Elspeth Huxley’s memoir The Flame Trees of Thika tells the true story of her Scottish family’s adventures whilst farming in Kenya just before World War I.
Elspeth Huxley and her mother, Tilly, arrive in Kenya in 1913 to find Robin (Elspeth’s father) has purchased the lease for a 500-acre farm. Robin plans to clear the land and grow coffee beans. Elspeth and Tilly quickly see that Robin’s dream requires some assistance.
Robin is a bit of a dreamer. After a string of unsuccessful business ventures, he does not seem to be afraid of hard work and works hard to try and make the farm profitable. One of the first tasks is to locate workers, and Robin is disappointed to learn that the young men from the local Kikuyu tribes are not interested in working, even if paid. Finally, he approaches a Kikuyu leader and offers to pay him for any men willing to serve. Njombo, one of the men, quickly establishes himself as a spokesman and becomes a good friend to Elspeth. Robin’s staff prove challenging to manage until he is advised that he needs a headman, and Sammy is hired as part of the farm.
What the family lack in know-how they make up for in determination. They build a grass house, employ staff from the local Kikuyu tribe and painstakingly transform their patch of wilderness into a working farm. They make friends with the local Kikuyu, form a community with the other European ex-pats, and create a home for themselves.
This book is a classic colonial African story dealing with the issues “White Settlers” had in an environment which could be beautiful, friendly, and hostile at any one time.
Anyone with a connection to Africa in the last 30+ years will recognise the humour and the perceptive descriptions of characters in this book.
The African Tulip Tree, also known as the Flame Tree, when in full bloom, this tree is truly a sight to behold. It is native to tropical Africa but is now widely grown throughout the tropics. The huge tulip-shaped flowers are orange-red and rimmed with gold and bloom sporadically in summer. The flowers are followed by a long fruit capsule containing hundreds of winged seeds. The rugged bark is grey-green.