In 1883, the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson mapped a route through East Africa from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. These were lands long dominated by the Masai, but cattle blight and severe drought had killed off 90 percent of their herds and perhaps half the tribal population. Into this void came the British, who in just five decades built a thriving, modern country, a story that Nigel Pavitt vividly documents in his new book. Its 720 photographs and judicious captions capture the birth of Kenya far better than any history I know. The first great undertaking of the British East Africa project was the Kenya-Uganda Railway. Building the ?lunatic line? required not just fortitude but ingenuity in the face of near-impassable obstacles. But the railway enabled inland settlement and established a community at the barren ?seasonal swamp? of Nairobi. Following the rapid development of new Nairobi and old Mombasa is one of the charms of the book. Pavit?s arrangements allow the reader to continually compare and contrast the changing country, and many of his images have an aesthetic value equal to their historical. This is especially true in the early photos of the pioneers — a panorama of settlers crossing the Njoro plains, for example, seems right of the Hudson River School of painting — and the long section depicting the hardships of the East African campaigns during World War I. Throughout, the beauty of the land shines through, as does the relative harmony in which the settlers and imperial interests lived among the traditional peoples like the Masai, the Kikuyu, and the Wakamba. The 1985 movie made many fans for Karen Blixen?s memoir Out of Africa. Pavitt?s book is a fine accompaniment to her beautiful writing. Here is the land and the people she so adored. This gorgeous volume should be under the tree of everyone who has every read Blixen?s perfect memoir (or packaged with it for anyone who hasn?t).
About the Writer
Robert Messenger is the Books Editor of The Wall Street Journal.