Historian and Author

6 April 2012


I was in London last week, at the annual general meeting of the East Africa Women’s League (UK). There was a fascinating talk by David Arathoon, an English GP, about his recent return, with his brothers and sisters, to their old farm in Kenya, where they grew up. As I looked around the grey heads filling the room, I mused that these people were now part of history, and I hoped that their memories would not die with them. This magazine is doing its best to prevent that, and long may it continue. Of course we were all relics of colonialism and that has prevented many people from speaking about their experiences. But perhaps a more balanced view now prevails. Elspeth Huxley was wise on the subject. ‘Colonialism’, she said, ‘is now a dirty word to many, arousing feelings of indignation in black breasts and guilt in white ones – emotions equally disruptive, in my opinion, to a calm assessment of past history and the profitable conduct of present affairs. The most cogent summing up of colonialism I have seen was handed down by the quarterchief of Wum in Cameroon to the indefatigable traveller Dervla Murphy in the words: “Colonialism is like the zebra. Some say it is a black animal, some say it is a white animal, and those whose sight is good, they know it is a striped animal.”’

David Arathoon found many of the people who had worked on the farm and in the farmhouse. They gave him and his siblings a rousing welcome, with food and singing. It was particularly striking how prominent women now were in making decisions and running the co-operative centred on the old farm. At the local graveyard, youths who were loitering - somewhat threateningly, thought the Arathoons -  turned out to be extremely helpful in locating the grave of Barbara Arathoon, another sibling who had died as a baby, when medical attention could not be summoned quickly enough to the farm to save her. They cleared her grave and laid flowers (admittedly pinched from another grave).