Past Lives ~ Beneath A Tropic Sun



Goodness, was this us – a seeming lifetime ago and half a world away from the present Sheinton Street homestead? Here’s Graham managing to look so unruffled in the steamy, sun-baked precincts of the old Portuguese fort in Mombasa. And there’s me perched on a rustic stool at a Tiwi Beach beach bar, a cooling Tusker beer to hand, a refreshing breeze off the reef. I’d not long run away from Shropshire with hardly a thing to my name. You could call it a mid-life caper; it was supposed to last three months, but somehow stretched into eight years. By the time I resumed permanent occupation of home territory, I did not recognise the place; it took us a lot of adjusting. These days I’m not recognising it either.

Back then Graham had not long completed his Masters field work on the Larger Grain Borer in Mexico. This tiny beetle of Central American origin is a voracious pest of maize, though it started out as a wood borer before it developed a taste for corn. If a grain store is badly infected you can hear it grinding its way through the cobs. Oh yes, it also likes another food staple of particular importance in West Africa: dried cassava. In the 1970s it was imported into Africa in a consignment of food aid and has invaded much of the continent since, most notably spreading along the line of rail. (A grim, if non-intentional “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” situation).

In its home territory LGB is prey to another beetle Teretrius nigrescens, TN for short, which keeps it in check. In Africa, though, the alien invader had no controlling predator. And so in 1992 Graham went out to Kenya on a 3-month consultancy project to work with farmers in affected areas: the Taita Hills near the Tanzanian border and Ukambani just north of the Tsavo national parks. The aim was to enlist their help in field trials to release stocks of TN which had been screened and bred by a British agricultural research institute. The three months extended to nine, and so began a series of contracts that took us next to Zambia, then back to Kenya until 2000.


Our homes in Lusaka and Nairobi were way-stations for itinerant British crop scientists and socio-economists; the expatriates we mixed with were all aid gypsies who had roamed the globe from the Falkland Islands to Uzbekistan and Outer Mongolia; the Kenyan crop scientists Graham worked with were generous and welcoming; they had their own research projects that were dependent on UK funding; but some of them too had their own views about the value of foreign aid, and the abject dependency it too often created.

We were all caught up in the ‘development’ paradigm: the givers and receivers; a mindset predicated on notions of indigenous people’s ignorance and incompetence, while actually serving donor interests in other peoples’ lands. Our next door neighbour, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, put it bluntly: all aid should end. We’ll go back to ground zero, he said; it will be painful, but we will develop on our own terms. His wife was running a Nairobi slum project, set on undoing all the years of imported misinformation about infant feeding, and helping poor urban mothers to return to breast feeding their babies. On our late afternoon walks she would tell me the stories of her daily encounters. It didn’t take me long to fathom that in colonial and post-colonial Kenya things had been, and still were, going badly awry. Unpicking it was quite another matter.

Uganda railway poster

We British have our great explorers, Speke, Burton, Stanley et al to thank for informing us of East and Central Africa’s potential for exploitation and domination. In the late 1880s Britain’s invasion of East Africa was in the form of a military backed corporate enterprise: the Imperial British East Africa Company. They established their foothold  in a series of small forts across the territory we now know as Kenya. They did business by treaties, whose insidious long-term conditions the local people did not grasp until it was too late. When talking failed, military operations followed, targeting especially recalcitrant communities with punitive campaigns. This continued until 1914. The IBEAC’s interest was in the potential plantation wealth of landlocked Uganda to the north west. But to reap any rewards there they would need to build a 650-mile railway from Mombasa port, at that time a possession of the Sultan of Zanzibar.


Shimba Hills smallholdings, southern Kenya


In 1895 after the IBEAC went bankrupt, the line of rail surveyed but barely begun, the British Government proclaimed the territory a protectorate. The railway project was approved by Parliament in 1896, for by then thoughts of war with Germany were to the fore, and it was believed, if the territory were not secured, the enemy could sabotage the Nile headwaters in Uganda and so drain the distant Suez Canal dry, thereby strangling British trade with its other key occupied territory, India. And so the building of the Uganda Railway (using many thousand imported Indian labourers) began. Among disgruntled Members of Parliament back in London it came to be dubbed the Lunatic Line.

(Which is making me think: never was a lyric more apt: “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”)

At the time when all these plans were simmering, Uganda was described as a powerful and highly developed feudal state:

The country was populous, productive and highly cultivated. (Permanent Way  vol 1  M F Hill p 25).

This image ‘populous, productive, highly cultivated’ is worth fixing in the mind’s eye. I think I can be pretty sure that this is not how most people think of any African nation, past or present.

The 1892 reports of the IBEAC railway surveyors who trekked up from Mombasa in a caravan comprising 7 Europeans, 41 Indian surveyors, 7 Swahili headmen-interpreters, 40 African soldiers (askari), 270 porters, 24 cooks, servants and gun-bearers, 60 donkeys, also described the farming communities they traded with for supplies:

When they reached Ukambani (one of the areas later involved in the LGB-TN release project) the survey report states:

All about here large supplies are obtainable, as much as 4,000 lb of flour can be bought in one day by a passing caravan. The people (Akamba) are industrious and thriving, good cultivators, and possess large herds of goats and sheep. (Permanent Way  vol 1 M F Hill p72).

And then when the expedition reached the Central Highlands near present-day Nairobi, the Kikuyu settlements within the forest fringes are described as follows:

For the last few miles the path up to the Company’s post lies entirely through fields of grain and sweet potatoes…Long tapering spurs and narrow valleys, covered alike with waving cornfields. Clumps of graceful plantains and sugar cane, endless acres of sweet potatoes. (ibid p 74)

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Smallholder farms, Escarpment, the Rift Valley just north of Nairobi, taken around 1997.


So: you may wonder, what happened to all this local prosperity and know-how? And it’s a question I am leaving with you. There are many answers and angles. Some of them I found in my readings of fifty years’ worth of Kenya colony’s agriculture reports, wherein I discovered that many traditional, long tried cultivation practices were actively discouraged by agriculture officers since they did not yield produce of export quality. It was a situation of totally conflicting interests. Ironically too, about the time we were leaving Kenya in 2000 I heard that German agricultural consultants there were advocating that smallholder farmers should return to mixed crop planting strategies, this to reduce the need for pesticides. Re-inventing wheels is a significant characteristic of foreign aid projects.


Kenya Agriculture Research Institute entomologist, Paddy Likhayo, using a pheromone trap to monitor insect numbers around Kiboko, Ukambani.


While Graham pursued food-decimating beetles and smut fungus on fodder grass, I wrote fiction: three short novels for the African children’s literature market, a picture book, Flame Tree Market,  that won first prize at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995, and many short stories for the US children’s magazines produced by Carus Publishing, Spider, Cricket and Cicada. The first of the short stories, Dudus, (Swahili for insects) made use of Graham’s LGB-TN project in the storyline.

I suppose at heart my aim was to explode that development paradigm that keeps us in the rich world seeing receivers as beholden and incapable of helping themselves, and donors as those who know what’s best for so-called undeveloped nations. It touches me more than anything that my story book Jessicah, about a street girl, originally published as Jessicah the Mountain Slayer by Zimbabwe Publishing House, and Flame Tree Market  have continued to be published by Phoenix Publishers in Nairobi for the last 24 years. And yes, they do pay me royalties.


By now you may be wondering about the success or not of the TN-LGB control project. Did it work? When I searched the available on-line literature this week, it seems that while TN has been exerting some control on LGB numbers in West Africa, the East African releases have ‘gone extinct’. It is thought TN prefers the humid tropics over the semi-arid tropics. LGB on the other hand, is utterly adaptable and has increased its menu to include plastic, soap, wooden domestic utensils and small-grained millet. Over a third of stored crops may be lost in 6 months.

All very dispiriting: a seeming charitable donation to relieve a famine situation delivered  fifty years ago to a Tanzanian port, creating the never-ending likelihood of significant food loss across East and Southern Africa. The upside is that the LGB project enabled the training of Kenyan researchers who are still on the front line, trying to improve the lot of pest-beleaguered smallholders. It’s something. Quite a big something.

Lens-Artists: under the sun

48 thoughts on “Past Lives ~ Beneath A Tropic Sun

  1. What an interesting life you’ve both led, Tish. Your adventures are really worth the telling and I loved your photos, especially the first two. You and Graham look born to the life. Congratulations on your book publishing.

  2. Thank you, Tish for sharing the fascinating history of this part of world. The farm landscape is so beautiful. You are right, this is not how most of us think of any African nation, past or present. Great photos, each photo here tells its story. 🙂

  3. A real Out of Africa tale.
    At least we taught them to drink tea and play cricket, right?
    Oh, and if I may be so bold ….you look absolutely radiant!

    1. How very nice of you, Ark. Radiant! My moment in the sun, eh. I’m rather more soily these days. And as for tea, now there’s another story…One thing that impressed me when we were out on the farms was how some of keen rural knitters were using the yellow paper Ketepa tea packets to make a dye to brighten up their knitting wool. A stunning look on grey, foggy days in the Highlands.

      1. Well …. considering how sunny it looks I suppose I could have said you look hot, but one must always be careful such things aren’t misconstrued, right?

        And as you made no reference to the sport featuring 12 waiters, I’m guessing you aren’t a fan of cricket, then?

      2. Yep. Risque remarks free-zone ici. So thank you for your tact 😉

        As for cricket, I like the idea of it, and in fact as I walked home from the allotment just now I could hear the soothing sounds of cricket practice on the Gaskell Field. About to be rained off, however, by big thunder storm.

  4. A fascinating story Tish – me thinks another book might be appropriate! Like, I assume, most of us, I had no idea of any of that but agree the donor nations typically have only their own best interests at heart. Should the recipient communities improve that’s a nice plus but not the primary goal. Your photos compliment the story perfectly – and yes, you DO both look radiant!

    1. Thank you, Tina. On the whole I’m thinking that protecting multinational interests in Africa are the real focus of donor interest. In the UK our international development department has just been dumped into the Foreign Office so that tells us a lot. Keeping former colonies in debt is also a means of control. I think I’m right in saying that at Independence in 1963 the new Kenyan government had to buy back European settler land at market prices, i.e. from those who wished to leave. It created a big debt which still grows and grows as interest accrues. Utterly dishonourable in my opinion.

  5. You write really well on Africa, and on colonisation (and other things as well of course). The actions and beliefs of generations of European colonisers still shape so much of the world we live in and contribute so much to human misery and environmental destruction. It’s bad enough when the motives are named greed; so much worse when it’s wrapped up in the ideology of aid.

    1. Spot on, Su. I agree with every word. The new angle is international conservancy bodies turning environment protection schemes covering and controlling huge tracts of other people’s countries into instruments for investment portfolios. The benefits to local people all sound wonderful on paper. We the lookers-on applaud the initiatives, because why wouldn’t we. There are some very big BUTs in this. Worth keeping an eye on.

      1. I had no idea about this Tish, but just did a quick Google search and yes, I totally see what you mean. It does look good on paper, but I can’t see the drive for “returns” always aligning with environmental and social good. And once again, the terms are set by the rich.

      2. I’ve read of concerns over indigenous people’s treatment within such ‘zones’, e.g. George Monbiot’s No Man’s Land and that was written in 1992. It would seem that pastoralist communities who claim age-old rights to use wells and seasonal grazing grounds etc. can find themselves denied access by private security outfits. There’s the serious matter here of robbing people of their autonomy as well as taking over their land and its resources. All governments of course dislike nomadic communities, and if some NGO enterprise is willing to ‘organise’ them within a ‘private conservancy’ then it looks as though everybody wins. Canadian investigative journalist Cory Morningstar keeps her eye on such goings on.

      3. That makes me so angry and sick. Thanks for the references. I read George Monbiot’s blog when I can face it (less often these days if I want to keep what little hope I have left).

      4. I generally avoid Mr Monbiot these days. I have quite a few ‘Buts’ when it comes to his pronoucements too. However some of the problems he raised re Kenyan pastoralists and EPAs back in 1992 do seem to be issues if recent Kenyan press coverage is anything to go by. I seem to remember Joseph Conrad reported on the potentially destructive nature of private corporate fiefdoms!

        It is hard to hang on to hope. But then planet earth is a marvellous place, and humanity remarkably resilient. One has to wonder why so many of us have governments and their associated mainstream media so hell-bent on keeping us in a state of permanent depression and fear, and therefore distracted.

      5. Yes, I think the Earth’s capacity for survival and renewal is tremendous. Humanity? I do wonder sometimes. But then at a personal level, I see and experience so much good and it does give me glimmers of hope.

  6. It is a complex story, Tish, which you tell so well.

    Reminds me to track down Ali Mazrui’s ‘The Africans: A Triple Heritage’. It came under attack because people don’t speak of the complexities which resulted from invasions of this group and that.

    I have been listening to Shashi Tharoor explain the consequences of colonization in India and that is not a dissimilar history to the one you witnessed and wrote about. Just on a vast scale and older.
    Very sad about the six French people – NGO employees – and their guide and chauffeur who were massacred in Niger a few days ago. Their lives were taken for revenge and message as part of this story. Neverending consequences, as you have noted.


    1. I used to have Ali Mazrui’s book. I remember seeing his TV series too. The repercussions from colonial residue just go on and on. And yes, India, what a mind-shatteringly monumental piece of interference that was. Here in Shropshire we have our own historical local anti-hero who was the master pillager – one ‘Clive of India’. He then used some of his ill gotten gains to pollute British politics, though that was and is nothing new.

      1. But look at India: in the midst of all the troubles she has, her people live as though they know that she will not only survive but thrive.

        I know that I forget what resilience there is in people, in their age-old adaptations and their will to continue.

        Thanks for your piece. It brought me to the time I was with the Borana, crossing and recrossing at Moyale. Wise beyond all wisdom. Struggling now, of course, against the drought. But adapting.


      2. Absolutely right, Sarah. Thriving is happening in many places, and there is huge indigenous resilience. We just need the northern hemisphere oligarchs and warmongers to leave the world alone. I envy you that safari with the Borana.

  7. What a fascinating perspective, Tish, with this flip side to the aid provided to developing countries. For example, I would never have considered a detail like the effect our mass agriculture can have on pest proliferation. We have a remarkable talent for screwing things up.

    1. Well that summed it up exactly, Joanne – ‘a remarkable talent for screwing things up’. I’m thinking too that it works at all levels from one’s own experience outwards: giving other people what you think they need hardly ever goes well; imposing it is a downright disaster.

  8. fascinating and interesting story, Tish! thank you so much for sharing and congratulations on your books. beautiful photos especially the first two 🙂

  9. A fascinating life for you two! I understand why those years often come back in your thoughts. I can only chime in on the different thoughts on politics and economics as well. It is not a nice world, but you two have contributed to doing good things. Would have loved to peep inside your books.

  10. Hey there! Wow, seems you packed a whole memoir into this space…fascinating. I knew some of the pieces but it was nice to see it all come together like this. What a ride you had there, basically all of the 90s. Thanks for sharing this Tish.

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