Around 1942, while Kenneth Carr was showing his African slides to Americans, helping Great Britain’s war effort as requested, Kuki Galman was toddling around her native Italy without a father. She had not yet met her dad, as he was living in the hills with the partisans, fighting Germans.
Like Land of a Thousand Hills, this memoir is the story of a white woman running a ranch in Africa, but it is a very different book.
I often wonder if wanderlust, the impulse ascribed to me once by an ex-fiancé as “having restless feet” is a byproduct of nature or nurture. Kuki Galman received a healthy dose of both. After her hero father returned from the war he became fascinated with Saharan Africa. He took his daughter on trips to meet the Tuareg and their camels in the desert – but she says that was not her Africa. She wanted giraffes and gazelles.
She Dreamed of Kenya
Kuki arrives in Kenya for good in 1970, ten years after the country’s independence. Times are not as troubled for her as they were for the Carrs, a few decades earlier and a few countries away in Ruanda and the Congo. Unfortunately, fate has a whole truckload of personal heartbreak waiting for Kuki. Africa is just the backdrop for the last two tragedies.
The first occurs in the opening chapter of the book, in which she and a group of friends are driving to a new fish restaurant in the Italian province in which they live. A lorry causes a terrible car accident, which kills the driver’s wife and cripples Kuki.
A Word About Lorries
A lorry causes the second tragedy three short years later and I do not think this is random. Lorries all over the world, but especially in Italy, India, and I surmise, Africa, are dangerous. Drivers are often half-trained, sleep-deprived, daredevils hopped up on speed. (It was a lorry performing an illegal U-turn on the northern Italian Autobahn in the early 1990s which caused the horrific car accident which left my friend K. with a permanent and her friend Thomas dead. For three days, K. lay unconscious in an Italian hospital as a Jane Doe – her parents in Germany were frantic. Lorries are a menace. Something needs to be done.)
So it takes eight months for Kuki to walk again, but one leg is now permanently shorter than the other. Like my friend K., she has acquired a permanent limp in her early 20s. The driver in the accident, Paolo, visits her faithfully in the hospital. They fall in love. He longs to get back to Africa – his first wife did not like it there, preferring Milan – and it’s music to Kuki’s ears. She too longs for a fresh start. They pack up her small son from a first marriage, his two motherless daughters, and fly to Africa.
By the way, from the descriptions of people being flung from the car during the accident, they weren’t wearing seatbelts. I know, it was the 1960s. People, please: Wear your damn seatbelt.
Photo courtesy of Hiral Chauhan
Viktor Frankl, the concentration camp survivor and psychologist who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, says that the difference between those who made it and those who died often depended on finding a reason to live. To find meaning. To fight despair.
What I liked about this book – and it’s a tearjerker – is how Kuki emergences from the cocoon of pain and grief where she could quite easily have stayed. She looks up. She looks around and sees that Africans are losing their heritage – their connection with nature and with tradition. She sees that the old healers who use jungle plants to cure disease are dying out and that no new students are coming to take their place, much like the Mayan healer Don Elijo laments around the same time period, in Belize.
(*To see more amazing Kenyan wildlife photos check out Hiral’s blog at DreamWorld.)
Kuki sees the ancient safari paths of the elephants disappearing beneath concrete and crap shopping malls faster than the wise old animals can adapt. She sees the rhinos disappearing. But she notices that many seem to come to her ranch for shelter. And she thinks…I am still alive. The animals are still alive. I can do something. I have to do something. So she takes her cattle ranch on the edge of the Great Rift Valley and turns it into a Rhino Sanctuary and Nature Conservatory, in memory of her loved ones.
The Dream Crushers
I am always surprised by the people who tell you that you can’t. What has made these people the way they are? Once, while camping in India, my friends and I met an obnoxious Indian lawyer who kept repeating the phrase “You’ll never make it over those hills to Jaipur.” (He also insisted that there were two religions in America: Protestant and Catholic. Which one are you? He refused to believe me when I said “Neither.”)
My guache of an Indian elephant by Jaipur
We cycled easily to Jaipur the next day. And ever since, I have regarded naysayers with more than a little skepticism. Kuki too had her naysayers – from a teacher who scolded her for writing about wanting to go to Africa when she grew up (Why don’t you write about something normal, like becoming a mother or a teacher, she was told…) to a friend who sent her a postcard saying Africa had taken so much from her, why not cut her losses and come home to Italy.
But Kuki was made of sterner stuff. No way was she abandoning her graves. Kuki Gallmann is a five-times best-selling author. Chances are you’ve never heard her name, thanks to the Ameri-centric publishing industry. Oh wait, there was a movie with Kim Basinger. I bet the book is better.
Among Kuki’s accomplishments:
- Archaeological sites have been discovered on Ol Ari Nyiro (her former cattle ranch) – this is a happy echo of her childhood in which she and her father would find old Roman coins in plowed fields
- Her Black Rhino Sanctuary supports the largest-known undisturbed population of endangered black rhinos outside Kenya’s national parks, and is a refuge for over 450 elephants, 4,000 buffalo, zebra, cheetah, and leopard. This includes melanistic leopards, lions, gazelles and antelopes.
- Ol Ari Nyiro also contains the only protected indigenous relic forest remaining in the area. This includes natural springs, 62 man-made lakes, and the Mukutan Gorge. The conservancy supports over 450 species of birds; 85 on the IUCN red list for vulnerable and endangered species; over 800 insects – many of which are rare, and 2,350 species and subspecies of plants identified so far, some of which are unique to the conservancy. (Rare bugs – UGH! But, good for them.)
- In 2009 during one of the worst droughts in Kenya’s history, Kuki started an emergency nursery school, a famine relief and feeding programme, that has so far benefited over 35,000 women and children and is ongoing
An Extraordinary Woman
And all this came about because of how Kuki Gallmann reacted to extreme personal tragedy and loss – by reaching out to try to heal the hearts of others, and by standing for those whose rights will always be second to the rights and desires of humans – wild animals.
Well done, that woman. Well done.
I can’t help but note that in the early photos from both Kuki Gallmann and Rosamund Carr, there are sad dead trophy elephants shot by their husbands. In later photos, live animals being hand-fed by the women. Hm. Of course then I think about Sarah Palin bathed in caribou blood, grinning from ear to ear. UGH. I guess the love of murdering animals is not confined to the male gender. I am eternally gratefully there are people who are equally passionate about protecting life. Even life which people persist in regarding as that of a “lower order.” What nonsense. The Earth is our mother – we are all connected. We Are All One.