Bwana Karani

Elspeth Huxley

This is a photograph of Mervyn Maciel with Elspeth Huxley at her Wiltshire cottage. He wrote this on their meeting together:

With a rail strike on at the time, my wife and I decided on making the journey to Wiltshire by coach. We were heading for a little village of Oaksey in one of the oldest boroughs in England - Malmesbury - and the home of world-famous veteran author, Elspeth Huxley, whose guests we were to be for the day (14th September 1994).

The grey skies of London and steady drizzle soon gave way to brighter weather as our coach sped along the busy road. To put us to the minimum inconvenience, Elspeth had suggested that we alight at the Gloucestershire town of Cirencester whence she would collect us. A delayed departure from London meant that we were half an hour late arriving at Cirencester but there to greet us, despite the chill of near-autumn weather, was this warm and stimulating 87-year-oLd author. From here she drove us the eleven miles to her cottage named 'Green End' and after some welcome refreshments we were driven to the nearby pub for lunch. The meal itself was sumptuous and highly enjoyable, especially in the setting of this pub, so typical of old England and still unspoilt by London standards.

We later returned to her cottage for coffee and, while our hostess was busy brewing this aroma-rich coffee (Kenyan of course!) she 'let us loose in her study to soak in the richness of this well-stocked library. Most of the books had an African favour - stories of the early pioneers in Kenya; a priceless history on overflowing bookshelves, a section of which held some 40 of her own titles ranging from 'White Man's Country', to 'The Flame Trees of Thika (dramatised for television in 1982) and its sequel The Mottled Lizard', to 'Out in the Midday Sun' and, of course her latest anthology - 'Nine Faces of Kenya, an autographed copy of which she had presented us with some months earlier.

During our coffee break we were shown part of her excellent collection of family photographs including some of Karen Blixen and many early European pioneers who had carved out a niche for themselves in Kenya's history. Many a face we recognised, especially that of her mother Nellie (The Hon. Mrs. Grant) who farmed at Njoro and who we had met on many occasions during my service at the Plant Breeding Station there. We heard that her mother later retired to the Algarve, the Njoro altitude of 8000 ft above sea level being too much for someone approaching 90! There she bought and, at Lagos had a house built. She remained independent until the last, pruning her orange trees, enjoying the early sardine catch brought in by the local fishermen and of course driving her own car.

With just over an hour left to catch the coach home Elspeth was determined to Show us some of Malmesbury town. At 87 I found her very astute, mentally alert, a patient listener and a confident driver. She quickly spotted a parking place and then walked us to the nearby 12th Century Abbey and told us a little of its history.

After a quick look at her watch 'there's still time' she said, and off she drove, aiming we thought for the coach stop but no, she had other ideas; In those few minutes she drove us through Cirencester, passing the Royal Agricultural College (from where many of my former Kenya Agricultural colleagues had graduated) and then to the coach stop, making sure that we were on the right side of the road.

'Wasn't she exhausted after a full day of conducting us on a guided tour, not forgetting her warmth and hospitality?' I enquired. 'Oh no, not at all, she replied, 'I only wish could have shown you more - you must come again'.

With her warm handshake and a motherly hug for Elsie we reluctantly bade goodbye, but we did not leave empty handed as Elspeth made sure that we had a pot of her home made strawberry jam (from home-grown strawberries) and a jar of coffee - Kahawa Ya Kenya!

Sadly we were not to meet again as she left us in January 1997.

On her death in 1997, Veronica Bellers (fellow OSPA member) wrote these words in tribute to her:

The former Colonial Service in Africa has lost a friend in Elspeth Huxley. Her honest observations on all aspects of the Administration, and her admiration for their contributions to the fabric of African life provide posterity with an invaluable record. Although in her most authoritative work White Man's Country she remarks that the Kenya settler resented "the tendrils of bureaucracy [which] groped for him even in the wilds", she stoutly defended the Kenya administration against charges by Margery Perham of not listening to African views. "A large part of their job is to find out native feelings and to support their interests", she admonished.

She took a keen interest in all aspects of government efforts "to improve the conditions of the people". In the field of education she recognised the "propellent quality that whirls forward . . . all in his path" of an Education Officer in Gambia whose dream was to see every Gambian child with book and pencil in its hand. And when she visited the "clean and spruce" hospital at Kakamega she was moved by the malnutrition block and a "tiny creature . . . [with] a puny wizened face . . . light as thistledown and its hair was white . . ." She noted that the patients came from one location where "although all the families own cows . . . the men drink [the milk], or make it into ghee to sell".

Mrs Huxley sympathised with the lonely policeman in Kitosh where "Arson is the principal amusement here" and who, when asked what he did in the evenings, said "Sometimes I watch bats chasing the rats out of the rafters". But it was agriculture which interested her the most and the Agricultural Officers struck her "as happy men . . . for they have a job they believe in unmixed with politics". A small village in Nigeria reeled under the ministrations "of a Welsh crusader who with all the fervour, eloquence and fanaticism of his race . . . " set about reforming cocoa and palm oil production and creating prosperous cooperatives.

Refreshingly unclouded by political correctness, Mrs Huxley's love of Africa and Africans gleams and twinkles through all her reportative writings. In Four Guineas she described one of the more ticklish problems facing an official: how to word an invitation to a Gambian dignitary with several wives. Should it be marked "Mr, and one Mrs Jahumpa", or "Mr and the Mrs Jahumpa, or in what manner?".

Bwana Karani


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