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.

001

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.

Scan-130601-0006.jpg

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.

*

the-castle2.jpg

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)

http://flickrcomments.wordpress.com/2013/08/27/iii-challenge/

© 2013 Tish Farrell

18 thoughts on “In the Rift: in and out of focus

    1. Yes, it does rather, Robin. There’s only so much you can put down to unintentionality (is this a word?). And then of course, people end up making the best of a bad job, which often makes things worse…Still, it gives the likes of me ever such a lot to pontificate about. Thanks for reading.

  1. Dream-like images that conjure sense memories of a place I’ve never been, yet looking at your pictures, reading the stories, I feel like I have traveled there, at least in spirit.

  2. Hi first time visiting your blog through frizztext! I love the history talk here and enjoyed very much the photos, too!

  3. Thank you for the many very beautiful pictures, and the educational post. I remember following the attempts of the Kenyan struggle for freedom, but didn’t hear much about Kenya since the 60s. It’s tragic that they are still suffering from conceptual attitudes that were inherited for the colonialists. I thought that Kenyatta was a very original thinker, and expected that under his leadership there would be a rebuilding and structuring of all the national institutions. I suppose I was too optimistic.

    1. Indeed, Shimon, there were great hopes for Kenya at Independence, and Kenyatta was very wise in many ways, but these were Cold War days. Money swilled into the country from governments and big business to keep Kenya as a Western ally, and to protect interests there.
      This created a political culture whereby the different ethnic communities’ leaders talk mostly of whose turn is it to ‘eat the cake’. This in turn has led to some of the country’s most talented, best educated people leaving their homeland. Many of the government’s essential functions, such as providing primary education are funded by foreign donors, in this instance, Britain.
      Social services are provided by charitable NGOs and missions, and whenever real change is mooted, ordinary people are terrified that it will end in bloodshed (as happened in 2008 and several times back in the 1990s) and tend to support the status quo. It is beautiful country with millions of brilliant, good-hearted, hard-working people who, in my experience, are gracious, welcoming and full of good humour. Karibu, welcome, is the word you hear everywhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s