The British Empire Library

Pioneers' Scrapbook: Reminiscences of Kenya, 1890 to 1968

Edited by Elspeth Huxley and Arnold Curtis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Here is a superb stroll down memory lane, one which will appeal not only to all those readers who have lived in Kenya but to anyone who ever had experience of the settler colonies -- and very likely, too, to those whose first-hand knowledge of life in the colonies was largely a West African and hence non-settler one, such as your reviewer! Adorned with plenty of photographs, several pages of beautifully reproduced colour illustrations (those between pp. 32 and 33 are particularly memorable), an exhaustive index of personal and place names, and an ample text of 150 pages arranged in nineteen regional chapters of Kenya (for despite its name, the East Africa Women's League, whose creation this super scrapbook is, is essentially a Kenya organisation, founded in the days before 1920 when Kenya was known simply as the British East Africa Protectorate), e.g. Nakuru, Eldoret, Nanyuki, Kiambu, etc., this is a successful example of the 'montage' or 'collage' approach to historical writing.

Its origins lie in the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of the E.A. Women's League in 1967. To mark the occasion, each branch was invited to prepare a local scrapbook. So extensive and so impressive was the outcome that the League decided to publish a condensed version, the best from the twenty-two assembled albums. (Quaere: where, a historically-minded reviewer at once asks himself, are the original albums to-day?). Into these scrapbooks went, as Elspeth Huxley says in her sensitive introduction, all manner of things, recollections and snapshots and press-cuttings, concerned with "side-shows rather than events in the central arena, with the small events of daily life, the things that have stuck in peoples' minds". What gives this "assemblage of snapshots, both photographic and verbal" of settler pre-1920 life in Kenya an unusual interest is that so many of the contributions are from women. As Elspeth Huxley points out, "Since the aim of most settlers is sooner or later to establish a home, and since homes are made mainly by women, it is obvious that genuine experiences and viewpoints are worth attention, yet they are seldom recorded".

And what memorable records there are in this scrapbook of memories! My own list of favourite stories and pictures, modestly aiming at half a dozen for this review, soon reached one on every page. So space perforce obliges me to select my favourite favourite -- or two or three such favourite favourites, if the Editor will allow. I like the hilarious mountain-top burial of Sir Northrop McMillan (the hearse was placed on skis); Philip Coldham's huge house, 100 x 50 feet, built in 1912; Margit Bursell's story of how she shot a lion without ever setting eyes on it; and the convention of the flags flown from the Nairobi Post Office in Nairobi to let those living on 'The Hill' in 1905 know the progress of the mail: a blue one to show a vessel had left Aden for Mombassa, red that the mail had arrived, and white (or at night a white arc lamp) to show that it was ready for collection. Best of all, I shall never forget the dauntless Mrs. Hill's description of the experimental farm her husband, J. K. Hill, set up as the embryonic Department of Agriculture at Naivasha (lucky they!) in 1904: "sometimes I did not see another European woman for three months or more, but I had my lovely Bechstein piano, and as I could play and sing I passed the time away -- when any musical settlers came along, we had sing-songs and jolly hops".

British Empire Book
Elspeth Huxley and Arnold Curtis.
Evans Brothers


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