Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kenyan History and Mystery

 A review of The Ghosts of Happy Valley - Searching for the Lost World of Africa’s Infamous Aristocrats,  by Juliet Barnes, Aurum Press, London, 2013.


This is a difficult book to categorize. It is part history, part speculation, part gossip, part travelogue and part a glimpse into contemporary rural Kenya.   However, all of the parts do come together in a satisfactory fashion.   The author undertook to visit the colonial era houses of Kenya’s infamous Happy Valley set, both to see what has happened to the buildings, but also to see if an inquiry into places and memories of the times would shed light on the 1941 unsolved murder of Joss Hay, the Earl of Erroll.

Author Barnes was spurred on in her quest by Solomon Gitau, a conservationist from the area without whom entre into the decaying houses and to the lives - and the memories - of the people who live there today simply would not have been possible.  Barnes complimented her research through numerous contacts with European settlers and their descendants who shared reminiscences of the long ago times.

Barnes’ book focused on three epochs.  First the 1920s and 30s, the heyday of the drunken parties, orgies, partner swapping and such carrying on that gave Europeans in Kenya a scandalous reputation.  Idina Hay, her house at Slains, and Alice de Janze, hers at Wanjohi, were prominent femme fatales of those times.  This decadent group gave Kenyan settlers notoriety, but as people aged, died, divorced and remarried, their shenanigans faded away, especially after the murder of Hay and the intrusion of war.

The second epoch Barnes reveals in the book is that of post war Kenya , the era of prosperous farming - and non-scandalous social life - when the great estates of thousands of acres were carved up into still large farms for demobilized British soldiers. This era morphed into the Mau Mau years when the region under the Aberdare Forests was under siege by Kikuyu nationalists/terrorists.   

The third time frame is the current one where Kikuyu small holdings blanket the landscape.  Some of the old houses remain. They were  hard to find. Most were decayed, including Clouds, Idina’s second home. Some have become schools or clinics, but only one, Kipipiri, former residence of Sir John Ramsden, retained a semblance of its former grandeur.   However, the value of the contemporary epoch was the glimpse into the everyday lives of the current residents.  Life is hard scrabble; there is little work aside from subsistence farming or charcoal making.  The pristine environment of yore is only a memory.  Families are large, schools are poor and prospects limited.  Yet Ms. Barnes and her many visitors over the years were hospitably received.  Solomon helped locate elders who for the most part fondly recalled the denizens of Happy Valley.  Indeed those who remembered specific individuals were children or youngsters themselves in the 20s and 30s. The elders recalled with more clarity the Mau Mau years and their participation or not in events of those times.  

The author returns throughout to the problem of who killed Joss Hay.  His murder in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been the subject of many books and lots of theories.  One set of theories revolves around motives of jealousy or revenge in which at least a half dozen suspects could be guilty. The second theory is that he was assassinated by British agents on account of his Fascist views and danger to the war effort in east Africa.   Barnes assembles lots of information, but makes no conclusion.

 As a Peace Corps volunteer in the late sixties I lived in several old European homesteads while building water systems in western Kenya for the million acre settlement scheme.  Happy valley, the Wanjohi valley, the Ol Kalou salient and the Kinangop, areas that Barnes visited, were all part of settlement.  Certainly some of my Peace Corps colleagues probably stayed in houses she visited before they were turned over to Kenyan owners.  All this is to say that I wondered, but never knew, who built those edifices we inhabited and what their lives were like.  This book helps fill those gaps.

I found the portrait of contemporary Kenya edifying. Obviously, settlement as envisaged for the million acre scheme in the early sixties failed.  The idea was that African farmers endowed with fairly good sized plots of 40 acres or so would constitute a yeomanry - a rural middle class.  In the Aberdares area they would grow pyrethrum, wheat or potatoes and keep dairy cattle or sheep. They would become relatively prosperous.   Perhaps that was true for the first generation, but  even then many plot holders were absentee “big men”  who settled poor relations on their farms.  And after the loans were paid off either the legal entailments ceased or they were just ignored.  In any case today the settlement areas are no different from the rest of rural Kenya.  Plots have been subdivided time and again. They are barely viable for subsistence agriculture. The area is overcrowded, the land degrading, the forest disappearing and the long term prospects are, sadly, only more of the same. 

My editorializing aside, I did enjoy this book.  It is a bit disconnected at times as it jumps back and forth depending upon who is being interviewed or reported upon, but  the theme of houses and history against the backdrop of current times remains vibrant.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Kenyan Dreams Crushed

A review of Galana - Elephant, Game Domestication and Cattle on a Kenya Ranch by Martin Anderson, Stanford University Press,2013..

Galana ranch was a great swath of Kenya, over  2,500 square miles located adjacent to Tsavo East National Park in Coast Province.  Author Anderson led a team of American and  Kenyan investors in convincing Kenyan authorities in the late 1960s of the vast potential of the area for cattle and game harvesting - both for meat and as hunting trophies.   Consequently, the team was granted a long term lease and went to work. It was an enormous job to build the necessary infrastructure - roads, airstrips, water impoundments, wells, housing, etc. -   employ the right people and to make a go of ranching, game ranching, hunting and high end tourism in the theretofore pristine area.  Elephants roamed in vast numbers and lions preyed upon livestock.  Yet it was not the natural obstacles that ultimately derailed the venture, but misunderstandings, politics and corruption.   Although Galana appeared to be registering success and began returning a bit on investment by the mid-1970s, a new unchecked wave of poaching coupled with nasty allegations and false accusations led the central government finally to cancel the lease. 

Anderson’s book is the story of Galana - how it came to be, how physical obstacles were surmounted, how local herders were involved, how game ranching developed, how the hunting ban affected operations, how poaching threatened people and animals and ultimately how the whole  operation began to come apart on account of falsehoods and the greed of Kenyan politicians.  It is a sad story with some blame on the investor team for not having been able to make their case and doing the necessary ground work that might have avoided the demise of the project, but most of the blame rests on the failures of the Kenyan government, its high ranking civil servants and its politicians who deliberately sought to terminate the project in order, presumably, to hide their own involvement in poaching and to benefit from the spoils of the ranch.
Unfortunately for all concerned there were no spoils. The acreage has devolved into largely unproductive use

Utter Balderdash

A review of Rwanda - the new scramble for Africa by Robin Philpot.

 I rarely review books that I find inaccurate and absurd, but this one fits both adjectives.  Ostensibly it is a relook at events in Rwanda that led up to the genocide and some of what happened afterward, but from the beginning the theory is that the United States and other western powers, especially the U.K. and Belgium, plotted and conspired to replace the Habyarimana regime with the RPF and thus to render central Africa part of a greater Anglo-American sphere of influence.  Philpot bases this conclusion on the observation that the international community never responded forcefully enough to the invasion of Rwanda by Ugandan RPA mutineers.  He judged the lack of a stinging rebuke and action to reverse the situation proof that the U.S. sponsored and approved the invasion.  Secondly, he cited as proof of conspiracy the fact that Habyarimana was hamstrung and sidelined during the Arusha negotiations and afterwards by what he judged were western manipulations of Habyarimana plus endorsements of RPF objectives.  Thirdly, Philpot believed the fact that no credible international investigation was ever mounted into the assassination of presidents Habyarimana and Ntayarmira when their plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, proved collusion.  Further proof of conspiracy arose from the U.S. recalcitrance to provide for an adequate UN peace keeping operation both prior to April 1994 and afterwards when genocide was in full swing.

 I took particular umbrage from the assertions in the book that the United States was actively engaged in the Rwanda/Ugandan/ Burundian invasion of Zaire in 1996. I was the U.S. ambassador in Rwanda at that time and I know Philpot’s allegations are just not true.

Philpot sprinkled his book with quotations from Boutros Ghali, Faustin Twagiramungu and others who had axes to grind, and did so after the fact.  In addition to excoriating the United States, Philpot saved special venom for the Canadians involved in Rwandan issues, especially MG Romeo Dallaire and Louise Arbor, who became head of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.  Repeatedly calling Canada  a lackey of the U.S. Philpot took his countrymen to task for their actions regarding Rwanda, but also for not being sufficiently sympathetic to Quebecois sensitivities.  Of course, Philpot extrapolated from the African conspiracy he detailed to similar conspiracies regarding Syria, Libya and elsewhere.

In conclusion, the historical record is fairly clear about who did what and why.  To his discredit Philpot seized upon the what but invented his own why.  Sadly,  in the end Philpot’s conclusions are inherently racist  because of his basic premise that Africans were not competent enough to organize their own politics, fights, disagreements and wars, therefore the guiding hand must be external, i.e. American.  

I do not recommend that anyone read this book.