I. The coast of Civilization

Count Zsigmond Széchenyi – Land of Elephants

Nairobi. November, 1932.
A DEAL has changed since I was last here three years ago. Things have been moving. Three years ago there were exactly two hotels, one worse than the other, and one solitary, desolate-looking, little bank.
Since then three brand-new, four-storied hotels have shot up from among the rows of unaspiring bungalows-four lift-band-and-wireless-equipped monsters-and two mighty modern bank buildings, complete with marble halls and money into the bargain.

And plenty of it. For here in East Africa, how-ever improbable it sounds nowadays, people still have money.

True, there is groaning and gnashing of teeth even here by now. Liquidations, even bankruptcies proper are no longer the unknown quantities they were three years ago. And even here may now and again be heard sighs of regret for those eternal “good old days,” and here too the axeing of labour is beginning.

But for all that,

this is still another world. A better one. I make so bold as to state that it is a relatively good one. And those sighs going up on all sides are, so to speak, for the most part crocodile sighs at present. For the present people here complain more for form’s sake than for anything else. There is so much misery and trouble all over the world, think they to themselves, that it would be sheer tactlessness on our part to say we’re still all right. Everybody who is anybody in Europe and America has gone bankrupt, or is going bankrupt, or will go bankrupt: going bankrupt is almost on a level with being “well brought up.” People might say we’re uncivilised savages: none of us even goes bankrupt. Even if we do live in Africa we know how to behave.

That is the impression

which the plaints of hereabouts make on me. For where cultivated ground is still untaxed, where the mother-country, England, was this year for the first time responsible for suggesting the mere idea of income-tax, where the suggestion set up such a terrific indignation and met with such opposition that it was routed even before it developed into anything more than a rumour, where in the capital city there is, on an average, one car for every two-and a-half inhabitants, and every shop assistant, girl typist and hospital nurse goes about her business in her own car, where you might ransack the place and not find any unemployed, where new buildings are shooting up like mushrooms, and where good mechanic chauffeurs are never paid under 8 los. a week, there, as I think you will agree, at any rate in comparison with our degraded notions, there cannot be so very much wrong as yet.

And even

if people here do bewail their lot there is no absolute reason to be sorry for them.

At present. But, unhappily, even their lean times are not far off. They are well on the way towards them. Decked in the sleek plumes of “culture,” civilisation is advancing swiftly to the conquest, rolling onresistlessly from South Africa and Europe alike, closing in on East Africa, the kingdom of the elephants and lions and rhinos, and of millions of blissfully ignorant savages, the last stronghold of the Biblical Paradise, that “Darkest Africa” the days of which are now surely numbered.

To mention one thing:

the Air Mail has been running between Europe and South Africa for a year now. London to the Cape nine days. Every week the big, gleaming, silver bird comes here to Nairobi, discharges the home mail and its three or four air-sick passengers, spends a night down there below the town, and then spreads its wings again and heads for the Cape of Good Hope. On these occasions half the town goes out to the aerodrome, are out there with an hour to spare, picnicking on the field, betting on who will be the first to see the “Ndeke ya Ulaya” the “Bird from Europe.”

Sometimes they wait in vain; the machine is held up somewhere and does not arrive before sunset. Then the whole public trots bewilderedly off home, and the bets are “off.” For the silver bird only flies by day, and at night rests like a migrating swallow. Athens is one of its resting-places, and there it picks up the

Hungarian mail. I get it on the eighth day. Three years ago I was glad if I got a mail which had taken five weeks. By then all the letters were long out of date, and no longer true. Certainly not to be taken seriously. Then Nairobi really was still far from Budapest.

Securely, rest fully far. Since then it has come a good deal nearer. For the eight-day-old unpleasant bit of news is still fresh enough to spoil one’s humour; whereas before that, when it used to take five weeks, it could never do much harm, having had most of its venom dried up in transit. But I was going to talk of my fears for the wilderness. Of what will happen here if things go on as they are? What will become of the hitherto mysterious “Dark Continent”? As far as the mystery goes, it is already doomed. Soon the inviolate jungles and savannas will be degraded to haunts of trippers.

A flood of tourists, week-end elephant-hunters, honeymoon couples and retired officials will be overrunning the country, and every week a collection will have to be made of greasy bits of newspaper. Kilimanjaro turned into a Hampstead Heath. The Nairobi aerodrome, which was originally confiscated from the Athi plains’ uncounted thousands of antelopes, has recently been surrounded with barbed wire, so that the antelopes and giraffes and zebras and ostriches shall not get in the way of landing aeroplanes. Only a week ago a machine had to circle buzzing round the aerodrome for about half an hour to clear the animals off it.

And now

the poor things are shut out by barbed wire. If their exclusion goes on at this pace, one of these days they will be clean out of Africa.

It is the same story as that of the vast, still legendary herds of game of South Africa, scarcely twenty-five years ago. South of the Zambesi lions only roar in Zoological Gardens, just as they do in London or Budapest. But here, at any rate for the present, the lion still roars thanks to the mosquitoes, the malaria, and, above all, to the excellent severity of the English game laws.

Here he still roars

in his own historic kingdom, and still as full-throated as when he roared out his hate at the white man who first dared to disturb his land a matter of fifty years ago. But that he should now get a crick in the neck roaring at aeroplanes is somehow not right. You cannot demand that much of him. The much-talked-of magic of Africa has been condemned to death. Whoever would still find it alive must hurry.