Revisiting Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Tourist in Africa’

Last Sunday afternoon I was at a loss about what I was going to do for this week’s Going Places. I had intended to write about a lounge and bar that I had read about in ‘Yummy’, the informative and well-illustrated ‘EatOut’ magazine. I had gone there at lunchtime.

Yes, the place had a varied offering of cocktails and wines, as the Yummy magazine reported, but the menu was unappetisingly well-thumbed and soiled; the service was inattentive and slow; the décor – much too sophisticated a word for this place – was cluttered and characterless. If I wrote about it at length, it would be almost wholly negative.

I don’t like to do that. In the early days of this column I wrote very critically of a hotel in Homa Bay that was run-down and almost empty of guests. I made some unkind joke about there being more life in the weaver birds’ nests outside than in the bar inside. After the publication on the Sunday, the manager was sacked on the following Tuesday. For me, it was a salutary lesson. I had to be more careful and considerate.

These days, if I don’t like a place, I don’t write about it. I assume that most readers are more interested in recommendations about places to visit than about places to avoid.

Anyway, my taste might not be your taste. In my very first Going Places – it must have been 26 or 27 years ago – I wrote about taking a friend out from the UK to Lake Magadi. It was one of my favourite days-out (and the road, then, had no potholes). Once beyond Corner Baridi and the Ngong Hills it was a wilderness, and the drive took you past Masai manyattas. About halfway you could – and still can – stop off for a tour of the fascinating and mysterious Olorgesailie prehistoric site.

I love the shimmer of the shallow salt lake at Magadi, the fringe of flamingos, the many other water birds, and the occasional wildebeest. On that occasion I had prepared a picnic we had under the semi-shade of a lone acacia tree. But I was taken aback when my friend asked, ‘Why have you brought me here?’ To him it was a bleak, desolate and, probably, eerie place. It was another salutary lesson for me, the budding travel writer.

So back to last Sunday… In the evening, I continued reading a book I bought a long time ago but one I had put aside because, when I first flicked through it, I was put off by some views and some words that seemed, to me, out-dated and unacceptable. But perhaps I have learnt that a writer, or anyone, should be judged by the standards of their time – and those who questioned the prevailing standards should be particularly appreciated.

The book is ‘A Tourist in Africa’ by Evelyn Waugh, novelist, travel writer, short story writer, journalist – regarded as one of the best British writers of the 20th century. ‘A Tourist in Africa’ was written in 1960 – only a few years before I also first came to Africa. It is a crafted diary of two months travelling around Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia, of course). Reading it properly, I have found it delightfully provocative and, often, insightful about the challenges East and Central Africa were facing at that time.

As I did when I first came to Kenya in 1967, Waugh came by sea – on the ‘Rhodesia Castle’ which he describes as ‘a clean, seaworthy, punctual ship with a swimming pool, cinema screen and all modern amenities’. He disliked travelling by air, which he found too fast and too cramped.

I can understand this. On a voyage you are not only more comfortable but also more aware of the changes along the way – changes in temperature, landscapes and cultures. You also, through chats with ‘old Africa hands’, learn a lot about the country you are travelling to – though you need to recognise ‘Fake News’!

This is what Waugh picked up on the voyage about Nairobi: ‘I was told Nairobi is now unfriendly, huge and infested by thieves; the carefree life of the Muthaiga Club is a memory; rather a scandalous one.’

Waugh must have given his ear to some Kenya Cowboys.

Once landed in Mombasa, he noted the ‘apartheid’ that had grown up between the pre-Independence administrators and the settlers. He makes this amusing comment: ‘There was then simply a division between two groups of Englishmen, one trying to run the country as a Montessori School, the other as a league of feudal estates.’

The bon viveur Waugh would have been more scathing than I could be about the ‘lounge’ I visited last Saturday. But he would appreciate the many high class restaurants and hotels that are now to be found in the city he failed to visit.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation