By Nyambura Mutanyi

Aidan Hartley is a product of the British Empire. He is of the same stock as so many people around the world; Kenyans, Indians, Australians. He comes from a family of settlers with a father who gave his life to Africa. This is not his story as much as that of all the people who have made him and his family what they are.

The beauty of this book is the way in which Hartley discovers himself and that other Hartley-Aidan’s father-as he follows the story of a man who was his father’s best friend. He goes out on a limb seeking to understand this man about whom he is father rarely spoke and finds out a lot about his family and the nature of the British Empire.

Aidan makes for an interesting character to read about. A correspondent for Reuters in a period when many terrifying and exciting things were happening in Africa, he serves up a fresh and different view of various events. The world of news making is thrilling and dangerous and puts you at the edge of your seat. This, one thinks to oneself, this is what the people who bring us news go through.

The greats of newsmakers in Kenya-the country Hartley was born in and returned to work in-are brought to life in the pages of this book. Mo Amin, Brian Tetley, Hos Maina; the men who haunted the corridors of Chester House’s Press Centre and put Kenya and the rest of the region on the international news map. Hartley paints an interesting picture of the nature of reporting, the cost to the person of the by-line they so dearly crave. Near-death, sexual adventures, drinking binges and great stories.

The Zanzibar Chest that lends the book its title provides an interesting tale within a tale. A sort of biography within an autobiography, it chronicles the life and travails of a man called Davey. A man closer to the people of Aden than those of England, he gets sucked into the Empire and works for it the best way he knows how. His life is exciting but is cut short in a sad occurrence that leads to the older Hartley being wrapped up in an incident that alters the lives of all involved.

This book was not written for Africa, that’s for sure. It could be said that autobiographies are a telling of life as it was for the writer and so it’s not written for a particular audience. That would be an untruth because this book is clearly written with a certain person in mind. The Western person seeking to understand what exactly The Dark Continent is about. Some parts make for hard reading.

The human elements of this book; finding out about his father, retracing the paths taken by Davey make for a gripping read. This is a glimpse at a world that is now gone where honour and loyalties counted for something. Having a father who so greatly influenced the history of a people in another part of the world is no mean legacy and Hartley tells his father’s story with great insight and empathy.

And now for the parts that make for hard reading. Hartley was a war correspondent; it’s not hard to imagine what harrowing stories he covered. He conjures very haunting images of the carnage, death, and confusion that is the stuff of war. His telling of the events around the genocide are jarring and depressing; Hartley lets us in on a secret: the images you see and the articles you read do not come close to letting you know what a toll war takes on those that bear witness to it.

It has often been argued that Western reporters aren’t keen on a good story from Africa preferring instead the stories of gore and hunger that the continent supplies with alarming frequency. This book does little to disabuse those of this opinion; if anything, it cements that perception. On the other hand, it provides insight into the minds of the white person in Africa. Born in Africa and educated in England, Hartley enables the reader to gain some understanding of what it means to owe one’s allegiance to people who are not originally of the land. When he writes of the taking over of their farm by the government run by Julius Nyerere, history seems to be re-written. So used one gets to reading history written by those that made it or their agents-how different when The Other writes it.

In all this, Hartley weaves a tale that tackles friendship, love, betrayal, murder and the decimation of families and communities. He strips away the glamour of the foreign posting and shows us what it truly means. He lays bare the deeply personal tales of his family and himself with an honesty that is moving. An homage to a forgotten Africa, a dissection of Africa as is, a memorable book.