Review: Through The Leopard's Gaze
Updated: Jul 2
Njambi McGrath's powerful story of her troubled childhood in Kenya and its people's fight against injustice under colonialism
Njambi McGrath’s spent her childhood in Kenya living in a pink pebble-dash house surrounded by lush vegetation, a setting she describes as ‘the most beautiful place on earth.’ She attended a well-respected boarding school, but life behind closed doors was not as it seemed. Her father often flew into a rage, and Njambi, her mother and her siblings were at the receiving end of his anger.
‘He nearly killed my mother,’ she says, softly. ‘He chased her with an axe and after that she left home. She knew he would kill her at some point but she had nowhere to go and couldn’t take us.'
In the book, Njambi talks of the leopard that roamed the land opposite their farm.
‘We could see his eyes at night,’ she recalls, ‘and I used to wonder what he was making of our family breaking down.'
When Njambi was 13, her father went a step further than his usual beatings; this time he hit her over the head and left her to die - I had to put the book down at this point and cry for her.
‘I blacked out,’ she writes, ‘and when I woke up I left the house and just walked and walked for miles through the countryside in my nightdress covered in blood.’
Njambi pictured in Nariobi at 13, shortly before her father beat her for the last time
Eventually Njambi found her mother’s new house and never went back to her father, and at 18 she moved to London with her mother and her partner. When, in 2014, Njambi’s father died, she went back to Kenya for his funeral. It was then that she learned that her father had been ‘born during the worst time in Kenyan history.’ Realising that this may have accounted for his terrible behaviour, Njambi embarked on a traumatic journey to uncover her family’s past, revealing not only their hardships, but those of her people, the Gikuyu, under British rule.
It was in 1884 when European nations had a conference in Berlin - known as the scramble for Africa - during which they divided the continents into protectorates. In 1895 William Mackinnon, authorized by Queen Victoria, declared Kenya a British Protectorate, and essentially took over African land. The British settlers began to inhabit in areas deemed desirable and profitable, such as its vast arable land upon which African families lived and worked. Subsequently, they displaced the indigenous population. McGrath’s family belonged to the Gikuyu tribe, all of whom were vegan farmers. The arrival of the British meant being forcibly moved from their land to reserves where they had no proper homes and no food. The over-populated native reserves yielded little, and women and girls were forced to dig trenches and terraces to stop soil erosion. The Gikuyu were prohibited from wearing their native clothing and anyone wearing hang’i (ear ornaments) had their ears sliced off.
‘The missionaries were the soft enforcers of cultural decimation,’ says Njambi, ‘because they considered our clothes, dances and customs to be repugnant. Sadly, by the time I came along, nobody dressed in their native clothing.’
British Colonisation in 1897
As a baby, Njambi’s father had been found suckling on his dead mother. Orphaned, he roamed rubbish dumps, living among piles of filth, scavenging for food. He survived, and nothing more. He had no family, and nobody to take care of him.
‘Everything my father saw was violence,’ explains Njambi, ‘and nobody mothered him. I’m surprised he made it at all.'
By 1952, the Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau Uprising) began gaining momentum after years of suffering inequality and injustice in British-controlled Kenya. The response of the colonial administration was a fierce crackdown of the rebels and civilians with over a million Kenyans placed in either in detention centers or concentration camps, resulting in many deaths. During the violent battles, families were torn apart with men and women placed in separate camps. Many Gikuyu were enslaved, starved, tortured and killed. By the late '50s Kenya was set on the path to independence, which was finally achieved in 1963.
It is something of a miracle that Njambi’s father not only survived, but became a successful businessman. He began by selling sweets and hankies on the busy commuter trains, dodging ticket inspectors and police. On one such train is where he first met Njambi’s mother. The story behind their courtship is at best unusual; more so a deeply disturbing set of events which led to Njambi’s birth. ‘Baba’ taught himself five languages, bought a farm and, ultimately, his family ‘became the bourgeoisie,’ writes Njambi. Despite their status, Njambi’s father was still violent and unpredictable. In fact, the only thing predictable about ‘Baba’ was his propensity for violence.
Through The Leopard’s Gazeis a powerful story of unimaginable hardships, phenomenal courage and love, in all its guises. It’s a story of one remarkable family’s fight for survival amidst their people’s fight against oppression, racism and injustice. It is told with warmth, a surprising humour and an incredible attention to detail; the sights, sounds and smells that Njambi describe makes you feel like you’re right there with her, but mostly you're thankful that you are not. It will leave you in awe not only of her courage, but her ability to write so engagingly and eloquently about such heartbreaking atrocities.
Njambi on holiday in Kenya with her husband, Dave, and two daughters
Today Njambi lives with her husband, Dave, and two daughters, in West London. She attended university in London and in New York, and worked in IT before training as an antenatal teacher. From there she embarked on a successful career in comedy and now, of course, she is drawing in a new audience through her writing. Through The Leopard’s Gaze has also been optioned by a TV production company to be made into a six-part drama/comedy series. I have asked if I may play the leopard. Watch this space.
WIN A COPY OF THROUGH THE LEOPARD’S GAZE For your chance to win a copy of Njambi’s book, simply comment on this post below and tell me in less than 30 words why you would like to read it. A winner will be chosen on 1 August. Through The Leopard’s Gaze is published in paperback by Jacaranda. Buy it here at: https://www.jacarandabooksartmusic.co.uk
Want to know more? Head over to my interview with Njambi in this section