In June 1938, my great-aunt Katharine set off from Dorset in the south-west of England to the boat train at Tilbury on the Thames, from where she sailed to Tangiers. A month later she was in Nairobi, staying with her brother Cenydd and his wife Alison, my grandparents. They had settled in Kenya twenty years before, in a place called Njoro, near Nakuru, on a farm Grandpa’s great-uncle Jack had called Glanjoro. My grandfather farmed Glanjoro until Daniel Arap Moi came to power in the early 1980s.
On 25 July Aunt Katharine and ‘the parents’, as my father called them when he himself was grown up, ‘left Nairobi in dull cold weather with grey clouded sky overhanging us all the morning … car very laden with petrol, water, food, suitcases, guns, spare parts. Self sitting in small hole in the middle, C & A in front. The plain stretches right out to the horizon, down to Tanganyika. It is flat plain with little scrubby thorny trees the first part of the way with occasional green belts of the big river thorns along the river dongas … There were masses of wildebeest, Tommies, Grants Gazelle, with the occasional kongoni both sides of the road … We kept passing groups of Masai, the young men with spears, and the women mostly with elaborate neck and arm ornaments.’
Aunt K kept a detailed and – for her family, not least my generation who didn’t know her well – riveting diary of their journey, written in a confoundingly different time, which I can’t help being nostalgic for although I shouldn’t really as it was full of its own fraught and awful injustices, and with a devastating war on the horizon. Still, when she writes ‘There is never any need to exaggerate colour in describing East Africa – the colours do all the exaggerating themselves’, how can you not long to go back and try to replicate her journey: from Nairobi, across the Tanzanian border into Arusha, down through to Zambia, into Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls, and into South Africa at Musina, from where they travelled to Springs on the outskirts of Johannesburg to stay with my great-aunt Monica and Monica’s husband Tom Savage, who in time became the Bishop of Zululand.
Aunt K. closes her diary, which is full of colour and cheeky humour: ‘We had come to the end of the 3200 miles journey with an average of between 200 and 300 miles driving a day. We had journeyed from the warmth of the equator in Kenya to the bitter cold of the Transvaal winter, across 4 countries’ border, though miles and miles of Africa … My diary records some of the scenery, some of the colours, some of the wild things and a very little of the beauty and humour and friendship we have found all down the road. It has been written in road hotels at rest houses after long days driving, often by lantern light in strange bedrooms when I have been very tired … to catch a few of the colours that have made for me the charm of Africa, for when I sail home from the waters of Capetown I shall inevitable take with me the longing to return that is the price of an African journey.’
Few, probably none, of my family would disagree with those last words. I think it makes those of us who don’t still live there long for Africa’s smells, sounds and sights, people and character; and feel great nostalgia, too, for that past version of the land, even if we know it only in stories our parents have told us, descriptions that have become family lore.
Aunt Katharine was a WREN in the Second World War. She never married and lived out the second part of her life with her younger sister, Diana, in a lovely old English cottage in Dorset called Howleigh. You can tell from her writing she was a wonderful observer and recorder – what might she have done had she been born fifty years later? And if only she could see the pleasure this diary has given us – her grand-nephew, who transcribed it lovingly through this year, and her grand-nieces. I don’t know if some of us are happier than others to be in the present without a backward glance, but the older I get the more keen I become to understand family history, family trees; where my antecedents came from, the time they grew up in. Aunt Katharine’s diary is going to be bound into a book, with maps and a family tree, so that it at least can be handed down to my children and the Foxcub and her sister, who can then take up the mantle of bearing witness to our lives, tiny weaves in the great fabric of humanity. In 1938 the world was on the brink of cataclysmic, unthinkable change; in some ways today feels a bit the same. Who can imagine what it will look like in 2042, but I hope my grandchildren will be able to look back on this time, as well, with some but not too much nostalgia and longing.