The British Empire Library

Childhood Memories of Colonial East Africa, 1920 - 1963

by John Considine and John Rawlins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Veronica Bellers (Daughter of C.H Williams CMG OBE who joined Kenya Administration in 1931 becoming Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza)
It has been enticing to wander through these East African childhood memories, and at the same time rather heart-rending to realise that that world we knew has gone.

When we were children, even as recently as forty years ago, the population was under seven million in Kenya. It is now believed to stand at some thirty two million. And under a benign Colonial Administration the population had largely bought into law and order. We children admired and trusted the Africans we came in contact with, while they in their turn seemed to find us as loveable and exasperating as our parents did.

The African continues to warm and charm everyone who comes across him but today it is darkened by a certain desperation, as many face futures with little hope of decent jobs, let alone fulfilling their potential.

I enjoyed a great many of the contributions to this book and Joan Considine and John Rawlins have certainly done a worthwhile service to all of us by putting these recollections together. The book would have been a heavyweight if the quality of writing had been more uniformly high. I was also not quite clear who the audience for the book might be. Most contributors clearly thought that they were writing for those of us who were there, while others described things carefully and translated such words as banda and shamba, imagining a wider readership.

Michael Hopkins made an important point with his contribution by showing how tough it could be to make a living out of farming in Kenya. Several children of farmers remember how their parents were lured to Kakamega to look for gold: "Eventually, (Hopkins writes) having found sufficient gold to cover the bottom of a small aspirin bottle, it was time to give up and go back to the farm." Presumably this meant explaining things to Mr Gilpin of the Land Bank who could foreclose at any minute.

Journeys loomed large in people's memories because, of course, boarding school, so many miles from home was a big, not to say traumatic, event. My sister used to grow whiter and whiter as the journey from Kisumu progressed towards Turi, until eventually there was a scrambled stop and she would throw up all her breakfast.

Some of the eccentrics described at school should have made our parents' hair stand on end but they seemed to be blithely unaware of them. Nicholas Best describes the headmaster of Pembroke House as being "wildly eccentric" even by Kenya standards. "For cricket matches at other schools, he piled a basket of carrier pigeons on to the roof and released them at intervals to bring back the score." Furthermore, "the pigeon loft had a weather vane of a master with a cane chasing a small boy. On days when he 'd been out shooting, the headmaster liked to tuck dead birds into bed with the boys and then turn his gun dogs loose in the dormitory to find them."

Many of the contributions gave me a pang of nostalgia and sometimes I could almost catch a whiff of dust or hear the surf at Diani as I read. I congratulate the editors. I know that for those of us who were there and for our descendants it will be greatly enjoyed. And for some - Africans and Europeans alike - who only know East Africa as it is today, it may even fascinate.

British Empire Book
John Considine and John Rawlins
Bongo Books


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