Kenya Airways, ‘The pride of Africa.’ You might gloss over what that means until you are at Oliver Tambo airport in ‘Jozi’ (Jo’burg) and a Kenya Airways plane taxis down and you spot country colours on the livery of the wing with KQ, the international code at the centre.
By the way, that KQ name has to do with the collapse of the East Africa Community in 1977 when East Africa Airways gave way to Kenya Airways. Naturally, the code could have been KA. But that had been taken by Korean Air hence KQ for late comers.
Never mind the airline’s history stretches back to 1946 which was why seeing it tottering on the brink of collapse was painful under the weight of yoke of debt.
But the players in the current woes of KQ are nowhere close to the drama that was the life of Beryl Markham, Kenya’s first licensed woman pilot. Never mind the Swahili speaking girl who grew up in Njoro in colonial Kenya’s Rift Valley never studied aviation. Beryl still became the first woman in the world to fly the Atlantic non-stop and solo in 1936.
The world sensation was just 18, Beryl Markham, whose life was spent at the Ngong Racecourse where she died at 83 in 1986 was also Kenya, and Africa’s first licensed horse breeder. Indeed, in the Lives of Beryl Markham, her bio by Errol Trzebinski, we’re told she loved her father, horses and Africa.
Thrice married, Beryl spent her time around animals and men. Rarely women. She had no maternal instincts either. When she gave birth to her only child, son Gervase from her second marriage to Mansfield Markham, she dumped him to his mother in-law. She attended his wedding in 1955 and never saw him again!
And the leggy tomboy with the figure of a supermodel drove many men nuts with scandals this newspaper would have found cannon fodder for its social pages. Beryl was said to treat infidelities with the casualness of tying shoe laces. Flirting with Prince Henry in 1929 though proved profitable for someone who was clueless about financial prudence.
Mansfield Markham threatened to sue Prince Henry, son of King George V which was how Henry put £15, 000 (Sh2.1million) into a trust that took care of her money troubles for a great chunk of her life.
Did you know Beryl’s perilous solo flight was to impress a man, Tom Campbell-Black, the dude who taught her how to fly? Black had fallen in love with Florence Kerr Wilson (after whom Wilson Airport is named) and the fete was to win him back!
Beryl Markham’s memoir, West with the Night was written in 1942 to moderate success before it was forgotten until 40 years later when it was reissued to great acclaim. By them Beryl was living hand to mouth at Ngong Racecourse where she had trained winners of countless derbies for over two decades. Money from West with the Night saw a comfortable three last years of her life.
So much for the adventurous woman who flew mail routes, rescued pilots who had crushed, operated an air ambulance and safari air expeditions often without radio or air speed indicators!