At 13 years old, Njambi McGrath was beaten and left for dead.
Fearful that her attacker would try to finish what he started, she ran away in the middle of the night, on foot through the Kenyan countryside, risking the dangers of wild animals, robbers and murderers. She was later rescued by two men who brought her safely into the city, where she slowly began to rebuild her life. Fast forward several years, Njambi is married with children and living in the UK. An invite to her brother’s wedding in Kenya forces her to confront the painful past she had long buried.
This was a searingly honest portrayal of a family torn apart by lies and betrayal. McGrath’s memories of her early years seem rather idyllic, and though she later explains what happened, at times it was hard to see how and why her life was almost destroyed by what happened to her. But what the memoir is at pains to point out is, this was not an overnight or sudden change. Much in the same way as a cancerous tumour it was slow, insidious until it finally manifested.
What was interesting to me was that as McGrath strives to reconcile with the past, she undertakes research into her family history, and what starts as a story about family becomes a commentary on the painful and damaging legacy that colonialism had inflicted upon an entire nation. This, coupled with the sadness of her account of the breakdown of her parent’s marriage made for very sobering reading.
McGrath is a passionate and unflinchingly honest writer, I enjoyed reading her snippets of memories of playing with her siblings, going to school, and all those seemingly mundane childhood memories that we take for granted. I did, however, find myself curious as to how she managed to bury her past to the extent that she did, and whether she ever acknowledged it before the arrival of the wedding invitation. In addition, the narrative structure was at times quite frustrating, as often it seemed like there was a build-up to a climactic scene only to fizzle out and not be as impactful as you were being led to believe.
For me Through the Leopard’s Gaze, came alive when McGrath focussed on her mother’s and grandmother’s stories which were steeped in Kenya’s colonial past, and without these, the memoir would have been quite weak. That said the memoir as a whole was beautifully written and gave many moments of pause for thought, as well as marvel over the human instinct to survive and thrive through the worst of adversities.
Through the Leopard’s Gaze by Njambi McGrath is available at Jaracanda Books, and other book retailers.