Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Letters to Home, Kenya in the 1890s

 My review of Kikuyu District by Paul Sullivan, Mpuki Na Nyota Publishers, Nairobi, 2000. 

So all you former Peace Corps Volunteers probably thought that your letters home to Mom and Dad that ended up in the basement would never again see the light of day.  Think again. Perhaps your literary ambitions can be accomplished.  Francis Hall’s were.  This month’s book Kikuyu District is an edited compilation of letters that Francis Hall, one of the first Europeans to live upcountry in Kenya, sent home between 1892 and 1902.  

This interesting book that costs over $100 in paper is now available for $2.99 in electronic form from Amazon.

Francis hall, known to friends as Frank, entered into the service of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) in 1892. The company – always abbreviated as Coy. in the letters – was tasked to support efforts to reach Uganda from the coast.  Its upcountry agents, of whom Hall was one of the first, had the task of buying food and dragooning porters – hundreds were required - for the caravans passing through.   Central to this task was the necessity of keeping the peace among the tribes. Hall’s station at Fort Smith (present day Kikuyu) put him smack between the Masai and the Kikuyu who were in constant conflict.  To his credit Hall managed relations with indigenous Africans with some tact, understanding and even appreciation for their views.  But he could also be imperious and ruthless as were his more typical colleagues.

Via Hall’s letters readers can trace the evolution of the European presence in Kikuyu District.  From him alone plus those one or two Europeans transiting in caravans for Uganda, assistants were added, missionaries arrived (whom Hall derided as over financed, misguided problem makers), a few early settlers, and railroad construction personnel.  Hall’s letters are chatty. He uses lots of jargon appropriate to his time that requires some careful consideration by a modern reader as to what he means.  Hall held strong class prejudices and was unashamedly racist – as were all Europeans of his era. He employed today’s politically incorrect terminology when referring to blacks.  Many of the letters focus on the comings and goings of various Europeans and on infighting between upcountry personnel and Mombasa based bureaucrats.  Hall dwells on the looming possibility of the IBEAC being subsumed into government and the issue of whether he would be offered a position in the new Kenya administration.  When that happened he was included.

In addition to all his gossip Hall was gored by a rhino, bitten by a leopard, welcomed in odd ways to numerous Masai and Kikuyu palavers and councils.  He got engaged to a colleague’s sister and brought her out to Kenya as his bride in 1902.  At that point he was transferred to Machakos and then ordered to start an administrative center in Muranga, later named Fort Hall in his honor. There his story sadly ends.

I found this book fascinating.  It is not pretentious or elegant; rather it provides a candid glimpse into what Kenya was like for the first Europeans who lived there. It will make you want to edit your letters for publication.

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