Author: Kuki Gallmann
Recovering from a car crash that killed many of her friends, still in the shadows of divorce at a young age, Kuki finds reassurance in the arms of Paulo, a man who lost his wife in the car crash. Together, they go through the long months of recovery as Italy blossoms around them once more and grief gives way to love and adventure. Embarking on a life-long dream together, newly healed Kuki and her soon to be husband go to Africa together, discovering Kenya. I Dreamed of Africa is Kuki’s heartfelt, honest memoir of her life on the Ol Ari Nyiro ranch in the Laikipia plateau in Kenya, detailing her adventurous self-discovery and consuming love for Paulo, her son Emmanuel, and her close knit group of friends and family with lyrical prose that is essentially transcendental, vividly bringing the transformation of Africa and the Gallmann’s later project to restore Kenya to pre-poacher and traditional approaches to life. As with most lives, however, so many blessings lead to so many tragedies as Kuki must come to terms with the death of her husband and her son, being left alone with her young daughter under the bowing Kenyan sky and looking for meaning and love again in a world scarred with new graves and long nights.
I Dreamed of Africa is a memoir that captured me back when I was a child (around 8 or 9.) I’d long had a fascination with Africa, a love for it that put my young, small self in front of endless nature shows with stampeding wildebeest and giraffes, fascinated by the beauty of and freedom of this expansive continent. My father, back in the days of Blockbuster, brought home the movie rendition of Kuki’s story and my nine year old mind was transformed again, seeing the danger, watching Paolo die and Emmanuel’s last foamy breaths as his dangerous hobby of snake collection results in a fatal bite. The idea of Africa being a blessing and a curse, a place so wonderful that its worth Kuki braving it on her own despite the admonition of relatives, yet so fierce that it kills quickly and violently lent complexity to my fledgling understanding to the horror behind beautiful wilderness and the importance of keeping that stunning geography alive, a deadly legacy worth the burden.
Later, as a young teen newly armed with Amazon.com (a new thing at the time – which we all thought would never last), I discovered that the movie had come from an actual memoir and that not only was the story true but that Kuki’s heart and soul were barred on paper, her adventures shared, her memories and love of Africa poured out. It soon became one of my favorite books, to which I recently returned, must more versed in the history of Africa, and writing my own novel and numerous short stories in different settings across Africa.
This time reading it as an adult, I noticed that while Kuki shares much, her honesty bracing and eloquent, she still keeps many aspects of her soul secret such as Paulo’s two daughters from a previous marriage who rarely show up at the ranch or are mentioned. The strangeness of relationships struck me this time as well (the marriage of her first husband to her step-daughter, her two relationships after Paulo’s deaths with married men, both of which seem inexplicable and briefly explained). Kuki, although she gives us much, still holds back some of the more prurient or perhaps more uncomfortable memories. Nevertheless, her memoir is refreshing in its style and diction, the eloquence moving it beyond the normal diary like presentation of most memoirs which lose the soul of the moment. I felt immersed in each event, transfixed by the descriptions of a world outside my own and the harshness of that world – how its supreme beauty exacts a terrible price. Kuki shows us her innermost feelings surrounding her love of Paulo and her closeness with her son (Emmanuel – from her first marriage). Their cherished existence, the memories which shine with only a wife’s and mother’s pure love are starkly contrasted with the grieving, a painful process which Kuki fully reveals. My particular copy, a hardbound edition, provides photographs which Kuki refers to throughout her narrative, painting both the exceptional moments and the tragic moments, the endings.
This memoir has received some criticism concerning the apparent wealth of Kuki and her friends, the invasion as it were of the whites who took over the territories (recall, this took place in the early 80s before the “great white hunter” made a lot of African animals near extinction, specifically the elephant and rhinoceros.) Personally, I feel that this puts Kuki in a precarious situation. Any white person showing a love or interest in Africa is instantly on shaky ground in that it’s not our heritage, not something we have, in an essence, earned the right to love. Regardless, Kuki and her family struggle not to change Kenya but to meld with it, growing as they meet with the people, make friends in the villages, and transition from the hungers themselves (Paulo’s particular obsession) to conservationist who have now established the Gallmann Memorial Foundation and Africa Conservancy for the preservation of Kenyan customs and geography. The criticisms of Kuki, for being white and wealthy, are undeserved as are her representations within the novel. Her gentleness, the feelings that she clearly articulates of being blessed with this land, of the slow process she undergoes to belong, and the final welcoming of the indigenous tribes who come to recognize her as one of their own showcases not a domineering colonialist, but a person with true love for a place and people who is willing to open and listen to the needs of those people until she herself is welcomed among them. As someone who has had a similar obsession with Africa since before my earliest memories (specifically Congo and Sudan), this brave and honest memoir has always comforted me that, perhaps, someday I can belong there as well. Race, something that many readers are going to go into this memoir with foremost in their mind is dismissed, put aside. It’s humanity that matters. We are all the same and race makes no difference, means nothing.
I Dreamed of Africa is a tribute to the land, to the dead, and to the future. A moving memoir, one of the few stories I have ever read multiple times, it still calls to me, the elegance of the written word, the divulgence of the adventurous life of someone who wasn’t afraid to pursue her dreams, to live freely, to love, to stand up for what she believes in. A remarkable memoir. Highly recommend to Africa enthusiasts and all those who enjoy an honest voice relating an extraordinary life.
– Frances Carden