Beneath an African Sky
Memories of a Family in British Colonial Kenya

by Catherine Keese

When Catherine Keese first set out to write this book, she was full of trepidation. “How,” she asked, “would I ever be able to remember all the happenings of our lives back then, and more importantly the nuance of it all? Could I accurately portray the magnificent, equatorial landscape we called home, or the vastness of the African sky? Could I relate what life was like under the forbearance of Africa’s natural order where man, beast, and the elements lent constant danger and exhilaration to every hour of every day? Would I be able to adequately explain the fragility of our political posture and prospects? And could I do justice to the colorful characters who shared with us the anxieties and rewards of life in a British colony?  I think I was horrified that I might end up with a book that defined mundaneness—like Lionel Hardcastle’s proverbial My Life in Kenya in the TV series ‘As Time Goes By’.”

In this fascinating book, told with great candor and humor, she adds:  “. . . for better or worse, I offer the story of our family in Kenya, and the fascinating, pivotal times in which we lived. While told from my personal perspective, it is the record of a Scottish family’s evolution from its working-class roots in Glasgow, through emigration, war, jubilation, illness, defiance, loss, and redemption. It is also the tale of life on a Kenya farm with all its trials and tribulations. Yet what remains for me is a picture of sun-drenched exuberance under that vast African sky—a Van Gogh painting whose bold, profuse brushstrokes and vibrant colors are the distillation of times gone by and all that happened to us. It’s a happy canvas that I gaze at a lot.”

Author’s Preface

My younger brother Dave convinced me to write this book. At first I was against it. Why on earth, I had asked, would anyone be even remotely interested in the memoirs of one woman’s progression through childhood and adulthood on a remote farm in colonial Kenya? After all, there are many women more qualified perhaps, or with far more interesting stories to tell. Many of them still live in Kenya.  And already in the record are those noteworthy heroines of Out of Africa and West with the Night, Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham, both extraordinary wordsmiths. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, his celebrated literary editor, Ernest Hemingway wrote:.

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West With The Night? … She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

Notwithstanding his characteristic crassness, Hemingway’s praise unnerved me. How could I ever live up to such eloquence?

David, however, was insistent. “This isn’t”, he said, “about competing with other writers, or trying to rival their accomplishments. Yes, there are probably numerous people alive today who have in them a story as extraordinary as that of Karen Blixen or Beryl Markham. But they haven’t written it down. Blixen and Markham gave us entertaining reading but they also contributed to the historical record. And so should you. Because your story is also the story of our family. And much as it may seem humdrum to us, to many people in, say, America, our lives were extraordinary. If you doubt that, consider how popular Out of Africa and West With the Night have been over the years. Or Kuki Gallmann’s book I Dreamed of Africa. And at the very least, you will provide and preserve for your grandchildren and their descendants those missing elements of their past—the genesis and emergence of our family in Kenya, and the essence of who they really are.”

It was I suppose the idea of documenting our family’s time in Africa that intrigued me the most. My grandchildren (I have four) are quintessential young people in the Australia we now call home. They grew up listening to the colorful anecdotes of our extended Scottish clan—uncles, aunts, cousins—who had emigrated to Australia around the time Kenya gained its independence from Britain in 1963. That older generation were called the “When We’s” by our younger folk, referring to the familiar start of a story: “When we lived in Kenya … “.  And there were many, many stories—some accurate, some embellished, some apocryphal. Our kids relished these tales.

Yet I still had reservations. How would I ever be able to remember all the happenings of our lives back then, and more importantly the nuance of it all? Could I accurately portray the magnificent, equatorial landscape we called home, or the vastness of the African sky? Could I relate what life was like under the forbearance of Africa’s natural order where man, beast, and the elements lent constant danger and exhilaration to every hour of every day? Would I be able to adequately explain the fragility of our political posture and prospects? And could I do justice to the colorful characters who shared with us the trials and merits of life in a British colony?  I think I was horrified that I might end up with a book that defined mundaneness—like Lionel Hardcastle’s proverbial “My Life in Kenya” in the TV series As Time Goes By.

My reticence left David undaunted.  “You have to write this for its own sake, not for the opinions of critics. If they don’t like it, they can always put it down. Or not buy it. But you have to write it … you owe it to posterity, etcetera. And anyway, everything we’ve ever experienced is in here”, tapping his head. “It’s just a matter of recalling it, of bringing it to the front. Start opening doors, and soon others will open, and it will all come flooding back. And I’ll throw in my memories, my perspectives, and help where I can. And maybe Rob will throw in some too, if he hasn’t been eaten by lions.” (My older brother, Robert—a renowned sculptor and ornithologist—has lived happily in a tent in the Tanzanian bush for over 15 years).

So I started. And David was right. It all did come back … well, most of it. Age has to be taken into account no matter how strong the will. But for better or worse, I offer the story of our family in Kenya, and the fascinating, pivotal times in which we lived. While told from my personal perspective, it is the record of a Scottish family’s evolution from its working-class roots in Glasgow, through emigration, war, jubilation, illness, defiance, loss, and redemption. Yet what remains for me is a picture of sun-drenched exuberance under that vast African sky—a Van Gogh painting whose profuse brushstrokes and vibrant colors are the distillation of times gone by and all that happened to us. It’s a happy picture that I gaze at a lot.

About the Author

Catherine Keese

Author Catherine Keese

Catherine Keese was born Catherine Allison Glen in Nairobi, Kenya, on Christmas Day in 1944. She was the second child and only daughter of James and Helen Glen who had emigrated from Scotland to Kenya in 1939. Her older brother Robert Glen is a renowned wildlife sculptor and ornithologist, and her younger brother David Glen is a photographer, writer and publisher, and runs a foundation for homeless and otherwise endangered children.

Catherine lived for over thirty years in Kenya during the period immediately following the Second World War, through the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, until soon after Kenya obtained its independence from Britain.  When she was just 19 years of age, Catherine married Louis Keese, a South African farmer whose family had settled in Kitale, in northwestern Kenya. They eventually were forced to sell their farms in a political atmosphere not dissimilar to that which affected farmers in Zimbabwe who were forced off their properties with little or no compensation.

In 1974, Catherine, her husband Lou, and their three children Helen, Christian, and Shayne, moved to Perth in Western Australia to begin their lives again. But things didn’t turn out quite as they had hoped, with financial losses, ill health, and the tragedy of losing their son Chris in an automobile accident. Not only has she had to deal with her son’s untimely death, and her husband’s poor health, Catherine was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and had to undergo the subsequent agonizing treatment and therapy.

Despite her trials and tribulations, however, Catherine has emerged ever resilient, and with an indomitable spirit and a smile for which she is well known and loved. This positive temperament is clearly apparent in Beneath an African Sky, her recollections told with humor and in an easy-to-read style of a life in a magical time and place that are now gone but never forgotten.

Net proceeds go to homeless
and otherwise endangered children.

If you would like to purchase multiple
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Recommended as one of the
best books of the decade on
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First Edition in Print

Softcover with French flaps
170 mm x 245 mm
with 60+ full-color illustrations
ISBN 978-0-9861364-6-7

Net proceeds go to homeless
and otherwise endangered children.

If you would like to purchase multiple
copies of this book, please
 contact us.

Note: Books once shipped cannot be refunded.

What people are saying about this book:

Farming in Kenya before and after Independence this family story is gripping and will leave you with mixed feelings about the Colonies, the settlers gave their all to develop the country into a thriving community. The cost of figuring out how to make it work took down many good people but the Keeses and their neighbours pushed on and succeeded in so many ways only to be pushed out by corrupt officials after the granting of indedendence. This is an important book.  ~ Nic Pickford (on Amazon)

This is a truly excellent book, well written, and beautifully printed. The author has shown that most ordinary people have an interesting story to tell, and she describes with humor and candor her years living in Kenya, and all that entailed, through good times and bad. This book had me laughing and also crying but it is a great example of how people can overcome great adversity with a positive and never-say-die spirit.  ~ Fedya Vanderheyden (on Amazon)

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