The British Empire Library

The Curse

by Eric Hansen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Z.E.K.
The lurid dust-cover to this curious mixture of fact and fiction is in keeping with the theme which develops through the book - the wicked magical powers of a notorious African witch-doctor, whose vindictive acts of revenge for the wounds inflicted on him by the author bring both himself and his wife to the verge of distraction and death. The blurb on the dust-cover would have us believe that it is all true, but its readers will find the unsubstantial appearances and the momentary transformation of the dying witchdoctor to the form of a leopard a little hard to swallow as anything but fiction or delusion and hallucination.

My own experiences of witchcraft in the same period (the early thirties), when I became aware of no less than six deaths which were unquestionably due to the powers of witch-doctors do however lead me to accept entirely the description of its effect on the large labour force and squatters on the estate. Similarly the rain-making ceremonial is no doubt authentic, though the trials by ordeal carried out to the extent of instant death for two victims may well be questioned by members of the Kenya Administration and Police of that era. I well remember that at that time in neighbouring Tanganyika trial of alleged offences falling under the terms of the Witchcraft Ordinance required the prior consent of the Attorney General and any such trial had to be held 'in camera', since due consideration had to be given to the effect it might have upon native law and custom, or undue disturbance of traditional ways of life. No doubt similar considerations and provisions pertained in Kenya.

The vivid descriptions of the life of a pioneer coffee farmer at that time are entirely authentic even to the ungrammatical and misspelt 'ki-settla' Kiswahili, and many of our dwindling membership can expect nostalgic enjoyment in the reading of them.

The author emerges from these pages as a capable and energetic young man, generous but hasty-tempered to the point of violence, careless of authority other than his own. He has a great appreciation of natural beauty and at times achieves a lyrical description of it. His characters, even those with the briefest appearance in the narrative stand out as real people. John Godley is a much more mature and understanding coffee planter. Then there is the beautiful young Lydia, fresh from a more equable climate and full of zest for living - what a temptation she must have been for the members of the Happy Valley coterie if she stayed on in Kenya. Again the young bride, coming out to pioneering conditions in East Africa from a sheltered home life in England - all at sea in these primitive conditions and helpless when she is pulled down by fever and dysentery. His African staff and villagers are real people, putting up with the vicious cruelty, and injustice of the young autocrat and remaining faithful to him, accepting his own estimate of himself as a far superior being. And yet he admits to us his doubts and fears, his conviction that he is bewitched.

But to return to the main theme of the book - the witchdoctor's curse which now dogs his life, we find ourselves in pure melodrama. It is too reminiscent of our compulsive reading as youngsters in the second decade of this century - a hotch-potch of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. The struggle through miles of dangerous swamp to the lair of the enemy is the "Hound of the Baskervilles" all over again.

In his foreword Charles Owen Judd describes it as a novel, written in the 1920s but only now published. Take it as that - my dictionary's definition - 'a fictitious prose narrative or tale presenting a picture of real life, especially of the emotional crises in the life-history of the men and women portrayed', and you may well enjoy it as much as I did. It is of course a far cry from the usual run of books reviewed here.

British Empire Book
Eric Hansen
Self Publishing Association


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