This is a personal, opinionated and fascinating ramble amongst the great characters who settled in the land which became known as Kenya from about 1900 (it became a British colony only in 1895).
There must be at least 100 character portraits, virtually all white British, though Huxley writes with discriminating fondness about Jomo Kenyatta, next to whom she sat in university lectures in London. Virtually no other blacks are named (barring some loyal servants) and not a single Indian, though the latter were the backbone of the country's burgeoning retail and wholesale trades.
Though these memoirs are overwhelmingly about the white settlers, written in the 1980s - long after their hey-day during 1910-1950 - they are not mournful.
This is partly because of Huxley's robust approach to life, and because she recognised (though not at first) that Africa must belong to the native Africans. It is also because of the zest with which she writes about the tough, unconventional and uncompromising farmers and officials who first tried to tame and mould this part of Africa - with a refreshing lack of apologetics. Of course, Elspeth Huxley was herself one of these (though her career was as a journalist and writer), descended from Jos and Nellie Grant, who arrived in Kenya to start a farm in 1912 - they never succeeded convincingly, but they had a free and colourful life when they weren't struggling (which was a fair amount of the time).
A long series of vivid vignettes and anecdotes are convincingly held together by the descriptive power of Huxley's writing and the thread of her life story. The excitements of Happy Valley bounce in and out of the narrative, but largely Huxley writes about those who did things, built up farms, tried new ideas and patrolled remote stretches of the country - rather the hedonistic clique who gave Kenya its glamorous 'bad' name in the 1920s and 1930s. Which is not to say that the vivid people who are brought to life by Huxley did not readily discard husbands or wives on a sensibly pragmatic and frequent basis.
They have gone now, the aristocratic and middle class white settlers and administrators of Kenya. By the 1930s there were about 40,000 whites, 30,000 Indians and 3 million black Kenyans. Many farms were established in the north where there were no native villages. Nevertheless, many of the largest farms did involve the forcible relocation or fencing in of the ancient inhabitants of the land, notably some Kikuyu.
For black Kenyans, British rule brought protection from Somali encroachment, the suppression of terror-inducing bad witchcraft, the cessation of small scale cattle raiding and feuding, the benefits of rudimentary Western medicine and the beginnings of modern education and training. But, for all their benevolent paternalism, the British would not countenance allowing the vote (in local government elections) to blacks or Indians, even within a restricted property franchise. The velvet glove came off the mailed fist when the British faced the brutally violent Kikuyu rebellion known as Mau Mau (1952-1956); the colonial masters killed some 12,000 militants. The movement was crushed, but independence still came, in 1964.
Huxley does not say much about the latter years of British rule, or the subsequent two decades of independence, but then she makes it clear from the start that this is an idiosyncratic and personal memoir (completing the trilogy which started with The Flame Trees of Thika).
She wears her learning (and emotions) lightly, but the book is deeply researched and well referenced. As a partial but arresting portrait of a byegone era of relatively benign colonialism, I do recommend you read this.
marvelously written account of how colonialist settlers fared in East Africa. The author, Elspeth Huxley writes beautifully on the people and the times. a must read for anyone who has either lived or visited Kenya.
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