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.

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