The British Empire Library

Olga In Kenya: Repressing The Irrepressible

by Elizabeth Watkins

Courtesy of OSPA

Sir John Johnson (Kenya Administration 1955-64, High Commissioner, Nairobi 1986-90)
Elizabeth Watkins has written another engrossing biography of a life in Kenya in the colonial era. She has already published accounts of the life of her father who was a medical officer and administrator in the early days, and of Whitehouse, a legendary DC from the pre-independence era. This time she has put together a life of her mother Olga who went to Kenya in 1914 and died there in 1947.

Olga could hardly have arrived in Kenya at a more difficult time. But there was the lure of Africa and open spaces. She and her first husband, Douglas, travelled up-country on the Uganda Railway with her bulldog puppy to their newly surveyed land at Koru in the west. They took with them a prefabricated bungalow costing #500 from Harrods and recommended for the tropics. The war and the campaign on the border with German East Africa intervened. Douglas was killed. Olga was left to farm with inimical settler neighbours.

This gives a glimpse of the struggles of those forgotten European families and their African labour who brought modern farming techniques to the Kenyan highlands. It is the most valuable part of this remarkable chronicle. Figures from Kenya's colonial history - John Ainsworth, Lord Delamere, Sir Edward Grigg, Meinertzhagen, Cavendish Bentinck and even Lord Erroll - come on to the stage. But it is Olga who dominates the story with her second husband Oscar Watkins, the author's father. They move eventually to Wispers Farm on the fringes of Nairobi. Olga was indefatigable, nursing, farming, moving in top government circles, even getting elected to Legislative Council where she campaigned for better African housing.

Olga's Kenya is almost forgotten now as a small part of Africa's colonial history. Fortunately she left a treasure house of letters and documents which her daughter has marshalled to give a vivid record of Europeans in Africa, their tragedies and their successes. Thank goodness those papers were preserved and Elizabeth Watkins was able to present them to us in a coherent form. The book will be invaluable to the reader and historian interested in Kenya's immediate past.

British Empire Book
Elizabeth Watkins
Pen Press Publishers Ltd
1 905203 74 8


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