Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Forgotten Pioneer by Anthea Ramsay

The Forgotten Pioneer by Anthea Ramsay
Published by Matador in December 2013.

Featured in WorldReads: Kenya

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"My grandfather was one of the first white men to set foot in Kenya when it was a newly discovered, barren and dangerous place. Neither he or his family ever imagined that he would fall under the spell of Africa and remain there for the rest of his life…"

Anthea Ramsay was inspired to write her grandparents' story after being left their diaries, photographs and letters which described the terrible dangers and hardships they endured in East Africa in the early 1900s. The Forgotten Pioneer records their experiences as early pioneers, followed by the lives of their children, Anthea's parents, and the life of the author herself. 

There is never a dull moment in Anthea's family history, from one generation to the next. She describes the difficulty of her grandparents' experiences through a time when there were no hospitals or medicines and illnesses such as black water fever and typhoid were rife, her parents' decadent lives on the edge of the Happy Valley set and their connections with the murder of Lord Erroll, and finally her own experiences growing up in Africa and living in the shadow of the Mau Mau rebellion. 

The Forgotten Pioneer takes the reader on an enchanting journey, tracing the family through four generations. From her grandfather leaving his home in Kent to live in a tent and face many close encounters with man-eating lions and hostile African tribes with poisoned arrows, to her eldest daughter returning to Kenya to live and farm with her family, it seems each generation has been equally captivated by this magical place. 

A unique timeline of one family’s history in East Africa, The Forgotten Pioneer makes a captivating read for anyone who has experienced or is interested in Africa.

Anthea Ramsey first wrote this memoir as a record for her grandchildren so they could have some understanding of how their family had come to live in Kenya. I feel it is important to know this before embarking on the read because, although my interest was maintained throughout, this isn't a professional recounting of a family history and it wasn't intended to be. The book is a good starting point to explore the British in Kenya as Ramsey touches upon famous scandals such as the antics of the Happy Valley set. She also writes about her memories of the Mau Mau uprising. I appreciated the inclusion of lots of old photographs especially the one of Doctor Rosendo Ribeiro riding his zebra because I had already been made aware of this man through Vered Ehsani's fun Society For Paranormals crime fiction series which is set in 1910s Nairobi.

In criticism of The Forgotten Pioneer I would say that I often wanted a lot more detail than we were given, especially of Ramsey's grandparents' lives, although I understand that the level of detail I'm thinking of would have actually turned The Forgotten Pioneer into more of a history of British Kenya which wasn't the idea of this book! I did find myself sadly shaking my head at the results of the British occupation. Ramsey mentions her grandfather going to shoot wild animals at weekends mostly to alleviate his boredom, and of lions being so numerous they were considered vermin. With so many species now being on the brink of extinction, I felt uncomfortable reading about such irresponsible behaviour. The Forgotten Pioneer is written from an exclusively white point of view too. Ramsey does make a point to seemingly always use the words happy and smiling ahead of any mention of the family's black servants, but her equally frequent use of hostile to describe black people who weren't servants tells its own story.

While Ramsey is obviously proud of what her grandfather achieved as a white pioneer anglicising Kenya, there is never any discussion of whether he Should have done these things. We are obliquely shown black tribes shunted off into reservations so white immigrants can buy cheap land; we then see white families insisting on maintaining their British way of life with very few choosing to integrate into Maasai or Kikuyu culture - quite the opposite to expectations of how immigrants To Britain should behave. I was also surprised by how normal it seemed for families to not actually live as families, but instead to rely on nannies and boarding schools to take up parental roles. The Forgotten Pioneer is an interesting glimpse into a very different way of life!

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Anthea Ramsey / Biography and memoir / Books from Kenya

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