‘I built no schools in Kenya’ by Kirsten Drysdale

Drysdale_BuiltNoSchools

2019, 339 p.

This book leapt out at me from the library shelves as I was walking past – Kenya!! I’ve been there! I didn’t built any schools either: instead I just enjoyed the company of my son and daughter-in-law who were living there at the time, for probably a two month period over four separate visits. And Kirsten Drysdale- I know her! She was on ‘Hungry Beast’ and ‘The Checkout’ on the ABC, and recently on Crikey’s INQ team.  So even though it’s not my usual fare, I snapped it up and found myself devouring it.

In 2010 Kirsten Drysdale had just finished working on the first series of ‘Hungry Beast’ and it was not certain whether there would be a second series. A friend contacted her and invited her over to work with her as a carer for a rich old man in Nairobi. Drysdale’s parents had come from Zimbabwe, and Africa had always been a mysterious part of family lore; the job sounded easy; all expenses and accommodation were provided, and there would be free time to go off on safaris or do some freelance reporting.  So she accepted.

When she got there, all was not as it seemed. Stepping out of the driveway of a fenced, low slung stone house with a large well-cared-for garden, she found herself in a colonial time-warp, as if the Mau Mau were still at the gate and the Brits had never left. [I can identify with this completely. When I was in Nairobi in 2014 we went to Lake Naivasha and visited a conservancy where they filmed Out of Africa. The woman there, beautifully coiffed, white blouse and khaki shorts, seemed to exemplify the old British elite with her clipped English accent and obvious nostalgia for the old Keen-ya and disdain for the new. You can my blog post about her here.]

The old man, Walt, his wife Marguerite and adult daughter from an earlier marriage were locked in a claustrophobic, paranoid battle with each other. The daughter, Fiona, lived in England but micro-managed her father’s care through daily Skype calls and more nefarious surveillance. She was convinced that her stepmother Marguerite was not looking after her father properly, and so charged the ‘carers’ with spying on Marguerite and reporting her shortcomings to Fiona back in England. Walt himself was an old bigotted Kenyan resident, who according to Fiona, would not accept a black carer. Hence, Fiona employed three white women (including Kirsten and another Or-stray-yen) who Walt, in his befuddlement, would think were house guests or perhaps granddaughters. None of these people are particularly likeable, especially Fiona, and it is no wonder that the family dynamics were well known amongst the expats in Nairobi. Walt’s life is very much manipulated by his family and carers, at Fiona’s behest. His condition is worsening, and he exhibits and evokes all of the frustrations associated with dementia.

Alongside this description of life within Walt’s family is Drysdale’s own response to Nairobi itself. I kept feeling little leaps of recognition as she mentioned places and sights that I had also seen. Crime and terrorism are both present, but she also revels in the busy-ness of Nairobi and the dignity and generosity of the Kenyan community that we rarely notice or acknowledge here in Australia.

This is not high literature, and it is not meant to be. I found myself laughing out loud in places, and the whole thing  rang completely true to me – even the dynamics of a family struggling with dementia, which is its own form of madness.  She has an acute eye for the absurd, but also is a keen and thoughtful observer of what is going on around her. Of course, part of my delight in this book was that I was familiar with what she was writing about – a bit like reading a book set in your home town- but I really enjoyed it.

My (admittedly biased) rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

 

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