16 – Joy of Kenya

16 – Joy of Kenya

You may have heard of Joy Adamson. You probably know her as the author of “Born Free” or as the “Lioness Lady”. This is how Heather remembered Joy Adamson, having grown up being read the Born Free books by her Mum (well, most of the time H nodded off to sleep so had to be retold the previous chapter the next day).

Lioness Lady 🦁

After visiting Joy’s house (named Elsamere) at Lake Naivasha and discovering her incredible story, we realised she was so much more than a “Lioness Lady”…

Joy (real name: Friederike Victoria Gessner) was born in a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now the Czech Republic. Aged ten, her parents divorced, and she went to live with her Grandmother in Vienna. There, she studied music at university and dreamt about becoming a concert pianist. Alas, her hands were too small for her to succeed as a pianist, so she turned to sculpting.

Joy really enjoyed sculpting. To improve her work, she joined anatomy classes in which cadavers were dissected. She loved learning about human anatomy so much that she decided to study medicine. Joy never finished her studies in medicine as in 1935 she married Victor von Klarwill. As a Jew looking to escape the rising Nazi movement in Austria, von Klarwill shipped Joy off to Kenya to suss out if it would be a good place for the two of them to settle.

On the ship, Joy met and fell in love with Peter Bally. Upon arriving in Kenya, she announced her intention to divorce von Klarwill. She married Peter Bally shortly thereafter. It was him that gave her the nickname “Joy”. Bally was a botanist and talented artist. Feeling inspired by her husband, Joy tried her hand at painting. She started with a red lily which she deemed a failure so ripped it up and chucked it in the bin. Bally rescued the painting, stuck it back together and framed it. He encouraged Joy to continue sketching and painting the flora and fauna as they travelled through Kenya. Joy completed over seven hundred botanical paintings that were published in several books. She became a talented artist, so much so that her artwork was awarded the Grenfell Gold Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society in 1947! Amazing, hey?

Joy did not limit herself to painting flowers. When travelling around Kenya with her husband, she decided she would record everything she discovered about local tribes so they would not be forgotten in the future. Her desire to conserve culture led to her painting men and women from fifty-four different tribes across Kenya. She was even commissioned to paint portraits by the Kenyan government. Many of her paintings still hang today at the Nairobi National Museum. I guess practising really does make perfect!

In the early 1940s, Joy and Peter Bally went on a safari with George Adamson. On that trip, Joy and George realised they were falling in love. Awkward. Not wanting to interfere with their marriage, George found an excuse to change route and leave the Ballys. He swore never to contact Joy again. In 1944 Joy and George bumped into each other in Nairobi, Joy divorced Bally and the rest is history…

George Adamson – Joy’s third and last husband – was a game warden for the Northern District of Kenya.

The Adamsons 💙

This is the part of Joy’s story that you have most likely heard before. In 1956 George was on a mission in the wilderness when a lioness charged at him. In defence, he shot and killed her, only to find out she had simply been protecting her young. George found her three cubs in a rocky crevice and took them home to raise. The Adamsons struggled to care for the cubs and after six months, two of them were sent to a European zoo (as had always been the case with tame wild animals). The smallest cub, Elsa, remained with them. Wanting to set Elsa free, they spent many months training her to hunt and to fend for herself. The Adamsons set a benchmark for wildlife conservation: they were successful in releasing Elsa to her natural habitat. She even went on to have a litter of cubs in the wild.

Joy, Elsa and the two other cubs 😻😻😻

Elsa eventually died from a tick-borne disease, leaving Joy distraught. Joy had found a love in Elsa that she had never felt with a human, “In Elsa I found deep love in the purest sense”. After Elsa’s death, Joy dedicated her life to conservationism and raising money for wildlife. She went on to rehabilitate other African animals, including a cheetah (Pippa) and an African leopard (Penny).

Joy was motivated to share her stories with the world. She was rejected by several publishers before finding one that would print her books. Joy became a best-selling author and Born Free was turned into an academy award-winning movie. It was thanks to her books that she became famous (she even met the Queen!).

Joy used her fame to draw the public’s attention to important causes. She campaigned against fur clothing, travelled all over the world to speak about wildlife preservation, and fought tirelessly against poaching.

Joy was not interested in amassing personal financial wealth. She used the money from her books to help set up World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She also founded a charity called Elsa Wild Animal Appeal, which later became the Elsa Conservation Trust. When she and George died, their estates (including Elsamere) were bequeathed to the trust which is still active today. It helps keep animal reserves going and populations educated in the importance of conservationism.

The entrance to Hell’s Gate National Park (funded by Joy’s trust)

Though Joy did much good in her lifetime, her strong character meant she was difficult to live with and disliked by some. Some say she was much better with animals than she was with humans. A clash with one of her old employees resulted in her murder in 1980. Her husband, George Adamson, was also murdered when trying to save a German tourist from Somali bandits in 1989. The irony of their deaths at the hands of humans after they had dedicated their lives to protecting animals from humans cannot go unnoticed. “Since we humans have the better brain, isn’t it our responsibility to protect our fellow creatures from, oddly enough, ourselves?”

We really enjoyed discovering Joy’s amazing story. Ok, so the divorce bit is not great. BUT, other than that:

She brought out the best in her husbands and allowed them to draw out the best in her – including talents she never knew she had. Thanks to her first husband she discovered her love for Kenya, thanks to the second she discovered her gift for painting and thanks to the last she discovered her passion for animals. She always made the most of her situations: even if she was stranded in the bush in the middle of nowhere, she still achieved wonders.

Joy enthused confidence. She had a beautiful smile. She saw love and gentleness in wild cats when others saw them simply as predators or hunting trophies.

We love how she lived her life doing what she loved. Joy was creative, she was passionate, she was not afraid to try new things, she did everything to the best of her ability.

We admire how she never went looking for a job, nor was she driven by money. Rather, she lived for her passions and her passions brought her an income. Even when she did have money, she did not get distracted by it. She continued living simply, and campaigning for what she believed in. Joy was brave, she dared to go to places where Europeans had not come out alive. She never settled for a dull life, she remained a true adventurer.

The Adamson’s house (Elsamere) is beside Lake Naivasha. Joy did much of her painting, writing and conservation work here until her murder in 1980.

We camped nearby for one week; amongst the spikey acacia trees, sisal plants, yellow fever trees, papyrus reeds, candelabra euphorbia and Nairobi expats.

We enjoyed visits from hippos, colobus & vervet monkeys and all different kinds of birds (including Grey & White egrets, Pied kingfishers, Nubian woodpeckers, Red collared love birds, Superb starlings, Pink-backed pelicans, Herons, Red-knobbed coots, Marabou storks, Sandpipers, Egyptian geese, Helmeted guineau fowls, Cormorants, African fish eagles, and Hadeda ibises). The latter were our alarm clocks:

Click play to listen to our “alarm clock”

8 Replies to “16 – Joy of Kenya”

  1. Glorious pictures and descriptions again, thank you. I had no idea Joy Adamson had had such a colourful life! A formidable free spirit. Not unlike Diane Fosseyvperhaos, who also had a massive passion and had a huge impact in Africa protecting wildlife and made enemies along the way that resulted in her murder in the end. Tragic loss but incredible contributions they made in their time. Wonderful post, superb pictures. Wonderful to see you both looking so well. Thank you xxx

  2. That brought a tear or two to the eye, not least the cry of the Hadedas (you do realise they make all that noise on take off because they are scared of heights?) Such good stuff to be found in Africa! xxxx xxxx

  3. Just read this post again – a marvel! Good jumping Arnaud and brilliant timing photographer!

  4. Just love this chapter ♥️Never knew all these things about Joy ah Heather Joy that’s where the adventure and spirit comes from. Love you both, stay adventuring and full of wonder. It a contagious love love. 💓Lxxx

  5. So wonderful and touching thank you! Love how Joy ‘had found a love in Elsa that she had never felt with a human, “In Elsa I found deep love in the purest sense”. ‘…and so wonderful that ‘she saw love and gentleness in wild cats when others saw them simply as predators..’ Very heart-warming and inspiring.. And yes so admirable her passionate continuous campaigning for what she believed in, and also her true adventurer spirit!

  6. Thank you for sharing all this!..and also so lovely your week camping near very special Elsamere.. & with so many delightful, ‘characterful’ visitors! 😉 😉

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