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Conserving the spirit of one born free

Indrani Dutta


HOME OF JOY: A view of Joy Adamson's house at Naivasha in Kenya.

Recently in Nairobi

NEARLY a decade and half after her death at the hands of her domestic help, the spirit of renowned conservationist Joy Adamson lives on at Elsamere, the house she lived in for over 20 years.

The picturesque estate on the shores of the Kenyan fresh water lake Naivasha, that Joy bought in 1966 and named after Elsa, the world's most famous lioness, is now being used as a nature study centre where programmes on conservation are conducted — free for local Kenyan children and at a price for those from the UK, Canada and the US.

"At the centre they are given lessons on the basic principles of conservation as well as practical demos on composting, crop rotation, soil conservation and waste disposal — all aimed at improving their local environment," said Tim Samuels, who along with his wife Rainie manages the Elsamere establishment, which doubles up as a tourist lodge.

The 50-acre property, comprising a cluster of cottages, offers a spectacular view of the lake where pods of hippos laze by day and clamber up to the lawns by night to graze. "Residents are warned to keep off the lawns at night," Tim said.

In Elsamere, one gets the opportunity to glimpse into the life of one of Kenya's most famous citizens. Born in Austria as Friedricke Victoria in 1910, Joy met her first husband Viktor Von Klarwill, who sent her to Kenya to take a look at the place. On the way she met Swiss botanist Peter Bally and a romance blossomed. Thus began her life-long affair with Kenya.

Joy divorced Viktor to marry Peter. Encouraged by him to develop her artistic skills, she soon began a series of paintings, spending almost a year on the slopes of Mount Kenya gathering specimens for her paintings.

Many of her exquisite works have today found place at the Nairobi National Museum. Her paintings of the tribals and their lifestyle are also exhibited. Her place in the hearts of Kenyans is reflected in the adulatory tone of one of the museum guides. Pointing to her picture, he said emotionally: "She is the one!" Today these paintings are among the only pictures of the flora of the region with many of the specimens already extinct.

Joy's paintings adorn the walls of Elsamere, which also has a small museum and a video show on her life and work. She met her third husband, George Adamson, while on a safari with Peter to Kenya's remote, western frontier. The video clips show how Joy was torn between the two men, and forced to desert the former.

George was stoic, just as Joy was passionate and expressive, but their mutual love of the wild united them. In 1956, George shot a man-eating lioness and later discovered her three desolate cubs. While two were sent to a zoo in Europe, the youngest was adopted by Joy and named Elsa.

Joy nurtured Elsa like a child that she could never bear. The couple worked hard to rehabilitate the cub back to her life in the wild, although the animal maintained an abiding relationship with her foster parents. Joy wrote Elsa's story Bornfree, which was refused by at least two London publishers before being accepted. In the years since, it has sold five million copies and also bagged an Oscar award for the film music.

Joy became a celebrity and a symbol of conservation. She channelled this interest to form the Elsa Conservation Trust. Incorporated in England, it supports nature conservation in Kenya and worldwide.

Joy's life became an endless series of speaking engagements and she never tired in her efforts to raise funds for wildlife protection.

George, who was born in India, continued to work with lions even as the couple drifted apart. Each was doing their own work with George living separately with assistant Tony Fitzjohn in Kora, a remote reserve in northern Kenya where he lived with his pride of lions guarding the area zealously from Somali poachers.

Joy lost her life in 1989 to the knife of one of her own domestic help, a tribal youth of 18 she had earlier sacked. George fell to a hail of bullets trying to protect his staff who had been attacked by a group of poachers.

Their memories still lie scattered all round the place.

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