'What we are is God's gift to us; what we become is our gift to God.'
It was quite by chance that my ancestors came to settle in Kenya.
In the early 1900s my Great-Uncle Will was living a relatively prosperous life in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. His family - my great-grandmother was Will's sister - had left rural Scotland for Africa in the mid 1820s. A truly capable and resourceful man, Will had worked hard in difficult conditions, farming the land, raising a family and helping others around him to survive the effects of the Boer Wars. He was garrulous and charismatic, a twinkle in his eye, passionate about big game hunting, and from time to time could afford a ticket to Kenya on one of the early steamships to satiate his lust for the land and the animals. The great profusion of wildlife, the rolling grass plains - the storehouse of life itself - Kenya was where his heart seemed to soar, where he was transformed from the inside out.
It was during one of these hunting expeditions, in the spring of 1907, that Will befriended Sir Charles Eliot, Governor of the fledgling British colony of Kenya. The two men were drawn to each other: Will, a true pioneer, was the sort of man who made things happen, and Eliot, a true politician, was the sort of man who made other men offers to make things happen. Out in the bush one morning, Eliot put an intriguing proposition to my great-uncle: if he could bring in twenty families to Kenya, then the Government would allocate them free land on which to settle. Just that week, Eliot had received an order from the authorities back home to speed up the colony's development, to get on with expanding the single track beyond Nairobi and to get white settlers in to increase trade and the resources for the railway. The British Government had so far forked out around £5 million and they wanted to see some return, sooner rather than later.
The reason for Britain's involvement in East Africa was not actually Kenya itself - it was Uganda and the source of the Nile. The Government wanted to prevent the Germans or French jeopardizing access to the Suez Canal, as this was the British trade route to India, the jewel in the Imperial crown. Building the railway was a massive undertaking, and thousands of Sikh labourers from British India were shipped in to undertake its construction. The railway snaked its way through the diverse habitats of Kenya from the port town of Mombasa - through dense inhospitable scrubland leading on to open grassland plains, once the native Masai's best grazing land. Once the dominant tribe, their numbers had been depleted by smallpox during the late 1900s.
Great-Uncle Will was so smitten with the Kenyan bush, so captivated by the idea of actually living in this astonishing country, that he cut short his trip to return home, determined to recruit the families that Eliot required. He didn't need to look too far, as this branch of my family was full of prolific breeders. He himself had spawned seventeen children from his three wives, and they in turn had produced many others. Excited and alive to this opportunity, he did a good job persuading some of his immediate family to agree. Then he turned to his sister - my Great-Granny Aggett. She and her husband - and their not inconsiderable brood of eight children - were perfect targets. Things had not been going too well for Great-Grandpa Aggett. Having acquired a taste for alcohol and gambling, in cahoots with none other than the local bank manager, who saw to it that his mounting overdraft was conveniently overlooked, he was up to his eyes in debt. The family's precious old homestead and once prosperous farm in the Eastern Cape had been sold off and he was much chastened by the consequence of his addictions. Despite approaching sixty, he was keen to be rid of his tarnished reputation, to begin a new life. Will was offering him that lifeline and he rather gratefully signed up.
The Aggetts' eldest daughter, Ellen Margaret, had been widowed early on in her marriage. Left with two young sons, Stanley and Bryan, she had returned to live with my great-grandparents. Ellen was a feisty young woman, known for her fortitude and resourcefulness, and was more than willing to taste adventure. As it turns out, this decision was to have a direct effect on me: Ellen was my grandmother, and her seven-year-old son Bryan would eventually become my father.
Will was a marvellous storyteller, and his golden words conjured up the magnificence of Kenya, breathing life into his images of the land, the people and the wildlife. Quite simply, he saw Kenya as another Eden, the prospect of living there an invitation to paradise. In just a few months his powers of persuasion were enough to convince twenty families to want to up sticks from the Eastern Cape, to trek through the uncharted interior of Eastern Africa and begin life over. These were people descended from solid pioneering stock - stoical, adventurous, enamoured of Africa - the ability to uproot, survive and build new lives in their blood. They had listened to their parents' epic stories of crossing new lands and were somewhere hardwired to feel the desire to experience the challenges for themselves. I would love to be able to listen back down the years to what was discussed at Will's legendary planning meetings. To us, in these days of sophisticated travel when we can get almost anything we need anywhere in the world, an unimaginable amount of planning and thought had to go into the journey. Although the landing post in Mombasa was still the ancient coastal hub it had always been, and inland the railway had reached Nairobi, the travellers had to be self-supporting in every respect. There would be nothing to help them on the way - no roads, no shops, no doctors, dentists or chemists. They would be entirely responsible for keeping themselves, their babies, their children and their livestock alive and well.
It wasn't just a matter of a few provisions. When - and if - they arrived at the allocated spots, they would need a nucleus of breeding stock, as well as farm implements, seeds, tools, furniture and, most importantly, guns and ammunition to protect themselves and their property. The women had to decide on the bare essentials in the way of cooking pots, blankets, bedlinen, materials, haberdashery, medicine, clothes and toiletries. Of untold preciousness was the legacy of their settler ancestors - densely handwritten notes of practical hints on self-sufficiency, detailing how to make soap and candles; how to preserve and bottle foodstuffs; how to make clothes; how to educate your children on the go; how to use herbs, berries and wild plants to prevent and cure illness; and how to address emotional wobbles and the inevitable mood swings. Women back then were superb cooks, skilled seamstresses, tough and hardened to the perils of settler life, but for these families, the arduous nature of the journey and the harsh reality of starting life up all over again presented new challenges.
Eventually the day dawned when all the preparations were complete. There was no turning back. Lying in Port Elizabeth harbour, on the eastern seaboard of South Africa, was the chartered German ship the Adolf Woermann, waiting to receive the families and all their possessions. And what possessions there were! Once loaded, the great ship must have looked - and sounded - like the proverbial Noah's Ark. It conjures a vivid image in my mind, picturing my grandmother and her tiny children on board engulfed by animals of wildly varying sizes: prime stock, work oxen, riding horses, milk and beef cattle, sheep, milking goats, poultry, ducks, geese and turkeys, domestic pets of every sort, as well as huge wagons, farm implements of every description, precious pieces of antique furniture, boxes of books, bottles, jars and sewing machines. There was no concept of travelling light back then!
My children and grandchildren are so rooted here now, so settled, so much part of this land, that it touches me deeply to imagine the sheer emotion of the moment when the boat slowly drew away from the docks, with every single member on board waving a tearful farewell to all their loved ones on shore. None of them knew what the future held for them in a new land, and they must all have been conscious that there would be great dangers in the years that lay ahead. And they also knew that for the older members of the family this separation would be final, for they would be unlikely to set foot on their home soil again. It must have taken great courage, particularly on the part of the women, to launch themselves and their children on such a gamble into the unknown.
The Adolf Woermann sailed for two long months. The journey was not without its difficulties - dreadfully cramped conditions, illness and the inevitable death of livestock. But coming into the picturesque harbour of Mombasa against the backdrop of a splendid tropical sunrise must have been like the arrival in a promised land. As the adults transferred the contents of the ship to the docks, the children ran around in delight despite the punishing humidity and heat. Mombasa was a vibrant, noisy place, bright with the colourful goods of Arabic and Indian traders, the smells of spices, perfumes and exotic foods. The streets were lined with white frangipani blossom and coconut palms, and while the sun was setting there was time to stop and enjoy a meal in the old part of the town.
Before the journey inland could begin, all the livestock had to be swaddled in a protective hessian covering, leaving just a small opening for the eyes and nose, since they would be journeying across the notorious tsetse-infested nyika. This formidable and inhospitable barrier of arid scrub country was known as the Taru Desert, described in the 1870s by the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson as 'weird and ghastly...eerie and full of sadness, as if here is all death and desolation'. Just one bite from an infected fly could be catastrophic, transmitting the wasting livestock disease trypanosomiasis, for which there was at that time no known cure. A few years earlier, most of the livestock used to transport materials to build the railway had been wiped out in this way and lessons had been learned. It must have taken days to cut the cloth and secure it around each animal. Not an enviable job.
Once the cattle were ready and the train loaded with myriad possessions, the next stage of the journey could begin. However, even the preparations necessary for a train to depart from a stop were complicated, for in those early days the wood-burning steam locomotives depended on a plentiful supply of both wood and water. There was no piped water in Mombasa, so supplies had to be drawn from two eighty-foot wells, or pumped from a river four miles away. Getting the train going was a big event. As a child listening to my father tell my brother, sisters and me the story of how our family came to be living in Kenya, I particularly loved the story-of-the-journey as it came to be known, and to this day I can shut my eyes and transport myself on board, catching the buzz of anticipation as the train drew out of Mombasa. There must have been a little shiver of apprehension running through some of the mothers in the group: the track had only recently been constructed, and although they were disembarking halfway along the route at Nairobi, they no doubt worried about some of the more shaky wooden trestle bridges and the deep ravines the train passed over. All the adults making the journey knew about the grisly deaths suffered by some fifty Indian and African construction workers in 1898 as they were building a bridge over the Tsavo River. It was this incident that had led to the lions in the area being dubbed the 'man-eaters of Tsavo', no doubt stirring fear in some of the less hardy members of my family.
While my experiences of life in Kenya are different in so many respects to those of my ancestors, as they woke to their first morning aboard the train they saw the same dawn unfolding in glorious brilliance, the sky washed with varying shades of crimson, pink, rust and gold, that I do to this day. Their tired eyes, rimmed with the red dust of the nyika, also gazed, as mine have, spellbound across the broad expanse of the great rolling Athi plains. From the windows, they could see before them the bounty of Nature - oceans of wildebeest, zebra, antelope, gazelles, giraffe, great herds of buffalo and even rhinos. The children were electrified by the transformation of the landscape, and the journey opened their eyes to sights they had never seen before. A pride of lions beside the track, lolling replete and lazy beneath a lone tree on the plain, prompted the driver to halt the train in order to allow the passengers a longer look. In fact most of the time Great-Uncle Will and others journeyed on a special platform on the prow of the locomotive so that they could see the passing game herds more clearly. Inveterate hunter that he was, Great-Uncle Will on numerous occasions actually stopped the train to embark on a full-blown hunt, when a particularly good trophy had been spotted near the track. The train would merely wait for the hunters to return, and the other passengers did not object to the delay, happy to take part in the fun as spectators.
How lightly my ancestors shot at animals. For us, now living in a different era, conscious of the decimation of wildlife and privileged even to glimpse such creatures in a wild situation, the actions of my forefathers appear shocking and difficult to understand. But at that time the maps of Kenya showed little on their empty faces, and beyond each horizon stretched another and another of endless untouched acres, sunlit plains of corn-gold grass, wooded luggas, lush valleys, crystal-clear waters. And everywhere there was wildlife in such spellbinding profusion that it is difficult for those who were never witness to this to even begin to visualize such numbers. At the time no one ever imagined that any amount of shooting could devastate the stocks of wild game, let alone all but eliminate it.
Once the train reached Nairobi, the passengers had to disembark, see to some administrative formalities and make their final preparations for the great inland trek. Nairobi, originally a pastoral area inhabited by the Masai, had been founded in 1899 as a supply depot for the Uganda Railway, becoming the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate a few years later. In 1907 Nairobi was in the process of being rebuilt, having been decimated by a recent outbreak of the plague. When my family arrived, it was still a jumble of sheds, shacks and Indian dukas cut by one tree-lined cart-track known as Government Road. Most structures were raised up on stilts to keep inhabitants from sinking into the surrounding swamps. There was dust everywhere - it coated every visible surface and tree. But it was busy and vibrant, teeming with Indian railway workers, street vendors, rickshaws and mule buggies, and the family were entranced. The elders of the group rested overnight in the one hotel - the Norfolk - which overlooked a swamp where the wild creatures of the plains came to drink in their teeming numbers. It was a perfect place for Great-Uncle Will. Never one to pass up an opportunity, on the first night he left a drink on the Norfolk verandah to dash out and bag a good trophy spotted at the swamp, and on another night he did not even have to leave his drink, but managed to secure a trophy from the verandah itself.
Soon enough, though, once the ox-wagons were loaded and ready, the family was ready for the trek inland. Dressed in their heavy khaki - the women tightly laced in and stockinged - heads protected by heavily fortified pith helmets, there was some trepidation as they moved off. While the Government allocation of 5,000 acres of virgin bush was a generous gesture on its part, the location of these new holdings, in Narok, situated in the very heart of Masailand, unsettled many of the group. Actually, they need not have worried. Even though the Masai had earned themselves a fearsome reputation in the 600 or so years they had been in East Africa, they had been advised by their witch doctor Chief Mbatian not to actively oppose the arrival in their land of either pale people or an 'iron snake', whose coming had been revealed to a girl in a dream. In truth, it was the wildlife in the land itself that was to prove the greatest threat to the family's beginning in a new land.
The journey took several months. There were no roads, just paths formed by the passage of wagons that followed wildlife trails through the thick scrub. Flies that accompanied the grazing hordes were everywhere, constantly landing on the face, and despite heavy, hot protective clothing, the thick dust of the land lodged itself in everyone's eyes, throats and lungs, making the children particularly prone to fits of prolonged coughing. Passing through areas inhabited by local tribesmen, many of whom may not have ever set eyes on a white face, their women often let out high-pitched screams as they saw the convoy approaching, causing the men to emerge armed with clubs, bows and arrows and spears. It was not unknown for spears to be launched at the wagons, before Great-Uncle Will bravely stepped forward to appease the local people with calming gestures. Predators were an omnipresent threat, though most of the time the teeming wild game provided a welcome diversion. The descent into the Great Rift Valley followed a trail blazed by earlier pioneers, as it twisted through the dense indigenous forests of the high ground, down a steep escarpment fault of the Rift and out into the open savannah of the valley floor. There the extinct isolated volcanoes of Longonot and Suswa stood sentinel over a string of alkaline and freshwater lakes, and the western wall of the Rift, the Mau Escarpment, provided a forbidding backdrop for those among the family who would have to hack their way up it in order to reach their destination.
But there were also moments of extreme beauty. Passing through cool shady forests into lush basins of glittering sunlight reminded the travellers of the rich variety of the land. For the amateur botanists, at every step there were new plants and flowers to marvel at - orchids, gladioli, hibiscus, and the jaw-dropping giant lobelia that grew up to twenty feet at high altitudes. For the keen ornithologists, there were birds of every conceivable variety: great flocks of fifty or more ostriches, blue-black glossy starlings, rainbow-hued superb starlings and brightly coloured sunbirds. There were pungent smells from remote villages; the smell of livestock and chargrilled meat; rich colours of cloth and beadwork; bewildering chatter and the braying of donkeys from remote villages. The Masai tribe were dressed in bright red blankets, their hair braided long with extensions of wool and dyed red with ochre-coloured clay, their bodies also painted with red ochre. They had elaborate beaded ornaments on their legs, arms and stretched hanging earlobes and the glint of their spears and daggers was a thrilling sight for the children.
My father remembered the journey well. I never tired of listening to him tell me how the herds of various animals would stand to the side to allow the caravan passage through, closing again behind them in what appeared an impenetrable curtain of living creatures. The thunder of galloping hooves and the voices of the animals provided the heartbeat of this new land. He delighted in trying to imitate the incessant cooing of doves, and the deep blood-chilling roar of lions never ceased to thrill. Meat for the pot was never a problem, and lion hunts were an almost daily occurrence that went hand in hand with long night-time vigils to prevent lions, hyenas and leopards taking a toll of the precious livestock. All the children loved watching Will as he galloped through the open plains on horseback alongside eland and giraffe to see if they could be outpaced by his horse.
These, though, were the carefree memories of my father, who was a child at the time. For the adults, the journey was fraught with difficulties and dilemmas on a daily, often hour-by-hour basis. Progress up the densely forested slopes of the Mau Escarpment towards Narok was painfully slow, since they had to hack a passage for their wagons through a tangle of almost impenetrable vegetation using only very narrow elephant trails. Every evening before the swift blackness of the dark descended, while the women pitched camp, the men had to erect brush bomas, enclosures for the protection of their livestock at night. And even when they finally came to Narok, they had to cross the Uaso Nyiro - today a mere trickle, but then a deep, wide, fast-flowing river. The only way to get to the other side was to swim the animals and float the wagons across - a logistical nightmare. But they were determined and they were capable, and finally, after a journey of four treacherous months, the families reached their destination. Great-Uncle Will's contingent had stopped near Lake Elmenteita, while the Aggetts faced a much more daunting challenge to reach Narok. There was a small trading and administrative centre in the embryonic Narok township, but their allotments lay further still beyond the river.
Of course, there was nothing there for them when they arrived. It is difficult to imagine - travelling for months in almost impossible conditions, trailing your life's possessions behind you, and then 'arriving' at your destination where there is nothing other than wilderness. I often wonder how they even knew they had arrived at the right place. There, having erected temporary grass huts, and stout thorn bomas to secure their livestock, the men had to begin the back-breaking task of clearing the land. It would take a while before they were able to construct more solid dwellings and create some sort of domestic order. Moreover, the location of their new holdings meant that the Aggett family was scattered and unable to help one another as much as they would have wished. For my great-grandfather, this was an unrelentingly difficult time - at fifty-nine, he was not in the best physical shape for such labour. If they had hoped for help from the Masai, this was not to be, for traditionally and culturally Masai men left all manual labour to the women while they tended and protected their cattle. But they were not hostile, watching quietly and with great curiosity as to the habits of the newcomers. They were mostly impressed by Great-Grandpa's tenacity and courage - attributes they valued among themselves.
We get stressed today if the shops are more than a half-hour's drive away, and when I go shopping there is always a little flicker in my mind as I think of Great-Granny Aggett, who certainly had her work cut out. Her nearest stores were at Kijabe - six days away by wagon. So out came the old family manuals, in between tending the animals, and fending off a host of furred and feathered predators by day and night, which laid siege to everything that moved. She made her own soap from homemade butter, ostrich eggs gathered from the plains and the caustic soda she had brought with her from home; candles by melting down wildebeest fat and pouring it on to tallow - the wick of a candle - in a hollow cylinder; and lotions and potions from wild herbs, mixed with beeswax. Meat was salted and sun-dried into biltong, while wild berries gathered in the bush were bottled and preserved. She worked tirelessly - and she too was nearly sixty.
For a while, my family threw all they had mentally and physically into making a success of their new life. George - one of the Aggetts' sons - spent a lot of time with the Masai and soon learned their language, becoming familiar with their way of life. My great-grandmother, her long thick hair a constant source of fascination among the local Masai women, found that her reputation as a healer soon spread far and wide. She was even trusted to treat the sick and maimed among the Masai, many with spear wounds and lion mauls, others with eye and skin infections. Her secret remedies lay in a combination of paraffin and the mildew from caked cow-dung as well as the herbal tinctures passed down through the generations.
As the rhythm of life settled a little, the family experienced moments of extreme satisfaction at their self-reliance and survival. Their souls were continually uplifted by the sheer magnificence of their surroundings: the wide open spaces, the magic of huge skies of the purest blue; the abundance of wildlife. But the extreme difficulties of daily life out there in the bush were exhausting and unforgiving. Farming was a process of hit and miss, Africa an enigma to the early settlers. Deceptively fertile-looking soil often lacked vital minerals for arable crops; the altitude and the short equatorial daylight hours influenced growth; the rains yielded either a feast or a famine, always too much or too little - and often torrential hailstorms flattened everything in sight. There were diseases of cattle not encountered before, all the natural hazards posed by wild animals, plus swarms of locusts and 'army worm' caterpillars that descended on crops in voracious multitudes, devouring everything.
It was tough going for my ageing great-grandpa. On one particularly ill-fated morning, he rode out as usual on his favourite horse, Princess, leading his second mare, Daisy, who needed exercising. He tethered Princess in the shade of the large trees that lined the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River, leaving Daisy free, confident that she would not stray far from her companion. He then walked out to his irrigation furrow, which by this time was quite a long way from the river. He had been digging this for some time, in an attempt to bring water from the river to a vegetable patch he was cultivating. On this particular day he returned at dusk, spent and exhausted, only to find to his horror that his precious Princess was in the process of being devoured by a huge black-maned lion, crouched menacingly over its kill, while Daisy nervously circled the attacker at dangerously close quarters. On this one day, Great-Grandpa had broken his golden rule and not brought his gun, so there was nothing for it but to try to catch his surviving horse.
The lion meanwhile was becoming more and more angry, pivoting around on its haunches, growling and snarling and lashing its tail ominously, following Great-Grandpa's every move with blazing eyes. It seemed that time stopped as my great-grandfather willed Daisy to stand still just for a moment so that he could scramble aboard. Finally he sensed that it had to be now or never, and with one last herculean effort he lunged towards her and somehow - he never knew how - managed to get himself across her back, jamming his heels hard into the horse's flanks. At this very moment the lion charged, letting out the most spine-chilling roar, and Daisy was just able to leap clear, barely escaping the lion's cleaving claws.
It was a very shaken, tired and broken old man who stumbled into the house that night, for quite apart from his ordeal he had loved Princess dearly, as can only a man who is totally reliant on his horse. Princess had carried him faithfully many hundreds of miles both in South Africa and Kenya, and between them they had developed that almost tangible telepathic rapport - an empathy, binding and strong, that defied definition. For the first time he acknowledged that he was beaten and could battle no more against such insurmountable odds. I suspect he also wished that he had never left South Africa. That night, he and Great-Granny Aggett hardly slept a wink, mulling over their predicament, and by the next morning they had made up their minds. There was no way they were going to make it where they were: they had to move. The next day Great-Grandpa Aggett saddled Daisy and rode off to Nairobi to seek advice from the colonial Government.
In fact, it had already dawned on the authorities that the isolated and vulnerable white settlers of Masailand would have to be moved elsewhere, and negotiations with the relevant elders and chiefs were already under way to bring the Masai people from around Kenya to the area around Narok so that they were settled in one place, away from their enemies, the Kikuyu. By the time Great-Grandpa arrived in Nairobi, the decision had already been taken to move him and his family out of Masailand, and offer them alternative holdings on the Laikipia Plateau. This was prize ranching country, where wildlife also abounded in numbers that matched the endless herds of the Athi plains and the Masai lands of Narok.
And so once again the family loaded up their wagons and were on the move, laboriously retracing their steps, with what remained of their livestock. At the same time, the Masai living on the Laikipia Plateau filed down into the Rift, led by thousands of warriors in full battle regalia and accompanied by 100,000 head of cattle, half a million sheep, and hundreds of loaded donkeys. The women, children and elders walked slowly beside the donkeys that carried their few possessions, while another vanguard of warriors brought up the rear - all overseen by a contingent of the King's African Rifles, just in case the warriors caused a diversion on the way. It must have been an unforgettable sight, this exodus of the Masai from Laikipia back to Narok, which coincided with the move to Laikipia of most of my Aggett relations.
The younger generation were excited and eager to establish themselves in their new holdings, but my great-grandparents, physically and emotionally drained by the past few years, settled on a small-holding seven miles from the lakeside town of Naivasha. There they set up a home that was to become a warm, hospitable focal point for the rest of the clan, offering unfettered freedom for the children to roam the great expanse of the plains that bordered that freshwater lake within the Great Rift Valley.
Meanwhile my father, Bryan, was growing up fast in Nairobi. His life had changed somewhat since the arrival of two younger half-brothers, Fred and Harry. His mother, Ellen - widowed when Bryan was so young - had subsequently married Ernest Nye Chart. She had established Nairobi's first grill room in the Grand Hotel, and now she and Ernest were taking over the management of the hotel itself, having achieved some success as local entrepreneurs. And despite all the initial hardships, my father's uncles and aunts were also becoming established and successful in their new homeland, setting up professional hunting parties, cattle-ranching establishments, farms, hotels, transport and trading companies. Bryan moved effortlessly between his extended family, his aunts, uncles and numerous cousins, enjoying a warm welcome and wonderful hospitality at every visit, for he was a very popular member of the family.
My father was one of the two very first male candidates to sit - and pass - the school-leavers' exam set by Cambridge University. His academic ability probably saved his life during the First World War, as he was sent to work in an office rather than to fight on the front line. However, like thousands of others, he succumbed to the deadly Spanish flu and was sent back home. Great-Grandma Aggett nursed him back to full health and, once he was strong enough, one of his uncles offered him work. Uncle Boyce, an enterprising settler, had many irons in the fire - a hides and skins trade, a safari business, a store near Narok and a handful of farms. My father excelled in all things practical and proved a great asset to his uncle's safari business. In those days safaris went out for five or six weeks at a time, and Bryan was adept at giving the clients a memorable and varied time in the bush.
My grandmother, Ellen, was ambitious for her second son and did not approve of him 'fooling around with lions'. She urged him to invest in livestock. Always dutiful, Bryan used his £100 of army savings to buy eight cows and three calves, which he then lodged with my great-grandparents while he looked for some suitable land. More and more new settlers had arrived in Kenya after the Great War in response to soldier settlement schemes, and my father and his brother Stan wanted to get in there before things became too competitive. Bryan and Stan farmed sensibly, planting their crops in good time, devising new ways in which to keep them out of harm's way. However, things did not go quite according to plan, and to add to their woes, at the time of harvest the land they had cultivated went up in smoke. Once again Bryan secured work with another of his uncles, this time hunting buffalo for their hides. And once again Ellen signalled her disapproval, this time taking decisive action: convinced that Bryan needed refining, she shipped him off to South Africa.
Actually, Bryan was a willing participant in this scheme, as his brother Stan had already been dispatched for a bit of Ellen's civilizing process and had sent back glowing accounts of rather beautiful - and eligible - women. And so it was there that my father met Marjorie Webb, a slender, immaculately turned-out young woman. He was smitten with her at once, falling in love with her inherent grace and bouncing blonde curls. And the feeling was mutual: Marjorie told her friends it was love at first sight. By the end of his stay - much to the horror of her parents - Marjorie and Bryan were so deeply in love that they wanted to get married. Her father, in particular, had issues with the Aggett contingent, considering them to be uncultured, rough and domineering. He was not keen for his daughter to spend the rest of her life in 'darkest Africa', and even though he liked Bryan - everyone did - he did not think him 'good enough' for his precious daughter. He was canny, though, knowing that to deny their request would be counter-productive, and he bought Marjorie a ticket to Kenya so that she could accompany Bryan on his return journey and experience life in the raw for herself for a couple of months.
Far from being put off, Marjorie fell in love with Kenya. She was enraptured by the majestic beauty of the land and the thrumming diversity of the country. She returned to South Africa more determined than ever to marry Bryan. And what a sense of purpose she brought to my father! Fuelled by love, over the next two years Bryan worked as never before, eventually purchasing 770 acres of land near Gilgil. Using the farm's quarry for stone and cedar trees for timber, he built a house on the land. He installed a sawmill on the farm and set up a small timber concern. Touchingly, full of hope for the future, he named the farm L'Esperance. When news reached Dick Webb of Bryan's achievements, he knew that he could no longer hold on to his daughter.
Two years after they first met, Marjorie - not without a touch of trepidation - steamed out of East London harbour to be reunited with Bryan. As soon as she saw him on the Mombasa quayside, eagerly scanning the faces on the deck, she knew her decision had been the right one. Poised on the brink of a lifetime together, their journey inland was magical, reminding her of the wonders of Kenya. Marjorie was never to forget arriving at the farm, the smell of the cedar oil pervading the beautifully panelled and polished rooms that my father had built and furnished for her.
The wedding party was a joyous celebration. The huge Aggett clan travelled from far and wide and the party went on for some days. Marjorie was instantly welcomed into the heart of the family - even Ellen (almost) approved - and she settled happily into life on the farm. A talented homemaker and artist, she set about adding some feminine touches to the house. She also cultivated the garden that in later years was to become one of the most beautiful in the district. Marjorie was a gracious host and soon she and Bryan were entertaining family and friends, the farm filling with life and laughter. In 1930, a year after their wedding, she was to become a mother - a son, Peter, followed eighteen months later by a daughter, Sheila. And then, three years later, in June 1934, I was born. Our little sister Betty arrived four years after me. By this time, my father had built a house for his mother, Ellen - known to us children as Granny Chart - near Gilgil and another for his newly arrived in-laws, Granny and Grandpa Webb, about five miles from our house. They had decided that they wanted to be a part of their grandchildren's lives and emigrated from South Africa. Our family was complete.
Nearly thirty years after leaving the Eastern Cape, some of the prominent members of the pioneering vintage had passed away - Great-Uncle Will, Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny Aggett among them. While I was too young when they were old or dying to remember them in person, I am forever indebted to their spirit and determination, the sacrifices they made to ensure the security of the next generations of the family. Thanks to them, my immediate family was secure enough to begin to put down their roots in the land - to feel the powerful stirrings of belonging.
LOVE, LIFE, AND ELEPHANTS Copyright © 2012 by Dame Daphne Sheldrick
Dame Daphne Sheldrick is a Kenyan author, conservationist, and expert in animal husbandry, particularly the raising and reintegrating of orphaned elephants into the wild. From 1955 to 1976, Sheldrick was co-warden of Kenya’s Tsavo National Park.