By chance, I found a great book in Kenya

by Hugh Gilmore

A while ago I lived for a year and a half in Gilgil, Kenya, in a small upcountry bungalow that had been the manager’s house on a 56,000-acre cattle ranch. This small structure, with its red walls and corrugated-tin roof was quite comfortable in many ways. It stood near a bluff in the Great Rift Valley, had spacious windows and was isolated enough that animals such as zebras, dik-diks, impalas, gazelles, baboons and guinea fowl were a nearly constant presence.

The house also had a few disadvantages. No electricity, for one. For another, the grass and bush surround had to be kept down because snakes, including poisonous species such as spitting cobras, were plentiful. Also, hundreds of bats lived in the crawl space above. While it was a pleasure to see them all fly out at dusk, the ammonia-like smell of guano at certain times of the year had an unforgettable tang.
A further disadvantage lay in the fact that the local baboon troop – which I had come as an anthropologist to study – used to stop by to raid the trash pit and, while they were at it, tear the windshield wipers off my VW van. The easy and the hard, however, easily balanced themselves out. I loved living there.

What I could not get used to was not having enough to read. I’d brought one paperback book with me from home (E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime”), but had finished it on the plane – easy enough to do – the flight took nearly 20 hours back then. A few shops in Nairobi, our entry point, sold books, but I was there as a limited-budget dissertation student, and books – even paperbacks – were comparatively expensive.

I sprung for today’s equivalent of  $10 to buy Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” Unfortunately, I started reading it that night and finished it during the first two days of our week-long stay in Nairobi arranging visas, buying provisions, and purchasing the VW “Kombi” whose unreliability would soon become the curse of our rural existence.

With nothing to read in my luggage, I drove out from Nairobi, crossed the magnificent escarpment where one first views the Great Rift Valley, and hours later arrived at the little cottage bungalow outside the town of Gilgil (four “dukas,” or stores, and a post office).

Fortunately the last researchers to use this house were Americans, and they’d left a few books behind. I remember finding “The Hobbit” and Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” As it turned it, whenever a new baboon is born the researcher on duty is entitled to “name” it. Hence there were baboons running around the dusty African savannah with such Middle-earthian names as Frodo and Gandalf. The troop itself was known as “The Pumphouse Gang” a play on the name of the Abbey characters.

My work at Gilgil required me to get up before sunrise every morning and drive to the cliffs where the baboons had slept the night before. I’d do a morning census, begin my sampling work (I was studying their communication, especially their vocalizations), and continue collecting the ecological and dietary data needed for the long-range studies begun by previous researchers.

Most days I’d walk along with the troop wherever they went, noting their behavior, until they retired on another cliff somewhere, often miles from where they’d started. Then with night coming on I’d walk back to my car and drive home. Nightfall comes quickly at the equator.
I’d always have work to do at night, but eventually my leisure time would come. With no TV (Deo gratias) or movies, and only occasional music (tape-player batteries were expensive), I wrote letters every evening. There is no greater promoter of writing a letter than the hunger to receive one. I missed the news from home. And I also read books.

Since we had no electricity you might wonder how I managed to get enough light to read by. Kerosene lanterns were cheap, but smelly. Coleman lamps are delicate, expensive, noisy and cast a weird light on the printed page. I found that I preferred, and could afford, three candles, all set in the same shallow 9-inch bowl. The light is bright enough if you sit close by and its warm glow remains enchanting in my memories even now, many years later.

By this means, I soon eased into the habit of reading, on average, a book a night. I read more than 400 books during my stay in Africa. That would be an impressive number if I did not confess that most of them were mysteries of the kind that are very easily gobbled up. But I read a number of serious books too.

I must pause here and tell you how I gained access to so many books. Kenya had been an English colony before independence came in 1963. Wherever the English settled, you may be sure they founded a country club. In a little town like Gilgil it is inevitable that English-speaking people will meet by chance at the post office (we all spoke Swahili too, in case you think we were culturally resistant), or be given someone’s name by a shopkeeper. Friendship becomes almost inevitable. And so there was a Gilgil Country Club. Tennis courts, snooker tables, Sunday “bangers and mash” suppers, and, thank goodness, a library. All of which were graciously made available to me.

The library was a single room that held about a thousand shelved books. What a joy, whenever I had time to raid the library’s shelves. At first I had a hard time deciding what to read, because there were very few authors there I knew or liked. But with no alternative, a book is a book is a book. I just started taking ten at a time, any ten.

I wound up reading a number of good authors I might never have tried. In the serious literature category, for example, Doris Lessing rode supreme. I’d never read her. “The Golden Notebook” was a highlight of my reading year. More Graham Greene. John Fowles. Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandrian Quartet.” Not my cup of tea I thought before I tried it, but I loved it anyway.

And the mysteries. Nearly every library in the world has more mystery fiction than any other kind. I am an American hard-boiled fan, but I romped through some of the English standards with great delight. Ngaio Marsh (New Zealand, actually), Agatha Christie (of course) and P. D. James were my mainstays. I was also introduced to the horse racing stories of the former steeplechase jockey, Dick Francis. The library also had a lot of American mysteries, and I read nearly all of Rex Stout and Erle Stanley Gardner, two old-timers I’d not read before.

With no “enemies of reading” present, I read a lot of books. With little choice of what to read, I discovered a lot of authors I enjoyed that I’d never have chosen under ordinary circumstances. Sometimes being deprived of choice can actually turn to your benefit by making you try something you wind up liking.

Readers: Are you traveling this summer? We’d like to know: (1) Where you’re going, (2) Why you’re going there, (3) What you’ll read while you’re away, and (4) Whether you have a preference on the print vs. eBook question. Responses accepted up till Saturday, June 17, so don’t procrastinate. Email your response to All responses will be printed.

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