Old mischief, new dreams: A colonist’s memoirs of Kenya

Friday December 13 2019

Ralph Palmer, 85, has lived in Kenya for 64 years and he says that Kenya matters. PHOTO | KARI MUTU


Ralph Palmer, 85, has lived in Kenya for 64 years and he says that Kenya matters. The double entendre in the title of this recently published memoir suggests that Kenya counts, it is worth fighting for. Additionally, Palmer is saying that in his time here he has stored up a good dossier of manenos about Kenya.


The adventure-loving Palmer is the product of an itinerant childhood in a family that was always on the move. Born in England to an Australian mother and a Cables & Wireless working-abroad father, educated in England with an 18-month holiday in Ascension Island, Palmer was wired early to explore.

He is very clever with words, not just because he is a native speaker of the tongue he writes in, but because he is not new to story-telling. Palmer has published five works of fiction centred on political intrigue and his wicked sense of humour always shines through.

In Kenya Matters 1965-1969, he carries that laughing glint in his naughty eye and a decidedly gossipy tone, dropping names, secrets, loud hints, and bombshells. For a civil servant who worked in the dying days of the colony and at the fitful start of the independent nation, Palmer makes light of many serious moments and makes serious claims about many delicate matters.



“The colonial farmers of our time who settled in Kenya to develop the land” is just one of Palmer’s careless arguments for colonialism. Listen to his other heartless defence of empire as he discusses the Mau Mau reparations cases filed from 2009: “I doubt we will ever know how many genuine claimants have appeared so far and how many impostors are trying their luck for those already in heaven, but the young in their mothers’ arms back then are now over 60 years old, and the only part they played at the time was wetting their pants and crying… and the government of the day as evil as they were perceived to be, detained not children.”

Palmer’s memoirs give one an immediate understanding of the methods that the British used to prolong their occupation of Kenya. One of them was to flood the colony with immigrants, and government personnel with unclear job designations and enough Home Office money to preserve what the Historian David Anderson terms “their privileged lifestyle”. Anderson adds that the European population in Kenya swelled from 40,000 on the eve of Mau Mau in 1952 to 61,000 at the end of the Emergency in 1960.


Palmer says he landed in Nairobi on September 21, 1955 and was posted to Nyeri. He remembers his salary too, “the princely sum of 864 pounds per annum with two increments for my conscripted National Service.”

But he never states his job designation. He just says that he responded to the Daily Telegraph “advertising the Mau Mau emergency raging in Kenya.” So the colony was burning, but what was the designation of the job that Palmer — fresh from Royal Airforce duty in West Germany — signed up for in Kenya? Fire-fighter, tracker?

He admits to chasing “few and far between and hard to find” Mau Mau in the Aberdares and meeting Dedan Kimathi as he recuperated from a gunshot wound. He didn’t speak to him because “I didn’t know he spoke English.”


With no clear job description, Palmer says he kept himself busy building water tanks for the “law-abiding locals” in Gatitu and “wards at the General Hospital ‘supervised’ by Dedan Kimathi.” (Silly jokes like this one stop you many times in your reading to ask: Is that racist, is it foolish, or is it both racist and foolish?)

In 1957, Palmer was allocated four votes to cast in Meru when the first eight Africans were elected to join the European-dominated Legislative Council. By the General Election of May 1963, Palmer’s role had evolved from aiding the colonial office’s choice of Africans for parliament to conducting the elections in Baringo District.

At independence, Palmer had made himself an indispensable part of government. With enough local friends in high places he soon became the Assistant Secretary of Finance and Personnel in the Ministry of Lands and Settlement. From public service in Nyeri, Meru, Machakos, Nakuru, Baringo, Lodwar, Kitale, Nairobi to holidays driving through the Coast into Tanzania and on to Zanzibar, Palmer’s life is painted in a breathless kaleidoscope of pampered lodgings in provincial hotels, breathtaking landscapes and adventures in the wilderness, a happy-go-lucky African elite and whacky colonials with strange pursuits.


Like Bert Shillinglaw the District Assistant in Marimanti, who once blew phosphorous down a pit latrine to kill flies and virtually blew off his own face in the process! Palmer’s weekends of cavorting in fast cars in Kampala with Kenyan administrators, the revelling elite at Starlight, Equator, Hallians, Sal Davies Night Club and mugithii dancing at the Africa Club on New Year’s Eve are refreshingly graphic. Today, these sights and sounds would make for considerably narcissistic hedonism on Instagram and Facebook.

I have long struggled with the cringe-worthiness of Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko and other (mis)leaders of our time. I know I am a victim of the illusionary “kids these days!” disdain that the older generation succumbs to, too easily. What a wake-up call then to read Palmer’s memoir and see the frivolous self-seeking of his own generation — which is my father’s generation. This country was doomed from the very beginning!


DOs “who lived off mileage claims,”Jomo’s unquenchable thirst for land, cows, land and government houses irregularly snapped up by the elite after independence... Bosses who slapped telephone operators for being “slothful” or “idle”. Secretaries “chased around the office by their lustful bosses.” Jaramogi’s Parliamentary Accounts Committee meetings kicking off with half an hour of indulgence in cream cakes and coffee. Tom Mboya’s mischievous points of order squaring off with Martin Shikuku for popularity points. Civil servants inspired by Duncan Ndegwa’s licentious Commission — their “jackets with empty pockets… left on the backs of their empty chairs” to create the illusion of working somewhere within the building, while in reality they were roaming all over town doing private business.


When was the management of Kenya ever in honest, seasoned and serious hands? What really matters in this country? As he journeys through his life Palmer keeps prodding his reader into a conversation. He writes in staccato, jumping from 1956 to 2013 then 1985, back to 1956 on to 2016 and so on. You have to work hard to keep up with his fast mind. Equally taxing is his liberal use of question marks, reminiscent of that nasal Kardashian accent that fills every statement with self-conscious doubt in a rising intonation that begs for an answer.

The typos are legion, factual errors abound and the spelling of Sheng words like masafaras is off, but you get the drift. Palmer has kept up to date with the things that matter in Kenya.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst; [email protected]