Having visited Kenya in September to visit the school nestled in the hills above Gilgil in the Rift Valley which was looking for volunteers to help the teachers with English, Maths, Sciences, Geography, R.E. and sports coaching, I wanted to know more about Kenya’s colonial history.
Rod of the Cranleigh Bookshop found half a dozen books for me to read and I delved into “The Flame Trees of Thika” first. Whilst it appears to be an autobiography, I think it is a novel but based very much on Elspeth Huxley’s experiences in Kenya as a child. The description of how the main characters took the newly laid out (1904?) train from Mombassa to Nairobi (which was only just starting to grow), and then proceeded on their arduous journey in ox-carts to Thika, the disappointment that the land was not quite as it had been described, the arrival of an assortment of new neighbours from all walks of life, the commitment to make something of the land… all give the reader a very clear picture of how brave and dedicated the early pioneers were. She also lovingly portrays the characteristics of the local tribes, their customs and the long-standing differences between them which are still present today.
I was lucky enough to stay on a farm near Thika with my hostess Tracey for a couple of nights. This farm was thriving with rows and rows of advocado trees heavily laden with ripe fruit and also there were huge polytunnels bristling with plants and flowers destined for the U.K. markets. A lake had been created by damming up a river and I was disappointed (and at the same time relieved) that the two hippos that usually reside there had gone off on walkabout. There were stories of them coming up into the garden of one of the lakeside houses and seriously damaging a car… A grass runway provided a landing strip for their plane which whilst sounding like a luxury, provides easy and vital access to remote areas of the country. I did come across another person with his own personal landing strip which he used for taking tourists on safaris and another person with his own crop spraying planes.
What was remarkable comparing Tracey’s Farm with the description of the land in the beginning of the 1900’s, is that so much progress has been made in just 100 years. It shows me that the Kenyan farmers are incredibly hard working and have had to adjust their crops as the coffee market has dwindled and they have been forced to look for new commodities to grow and export.
Elspeth has kept her description to just a few years and the story ends more or less in 1914 (I assume that it is the first world war) when war is announced and the men all go off to fight. There are a few references to fighting with Germans in Tanzania and deaths and you are left wondering what happened to the farms left to be managed by wives and friends.
A lovely read and a good insight, although brief, into the history of the colononization of Kenya.
For more details on the Kenya volunteering placements, visit http://www.volunteervacations.co.uk