Most people, who have read White Mischief or are familiar with Kenya’s history, would have heard about the place Happy Valley.. Whereas many books have been written about the Happy Valley set and their rather scandalous lifestyle, few if any have been written about the departure of these infamous people and what has since happened to their houses, farms or properties; decades later.
This is the subject of Juliet Barnes’s book, The Ghosts of Happy Valley. Fascinated by various versions of stories she had heard about happy valley, she decides to visit the area, to find out what happened to the houses and property left by the infamous owners.
“Houses have always fascinated me. To me they are imbued with laughter, sorrow and myriad feelings in between, left behind by the people who have lived in them”, writes Barnes.
She explores Happy Valley guided by Solomon, a conservationist, branded monkey or mad man (due to his devoted efforts in protecting the endangered colobus monkeys and forests). Solomon had written his life story, a story which Juliet; after reading a few paragraphs, felt compelled to finish. And I guess this is how the idea of this book was born.
Happy Valley located in Wanjohi Valley on the slopes of Aberdare mountain ranges was ‘occupied mostly by men given remittance from their families as long as they kept way from the UK and shaming their relatives. They were notorious for their utter immorality.” They were infamous for their decadent lifestyles, drug use and sexual immorality. But they did not play dirty all the time, as Elspeth Huxley notes: “Gin soaked as they were, they enhanced……the natural charms of their valley by leaving the native trees alone and creating gardens of outstanding beauty, by pad-docking green pastures……,stocking streams with trout and building attractive, rambling, creeper festoon bungalows of local timbers with shingle roofs”.
But what happened to this paradise when the settlers left? Does Happy Valley still exist, or has it become Problem Valley, as one character puts it? From Barnes’ book, it is evident that indeed a lot has changed in the years since the white settlers left. The once sprawling bungalows are now a shadow of themselves; most have collapsed to the ground. Some of the few that still exist have been turned into schools; some are ghost-haunted (the author spent a night in one of them and the dreams she had testify to this) while others are occupied by the poor African families living in them with their animals. The only house that remained in relatively good condition was inaccessible and occupied by a panga-wielding crazy woman. The farms and trees and streams are almost gone, a result of population pressure that is having a huge negative impact on the valley’s environment – which is where Solomon comes in with his conservation efforts. The farms were partitioned and given out to the freedom fighters as gifts for helping Kenya get its independence. Some foreign plants and flowers still grow albeight wildly as though to give lasting proof that foreign people once occupied the valley.
Barnes explores the old houses with names like Clouds, Slains. She also interviews the elderly white settlers and old Africans, then; young men and boys, who used to work for the occupants of those homes. It is interesting how she tries to glean information about the scandals some of the Happy Valley set were involved in and how most of these local old people insist they (whites) were good people. And, of course, one cannot write about Happy Valley and not mention the mysterious murder of Lord Erroll (Josslyn Hay), a notorious womanizer. It is evident that although the author was interested in the old homes and houses, she hoped to find out who the real murderer was. As such the story very often moves away from houses to the stories of the many people that were in any way connected to Happy Valley. But the motive behind the murder of Lord Erroll or who did it still remains a mystery.
The book makes for an interesting travel narrative and is full of lots of details – one would even say there is so much information that it difficult to keep up with the many people mentioned; who they were married or related to. But thankfully there is a chronology list for reference.
Juliet Barnes currently lives in Kenya with her two children on Lord Delamere’s ranch in Kenya’s rift valley, looking out over the mountains surrounding Happy Valley at a distance. She writes for magazines and newspapers in the UK and Kenya. She also writes fiction and non-fiction stories for children. The Ghosts of happy Valley is her first work of adult non-fiction. The book was published in 2013 by Aurum Press.