The Books behind Leopard at the Door
“In the biggest, brownest, muddiest river in Africa…” The Enormous Crocodile waded into my four year old life with a terrifying snap of his jaws and a reckless disdain for morality as I knew it. He wasn’t just eating children because he was hungry. He was eating them because it was fun. And I was thrilled. So began a lifelong love of the wild spaces and wild creatures of Africa.
When I was twelve my father took me to East Africa on safari. We rode horses across the Mara in Kenya, camping at night under a sky glittering with stars, listening to the low grunts of a lion carry far across the plains. We galloped alongside herds of zebra, clouds blackening into storm – the grasslands lit up beneath to an iridescent gold, and I remember thinking – as my horse pounded under me – that there could never be anywhere in the world as beautiful as this. We chased ostrich, and – on a hot day – stripped the saddles off our sweat-soaked horses and pushed them deep into a lake, where hippos blew water into the sun-drenched air, until our horses’ hooves left the ground and it felt as though we were flying. I fell madly in love with the raw simplicity of the life, with all its danger and isolation.
It might have seemed the natural thing to write that passion into a novel, but it hasn’t always been easy to escape the stereotypes which dog any book about colonial East Africa. I knew I wanted to evoke the beauty of the landscape, and – uneasy though it made me – the romance of the settlers who first braved the wild to farm in remote corners of the rift valley, but I didn’t want to be sucked into yet another Happy Valley romp about white farmers living like aristocrats on land which was not their own. At University I had read as much post colonial theory as I could get my hands on. Heart of Darkness shed a new light on the Africa of my childhood – here were Europeans in spotless white suits, and Africans in chain gangs. The colonial vision was rotten at its core – Africa was not a place about which one could spin fantasies. I saw that there was a darker side to the European experience in Kenya which didn’t appear in the tourist brochures; something hidden and degenerate which Blixen and Hemmingway – with their white hunters and big game safaris – had omitted. If I was going to write something, it would have to be something real; a story which would explode the myths.
When I stumbled upon a suitcase containing documents and photographs from Kenya in the 1950s, one phrase leapt out at me: Mau Mau. I did some research and learnt that it was a political rebellion fuelled by the Kikuyu, who claimed they had lost their land to white settlers. Here was the unsettling reality which had been ironed out of the colonial narrative. I began to read widely around the period and learnt what life was like for black Kenyans living under British rule. A Grain of Wheat – Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s story of Kenya’s fight for independence – was a watershed moment for me. It remains one the most arresting and beautifully crafted novels I have read, and for the first time I was reading a book which wasn’t from an Imperial, European perspective. There were many others which followed; memoirs of Mau Mau detainees who had fought for their freedom; memoirs of whites living on isolated game farms, vulnerable to Mau Mau attacks; the work of the brilliant Gerald Hanley who wrote so well about fighting with East African soldiers in Burma, and the effect of the holocaust on the African imagination.
Slowly a story stirred itself into life. It was a story which would peel back the myths – the glamour and the gin slings – so that I could write about the real Kenya. It was a story which would contravene every unspoken rule of Colonial society, and bring together two people from profoundly different backgrounds – a Kikuyu man and the daughter of a white farmer. And it was a story which – though it had come about quite by chance – would embody my own uneasy response to a country which had stolen my heart.