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.

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

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.

The Solitude Within

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As in the previous post, this is a Christmas photo, but one taken long ago when we were visiting Lamu off the Kenya coast. I’ve posted it before, but make no excuse for showing it again. It is one of my favourite photos, and one caught in a split second with my Olympus Trip. I think the gods of photography were smiling on me.

The gentleman so absorbed is Mzee Lali, the owner of the sailing dhow. He spoke no English, nor said a word to us that I recall on our day trip out to the reef. The conversation was dominated by his nephew, Athman, who, as a speaker of English, Kenya’s official language, could hold a captain’s licence, and so take tourists out on sailing trips.

He told us that Lali was born on Pate, one of the more remote large islands in the Lamu archipelago. He knew everything there was to know about sailing, Athman said. But because he spoke no English he could not take the necessary two and half year captain’s course, and so obtain a licence.

Somehow this photo echoes the dilemma of island elders. They belong to another world in another time.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Weekly Photo Challenge:Solitude

To The Day Ahead ~ Mombasa Beach Safari

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When we lived in Kenya during the 1990s we used to spend Christmas in a beach cottage on the south Mombasa coast. Much of the anticipation (not to say anxiety) surrounding this annual safari usually revolved around wondering if we would get there at all.

Mombasa is a good 300 miles from Nairobi and, in our day, the existence of the Nairobi – Mombasa highway was not to be taken for granted. December is the rainy season, and there were times when sections of the road were washed out. On one occasion when we were heading south, mudslides had created a huge traffic jam not far from Nairobi. Trucks, buses, tour vans and cars were double parked for tens of miles all across Ukambani’s rain-soaked bush country.

Villagers along the route thought all their market days had come at once – so many captive customers to be plied with cups of tea and fresh picked mangos from their shambas. All opportunities for making a few bob were quickly grabbed, and wherever you looked, gangs of of grinning lads were hard at work, pushing grounded vehicles out of the mudslides. Meanwhile the line of vehicles stretched on and on, out across the plains.

And it was then that our Land Rover Defender came into its own. You forgot that it generally leaked, juddered, clanged and banged while rearranging your spinal column and internal organs into ever new and painful configurations. This beast could walk on water. Well almost. Anyway, who needed a road? Not Team Leader Graham (aka My Man In Africa). He simply engaged equatorial swamp-drive, and took to the bush, picking his own route alongside the blocked highway.  Being English, I quailed before the thought that we were committing some major traffic offence. This, after all, was ‘undertaking’ of epic proportions, outdoing the maddest of matatu drivers. And just to give you an idea of Mombasa highway jams here’s a Kenyan press photo from April this year – a twelve-hour hold-up:

Mombasa Highway Nation Newspaper

http://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/news/caused-monster-traffic-jam-mombasa-road/

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And so what with events like this, and the other usual highway hazards of broken-down trucks, police road blocks, jay-walking buffalo and the inevitable Likoni Ferry hold up, it was always a huge relief to finally find ourselves trundling along the cliff top track to Maweni Cove. Soon there would be paddling in warm lagoon waters, white coral sands sparsely populated, a cooling sea breeze on the headland, and the sound of the Indian Ocean roaring on the reef edge. Eggs and vegetables would be delivered to our door by a sweet Digo man on a bicycle. The fishermen would call by daily with fresh-caught lobster and parrot fish, and if you gave them a knife and chopping board, they would clean the fish for you. All of which meant that even when we were actually there,  it always seemed like a dream.

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Anticipation

Shore, Reef, Ocean, Sky: Edge On Edge

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Some of you will have already read the essay below. It won first prize in a Quartos Magazine competition years ago. The magazine is no more, but I’m posting the piece again for those of you in need of  a long, soothing wallow beside an African beach. Enjoy!

 Going to the Dogs on Mombasa’s Southern Shore

It’s a dog’s life on Tiwi Beach, the white strand where ocean roars on coral and trade winds waft the coconut palms; and where, best of all, as far as the local canines are concerned, there are quiet coves sparse in holidaymakers. It means they may do as they please. After all, it is their own resort, and every morning they set off there from the beach villages along the headland, nose up, ears blown back in the breeze, ready for the day’s adventures.

But the dogs are not churlish. They can take or leave the odd pale human wrestling to right his windsurfer on the still lagoon; ignore the sentinel heron that marks the reef edge beyond; pay no heed to the etched black figures of the Digo fishermen who search the shallows for prawns, parrot fish, or perhaps a mottled lobster or two.

But in this last respect at least, the dogs are smug. For the fishermen come down to the beach only to make a living. And when they are done hunting, they must toil along the headland from beach village to beach village, then haggle over the price of their catch with the rich wazungu who come there to lotus eat. Hard work in the dogs’ opinion.

The dogs know better of course; know it in every hair and pore. And each morning after breakfast, when they take the sandy track down to the beach, they begin with a toss of the head, a sniff of the salt air, a gentle ruffling of the ear feathers in soft finger breezes. Only then do they begin the day’s immersion, the sybaritic sea savouring: first the leather pads, sandpaper dry from pounding coral beaches, then the hot underbelly. Bliss. The water is warm. Still. Azure. And there can be nothing better in the world than to wade here, hour on hour, alongside a like‑minded fellow.

There’s not much to it; sometimes a gentle prancing. But more likely the long absorbing watch, nose just above the water, ears pricked, gaze fixed on the dazzling glass. And if you should come by and ask what they think they’re at, they will scan you blankly, the earlier joy drained away like swell off a pitching dhow. And, after a moment’s condescending consideration, they will return again to the sea search, every fibre assuming once more that sense of delighted expectation which you so crassly interrupted. You are dismissed.

For what else should they be doing but dog dreaming, ocean gazing, coursing the ripples of sunlight across the lagoon and more than these, glimpsing the electric blue of a darting minnow? And do they try to catch it? Of course they don’t. And when the day’s watch is done, there is the happy retreat to shore ‑ the roll roll roll in hot sand, working the grains into every hair root.

And if as a stranger you think these beach dogs a disreputable looking crew, the undesirable issue of lax couplings between colonial thoroughbreds gone native: dobermanns and rough‑haired pointers, vizslas and ridge‑backs, labradors and terriers, then think again. For just because they have no time for idle chit-chat, this doesn’t make them bad fellows: it’s merely that when they are on the beach, they’re on their own time. But later, after sunset, well that’s a different matter. Then they have responsibilities: they become guardians of the your designer swimwear, keepers of your M & S beach towel, enticing items that you have carelessly left out on your cottage veranda.

By night they patrol the ill‑lit byways of your beach village, dogging the heels of a human guard who has his bow and arrow always at the ready. And when in the black hours the banshee cry of a bush baby all but stops your heart, you may be forgiven for supposing that this bristling team has got its man, impaled a hapless thief to the compound baobab. It is an unnerving thought. You keep your head down. Try to go with the flow, as all good travellers should.

But with the day the disturbing image fades. There is no bloody corpse to sully paradise, only the bulbuls calling from a flame tree, the heady scent of frangipani, delicious with its sifting of brine. You cannot help yourself now. It’s time to take a leaf out of the dogs’ book, go for a day of all‑embracing sensation ‑ cast off in an azure pool.

And in the late afternoon when the sun slips red behind the tall palms and the tide comes boiling up the beach, the dogs take to the gathering shade of the hinterland and lie about in companionable couples. Now and then they cast a benign eye on you humankind, for at last you are utterly abandoned, surrendering with whoops and yells to the sun‑baked spume. They seem to register the smallest flicker of approval: you seem to be getting the hang of things.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Edge

As High As An Elephant’s Eye

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And it’s a wise eye. A knowing eye. And it’s a privilege to have been allowed to sit and watch a great herd move by us and around us. So quietly. Measured footfalls. Moving across the Mara thornland. Infants. Adolescents. Mothers. Aunties. The big bulls. All moving as one. To their own rhythm.

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Thursday’s Special: Eye contact

Elephant Partners

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Elephant females and young spend most of their time in small family groups of ten to fifteen related individuals, ruled and guided by a matriarch. She is the equivalent of the institutional memory, and her role is to keep the family safe. These small groups gather into larger herds during the rainy season as they search for fresh vegetation.  Adult elephants consume up to 400 pounds/180 kilos of vegetation a day.  The two youngsters in the picture, however, will still be suckling  – when they’re not busy playing that is.

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Partners