Africa is not just a place in Beryl Markham’s estimation. Africa is “an entity born of one man’s hope and another man’s fancy,” and there are so many Africas—“as many Africas as there are books about Africa.” And each is true, if only to the author. Markham’s Africa is a wild place, indifferent, uncompromising, awash in beauty, life and death—“the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one.”
This is not a memoir with a beginning, middle and end. Instead Markham delivers four books which offer a meandering chronology, and create a vivid, visceral experience of her Africa: “As ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts…it yields nothing, offering much to men of all races.” She moves forward or backwards in time, and breaks away from the narrative often to offer blunt observations about the politics of both man and beast.
Markham begins not as a child on her father’s farm in Njoro, but when she is firmly established as the only female pilot in Africa and the only freelance pilot in Kenya. Her fellow pilot and friend, Woody, is missing—plane downed, status unknown. A sick miner in Nungwe desperately needs oxygen, if only to restore humanity to his passing. Torn between two disasters, Markham manages to create both tension and stillness—space for distilled thoughts—as book one unfolds: “There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing.”
Markham offers a glimpse into the aviator’s life—not the presumed, glamorous life, but the reality of long, cold, sleepless nights in the air. Pilots are camrades without sentiment, bound by “an understanding of the wind, the compass, the rudder, and fair fellowship.” Flying a plane is work, not an accomplishment measured by awards or flashing cameras or press or wealth. “It is a job to be done at an uncomfortable hour with sleep in my eyes and half a grumble on my lips.” Pilots require both intuition and a sense of fatalism, both of which Markham brings alive on the page.
She has a way of describing wild animals that is at once loving and honest, respectful yet bemused. She compares a wildebeest to a clown, both of whom are betrayed by their feet—“when he wants to turn, he pirouettes, and when he wants run, his progress is continually interrupted by a series of Keystone Comedy nose dives.” She declares the zebra “a complete ambiguity” to man, who are stymied by an animal resembling a donkey but which cannot be trained to work, who grazes on grass yet yields tough and flavorless meat, whose hide “is only fairly durable and has made its greatest decorative triumph as paneling for the walls of a New York night club.” Giraffe, with their height and failure to duck, are the bane of the telegraph system—“their cryptic dots and dashes frozen in a festoon of golden wire dangling from one or another of the longest necks in Africa.” My favorite is her description of a rhino as “the whimsically fashioned figure…plodding…along the horizon like a grey boulder come to life and adventure bound.”
Beyond describing them with a light, loving hand, Markham advocates for the freedom of wild animals: “To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time…you know then what you had always been told—that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.” Of Paddy, the lion who mauled her as a child, Beryl expresses a deep regret: “It seems characteristic of the mind of man that…what is natural to an infinitely more natural animal must be confined within the bounds of a reason peculiar only to men.”
Horses are Markham’s first love, one that begins in book two on her father’s farm. She treats her horses with the same combination of love, humor, and insight. Balmy is a light bay colored filly with a white star on her forehead who is “a little like the eccentric genius who, after being asked by his host why he had rubbed broccoli in his hair at dinner, apologized with a bow from the waist and said he thought it was spinach.” Balmy, like Beryl, does not allow society or her stable mates to dictate her behavior, and adopts a baby zebra for a time. Markham’s animals anecdotes are finely balanced against her aviation adventures and observations about East Africa.
Markham recalls the darkening political atmosphere of her early teens. “A man of importance had been shot at a place I could not pronounce in Swahili or English, and, because of this shooting, whole countries were at war.” By 1915, war threatened Europe and the wider world. “The Protectorate fought a frontier war with frontier weapons; it was still dressed in frontier clothes.” The Boers, Somalis, Nandi, Kikuyu, Kavirondo, and settlers came to fight. “Some because they could read and understand what they read, some because they had listened to other men, and some because they were told that this, in the name of civilization—a White Man’s God more tangible than most—was their new duty.”
One man went to war believing in this duty, armed with courage and his spear. He traded his spear for a gun and carried his weapon and his courage on to the battlefield. Here he held the gun like he was taught, and was shot by another man believing in duty. Markham delivers this story in the simple terms of a fable, possibly because the tale has enough significance without the trappings of language. This young man was a Murani—a warrior—and father to her friend, Kibii. Markham examines WWI not from the British, American, or German perspective, but from the rarely acknowledged East African perspective. Granted, as a citizen of the Protectorate Markham is still an intruder, but her youth, her rebellion against proper society, and natural empathy give her a fresh perspective.
Markham has the wit of Dorothy Parker, noting the cultural mannerisms, prejudices, and rituals of the colonial British. Her doctor friend puts “hist trust in a wine list rather than a pharmacopoeia” and is apt at telepathy. She points to a lavishly spread tea-table at a friend’s house as “a mark of sanity…less than a mark of luxury,” but as mostly the mark of the debt England owes China “for her two gifts that made expansion possible—tea and gunpowder.” Certainly without gunpowder, without attacking the tribes of the region, the East African Protectorate would not exist. However, Markham observes not without irony, “not to be English is hardly regarded as a fatal deficiency even by the English, though grave enough to warrant sympathy.” She describes the transition of British East Africa to Kenya with the same sharp tongue: “Nairobi has a frontier cut to its clothes and wears a broad-brimmed hat, but it tends and English garden…it dresses for dinner, passes its port-wine clockwise, and loves a horse-race.
Ernest Hemingway lauded Markham’s writing, and I concur with his assessment. Her facility with words can only be matched by her skill in the cockpit, or confidence on a racetrack. She is both a part of the civilized world, and separate. She constantly seems to question to search, to simultaneously run away and towards something larger than she can imagine. Markham carries within her an ancient Coptic adage: “Life is life and fun is fun, but it’s all so quiet when the goldfish die.” “West with the Night” is part safari, part philosophy, and completely unforgettable.