Delicate Distinctions In The Great Rift



I mean to say are these my memories caught in decomposing film, the photos taken long ago on the shores of Lake Elmenteita? Or are these scenes simply mirages?

There’s no way to be absolutely sure.

But then I do recall distinct sensations – eyes stinging in the corrosive cocktail of flamingo guano and volcanic soda – a circumstance that could well account for the blurriness of these vistas. The acrid deposits along the water’s edge also made my nose curl and run. And then there was the disorientating honking and grunting of lessers and greaters, so oddly amplified over the shallow lake. That pale pink mist was strange too, as if some unseen hand had released it for theatrical effect. And finally there were the chilly first-light temperatures which ever argued with a determined point of view that equatorial climes could not possibly be so frosty.

Sometimes in Africa it was hard to know which way was up.


copyright 2019 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: Delicate This week Ann-Christine shows us delicacy in many exquisite forms. Please pay her a visit and be inspired.

Far away in Africa

Where’s My Backpack: Distance

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This shot of Kilimanjaro, which is actually miles and miles away, was taken from Kenya’s Mombasa Highway near Kibwezi just after the rains. Below it are the green cones of the Chyulu Hills on the approach to Tsavo. Like Mount Kenya, this huge old volcano is very elusive. Sometimes it will fill the sky, other times it is more like a mirage. The next shot was taken in the early morning during the dry season. The mountain often appears with the sunrise, but twenty minutes later you will see nothing at all in the space that it occupied.




This dirt road is heading back towards the Mombasa Highway from Kenya Agriculture Research Institute’s Range Station at Kiboko. Buffalo lurk in the thorn scrub, and much else besides.


dawn on Tiwi with dugout

Early morning on the reef at Tiwi Beach, South Mombasa. The dug-outs belong to the local Digo fishermen, who make a living selling their catch to tourists staying that the local beach villages. (See Beaches – Mombasa)


Capricho and palms

A glimpse of Maweni Beach Cottages, built in the local style: coral rag walls and high makuti roofs thatched with coconut palm. Many of the local coconut plantations are ailing, due to too much tapping of flowering shoots to make the local brew tembo.


Mara grassland 3

Mara grasslands and, in the distance, the Ololua Escarpment.



A room with a view, the ‘penthouse suite’ of the erstwhile Island Hotel, Shela Village, Lamu. This room had three whole walls of windows – the absolutely most perfect place for Nosy Writer to survey local life.



“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

Karen Blixen Out of Africa

The view that Karen Blixen saw from the veranda of her home outside Nairobi.



The Mombasa Highway just north of Kiboko. This shot was taken as we were heading to Nairobi about sixty miles away. The arid scrubland is part of Ukambani, home of the Akamba people, but Maasai come to trade here too. It was unusual to see the road with absolutely nothing and nobody on it.

And finally back up the Rift, north of Nairobi, a view across Lake Elmenteita of Lord Delamere’s Nose. This was the name the Maasai gave to the exploded volcano on the lake shore. Lord Delamere was one of the first white settlers in what was then British East Africa. I leave it to you to imagine what his nose looked like. Before Lord Delamere arrived to occupy this part of Africa, the hill was known as the Sleeping Warrior.

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© 2013 Tish Farrell

Peaceful wildlife, unpeaceful writer

Travel theme: peaceful


Okay, I confess. I’m using Ailsa’s weekly photo challenge for a piece of shameless self-publicity. Because today I’m feeling anything but peaceful. I’ve just heard that  my short story ‘Flight’ won third place in the International Bath Short Story Award, sponsored by Writing Events Bath. Of course it’s set in Africa as most of my fiction is. To read ‘Flight’, follow this link then scroll to the foot of the page. Twelve of this year’s short- and longlisted stories are to be published by Hearst as an e-book anthology under a new imprint UkEditBooks in November. So all you fiction writers out there, seasoned or novice, submissions for the 2014 Bath Short Story Award are OPEN 1st November 2014. Go for it!

Now to calm things down I’m posting some shots of some very languor-inducing wildlife. Besides which, big cats do ‘laid back’ like no other, and quiet small elephants are a joy to behold on any occasion. And as for Grevy’s Zebras composing themselves so stripily, what else is there to say but ENJOY!



©2013 Tish Farrell

Lamu Dreaming


…to sleep, to dream…

Anyone who has seen my post on The Swahili will know that I’ve had Lamu on my mind. The island lies off Kenya’s northern coast, and its Stone Town is one of the best preserved Swahili settlements, lived in for the last 700 years.  We went there one Christmas, flying out of Nairobi in a small plane that let you watch the ground all the way there. This was comforting in some ways, but in others not: the bush country east of the capital is arid and little inhabited except by wildlife, and the coast hinterland, then as now, too often the haunt of Shifta (Somali bandits). Yet there was one especially striking moment that at once distracted me from other anxieties. It was the sight as we flew over the Tana River Delta and saw the red earth of the Kenya Highlands flowing out into the sea like blood: the country’s life force pumping away. It looked like a shark attack of epic proportions. I was glad when we touched down on Manda Island and our only concern was to catch the same ferry to Lamu as our luggage.



A storm blew up as we chugged across the strait in a Lamu fishing dhow. We tourists huddled under the awning to keep dry as the world turned steely grey. Our captain though, out in the rain, simply secured his hat and looked resolutely to shore. The rain did not last, and by the time we had put into Shela  harbour, the coral rag walls of the houses were steaming; scents of jasmine and frangipani filling the air. As we followed our guide up a sandy path from the shore, I remembered it was Christmas Eve. It seemed we had stepped into a dream.


The hotel was also a dream for someone as nosy as Nosy-Writer. It occupied an old merchant’s house in the centre of the village, and best of all our room was up in the palm thatch with the whole top floor at our disposal. Not only that, most of the walls were open to the elements and overlooked the village. Sadly it seems, the place no longer exists, so perhaps I really did dream it.


Shela village square from our room with many views. In the foreground is a  stack of the coral rag building blocks from which  most of the houses are built. The spreading thorn tree was the place where the donkeys were parked until needed for transport.


On Christmas Day we bumped into Azrael who sold us the most delicious, freshly cooked, fish samosas – a local speciality.


The only problem with our room’s open-plan arrangement was that not only could I see into people’s kitchens, gardens and bedrooms,  but we could hear everything too. It made for nights of fractured sleep – radios playing, pots clattering, cats yowling, but mostly hee-hawing donkeys, Lamu’s equivalent of night-sounding car alarms. Then just as you were drifting back to sleep, the dawn call to morning prayer would begin, the sacred strains of Allahu akbar (God is greatest) winding through my faithless semi-consciousness. It was a disorientating start to Christmas Day. Yet later on, when we set off on the two-mile beach hike between Shela and Lamu town, from every quarter the locals greeted us – Happy Christmas, Happy Christmas. There was no stinting on hospitality, and that extended to the plentiful provision of nice things to lie down on, and what with the steamy tropical heat by day, and the wakeful nights, these were more than welcome.

Lala salama, as they say in KiSwahili – sleep peacefully.



© 2013 Tish Farrell

The Swahili


Lamu  fishing dhows off the Kenya Coast


You could say that Swahili culture was born of the monsoon winds, from the human drive to trade and of prevailing weather. For two thousand years Arab merchants plied East Africa’s Indian Ocean shores, from Mogadishu (Somalia) to the mouth of the Limpopo River (Mozambique), arriving with the north easterly Kaskazi, departing on the south easterly Kusi. They came in great wooden cargo dhows, bringing dates, frankincense, wheat, dried fish, Persian chests, rugs, silks and jewels which they traded with Bantu farmers in exchange for the treasures of Africa: ivory, leopard skins, rhinoceros horn, ambergris, tortoise shell, mangrove poles and gold.

By 700 AD many Arab merchants  were beginning to settle permanently on the East African seaboard, and the earliest mosques so far discovered date from around this time. These new colonists would have married the daughters of their Bantu trading hosts and doubtless used these new local connections to expand their trading opportunities. Soon the African farming settlements were expanding into cosmopolitan port towns. Itinerant merchants and their crews would also have had plenty of chances to get to know the local girls. The weather served this purpose too. Between August and November the trade winds fail. Voyaging captains would thus put in to a known safe haven to wait for good winds. And while this was not a time to be idle, since boats had to be beached and the crew put to cleaning and sealing the underwater timbers with a paste of beef fat and lime, three months was a long time to be ashore and far from home.

And so from this trade for trade, evolved a new culture, a loose confederation of self-governing city states stretching 3,000 km along the East African coast. Islam melded with Bantu customs and beliefs, and transactions’ fusion of Arabic with Bantu vernaculars gave rise to a new language, KiSwahili, which is still the lingua franca of East Africa today. Into this mix also came settler-traders from the Indian Subcontinent, shipwrecked Chinese sailors and refugee (Shirazi) Persians. Welcome, then, to the world of Sinbad, or Sendibada as the Swahili people call him, the ancient Empire of Zanj.


Lamu Town, off the Kenya coast, is one of the best preserved Swahili towns and  has been lived in for over 700 years. It is now a World Heritage Site. The building of the Swahili stone towns was apparently underway by 700 AD, the stone in question being coral rag, quarried from uplifted reef beds. Lamu town is not one of the earliest or the finest, but it was once a city state ruled over by its own sultan. The remains of far older settlements have been discovered on the nearby islands of Manda and Pate. Today, of course, the dhow trade in East Africa has dwindled, and towns like Lamu are barely a shadow of their former selves. Its residents’ main source of income comes from tourism, fishing , boat building and farming.


Shela Village, Lamu. It seems like a scene for one of Scheherezade’s night-time tales.


The annual dhow  season used to start from home Arabian ports in August with ripening of the date harvest in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys.* Merchants from the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman would set sail for Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf where the dates were crated and taken on board. The size of a dhow was gauged not in tonnage but by the number of Basra date boxes it could take. Thereafter, the dhow  captains (nakhodas)  might make for Aden to pick up salt or ply the Red Sea before heading south for Africa, trading as they went. Alternatively they might set off from the Gulf of Oman for Bombay, keeping the shore always in sight as they sailed east. Then, after trading down the Indian coast to Cochin, the winds would take them back across the Indian Ocean to the Comoros Islands where they would wait for the Kusi to take them homeward up the African coast.


The trade routes, of course, stretched far beyond the Indian Ocean and, during the 11th to 16th centuries when many of the Swahili city states were having their golden age, dhow merchants found ready buyers for exotic goods from China, Cambodia, Thailand and India. Today if you walk along the beach at Lamu you can pick up pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain. These wares were very popular from the 14th century, and Swahili town houses were fitted out with ornately plastered display niches (zidaka) to display their prized possessions.

It is also true that exotic goods went out from Africa. In the early 1400s, the Swahili Sultan of Malindi (north of Mombasa) despatched to the Chinese Emperor via the King of Bengal, a live giraffe along with a ‘celestial stag’ or oryx. This was taken as an ‘open for business’ calling card and thereafter the Chinese merchant ships sailed directly into East African ports.


A Lamu ‘china cabinet’ (zidaka)


Although the days of the big dhows are over on the Kenyan coast, we saw this one being newly built on Maruhubi Beach near Zanzibar’s Stone Town in 1999. It had been commissioned by a Somali merchant.

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Lamu’s main  street in recent times; only donkey transport will do for deliveries.


Much of the wealth of the Swahili states came from African gold. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Shona rulers of Great Zimbabwe, far inland, were trading with the coastal Swahili city of Sofala (Mozambique). The Shona traders exchanged massive supplies of gold and ivory for Arab cloth. This gold drove the East African trade and it was not long before it was attracting European traders.

And so into the midst of this prosperity sailed Vasco da Gama (1498). He was pioneering a maritime route to India, but after his glowing accounts of the wealth he had observed while putting in at Mombasa and Malindi, (the sultan robed in damask trimmed with green satin and sitting beneath a crimson satin sunshade) Portuguese eyes turned to the East African coast. They built a number of forts there, including ones at Sofala and Mombasa, using them as strongholds in their bid to seize the Indian Ocean trade from Arab merchants.


The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in Mombasa in 1591. The building of such forts along the Swahili coast was part of their strategy to seize control of the Indian Ocean trade from the Arabs. A century later they were driven back to their Mozambique strongholds by Omani forces.


There followed many bloody battles over the next two hundred years, and it was during this time that most of the Swahili city states fell into decline. Their only hope was to call for outside help, and it came in the shape of the Omani of Muscat who made numerous attempts to oust the Portuguese, finally pushing them back to Mozambique in the 18th century. By the 19th century much of Swahili coast was ruled by the Sultans of Oman, and in 1832 they moved their capital to Zanzibar.


The Sultan’s Palace ‘The House of Wonders’, Zanzibar. The British navy bombarded it in 1896 in the 45-minute war.


So now comes the real sting in this Arabian Nights’ tale. I have not mentioned the ‘S’ word. And for hundreds of years SLAVES were indeed a major ‘commodity’ shipping out from Swahili ports for destinations in Arabia and Persia. But it was not until the 19th century that the worst excesses of this terrible trade were widely documented. Under Omani rule slaving expanded. The Sultans had clove plantations to be worked. So, instead of relying on supplies of human cargo delivered by African traders from the African hinterland, Swahili slavers began to lead their own expeditions into the interior. Here they rounded up both slaves and ivory, forcing their hapless captives to carry the tusks hundreds of miles to ports like Mombasa. 

One of the most notorious slavers was Tippu Tib. His mother was a Muscat Arab aristocrat, but his father was a Swahili trader. His reign of terror extended across East Africa into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. By 1895 he had seven plantations and 10,000 slaves. It was only in 1873 that the Zanzibar slave market was shut down.


Tippu Tip the Zanzibari slaver (1837-1905), and the memorial to his human cargo on the site of Zanzibar’s slave market. At its height, some 50,000 souls were trafficked through this market each year, and this was only ONE market on the Swahili coast. The Sultans further exploited the slave  market by playing the Portuguese off against the French. Although the Atlantic slave trade had ceased by 1834, the buying of slaves by European and Arab merchants continued into the twentieth century. The Zanzibar slave market closed only in 1873.


The subject of slavery now brings me back to Lamu where I started this tale. By 1652 the Lamu had had more than enough of the Portguese and called on Oman to help see them off. Thereafter Lamu became an Omani protectorate which led to a revival of the town’s fortunes. Slaves were also the chief export, and in fact the trade was not outlawed here until 1907, by which time Kenya (British East Africa) had been a British Protectorate for twelve years.


The Swahili House Museum, Lamu, shows what life was like in an 18th-19th century merchant’s home.


So what of the future? Will places like Lamu slumber away, selling themselves as romantic retreats for lotus-eating tourists. What kind of lives will their young people have ? Will they not simply have to leave? Or are there new ventures afoot in this Land of Zanj? Word has it that the Chinese have come calling once more, and not in response to gifts of giraffes, or to deliver more crates of blue and white porcelain. Now they have plans to turn Lamu into the biggest port in East Africa, opening up trading access for land-locked South Sudan and Ethiopia. So begins a new chapter in gyre of Indian Ocean trade. Today, it is not the Kaskazi or the Kusi that will dictate its destination and progress of this multi-ethnic enterprise, but diesel and commercial imperative. In some ways, then, not much has changed. 

Ref: John H A Jewell 1976 Dhows at Mombasa East African Publishing House

© 2013 Tish Farrell

Weekly Photo Challenge: Change

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Change, what change? All seems so still in this shot of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The day is fine. The short rains have brought on the maize and pyrethrum crops on the small escarpment farms. The distant volcano, Longonot, appears dormant and suggests no kind of threat. It is hard to imagine, then, that this peaceful scene is a site of great seismic upheaval, and has been for the last 30 million years. Likewise it is hard to accept that even as I took the photo, the tectonic plates beneath the Rift floor were v-e-r-y slowly pulling apart. In another million or so years you might stand in the spot where I stood and look out on the Indian Ocean; the ground beneath your feet will be a brand new island, and the low Rift terrace where Kikuyu farm wives presently toil, lost under the sea.

The thought is unnerving. For it’s an interesting paradox: while we accept and embrace increasingly rapid changes in the man-made environment, we’re not too keen to confront the reality of a planet that transforms itself beneath our feet and in ways we cannot control. It is interesting then to think, as scientists have been doing, that our very origins as humankind, could well derive from the creation of the Rift Valley.

The argument runs like this. The Rift has long been referred to as “The Cradle of Mankind”. The earliest remains of human ancestors have so far been found along its length (in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania), but the time when we see the big leap in hominid development coincides with the time of maximum uplift in the Rift. This happened around 7 million years ago when the so-called Wall of Africa was created and Africa’s climate thereafter began to change. The rain shadow created by the upthrust highlands caused the forests, the preferred habitat of our primate predecessors, to give way to the more arid savannah we see today.

Without trees for cover and look-out posts our ancestors became vulnerable; food would have become less easy to find, and so in order to hunt and not to be hunted they had to stand up on two feet in order to see over the tall plains grasses. Thus began the long march to cell phone, app and PC that much of humanity apparently cannot now live without. It’s interesting to think how things end up.

As to what created the 3,700 mile-long Rift, then that comes down to plumes of hot semi-molten rock surging up beneath the earth’s crust. In Kenya this surging has also left behind chains of dead and dormant volcanos, including Mount Kenya which, at 17,000 snow-capped feet, is only a vestige of its former unexploded vastness. The pulling apart of the Rift plates has also created the famous soda lakes of Magadi, Nakuru and Baringo, and the deep freshwater Lake Victoria.

Personally, though, I prefer the old Kenyan story that says the Rift was created by termites. It goes like this. Once there was a marauding giant abroad. He preyed on all the animals and none of them was strong enough to finish him off. In the end it took the cunning of many tiny insects to burrow away under the ground and create a well hidden ambush. The next time the giant came rampaging by, the ground gave way beneath his feet and he plummeted into the great trench that the termites had created and so was killed. It was doubtless a fitting end for a troublesome giant, while the hitherto disregarded insects could look forward to greater respect from their fellow creatures.

©2013 Tish Farrell

…of womanplace

photo: Oxfam International, Eddy Mbuyi 2013

photo: Oxfam International, Eddy Mbuyi 2013

Still mindful of last week’s International Women’s Day and the fact that many rural women all over the world spend much of the day hauling firewood to cook by, here’s a poem about it. I wrote it after visiting farms in Kenya’s Central Province in 1997. There had been elections at the start of that year and the farming community concerned had given financial support to a local politician on the understanding that he would bring electricity to their farms. He didn’t. So here’s what happened: it’s a case of woman living creatively or the triumph of art over adversity.


 Joe Maina, small-time farmer

says before the polls he paid

some local boss three thousand bob

to bring the power lines down the Rift.

Their broker won, but now as ever

Faith Waithera Maina cooks githeri,

bending at her hearth,

three rocks to hold the pot,

sleek skin cured  hide in smoke-house fug.

Next, slogs like an ox to fetch more wood.

Our days’ career – she shrugs.

Till dusk she lights her sofa room with fumy lamps,

where hanging on the wall,

with keep-safe snaps and family memorabilia,

a cast-off city sixty-watt

has second lease –

recharged, of course,

to make a perfect vase

for trailing sprays

of purple


On the farm in Kenya's Central Province

On the farm in Kenya’s Central Province

Text and photo collage: copyright Tish Farrell