A Garden in Africa

My book, A Garden in Africa has proved particularly, though not surprisingly, popular with those who still remember Kenya when it was a British colony.  I’ve decided to publish excerpts from it on my blog from time to time, especially for those who don’t yet possess Kindle e-readers.  It tells the story of an extraordinary garden – and the extraordinary woman who created it.  I wrote it for the pleasure of those anywhere in the world who love gardens – and who love Africa.  The following excerpt might be of interest to gardeners who complain about their struggles with slug  Here goes:

One of the things Flora had learned from her trip to Europe was that the sort of garden she wanted could only be achieved with a proper design.  The plan was drawn up by Alex who was obviously skilled at draftsmanship because he had made a similar, very detailed and beautifully drawn design for the farm.  I remember seeing this up on the wall in my grandmother’s office, back in the sixties but I can’t find either plan among her possessions now.  However Flora’s sketches on which the finished garden plan was based do still exist and, though rough, they tell the story well enough.  At this stage Flora was strongly influenced by the English landscape style and wanted what Edward Hyams called a “paradise” garden, where art imitates nature – but artfully.  Her first move was to alter the perfect circles of the rose beds to a more natural, free-flowing shape and this was extended to a new herbaceous border running from the eastern end of the house in a southwards direction to the edge of the drop.  Now she turned her attention to the drop itself, and to the gully at one side.  There was a reason for this; gardens are usually developed outwards from the house but Flora had decided to rebuild, in a position close to the existing house but slightly higher up and further back, to allow a greater expanse of garden at the front.

A new house was long overdue; the old one was only ever intended to be a temporary shelter and she had lived in it for fourteen years.  The roof leaked, the beams were rotting, the outside walls were full of cracks, the interior walls so dilapidated that animal hides were hung everywhere to cover the holes.  The divorce settlement had given her sole ownership and possession of the farm; she had been prepared to fight for this but my grandfather apparently had shown no interest in keeping it anyway.  His new wife, American by birth, had acres to spare, in various parts of the world. So no doubt he was happy to be rid of what he had come to see as a lost cause, consuming all and returning little.  Beyond the farm Flora had little money and a considerable debt.  My grandfather made no effort to support his children, nor did he keep in touch with them.  “I expect he wanted to,” my mother said to me once, “But she would have stopped it.”

There is no doubt that Flora was very bitter against her husband and could never in later years bear to talk about him, or have him talked about in front of her.  It’s even possible she would have discouraged contact, if the need had arisen. But my grandfather had never shown much interest in his children and had left them apparently without a backward look, going from England to America without even, according to Aunt Betta, bothering to tell his parents what he was doing.  My Uncle Claudio now wrote and said that under the new regime in Italy my grandfather’s ancestral holding had been ordered sold for unpaid taxes. The family had decided that his rights to further inheritance would be passed over to his children, and that in the meantime a sum would be sent to my grandmother, sufficient for her to build a house and pay for the children’s schooling.

The house that Flora built with part of this money was not large by Kenya standards but she planned it from the start to be expanded as necessary, or when she could afford it. She preferred to bank the rest of the money as a nest egg for herself and the children; “cut your coat according to your cloth” was one of her favourite sayings in later life and she now put it into practice. “A few rooms but with lots of space,” she wrote in her diary and accordingly built a single storey home of grey stone, with a sitting room forty feet long, a dining room half that size, a large kitchen, pantry and scullery, two bathrooms and indoor lavatories (though “Beverley Nichols” was kept in use), four bedrooms and a small office or study.  The two rondavels used as living quarters by Alex were renovated and a new rondavel was built as temporary accommodation for visitors, until the house could be expanded.  The house’s best feature was the verandah which ran round three sides of the house; it was ten feet wide and supported on thick, square stone pillars. The verandah made the rooms inside rather dark but as most of the living was done within its spacious embrace, this didn’t matter.  And in those days before air conditioning cool, dark rooms were a welcome retreat from the African sun.  From the verandah,  sprawled in a hammock or on one of the vast, overstuffed sofas, you could look across the expanse of the garden to the plains that ran south to the Tanganyika border, with Kilimanjaro, which we called “Kili” and the Africans called simply “Njaro” gracing the horizon on a good day.

Most of the furniture for the new house came from the second hand sale rooms in Nairobi and these fitted in agreeably with good pieces that Flora had bought from England in her trousseau.  There was also a pair of exquisitely inlaid cabinets which had come from Italy and a carved Lamu chest that Lady J had given her.  Though a good housekeeper and clean to a fault, Flora was not much interested in interior decoration or the amassing of costly bric a brac nor were the meals served at her table notable for style or imagination.  She had a good cook in Mumbule who knew how to serve up simple dishes well prepared, such as soups, roasts and curries.  Beyond that he never ventured and Flora didn’t expect him to; she was never very interested in food herself and tended to snack between meals and then pick at the table.  Visitors seemed to enjoy the house’s unpretentious comforts and feel at home there; the only person I ever knew to dislike it was my mother.

Once the house was finished, Flora was able to concentrate on the garden. Directly in front of the verandah, and at a slightly lower level, was the area where the old house had stood. This was now turned into an herb garden so that the fragrance of it, changing subtly throughout the year, would flow into the house.  It made lying about on the verandah doubly delightful, and I spent a lot of time there as a child.  Today, when I smell basil or oregano or sage it takes me straight back there and I find myself sniffing for the dust-dry smoky dung scent of Africa behind it.

Flora’s interpretation of an herb garden was rather loose and the plantings included foxgloves, gerberas, stocks, snapdragons, a few roses grown for scent rather than appearance, a few bulbs in season and odd plants that she considered too delicate or otherwise unsuitable for the main garden.  The design was traditional, with small stone paths (the same stone that had been used for the house) radiating out from a central circle, complete with sundial.  The sundial was in alignment with the main verandah steps, so that you walked off the verandah and through the herb garden to the main garden beyond.  Though it worked well aesthetically, and the low-growing nature of the plants meant they didn’t block the view, there was a practical reason for placing the herb garden right at the front of the house.  Its contents were so tempting to such an array of creatures that Flora wanted it as close as possible, where the dogs could guard it and human presence deter marauders.  Nonetheless, it had to be enclosed.  A stone wall three feet high was built on either side, out from the verandah, and these were joined in the front by a picket fence with pointed palings.  The palings actually served as stakes and were quite sharp.  As an extra precaution, a hedge of thorny, bright-berried pyracantha was planted outside the walls and in front of the fence, on the outward side, where it was clipped short so that it didn’t block the view.  A gate was set into the fence with an archway over it, covered in a white banksia rose which most things found unpalatable and the duiker and dik dik couldn’t reach.

The herb garden was not completely unassailable behind its barricades.  The dogs could not be left out at night because of leopard, and duiker sometimes managed to scramble over the wall.  They are dainty feeders and mightn’t have done much damage, but once detected by dogs or humans they would panic and dash about seeking escape, their sharp little hooves scything through tender stems.  Once a whole herd of impala, on its way from the higher country behind the farm down to the plain, leapt with casual grace over fence and wall and within a short time reduced the herb garden to mulch.

As Flora was to say years later, when being interviewed by an English gardening writer: “Gardeners in Africa become philosophical about such set-backs and take them in their stride.  After all, a herd of impala is a beautiful sight and what gardener would not be thankful for it, even though it comes at a high price.”

Beyond the herb garden the main garden remained much as before, with lawn bounded on two sides by herbaceous borders.  This section was protected on the outside by plantings of the fast-growing bamboo Bambusa oldhamii which had formed an impenetrable screen and windbreak, with a wire fence behind it as a further deterrent.  Elephant would have easily smashed through this barrier but they very rarely strayed on to the farm and were found only in the low country at the further end of it.  Rhino, which ten years before had been a considerable nuisance even close to the house, and had devastated the early attempts at vegetable growing, were now much less numerous and stayed further back in the bush, away from habitation.  Once, though, a more venturesome rhino did come crashing through the bamboo screen and galloped around the garden, pursued by the hysterical dogs. It dug up the lawn and sent great gouts of turf flying, and what it did to the herbaceous borders came near to breaking Flora’s heart.  It must have been quite a scene; a maddened rhino charging everything in sight, the dogs dodging around it, the servants trying to scare it away by banging on kettles and trays, shouting their heads off but keeping a safe distance.  At one stage it came right through the herb garden fence and up to the steps of the house, but Flora threw a stool at it, startling it enough to turn and gallop back to the main garden where it stood at the top of the bank, huffing and lowering its head.    By this time Flora thought it might have to be shot, before it did serious damage and perhaps charge round to the back of the house, to the yards, where there were horses and chickens and children. But she was neither strong enough nor expert enough to handle the heavy rifle, none of the house servants could shoot at all and Alex was somewhere out on the farm.  Instead she called the dogs and the servants into the house and there they stayed, hoping that the rhino might calm down and go away.

Author in farm garden with a honey badger – another garden pest!

When Alex came back at dusk, four hours later, it was still there, but lying down.  They left it there overnight and in the morning it was dead, vultures already circling overhead.  When Alex and them men cut it open they found its intestines riddles with parasites as well as a festering wound in one groin.

“A. says that’s probably why it was eating the bamboo,”Flora noted in her diary.  “It’s a funny thing but I felt quite sad to see it lying there, even though it did so much damage.  It must have been suffering terribly.”  At least the dying rhino had left a bonus; great piles of manure which could be used on the roses.

Rhinos on the rampage weren’t the only wildlife problem Flora had to deal with.  Lion had always been very plentiful at Matu Maini, with at least two large prides claiming it as their territory.  Flora had always been rather proud of her lion but now that so much of the farm was under cultivation and cattle, much of the grazing game – the zebra and the antelope, the wildebeest and the kongoni – had been driven away.  This meant the lion had to go further afield to hunt, so they turned their attention to the cattle.  No thorn fence, however high or thick, can keep out a determined lion, which meant that the herdsman had to be particularly vigilant – and courageous.  In the early 1930s one of the herd boys was killed and another badly mauled.  There were also a few instances of lions turning man-eater and killing people in the nearby Kamba reserve. Several times Flora had to call John Hunter to come and shoot troublesome lion, but she hated doing so and would take no part in the hunts herself.  Killing is part of life in Africa and she had been there long enough to accept it, but she could never take pleasure in doing it for sport.  This feeling was shared by Alex who, unusually for a farm manager and a man of his background, refused to kill anything unless it was to protect people or the livestock in his charge.  Even then, like Flora, he prepared to get the game department to do it, or friends like Harold Hill, Phillip Percival or John Hunter who could be relied on to do a professional job, without causing unnecessary suffering.  This was not a common view in Kenya at the time, when the big game safari had become a status symbol for the rich.  Flora was often invited to join these safaris, but she never did.

“I like live animals, not dead ones!” was her stock reply and some people were affronted when she said it to Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway came briefly to the farm with Phillip Percival who was taking the Great Writer on safari.  He showed no interest in the garden, which by then had becoming something she liked to show off, though his then wife Pauline enthused over the view.  When they met again, Flora found that Hemingway’s voice and opinions grated on her nerves and she disliked the way he propounded blood sports as an exaltation of manhood.  “There’s no heart in what he wrote,” she told me, when speaking of their meeting.  “You can tell he really hated women and didn’t understand them at all.” She classed his work with that of her other literary bete noir Karen Blixen – insubstantial and too self-consciously clever by half.  Theodore Dreiser and Arnold Bennett were, to her, far better writers than Hemingway, though her literary affections still lay in the past century, with Dickens and Trollope.  Mind you, when I read Hemingway today I can see she was right about one thing, he did hate women.

Hyena were another common problem on the farm and no night went by that you couldn’t hear them whooping around the sheds and yards, hoping to find a stray animal that had been overlooked when the herdsmen locked them in for the night.  They took to hanging around the dairy when the evening milking was taking place, ready to snatch a calf or rip the udders from a cow.  Though they could have ripped us to pieces just as easily, we didn’t treat them with much respect, convinced by the common belief that they were cowards.  It depends how you judge courage; one of my childhood tasks was to go out at night and chase the hyena away from the bins where the household rubbish was stored.  I would rush at them, waving a stick, and they always ran, with that ugly lope that reminds me of Charles Laughton’s hunchback.  Yet I have seen a hyena bite off its own leg to escape a trap, as foxes are said to do.  Hyena were not as much of a problem with the chickens as jackals were, because of their size which prevented them squeezing through the wire mesh, but they would attack just about everything else and once killed a bloodstock foal, out in the paddock not far from the house. Flora’s reluctance to kill wildlife didn’t extend to hyena; like most people she disliked them and put down poison bait without a qualm.

Leopard and baboon lived in the rocky heights of the hill behind the house.  This hill was typical of the country, rising like a pimple from the skin of the plain, its gentle grade suddenly steepening towards the top.  The lower slopes of the hill were cultivated but beyond the halfway line it was just grass, quite long after the wet season but otherwise grazed short.  Small, sparse-leaved bushes grew there, and whistling thorn.  Hyrax lived among the lower rocks and if you walked or rode up there you could sit in the sun and watch them.  I thought they would make good pets, but was never fast enough to catch one, nor able to persuade anyone else to catch one for me.  We kept an eye out for leopard and sometimes saw one sitting on a rock, looking half-asleep but ready to move if we got too close.  The hill was also home to a troop of baboons whose sleeping cave was tucked away at the end of a crumbling ledge.  In the evenings the adults would herd the families along the ledge, on all fours or swinging dangerously above the chasm on the branches of fragile shrubs growing horizontally out of the rock.  The big dog baboons would go last, looking back frequently over their shoulders to check on any possible pursuit. From time to time they would make forays into the orchard and vegetable garden, and a few of them would be shot to frighten the rest away.  Eventually there were just too many people around for them to venture close to the farm, though old men with older guns had to be employed to guard the maize crop when it began to ripen, even when I was a girl.  One of the thrills of my childhood was to lie in bed at my grandmother’s and listen for a leopard to come down the hill.  You always knew when it was on the move because the baboon sentries would begin to bark, and you could follow the leopard’s progress by the continuous barking that did not stop until the baboons considered themselves out of danger.

Flora loved lion and developed a great rapport with them but she was never so keen on leopard.  She thought them beautiful but sly and could never forgive their appetite for dogs; almost every dog she ever owned was taken by leopard in the end.  In the diary for 1934 Flora wrote about her feeling for lion vis a vis leopard.  During these years she wrote many such fragments, which read as if she might have been thinking of putting them into a book, or an article.  Or perhaps a letter to somebody.  I particularly liked this one:

“Africans greatly fear and respect Leopards.  Far more so than Lions, though Leopards never go hunting men (unless being hunted themselves) as lions sometimes do.  But Lions are everyday creatures, often seen in full daylight, appearing lounging and lazy unless actually hunting.  Whereas Leopards are creatures of the night, secretive and rarely seen, even their call no more than a discreet cough that seems to warn, “I am passing, perhaps it is best we don’t meet’.  Quite unlike the Lion’s bold, self-advertising roar.”  

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One thought on “A Garden in Africa

  1. Pingback: A Garden in Africa | gardenezi

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