Book review: I Built No Schools in Kenya | Kirsten Drysdale

The Finnish word that describes homesickness for a place you’ve never been is kaukokaipuu. As an Australian brought up in Mackay, Queensland by her Zimbabwean parents, this is how Kirsten Drysdale describes her longing to visit Africa back in 2010 in her first book ‘I Built No Schools in Kenya’.

Despite having no nursing or carer background, Drysdale unwittingly accepts a job in Kenya having been coerced by her friend Alice to join her as part of a three woman team of round-the-clock carers for Walt, a wealthy British man with advanced dementia. Drysdale’s job as a researcher and presenter on the ABC show ‘Hungry Beast’ (she is now best known as a presenter on ABC’s ‘The Checkout’) had come to an end, and with scant knowledge of what was involved, including the pay, she heads off to Nairobi.

Walt’s racist, sexist, classist values are still rooted in old British colonial era Kenya where he has spent most of his life. Walt and his second wife Marguerite divide their lives between the house and the ‘Club’, another remnant of colonial days. While Walt’s unpredictable behaviour is challenging enough, his London-based daughter Fiona, AKA Val, creates the most havoc. She is a devious, paranoid, manipulative control freak with questionable motives, and she visits the house in Kenya regularly.

Drysdale does manage to get out to visit the real Kenya, and her experiences involve reporting on the East African body building scene, visiting a sanctuary for deformed animals with a Kenya Cowboy, and socialising with Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development; the types who really do build schools in Kenya.

The title of the book would suggest Drysdale’s time in Nairobi was fruitless, and it is baffling at times as to why Drysdale not only stayed in an unpalatable situation, but returned a second time. However, her resultant book is an optimistic and refreshing look at contemporary Africa. The book definitely gives the impression that Kenyans have the tenacity to forge their own identity in a globalised world.

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