Jenga House. Laikipia. Kenya.
January 2000: My husband, two children (then 8 & 11) and I were the first tenants of a spanking new 4 bedroom house built for visiting senior scientists at the 50,000 acre Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia, Kenya. As I had donated funds from Jenga royalties to have the house built and furnished, the then MRC’s director, Dr Nick Georgiadis (who designed and supervised the building of the house) dubbed it – Jenga House – and the name stuck. Though it transpires now that few people here know the origin of the house’s name.
March 2010: Ten years later, and my husband and I, without children (now 18 and 21, they are both at university in the UK) are back in Jenga House for the umpteenth time. And Festus Ihwagi, a GIS expert, a friend of many years, and a frequent visitor to our home when in Mpala, surprised me by telling me that he had often wondered, but had never asked, why the house was called Jenga. So, I told him that it was called after a game I had designed, which I had called Jenga because – and I assumed that he as a Swahili speaker would know – that the word is the imperative form of the verb kjenga, meaning ‘to build’ in Swahili. He laughed and said that this now made sense, but that he had puzzled over the name for years because the word JENGA in Kikuyu, his mother tongue, has an entirely different meaning. Jenga, he told me, is a dish made of boiled, roughly ground corn that is commonly served only on festive occasions – such as wedding feasts. And because of its association with celebrations and festivities, the word has taken on a metaphorical meaning within Kikuyu culture beyond the dish it names. So that people will say ‘I’m going to eat Jenga!’ or ‘Hey, man! Where’s the Jenga ?’ – to imply that they want to celebrate, or party.
Though not my intention at all, I’m thrilled to find that the word I chose to name my game has connotations of feasting and making merry. But I’m not sure Dr Georgiadis will be quite so thrilled to discover that, for the past ten years, this world-class institution of sober research and learning has been harbouring a house of fun!