Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Kenyan Perspectives

IN many fiction and nonfiction works, Elspeth Huxley has proven herself to be a magnificent storyteller. Yet in her new book, "Nine Faces of Kenya: Portrait of a Nation," she calls on Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Beryl Markham, and other writers to help her bring Kenya's modern history alive. With the assistance of these and other lesser-known writers, she succeeds.But this book is not a paean to the nation's grassy savannas and majestic beasts. It is an angry tale of a nation's tortured birth. Pioneers and patriots, war heroes and political foes all struggle for a place in the drama. The writers, white and black, spill their intense love for Kenya into Huxley's book. First-hand descriptions of primal wilderness vie with blow-by-blow accounts of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. Huxley's method is to weave excerpts from primary sources to form an elegant counterpoint. On the subject of settlers, we hear from both the newly arrived and the disenfranchised. On the exciting journeys of exploration, readers see the white man's inconveniences and watch the black porters sweat. We read reminiscences of both the victors and the vanquished in the vicious wars fought in the bush. The eponymous nine faces of Kenya are each accorded one chapter: exploration, travel, settlers, wars, the environment, wildlife, hunting, lifestyles, and Kenya's legends and poetry. Both famous and obscure writers get space in the book. A virtually unknown white settler's memoirs often say more about the realities of Kenya than does the august Evelyn Waugh, who penned his lines during a luxurious tour. Though the book does not dwell on the warp and weft of political life, M'zee Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of the Kenyan nation, makes a brief and graceful appearance. After his release from prison at the end of the Mau Mau rebellion (a murderous guerrilla war fought against Kenya's white settlers), he spoke to an understandably wary group of white farmers: "I believe that the most disturbing point among us is suspicion, fear.... We are human beings, and as such are bound to make mistakes. But there is a great gift that we can exercise, that is to forgive one another.... [If] we start thinking about the past, what time shall we have to build the future?" His confident assurances of their common cause brought healing and new energy to Kenya. Kenyatta's words have had a recent echo in Nelson Mandela. Putting African politics aside, Kenya's greatest draw for adventure-seeking Westerners is its exquisite scenery and wildlife. Two of Huxley's chapters celebrate this natural legacy. In one, Winston Churchill writes an eloquent essay on the wrongness of killing a lion. It serves as an effective critique of the assault on the natural world that underlies much of Kenya's past. Ernest Hemingway, on a 1930 safari, tells a fluid and riveting tale, though it is not as virtuous as Churchill's. Huxley's concluding chapter comprises selections of ancient and modern East African legends and poetry. The Western reader will quickly seize on similarities between Western and African original myths. The structure of the Maasai and the Biblical stories of creation mesh nicely; the African and the Greek stories of "how man got fire from the gods" have interesting junctures. But the modern poetry that follows immediately banishes the temptation only to see common ground. The voices of modern Kenya are worlds apart from patterns of Western thinking.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.