Simon Constantine tussles with the legacy of Britain’s post-colonial history which can unwittingly haunt even the most collaborative of projects.
My dad’s father left him when he was two years’ old. It formed a key moment for Dad, but also for us both on our journey into perfume. The first time we both realised we could use perfumery as an act of expression - not just as a perfunctory tool to fragrance product as with most cosmetic companies - was when Dad took one sniff of a perfume we were working on and realised it was the olfactory shadow of the father who had left him.
In the recently published book which shares the name of the perfume, Dear John, it tells how the search for Dad’s father, John, led to many incredible discoveries. One of them involved a decision made by John to move to Kenya, leaving behind a wife and young son, Mark. At the time, an anti-colonial movement was fighting for Kenyan independence from the British. The Mau Mau resistance, although controversial, became the target of crimes perpetrated by the British that were so heinous they required a formal apology in 2013.
A year after that, in 2014, I visited Kenya myself where I felt warmly welcomed by our project partners in the Maasai communities of Laikipia. Here the community recognised the need for additional income; the men spending their time walking the dry savannahs with their cattle to find fresh grazing, the women left at home to raise the children and run the home.
Now they grow an endangered aloe, secundiflora, that we agreed with the Kenyan Wildlife Services we could use in our products and so we have become true business partners and the money from this project supplements their income.
Nearby is Laikipia Permaculture Centre run by Joseph, himself Maasai, where training is available for the growing of crops and better land management . Much of the land traditionally held by the Maasai here has now been designated as conservancies for nature lovers where giraffes, lions and elephants can be found for international safari tourists. As a result, grazing space is more limited for the Maasai communities. A white landowner was shot two years ago, a result of tension over prolonged drought and grazing lands, and to me, this poses the question do these conservancies appear as a living remnant of the ‘have and have-nots’?
Not far from Laikipia lies Kenya’s highest peak, Mt Kenya. We have worked with farmers in the area to establish essential oil crops which require no chemical inputs and complement organic growing techniques. Geranium requires little water and brings beneficial insects into the fields. By intercropping (growing between food crops) it doesn’t have to disturb food production but instead creates beneficial outcomes for farmers and the wider environment.
Here, the land is rich and fertile, and farmers grow cash crops for the European supermarkets: carrots, green beans, cabbages or cauliflowers can all be seen growing in the fields. But arranged contracts with some supermarkets are often broken, leaving fruit and vegetable rotting in large piles at the side of the road.
Crops are routinely sprayed with agri-chemicals, an expensive requirement from their customers who leave them in the lurch without a second thought. When you see food grown for Europeans in this way, you can’t help but draw parallels with the past.
Establishing these projects has been hard work; it required a voyage of discovery which, at times, is unsettling. When you realise that your direct ancestry may have been part of the suppression of the people you are now working with, well, it’s…awkward.
However, I do have hope.
Dad often cited his father leaving as one of the main emotional drivers to establish Lush originally, to impress a man he never knew.
The empowerment of the women’s groups in Laikipia is something we can all be proud of: the connection to each other and the land through high-quality ingredients, through mutual support, through financial fairness and through the sharing of knowledge helps us all on the road to regeneration, even if difficult realisations arise along the way.