Stand up to the past

As she explored the reasons for her father’s cruelty, comedian Njambi McGrath also found out about the brutality colonialism inflicted on her Kenyan forebears

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Njambi McGrath had the kind of childhood that is recalled through the senses. The feel of earthy red soil under bare feet. The sound of gentle waterfalls accompanied by the humming, buzzing and clicking of insects. Lush green pastures as far as the eye can see. The sweet smell of coffee bushes. The taste of blood after a beating.

“My father laid into me. He took something and he hit me on my head and I blacked out.”

Growing up on a farm in Riara Ridge, Kenya, in the 1980s was in many ways idyllic. McGrath lived in a pink pebble-dashed home in the countryside with her four siblings and parents. During term time she attended a prestigious boarding school alongside the children of ministers. She was privileged and protected from the horrors of her family’s and country’s past so when they manifested in her present, through the violent and erratic beatings of her father, she had no explanation.

She didn’t know that her father was a street child and scavenger who, as a baby, was prised off his dead mother’s breast, which he desperately suckled after she collapsed from starvation. She didn’t know her mother had licked plates before she washed them as a child working for her family’s survival. If she had known these things, McGrath may have understood why at 13 years old she found herself running through the wild Kenyan countryside, with bleeding feet and head, stalked by the leopard that had already claimed her pet dog.

“My father came home one night and he was very angry. He was never in the habit of explaining things to anybody and he accused me of something. I didn’t really understand it but I said: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ We were always defending ourselves against something.

“He laid into me. He took something and he hit me on my head and I blacked out. When I came to he had gone so I just thought – run. I knew I had to run because I knew his anger.”

Months earlier McGrath had witnessed her father fly into a wild rage at her mother, tearing off all her clothes as he punched and kicked her before chasing her with an axe. She fled the family home, naked and bleeding, and hadn’t returned.

“He could very easily have killed my mother so my instinct was just run. I’m a scaredy cat – I don’t even like the dark but the fear of him was so great that I had to leave. Looking back now I feel scared for myself.

“Animals were a real threat. They always are. We knew that the leopard killed sheep and there were snakes, hyenas, all sorts of things, but when you’re in a fearful situation it’s adrenalin that drives you. You’re not thinking – you just go.”

McGrath thinks it was about five miles before two men found her walking through the night and drove her to her mother, now living in her grandmother’s house in Thogoto, 45km away.

“It’s only through the process of writing my book that I’ve gone: ‘Oh my god, a 13-year-old girl walking through the night in the Kenyan countryside – there are so many dangers out there.’”

Through the Leopard’s Gaze tells the story of McGrath’s escape from her father’s house, recalled years later when a wedding invitation arrives calling her back home to Kenya. McGrath had put her past behind her and lived a carefree life in London, with her English husband and two children, making a career as a stand-up comic.

“We don’t know how to deal with trauma. We just hope everything is going to be fine. We move over here but your past is still haunting you. I am so far away from Kenya, in a nice home, in a loving relationship. My children love
me, I have lovely neighbours and yet my past came to haunt me. And it made me really angry.”

McGrath went to the wedding – her brother’s – and asked her father to meet her ahead of it, at an exclusive restaurant in Nairobi. She writes: “I longed to make him feel insignificant. I had to prove to him that despite his neglect, I was doing well for myself. Yet another part of me craved his acceptance. I wanted him to be proud of my achievements.”

But her father brought his new wife and family along. They took advantage of McGrath and ordered the most expensive meals on the menu. At the wedding, she and her mother were snubbed. McGrath left Kenya for a second time with renewed anger.

Back in London she decided to contact her father again. He was gracious but, before they had chance to meet again, he died –“presumably to get out of talking to me”.

At his funeral the pastor eulogised her father’s life during the most troubled period of Kenyan history. It was the first McGrath had heard about it. Researching the history of the Gikuyu tribe, to which her family belonged, she found that this peaceful community of vegan farmers were all but wiped out by colonialism.

“I went to boarding school so I was removed from cultural norms and very removed from the history of the country but most people are in Africa,” she says. “There is collective amnesia – in Africa and in Britain. Britain has a lot to cover up and doesn’t want to face up to the crimes of the past – the sheer brutality with which they governed Africa is just grotesque – so it’s in their interest to keep people uninformed about it.

“All of it was a revelation to me. When you’re growing up as a child and your mum says ‘times were hard’, whose mum doesn’t say stuff like that? I could never have anticipated the truth.”

At the beginning of the 20th century the Gikuyu were expelled from their land to accommodate a handful of colonisers, losing nearly 60,000 acres. They were condemned to destitution and vagrancy, which was then made a finable offence. McGrath’s grandmother and family found themselves dispossessed and landless in Thogoto, at the mercy of a Gikuyu landowner who gave them a small plot, only to evict them later. The rich produce of the land was shipped to Britain, leading to mass starvation. The formerly prosperous Gikuyu became the poster child of African hunger and the Red Cross appealed to the British public to save them.

The stories of brutality retold by McGrath make for harrowing reading. When she discovered them the author contemplated suicide.

“I so believed that Britain is the exemplar of good governance and society. It was a bit like finding out your family member is a gang member or a paedophile. It was so shocking.”

McGrath’s book is a courageous contribution to a wider story still unfolding. Only in 2013 did the British government say it would pay compensation to victims tortured during the crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Last year a Kenyan county governor demanded reparations for land he says was stolen for tea-growing in the 1930s. McGrath wants this history to be taught in classrooms and for Britain to begin untangling its knotted past the way she has her own.

“I want it to be remembered the way the Holocaust is remembered and respected. People empathise with the Jewish people. Their pain is accepted and validated, and they are very sorry for what happened even if they weren’t involved. I would like the same for us.”

Once her mother was asked to tell her story there was no stopping her.

“My mother was debriefing herself. She had held onto this for so long. Those years where we worked together doing the interviews were special because I lived so far away from her and we reconnected during that time.”

Her mother suffered with Parkinson’s disease and died before being able to read the book.

“I’m devastated that she was unable to hold the physical copy. I wanted her to see her story and she didn’t. She knew it was done and I told her it was being published and when she went I think she must have felt a weight off her shoulders for being able to tell her story.

“My grandmother died and nobody ever heard her story. My aunt died and nobody ever heard her story. All those women who were put in camps, forced to work, taken away from looking after their children and then told they didn’t know how to be mothers and sent to parenting classes taught by white women – nobody has ever heard their stories and nobody has ever acknowledged their suffering.”

Learning her father’s story has helped McGrath make peace with him.

“I just feel incredibly sad for my parents because they had no chance. I also feel incredibly proud that they were actually able to get me to where I am. They came from nothing – absolutely nothing – so just for them to have been able to even get us the farm, and then to have got us through school, is incredible. They had no helping hand from anyone and they did all of that by themselves.

“I don’t have bitter feelings about my father because I understand. If you look at what happens to very young children, they learn how to love and they learn empathy from the empathy they get from those around them. The brain of a baby does not develop properly if they don’t get that and my father is the perfect example.

“Do I feel better for finding out? I’m glad I know what I know but it changed everything. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that carefree place that I used to be in but I now have an explanation for why my father was like he was and I don’t feel angry anymore.”

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