Even locals told us that anything could happen in Kenya. And so one Lake Naivasha morning, when I thought I was alone in the grounds of an old safari lodge, I was both surprised and unsuprised when a young man suddenly stepped out from the papyrus swamp clutching two bunches of carnations. Fifty bob, madame, he said after the customary greeting. He seemed nonplussed when I started to laugh.
“Do you always keep your carnations in the papyrus,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“What, waiting for people like me?”
“Yes,” he said.
This exchange seemed to seal the deal. I didn’t even bother to haggle. And although I have no idea why I would have 50 bob on me in such a place, I bought a bunch. Given the general lack of wazungu humanity in that particular location, I also wondered how long he had been waiting for the likes of me to come along; or how long he would have been prepared to wait for a customer. Or if I was just the unexpected thing that happened to him, rather than he to me. (You could tie yourself in knots second guessing). The rest of the lodge guests, I knew, were male entomologists, engaged all day in seminars and workshops; only I was free to wander about the hotel’s straggling grounds buying flowers for which I had no particular need.
We had driven up the Rift from Nairobi the day before. Team Leader Graham was to attend a four-day international conference on the Larger Grain Borer. Along with his Kenyan colleagues there were some forty delegates from such places as Honduras, Mozambique, Italy, UK, Benin, Zimbabwe. Anyone who has read my post, Letters from Lusaka Part 1,will know that this small maize-grinding beetle, aka LGB, was introduced into Africa in a consignment of US food aid in the 1980s. Its natural habitat is in South and Middle America where it also has natural predators to keep it in check. In Africa it has no natural enemies and can thus eat itself silly while villagers, deprived of their staple crop, starve. Seventeen years on from this conference, it is still a problem.
So: while delegates debated what might be done about the ravages of this particular storage pest, Nosy Writer, like some latter-day colonial ‘mem’, dilly-dallied about the lake shore and its hinterland. At the time I was recovering from some strange digestive malady, so wandering and bird watching were all I could cope with. When the young man popped out of the papyrus I was still weighing up whether or not I should be deterred by the sign I had just read amongst the fever trees. I could anyway hear the hippo grunting, and having once been charged by a big angry bull in Zambia was already a little wary. The appearance of a boy with a bouquet, then, seemed like a piece of magic.
When I asked him where he got the flowers, he told me there was a flower factory ‘next door’. (Many international growers have their flower factories around the lake. There are strawberry and asparagus growers there too). At the factory (think acres of pink poly-tunnels under the tropical sun) he gathered the discarded side stems and inferior blooms from the refuse heap and made them up into bunches. Later, when I told this to Graham’s Kenyan boss, Gilbert, he told me that export stems had to be between 70-100 cm long, which meant there were probably plenty of rejects.
He also told me that the factory ‘next door’ was reputed to be owned by one of Kenya’s top crooks, a notorious Kenyan-Asian wheeler-dealer. Gilbert then added that he also owned the safari lodge where we were all staying. I could only blink in response. It seemed like another of those ‘anything can happen in Kenya’ moments; another of the endless moral conflicts. Here were a bunch of diligent, respectable scientists all funded by international development money patronizing the establishment of a member of the criminal elite who, from behind a front of untouchable respectability, was bleeding the nation on breathtakingly colossal proportions.
It’s the moment when you say, oh, bloody hell, I can’t cope with this, and go back to reading a book or bird watching, or listening to the plaintive call of a pair of fish eagles resounding off the water, or to the companionable grunting of hippos.
I also tried to distract myself from thoughts of the flower factories around the lake. There was talk of them abstracting too much water, and polluting the only freshwater lake in Kenya’s Rift with pesticide residue – all so the citizens of London, Paris, Amsterdam can buy the perfect, but scentless, long-stemmed rose, or metre-long carnations. Of course these places provide work for scores of labourers, and increasingly there are well qualified Africans in managerial positions.
The companies probably provide clinics and primary schools too, but the bulk of the profits from these huge concerns go to Europe and to their shareholders, not to Kenya whose human and natural resources are being exploited in the meantime. Then there’s the row about multi-nationals not paying local taxes. It’s the same old story – colonialism in a new form – the need for cheap labour to justify the cost of the daily absurdity of flying fresh-cut flowers out of Africa.
How do you begin to unpick all this. I can’t. It is easier to bird watch, and there are hundreds of species around the lake to look out for.
From the top down: pelican, bee eater, pied kingfisher, goliath heron – just a few of the 400 bird species around the lake.
There are the fishermen too, seine netting and scooping up buckets of freshwater crayfish, although accidentally introduced carp is now the dominant fish species.
And finally every afternoon around four, a family of colobus monkeys come to the lodge garden and play on the guest cottage roofs. It’s easy to tell yourself that this is paradise.
Urban society and the fishery of Lake Naivasha, Kenya – Balancing ecosystem and stakeholder demands by Phil Hickley, Mucai Muchiri & Ros Boar
Kenyan flower industry’s taxing question Guardian 2011
P.S. I took the carnations home to Nairobi where they lasted a further ten days. Excellent rejects.