A traveler's informal account of Kenya's past and present

July 21, 1991|By Jeannette Belliveau






Denis Boyles.

Ticknor & Fields.

253 pages. $19.95. Every night at 7, a train departs Mombasa on the coast of Africa for the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. It's a "Last Days of the Raj" affair. A rail-car attendant announces dinner by playing a triangle. Passengers partake of a four-course meal served with fine silver and linens. The train chugs for hours in darkness through massive Tsavo National Park, where elephants roam an area as big as Wales.

A pair of man-eating lions established Tsavo's original claim to fame in the late 1890s. The bold creatures dragged terrorized laborers constructing the Mombasa-Uganda railway out of their tents, ultimately killing nearly 200.

Almost 100 years later, Pennsylvania-based writer Denis Boyles investigates Tsavo's latest attraction: the Man Eaters Motel. Its off-putting name is only one of its more obvious problems. "Jetsons" architecture -- "like Monsanto's house of the future," Mr. Boyles writes -- rises bizarrely from the tawny Kenyan plains. Its staff is bored silly living in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it's not really open, except for the "gas pumps and the dining room."

The author, who attended Johns Hopkins University in the 1960s with buddy P. J. O'Rourke and was for many years a Baltimore resident, visits places loosely connected with the railway. He finds the island of Zanzibar now derelict despite a wildly exotic history, and the lives of white settlers and relief workers in Nairobi complicated by official -- but almost never personal -- prejudice. Lion lore appears throughout, including a grisly appendix telling in great detail how a big-game hunter died in the jaws of one of Tsavo's man-eaters.

Mr. Boyles, who has been visiting East Africa for a decade and wrote 1988's "African Lives," neatly sums up Kenya's past century. The completion of the railroad in 1901 attracted farmers, writers, con men and missionaries. "By the mid-twenties, parts of Kenya had come to resemble a more temperate Shropshire, complete with Gothic revival churches, quiet country inns, and a thin slice of aristocracy . . . [In] the course of two lifetimes, Kenya has gone from tribal warfare, famine, and pestilence, through colonialism, past independence to discount wholesale tour marketing."

How fares Kenya's spectacular wildlife? Ironically, the abolition of hunting in Kenya in 1977 may have boomeranged. Organized hunting "helped control the animal population and provided a sort of police force that most poachers feared," professional guides told Mr. Boyles. One guide tells him that "poaching and LTC the population explosion" causes much more harm to Kenya's wildlife than tourism does. "When people come to places like Kenya in great numbers to see the wildlife, the financial impact of tourism can only be of ultimate benefit to the animals," the guide says.

For the general reader, Cheryl Bentsen's "Maasai Days," "African Madness" by Alex Shoumatoff and "Malaria Dreams" by Stuart Stevens may hold broader appeal among recent releases on Africa. Yet despite some digressing and heavy borrowing from Lt. John H. Patterson's starchy 1907 book, "The Man-Eaters of Tsavo" (which admittedly benefits from the freshening up Mr. Boyles provides), "Man Eaters Motel" possesses a certain hominess and lack of slickness. The book will appeal to many with an interest in East Africa -- and would be a handy companion in the gently clacking sleeping cars on the Mombasa-Nairobi run.

Ms. Belliveau is an assistant business editor at The Sun and avid traveler.

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