Kenya is a fascinating country. In some ways it is a young country having only gained its independence from Britain in the 1960s. Yet is is also at the heart of a region to which we may all owe our origins. In that respect it is the most ancient of places.
Jane Bwye's Breath of Africa is quintessentially a novel of place and time, set in Kenya from the 1950s, when there was a vicious rebellion against British rule and tracing the lives of two young women as they grow up and face a range of personal challenges and setbacks as they and the country that has shaped their young lives come of age.
Although BREATH OF AFRICA is a historical novel it feels very young. The story commences with the two girls breaking out of their school at night to go on a wild horse ride, while Mau Mau rebels skulk in the darkness intending them harm.
Some of the issues feel very modern also. There is an inter-racial relationship and race features when Charles, a talented young black man finds himself struggling to cope with life at Oxford University. The nastier side of white settler prejudice are also captured. But not all the whites are like this. Some opt to stay when British rule ends because they love the country and feel themselves to be as much a part of it as the Africans.
Caroline is a stayer, literally. She abandons her chance to go to Oxford, marries, loses her husband, decides to make her future in the new Kenya.
But the new Kenya is not a place of innocence and forgiveness. Caroline's life becomes entangled in a Mau Mau curse which dogs her childhood friend. We read of malevolence and irrational yet powerful superstition. This is at odds with Caroline's strong Christianity and plain good sense.
So, too, we see how Charles' live evolves as he struggles to make his way in business. His country's independence does not guarantee his success.
It is also fascinating to read how the two white girls are not significantly better treated by the black men who have taken the places of the white settlers. So there are gender issues in play also which feel very modern.
The insights into the Mau Mau rebellion and the efforts made to suppress it are absolutely fascinating. So, too, is the fact that once the British have left the Kenyans proceed to fall out with one another and there is a coup against President Daniel arap Moi.
And all the while, running like a spine through BREATH OF AFRICA is the stupendous natural beauty of Kenya, with is wildlife, exotic birds, mountains, forests, plains and white beaches. This beauty seems more constant than the ways of the humans who act their lives out on its stage.
In some ways BREATH OF AFRICA is a sad story because, especially from the British perspective, it captures the end of a period of glory and power. But from an African perspective the sadness is that many of them suffered under British rule and died during their struggle for independence. And independence for many African countries, Kenya included, often left the way open for local corruption or dictatorship.
That said people struggle to make the best of their lives however politics go. Caroline is a classic case of a woman struggling to do her best, with the best of motives, often against the odds. She is a strong woman and perseveres. She triumphs over the evil and hatred behind the curse.
But in the end she concludes she can never really belong in the new Kenya. This conclusion seemed to mark the very end for the settler commitment to the country. Perhaps it had to be this way. That said she is unbowed and is not in any way beaten personally. Her integrity is intact. So, too, she finds consolation with someone whose job it was to try to ensure British rule continued. Such is life.
BREATH OF AFRICA kicks off at a gallop, literally, and ends thunderously, again literally. The ending is especially strong as Caroline finally sees the African curse die, literally.
The one constancy in the story is perhaps a set of pre-historic paintings in a secret cave, which seem to say to us that the comings and goings of more recent times are as nothing to the longer sweep of human history buried in the rocks and earth of Kenya.
BREATH OF AFRICA is lovingly written, intelligent, informative and moving. It is as much a story of a woman's struggle against prejudice and hardship. Caroline is a single parent. She is not a privileged woman in a big house. She struggles for money. Yes, the story has a very modern feel to it.