A lost world
The furore surrounding Tom Cholmondeley, accused of shooting two black people on his land, has thrown the spotlight on Kenya's 30,000-strong white community. Despite 40 years of black rule, many white Kenyans lead hugely privileged lives - and some still own vast swathes of the country. Chris McGreal on life in 'Trigger Happy Valley'
The Guardian, Thursday 26 October 2006
After the first killing, there was a great deal of sympathy for the Honourable Tom Cholmondeley among Kenya's disparate white population. The aristocrats who own vast tracts of land, the alcohol and drug-fuelled "Kenya cowboys" living the fast life in tourism and conservation, and the middle-class suburbanites who "love Africa" but despatch their children to school in England could all understand how the 38-year-old scion of the country's most prominent white settler family, and heir to the Delamere baronetcy, shot dead a black game warden who ventured on to his ranch last year. Old white families in Kenya's Great Rift valley are so besieged by poaching, murder and crime, his sympathisers said, that life has become very difficult for the haves. It was a mistake any one could have made. The authorities agreed, and let the Eton old-boy go.
The second time, even before the evidence was heard, sympathy was in short supply. This time Cholmondeley was accused of killing a black poacher. "The sense here among both communities [white and black] is nail him," says Michael Cunningham-Reid, a stepbrother to Cholmondeley's father. "Once is forgivable, twice is inexcusable."
Cholmondeley, who is now on trial for murder - which he denies - has become a liability for Kenya's 30,000-strong white community, which, through more than 40 years of black rule, has clung on to its privileged lifestyle - and in the case of 12 or so old settler families, great swathes of land - largely by keeping its collective head down. Cholmondeley, who can expect to inherit a 100,000-acre ranch along with the title of Lord Delamere, had committed the unforgivable sin of rocking the boat.
The white community had spent decades trying to shake off the image of Kenya's Rift Valley as the "Happy Valley" playground of decadent and racist toffs, a view shaped by wartime Britain's fascination with the salacious details of adultery, drugs and debauchery provided in the trial of Sir Jock Delves Broughton (who was eventually acquitted of murdering his wife's lover, Lord Erroll). Infuriatingly, the story was given new life in the 80s by the film White Mischief, starring Greta Scacchi and Charles Dance. Now Cholmondeley's killings have prompted wags to redub the place "Trigger Happy Valley".
The trial coincides with the latest wave of doubt among white people over their future in Kenya - people who have always wondered whether they truly belonged, and whether one day they might be expelled like the Asians from Uganda and white farmers from Zimbabwe - and growing insecurity after a spate of murders of white people.
Kenya's independence came in 1963. A majority of the 60,000 white settlers were gone by the end of the decade. Those who remained generally took out Kenyan citizenship (although many secretly, and illegally under Kenyan law, keep their British passports). One who stayed was Michael Cunningham-Reid, a nephew of the late Lord Mountbatten and part of the extended Delamere clan that forged the path for aristocratic settlers into East Africa with an energetic enthusiasm for hunting, drinking and sex. Cunningham-Reid's mother, Ruth Ashley, the daughter of Lord Mount Temple, was on to her third marriage by the time she wed the Fourth Baron Delamere, Thomas Cholmondeley, during the second world war. When they divorced in 1955, Cholmondeley went on to marry Diana Caldwell, the by-then famous widow of Sir Jock Delves Broughton.
Today, Cunningham-Reid, 78, lives in the heart of Happy Valley, the exclusive town of Karen (named after the author Karen Blixen, who memorialised her life in Kenya in Out of Africa). "When I came out of the army in 1948, my stepfather, Lord Delamere, said, 'You've only been in the army three years. You haven't learned to do anything. No one's going to employ you in the City because you've got no training. You'd better come to Kenya and work on my farms.' That was 1948. I'm still here," he says.
The family trustees bought him an 800-acre farm and, a couple of years after that, Cunningham-Reid was successful enough to buy a 6,000-acre ranch to farm sheep and wheat. In the 1950s, during the Kenya Emergency, when Mau Mau rebels rose up against the crown, Cunningham-Reid found himself back in the army and in charge of Kenyan soldiers loyal to the UK. His views of that time - and the language he uses, redolent of old-school racism - have not changed greatly despite the recognition today of the atrocities committed by British forces. "The atrocities of the Kenya regiment were there but not on the scale of the Mau Mau," he says. "The amazing thing about the Kenyan is you could find him in the forest, shoot two of his pals, capture him and he would be working for you two days later."
At independence, much of the white population weighed up the benefits of a glorious lifestyle against what they considered the nightmare of black rule - and decided to get out.
Cunningham-Reid took a gamble. He believed that the big issue was the land, and his best hope of remaining in Kenya would be to get rid of it. "All my friends were hooking it, saying, 'We can't live with a fucking black man telling us what to do,'" he says. "I farmed happily until independence in 1963. But the British government made £22m available to buy out farmers in the Rift Valley. I was the first in the queue. Although I intended to stay, I thought all the farms would be broken up into small plots and we'd be plagued by squatters and the land would be a big political issue."
He used the money to buy a mansion in Karen, a house that was being left behind by Lady Twining, wife of the former governor of Tanganyika. "I basically liked the African and I couldn't picture myself going back to England and buying a very small farm or something," he says. The money also extended to a house on the coast and a hotel next to Lake Naivasha, which was to become the crucible of the family's future in conservation.
The gamble paid off. More than four decades later he is still installed in Lady Twining's sprawling old house, with servants to hand and the chauffeur ever ready with the Mercedes for the swift drive to his club. He has no regrets about staying. "There were times when I had serious doubts: have I been a complete fool? Am I going to lose everything? There have been moments when I considered sending my family away. Not myself though. I'd stay and go down with the ship," he says. "The white community has survived by laying low, keeping their mouths shut. We stayed out of politics. That was the big taboo. We must be no challenge to the black man's political power."
Not everyone stayed out of politics. Richard Leakey, who heads Kenya's other most prominent white family, confronted white Kenyan society's deep-seated paternalism - at times hardly removed from the views of the old colonial officers who proclaimed they had brought Christianity and civilisation to the natives - by wading into the forbidden territory of politics. Leakey's parents, Louis and Mary, made the Leakey name with a multitude of anthropological finds; Richard established himself as a paleoanthropologist in his own right with the discovery of the oldest human skull yet found, before going on to make a name as head of Kenya's Wildlife Service. He saved the country's elephants by winning a worldwide ban on ivory trading and brought Kenya's 51 parks from the brink of collapse. He is also one of the few Europeans to openly distance himself from the white clan in Kenya.
"These people bore me stiff and I'm not part of that set at all," he says. "Some of them are pretty racist people deep down. They don't mix and have very negative attitudes to their fellow Kenyans. I keep them at arm's length and I find them offensive."
Leakey is unusual among white Kenyans in having sent his two daughters to a Kenyan government school where almost all the other pupils were black. "They are both real Kenyans," he says. "They speak perfect Swahili and they know all the important networks in this country because they went to school with people who are now part of them."
White Kenyans revelled in the kudos Leakey brought them until a decade ago, when he scared the hell out of them by daring to point the finger of responsibility for rampant corruption, mismanagement and cynical political violence at the man responsible - President Daniel arap Moi. He broke the taboo on white people embroiling themselves in opposition politics, launching Safina, a party that promised to combat police brutality and shambolic public services. Moi accused Leakey of being a neo-colonial racist, traitor and atheist.
Another white Kenyan who joined Leakey in Safina, Rob Shaw, also found himself under attack from the neighbours. "I had several come round to me and say, 'We've had a good life here since independence, we've kept our heads down. Why are you putting your head above the parapet?'" he says. "If I look back to my parents' generation, through independence and after there was a large element of, 'We don't know how long we've got here.' That sort of insecurity was ingrained."
White people were, however, welcome to serve the government. Leakey's brother, Philip, was an MP for the ruling party for 15 years and briefly a minister. He led 88 white Kenyans to pay homage to President Moi on bended knee and distance the white community from Richard. "Some were starting to think of us as a potential target," says Philip Leakey, "and we felt it was necessary to prevent ourselves from becoming a target by clearing the air and getting the response we got from the president - that we should carry on being good Kenyans, as we've been."
Richard Leakey says white Kenyans' fear of politics is a reflection of their failure to integrate and their desperation to hang on to privilege. "I feel sufficiently sure that Kenya is my home to be able to criticise the president," he says. "Very few Europeans have got involved in public life and politics, and that's because they haven't felt integrated. They haven't made the effort to integrate. So many of these people live a privileged life. They don't want to integrate socially. They don't speak the language. They send their children to schools in England and South Africa, and then say there's no future for them in Kenya. They must feel like fish out of water. I suppose it's because they have a very privileged life. It's very peachy."
Life is still very privileged in Happy Valley, but the whiff of scandal is never far off, and the detail is astonishingly reminiscent of another age. Cunningham-Reid's daughter, Anna, established herself as a designer whose clothes proved a hit with the likes of Kate Moss, Princess Caroline of Monaco and Jemima Khan. She married Antonio Trzebinski, an artist from one of the most prominent and long-standing white families in Kenya. He was murdered five years ago by a single shot through the heart as he drove to see his Danish mistress, Natasha Illum Berg, the only licensed female big game hunter in East Africa. Trzebinski, a surfer and big game fisherman renowned for his drinking, drug use and womanising, was killed little more than a mile from where Lord Erroll was shot.
Then, a year ago, Anna raised eyebrows by marrying a semi-nomadic warrior, Loyaban Lemarti, in a ceremony that involved the slaughter of a bull. Lemarti wore a toga and lion skin. She now divides her time between her husband's rural village, white society in Karen and fashion shows in London. Michael Cunningham-Reid describes the marriage as "an experience" that has not gone down universally well among white Kenyans. But he calls Lemarti "a very close friend of mine". "I think [racial] attitudes have changed with some families," he says. "With me it's changed. Tom Delamere was my stepfather. He considered the black man a necessary evil. You had to have him around to do the work. Since then I've found out that the black man is a human being after all," he says.
The unwelcome attention caused by Tom Cholmondeley aside, the old family names are increasingly an irrelevance in Kenya. They have largely ceased to matter. The white community is now better represented by a comfortable middle class that has carved out a future in tourism and conservation. New white immigrants continue to arrive. Arabella Akerhielm, who hails from a wealthy family in Chelsea and was part of the Sloane Ranger set in the 80s, first came to Kenya in 1990. Four years later she married Baron Carl-Gustav Akerhielm, a member of one of the first Swedish families to settle in East Africa.
"I'm here to stay," she says at her relatively small home in a Nairobi suburb. "I was in financial advertising in the City in London. To me the quality of life is better here, although we're not as rich financially. I suppose it's somewhat colonial. Our husbands do the work. There are moments of insecurity, but there's the freedom. Life's wilder here, more cavalier. It's not so materialistic. In England I came from a very privileged background. I like being away from the City boys talking about their cars."
Baroness Akerhielm - as she says she does not like to be known - says there is not much racism but recognises there is not much integration either. "Some people are quite scathing [about Kenyans], but as a general rule I don't think there's much racism. If anything there's racism against whites in getting jobs," she says. "But we are quite tribalistic. I suppose I don't have a lot of black friends. My husband, even being brought up here, does not have a lot of black friends, but I believe my daughter will mix more freely. A lot more children educate their children here or in South Africa than in the past. There are still the school flights to England, but fewer go." Nonetheless Akerhielm has already put her own seven-year-old daughter down for a place in 2011 at her old Catholic private school in Ascot.
Ask Michael Cunningham-Reid if his family will still be in Kenya in two or three generations and he is doubtful. "My feeling of 100% belonging here may not be right for my children and grandchildren. I am completely sure I will die here peacefully rather than have a panga in the back of the neck. I don't know about my children," he says.
Others are already making plans to leave. Barry Gaymer is a professional big game hunter who lives on an island in Lake Naivasha. Since hunting is banned in Kenya, he takes his rich American clients to Tanzania. "People say we're racist, but we've never been comparable with anywhere south [Rhodesia or South Africa] in the way we treated the blacks," he says. "I think the majority of blacks in my area like me. I drink with them. I get along with them. Generally, I think they like the old-time whites. In this country, the word for respect is fear. Because they fear me, they respect me."
Gaymer's father was one of those who came on a grant after the war and became a ranch manager. Gaymer bought land but sold up in the late 70s and turned to tourism. Today he is chairman of the Naivasha wildlife conservancy that has 23 members who own or farm a combined total of 380,000 acres that is home to 55,000 head of wildlife. About half of them are white. "I didn't even think of myself as coming from England. I could hardly imagine the place. But now, very recently, I've been thinking about moving, leaving Kenya. It's getting too much," he says.
Naivasha is not the happy place that the white population once imagined. Seven white people have been murdered in the area in the past two years (no one can tell you how many black people have been murdered). In January, a renowned British conservationist, Joan Root, 69, was killed at her home on the banks of Lake Naivasha where she had lived for decades. Root had been trying to put an end to the illegal fishing on the lake that has caused a collapse in the fish population over the past five years. The water level is falling alarmingly, and the lake is increasingly polluted by pesticides and sewage.
The established families blame the sprawling flower farms that provide roses and carnations to Marks & Spencer and other European stores. The farms tap into the lake and spew out waste. They have also caused an influx of black Kenyans to Naivasha to work, or in search of work, that has seen the population of the town rise tenfold to 300,000 people, many living in considerable poverty. With that have come the killings and other crimes.
Gaymer also believes that Kenya's wildlife will be wiped out in the coming years unless there is a dramatic change in government policy to permit licensed hunting. "I'm looking at Tanzania now," he says. "I've bought 2m hectares there with antelopes, hippo, buffalo, zebra. The country was a mess because of socialism, but the one thing they did was get rid of tribalism. I think it has a future".