Born in Kenya in 1931, then still a colony of British East Africa, to an Italian father and a French mother, Mirella Ricciardi grew up on the shores of Lake Naivasha in a household which was both sophisticated and wild. She was married at twenty-five to the Italian adventurer Lorenzo Ricciardi, who swept her off her feet and hired her as the photographer on the film he was making in East Africa. She bore him two children, both girls. Marina, their eldest daughter, died of cancer at the age of thirty-six. 

Mirella’s first book, Vanishing Africa, was published in 1971. An international bestseller, it made her reputation; one reviewer wrote that it was ‘a masterpiece of photographic excellence’. She has since published four other photographic books - Vanishing AmazonAfrican SagaAfrican Rainbowand most recently, African Visions

Below is an excerpt from her book ‘Vanishing Africa.’

When Vanishing Africa was published I received many letters from women of all ages asking me how I had produced a book like that and also managed to have a family. The truth is that I did not manage, or rather, I only partly managed. My family life was decomposing, my marriage was falling apart and I was in deep despair. My parents came to the rescue. I felt like a leaf blown in a storm, rising and crashing with every fresh gust of wind. Totally unprepared, I had no idea how to handle my marriage or my wayward husband, who himself was drifting down the current of his own life unable to find a firm fix for his anchor. It was a terrible time in our lives and for years I lived the debilitating existence of the drowning. Remembering those years still makes me shiver.

I finally broke away and took my first baby with me. I went to live in Paris in my mother’s Left Bank atelier. I had completely lost sight of any direction and trudged through each day as if I was carrying an impossible burden. I was thirty-five years old and I was blowing in the wind. My African roots had been severed and I was slowly wilting. I was so enmeshed in my hopeless emotional drama that I did not bother to open a letter that had arrived for me from London for several weeks. When I did, it was an invitation from Billy Collins, an English publisher, to come to London to meet with him.

I emerged from my despair and my anguish and turned my back on them. I felt finally delivered and embarked on the first, most satisfying solo flight of my life. Vanishing Africa was the result.

In response to the letter from Billy Collins, I arrived in London unannounced and found that he had just left for Australia and would not be back for three months. I saw his senior editor, Adrian House, instead, a charming grey-haired, very English gentleman who offered me a quarter of an hour of his time at the end of his day.

When I showed him my photo layout and told him of my project – to photograph the tribal life and customs of the people of Africa before they changed forever – he pricked up his ears and the fifteen minutes spilled into several hours and ended with drinks and dinner at the Ritz. Adrian could only offer to send the photographs to Billy in Australia. I acquiesced half-heartedly and returned to Paris the next day. Forty-eight hours later an excited Adrian was on the phone reading me a cable he had just received from Australia: ‘Marvellous photographs. Put her under contract. Acquire world exclusivity, give her £5000 and tell her to go’ it read.

I was drunk with freedom, my head was light, my morale was high. I didn’t know it at that point, but I was on the threshold of my new independent life.

For the next two years as I explored Kenya with my camera, I met a multitude of different people living in the outlying districts. The tribes I visited differed greatly from one another, but they all shared the one characteristic that I had until then ignored, but was essential to the survival of the human race.

They had adapted to their surrounding environments and did not yet crave or seek for things beyond their immediate needs. They seemed primitive by our standards, but their simple code of life was built on the basic laws of survival; eating, sleeping and reproducing. They solved their problems in their own ways, and law and order was kept by the elders of the clan. Women were submissive and obeyed their men and never questioned their position as perpetuators of the tribe.

The children grew up naturally, according to the teachings of the elders, obeying them, and contributing at an early age to the workload of the compound. It was an ancient patriarchal system that worked and underlined the importance familial rank. I did not yet know then how threatened this way of life was and how timely my presence was among them.

After each safari I returned to the farm in Naivasha to see my girls, to service and repair my vehicle, stock up with fresh provisions, develop my film and look at my contact sheets. Naivasha was my anchor. Having such a base to return to was essential to the success of my undertaking. It provided me with immense emotional and physical security and allowed me to push my frontiers ever further. I was able thus to advance without trepidation, secure in the knowledge that my back was covered and my family was always there to close ranks behind me. It may seem a trite thing to say, but it was a crucial factor. In the two years I spent on my eight different safaris into the outback collecting my photographs, I travelled 20,000 miles, criss-crossing the country and worked in areas and under conditions so varied it was sometimes difficult to believe that I was still in the same country.

From the dusty semi-desert in the north, I descended to the lush tropical environment of the coast. I froze on the slopes of Mounts Kilimanjaro and Kenya and fried on the Indian Ocean waves where the winds and salty air dried my skin to parchment. But I became tough and sinewy again and my energy could have driven a steam engine uphill. I never felt fatigued or hesitant, I barged forward like a bulldozer, circumnavigating obstacles, crushing any problems that presented themselves with my unquestioning drive and subtle conviction. I had never felt better in my life. What a rebirth it was. I had finally come into my own. I was thirty-six years old.

I also learned a great deal. For the first time I was coming into contact with the other side of the coin. Until then I had always been a white African, a product of the colonial system I had been raised in. I considered the Africans as my servants, not human beings like myself. Vanishing Africa was my journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. I began to use my own head and stopped living according to the dictates of my parents, my colonial friends and the rarefied environment of my status as a white woman in an African country. I don’t know how or why the change came about, but I think it was prompted by the simple, open-hearted welcome and respect with which I was greeted and accepted everywhere I went.

Looking back now, almost forty years later, I can see clearly why and how the naive primitive purity of the Africans has so rapidly degenerated into the chaos and confusion of today. Their very openness was their downfall. I was then still totally unaware how close to the end they were and how very fortunate I was to still be able to catch a glimpse of them and their ways of life, let alone record it, before it was gone forever. It would be impossible to produce such a work today.

Ever since I could remember, my artist mother had pointed out to me the beauty of black people. She looked at them with the eyes of an artist and made me aware of the way they walked, the way they stood, the way they moved their hands and held their heads. I was now confronting it head on. Instinctively I knew exactly what I was looking for, my vision had been so totally influenced by my mother’s words; what I did not know at the time was why I was taking the pictures I took.

Once I got back to England the reaction to my work made me realise that I had captured, for the first time, an aspect of Africa which until then had been ignored – the sheer unadulterated beauty of its people. My efforts were richly rewarded by the unanimous worldwide recognition my book received.

As I worked from dawn to dusk and well into the night, my senses were alive, and my eyes were filled with the changing lights and shapes of Africa. Time and again, as I travelled across the dusty continent, I would halt in front of immense vistas of golden grass, skies hung with billowing white clouds or streaked by thunder storms crashing from dramatic leaden skies. Each time I picked up my camera, I became aware of how much I had, until then, taken Africa’s beauty and grandeur for granted. Having been born there, I was so much part of it. It was my camera that cast a new perspective over everything and started my love affair with Africa.

During my two-year walkabout collecting my photographs I shed most of my colonial inhibitions. The whole experience was a revelation and I became a more tolerant person. It was a gentle unobtrusive progression and the final straw was a chance encounter in the sea with a beautiful young man off the East African coast. A fisherman, nineteen years old, completely illiterate, but an alluring creature of Africa’s wild nature.

I first saw him while I was lolling in the water one blistering midday, playing with my little girls. He appeared like a speck on the horizon, advancing in my direction. I followed his approach through half-shut eyes, without much interest. The speck grew larger until it took the shape of a tall, sturdy young man. Wearing only a diminutive faded loin cloth around his hips, he stopped a few feet from where I lay and looked down at me. The tattered straw hat was pulled low over his eyes, a worn coconut fibre basket at the end of a stick hung over one shoulder. I greeted him in Kiswahili and asked him the contents of his basket. ‘Shells,’ he said, dropping to his knees. As he laid them carefully in the sand beside me he looked up at me from beneath his hat. I saw the most beautiful golden-brown face set with dancing black eyes, the likes of which I had not seen before.

The coastal people are a mixture of Arabs and Bantu and are not especially renowned for their height or beauty, but this man was an exception. He told me his name was Shahibu. He was long and sinewy and when he turned his head he arched his neck in a way which made him seem aloof and inaccessible. The skin of his face was smooth and silky and slightly moist; the colour of dark chocolate, it rippled in the sunlight. I wanted to touch it. His fine straight nose and delicate nostrils, his soft, slightly slanting, eyes were not typical of his tribe. He told me he lived in the nearby Watamu village and he invited me to have tea there with his family. I spent six weeks at the coast and saw Shahibu every day.

He took us fishing and diving with him and hunted for shells with my girls. I later sailed with him and his four brothers in their dhow to the Arab town of Lamu and on to Kisingitini in the Bajun Island archipelago where I went to photograph the shy black-veiled Muslim women of the Indian Ocean coast. Shahibu had never left his village, he spoke no English and could not read or write, but he and my cook Kimuyu became a tightly knit team; without them I would never have been able to last as long as I did on this project. They relieved my solitude and the dark moods I fell into. Their gaiety and sense of adventure, their unquestioning and total loyalty, their concern for my well-being, turned the sometimes taxing undertaking into a manageable venture. I hired Shahibu initially as my assistant and then the relationship took an unexpected turn when he became my lover. He was sixteen years my junior.

My encounter with Shahibu was another particularly important turning point in my African odyssey, for it banished the taint of racial discrimination which afflicted almost every white person living in Africa then and with which I had certainly grown up. One day I caught myself looking at him, not as a black man, but simply as a man. When we realised something was happening to us, something that had never happened before to either of us, we dared not admit to it.

We played and frolicked and laughed and hid behind the false pretence of casual camaraderie. It worked as long as we both remained on neutral terrain, but when I sailed with him and his four brothers on their dhow for the Bajun islands I inadvertently trespassed onto his territory.

The sea journey to Kisingitini lasted three days. My new African friends treated me with respectful courtesy and Shahibu was full of tender affections. Each night he unrolled my bedroll on the deck of the dhow and built a little overhead shelter above me with knotted kikois (African sarongs) which he tied to the sail ropes. His brothers slept at the other end of the boat, but he curled up on a mat at my feet. We never touched and kept our feelings to ourselves.

That night in the tent we talked for the first time about the relationship between a man and a woman of different colour. I was very nervous but Shahibu remained calm. The glow from the hurricane lamp played on his face and naked chest and threw our shadows on the canvas above us. We sat on the floor and listened to the sea and the hot wind in the palm trees. A pink crab scuttled from beneath the tarpaulin trailing white sand grains in its wake. The jasmine blooms the women in the village had given us that evening lay scattered on the floor and filled the tent with their heady perfume.

I thought of Lorenzo and how I had been brainwashed by my parents for so long. I remember wondering if black men made love the same way as white men did. I had never had these thoughts before. Excitement and confusion made me shiver as if I had a fever. That night I embarked on the most exciting love adventure of my life. It was to last for two years and was so natural, I wondered what all the fuss had been about.

When it was time to head home I explained to Shahibu what it was like in my white world; the hostility, the resentment and the prejudice he might have to face. I spelled it out ruthlessly to him, for it was important he should understand. If we wanted to continue together it was not possible for him to share my life as I had his. But he did not listen, perhaps he did not understand, certainly he did not care, and insisted I take him with me. Young, impulsive and in love he only wanted to be with me wherever I went, regardless of the consequences.

When we reached Naivasha he faced the first acid test when I entered my home through the front door and he went in with Kimuyu by the kitchen door. I sat in the drawing room with my parents, he sat in the servants’ quarters with the house servants. The situation made me cringe, but there was nothing I could do about it. These were the conditions, I had explained to him, if we wanted to avoid instant banishment, for if my father had found out he would have shot Shahibu and probably me and then himself. In Naples, where he came from, crimes of passion and betrayal were a code of life. Wives and daughters are treated like the Madonna, to be revered but never touched, and certainly not by a black man. I had not forgotten how my father had chased Lorenzo out of the house before we were married, brandishing his duelling sword, because one afternoon he had caught him sitting on my bed reading a magazine with the door wide open. He was evicted for a week after a flamboyant Latino confrontation.

The time I spent with Shahibu taught me many things. From him I learned the fundamental truths and values of life. Like the lion, the giraffe, the fever tree and the ochre warrior, Shahibu belonged to Africa. At one with him, I was at one with Africa, an experience which never repeated itself in sheer physical intensity. Making love to him, I felt, was making love to Africa. This was my love affair with Africa. What did Karen Blixen know about this, I wondered.

And then one day many years later, long after we had gone our separate ways, I heard he had contracted Aids. He had abandoned his Muslim teachings and turned to drink after I left him to return to England for the publication of my book. He had hooked up with many white tourist women after me in an attempt to maintain the lifestyle I had introduced him to; he was unable to return to his simple life as a fisherman. He had been contaminated by my life, much like the white man had contaminated Africa. He never recovered and finally died of Aids in his village. He was thirty-five years old.

Little by little I put together an unusual and telling set of images that keep me company and my memories alive and vivid. This is one of the pluses of photography and as I now compile my diary, I sift through the boxes and envelopes and files I have stored away for so many years and am able to reconstruct my life like a jigsaw puzzle.
It is a strange emotional journey filled with bittersweet memories of a life gone by. I can remember vividly the circumstances of each image, the vagaries of time give them depth and distance, the yellowed paper, the crumpled surface, the torn corners; but the light, the textures, the story they tell remain as clear as if they had been taken yesterday.

Quite unwittingly I had captured the moments I will never want to forget.

Having finally severed her umbilical tie to the African continent, Mirella now lives for part of the year on an anonymous London street in the shadow of the Chelsea Football Club stadium in Fulham. Her nondescript terraced house has been turned into an African haven filled with light, African artefacts and rambling plants. The pair of black buffalo horns, which for years hung above the front door, were removed when Lorenzo moved back to Italy. They now commute between their two homes. 


About The Author


Neva is a storyteller and media strategist with a background in PR, film, advertising and digital marketing who is passionate about technology, new media and the endless possibilities of the social and mobile sphere. Read more about her on our 'About Us' page.

4 Responses

  1. Johnnie Brockbank

    Its essentially a racist book in which she embarks on a ‘human safari’ trying to objectify black africans to decorate European coffee tables. She’s a neanderthal


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