Inside the elite white community in Kenya
By Peter Stanford
If it was a novel set anywhere else, critics might say it stretched credulity to breaking point. But given the well-documented, real life antics of the remaining white community in Kenya, the details of a high society murder currently being retold in a wood-panelled Nairobi courtroom don’t sound so far-fetched after all.
The case in question is the reopened inquest into the killing of fast-living artist Antonio Trzebinski, one of Kenya’s 5,000-strong white elite: born and raised in the country, educated in Britain, but who returned there to live and work. His body was discovered lying next to his white Alfa Romeo on October 16, 2001, with a single bullet wound to the heart.
In court, his fashion designer widow, Anna, has been defending herself against allegations made by her mother-in-law, writer Errol Trzebinski, that she hired an assassin to kill her 41-year-old husband (known as “Tonio”) because he was having an affair.
For her part, the “other woman” Tonio was visiting at the time of his death, Danish big game hunter, Natasha Illum Berg, has testified that he was “scared” of his wife and regarded his mother-in-law, Dodo Cunningham-Reid, as “the most dangerous woman in Kenya”.
To add to the confusion, Dodo’s own lover, Italian businessman, Ludovico Gnecchi Ruscone, suggested in the witness stand that Illum Berg may know more about Tonio’s death than she is letting on.
Their testimonies give a glimpse into the drink and drug-fuelled promiscuous lifestyles of the modern-day descendants of the notorious 1930s “Happy Valley” set of blue-blooded settlers, who scandalised colonial Kenya with their behaviour. Today they are carrying on in the gated compounds and smart clubs of the Nairobi’s suburb of Karen – an exclusive, white “walled playground” – as if nothing has changed since the days of Empire.
“White Kenyans today are a cross-section of characters,” insists a third-generation member of this notoriously close-knit community, who like so many caught up in its tangled web of relationships doesn’t want to be named. Some earn their own keep, but others rely on the income from huge farms that have been in their families for generations and on abundant cheap local labour to keep up an outdated way of life.
“You have farmers, professionals and businessmen who get on with life, but there are also much harder-living ‘Kenya Cowboy’ types. Drug-taking and threesomes are common and there is almost a sense of pride in this.”
What he describes certainly chimes with details heard during the inquest. Witnesses – including nannies and butlers – have revealed the devil-may-care lifestyle of Tonio and his circle, collectively known as ‘The Fun Squad’. “He was probably the wildest of them all,” Tonio’s mother has accepted, “doing everything to the maximum.”
He even had a cocktail named after him – a quadruple vodka and tonic. For her part, his mistress, big game hunter Natasha Illum Berg, reacted to being excluded from his funeral by flying her light aeroplane over the pyre in a dramatic farewell.
On the day Tonio Trzebinski died, he had left Stas and Lana, his seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, at home in the care of servants, and driven the short distance to Berg’s home in Karen. It was her security guard who found his dead body when he opened the gate to her compound.
Trzebinski’s German-born fashion designer wife, Anna, was in Arizona at the time, having booked herself into a rehabilitation centre because she had discovered her husband’s relationship with Berg.
Anna Trzebinski, whose husband was murdered in Kenya in 2001, denied any involvement in his death.
Their 1991 marriage was, by most accounts, turbulent, but had previously survived his affair with Saba Douglas-Hamilton, daughter of Kenya’s leading authority of elephants, a descendant of the 13th Duke of Hamilton, and a BBC presenter on such popular shows as Big Cat Diary.
From the outset, Tonio’s 79-year-old writer mother, Errol – who has lived in Kenya since the age of 16 – rejected the Kenyan police’s verdict that her son’s death was a carjacking gone wrong. His vehicle, his Casio watch and his wallet had not been taken. It has been her tireless campaign to identify his killer that has led to the current inquest.
“The spot where his body was found is just two miles from the scene of Tonio Trzebinski’s murder. The cuckolded husband, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, was put on trial but acquitted.”
One of the most striking aspects of proceedings has been the many echoes between Tonio Trzebinksi’s case and that of a notorious and still unsolved “Happy Valley” murder. In 1941, Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, was shot dead in his car after visiting his mistress Diana Delves Broughton.
The spot where his body was found is just two miles from the scene of Tonio Trzebinski’s murder. The cuckolded husband, Sir Jock Delves Broughton, was put on trial but acquitted. He committed suicide the next year.
That trial, too, lifted the lid on the carefree antics of the glamorous “Happy Valley” set in Kenya, and fascinated readers “back home” in an austere Britain at war. With no killer ever convicted, it led to an enduring interest– including the 1988 film, White Mischief – which has been boiling up again with this week’s court proceedings.
At times, they have descended into an unseemly round of tit-for-tat accusations by Tonio Trzebinski’s nearest, but not necessarily dearest, and in the process caused an unflattering spotlight to fall on their enclave at Karen.
Nine miles north-west of Nairobi, separated from the metropolis by a forest and surrounded by the wooded Ngong Hills, it is named after Karen Blixen, the Danish baroness whose colourful memoir of colonial lives and loves in the 1920s inspired another film, the Oscar-winning Out of Africa.
“The Kenyan Cowboys may still play up the Happy Valley stereotypes, but families like the Craigs show a different side to their community – rooted in a passion for the great outdoors”
In his novel, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh also captured the spirit of those times – when grand families in Britain would banish troublesome sons to a colony where they could create mayhem without anyone back at home ever knowing.
Karen today still contains plenty of descendants of those unruly scions. Anna Trzebinksi, for example, is connected via her father to one of the founders of the “Happy Valley” set, Lord Delamere. But is Karen still the same world within a world, operating by its own rules?
Superficially, yes. Its white residents all frequent the same watering holes – The Talisman bar, The Tin Roof and Bronze Roof cafes, and the Karen Provision Stores. They send their children to the same elite schools – Banda in nearby Langata for prep, Hillcrest for secondary, then boarding at Pembroke near Gilgil in the Great Rift Valley, unless they are to be shipped off to the UK to public school.
That was the fate of Tonio Trzebinski, aged 13, but having gained a first at the Chelsea School of Arts, and done post-graduate work at the Slade, he was drawn back to Africa at 28 and went on to became a successful abstract artist, his canvasses selling for £20,000 each.
Whatever the impression being given at the inquest, however, Karen is however starting to change. Its eponymous club – and its renowned rival the Muthaiga – still has a white core of members but is increasingly frequented by the black political elite.
Equally, the private visit to Kenya at Easter by Prince William – to attend the wedding of his “first love”, fourth-generation settler Jecca Craig at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy run by her parents – highlighted a different, more down-to-earth side to white Kenyans.
The Kenyan Cowboys may still play up the Happy Valley stereotypes, but families like the Craigs show a different side to their community – rooted in a passion for the great outdoors, and an addiction not to drink or infidelity but to the natural environment.
This love of the African landscape was also part of Tonio Trzebinski’s short life, but it is a detail that is unlikely to feature prominently in the inquest.
article first appeared on the telegraph