Past Lives ~ Beneath A Tropic Sun

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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.

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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.

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Shimba Hills smallholdings, southern Kenya

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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)

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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

August Over The Edge And Faraway

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Sunday afternoon, and the sudden need for fresh horizons spurred us out the door to explore parts of Wenlock Edge we cannot reach on foot from the house. The escarpment, wooded for the most part, is some twenty miles long, and though crisscrossed from end to end with paths and bridleways, we are not committed walkers of the long-distance variety, more amblers than ramblers. The expedition thus required a short car sprint – along the Edge from Much Wenlock and a sharp turn left in Longville-in-the-Dale for Wilderhope Manor. This Tudor mansion sits above Hope Dale, its back to the Edge. It is owned by the National Trust but run by the Youth Hostel Association, and its car park is handy for a number of cross-country paths.

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The house was built in the 1580s for one Francis Smallman and it was a Smallman scion, Major Thomas Smallman, who, during the Civil War (1642-51, Charles 1 versus Oliver Cromwell) performed a feat of dashing bravery. He was a staunch Royalist and when he learned that the Roundhead army was approaching Wilderhope he mounted his horse and headed for Shrewsbury, a dozen miles away, to warn the Royalist forces there.

The Roundheads followed, and in a bid to escape them, the Major and horse took a flying leap off Wenlock Edge. Sadly the horse did not survive the 200 foot drop, but by a stroke of luck the Major’s fall was broken by a wild cherry tree (or apple tree depending on which version you read). He thus completed his mission on foot, rousing the Royalist forces who launched an attack at Wilderhope. The Major apparently bequeathed us his ghostly presence, said to be seen by some still plunging over the precipice on horseback. The supposed spot, ‘Major’s Leap’, is now a popular viewpoint.

But enough dawdling. Back to the walk. We had decided to follow a 2 mile stretch of the Jack Mytton Way which itself is a 70-mile foot and cycle path named after another local personality, Mad Jack Mytton, a somewhat surprising association for a facility promoting healthful pursuits. Mytton, born into wealthy Shropshire squirearchy in 1796, died in Southwark debtors’ prison at the age of 37, a drunken, spendthrift, philanderin’, huntin’, roisterin’ rake of the first water who, it is said, claimed to have seen a mermaid in the River Severn. Not following in his footsteps then!

The path from Wilderhope starts off on the farm drive, passing through pasture and a very fine herd of Hereford-Friesian cattle who gave us the once over as we passed.

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Then it was across the lane into the wheat field. This (and the header view) is Hope Dale looking from Wenlock Edge with Corve Dale and the Clee Hills in the distance

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At the field boundary the path heads into Coats Wood, and the rest of our walk to Roman Bank is under dappled shade: oak, ash, beech, an ancient yew, field maple, holly, birch, lime, rowan, the odd sycamore, and many coppiced hazel trees. The woods that covered all of Wenlock Edge in ancient times were a valuable resource for fuel gathering, timber cutting and stock grazing and, in the Middle Ages every township within a mile of the Edge (most of Saxon origin) had common rights there.

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Coppicing is the ancient practice of cutting a tree’s main trunk so encouraging the growth of multiple upright stems. These were used in hurdle making for fencing in farmstock, stakes for hedge laying, for bean poles, basket making, and in early times before forges and furnaces ran on coke, to make charcoal. These days coppicing has been re-introduced in a bid to manage woodland sprawl and encourage the re-establishment of dormouse populations.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time we retraced our steps. There was a sense of somnolent wildlife stirring. (All had been silent on the outward meander). Blackbirds were bobbing about in the leaf litter, and overhead we heard ravens cronking. Then as I was surveying an area of coppiced hazel, I found two roe deer looking back at us. They melted away – woodland ghosts. But the fleeting glimpse made us glad we had stirred ourselves to take a trip out, this even though we had managed to miss lunch and were by then very hungry. But even that was catered for. On the Wilderhope Manor drive we found a wild cherry tree hanging in delicious dark fruit, and later I wondered if the National Trust had planted the it as a reminder of Major Smallman’s heroic leap. And next there were apples, astonishingly early, but all the better for being scrumped.

 

 

copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

The Changing Seasons ~ July 2020

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The last day of July and it’s HOT! And rather a shock to the system. For much of the month, the Edge has been cloud-bound with low light and at times even chilly. Every now and then I’ve grown confused and thought it must be September. The wheat in Townsend Meadow is already looking overdone. (So soon!). The vegetable plots seem confused too. Many plants, especially the climbing beans, seem to have gone into a trance – as if they’ve given up before they’ve hardly begun. But then it’s a sign of the times, if not the status quo – confusion.

And at least the potatoes and onions have remained steadfast and productive. There should be tomatoes soon too. August also comes with fresh cultivating possibilities. I’ve been preparing to sow Chinese greens, endives, spinach and Swiss chard for the autumn and winter. Maybe some carrots too – the stubby little Paris Market variety, which can be sown late. And then when the potatoes are harvested it will be time to sow over-wintering green manures: mustard, annual rye and field beans. So the round of soil nurturing continues. It’s all part of a process of extending gratitude for keeping us Farrells, (friends and neighbours too) well nourished. We seem to be keeping the insect world pretty well fed too.

Now for scenes from the gardening fronts. On both sides of our garden fence the yellow helianthus and golden rod are bursting forth among the hot reds, pinks and purples. It’s a gaudy scene, and though I don’t care for the colour of the pink phlox, in the present heat wave it smells wonderful – a sweet warm meadowy scent. Meanwhile up at the allotment, the communal fruit trees are already showing signs of prodigious production, and I’ve brought bundles of very fine onions home to dry:

The Changing Seasons: July 2020

Taking The Long View On The Linden Walk

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This photo was taken last weekend, and no, autumn has not come early to Much Wenlock. The leaf litter gathering in drifts along the Linden Walk and the town’s many byways are the papery parts of shed lime tree blossom – the heady, heavenly scent that suffused our atmosphere back in June already forgotten. But hold on now, in the northern hemisphere we still have summer ahead of us; no giving way to the tristesse of ‘Autumn Leaves’, at least not yet. (Note to self: resist posting Yves Montand’s Les Feuilles Mortes until the actual autumn.)

The three little girls in the distance here were part of a multi-family group. They had been having a picnic on the Linden Field, several sets of parents and lots of little kids, dads commandeering the football and tumbling about on the grass with abandon. It was a heartening scene – families at play. Even the swings and slides were back in use after weeks of being wrapped in ugly tape. People having fun and exercise in the fresh air. I’m thinking that Doctor William Penny Brookes, the town’s physician, who back in the 1860s chivvied his chums to help plant these lime trees, would have approved.

 

Square Perspectives #31 A BIG thank you to Becky for keeping us so well entertained this month. Her own retrospective perspective today is a tour de force  Red rose.

Some Peacock Perspectives

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Today in the Sheinton Street garden we have both sunshine and warmth, elements that have been lacking so far this month. And so amongst the Doronicum we also have a profusion of peacock butterflies, sip-sipping like mad at the tiny compound flowerlets. I watch them as I hang out the washing – the survival imperative played out before our very eyes.

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Square Perspective #30

Ta-Dah! You’ve Seen The Flowers: Here Come The Tubers

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Blue Danube the Sequel: A Subterranean Perspective?

Yesterday I teased a few of you with a cropped shot of a very purple potato flower (what is it, I asked) and ended up teasing myself.

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Later, when I went up to allotment I could not resist having a little underground furtle, though I think you’re supposed to wait till the flowers are finished. On the other hand there’s always blight to think of, and we’ve been having some very odd potentially blight-inducing weather, so it’s good to know how the crop is faring. On the whole I decided they could wait a bit longer. But the next door row of Stemster are definitely ready. I haven’t grown them before. What a pretty pink! They make the Blue Danube look rather gnarly.

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Square Perspective #29

Hands Up! Who Knows What This Flower Is?

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A Novel Perspective?

Well it is rather spectacular, isn’t it – for a potato. The variety is Blue Danube and the spuds when I dig them up will be a deep purply-mauvy colour. I’ve not grown them for a few years, but I seem to remember the skins are quite robust (hopefully resistant to slugs) and that inside, the flesh is very white and dry and so they are great for roasting. Which also makes me think they will be just right for the Greek treatment:  the addition of water, olive oil (3 parts water to 1 part oil), lots of lemon juice, seasoning and oregano to the roasting tin and a good hour’s cooking.

Usually the potatoes are ready to harvest when the flowers have died down. I’m thinking I might not be able to wait that long.

Square Perspectives #28

A Prickly Perspective

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This thistly entity is a teasel flower. It is borne aloft a magnificently statuesque plant most often to be found on waste ground. It seeds promiscuously and every part of the plant is prickly. In past times some of those prickles were put to good use. The dried flower heads were split and pinned to a cruciform structure, called a teasel cross or card (a bit like a table tennis bat) and used in the weaving industry to raise the nap on finished cloth.

There are photos and more information HERE.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you what kind of little bumble bee this is; the ID charts defeated me though my best guess is a carder bee. (Which would be appropriate).  I anyway like the way its colour scheme ‘goes’ with the teasel’s ashy tones. I also admired the way it picked its way so gingerly through the spiny elements to reach the nectar in the tiny segmented florets.

This scene was captured over the garden fence in the guerrilla garden, where all is presently thriving. Here is a field-side perspective with the teasel bringing up the rear. I transplanted it as a seedling found on an abandoned allotment plot. I might just regret the introduction, but for now it’s looking rather splendid.

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Square Perspective #27