Why I am not a real man

I spent a peculiar three days this week in and around Nyeri: a verdant corner of the Central Highlands, formerly a white-settler paradise, at the foot of Mount Kenya. It's not like being in Kenya at all. Friesian cows chomp away between thrush-filled hedgerows, growing from rich red soil with the hills and mountains of the Aberdares beyond. Everything except the colour of the soil would make you think you were in Scotland, or Alsace.

Wandering through the dusk taking these pictures made me think harder about the wave of colonial settlement here after the First World War - an agrarian re-population, deliberately generated by Colonial Office development policy and a soldier settlement scheme that brought upper-class officers from the mud of Verdun to this African Shropshire. This was an imperial mode quite unlike the minimal white settlement of colonies like India, and with a colonial aesthetic that was as much georgic as imperious (or, putting it less generously, more baronial than sultanate).*

Nyeri makes me realise that that particular moment of empire - arrogant and dispossessive though it might have been - was far more poignant than the gin-soaked White Mischief into which it ultimately developed in the 1930s (the largest landowner here, Lord Delamere, famously once rode his horse into the dining room of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel). In 1919, though, this place was where they were going to start again after the panoramic, mechanised carnage of northern Europe, to retreat and build a new tiny world - some of them as idealistic, in their way, as the young independence activists who at that time were also gazing across at Mount Kenya.** Places, of course, are never empty, and utopias always breed violence.

While we're here we've been staying at the major Catholic seminary just outside Nyeri (it's a long story). I don't like Catholic institutions very much, and this one was no exception. The place is a vast tract of productive land filled with sour, politicked old men. Sitting in the refectory eating cold cabbage when we arrive (it's Lent, to make things worse) are a taciturn, pipe-smoking monk in a hoodie reading a John Connolly thriller; a couple of wizened 80-something American missionaries who missed the boat home; and a burly 40-something priest with a smoker's cough who seems to enjoy shouting at a deaf, hunch-backed Indian Jesuit and hitting him with a fly-swat for comic effect.

Typical conversations with priests:

- discussing the disputed candidature of a proposed member of the new Kenyan Electoral Commission, accused of being a wife-beater: "Perhaps the wife is comfortable when she is being beaten. We cannot go into the home like that" (this from a member of a church which has insisted on expanding its purview into the home, the bed and the uterus).

- over breakfast: do I know how many devil worshippers there are in the Kenyan government? Did I know that the matatus are run by Freemasons?

Actually, I came to strangely enjoy the company of these sour old men; mainly because the remarkably self-possessed and joyous young seminarians, from all over Kenya, take no notice of them, and the ageing faculty don't seem to mind that they're the object of continual ridicule. Also, there are glow-in-the-dark crucifixes in every room, which takes Catholic kitch to a whole new level.

One thing I didn't enjoy, though, was my room. I'm no Bear Grylls, but I like to think that I'm fairly resilient about physical hardships. But there's one thing I'm ashamed to say I don't deal well with: the room's actually pretty comfortable for a seminary, but clearly hasn't been swept in a while, and I'm only in there for five minutes on the first night before I realise that it's filled with large, flat, swift-moving spiders. Spiders with smooth, fat, carapace-covered articulated legs, more like crabs than spiders. Like all photographs of spiders, this photo of one on the ceiling makes it look tiny: I swear to God (and I did, volubly, at that point), it was actually about 10cm across.

The minute I got in there I saw a huge one above the toilet, and another above the desk. Smaller ones start crawling from behind the bed and on the ceiling. I squash one that's sitting on the door handle - it oozes pale-green goo over the door - and no sooner have I done that than another one, twice as big, crawls out from within the door frame.

Fortunately, I have a mosquito net, which I eventually hang up, tuck around the bed, and climb in, fully clothed. My skin crawls all night, but this spider-filled chamber seems somehow appropriate in an odd, ossified community nestled in such an incongruous, beautiful setting. In the morning I get up exhausted at half-past six, and wander out into a shining morning, Mount Kenya looming out of the mist behind the church - inside which black-robed seminarians are already sitting, silent, with their eyes closed.

*Richard Drayton would argue that agriculture has always been about dominion.

**It also made me wonder whether there were any explicitly utopian schemes here in the White Highlands? Were there any Rolf Gardiners of Nyeri and the Aberdares?

No comments:

Post a Comment