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Elspeth Huxley and Lewis S.B. Leakey were both born and raised in what is now Kenya in the early parts of the twentieth century (when the territory was British East Africa).  Both were keen observers, cogent critical thinkers, articulate voices, adventurous travelers and prolific in their works and writings.  They were also both sympathetic to black Africans and adopted balanced perspectives about colonization and its impacts on settlers and natives.

Despite these similarities, they come out on different sides of a question of pressing importance and, in light of my work at the UN Environment Programme, immediacy in my own daily life: environmental degradation.

Kenya currently is suffering a long-running and debilitating drought.  Electricity - much of which is generated by hydropower - has been rationed because the water levels are too low to produce sufficient supply.  Crops are failing, and people in Samburu are dying of starvation in the same horrifying manner (if not numbers) as their forerunners in Biafra and Ethiopia did.

In 2009, with our current knowledge of climate change, Kenya's condition looks like the effects of increasing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - and maybe it is.  But drought and the attendant sufferings aren't new in Kenya, and people have long cultivated knowledge about water, its sources and the impacts human activity can have on its availability.

Writing in 1963 on the cusp of Kenyan independence, in the context of the the handover from white national forest administrators to their black successors, Huxley writes:

The Masai are no respecter of forests.  Trees, to them, are enemies which rob them of potential grazing, rather than allies which anchor soil and make of it a sponge to absorb rainfall and return it in the form of springs.  The Masai drive their herds up into the glades and start fires which destroy the vegetation.

Across the Rift [Valley], on the south-western slopes of the Mau escarpment, you can count at least a dozen fires every time you fly over the mountains.  You can see blackened patches and clearings hoed for crops (a lot of these Masai have Kikuyu wives who cultivate) and the gloomy spectacle of human predators colonizing and spoiling the forests.  Already springs are dwindling and soon rivers that have always flowed the year through will be turned into seasonal streams that come down in spate in wet seasons, and dry up altogether in between.  Then what will the Masai do for water?  When their streams turn into dry, sandy river-beds they will shrug their shoulders and say shauri ya Mungu: the affair of God.  Perhaps it is, for tolerating so much human stupidity.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 20

The argument that water shortage in Kenya had a human - and specifically "native" - cause was not original in Huxley's day.  Almost thirty years earlier, in 1936 - and about sixty years before the term "climate change" had entered our daily discourse - Lewis Leakey debunked the "blame the natives" theory of water shortage in Kenya:

The soil erosion which is taking place so alarmingly in some parts of the country, and the destruction of so much forest by fires, are both commonly attributed to the natives and their carelessness.  I believe,  however, that the more important factor governing both these troubles is a purely climactic one, although it is probably true that excessive grazing by goats and sheep, and carelessness with fire in forest areas, is hastening the process of nature.

If dessication really goes on for the next two or three hundred years at the rate at which it has been at work in the past few hundred, it will not only be the European community in Kenya that will suffer but also the natives, and as they have less money at their disposal for water boring and for water conservation, the latter will probably suffer the worst.
Lewis S.B. Leakey, Kenya: Contrasts and Problems, p. 169

With the scientist's perspective of drought patterns over hundreds of years, Leakey was able to identify Kenya - as early as 1936 and perhaps earlier - as being in a pattern of "dessication" caused by "climactic" factors.  Leakey understood that the drying up had started centuries earlier; and, moreover, that this latest phase was not the first in a series of swings between lushland and desert that Kenya had experienced over millennia.

Certainly, greenhouse gas emissions may be responsible for a speeding-up of this dessication process; what Leakey thought might happen in two or three hundred years might be occurring in sixty to one hundred.  Still, the comparison between Leakey and Huxley is significant: even the sharpest eye is apt to misconstrue what it sees without the scope of other disciplines and perhaps hundreds of years.

On the other hand, consider the perspective of Stephen Dobyns in his poem, "Where We Are (after Bede)."  Dobyns doesn't have (so far as I'm aware) any exposure to Kenya, let alone opportunities for close analysis of its people, soil layers or climactic patterns.  Nonetheless, from his perch of severe distance (nay, ignorance), he sums up climate change in Kenya (and worldwide) better than either Leakey or Huxley could:

This is where we are in history - to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night - a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.   

Safari metabolism

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Giraffe2.jpgTo research my fourth novel, I have been spending time on safari in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, where I can experience environmental conditions that approach those that prevailed in British East Africa of World War I.  I frequently stay in a small, thatched-roof, canvas-walled cottage on the banks of the Malewa River, where shy water buck, demure bush buck, aggressive buffalo and plucky warthog cross, from which zebra and impala drink, around which monkeys scamper, and out of which hippopotamus surface like submarines.

Sitting on the raised veranda of the cottage, I've learned much:
  • Animals, contrary to the notion I had - derived from high school reading about mythical Native Americans moving soundlessly through the forest - can make a lot of awkward crashing noise as they move through scrub and in their interactions with rivers.
  • On the other hand, I am continually amazed at how animals can be grazing or passing virtually next to me, and I wouldn't have noticed them had I not serendipitously turned my head or looked up from my book.
  • Animals are surprisingly often equally oblivious of my presence.  Don't they smell me?  Hear me creaking in my chair or walking in my cottage?  Apparently, they're used to a fair amount of awkward crashing noise and, as for smelling me, either they've all got sinus infections or the smell doesn't carry like I'd thought it would.
That said, I have noticed a marked increase in my "animal sighting quotient" since I've startedHippo2.jpg coming on safari regularly.  Over time, I've learned to spy dik-dik "hiding" in plain sight by standing motionless; to distinguish the loping gait of the jackal threading through dense bush; to recognize the difference between the sound of wind rustling trees and animals snapping branches.

Some of this increased sensitivity is the result of greater exposure; but some of it is attributable to a slowing down - of my movements, of my gaze, of my breathing.  When I go on safari, I find I'm downshifting gears biologically as much as mentally: I'm relaxing my city metabolism as much as letting go of my urban worries.

So I felt a frisson of recognition finding two descriptions of this phenomenon by women more experienced in it than I.  Here's Elspeth Huxley on the "Dr. Doo-little" personality:  

The senior warden of the Tsavo National Park, David Sheldrick, and his wife, share their house at Voi with a great many animals and birds.  Both Sheldricks belong to that small company born with an instinctive understanding of their fellow creatures and with the patience which goes with these queer, unsought talents.  Such individuals are gentle, quiet in motion, slow spoken, unassuming, in a sense absorbent; they have a tranquil, indrawn quality.  People who are taught, jerky, spark-like and aggressive seldom draw from an animal the trust and feeling of security it needs.
Elspeth Huxley, Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, p. 135.

Now Karen Blixen, on the adjustment necessary to appreciate wilderness:

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements.  The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it.  No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal.  The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, p. 15.

To be honest, "slow spoken, unassuming . . . . tranquil [and ]indrawn" and having an "aptitude [for] stillness" aren't accurate descriptions of me yet.  But in the pleasure I experience from the emphatically non-urban thrills of the bush, I recognize in me "the ache for slow beauty/to save you from your quick, quick life," and I hope this means, as Kapka Kassabova promises in her poem "The Door," that I've reached age enough to have stopped "knocking on a door without a house."  The fourth book will tell.

Out of Africa, inside colonial thinking

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Karen Blixen seems never to have met a native who didn't remind her of an animal.  In Out of Africa, she wears out the animal kingdom in her comparisons, metaphors, analogies, or descriptors for black Kenyans.  Some examples:

What I learned from the game of the country, was useful to me in my dealings with the Native People.  p. 15-16.

[I]f you frightened [the Natives] they could withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone, -- simply not there.  p. 17

When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their anthill; they wiped out the damage with unwearied energy, swiftly and silently, - as if obliterating an unseemly action.  p. 18

Like the spurfowl
, the Natives might be mimicking a fear of us because of some other deeper dread the nature of which we could not guess. . . . It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. p. 18-19

[Kamante's] intelligence sometimes failed him, and he came and offered me a Kikuyu delicacy, - a roasted sweet potato or a lump of sheep's fat, - as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.  p. 37

[The stork] followed Kamante about between the houses, and it was impossible not to believe that [the stork] was deliberately imitating Kamante's stiff measured walk.  Their legs were about the same thickness.  p. 60

[The mother and father of the deceased girl] sat down and waited outside my house.  They were poor people, small and underfed; they looked like a pair of badgers on my lawn.  p. 98-99

I was prepared for the appearance, a few days later, before my house, of the Nyeri people, who belonged to a low class of Kikuyu, and had all the look of three dirty and shaggy old Hyenas that had slunk one hundred and fifty miles upon Wamai's blood-track. . . . The three strangers sat on the stones with no more manifestation of life than three ticks upon a sheep.  p. 112

Kaninu also came round to my house late in the evening, like an old badger out reconnoitring, to sound me out about the child.  p. 125

[The Masai] were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation.  p. 126

[The Masai's] weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.  p. 129

[Giving Kinanjui alcohol] was like having shot an Elephant: by an act of yours a mighty and majestic creature, which has walked the earth, and held his own opinions of everything, is walking no more.  p. 138

[The Somalis'] relation to the Natives was nearly exactly that of the sheepdog to the sheep.  They watched [the Natives] untiringly, their sharp teeth bared.  p. 143

The juvenile Masai soldier-girls, very lively and pretty, came into my tent . . . . [and] always ask[ed] me for the loan of my hand-mirror, and, when they held it up to one another, they bared their two rows of shining teeth to the mirror, like angry young carnivora.  p. 259

Karomeny was very dar, with fine moist black eyes and thick eyelashes; . . . altogether much of the look of a small black Native bull-calf.  p. 295

Kanuthia . . . a slim young Kikuyu with the watchful eyes of a monkey, now . . . sat by the house like a sad and chilly monkey in a cage.  p. 342-343

It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take.  It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. . . . This applies in a higher degree to the primitive people than to the civilized, and animals again will wander back a long way, and go through danger and sufferings, to recover their lost identity, in the surroundings that they know.  p. 359-360

The old dark clear-eyed Native of Africa, and the old dark clear-eyed Elephant, - they are alike; you see them standing on the ground, weighty with such impressions of the world around them as have been slowly gathered and heaped up in their dim minds; they are themselves features of the land.  p. 362

When we met [the old Kikuyu woman] stood dead still, barring the path to me, staring at me in the exact manner of a Giraffe in a herd, that you will meet on the open plain, and which lives and feels and thinks in a manner unknowable to us.  p. 369

The consistency of her equating of black people with animals raises questions.  Was she racist?  Was she simply a cliched and unimaginative writer?  Was her thinking merely a function of the times?  Was her use of animals as parallels for black people - in her opinion - a compliment?  Did she see honor and value in one's existence evoking the animal world?  If so, why didn't she describe her colonist friends, like Berkley Cole or Denys Finch-Hatton, as animals?  (Others seem to have.  Llewelyn Powys, in Black Laughter, described a stand-in for Denys as "a sinuous-limbed dog-puma indolently sunning himself under the swaying palm-trees." p. 168.)

My own sense is that comparisons to animals, in and of themselves, are not necessarily invidious.  A black woman I know - in her poise, beauty and carriage - reminds me of a gazelle, and I think of the description as a compliment (perhaps because Song of Songs praises women thus); but, to be honest, most of the black women I know don't remind me of animals.  Tough business women, sweet grandmas; gorgeous, enthusiastic, boisterous and gentle friends; adorable, Puck-ish toddlers - these categories encompass most of the black women and girls I know.  

And this consistency in Karen Blixen's descriptions of black people is what gives me pause.  Every native - however much she likes or dislikes them, depends on them or finds them a burden - is like an animal; colonists she likes are not (her chapter on Berkley Cole is called "The Noble Pioneer," not "The Hawkish Pioneer" or "The Vulture Pioneer").  This divide suggests a pattern of organization in her thinking: natives and animals were categorized together - or closely - while white people were categorized in nearer proximity to classical music, painting, opera, ballet, and literature.  Nature for blacks; culture for whites.  

This structure to her perceptions isn't necessarily racism; indeed, it corresponds to her reality: black people lived in less developed environs in which wilderness was either predominant or ever threatening to dominate; white people were bringing gramophones, easels, brushes, paints and books into the same landscape.  

But not all white people were cultured - indeed, Karen Blixen's letters overflow with her distaste for the British "middle class" colonist; and this same variety no doubt existed among the black people with whom she interacted.  Her failure to see some blacks as "noble" - as Beryl Markham, for example, sees Arab Ruta, her closest servant - or to recognize the individual outstandingness of certain of her black cohorts - as Elspeth Huxley recognizes in Mbugwa ("a rarity in any country, and in any age," Forks and Hope, p. 171) - suggests a limitation in her capacity to appreciate black people as individual humans.  (Yes, she sees Farah as aristocratic, but she also refers to him as a "sheepdog"; yes, she says that Kamante is a "genius" in the kitchen, but she also - repeatedly - emphasizes that he was "never quite right in the head" p. 30).

In Out of Africa, Blixen's reliance on animals to parallel blacks betrays sentiments she made explicit in her letters:

I have come to realize that one of the greatest passions of my life is the relationship with my "black brother."  I also know that there are no representatives of this race that I personally could not do without, without the relationship being radically changed . . . .
Letter to Mary Bess Westenholz, 20 November 1928, Letters from Africa, p. 390.  To Karen Blixen, black people were - on a level that is unacceptable to us in our day and age - an undifferentiated mass.  "They" needed her and saw her as powerful, which she appreciated to such an extent that she made "them" the object of her passion; but "they" didn't include any individuals whose presence or absence could change this dynamic.  "They" were just like the game in the wildnerness; without "them," the landscape isn't as fascinating, but if you were to replace one impala with another, the switch wouldn't impair Karen Blixen's enjoyment of the scenery.  

Karen Blixen's honesty about her perspectives grants us - from the distance of a century - a valuable insight into colonial thinking in that era.  It also, by comparison to her contemporaries (Markham, Huxley, and others), reveals Karen Blixen's serious limitations as a human, surrounded by many others - white and black - who were able to transcend the narrow, constrained thinking that passed for received wisdom in the era.

A virtual "national park" - for books

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MacMillan_Library.jpgThe abuse of books depresses me almost as much as the mistreatment of humans; humans, after all, have an astounding capacity for resiliency and regeneration, whereas a book once beaten, broken and torn is dependent on a human for restoration.

In Nairobi's MacMillan library, the once grand interior is stained with dirt, water and - probably - mold.  The card catalog (something I haven't used for twenty years) is a jumble of worn rectangles of oak tag, occasionally misfiled, imparting unintelligible numbers - some of which correspond to the Dewey decimal system, others of which do not.  Housed in a cabinet that is itself beaten, broken and torn, the card catalog is also surprisingly inaccessible:  many of the drawers don't open - or only with minutes-worth of cajoling - and arrange themselves in an order than cannot be described as alphabetical.

Once in the stacks, the story is even sadder.  The relationship between the books listed in the card catalog and those on the shelves is analogous to that of a child with a pretend friend: only one of the four books I'd found in the card catalog was on the shelves, though the other three had not been checked out - they'd been stolen or hopelessly mislaid, since the library doesn't have a computer system.

The one book I found, Elspeth Huxley's Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, was dirty and held together with clear plastic tape.  Its jacket was long gone, the edges of the cover frayed, and the binding was broken in multiple places.  It was missing pages 49 and 50.

I love the look and feel of a book well read by many hands, but in my trek through Nairobi's National Archives, Museum Archives, and University of Nairobi Library, I've found circumstances to be as dismal as in MacMillan.  Books (and records), not burnished by good service to myriad voracious readers, but cracked, split, lost and neglected.  

Moreover, among these books are those that are out-of-print, unavailable for purchase, or which retail for prohibitive prices (e.g., $250).  Once these books are destroyed, humanity will permanently lose their irreplaceable contents.

The heartbreak of the situation is compounded by the obvious need for MacMillan and the other libraries and record repositories in Nairobi.  On the Saturday I visited MacMillan, I found that place packed - and silent - with busy readers.  (The same knowledge-hunger was evident when Huxley was writing 47 years earlier:  "In Kitwe I saw a young miner who was reading right through the Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish: he had reached CROCODILE." p. 259.)

Throughout the course of my research in Nairobi thus far, I've wished for online or e-access to the contents of the books I'm seeking.  Such access would phenomenally speed and simplify my research, which is crawling along because of inaccessibility and graft

In all the wrangling over Google Books, e-readers and libraries lending e-books, I have yet to hear the interests of the developing world represented.  Certainly with the ease of lending e-books, no reason exists why international patrons, including those in the developing world, should not be able to borrow e-books from libraries anywhere on the planet; nor, indeed, why institutions in the developed world could not or should not support the digitization of Nairobi's collections and make them available electronically to all.

For the sake of all the under-served readers in the MacMillan library - and all the book-starved people in the developing world - I can only hope that Nairobi's extinction-threatened collections find a conservation area online to which access will be provided on a fair, affordable and convenient basis.

(Image of the MacMillan Library courtesy of Government of Kenya's Office of Public Communications)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Forks and Hope: An African Notebook category.

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