Reading Beryl Markham’s memoir West with the Night, I was swept up in a fantasy of a dream life in early 20th century Kenya. The book paints images of a childhood running through the farms and plains of Africa, hunting with indigenous people of the region, an independent young adulthood as a horse trainer and eventually taking to the skies, piloting planes and learning from other aviators with African clouds in their eyes.
West with the Night is a beautifully detached account of an exciting life that most can only imagine. Markham provides few details of her personal life in the book, but gives poetic logs, strung together on a tightly woven ribbon, of the highlights of her life beginning in Africa, flying across oceans and continents, and ending in her return to Africa.
Markham lived in British East Africa at a time when Europeans were flocking to the continent for farming, hunting and a bit of adventure. She accompanied her parents as a young girl from England to Kenya, growing up on a farm in Njoro with her father after her mother returned to England.
The book opens with Markham searching for a beginning to her story and recalling a flight in her log books- Nairobi to Nungwe.
“Nungwe maybe dead and forgotten now,” the tale begins. “It was barely alive when I went there in 1935.” With that we dust off the logs of forgotten places with buried legends and dip into Markham’s life, rooted in an intangible Africa.
There is a camaraderie tied to this region, necessitated by its wildness and maybe the fact that these European settlers are infants compared to the history of the continent. Markham talks fondly throughout the book of her many friends, coworkers and acquaintances in the vast, yet closely knit region- where it is hard not to meet a person twice.
The call for Markham- a freelance pilot- to fly from Nairobi to Nungwe in the first chapter comes with the request that she deliver a container of oxygen to a settlement with a man dying from lung disease. She finds herself in a predicament because a fellow pilot has gone missing and she has committed herself to searching for him. However, she cannot abandon this sick man as she is the only pilot in the area and her missing pilot would not want that. Throughout the book, everyone in the region seems to keep each other as alive as possible, following the golden rule in a place that has no interest in anything but the circle of life.
While Markham’s life in Africa was made up of her accomplishments as a horse trainer and pilot, it was just as much a life of friendships and rich characters. Her most important friend was Arab Ruta- named Kibii in boyhood- part of the indigenous Nandi people. His tribe lived near Markham’s farm in her childhood, where their friendship began. In adulthood they came together again, Ruta helping Markham in her horse training years as well as her time as a pilot. There is a beauty in their friendship, which only comes when two people from very different backgrounds diverge.
Markham crosses from childhood to adulthood with little in between. After a drought in Njoro sees a bad year for farmers, her father gives up their farm and encourages her to find work in horse training. At 18, alone, she leaves Njoro for Molo and becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer in Africa. The journey introduces her to many friends and she has some significant victories in horse racing. She works as a horse trainer until an acquaintance, Tom Black, introduces her to flying. ” ‘I think I am going to leave all this and learn to fly,’ ” she tells Arab Ruta.
She takes to the skies, learning from Black. Piloting was new to Kenya and she had no formal flight training, but learned through the wisdom of other pilots and instinct. GPS, phones and computers were not around. Airplanes were purely mechanical and pilots like Markham had to rely on compasses, maps, memory and the stars for direction. A testament to her courage and adventurous spirit.
As a pilot, Markham delivered medical supplies, scoped out elephants and searched for the missing. Eventually, she would fly from Africa, returning to London, and make her record breaking flight east to west non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean.
Markham describes Africa as though it is some other world that can only be entered through a portal or a wardrobe. It takes a magical hold over those who live a life on the continent, but stops for no one, reeling through infinite lifetimes. “[We] drank a toast to Africa because we knew Africa was gone,” she says in West with the Night, describing her flight to London.
Leaving Africa is bittersweet for Markham, writing, “Seeing it again could not be living it again. You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, ‘Ah, yes, I know this is turning!’- or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no long remembers you.”
The book ends with a failure of sorts (to her at least), but nurtures itself in a life well-lived. Her trip across the Atlantic was meant to end in New York without any stops from England, instead she runs out of fuel due to her tanks icing and crashes in Nova Scotia. While the flight earned her a record, she was disappointed to not make it to New York. It is a testament to failures being forgotten and new goals found.
Upon leaving her crashed Vega Gull plane and traveling to New York, she writes, “…the plane I stepped from was not the Gull, and for days while I was in New York I kept thinking about that and wishing over and over again that it had been the Gull, until the wish lost its significance, and time moved on, overcoming many things it met on the way.”
Each being the heroes of our own stories, we feel that our accomplishments rest in reaching the goals we set for ourselves, but the only real accomplishment is, like Markham’s, the stories that fill our logbooks and the hard-won memories of the moments that give our lives real substance.