Natives and Strangers
For most American readers of fiction, Africa remains, even in the late twentieth century, a largely unknown territory. Peopled in our imaginations at worst with Tarzan and Cheetah and at best with characters created forty years ago by Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Isak Dinesen, the countries of this vast continent, so carefully printed in contrasting colors in the atlas, have a distressing tendency to move and blur in our minds, coming into focus only when they temporarily capture headlines or are mentioned in the evening news. Apart from Nadine Gordimer and perhaps Athol Fugard, contemporary African writers are not widely read in North America, and for most of us, the African landscape of our imagination is as unexplored as the sands of the Sahara.
Louisa Dawkins’ subtle and moving novel, Natives and Strangers, cannot in itself relieve this ignorance, but it does succeed in providing the rudiments of a new fictive geography. In this story of a girl growing to adulthood during the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa near the shores of Lake Victoria, the author has evoked with great precision the emotional power of a very particular place. The beauty of the vast, rich landscape where Mt. Elgon, the tip of its cone broken off in some long-past volcanic eruption, towers above the dusty towns and fertile farms of the valleys, has entered into the blood of Dawkins’ characters; it draws them back when they attempt to leave and makes them fight bitterly against their own logic to remain when time and history are clearly against them. The texture of small-town life in Kenya and Tanganyika as it is felt by a child scuffling barefoot through the heat and dust has the weight of authenticity: One can hear the prostitutes argue with their customers through the board walls of back country hotels and smell the stock growing beneath the rails of colonial verandas.
Like Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet (1966, 1968, 1971, and 1975) Natives and Strangers is about the colonial experience—more specifically, about the end of the colonial experience. Dawkins’ characters, the children and grandchildren of settlers who left England for Kenya when the British empire was already in decline, must come to terms with the legacy bequeathed them by their parents and define their roles in a world that they only gradually learn is in the process of transformation. More direct and less intricate than The Jewel in the Crown (1966), this novel shares with the Scott books a breadth of vision that enables the reader to comprehend the moral landscape that lies behind and beneath the action.
Is Marietta Hamilton, Dawkins’ heroine, a native or a stranger in East Africa? Certainly, as the daughter and granddaughter of white British colonials, she can hardly be defined as a native in the aboriginal sense, but like most of the men and women who are important in her life, she was born in the Great Rift Valley and feels lost and alien elsewhere. Mari’s restless and beautiful mother, Virginia, herself an alien of sorts in rebellion against a narrow colonial family, runs a series of guest houses and hotels for touring British officials in the small towns of Kenya, transforming run-down watering places into modern resorts and moving on to new places when her life threatens to become too settled. Mari is cared for by Justin, Virginia’s African houseman, whose daughter Violet is Mari’s best friend, and who is involved in some way that Mari does not understand with the mystery of her father, who committed suicide six months before she was born.
When Virginia returns to England for an extended vacation, on one of the trips regularly made by settlers to reinforce their identities after years of exposure to the debilitating African heat, it is only natural that six-year-old Mari, nominally in the care of a neighbor couple, will travel with Justin and Violet to their home on the island of Galana in the Kavironda Gulf. Sleeping on floor mats with Violet, doing chores, and listening to the enthralling stories of the co-wives of Justin’s father, Mari feels at home. Justin is, after all, her second father: He provides the only real stability and continuity in her life. When she is teased by the family she expresses no doubt about the fact that, like the grandmothers, she will share a husband with Violet when they both are grown. Certainly England, the fabled paradise of her mother’s friends, could be no more pleasant than lake-washed Galana.
Dawkins blends the personal story—Mari’s coming of age, physically and, much later, emotionally—with the political situation that shapes her character’s consciousness and fate with unusual skill. Because of Virginia Hamilton’s stubborn independence and her refusal to be bound by the conventions of colonial life, the Hamiltons have more freedom than the settlers around them. Mari grows up aware of the barriers of race and class but relatively untouched by them. Violet may not be able to eat in the hotel dining room, but except at mealtime the girls are seldom separated. They share the correspondence course sent out from South Africa, handing their lessons to Justin to mail each week, and hide in ditches together to watch the Indian girls in pleated skirts and patent leather shoes walk in lines to the school behind the hotel where neither of them, for opposite reasons, is permitted to go.
Virginia impulsively marries, but the idyll continues. Neville, Mari’s new stepfather, whisks the entire household to...
(The entire section is 2266 words.)