Cloud Shadows Over The Great Rift

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I have just come home from the allotment with very wet knees ( the grass on the field path has suddenly shot up half a metre). It is a gloomy, drizzling evening here in Shropshire, and has been raining now for two days. This is very good of course. We’ve hardly had any rain since mid-May, and it’s a big relief not to have to water the vegetable plots. The veggies are very happy too – all upstanding  and glistening in the rain. The only thing is I think we have water-resistant soil. When I went to sow some Florence fennel, the surface compost was damp enough, but an inch down the soil was dry as desert sand.

More rain required then.

The advent of rain is of course a critical factor in the growing of smallholder crops over in Kenya where this photograph was taken during the July dry season. Very few rural farmers have ready access to piped water, reservoirs and water courses, and so irrigation systems are thus not feasible unless you are a very rich big landowner.   The monsoon seasons on the Indian Ocean are responsible for the country’s rainfall. It comes in two seasons: the short planting rains roughly October to December and the long rains in April-May. And so the clouds you see here, may be bringing shade, but they are not bringing rain.

And even in season, this is increasingly the case as Kenya’s forests dwindle. Without its tree-covered uplands, which invite the clouds to drop their moisture, the future will bring only increasing desertification. Or else when it does rain, there will be more flash flooding and landslides to carry off the fertile top soil.  Climate change, then, has both local and global origins, and we all need to think about this, and the part we may play,  wherever we live on the  planet.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Thursday’s Special: over  Please visit Paula to see her totally stunning photo.

Maasailand In Black & White

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I do not think of Africa in black and white, and when we lived there during the 1990s it was still in the days of conventional photography, and only colour film was readily available. So I am rather intrigued by these monochrome edits from the old Africa photo file.

They were taken in August – in the cool, dry, gloomy season, and the time of the wildebeest migration. We had driven down to the Maasai Mara from Nairobi under lowering skies, taking our visitors, Chris and Les, on safari. The roads were dusty and the bush country parched and dreary looking for mile after mile.

Amongst other things, the first photo shows how empty the landscape can be of wildlife,  or indeed of people. In the distance is the Oloololo Escarpment which forms  the north west boundary of the Mara Triangle. The tented camp where we were staying was on the Mara River outside the park, and part of the Mara Conservancy, a reserve managed by the Maasai themselves.

The lone tree is a Desert Date (Balanites  aegyptiaca ), and is typical of the open savannah where its presence is highly valued by humans and grazing animals alike. It fruits under the driest conditions. The tree has also long provided traditional healers with remedies; like the baobab, Balanites is one of Africa’s tree pharmacies. The fruit’s outer flesh was used for treating skin diseases, and preparations of the root and bark were used to combat malaria.

The oil within the fruit in fact has a host of remarkable properties. It has long been known that it kills the freshwater snails that carry bilharzia and the water fleas that are vectors of guinea-worm disease  (Trees of Kenya  Tim Noad and Ann Birnie). It has also been studied more recently by Egyptian scientists who reported their findings in the the 2010 Journal of Ethnopharmacology.  Their laboratory tests revealed anticancer properties for certain human carcinoma cell lines, as well as demonstrating selected antimicrobial, anthelmintic, and antiviral activity.

An all round useful tree then.

The shape of the trees in the photos is also typical. The result of having their canopies nibbled by passing giraffes, although there are none in sight here – only wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelle.

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Black & White Sunday: typical

Early Morning Elephants In The Mara ~ All Very Much In Order

The thing is, they are noiseless as they move, their footfalls cushioned by pads of fat behind their toes. Of course there are the low frequency stomach rumbles that maintain lines of communication across the herd, but we weren’t close enough to hear those. Or maybe we were too intent on our own stomach rumbles. We had driven out of the Mara River Camp at first light, after only a 5.30 cup of tea. Breakfast was still a distant prospect when we found ourselves among this large, slow-moving herd.

They paid us no attention whatsoever. All we sensed was a wave of communal intention as they headed on through the thorn brush. In fact we were so beneath their notice, Daniel, our driver-guide, decided it would be fine to stop the truck and eat our picnic breakfast as the elephants moved on by.  I remember thinking how incongruous it was to be standing out on the Mara plains eating a hard boiled egg while these majestic creatures slowly passed me.

This is not to say that elephants cannot be dangerous; sometimes murderous if they bear a grudge for some harm done them; or if the bulls are in musth. But nothing was amiss this day. It was like one big family outing, the epitome of good elephantine order wherein mothers and children always come first.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post: Order

All Friends At Nairobi’s Elephant Orphanage

When it comes to the survival of orphaned elephant infants, loving friendship is the only thing that works. Baby elephants need continuous loving, tactile affection as much as they need food. Without it they quickly die.

Kenya’s Dame Daphne Sheldrick, pioneer in elephant orphan rescue and rehabilitation, learned this the hard way. For years she strove to create a rich formula to substitute for mother’s milk. But in her efforts to keep orphans physically alive, she also learned that the emotional ties between baby and surrogate mother were crucial to the baby’s survival.

At her orphanage on the edge of Nairobi’s National Park she has developed an astonishing survival regime for all the young animals brought to her. Every orphan has its ‘mother’ i.e. one of the green-coated keepers seen in the photos. Every keeper is on full time duty with his charge, and this includes sleeping with the baby in its stall.

By day there is feeding, mud bathing and playing to be done. The blanket strung on a line in the top photo is there to simulate the overshadowing side of an elephant mother. The keeper feeds  his baby, holding the bottle down behind the blanket. The babies are also wearing blankets – at 5000 feet above sea level, Nairobi can be cool in July when this photo was taken, and in the wild small babies would anyway have the constant warmth and shelter of mother and aunts.

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The ultimate objective of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is to re-introduce the orphans to the wild. This is a painstaking and precarious procedure, recreating communities in the absence of wild matriarchs who are the custodians of herd memory.

Tsavo East National Park is one of the main locations for the rehabilitation process. This is the park where Daphne Sheldrick’s husband, David, was warden until 1976. During their time together at Tsavo, the Sheldricks pioneered the rehabilitation of many wild animals that had been reared in captivity. On David’s early death in 1977, Daphne set up the Trust in his memory. Forty years on some 150 elephants have been saved, along with rhinos and other species.

If you want to read about the elephants in detail there are keepers’ daily diaries HERE. You can find out what is going on in the nursery with the youngest orphans, or discover how the adolescents are faring at various forest locations as they learn to live again in the wild. A study of dedicated friendship in action then.

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If you are ever in Nairobi, then the orphanage is open to visitors for an hour each day. You can also donate to the Trust or foster an orphan. There are more details HERE.

Daily Post: Friend

So Easy To Be Green After The Rains In Kenya’s Great Rift

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It is hard for many of us to imagine living in lands that have rain only in given seasons with little or none in between. In Kenya, in theory at least, the long rains come during March and April, and the short rains between October and December. All depends on the movement of the Indian Ocean monsoon winds, and long before awareness of serious climate change,  Africa’s rainy seasons were known to be fickle.

So: the arrival of timely rains to plant or ripen crops is matter of survival  for most rural households. Only 15% of the country’s land is fertile enough and receives sufficient rain to support agriculture, and most of this is cultivated by smallholder farmers, women for the most part, while their husbands go to the towns to earn cash to buy stuff – medicine, fertilisers, stone to build a house etc.

The second photo was taken just north of Nairobi, from one of the Great Rift view-points looking over the smallholder farming community of Escarpment. The farms here were originally a series of single 12 acre lots, distributed by the British administration around 1951. I’m not sure what prompted this land hand-out to Africans, or how  the beneficiaries were chosen, or if they had to buy the land, although that seems unlikely as Africans were not allowed to own land as individuals. By then the native reserves, the only places where indigenous people could farm, were more than overcrowded. Land shortage, especially within the Kikuyu reserves, meant that the marriageable generation could not marry for lack of farm plots, and this was one of the main drivers of the Land Freedom Uprising of 1952 – aka Mau Mau.

When we visited Escarpment during  Graham’s Napier Grass smut survey, Njonjo, our driver-guide played host, since this was where he had his own farmstead. He told us that his family’s 12 acre plot had been so subdivided (from father to sons according to custom) that he only had a quarter of an acre. He proudly showed it to us anyway, with his good crop of maize, and said it adjoined his brother’s plot.

Of course there comes a point when further subdivision is pointless, and there is not enough ground to support even the smallest family. Nearer the city such communities have turned ancestral farm land into room rental land, and erstwhile family gardens are now part of the city perimeter slum sprawl. It’s how it goes. As I’ve said in an earlier post, the British left their constructs of Crown land, landed gentry land ownership and native reserves well embedded when they so ‘graciously’ handed Kenya back to Kenyans, and made them pay for it too, thus creating a great big debt that was only paid off in recent times.

British feudal notions about land ownership never did fit with the more communally minded African ideas about land usage and proprietorship, although they certainly came to suit the current ruling elite, a family that has hung on to power (one way another) since the British bestowed it upon them in 1963.  Let us hope we manage the exit from Europe with more wisdom. Much as we Brits like to think we went around civilising the world, we also left a lot of skeletons in cupboards when we beat our retreat.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post Photo Challenge: It is easy being green

 

Into The Rift Valley Under A Midday Sun

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Thursdays Special ~ A Commanding Presence

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It’s not easy taking a photo of a moving lion, and for all sorts of reasons – not least, the excitement. This is another shot of one of the members of the Maasai Mara’s celebrity Marsh Pride. I think that confident stride definitely says ‘I’m in charge here’. And just look at the size of those front paws! Scarily impressive even in this somewhat aged photo.

We visited the Maasai Mara only three times while we were living in Kenya, but every trip there delivered many breath-taking moments. We were lucky too. Kenyan wildlife guides are among the world’s best – so generous in the sharing of their knowledge – whether of grasses and dung beetles or leopards and rock pythons.

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Desert Date  and the Oloololo Escarpment ~ indelible memory Mara-style

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This week at Lost in Translation, Paula’s  March Pick A Word includes five word prompts: commanding, coarse, gibbous, incremental, indelible. Please see her interpretations and be inspired.

Interesting The Things Your Stats Tell You

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Actually this is probably just an excuse to post yet again this very old photo of me at Great Zimbabwe. We were living in Lusaka, Zambia at the time, Graham on a year’s attachment to the European Delegation, in charge of food aid distribution. You can read that story at the link.

Towards the end of this posting we drove down to Zimbabwe, and spent a couple of weeks touring around. Back in the 1990s it was a fabulous country to visit. We simply followed our noses, and drove on near empty, but well-kept roads, one of which brought us at last to Great Zimbabwe. We pretty much had the place to ourselves too. It was astonishing.

Anyway my stats of the last few days suggest to me that somewhere in the U.S. a bunch of students has been given a Great Zimbabwe assignment. I know this because they’re all opening a post I wrote 3 years and 2 blog themes ago: Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe. This happens periodically, although sometimes it’s Zimbabwean students searching for material on why the place was abandoned. It’s one of my perennial posts – not so much viral as chronic. Every year the traffic has doubled. Last year 1,311 people dropped in there.

But nothing gets as much traffic as my post on Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. Caught Inside A Kikuyu Garden. This was also written three years ago, and so far has clocked up 12,715 views. Of course I have no way of knowing if all these people have actually read the piece, but I find it intriguing. I also sometimes wonder what would happen if I had a ‘Karen and Denys’ blog, and didn’t bother to post anything else. Funny old activity – blogging.

Thursdays Special ~ Profile Of The Leonine Kind

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We came upon the Maasai Mara’s famous Marsh Pride on a morning game drive out from Mara River Camp. It was August – as close to winter as Kenya gets – the skies leaden, the plains parched and dusty, the whole place waiting for the short rains that will not be happening for another two months; and perhaps not at all. In fact this trip had started out from Nairobi in thick fog, and descending the Great Rift escarpment was even more hair-raising exciting than usual.

But to get back to the lions. The pride was resting up in home territory, most of its members – mothers and cubs – scarcely visible in the grass. For one thing they were the same colour as the vegetation. For another, it is what lions do – disappear in twelve inches of grass.

As we drove nearer we spotted this male. He was pacing through the grass, roaring. This was answered by another male some distance away. It seemed they were busy marking out their patch. They ignored us anyway, which was comforting, though I have to say that lion-roars, especially ones at close quarters, make your spine resonate, and not in a good way.

Another hair-raising exciting moment then.

We watched them for a while from the safety of the safari truck, then left them to it, the roars following us down the track. By which time  we were  wondering if we were really there at all. Out in the African wilds it mostly feels like dreaming.

 

Profile:     Panthera Leo

                    Simba in KiSwahili

Weight:    Males 420-500 lb/110-135 kg

Length:     Males 5-7 ft/2.5-2 m

Lifespan:  Males 12 years

 

Thursdays Special: Profile

Please visit Paula to see her fantabulous shot of a snowy owl.