TREETOPS, Kenya, Jun 5 – Kenya lit a beacon to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee Monday in the very place where she learned she had become queen 60 years ago, as elephants ambled around a waterhole.
Representatives from the Kenyan government and the British High Commission lit a beacon at Treetops resort in central Kenya, one of the first of a series of lighting ceremonies that took place in Commonwealth countries.
One bull elephant eyed the beacon close to his water hole malevolently right up until the start of the ceremony, circling around it as a saxophonist entertained guests during dinner.
Sixty years ago to the day, the then Princess Elizabeth climbed the steps into what was then a real treehouse and came down the next day as queen, having received a cable that her father was dead.
“Kenya is a very important member of the Commonwealth and obviously the Queen was here 60 years ago when she got news of her father’s death. It’s very poignant that we are here this evening to mark that event,” John Bradshaw, a British High Commission spokesman attending the ceremony, told AFP.
“It was a coincidence that we’re here this evening,” said a tourist from the US state of Ohio, travelling with his wife and son to celebrate the son’s high school graduation.
Nahashon Muriithi, remembers being thrilled when as a young man of 24 working as porter at Treetops, he got to carry the bags of the young princess.
“We carried her bags … she pulled out a counter and she seemed to be counting the elephants. There were 330 of them at the time,” the old man recalled with a smile, a fleece under his suit to keep off the evening chill.
“We were thrilled,” he said. “No one of her rank had ever come here.”
“She waved to us. She didn’t say a word, maybe because it was at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion,” he mused, briefly the centre of attention at the jubilee celebration.
At 84, his sight and hearing are fading but he regards himself as “jobless” rather than “retired.” He lives close by with his wife, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his daughter having died.
When the princess learned of her father’s demise, she showed little outward emotion, he said.
“She appeared indifferent. She showed no emotion. On leaving she waved goodbye to us,” he recounted.
When the then Treetops was burned to the ground by Mau Mau insurgents in 1954 Nahashon recounted, most of his friends had already been conscripted into the insurgency, a decade long war against colonial settlers.
The current Treetops lodge, a much larger affair than the 1952 version, but still a construction held together by tree trunks, stands metres away from its predecessor that was burned to the ground by the Mau Mau two years after the monarch’s visit.
It overlooks the same watering hole and salt lick as the earlier construction.
“I ran away from conscription. I was shot in the arm,” Muriithi said, showing a scar amid the wrinkles above his wrist.
While he, like his friends, wanted independence from Kenya’s colonial rulers, he disapproved of the violent methods employed by the insurgents.
When Elizabeth II returned in 1983 Muriithi had already left Treetops. A photograph in the lookout area shows the monarch talking to a uniformed park ranger.
“We were told she had asked if any of the staff members who had been there in 1952 were still there, but we only learned that later,” he said.
“I wonder if I will ever see her again,” he mused. “At the time we were age mates. If I’d been white, I’d have married her,” he chuckled.