My great-grandpa Ernest Wise was an engineer who sailed to South Africa towards the end of the 19th century to build Cecil Rhodes’s Cape-to-Cairo railway. Although that project never took off, he decided to stay on in the continent — and he prospered. A cousin recently sent us a photograph of Ernest and his six children, taken in the 1890s at his home in Pretoria. Ernest wears a humorous expression and he looks as if he is about to speak to me, still in Africa 130 years later. I imagine him saying, ‘What, my boy — still there?’
The Wise family image is among the photographs and paintings at home on the farm in Laikipia that we have started to move to safer ground elsewhere. One of the pictures is by my mother, a landscape of the family ranch on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, which we lost during Julius Nyerere’s experiment with African socialism in the 1960s. Nearly 50 years later, facing what we are now, I feel like adapting Oscar Wilde to declare, ‘To lose one farm may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness…’ We have already moved our three dogs out to safety.