About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
'What we are is God's gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.'
It was quite by chance that my ancestors came to settle in Kenya.
In the early 1900s my Great-Uncle Will was living a relatively prosperous life in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. His family - my great-grandmother was Will's sister - had left rural Scotland for Africa in the mid 1820s. A truly capable and resourceful man, Will had worked hard in difficult conditions, farming the land, raising a family and helping others around him to survive the effects of the Boer Wars. He was garrulous and charismatic, a twinkle in his eye, passionate about big game hunting, and from time to time could afford a ticket to Kenya on one of the early steamships to satiate his lust for the land and the animals. The great profusion of wildlife, the rolling grass plains - the storehouse of life itself - Kenya was where his heart seemed to soar, where he was transformed from the inside out.
It was during one of these hunting expeditions, in the spring of 1907, that Will befriended Sir Charles Eliot, Governor of the fledgling British colony of Kenya. The two men were drawn to each other: Will, a true pioneer, was the sort of man who made things happen, and Eliot, a true politician, was the sort of man who made other men offers to make things happen. Out in the bush one morning, Eliot put an intriguing proposition to my great-uncle: if he could bring in twenty families to Kenya, then the Government would allocate them free land on which to settle. Just that week, Eliot had received an order from the authorities back home to speed up the colony's development, to get on with expanding the single track beyond Nairobi and to get white settlers in to increase trade and the resources for the railway. The British Government had so far forked out around £5 million and they wanted to see some return, sooner rather than later.
The reason for Britain's involvement in East Africa was not actually Kenya itself - it was Uganda and the source of the Nile. The Government wanted to prevent the Germans or French jeopardizing access to the Suez Canal, as this was the British trade route to India, the jewel in the Imperial crown. Building the railway was a massive undertaking, and thousands of Sikh labourers from British India were shipped in to undertake its construction. The railway snaked its way through the diverse habitats of Kenya from the port town of Mombasa - through dense inhospitable scrubland leading on to open grassland plains, once the native Masai's best grazing land. Once the dominant tribe, their numbers had been depleted by smallpox during the late 1900s.
Great-Uncle Will was so smitten with the Kenyan bush, so captivated by the idea of actually living in this astonishing country, that he cut short his trip to return home, determined to recruit the families that Eliot required. He didn't need to look too far, as this branch of my family was full of prolific breeders. He himself had spawned seventeen children from his three wives, and they in turn had produced many others. Excited and alive to this opportunity, he did a good job persuading some of his immediate family to agree. Then he turned to his sister - my Great-Granny Aggett. She and her husband - and their not inconsiderable brood of eight children - were perfect targets. Things had not been going too well for Great-Grandpa Aggett. Having acquired a taste for alcohol and gambling, in cahoots with none other than the local bank manager, who saw to it that his mounting overdraft was conveniently overlooked, he was up to his eyes in debt. The family's precious old homestead and once prosperous farm in the Eastern Cape had been sold off and he was much chastened by the consequence of his addictions. Despite approaching sixty, he was keen to be rid of his tarnished reputation, to begin a new life. Will was offering him that lifeline and he rather gratefully signed up.
The Aggetts' eldest daughter, Ellen Margaret, had been widowed early on in her marriage. Left with two young sons, Stanley and Bryan, she had returned to live with my great-grandparents. Ellen was a feisty young woman, known for her fortitude and resourcefulness, and was more than willing to taste adventure. As it turns out, this decision was to have a direct effect on me: Ellen was my grandmother, and her seven-year-old son Bryan would eventually become my father.
Will was a marvellous storyteller, and his golden words conjured up the magnificence of Kenya, breathing life into his images of the land, the people and the wildlife. Quite simply, he saw Kenya as another Eden, the prospect of living there an invitation to paradise. In just a few months his powers of persuasion were enough to convince twenty families to want to up sticks from the Eastern Cape, to trek through the uncharted interior of Eastern Africa and begin life over. These were people descended from solid pioneering stock - stoical, adventurous, enamoured of Africa - the ability to uproot, survive and build new lives in their blood. They had listened to their parents' epic stories of crossing new lands and were somewhere hardwired to feel the desire to experience the challenges for themselves. I would love to be able to listen back down the years to what was discussed at Will's legendary planning meetings. To us, in these days of sophisticated travel when we can get almost anything we need anywhere in the world, an unimaginable amount of planning and thought had to go into the journey. Although the landing post in Mombasa was still the ancient coastal hub it had always been, and inland the railway had reached Nairobi, the travellers had to be self-supporting in every respect. There would be nothing to help them on the way - no roads, no shops, no doctors, dentists or chemists. They would be entirely responsible for keeping themselves, their babies, their children and their livestock alive and well.
It wasn't just a matter of a few provisions. When - and if - they arrived at the allocated spots, they would need a nucleus of breeding stock, as well as farm implements, seeds, tools, furniture and, most importantly, guns and ammunition to protect themselves and their property. The women had to decide on the bare essentials in the way of cooking pots, blankets, bedlinen, materials, haberdashery, medicine, clothes and toiletries. Of untold preciousness was the legacy of their settler ancestors - densely handwritten notes of practical hints on self-sufficiency, detailing how to make soap and candles; how to preserve and bottle foodstuffs; how to make clothes; how to educate your children on the go; how to use herbs, berries and wild plants to prevent and cure illness; and how to address emotional wobbles and the inevitable mood swings. Women back then were superb cooks, skilled seamstresses, tough and hardened to the perils of settler life, but for these families, the arduous nature of the journey and the harsh reality of starting life up all over again presented new challenges.
Eventually the day dawned when all the preparations were complete. There was no turning back. Lying in Port Elizabeth harbour, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa, was the chartered German ship the Adolf Woermann, waiting to receive the families and all their possessions. And what possessions there were! Once loaded, the great ship must have looked - and sounded - like the proverbial Noah's Ark. It conjures a vivid image in my mind, picturing my grandmother and her tiny children on board engulfed by animals of wildly varying sizes: prime stock, work oxen, riding horses, milk and beef cattle, sheep, milking goats, poultry, ducks, geese and turkeys, domestic pets of every sort, as well as huge wagons, farm implements of every description, precious pieces of antique furniture, boxes of books, bottles, jars and sewing machines. There was no concept of travelling light back then!
My children and grandchildren are so rooted here now, so settled, so much part of this land, that it touches me deeply to imagine the sheer emotion of the moment when the boat slowly drew away from the docks, with every single member on board waving a tearful farewell to all their loved ones on shore. None of them knew what the future held for them in a new land, and they must all have been conscious that there would be great dangers in the years that lay ahead. And they also knew that for the older members of the family this separation would be final, for they would be unlikely to set foot on their home soil again. It must have taken great courage, particularly on the part of the women, to launch themselves and their children on such a gamble into the unknown.
The Adolf Woermann sailed for two long months. The journey was not without its difficulties - dreadfully cramped conditions, illness and the inevitable death of livestock. But coming into the picturesque harbour of Mombasa against the backdrop of a splendid tropical sunrise must have been like the arrival in a promised land. As the adults transferred the contents of the ship to the docks, the children ran around in delight despite the punishing humidity and heat. Mombasa was a vibrant, noisy place, bright with the colourful goods of Arabic and Indian traders, the smells of spices, perfumes and exotic foods. The streets were lined with white frangipani blossom and coconut palms, and while the sun was setting there was time to stop and enjoy a meal in the old part of the town.
Before the journey inland could begin, all the livestock had to be swaddled in a protective hessian covering, leaving just a small opening for the eyes and nose, since they would be journeying across the notorious tsetse-infested nyika. This formidable and inhospitable barrier of arid scrub country was known as the Taru Desert, described in the 1870s by the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson as 'weird and ghastly...eerie and full of sadness, as if here is all death and desolation'. Just one bite from an infected fly could be catastrophic, tr...