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.

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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

Top Tembo Mama ~ Among Lewa’s Elephants And Other Animals

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The elephant on the left is the matriarch of this little family group of six adult females and three infants. She is giving us the once over before concluding we are no threat to her charges. In elephant world, the matriarch rules; she is the keeper of the family knowledge; the guide and decision maker. She will also kill any creature that is deemed a threat.

Following on from yesterday’s post on Lewa Downs Conservancy, here are some notes from that trip. We’re out on a morning drive with Kevin our expert guide:

By now it’s late morning and we’re down by the swamp. The waterbuck stare out at us, and as we follow the track that skirts the reed bed we come upon a herd of oryx. They’re very shy though and won’t stay.

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Kevin drives on towards a clump of fever trees, now following elephant prints along the track, and as we reach the acacias there is a lone old bull, large as life and very close.  Too close? When it comes to elephants the warning signs to look out  for are ears spread and trunk up and to the side. But we’re not bothering him. He views us serenely through long lashes, shakes his battle torn ears, ambles alongside the truck for a while then wanders off.

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Graham meanwhile spots a group of elephant across the swamp and Kevin sets off for a better view. For a while we park on the track, torn between watching brilliant carmine bee eaters in one direction and the little herd in the other. The elephants are about fifty yards away in the fever trees, and I think that’s close enough, but no, Kevin is eyeing up the lie of the land, picking out a line of solid ground. Soon we are parked with swamp on our right and elephants on our left.

At first the matriarch adopts an intimidating stance, but then changes her mind. Our presence in no way interrupts tree browsing and bottom scratching, and no attempt is made to shield the youngest calf from our view. We watch for ten minutes or so, listening to the taptapping of a nearby woodpecker, the call of hadada ibis, spot a vervet monkey watching us watching the elephants. Then Kevin decides it’s time to leave them in peace. As we pull away over the rough ground we’re left with the musky, goaty, muddy smell of elephant in our nostrils.

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Square Tops #21

Kudu Family Heading For The Top Of The Trail

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This sunset view of retreating greater kudu was taken at Lewa Downs, a private nature conservancy on the northern foothills of Mount Kenya near Isiolo. The reserve is 62,000 acres, and was once a colonial cattle ranch. The descendants of the original settler family still own the land, but now their focus is on wildlife conservation, upscale tourism, improving the lot of local communities and helping to protect surviving members of Kenya’s black rhino population.

When we visited years ago we stayed in  the small Lerai tented camp run by the same outfit whose camps we stayed in at Mara River and Elmenteita, i.e. fairly low key by comparison with Kenya’s super luxury safari ‘camps’, and aimed more at visitors with dedicated interests in wildlife, particularly ornithologists and professional wildlife photographers.

We flew up there in a Kenya Airways Twin Otter 20-seater plane. (Kenya’s internal aerial bus service is brilliant). There were only two others aboard and, after running through the safety procedures, the co-pilot leaned out of the cockpit with a bowl of boiled sweets and a cheery ‘pass it back!’ The next moment we were sprinting off the tarmac at Nairobi’s Wilson airport and banking over the nearby national park where small groups of wildebeest were gathered along city perimeter fence. So even before the safari is properly begun there’s a little wildlife spotting to do.

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Next we whipped up the Great Rift, the old volcano Longonot in the valley bottom, the smallholdings, tea and coffee farms of Limuru up on the eastern escarpment. And in no time we were over Nyandarua, the Aberdares Range, and looking the dark snow-streaked spires of Mount Kenya in the eye. In fact in the same amount of time it had taken us that morning to get through Nairobi’s traffic jams to the airport we had covered the couple of hundred kilometres to Lewa.

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Soon we were flying low over the marsh buzzing zebra before putting down on the dirt landing strip whose only permanent structures then were a windsock and a thatched hut. Our transport, an open green safari truck, sped towards us in a cloud of pink dust. Kevin, our guide for the two-day stay, greeted us with a big grin. We found out later that his family were originally from Tanzania, his people the Chagga who live on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, and are renowned for their capacity for running up the mountain. Kevin also turned out to be a very passionate ornithologist, especially interested in the European migrants that were just then visiting Lewa. A bit of an irony I thought: a case of the reversed ‘exotic’ when he became, to my mind, rather over absorbed by the presence of a migrant tufted duck. That’s not what we came to see! Here’s some more of what we did see:

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A reticulated giraffe, one of the three main giraffe races in Kenya. It is mostly found in the northern districts.  This photo’s for Brian at Equinoxio. (The weird colour flashes are due to poor film processing at the time).

Our guide:

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Square Tops #20

Top Heavy?

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You will need to peer into these hazy photos to see the subject of this post: Kenya’s rural wives hauling fodder grass and maize stalks to feed their cows. And the reason for this particular form of haulage is down to the fact that smallholder farms are indeed small – a few acres or less, and there is little or no pasture for grazing. Farm stock is thus kept in pens, quite roomy ones, and their food brought to them.

While we were living in Kenya I remember reading some UN or similar study on the carrying capacity of African women. It basically said that the loads they habitually bore were physically impossible in relation to the bearing potential of their bodily framework. So here we have it: women working miracles.

It further makes me think of the biblical contention that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib. Clearly this is wrong. These farming women anyway are built from some naturally occurring version of high-tensile steel. In every sense they are the backbone of the nation. I even have some statistics for that too. A few years ago I was writing a school textbook on Kenya, which caused me to discover that 75% of Kenya’s daily food was produced by women smallholder farmers. I don’t expect this has changed much.

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The rural wife’s back has a lot to bear then. Much time may be spent each day seeking out wood for the cooking fire. There is water to be got from the stream or water point; the field to hoe; animal food to be gathered; spare produce to take to market; the baby to take to the pharmacy. There may also be much bending over an open hearth preparing meals, the family wash to pound in a bucket, and a broom to be wielded while sweeping out the house and the compound.

‘It is our days’ career,’ a young Kikuyu woman once told me when we met on a farm path. I was ‘labouring’ with clipboard and tape measure, helping Graham with his smutted Napier grass survey. She was bent double under a pyramid of grass for her dairy cow. When I remarked on the huge load, she gave me a lop-sided grin from beneath a canopy of green stems. In perfect English she spoke those five small words – unending hard work endured with good grace.

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And of course things have been changing.  Many educated women have made it their cause to return to their rural communities as educators, legal activists, medical workers and agriculturalists to improve women’s lives and livelihoods. Equally, country women have their own ideas about what they need and how this should be achieved. Women’s development groups, local missions and churches all have their part to play in airing ideas and giving women the skills, confidence and, most important of all, access to financing that will allow them to start new enterprises and so gain independence from traditional constraints. And one thing’s for sure: in the matter of ‘backbone’ the farm wives have been well and truly tested.

Square Tops #11

Kenya’s Treetops Hotel

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Mention of Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park inevitably brings up residue of British colonialism, and in particular the extraordinary connection with the UK’s present monarch. The original Treetops was little more than a 1930s bungalow-affair, a rickety contrivance lodged in the branches of an ancient mugumo tree, a species of wild fig which happened to be very sacred to the local Kikuyu people.  Princess Elizabeth spent the night there in February 1952 and, as the well trammelled narrative goes: she went up the tree as a princess and came down a queen, although it was only later in the day that she was informed that her father, George VI had died.

Here’s the original Treetops where the royal party stayed, taken from the book by its builder, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, Treetops Hotel.

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The Sherbrooke Walkers, like most of the early settlers in British East Africa, were of the officer-gentry-aristocracy class. Eric Sherbrooke Walker had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1, followed by a stint in military intelligence with the White Armies in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising wherein he earned the Military Cross and other honours. After the war, during America’s prohibition era, he took up rum running off the West Indies and made enough money to marry Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. They then set off on an adventurous trip across East Africa, which soon left them short of money and in turn led to the notion of setting up their own country house hotel.

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In 1926 they pitched up in Nyeri in the forested highlands of Kenya’s Central Province, bought 70 acres from the colonial government, and set about creating the genteel Outspan Hotel. By the end of 1927 they had built ten rooms and opened for business for the New Year of 1928.  The big attraction to their settler guests, who though well-heeled usually had very primitive facilities on their African farms, were rooms that came with private bathrooms and running water. So began a successful enterprise of country inn-keeping in the English manner but with views of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range thrown in.

The 1920s was the era of the grand East African shooting safaris when the likes of Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton and John Hunter acted as Great White Hunters for extravagant entourages of European (especially British) royalty and Indian maharajas. But by the 1930s, many safari goers had begun to turn their attention from trophy hunting to big game photography – an activity greatly promoted by American adventurers and film makers, Martin and Osa Johnson.

And it was this new craze that prompted the Sherbrooke Walkers to create Treetops. Small parties of guests could spend the night in the top of the mugumo tree and watch elephants, rhino and forest hogs lit up by a spotlight, do more early morning game watching over tea and biscuits before being transported back to the Outspan for hot baths and breakfast. As a unique combination of eccentric British-gentry-rustic with elephants thrown in it could not fail. As more and more visitors wanted to stay there, so rooms were added, and more props put in to hold up the tree branches.

And then in 1954 the original Treetops was burned down. This was during the so called Mau Mau uprising when it apparently became a target for the Land and Freedom Army. Later the place was rebuilt and added to over the years. The header version dates from September 1996, the fourth iteration under the ownership of Block Hotels. When we went I had been spending previous week alone at the Outspan, which still served as ‘base camp’ for Treetops,  while Graham was at a seminar at the nearby Aberdares Country Club. He then joined me for the trip to Treetops.

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In a letter to my aunt written shortly afterwards I told her that were among a party of 99 – (Israelis, Koreans, an international museums outing, and 40 retired Americans from the Friendship Club) all of us being ferried into the Aberdare National Park in a bus, and then deposited in the bush so we could walk the last few hundred yards to Treetops – ‘a rustic fortress between two waterholes’ was how I described it back then. Before we set off Dishon, the ranger who met us pointed out the well timbered refuges along the path, to be resorted to in case of charging buffalo or elephant. He was also carrying a rifle.

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But there were no alarming encounters. In fact we saw no sign of any big game while were there, only the red billed hornbill that sat on the tree outside the dining room, baboons, buck and warthogs.

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The rooms were tiny, more like cubby holes, and the building was very noisy. Many of the elderly women guests were up all night. When I could not sleep around 2 a.m. I got up and found them, of all things, putting on their make-up in the ladies’ communal washroom. When the  actual ‘wake up’ call came at 6.30 a.m. the place was surrounded by an Aberdares fog. And so it seemed that whatever romance there might once had been was quite lost. The best bit was driving out of the park through the Kikuyu smallholdings. Out of the stands of maize came files of school children in coral coloured sweaters and jade green dresses and shorts, trotting off early to the local primary school.

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I gather from looking at the current website that Treetops is under new management and the number of rooms much reduced in order to provide en suite bathrooms. It all looks very luxurious, but somehow also misses the point, the batty English tree-house charm of the original. Though whether that was ever at all an appropriate installation in the African highlands is another question.

 

Square Tops #9

Adopting The Horizontal In The African Bush

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Ostrich and the Ngong Hills

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Over at Travel Words Jude is running a photo challenge to help us develop our compositional skills. April’s topic is ‘lines’ and each week Jude asks us to consider them in particular ways. This week it is horizontal lines. Here’s what she says:

“This week’s assignment – Look for horizontal lines. In a photograph, horizontal lines in particular need to be completely level across the frame, because your viewer’s eye will perceive even a slightly skewed horizontal line as uncomfortable to look at or just incorrect.”

For obvious reasons I haven’t been out and about finding likely vistas, but as I’ve been rummaging through my old Kenya photos, I’ve noticed that things horizontal feature quite a lot. I don’t actually recall if I was registering this at the time of taking the photos, since apart from the Elmenteita view, the others were happenstance shots.  Anyway, I thought I’d post them for interest’s sake.

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Impala and rooftops of park rangers’ quarters, Nairobi National Park

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Lake Elmenteita at dawn

Flamingos at dawn on Lake Elmenteita

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Hippos going with the flow in Lake Naivasha

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Travel Words: Photo Challenge April Lines #1  Please visit Jude to see her examples of horizontal framing. Lots of pointers and ideas.

Flat Top Thorns And A Giraffe

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The Flat Top Acacia or umbrella thorn is characteristic of Kenya’s wooded grasslands, especially in gullies. It tolerates drought and degraded landscapes and in traditional communities has long served in all manner of useful ways. It provides wood for fuel and charcoal making, and poles for house-building; the frondy branches make good goat fodder; the tiny puffball flowers feed bees; the bark produces edible gum; the roots are nitrogen-fixing; and the tree has medicinal qualities. My Kenyan tree book however tells me that, though quick growing and wonderfully shade providing, it is not a good idea to plant this acacia around your homestead since its branches tend to fall off.

This photo was taken in Nairobi National Park on the edge of the city centre.

Square Tops #7

Mara Hippos ~ Sleeping Like Tops

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It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are  2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.

We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.

These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.

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And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?

My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.

And here’s an early 17th century usage:

“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”

The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.

 

Square Tops #5