In An Equatorial Light

Kiboko ed sundowner

In another life-time I ran away to Africa and fell in love with light. I must have noticed light before, but I do not remember this kind of rapture. There’s the land too: the visceral, eviscerating redness of the earth. It strikes the eye, fires every neuron in the cerebral cortex, then jabs you in the solar plexus. The hue of life and death then; no wonder traditional peoples make so much use of this pigment. There were times when I felt I could eat it.

The place I ran from is very near the town of Broseley where we have recently come to live. There’s an odd sense of ‘full circle’ and a musing of: should I be worried about this unexpected retracing of steps; is there a reason I’m back here; some unfinished business to be dealt with now that I’m ‘older and wiser’? Etc. etc. I decide this line of thinking is a distraction, although it has me looking back through thirty years.

The place I ran (or rather flew) to was Nairobi, Kenya and so to a nine month stint of roaming up and down the Mombasa highway, accompanying a plant pathologist who worked both at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) in the city and at the Kiboko field station, a KARI outpost, a hundred miles south in Ukambani, homeland of the Akamba people.

Kiboko ed Mombasa highway north of Kiboko

Mombasa highway, looking north from Kiboko


Said plant pathologist, aka Graham, was working on a British government funded project to eradicate a maize-gobbling beetle known as LGB, the larger grain borer. (Everything you need to know about the science is at this link).

The pest had no known predators in Africa, having been introduced from South/Central America in consignments of US food aid in 1980s. And so finding itself free to infest the granaries of people who subsisted on grains, and on maize in particular, it quickly established itself across the southern and eastern continent, then in West Africa, travelling along major railway routes.

The aim of the project was to breed up stocks of a (safely) introduced predator beetle as a biological control and then release it in LGB infected areas. Meanwhile, the habits and destructive capacity of LGB were being monitored in various store experiments at Kiboko and at the coast near Mombasa.

Kiboko ed 3a

On days when Graham was working at Kiboko, we stayed at Hunter’s Lodge. In our time it was an eccentric hostelry that seemed to survive for the benefit of its staff; there were rarely other guests there. Once it had been the home of John Hunter, Great White Hunter and doyen of the colonial grand safari era, friend of Baron Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, guide to sultans and European princes.

He had chosen the spot to build the house near the Kiboko River, at a place where elephant once came to drink at sundown. He also made a pool by diverting the river, and so created a marvellous haven for birdlife (some 3-400 species recorded there). I spent hours watching night herons, grey herons, weavers, pied, giant, brown headed kingfishers, ibis, white eyes, and storks. I took few photos: it was beyond my Olympus Trip’s capacity.

There are no elephant photos here either. They no longer came, nor would be welcome. Anyway, Hunter did a thorough job of official game clearance in Ukambani, where the colonial authorities deemed elephants a nuisance to settler farmers’ plantations. The nearest herds these days are an hour’s drive south in the vast national parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West.

Kiboko ed pool

Kiboko ed kingfisher

Kiboko ed garden bridge

The bridge led to the hotel’s fruit and vegetable shamba


Kiboko ed sundowner rain 2

Rain and sunshine together: ‘a monkey’s wedding’


And speaking of monkeys, the garden was home to a troop of vervets, who soon learned we had a stash of food in our room. They were quick to relieve us of anything they could grab:

Kiboko ed vervet raid


While I was staying at Hunter’s Lodge I met Esther, a young Akamba woman who had a stall selling wood carvings out on the highway. She also dealt in second-hand clothes and, an astute business woman, soon had me exchanging some of mine for her carvings. I think she had the best of the deal. I was useless at bargaining. She also had a notion that I would like to take a photo of her with young son Thomas. She knew exactly where she would pose, and took me along to the nearby petrol station where there was a cafe with a zebra mural. So please meet Esther and Thomas:

Kiboko ed Esther and Thomas


And here’s lovely Joyce who, on our return to Kenya a year later, used to keep our room tidy:

Kiboko ed Joyce


There were times, usually in the early morning, when we were leaving Kiboko that we’d catch sight of Kilimanjaro. There it rose on the horizon like a mirage. In seconds it would be gone, like a snuffed flame but without the tell-tale drift of smoke.  You’d be left wondering if you dreamed it.

Kiboko ed Kilimanjaro


Kiboko ed fever trees

I fell in love with fever trees too, the graceful acacias that, incidentally, have no disease-bearing capacity, although the watery places where they live may well do so. The bark and foliage has a warm spicy scent that is unforgettable, and as for their looks in sundowner light, well, what is there to say…

When, at the end of our nomadic nine months, we went to live in Zambia (a very fresh-airy state) I truly missed the scent of fever trees. I couldn’t believe our luck when Graham was posted back to Kenya. It was then he had the rather dismal job of winding up the LGB project at the Kiboko field station. He threw a long, loud party for the lab staff at Hunter’s Lodge, and the next day everyone lined up to have their photo taken.

Kiboko ed last day of project

Most had other jobs to go to and were heading back to Nairobi and beyond. Only Paddy, then a young researcher, remained to carry on monitoring LGB movements and checking the insect traps on the nearby Range Station. He lived on the station in a remote staff house, up a long, long dirt road. These days he is Doctor of Agricultural Entomology at a research institute in Nairobi:


Kiboko ed 4 range station road

The road to the Range Station. I think this land was once a colonial (failed) sisal plantation. We heard that the thorny wilderness it had later become was the haunt of buffalo, an animal you definitely do not want to meet at close quarters.


After our return to Kenya in late 1993, we stayed on a further six years. This time Graham was involved with on-farm crop protection experiments, engaging the smallholder farmers in the process. As for LGB eradication, it seems attempts to use a biological control  have not been especially successful, although the predator has naturalized and does have some limited effect on LGB numbers. Scrupulous cleaning of granaries between harvests plus chemical applications, e.g. dusting the stored crop with a pyrethroid insecticide does work, but otherwise it can be a sorry tale for subsistence farmers, who may not be able to afford the stuff. In the worst infestations up to 40% of stored grain can be lost, and up to 80% of dried cassava, a staple crop in West Africa.

So: some dark clouds on these horizons. It’s a lot to mull over. All these years on, I’m still trying to process it.

Kiboko ed Emali market

Graham at Emali market, buying maize for the Kiboko grain store experiments.


Lens-Artists: Glowing moments  Siobhan at Bend Branches blog asks us to show her our best moments.

51 thoughts on “In An Equatorial Light

  1. I probably should not stray into into delicate territory, but one can imagine the effect of these sojourns abroad for the many thousands (millions?) who were involved in colonial administration before colonialism ended. All kinds of British, as you know.

    I am sure that the effect of the knowledge they brought back and some very fine experiences of distant civilizations are among the elements whose evaporation is not helping in the Britain of today.

    I agree with you about the light. And the sky at night also on a continent in which there is, outside the largest cities, no light pollution.

    What a gift the circuit you are completing! Large numbers of people are endlessly moving and there is no closure of this kind, it seems.

    I can see why it could be said that these two lives you have had are different one from the other.

    But are they so different? I wonder and hope you will write about this once you are settled again. Sarah

    1. Thank you, as ever, for your thoughtful response, Sarah. The whole issue of colonialism is a thorny one. But then so is Big Aid, since there’s always an agenda. I will ponder on your observation re my ‘two lives’. Tx

  2. Sounds as though you made the most of your time there with Graham and your friend, Light. I liked the second picture of the Mombasa Highway. It reminds me of some of our local backroads. Loved the picture of Esther and her son! Also liked the fever tree photo. Lovely. Sorry the local farmers have had so much loss due to LGB. Hope they find viable solutions in the future.

  3. I always enjoy seeing your musing and photos of Africa, Tish. What a wonderful life you’ve had and thanks for sharing bits of it with us. What an adventure it’s been, hasn’t it?

  4. What a story Tish, odd you’re bookending your days in the UK and cool how you took us to Kenya with you and G in the 90s—and the lovely staff at the lodge. I do feel like I was there this morning, thanks for that voyage. Wow!

  5. I found this an engrossing read Tish, and could really picture that very different life you once lived, thanks to your wonderful descriptions and all the photos. I loved the kingfisher and the monkey made me smile, although I suspect you weren’t smiling at having your possessions raided! I also really liked meeting Esther and reading about her enterprising spirit 😀 What special memories you have to look back on!

    1. Many thanks, Sarah, for all those appreciative words. The monkeys were a force to be reckoned with. I once thwarted a raid, and ended up with three peering out at me from under the bed, i.e. before they worked out an escape route.

  6. So many wonderful memories there, Tish. The colour and light is so strong and vivid and the shadows are so deep and dark, it is a challenging environment to photograph.
    I remember getting off the plane in Sydney in mid summer after spending 6 months in Europe and was totally walloped by the colour and the light.

    1. Walloped by the light, that’s exactly it, Tracy. And now you’ve reminded me of another forgotten reaction I had while in Kenya – the sense of matches striking on my brain stem; sensory overload in other words. And you’re right too about the problems re photography. In the middle day the light was flat, and even the most exciting subjects, including elephants, would end up looking rather dull.

  7. If humans have anything to do with it, there will be nothing larger than a big dog allowed in the wild — and I’m not even sure about them. We may want to “save the planet,” but not if it interferes with our lives. Which is why I don’t think we will ever fix or save anything. We are too selfish.

    1. I’m not so pessimistic, Marilyn. There’s still masses of wildlife in countries like Kenya. In fact one Head of Kenya Wildlife Services famously said there was more wildlife outside the national parks than in them, and Tsavo East, for one, is vast. That’s not to say there’s not ivory or rhino horn poaching, or to deny that in some areas smallholder farmers are often in conflict with wildlife, but a big chunk of Kenya’s economy relies on safari goers. So selfish reasons can work to wildlife’s advantages too.

      1. I REALLY want you to be right! National Geographic says there’s a 2000-Rhino holding for sale. If I had the money, I’d buy it and feel like I’d actually accomplished something.

  8. The light’s amazing at the monkeys’ wedding.

    Your photo of Kilimanjaro reminded me of the sighting I had from Amboseli. It is substantially closer, but the sighting was as you describe. You see it, and then the air changes, and it is gone. You wouldn’t really know whether you imagined it unless others around you had the same dream at the same time.

  9. What a colourful life you both led out in East Africa chasing those damned beetles. Just another tantalising glimpse into a very different, slower, more beautiful world; painted, as always, in aptly luminous and vivid prose. Thx for the lovely memories, Tish.

    1. Glad to spring some happy memories, James. I know your time in Tanzania will have left indelible effects. Once in Africa, never forgotten. I’m wondering if we do carry some ‘genetic memory’ from our Great Rift origins. But even if we don’t, that’s what it feels like.

  10. I do love your posts from Africa. Makes me long to go back. Do you? It must have been an amazing time in your life. Not surprised you’re still processing it after all this time. It reminds me of fairly recently suddenly looking around and thinking “how did I get *here*? as in here in this place, at this age, with this life lived up to this moment. It was shocking. I imagine the you that you were before you ever went to Africa would not have dreamed that you’d spend several years living there. It’s a lot to process.

    1. All those thoughts chime with me, Alison – the seeming sudden capacity to forensically review the various versions of ‘me’. And also you are spot on about the me who skipped off to Africa would never have believed in the possibility of an 8-year stay. And now the looking back spans 3 decades, a further shock to the system kicks in. So yes, much processing definitely in motion. As to going back, I’m not sure about that. Maybe if I could be teleported 🙂 Many thanks for your insightful comment.

  11. Ah! Now I have context for your stunning posts & images from Africa – what colourful extended travels you’ve had.

    And now the return – I look forward to your adventures in this next part of your journey.

    1. Flying over Africa can be very thrilling. And yes very red. Once on our return to Kenya from the UK we flew up the Nile just as the sun was setting. Stunning.

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