Between The Lines: Njambi McGrath
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Njambi McGrath is a Kenyan-born comedian and author of Through The Leopard’s Gaze, a powerful memoir about her troubled childhood in Kenya. I caught up with her from her home in West London having been blown away by her story.You will be, too - start by reading my review of the book in this section
Njambi, ‘Through The Leopard’s Gaze’ is an astonishing story - I needed to put it down every couple of chapters to take a breath. It shocked and saddened me, and left me in awe of your family’s resolve. One of the saddest parts of your story, for me, was when you were so excited to head to boarding school, only to discover that you missed the familiar surroundings of home - despite the physical and emotional pain it caused you by being there. You describe it as ‘the greatest and worst experience’ – how so?
Education is only part of the story; character is the other against the backdrop of the devastation of the colonial hurricane which left Kenya strewn with cultural debris. My boarding school education gave me with one hand and took with the other. It provided me with Western education which instills one to shun everything that’s black and native.
At school I learned about Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, Alexander the Great, but what inspiration could these white men give an African girl growing up in Africa in a post-colonial milieu? African history that wasn’t blown apart by white Europeans lies hidden and unspoken. Great civilisations like Kush Kingdom, who conquered Egypt, along with matrilineal societies, the Sudanese temples and pyramids built by black pharaohs – that’s our history. We had the world’s first university in Timbuktu, but nobody talks about that.
‘Lessons in Building a Concentration Camp’ was an incredibly difficult chapter to read. Your beloved grandmother, and all the other Gikuyu women and their children were held in camps and had no shelter, sanitation or means to prepare food. They suffered hardships we can’t possibly comprehend. What do you think got them through it? The hope that things would someday get better, because they couldn’t get any worse?
Humans have an innate ability to fight tooth and nail for their lives. Their only wish was to live in their land and not the squalor enforced on them by the British, and for that they paid a heavy price. They were disadvantaged in each and every way and I am in awe of their resolve. Babies died on their mother’s backs because they were denied opportunities to suckle them and if they did, their breasts were dry because they’d had nothing to eat all day. Hope, I guess kept them going. I wish I had gotten a chance to ask my grandmother this question. She died before I got my cultural awakening.
Njambi's book goes very well with my office decor
We weren’t taught anything about other nations or countries in school, at least when I was there in the 1980s, and were more likely to learn about the average yearly rainfall in Nairobi than where it was on a map and the history of its people. How would you like to see history taught to European children?
Starting with the truth, as hard as it might be teach it. It’s a fact that Europeans were barbarians. King Leopard II massacred 10 million Africans in seven years. He cut off the hands of infants and their feet to teach their parents a lesson. The Germans, in their bid to perform eugenic science, made Africans kill each other and clean the skulls so that they could be taken back to Germany to be studied. British history is a painful one, of a blood bath during subjugation of peoples round the world. The French were not better and to this day still exhort Africans of a colonial tax. Teaching this history would not only be cathartic to the British and Europeans but also those people subjugated in the name of empires. From learning of past horrors, hopefully many people could see the world as it really is. Only then the world can start to heal.
A postage stamp from 1903
You left Kenya with your mother and moved to London when you were 18 years old. It was more of an escape than a move, wasn’t it? Do you remember your initial reaction when you first came to London?
For anyone arriving in Britain from Africa for the first time it is indescribable but in not in ways you’d imagine. An African imagines Britain to be like a paradise beyond human imagination. The moment the plane touches down one feels like a kid about to enter the most magnificent candy store. White people in Africa don’t get dirty, don’t do manual work, they are gods. This is why hordes of Africans aspire to a life in Britain. I remember standing to stare at a white man filing a pothole while wondering where his African was to leave him doing manual work.
Once you’d got over the initial shock, what typically English traits did you adopt? I became hooked on British comedy - Blackadder, Rising Damp and Blind Date, because Kenyan TV had only one channel that mainly covered news. I also discovered the joy of dunking ginger biscuits in Earl Grey tea. I had so much of that for the first time ever I had to visit a dentist with a hole in my tooth.
If Njambi's coming round, be sure to get the Ginger Nuts in
Doh! What was the biggest cultural change, for you? Was there anything in particular you thought, ‘I can’t believe I can do this/buy this’?
When I was growing up, people spoke of women who wore make up, short skirts and drank beer with such disdain, now I wear red lipstick without a single comment. Not a single person gives a damn. I could go to the pub and drink beer and no one would think badly of me. Living in London gave me a sort of liberation that doesn’t exist in many parts of Africa. I loved the freedom of being able to do casual work like work in a shop, and the independence of having the ability to buy things like make-up. The UK gives people freedom and space to reinvent themselves with easy access to higher education which is difficult to do in Africa.
Writing a memoir is often painful, but more often than not, if we don’t suffer pain, we don’t truly have a story. Relieving your childhood and delving into your parents’ past must have been very difficult. What prompted you to write the book?
I wanted to tell the world how much I hated my father, a journey that would take me full circle. I wanted to understand what kind of a man would beat their child and leave them for dead. I wasn’t prepared for unearthing what I did. People in Kenya are traumatised from all the brutality they endured during colonialism. The only way I could cope was talking about it, but I really struggled. There were times I wished I had remained ignorant.
Other than your book, what books about the issues around racism would you like people to read?
There two books that evoked something in me: Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathambane and The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aeham Ahmed.
This is a loaded question, but how would you define racism today in the UK?
Ubiquitous, and it morphs in all forms. In the extreme it’s like when I took a black cab with white friends – when we dropped the last white friend off, I was ordered to leave the cab with them. When I refused the driver took me to the police station. I had to plead with the police that I hadn’t committed a crime and I had the money to pay for the fare. Then there was the time that a little boy of four I baby sat for in Holland Park spat at me and told me to ‘go back to the jungle’, which obviously came from his wealthy parents. There were the friends who invited me for a party and one woman’s mother asked if they could touch my skin and everyone joined in. It was a very harrowing and humiliating experience. I could go on.
I have to address the Black Lives Matter movement. On social media it feels like something of a virtue-signalling exercise for white, middle-class influencers who are suddenly following black beauty brands that they’ll never buy products from or making a mental note to smile inanely at every black person they see from now on so they can say they're not racist. I’m guessing it’s not really enough to say, ‘But I fancy Denzel Washington and Barack Obama so how can I be racist?’ Do you think we’ll be able to navigate our way through this and come out the other side as better people?
Fortunately for me, I’ve been doing shows on the subject for quite a few years and I know there are very many good white people who are genuine and are horrified by atrocities committed on their behalf. These people come to see me live, have bought my book, they follow me on social media and have ultimately given me the opportunity to share my story. They heard me. I have never met you but what you wrote to me made you sound like a nice, genuine person - the kind of person I would love to have a glass of wine with.
Amen to that, although it might have to be over FaceTime at this rate.
Through The Leopard’s Gaze by Njambi McGrath is published in paperback by Jacaranda. For the chance to win a copy, head over to my review in BOOKS
Buy the book here: https://www.jacarandabooksartmusic.co.uk
When theatres re-open, go and see Njambi in a show: https://www.njambimcgrathcomedy.co.uk