The British Empire Library

A Very Different Land: Memories of Empire from the Farmlands of Kenya

by Hilary Sunman

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Parmeet Singh (Kenya Government Service 1962-81, then seconded to Commonwealth Secretariat, UN/UNECA/UNDP 1981-2004)
Hilary Sunman's book 'A Very Different Land'\s overtly put across as a biographical depiction of the 22 years of her parents' stay in Kenya. In substance, however, it is a narrative on the state of governance of Kenya in the 30's and the 40's. It is both well compiled and well articulated. Many of the principal aspects of governance in Kenya in the 30's and the 40's are weaved around the time her parents spent in Kenya from her father's arrival in 1928 and their departure in 1950. As she has noted in the introduction, her father's "career was tempered by tensions and hostilities that accompanied the early years of Kenya - tussles between settler and government, between settler and the Indian population and between settler and African - all of which centred around land, which lay at the heart of politics in Kenya". She has tried to understand and detail "the actual life of a colonial administrator, particularly a technical administrator" in this context.

The scope of Kenya's history covered in the book makes for captivating reading, specially for those who claim Kenyan connection. There is a fair amount of endearing anecdotal mention of places, events and personalities, an abundance of living memories. The life-style of her parents in Kenya, a country of plural ethnic population is correctly portrayed as revolving around the British/White segments of the society, in a country of the ruler and the ruled, administrator and the settler, white and the black. Factors underpinning the then structure of the society in Kenya are implicitly very apparent.

That said, the author concludes her book in the tail-end chapters on 'Legacies' and 'Reflections'. The footprint of her father's musical talent in Kenya is impressive to this day. However, the legacy of her father's twenty-two years' professional career as a colonial agricultural officer is the climax of the book. She stipulates that the groundwork for the policies on agriculture in Kenya in the 50's, after her parent's departure from Kenya, through the period of Mau Mau insurgency, leading up to independence, was the outcome of the work undertaken in the '30's and the '40's. It is a recognized fact that in the overall context of the government policies of those years, the interests of settlers were accorded priority in Kenya over 'Native' needs until well into the '50's, though her father was deployed in promotion of 'Native' agriculture. It would seem more needs to be said on how much of the government's work on 'Native' Agriculture in the inter war years was to shape the development of policies of the late 40's and 50's on initiatives like the creation of African Development Board as well as the Swynnerton Plan and land consolidation.

More significantly, however, for me, it is the author's 'passionate' assertion in the chapter on Reflections "to redress the balance, to try to undo the malign legacies of the Empire" as the rationale for her pursuit of a career in development economics. This sentiment will find much empathy amongst the membership of OSPA. Indeed not only the mainstream membership of OSPA but associates like me too. Unfortunately given the prevailing sentiment of political correctness in this country there is not much more to be done in this respect than what is being done in institutions like OSPA, Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London University and research on the Empire in other universities. Ultimately however what counts is the perception of the legacy of the Empire by the sons and daughters of the Empire like me, of non-British ethnicity born and brought up in the Empire, however long it takes for such perceptions to evolve rationally. There is much research being undertaken in this context. As passionately as the author, for me given the emergence of 'modern' India at Independence after some 200 years of British presence, my own 20 years in the post-independence civil service of Kenya and now my current locus in the UK, I can but only attribute my birth in the Empire, as my lottery of life.

British Empire Book
Hilary Sunman
I.B. Tauris


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