Into The Rift Valley Under A Midday Sun

Rift lane 2 - Copy

Rift lane 2

Rift lane 2 - Copy (2)

Here’s another old ‘when we were in Africa’ shot. It was taken in  full-on midday sun (not good), but despite increasing fuzziness, I thought it would be interesting to do some successive crops, just to lead the eye along this Rift escarpment road. As might be imagined it was easier to negotiate on foot than by vehicle.

The Great Rift is actually ahead where the road drops from view. If you stare hard enough at the first shot, you can just make out the blue outline of the Rift volcanoes in the valley bottom.  The photo was taken in 1997-8 when He-Who-Was-Studying-Smutted-Napier-Grass was doing his fieldwork for his PhD thesis, and I was going along as She-Who-Holds-One-End-Of-The-Tape-Measure.

There were several such smut missions, and on all occasions it was really Njonjo who was in charge. He was our driver (seen here behind the works’ Land Rover) and he was a whizz at spotting plots of smutted Napier grass while at the same time driving on roads a good deal worse than this one.

It was also he who talked us into numerous randomly chosen Kikuyu farmsteads around the Rift Valley. This was probably more of a feat than we realized at the time. Unknown people striding about in field plots with tape measures can rouse unwelcome suspicions from local farmers: the activity taken as signs of imminent invasion by  land grabbers. In fact anything to do with land is a touchy issue in Kenya, and has been since colonial times. It is one of the nasty, big, enduring skeletons we Brits left behind there, along with our notions of large-scale land ownership, Crown Lands, and the idea that confining indigenous populations to community reserves (where very many still subsist on degraded ancestral plots) was a good one.

Anyway, that’s another story. In the next on-the-road shot, (and one that has some tarmac), Njonjo (in the tartan shirt) is conducting an impromptu workshop on smut identification. These are all smallholder farmers who just happened to spot our presence, and gathered round to see what we were up to. Everyone was very happy when Graham produced some information booklets on what to do with smutted  plants.

impromptu smut workshop


In the next shot Njonjo holds a clump of diseased grass. The fungal infection turns the flower spikes black and gradually weakens the plant, decreasing the leaf mass year on year. Most smallholder farmers have such small farm plots, any livestock has to be zero grazed, i.e., confined to pen or paddock, and food delivered to it. Napier grass is an important and usually prolific fodder crop, and grown wherever there is space, including along road verges and on hillside terraces to serve a further function of stabilising the soil and reducing soil erosion.

smutted grass and a fruit tree disease - Copy

There is not much than can be done about the disease, other than to pull up the plants and burn them, and plant clean fresh stock. This is easier said than done in communities where farmers get new planting  material from each other. It was one of those situations where you quickly learn that other people’s roads are a damned sight harder than ours – and in all senses.

trading centre after El Nino rains

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

There is more about these expeditions at Looking for smut: work on Kenya’s Highland Farms

Photo Challenge: The Road Taken

31 thoughts on “Into The Rift Valley Under A Midday Sun

  1. I love your stories of Africa. And the road reminds me of my own expedition by truck from Johannesburg to London way back in 1980. We drove roads like that, and once had to literally build a bridge over a river. I always get the feeling that no matter what is done to help, essentially Africa never changes.
    That opening shot is fabulous.

    1. I was on a bit of a mission to capture it all. If I’d had such a thing as a digital camera instead of a slightly dodgy Olympus trip, I’d probably have a million photos to sort through now. As it is, the slide scanner gave up the ghost before I’d scanned everything.

    1. It would be interesting, now you mention it, to know what has happened since. Sometimes these things come and go. At the time when G did the survey there’d been masses of rain from an El Nino event, which might have been a factor. Also I wonder if the farmers we met actually did burn their infected plants. I can rather imagine that they didn’t.

  2. I love the colours in these old photos of yours, and the romance of the Rift Valley on top of that. As should happen with all “romance” you undercut it nicely with the realities: colonial greed, smut, erosion, suspicion, bad roads.

    1. You do put your finger right on the spot, Meg. It’s an interesting dilemma, caught between the romance and the undercutting. I have to hold back on both!

  3. Great photos, Tish.
    The land issue is a time that waits to explode every single. The idea that wealth is measured by how much land a person owns has been the number one driver of deforestation. Those in power allocate forests and any land they can find to their sycophants. These land owners speculate on the land driving prices above the roof. Recall that the stage for all human activity is land and you can see where this leads to.
    Happy Sunday

    1. Hoping you’ve been having a good weekend too. All your points about land are all too true. Those who come to power appear to think that all former possessions that were Crown Land and Forest Reserves are somehow theirs to share out to chums, rather than to manage on behalf of the nation. This is not to say that the wholesale land-grab carried out by the British wasn’t anything but institutionalised piracy – done for ‘the best possible reasons’, don’t y’know. In Britain, people’s lives are dominated by big landowners who own 90% of the land and so control land prices. We spend our lives paying for houses, inflated sums of money in mortgage and rents, and no one seems to notice so long as our own home increases in value. It’s nuts. We’ve all been sold the notion that property is an investment.

  4. Great photos, Tish. What an interesting answer to the challenge. I’m with Jude about the wishing I’d thought to take photos in Africa. I guess I just wasn’t much into taking photos then. I was too busy with family and musical activities.

  5. Wait a minute! You mean at one time in my youth I could have applied for the job as the One-Who-Holds-One-End-Of-The-Tape-Measure. How did I miss that career path? Anyway …
    Fantastic photos, TIsh, and your closing comments about the roads we travel are well-made. Speaking of my country alone, we would be far more accepting if all of my fellow citizens travelled beyond our borders and saw how others lived. Immigration bans would be seen for what they actually are.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comments, John. And indeed tape measure holding is a great career path. I got several short stories published on the back of it 🙂

  6. Aaah, Dear Tish; a girl with a smutty past! I suspected all along, The Great Tape Measure Scandal.

    Wonderful post. The Olympus trip images are superb. The colours give them a real sense of history.
    I used to have one of those little cameras until I was relieved of it by a local wealth distribution agent.

    1. Ah yes. Wealth distribution. I sometimes got to borrow G’s works camera while in Kenya, which made for some better pix. I was sad when it suffered a similar fate 🙂 Smutty past indeed!

      1. Morning, you!
        Sorry to catch up late. Was dog tired.
        Smutty and indulged in grass?
        It all comes out in the wash, does it not?

      2. Hello, dear Ark. How’s things this a.m.?
        Hope you’re recovered. I went to a local Labour Party meeting last night – Wenlock has about 8 members! – first such meeting of my life. I am now actively trying to avoid becoming an activist. Far too tiring.

      3. I am bright and bushy-tailed after a good night sleep and a pleasant( shoelace shuffle) morning jog where I was thrilled after managing to pass two local octogenarian neighbours out for their own morning constitutional.
        No clients due this morning so a bit of P & Q for an hour or so.

        My friend Romana and I were discussing committees/activism over coffee yesterday, funny enough, and how, after signing up for the local Residents’ Watch thingy, every SMS notification/update she received all seemed to be bad news: whose house was robbed, who was assaulted, what dogs escaped or bit someone or what the council was NOT doing, bad roads, bad drivers, etc etc ad nauseum.
        She said that after only one week she was so miserable she hardly dared venture outside her house!
        She unsigned herself from all such activities and went back to her normal ordinary, boring life (her words) and blissful ignorance.
        My sentiments exactly!

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