THE KENYA PIONEERS by Errol Trzebinski


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A sycophantic tribute to the European settlers of the region of British East Africa now known at Kenya, this reads like a history of Newport or Palm Beach against a backdrop of lions, African tribes and Indian merchants. It's filled with names, social events, crop failures and crop successes; also squabbles between planters and the foot-dragging Land Department and between local governors and London's Colonial office--but not much else. Trzebinski assumes that we transatlantic souls are cozily familiar with everybody who was anybody in the protectorate's early days--roughly 1895 to 1920. Names pop in and out, with biographical handles sometimes delayed until the third or fourth appearance. Abraham Block surfaces on page 37 founding a hotel group in 1927 with the purchase of the ""now world-famous Norfolk Hotel,"" but we don't learn who he is until page 46. Then we fitfully follow the rags-to-riches story of this ""Lithuanian Jew"" through a few unsatisfactorily scanty snippets of information. On the other hand, we are flooded with the backgrounds of the Boededers, Wallaces and McQueens, three early settler families, only to have them virtually evaporate. Not so Hugh Cholmondeley of Vale Royal, third Baron Delamere, about whom Trzebinski seems to have disinterred every extant anecdote: even a variation of the old colonial chestnut in which native servants serve soup in chamber pots. ""D""--as he was known to the in-crowd--became the protectorate's premier landowner and its most vociferous fighter for planters' causes. It was he who led the opposition to a Zionist plan for a Jewish state in the protectorate. As for names that might strike a bell, there are fleeting references to Karen Blixen, a.k.a. Isak Dinesen, and Elspeth Huxley, but nothing about Kenyatta's youth. The Indian community gets short shrift, even though it dwarfed the white population. Indian sweat built the railroad that linked Mombasa with Lake Victoria, but the Indians' bustling market was torched in a bubonic plague scare in 1902. We are told that A.M. Jeevanjee--a wealthy Parsee--actually owned the building that a white man converted into the original Norfolk Hotel. But we wonder if he ever visited it, considering that Ali Khan (who owned a livery service) is cited as ""the only coloured man in Nairobi who was allowed to set foot in the Hotel Stanley."" Which brings us to the Africans, who appear to have been exceedingly accommodating as the whites gobbled up their grazing, farming and hunting grounds. The Maasai were moved twice to make room for pale-skinned settlers with nary a rattle of a spear. They and the Kiyuku also obligingly labored on the plantations. Their descendants are presumably not chagrined as is Trzebinski, that Kenya has no statue of Lord Delamere as a tribute to the early pioneers. ""Everything that is Kenya's today, the good and the bad aspects,"" he intones, ""grew out of (their) early struggles."" The success of the movie Out of Africa may spark some interest in this book; but readers would do well to eschew it in favor of Dinesen, Huxley and better organized, less fatuous histories.

Pub Date: April 14th, 1986
Publisher: Norton