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Happy Valley by Nicholas Best

Happy Valley

by Nicholas Best

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This is possibly as good a concise history of Kenya (and East Africa) as you'll find anywhere. Best gallops through almost 100 years of history - from the late 1800's to 1978 - with a series of pen portraits of extraordinary characters, and some very sharp analysis of colonial and local politics. In the midst of this rich material the author only barely touches upon the sex and murder scandals of the British aristocratic settlers in the area known as 'Happy Valley'. The story of those events is more than adequately covered by James Fox in his 'White Mischief' and Erroll Trzebinski's 'The Life and Death of Lord Erroll'.

While the scandals made those books good reading, and boosted their sales, Best is telling a much larger story here. It is the collision between colonialism and the aspiration for land and independence among the local peoples, culminating in the Mau Mau Rebellion. You begin to understand that behind the stories of courage and vision that the colonial powers brought to Kenya, there was an immense injustice as well. Best doesn't 'bang the drum' on this, but introduces this theme very subtly by telling the stories of those who suffered that injustice, alongside the stories of the colonialists. And you realize by the end of the story that Best comes down firmly on the side of justice, and history.

It must be said at this point that the title of Best's book, 'Happy Valley' might have been foisted upon him by his publisher in order to cash in on the continuing salacious interest in those events. But the reader would be deceived, and Best's skill and his admiration for Kenya and its achievements would be ill served if the reader thought this was another book that was going to simply regurgitate tales of cross-dressing and bathroom parties of the jaded (white) elite.

But there's no shortage of local gossip in Best's book. Indeed it is a bit unerving to read some of those details, mentioned as 'asides' to this seemingly seriously researched (and immensely readable) history. Best doesn't qualify his observations or cite sources when mentioning some of this material and you wonder if he is perhaps not being serious enough to be writing a serious history. But then, and you almost have to read between the lines, you realize that Best grew up in Kenya, and that he doesn't need to quote references or hedge about whether some of this material is perhaps exaggerated or plain wrong. These stories are the stories of his life, that surrounded him as he grew up, and coming from a Kenyan (and not a London academic) I was much happier to accept them at face value.

This is a very good history of the colonial and the early post-colonial period of Kenya. It does not go into huge amounts of detail, but what is there seems to be accurate, and tells the essential story. It would be an excellent introduction to Kenyan history, and a book to branch out from to further reading (there is a good bibliography). The title is a little misleading, but only in the sense that the book is much, much, better than the title and its associations suggests. Highly recommended. ( )
  nandadevi | Jul 30, 2013 |
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