or two; an atrocious crime committed against defenseless animals! By l910 on safari in British Somaliland, Anderson was mauled by a lion.


Out of nowhere, so the story goes, some gentlemen Somalis came to the rescue, supplying a medical dresser to stanch his wounds and a camel for the long journey to the coast. Travel by slow-moving dhow to the British Army base in Aden followed by a sea-voyage all the way to a military hospital in Britain led miraculously — thanks to the quick-thinking Somalis — to his leg being saved.
Having fallen in love with Nairobi, after World War I, Mguu returned, in l918-9 building the farmhouse; planting its 150 acres in coffee and organising a dairy. A magnet for the titled and powerful, in the l920s the home drew among others, the Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor who abdicated his throne for scandalous American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

In l963 young raven-haired Sonia, a Princess Margaret look-alike and her husband Brian Ryrie, a dashing, polo-playing Viking from Scotland bought the place at a throwaway price as many settlers, fearing the future under Jomo Kenyatta were selling out and departing in droves. Sonia, no fading wallflower, already had a few Hollywood blockbusters under her belt.

Despite British Kenya’s declared state of Emergency, amazingly the filming c. l953 of Mogambo (a fictitious, African-sounding country) with its legendary cast took place on schedule. Against a hilariously-outdated Africa of Western lore, a love triangle anchored the plot with statuesque Sonia, a stand in for no less than Ava Gardner. Then considered the most glamorous femme fatale in the industry, Gardner rivaled only blond ice-queen Grace Kelly also in the film.

With Clark Gable, heart-pounding even in shorts, having seduced Grace Kelly or vice versa, a tempestuous, real-life love affair paralleling the movie version had also taken off. At Christmas time Frank Sinatra arrived to be with then wife Ava. He being Frank Sinatra and it being Christmas, he delighted everyone on the set with a live performance. In Mogambo it was Sonia who in the famous last scene at Lake Naivasha ran back to shore choosing Gable over eternal unhappiness; Ava “fearing leeches.” Who wouldn’t?
Decades later Sonia readied the farmhouse for its role in The Constant Gardener, a memorable scene between Ralph Fiennes’ character as sleuthing diplomat and his political-activist wife played by Rachel Weisz taking place right in her bedroom. False walls were built and rain machines installed for instant replications of Nairobi’s dramatic, thundering downpours.

Also in the cast were Nairobi’s own celebrated John Sibi-Okumu, the late Sidede Onyulo, Mumbi Kaigwa and Packson Ngugi. A constant flow of Nairobi notables, all friends of Sonia including noted photographer Miriella Ricciardi whose famous images grace the walls and daring Garbo-esque pilot Beryl Markham were frequent visitors.

Charity work

With the old farmhouse “a protective cloak,” Sonia, now 85, devotes her time to reading and charities for “only very deserving causes.” With the house-cum-library heaving with bookshelves containing Africana, she prefers to commune with writers rather than indulge in small talk. Year after year the house provides the venue for fund-raising lunches in aid of East African Women’s League’ (EAWL) projects. Without the embarrassing excess of oversized checks publicly presented, this low-key, increasingly multi-ethnic group donates large sums to those in need; underserved women and children in and around Nairobi the usual recipients of EAWL’s quiet largesse.

As only one among many memoirs that might have been written on a significant Nairobi landmark, it reflects the city’s rich building heritage as well as pointing out the little-explored area of housing as an integral part of the city’s living documentary record. If not carefully preserved however, what is left of this unique archival source will be gone; razed as rapacious developers — wrecking balls in full swing — obliterate whatever remains. Without visionary planning, a grossly disfigured, over-built city of anonymous apartment complexes, shopping malls and parking lots lost in a concrete sea of road works is our fate; Nairobi rapidly becoming indistinguishable from Singapore, Shanghai, Syracuse and hundreds of other urban conurbations littering the earth’s surface.