In the Rift: in and out of focus

WP Photo Challenge: Focus

Rift Valley from Escarpment

You may have seen a version of this photo in an earlier post, but it’s worth another look for various reasons – all of them to do with FOCUS. This shot was probably taken late morning. The farmsteads of Escarpment are shadowed by the Eastern Rift behind. Out under the sun, the old volcano Longonot flattens and drifts into mistiness. Your brain tells you that your are witnessing a mirage.

You can climb up Longonot if you want to, and walk around the rim. (We never did.) Inside the crater, Rider Haggard-style, there is a wonderful hidden forest filled with wildlife. In the middle distance, but not quite visible, runs the old road from Nairobi to Naivasha, built by Italian prisoners of war in WW2.

But to come back to the foreground, and the largely Kikuyu community of Escarpment, this is one of the places where, in 1997-8, Team Leader and Nosy Writer carried out some of the Team Leader’s doctoral fieldwork on SMUT. Smut is a fungal disease that attacks Napier Grass, an important animal fodder crop. If you didn’t read the smutting post, coming up is a photo of the smut team in action, complete with some Rift Valley fog which usually happens during Kenya’s cold season in June and July.  Here it provides  the soft-focus-background-look without need of any technical jiggery-pokery.

napier grass sampling 3

Team Leaders Njonjo and Graham weighing clumps of Napier Grass. The object to establish a disease assessment scale for estimating the food loss of a smut-infected field.


Actually, the real leader in Operation Smut was Njonjo. He’s the one holding the bundle of Napier Grass. His family’s land is in Escarpment, much sub-divided between himself and his brothers. When we visited his home he told us that his own holding was about a quarter of an acre. This was one reason why he worked as a driver for the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and was not as a full-time farmer. He had children to educate, and his land alone could not support them all.


napier grass on the Rift

Napier Grass in the foreground with Escarpment farms beyond. This important crop is grown on road verges and field terrace boundaries to feed ‘zero-grazed’ stock. The small size of most farms  (some less than an acre) means there is insufficient ground for both pasture and cultivation.

napier grass and farms

Kikuyu farmstead on a drizzly El Nino day.


And if you are wondering why Kenyan farms are so very small (several acres in the fertile Central Highlands would be considered quite large for many families) then that’s old colonial constructs for you. Kenya may have been an independent nation state for fifty odd years, but the colonial concept of land management and ownership, along with many other inappropriate British institutions, is alive and well.

Because that’s the thing about British institutions – they are sneakily feudal and thus very hard to unpick. Even in Britain, most of the population is generally unaware that most of the nation’s land is owned by a small number of people who are fully committed to keeping it that way. Ownership in the form of title deeds coupled with an elitist sense of superiority and personal entitlement based on heredity fortify their position. Increased urbanisation is in their interest; it keeps hoi polloi out of the deer parks and off the grouse moors (unless of course they are paying high fees to be there.)

In Kenya much of the population still occupies plots that were part of the designated Native Reserves back in the 1900s.  Since those days the population has increased many-fold, and family farms have been subdivided to point where they cannot easily support one family. This situation underpins much of the creeping poverty that you will see in Kenya today. It is the reason why at least 75% of the nation’s food is grown by women smallholders.


Wundanyi market 2

Women selling their excess garden produce at Wundanyi market, Taita Hills.


These essential growers are the rural wives who stay on what remains of family land to grow what they can, while their husbands  migrate to the towns to work in shops, hotels, and as drivers,security guards and house servants. These men will return home maybe once or twice a year when they have their annual leave. At such times they will help with the harvest and undertake house repairs. This is also the reason why most parents struggle so hard to educate at least some of their children – so they do not have to live this way.


When the British occupied British East Africa at the end of the 19th century, they treated the territory in much the way a British landowner would manage his inherited estates. There was the presumption of absolute ownership. All indigenous people who hunted for a living were labelled poachers and treated accordingly. Land was divided into Native Reserves and Forest Reserves and latterly there were also Game Reserves. All the land that had not been alienated for European settlement was Crown Land unless it was Native Reserve land. By 1914, five million acres had been allotted for European settlement. The Maasai had also been removed from their fertile grazing lands on the Laikipia Plateau and relegated to the poor land that is now known as the Maasai Mara.


European owned wheat fields, Laikipia, below Mount Kenya. Taken from a plane window hence the haze.


Under colonial rule, Africans could not leave their Reserves unless it was to work for Europeans. Hut and poll taxes were imposed to force them to do so. When overgrazing and land erosion became evident in overcrowded Reserves, well-meaning British Agriculture Officers informed the locals that they were doing everything wrong. Farmers were urged to plant in a European way, to grow strains and varieties of crops to suit British markets. In particular, the growing of nutrient-, water-guzzling maize over traditional, more nourishing crops such as millet was promoted. There was the enforced terracing of land and the confiscation of stock animals without compensation if deemed to be in excess.

Meanwhile, large blocks of the best settlement land were taken  up by British settlers, including a number of British aristocrats whose descendants still live on large estates in Kenya. After the 1st and 2nd World War, British veterans of the officer class were actively encouraged to settle the so-called ‘White Highlands’ around the Rift and grow cash crops. When many sold up at Independence, their tea and coffee estates were taken over by European corporations. Other settlers who wished to leave at that time were bought out by the British Government who then apparently handed over the bill to the new Kenyan government. The new nation state thus started out in debt, having paid to get its own land back. It was not a good beginning.


A beautiful corner of Lord Delamere’s estate of Soysambu at Elmenteita in the Rift Valley. The pink dots on the soda lake are flamingos.



Egerton Castle, built in Njoro in the Rift Valley between 1930-40. Its owner was the Fourth Baron Egerton of Tatton, Cheshire. It is now part of Egerton University and used as a wedding venue.


However you look at it,then, the land situation in Kenya does not present a pretty picture, and this is only a brief, soft-focus version. After the British left in 1963, Kenyans might have been able to leave their Reserves without passes, and walk on whichever side of the street they chose, but the Crown Lands concept of absolute possession has dogged the country ever since. Crown Land became state owned land; colonial institutions became state institutions. And as I said, such constructs are hard to unpick. Nor would the Kenyan elite wish to unpick them, any more than the British nobility would wish to surrender their hereditary land rights to the masses. As the fourth President, Uhuru Kenyatta (and son of the first President Jomo Kenyatta) takes office, so the thorny issues of land grabbing and wrangles over title deeds continue.

tea fields and workers' houses_thumb[140]_thumb

A  tea estate with workers’ quarters near Nairobi.

Limuru tea fields in the long rains


Today, ordinary land-poor Kenyans must look out on the large farms and estates still owned by the descendants of European settlers, or the ranches and flower factories of the Kenyan elite, or at the plantations of the multinationals whose profits go to foreign shareholders, or even at the great wildernesses set aside exclusively for wildlife, and wonder what Independence has brought them. Under colonialism most people were excluded from the wealth creating process except to provide manual labour. Today it seems that not much has changed.


Rift Valley and Longonot from Escarpment (2)

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Grand girl, great prospects…?

Eve trig 1

Pitch Hill, Cranleigh, Surrey


Don’t you feel the rush of energy as you look at this photograph? An impulse captured, hopefulness personified. The gaze is so sure, the balance perfect with no hint of a wobble. It makes you ask: what is this young woman surveying? How does she see her future? And with a stance like that, isn’t it bound to be glowingly brilliant?

If I tell you that the year when this snap was taken was 1937, whatever  image you have just conjured will fragment into uncertainty. With hindsight we can see what her young eyes cannot: soon there will be war, some six years of it.

This, then, is my aunt, Evelyn Mary Ashford, who was ninety in June 2013. I have told the story of the 1942  train bombing that she miraculously survived here.  But since I wrote that post I have found an aftermath photo of the actual incident.


Photo from War on the Line by Bernard Darwin, Middleton Press

Evelyn, then, was the daughter of the Head Gardener at Redhurst Manor, Cranleigh, one Charles Ashford of Twyford Wiltshire, and Alice Gertrude Eaton, a former accounts cashier from Streatham, London. My father, Alex, was born nearly thirteen years earlier than Evelyn, and by the time she was born, her parents were middle-aged, and my grandfather’s hair already white. This is how I remember him too, for he was long-lived, although a Victorian through and through – a passionate gardener and meticulous horticulturalist typical of that era.


The Ashford Family c. 1930

Grandpa Ashford 1952

Charles Ashford c1952 in his late 70s going rough shooting with Smudger.

Evelyn was around fourteen years old when the Pitch Hill photo was taken. I imagine it was my father who captured her on the trig point. The week before her fourteenth birthday she wrote an essay for her English homework. It is called “I had sixpence…” and gives a surprising insight into this particular village girl’s mind.  Seventy six years on, it still has resonance.

“Money! What a lot that word means today. Everyone is out for as much as they can get, the businessman in the City goads his employees on to fight for supremacy and money.

What would I do if were a millionairess? How should I plan my life?

First of all I would find a home, not just anywhere, but where I should be happiest. Preferably I should live in Devonshire. To be out on the open friendly moors, with the tang of sea in my nostrils, warm streams of pure air fanning my cheeks and the sound of the sea breaking upon the rugged rocks.

Another thing that I would delight in, is travel. To see the great places of the world renowned for mighty deeds and people. Rome, Venice, Athens, those beauty spots of the world. The ruined Coliseum, the forum, the mighty arena once thronged with sturdy, carefree Romans, with swinging togas. The gondolas, moonlit canals and gay masques of Venice, that city of song and laughter…

To return to England and my Devonshire home. One of my favourite pastimes would be reading. A large shady room with deep armchairs, soft long piled carpet that deadened all sound and a baize door, with shelves packed full with books on all sides, a veritable sea of books. Kipling, Stevenson, Edgar Wallace, Horler, ‘Sapper’, Dickens and all those famed authors. That would be the domain of my heart. What strange people would flock down from the shelves to meet me: Sam Weller, Drummond, Pickwick, Jim Hawkins, Kim, Tommy Tradles, Madam Defarge and lord of them all, Sidney Carton.

Oh! But I am thinking only of myself. My money would not be spent on myself along. There are millions of others who would know none of the joy I have experienced. I mean to make myself prominent in government affairs; to get into Parliament if I possibly can. The working class must have more freedom for they are hemmed in on all sides by government officials. What do we pay taxes for but to keep fat officials in the lap of luxury? That is what I would be all out against…”

She concludes by saying that on her death all her wealth would be shared equally between her chief friends and interests.

 And of course she is not dead yet, although she is very poorly, and she no longer communicates on this plane of existence. All her young and adult life, she did whatever she could to help other people, this despite feeling sorely thwarted by a lack of education. My grandfather made her leave school before she could sit for her Primary School Certificate, and anyway would not have been able to afford for her to go on to high school. Instead, she looked after my grandmother, and then was apprenticed to Gammon’s Drapers in Cranleigh, working a twelve-hour day. 


Evelyn with my grandmother in the 1940s.

Like so many bright women of her generation, her true talents were never fully nurtured or allowed expression. She married a man, a war-time sweetheart, whom she once described as “a good man”, but who was in no way a kindred spirit. Their married life was also blighted for the first fifteen years by having my grandfather living with them. This was  a terrible trial by any standards, for he allowed them no privacy, and Evelyn found herself endlessly torn between father and husband.

But for all her domestic ups and downs, she never stopped learning, any way she could, or passing on the things she had learned. Now, though, her gaze looks inward rather than out into the world. Perhaps she is back in the walled garden at Redhurst, watching her father in the big glass houses, propagating primulas or grafting peaches, or getting her knickers green, sliding on the velvet lawns that were cut by garden boys leading the  big horse-drawn mower. Or perhaps she is thinking of the young American bomber pilot whom she did not marry, but to whose family she wrote breathlessly chatty letters about doodle bugs and food shortages during the last years of the war. “Dear Momma and Pop” those letters begin…


Evelyn around 4 years old in the Redhurst kitchen garden where her father ruled.


The legal profession talks of ‘lack of capacity’ when it comes to consider the fitness of people like Evelyn to participate in the man-made fiscal world. She lacks capacity. She does not talk. She cannot read or write anymore. A couple of years ago when we first went to see her in the Welsh nursing home where she lives, and before her so-called capacity had totally shipped out, she was able to tell us that she was happy enough there because she had “so much to think about.” So I’ll second that, Evelyn Mary Ashford Gibbings. In my mind’s eye I stand on a trig point too, and I salute you for a life well lived. For although you never realised your entire capacity, at least  in the sense that I understand it, as a creative person exploring their full potential, you are  still a hero. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!


Evelyn feeding the gulls, unknown date and location, possibly 1940s.

copyright 2013 Tish Farrell

Witch-catching in the Shropshire wilds

Naturally, suffering as I do from Out-of-Africa-itis (some of you may just have noticed this)  any mention of ‘wild’ instantly conjures the sweeping Mara grasslands and herds of wildebeeste.  Or scenes of Zambia’s South Luangwa as featured in the last post (here). But then I thought it was time I took more joy in the place where I actually live  and, indeed, grew up – the wonderfully rural county of Shropshire. And for those of you who do not know England, Shropshire is in the Midlands, along the border with Wales. Also as I have mentioned in other posts, this segment of Great Britain was once (400 million years ago) to be found somewhere off East Africa. Shropshire’s rocks are thus among the world’s oldest, and its hills a magnet for geologists from all over the planet.

My home county, then, is largely farming country – dairy, sheep, and arable – the population living in scattered small settlements and market towns, many dating back to Roman times and the early Middle Ages. But there are also many wild places, especially up in the hill country overlooking Wales. One such place is Mitchell’s Fold, a Bronze Age stone circle.


This bleakly sited  monument comes with a strange legend attached – the tale of a wicked witch and a fairy cow. And so one December day Nosy Writer and the Team Leader set off to explore. Winter seemed a good time to go searching for the spirits of the past. The photographs, by the way, are all Graham’s. Nosy Writer said she could not possibly take her gloves off in such frigid conditions.

The site itself is near the Welsh Border on Stapeley Hill, south west Shropshire. The stone circle was created between three and four thousand years ago, and originally comprised thirty stones of local dolerite. Today, only fifteen are visible. Some were perhaps re-purposed by subsequent generations; others buried. Often such circles were regarded with superstitious dread, particularly during the Middle Ages.


In the prehistoric past, though, the place was not so isolated as it appears today. In the vicinity are two other stone circles, although one of these, known as Whetstones was blown up in the 1860s. The other, Hoarstones, was said by locals to be a fairy ring, where on moonlit nights, six ‘fairesses’ would dance. There are also numerous cairns and a long barrow, and, not too far away,  the Bronze Age stone axe factory of Cwm Mawr whose finely carved mace heads were traded far and wide across England and Wales. Of the reasons for this and the other circles, all is shrouded in mystery. All that may be said is that once these upland places were of great importance to the people who laboured to make them.


But what about the witch-catching story, I hear you ask. Well that I can tell you. It goes like this.

Once, when there was a terrible famine in the district, the fairies took pity on the starving peasants and sent them a snow-white cow. The cow was kept in a circle of stones on Stapeley Hill, and, as with all such gifts, there were strict conditions as to usage. Every person was allowed to milk the cow by turns, but only so long as  the cow was never milked dry, and each person took no more than one pail full.

Everyone followed these instructions, and all went well until the wicked old witch who lived nearby grew envious of the peoples’ good fortune. Why had they not called on her to solve their problems? Her name was Mitchell, and out of sheer spite, she thought up an evil plan.

And so one night, when all honest folks were asleep in their cottages, she approached the cow and began to milk it. The only thing was, the bottom of her bucket was full of holes. She milked and milked until the cow was dry, thus breaking the fairy charm. At once the cow sank into the ground, never to be seen again. But Mitchell did not escape either. She had challenged the forces of good too far and found herself trapped inside the stones. And when the people came next day and saw their fairy cow gone,  and they saw the false pail and pool of wasted milk, they knew exactly what the witch had done. So just to  make sure she never escaped, they walled up old Mitchell inside the stone circle, where she was said to have finally starved to death.


And just in case you are wondering, no, this is not Mitchell’s ghost in the photo, but me, wrapped up in many post-Africa layers. And beyond me, the Welsh hills.

Finally, here are more scenes of Wild Shropshire – in particular, the hills known as the Stiperstones, which featured often in the novels of Shropshire writer, Mary Webb. The last photograph is of the  peak known as the Devil’s Chair. It also features many local legends, but they will have to wait for another post.