The story of Kenya and one woman’s triumph over tragedy and adversity to create a wonderful garden that inspired visitors from all over the world. Full of adventure, mystery, history and a host of colorful characters – movie stars, writers, royalty, white hunters – who made colonial Kenya a glamorous place.
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About this book
Growing up in Kenya was the most wonderful experience and though I live far away from it now, the memories of childhood are always with me.
How can one possibly explain to those who didn’t experience the great privilege of an African childhood just what it was like? The beauty of the scenery that ranges from snow-capped mountains to open plains to palm-fringed coastline. The splendour of the wild animals which in my childhood were still everywhere, though already (as older people pointed out even then) in decline. The richly colourful life of the tribal Africans which then seemed so much simpler and in some ways richer than that of the materially-advantaged European settlers. Above all that special, indefinable “something” that was (and for some still is) the very magic of Kenya that none who was ever touched by it ever quite lost.
That is how I feel; so how much more strongly must it have been felt by those Europeans who first ventured into the Kenya wilderness and made it their home.
Such a one is Flora, the heroine of A Garden in Africa.
We first meet Flora as a teenage bride at the end of World War I, stepping off the boat in Mombasa in her white ankle-length cotton skirt and solar terai, ready to face a new life in a country very different from the suburban London in which she grew up. She comes from a comfortable but socially inferior background and will soon find herself mixing with Kenya’s notorious Happy Valley crowd of decadent aristocrats – indeed, she has married one though the marriage will be short-lived and bring her heartbreak. Flora, however, shrugs off any feelings of inferiority and devotes her essentially middle-class skills to wrenching a viable farm from the wilderness. In doing so she has to deal with drought, insect plague, marauding wild animals and an unskilled native workforce. Lion kill the cattle, leopard eat the chickens, her first modest attempts at gardening end in disaster. But Flora is a natural-born horticulturist and from tragedy, disappointment and loss she creates a wonderful garden that attracts visitors from all over the world. They include the writer Ernest Hemingway, the actor William Holden and minor members of European royalty.
Flora’s story is told against the backdrop of Kenya from the 1920s until the 1980s. There are the early struggles between settlers and the Home government, the effects of the Great Depression, World War II and its aftermath, the Mau Mau rebellion and, finally, the political independence from Britain that will drastically change the linked fates of the European settlers and their African subjects. She survives a scandalous divorce, the mysterious disappearance of her former husband, the tragic death of her lover, a daring flight to wartime England. Yet Flora is indomitable and triumphs over all adversity to the end…she is an ordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life. And who, above all her other achievements, created an extraordinary garden.
A Garden in Africa is admittedly biographical – dedicated to my beloved grandmother and drawn from family memory and other more substantial material. But I hope it is not the less interesting to the reader because of that – any story of Africa is bound to be exciting! There is mystery, too, at the heart of this book but it is not detective fiction and in the end the narrator – and the reader – learn that not all mysteries can be solved nor, indeed, are meant to be so.1 Comment
I read this book in two long sittings over the Easter weekend!
It brings out the atmosphere of colonial times so well, and in places reads like a compelling novel. It also provides detailed insights into how a garden is developed in a hostile environment, and if I remember rightly, even includes a recipe.
Thankyou for this journey back in time, Jill.