I had a chat with comedy performer Njambi McGrath at the Museum of Comedy in London. Her autobiographical memoir Through the Leopard’s Gaze is published today in print and as an audio book. The blurb reads:
“Beaten to pulp and left for dead, 13 year old Njambi found the courage to escape, fearing her assailant would return to finish her. She walked all night risking wild animals, robbers and murderers in the Kenyan countryside, before being picked up by two shabbily dressed men. She spent her life burying memories of that fateful day and night…”
JOHN: So you’ve written your autobiography and it’s all about your appalling family life back in Kenya.
NJAMBI: Basically, it’s a journey back into my life, triggered by the death of my father in 2014. A few things had happened before that. My brother was getting married just before, which threw things into chaos.
JOHN: In Kenya.
NJAMBI: Yes. My father and I had been estranged for a very long time. The last time I had seen him was when he beat me and left me to die… Fast forward… My brother was getting married and my father was invited and I went into complete meltdown. All I could think about was everything that happened to me when I was 13 years old.
So I wanted to talk to my father about it before the wedding, because I felt like I was going to explode – and that meeting was disastrous because he brought his entire family and I wasn’t able to speak to him.
Then, after the wedding – It had brought up all the trauma in me – I rang him and we organised a meeting. But he didn’t turn up to that meeting because he died.
I completely lost my mind. So I decided to write a book. It started off as a journey to tell the world what a horrible man my father was and then it ended up opening a whole Pandora’s Box: all the evils of the world.
So it is a journey back into my childhood and into my parents’ childhood, to try and discover why they were so messed up. And it seems like History plays a major role.
JOHN: Blame the British?
NJAMBI: I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. That is an important point, because my parents grew up at a horrible, horrible time: they grew up during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s.
They were children then. So you can imagine my father, as a young boy, seeing women brutalised every single day of their lives… You would grow up thinking that was normal. They had grown up at a horrible time. But I didn’t know that.
When people are traumatised by a major event, once they are free from it, they tend to want to forget about it. They don’t pass it on to their children but maybe not realising they have been traumatised and can’t face up to it and, if it’s not addressed, their children will be traumatised. It’s called Generational Trauma.
JOHN: Your book is called Through the Leopard’s Gaze. Why that title?
NJAMBI: Because, when I was a child, we lived in a beautiful area called The White Highlands. When the British arrived, they took it for themselves. They kicked out my tribe – the Kikuyu farmers – and took the land for themselves. They put the Kikuyu people in ‘reservations’.
JOHN: When did you come to Britain?
NJAMBI: When I was just coming up to 19.
JOHN: I only spent the first 8 years of my life in Scotland; the rest mostly in London. But I feel Scottish not English. You spent the first 18 years of your life in Kenya…
NJAMBI: We are so confused! My husband is English. My two daughters are British. I have two sisters and two brothers. We all came over, but my brothers moved back to Kenya.
JOHN: And your mother is…
NJAMBI: She died just over a month ago – in December – on Friday the 13th.
JOHN: Your book will also be your Edinburgh Fringe show in August?
NJAMBI: The show will be called Black Black because, the night before I got married, my husband’s mother said: “When I found out that David was marrying a woman from Africa, I was horrified. But at least you’re not black black.”
My mother was very black; my grandmother was very black. So it is a show where I am paying homage to the blackest people I know. It is a comparison between me and my life now and my grandmother. She lived through the Nazi era. She and I were put into institutions. I went to boarding school in Kenya; my grandmother was put in a British ‘concentration’ camp in Kenya. We were both controlled by the British.
JOHN: This is going to be billed as Comedy in Edinburgh?
NJAMBI: (LAUGHING) Yes. You can talk about something serious, but find the funny in it. In a comedy show, I would like to make people think as well as laugh.
JOHN: Politics as well?
NJAMBI: Like I said, I cannot do a show about my life without mentioning the British. It has led some people to say I’m racist. But how can I be racist if everything is affected by everything that the British did to us? My education. I speak English. Everything. The land that we lived in. The coffee that was introduced by the British. I cannot not talk about the British.
JOHN: Anything else on the horizon?
NJAMBI: I wrote a sitcom – I have a writing partner. We finished writing it just before the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It’s with a production house. Someone once said to me: “Write about what you know.” Well, I’m an immigrant and there are issues surrounding immigration… And we are currently writing a feature film – well, you gotta try! In it, I am a black African woman with an Austrian lesbian and a Jamaican woman.
JOHN: You are busy…
NJAMBI: And I’m writing my first novel. I’m past halfway. And, out of this one, I think I could write a children’s book – using an element of it.
JOHN: Very busy!