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Daily Nation : February 16th 2014
SUNDAY NATION Sunday February 16, 2014 Nairobi, one block at a time feature Lifestyle 5 A photo of the Nairobi railway station in 1916. Abraham Block took a train from Mombasa to Nairobi. Abraham owned The Stanely Hotel, which he bought from its original owner. He also owned several other hotels in Nairobi and Rift Valley. Inset: The cover of the new book, Abraham’s People, by Jane Barsby. procure them. But he was a man who had learned to extract whatever he wanted from his surroundings. So he borrowed machetes from a shop- keeper, engaged a Mr R.A. da Souza to sew the mattress covers, hired unemployed Africans who used to hang around his friend Tommy’s hotel to cut the grass that grew along the railway line, stuffed the mattresses, sewed up the holes and delivered them to the Stanley. And that business deal probably established an association with the hotel’s owner, which eventually led to her selling the New Stanley Hotel to Abraham when she retired. On another occasion, two acquaintances wished to import the fabled Ankole cattle from Uganda. Abraham risked it and travelled to Uganda. He came back with 200 of the long-horned cattle after an adventurous but treacherous trek. From this venture, he made a tidy profit. This was in 1908 Prior to the Uganda venture, Abraham had started trading in cattle, which he PHOTOS | COURTESY bought from the Maasai with the help of Lord Delamere. It is this project that gave birth to Victoria Butchery, Abraham’s first non-farm business in Nairobi. He would later be involved in selling milk after the First World war. He also sold furniture; supplied the needs of the big-game hunting and safari teams that brought him into proximity with celebrated Hollywood stars; ventured into real estate, tourism and the hotel industry. All this culminated in “Abraham’s people” – the extended family – being founders and shareholders in major businesses. Abraham’s name is associated with companies such as the Block Hotels which spread to Lesotho, East Africa Industries, and Block Estates. In later years, his companies also managed Nyali Beach Hotel, Lake Baringo Hotel, Lake Naivasha Country Club, Keekorok Lodge, Samburu Lodge, Outspan and Treetops hotels. His business interests Apart from the hotels, Block Estates was a major landowner around Nairobi and the Rift Valley. Afro-Swiss Engineering and Business Machines Limited was within his stable. Some of the businesses may have changed hands over the years but they remain an everlasting legacy of Abraham’s determination. The author describes Abraham’s busi- ness acumen in the post-First World War period thus: “From some, Abraham would acquire information; to others he would impart it. From some, he would buy; to some he would sell. No deal was beneath his notice, no commodity beyond his scope. No effort was too great; no wait too long. If money was to be made, ALB could smell it, and if a deal were to be had, he would forge it.” Yet the beginnings were tough. He Abraham with his mother Ettel and younger sister Lily in 1890. PHOTO | COURTESY bought a 640-acre farm in Kiambu, Njuna Farm, and began work on it alone. However, the backbreaking work didn’t yield much in the first year. The author describes it as a “lonely and dispiriting existence. Of his neighbours, few ever vis- was his third choice love – the first, Rosie Daniels, preferred the more assuring life in Leeds, and the second — Sarah’s younger sister, Rachel — couldn’t be married until Sarah got a husband. Love and friendship would thrive later in life, underwriting a successful marital and business partnership. He is cast as deferring to her all the time, preferring to respond to her decisions about furnishing the house, selection of schools for the children, choice of partners and even investment decisions. However, Sarah would never have imag- ined the hardships of Nairobi life early in her marriage. When she arrived in Kenya she was taken to Abraham’s first farm and home in Kiambu. To add to the difficulties was a disapproving mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Family life And when Rita, her first daughter, de- ited and Abraham was left with nothing to do but collect odd nails and straighten them for future use, and whittle bits of wood into spoon. He lived on potatoes and beans; and he began to wonder if he had made a serious mistake of coming to Kenya.” Indeed Abraham eventually was about to leave the farm and go back to South Africa after “the price of potatoes collapsed” and “nobody wanted to buy” his peas. It is Lord Delamere who convinced him otherwise and loaned him oxen for ploughing and dairy cows. Abraham worked hard, made a profit and repaid his debts. His fortunes improved and in 1908 he invited his father and sister, then living in Johannesburg, to join him. With the extra hands on the farm, Abraham became fully involved in stock trading – buying cattle from the Maasai and selling them. Later this business nearly ruined him when he imported a herd of infected cows. Abraham now deemed himself a rich man but there were too few marriageable women around. In 1914 he married Sarah, an “imported” woman, who was a sister to his friend David Tulipman. But she veloped jaundice, Sarah had to travel all the way to Kampala, Uganda, where the nearest paediatrician was based. All this time the husband was away fighting the Germans on the border between Kenya and Tanganyika. Sarah and Abraham had four children: Rita was born in 1915, Jack in 1916, Eddie in 1919 and Ruth in 1927. To the end of his life, Abraham re- mained steadfast in his convictions that “time was money”, believed in Horace’s urging — “labour diligently to increase your property”— and was committed to the welfare of his family for whom he built a home, chose good schools and colleges, and helped in getting wives and husbands. Abraham retired from his businesses in 1958, leaving them in the able hands of his sons. He died on April 18, 1965. Sarah outlived him, dying on Christmas eve of 1980, having spent her last years in a cottage in Norfolk Hotel. When Abraham’s People is launched on February 26 at the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, it will be another step in an enduring personal journey that echoes Kenya’s history in the last century. Abraham’s People can be found at Text Book Centre, Book Stop, Banana Box, The Souk (Karen) and Safari Kit (Fairview Hotel).
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