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A passion for the land


By Kuki Gallmann

Viking, $22.95

Reviewed by Nancy Paradis

From the time she was a little girl, growing up near Venice, Italy, Kuki Gallmann dreamed of one day following the migrating swallows and finding her way to Africa. Finally, at the age of 25, divorced and crippled from a serious car accident, she visited Kenya for the first time with Paolo, the man who would later become her husband. For her, as for him over a decade earlier, it was love at first sight.

I Dreamed of Africa is Gallmann's stirring account of her life in Kenya, from her first visit in 1970 to her return two years and several successful operations later, as a married woman. She and Paolo eventually settled on Ol Ari Nyiro, a 90,000 plus acre sheep and cattle ranch in Laikipia, a region between Mount Kenya and the Great Rift Valley of green pastures, rolling hills, rivers, springs and an abundance of wildlife.

Gallmann's memoir follows in the vein of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa in its evocation of some of the most beautiful country on our planet as well as of the seemingly charmed lives of colonialists who fly around the country dropping in on each other for tea. But beneath the surface there is a passion for the country that represented "a nostalgic inherited need to migrate back to where our ancestors come from." An ever-constant counterpoint to the untamed, wild beauty of the country and wildlife is the stark confrontation with the fragility of life itself.

The price Africa exacts is steep. In 1980, Paolo is instantly killed when the car he was driving to bring home a cradle for his yet-to-be born daughter is hit head on by a truck. Three years later, Gallmann's 17-year-old son by her first marriage, Emanuele, is killed by an unusual and dangerous passion for snakes that his mother was powerless to divert. Her account of Emanuele dying in her arms after a fatal puff adder bite is both horrifying and heart-rendingly moving.

The ultimate strength of Kuki Gallmann's I Dreamed of Africa is one of irony, that the foreigners and colonialists who are seen to have ushered the continent and its peoples onto a path of irredeemable self-destruction are now casting themselves into the role of its savior. In memory of her husband and son, Gallmann makes the decision to "dedicate (her) life to the ideal of the coexistence in harmony of mankind and the environment. . ." The Gallmann Memorial Foundation was born. Gallmann has since established herself as a viable force in the field of conservationism. Her final message is one that must be heeded for the life and lands she describes to continue to exist other than in the pages of her, and similar, memoirs.

"Landowners? . . . I do not feel like a landowner. I cannot believe that we really own the land. It was there before us, and it will be there after we pass. I believe we can only take care of it, as well as possible, as trustees, for our lifetime. I was not even born here. It is for me a great privilege to be responsible for a chunk of Africa."

Nancy Paradis, a St. Petersburg Times staff writer, grew up in Ethiopia.