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Daily Nation : February 15th 2014
SATURDAY NATION February 15, 2014 Weekend 37 HISTORY | The real story of white privilege cannot be told by the current crop of offensive non-indigenous farmers Death and Life of Kenya’s Happy Valley crowd 50 years after independence, there are some colonial settlers who still long for the miguided nostalgia of their fathers, refusing to accept that the country has long moved on The Buxton House, the Happy Valley home of colonial aristocrat Countess Alice de Janze. It is one of the once splendid country houses that today lies in a state of decaying dereliction. DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG | NATION BY DANA APRIL SEIDENBERG email@example.com constant flow of books, films and photos every decade is, to say the least, bewildering. Yet when voluminous works with titillating titles featuring “ghosts,” “aristocrats,” “passion” and “murder” keep pouring off the presses, you know Kenya’s Happy Valley crowd is a cult phenomenon. But why does this bunch con- T tinue to tweak the curiosity of still another generation of armchair travellers and tourists to the subcontinent? Especially since the current Kenyan dynamic is far from the crusty, segregated world of embittered colonials drinking and partying their way through the Second World War and the demise of white privilege. As Nairobi explodes in a breathtaking extravaganza of literature, art, music and film, the real mystery is not the stale subject of Lord Errol’s murder. Colonial life Has it to do with the love of fairy tales, of dazzling princesses, wealth, beauty and romance? Of living in fabulous country houses in unspoiled panoramic landscapes where the mythical meets the real? Is it about reliving the legends of King Arthur, Lancelot and their Guinevere in merry Africa? Of late Gilded Age British Kenya in the 1920s and 1930s where gorgeously garmented femmes fatales took high tea off delicate china in velvet and pearls? Or it is about gentlemen and lady farmers who carpeted over a wilderness in a sea of coffee imagined in Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa or the readers of the best-selling magazine Hello those whose expectations of glamour and glory are heightened each week by its appearance. hat the escapades of a certain class of European settler-farmers merit a Or is about the slow, easy living popularised by 1950s American anti-hero Jack Kerouac, exponent of off- the-road living, as eccentric escapees of humdrum zero-sum games along highways of routine wisdom leading predictably to the same dead end. Kerouac’s world was a liberating place where free love, spontaneity and simplicity reigned supreme; the high-spirited bohemians carving out a life apart in a simpler time contrast with our own hectic lives. Might the Happy Valley crowd be real-life exemplifiers of an alternative space for overburdened souls who have lost touch with the simple joys away from the fast lane? What of the amateur detec- tive in us all? Of walking into an unsolved murder plot… and the delicious heartbreak of jilted lovers that went along with it? At the height of World War II, where elsewhere tens of thousands of Allied forces were dying, the group was partying at the notorious Muthaiga Club. On his way home in the early hours of January 24, l941, the handsome blue-eyed aristocrat, Lord Erroll, dies along Nairobi’s dark Ngong Road. The usual suspects are picked up with Sir Jock Delves Broughton, the cuckolded husband, being the prime suspect while others with motives including Diana Delves Broughton, fading eye candy Lady Idina Hay and Countess Alice de Janze offstage. But with so many Happy Valley crowd insiders having motives, who didn’t kill Lord Erroll? In the hands of seasoned storyteller Agatha Christie, these sideshows would have worked as a conveniently fabricated plot line diversion as the real killer is revealed. Curiosity tweaked, and in January I criss-crossed the Wanjohi Valley in a Kenya Museum Society tour that dead-ended in dilapidated shacks — the former homes of Happy Valley notables. Alice de Janze’s first home, the Buxton house and another at Kipipiri renovated as a police station, were just some of the once splendid country houses today in states of decaying dereliction. Little was left either to bring these people to life or to fathom the continuous interest in them. In a troop hinged together by chance rather than personal affinity, our group was allowed a peek into the peculiarities of a colonial farming family in a place where time stood still. Seen through the eyes of an officious octogenarian, Kenya’s colony’s tumultuous history of political protest, Mau Mau or even Kenyatta I and II was missing. Only his vintage 1920 antique automobile once driven by movie magnet Meryl Streep in the 1985 film Out of Africa aroused more interest. Whites only Later in another unsettling confirmation of a shared quality of mind, lunch was served at Gilgil Country Club, where after 50 years of Independence, no Kenyan of colour had become a member. Having gained little but a glimpse into the closed minds and prejudices of a few people, back in Nairobi I read the four books — The Ghosts of Happy Valley (2013) by Juliet Barnes, The Temptress (2010) by Paul Spicer, The Life and Death of Lord Errol (2000) by Errol Trzebinksi and Child of Happy Valley (1999) by Juanita Carberry. As the writers had either blood connections or were professional legend-makers themselves, would they also be contributors to the mountain of trivia already amassed? The four works are of a kind, filled with the antics of randy, self-absorbed merrymakers. Who exactly was Josslyn Victor Hay aka Lord Erroll, after whom a popular restaurant located in Nairobi’s Runda Estate is named? Aside from his reputation as a hot number in bed, the lord was a spineless member of the British Union of Fascists and member of the colonial government. Juanita Carberry, after whom a Nairobi Hospital ward is named, grew up as an unwanted child, later joining the Merchant Marines. Her claim to fame: being told by Delves Broughton himself after the trial that it was he who killed Lord Erroll. In 1899 Alice Silverthorne was born an heiress in Buffalo, an Upstate New York urban backwater known mainly for its proximity to Niagara Falls. She leaves for Paris where she marries Count de Janze and bears two children. Dumping the girls, she and the Count are off to Africa where she becomes the lord’s favoured mistress. Alice loves guns. After trying Later in another unsettling confirmation of a shared quality of mind, lunch was served at Gilgil Country Club, where after 50 years of Independence, no Kenyan of colour had become a member” Writer Dana April Seidenberg and failing to kill Raymund de Trafford and herself, she marries him and returns to Kenya and her lord. Living in fancy houses and throwing lots of money around does not make for Camelot. At 41, Alice commits suicide. Paul Spicer believes she was the murderess. In retracing the evidence, Juliet Barnes weighs in on the murder mystery too. She accepts Errol Trzebinski’s opinion that “Erroll had been a full-blown Nazi, a threat to the British govern- ment” and that according to a 25,000-word document compiled by a former intelligence officer, his death was a “political assassination.” Although Trzebinski attributed “Operation Highland Clearance” to two undercover agents brought in from outside, perhaps as Delves Broughton admitted and Alice suggested, the latter two actually were both accessories to the crime. In throwing off the rest of Kenya... and the world by accentuating lascivious media tales as plot diversions, they were simply following Agatha Christie’s formula, their contribution to the Allied war effort. The real story of the Happy Valley crowd is yet to be written. Its true place in Kenya’s narrative history is part of the continuing discourse on the obscene class divide and roles power and privilege play in shaping the current body politic. With 60 per cent of Kenyans living on less than Sh425 a day and plenty of hypocrisy to go around — the most notable being the political class mimicking the Happy Valley Crowd’s spendthrift antics — it might be time to rethink economic, social and political integration in Kenya. Offensive colonials As for the Museum Society, rather than an emporium of unfunny anecdotes on Kenya by offensive colonials echoing the same misguided nostalgia founded in the works of Karen Blixen, who better than the cadre of capable professional historians around to address the KMS? Recovering uncomfortable truths on land expropriation with farmers becoming squatter-workers on vast European holdings is a beginning. Investigating why the unders- erved stay underserved is about moral engagement and a more politically active place to be than as passive observers to old world scams.
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