A Kenya childhood, by C.S. Nicholls. Oxford: The Author, 2011. 200pp. No ISBN given. £8.50 (available through http://www.blurb.com ).
Christine Nicholls will be familiar to readers of AR&D as the author of a wellregarded biography of Elspeth Huxley, and of Red strangers: the white tribe of Kenya. Now she has written her own memoirs of what it was like to grow up in what she aptly describes as "that strange between-times society of 1950s colonial Kenya" (p.200).
Christine Nicholls' family emigrated to Kenya in 1947, when her father had wanted to leave "austerity-ridden and shattered post-war Britain" and start a new life as a teacher in sunnier climes. Offered a post at the Technical College in Nairobi, he seems to have been only mildly disconcerted to find on arrival that the college had not yet been built, and accepted a post instead at the Central European School in Eldoret, which is where Christine spent her first few years in Kenya, before the family moved first to Nyeri and then to Mombasa. Christine was later educated at boarding school in Nairobi before leaving Kenya in 1960 when she gained a place to study at Oxford University. Her parents, having thought, like so many emigrants, that they would be spending the rest of their lives in Kenya, finally returned to Britain in 1974.
Over the last few decades, as the period of Britain's colonial empire begins to recede into history, many volumes of colonial memoirs have been published, but this one is unusual in having been written not by a settler or colonial administrator, but by someone who spent their formative years growing up during the last years of colonial rule, and who is also able to look back with a certain amount of nostalgia certainly, but also with dispassion and a willingness both to criticise many aspects of colonial society and to accept the political realities of the decolonisation process. Christine Nicholls' training as a professional historian has stood her in good stead in writing this book, and it is worth noting that even from a young age she kept a diary, from which she draws considerably in the later chapters.
Thus at one level this is an account of what sounds to have been by and large a happy childhood, with lively and occasionally colourful stories of family and friends and of life at a girls' boarding school with its customary wide assortment of teachers, but also with vivid portraits of the places she lived in, especially Mombasa, and of expeditions to the northern frontier district and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But all the time in the background, and increasingly in the foreground too, were the rumblings of political dissent and the threat (as the white settlers saw it) of an end to the colonial way of life. Much of Christine Nicholls' early life was spent in the shadow of the Mau Mau rebellion and some of the most interesting passages in the book describe how Mau Mau impinged on her life as a child in Kenya, both in practical terms (there is a quintessentially British story of how at school her class practised hiding under their desks in case of a Mau Mau attack, but were told lessons would continue even in that position), and, more seriously, in making her increasingly aware of the grievances of the indigenous population. …