Roald Dahl’s name is synonymous the world over due to his much loved children’s books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, The Twits and George’s Marvellous Medicine.
So beloved is his work that every September, the month of his birth, his life and works are celebrated with events across the United Kingdom with the highlight being his birthday on the 13th.
However, while his novels and screenplays for movies like You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are known across the globe, less well known is the British author’s Kenyan connection.
Roald was born in 1916 in Wales to Norwegian parents, and following the completion of his education at Repton, Dahl decided that he wanted to pursue a career that would take him to “wonderful faraway places like Africa or China”.
After winning a coveted position with the Shell Company, he spent two years training in England, after which he was posted to East Africa and began the two week voyage by sea to Mombasa.
On arrival at the Kenyan port, Dahl transferred to another ship for the voyage down to Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
While there he lived with two other Shell representatives, between them administering the entire vast East African territory.
The second book of his autobiography, Going Solo, describes many of the exciting adventures Dahl lived through, including the time a green mamba entered his friend’s house and the snake-catcher had to be called in.
Another time a lion carried off a native woman, and Dahl’s subsequent account of her rescue became his first published work after it was printed in an African newspaper.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, all the British male expats in the territory were rounded up and conscripted as temporary soldiers, responsible for containing the German population.
This experience helped Dahl make the decision to formally join the RAF (Royal Air Force), and so he set off on the 600-mile cross-country car journey from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi for his medical and a month later commenced flying training in Tiger Moths alongside 15 other men of a similar age.
After eight weeks of basic training and six months of advanced flying instruction, the RAF deemed him ready for battle, awarding him the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC).
Dahl loved flying, once describing it as “marvellous fun” in a letter sent to his mother during his flying training. Despite being well over 6ft tall, he still managed to squeeze himself into the airplane cockpit and the other men in his squadron gave him the nickname “Lofty”.
“Well I have a minimum height for pilots but no maximum, so as you are fit, you’ll do.” – The doctor at Dahl’s RAF medical
Unfortunately, his very first foray into combat territory resulted in his famous 1940 crash in the Libyan desert.
Following his military exploits, he rose to prominence with works for both children and adults, becaming one of the world’s best selling authors.
He has been referred to as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century” and his awards for contribution to literature include the 1983 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, and the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990. In 2008, The Times placed Dahl 16th on its list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.
But there is no doubt that his time in East Africa had an influence in his works, which are continuing to delight new generations.