I happened upon Red Strangers: The white tribe of Kenya by Christine Nicholls whilst checking some facts for a family memoir on World War 1 East Africa that I’m helping to edit. Red Strangers is a monumental effort to document the 70 year history of the white colonial settler in East Africa – a task achieved in 260 pages.
This is not the story of colonising Africa but rather the account of those who chose to make that little part of East Africa now known as Kenya their home. The telling is personal, almost autobiographical in nature, shedding light on the individuals and families who struggled against the elements and, more often than not, the British Government in their attempt to forge some sort of order for their lives.
What struck me in reading this book, and I write this review at least a month after having read the book, is how resonant it would be of the history of the white tribes of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. The differences would be in the detail, but the struggles, the issues around town planning, the arrival of new technologies, accommodating the influx of people of the same colour sponsored by the home government as a way to deal with unemployment and forging a relationship with those of other colours and cultures already settled in the land would be no different.
Christine sheds light on how the motley crowd of white settlers became a community, accommodating the different classes and cultures their different backgrounds brought to the mix. The development of modes of transport and language stands out in particular, as does the evolution of medical practices.
A book of this nature and its length cannot be everything and this one doesn’t purport to be. So don’t be disappointed if when you get towards the end of the book the section on Mau Mau and the Independence movement appears thin and more superficial than the rest. We all know that for colonial Kenya, the story didn’t have a happy ending as many autobiographies tend to have. It’s difficult to write about a time that one has lived through and has strong emotional attachment to, especially if it is featuring again in the press at the time of writing. Red Strangers was published in 2006, a year after two ground breaking studies appeared on the topic and the British Government is still dealing with the aftermath. Should the last part have been left out then? Personally, I don’t think so as it brings the autobiographical account to a close in the only way such an account can. Although fifty years have passed since Kenya gained its independence, it’s still too raw and political for any truely objective account to be written by anyone with a personal connection to Africa.
Others might also take exception to the fact that this book doesn’t spend enough time exploring the relationships between the white colonists and the black, Indian and Asians resident in the country. Here too, I would say that’s not the purpose of the book, although by its nature some facets of these relationships do make an appearance: no community within a community can be completely isolated and independent of those around it.
The one thing I would have liked to see (and here I speak as a researcher) is an index. Trying to locate that one specific snippet (or ten) I want to reference in the text I’m editing has been a nightmare to say the least. But I’ve succeeded (at least I think I have) as this short history is crammed with little insights into so many individuals and events which haven’t been recorded elsewhere that it has been of immense help in shedding light on remarks others have made about their life in colonial Kenya.
Despite its few shortcomings, this is an important book providing a wider context to the already existing biographies and autobiographies on the white minority of Kenya.