Gloomy Shropshire skies today had me rifling through the Farrells’ old Africa album, though it has to be said that Kenya, too, does a good line in gloom, cold and wetness at certain seasons. Anyway, the sun is shining in this particular shot, taken in the Maasai Mara long ago, and these ‘likely lads’ of the leonine kind (or maybe a lad and lass) are anyway sure to raise a smile.
When we lived in Nairobi the Giraffe Centre on the edge of the city’s national park was a favourite place to visit. It was set up in 1979 both as an educational resource for city school children (50,000 visits a year) and as a conservation project to protect Kenya’s endangered race of Rothschild giraffes. The centre runs a breeding programme and over the years some 40 young giraffes have been settled in safe game reserves across the country. Now in 2020 the initiative can proudly claim to have helped restore Kenya’s wild population from 130 to a little over 700, and that has to be good news.
As you can see, the centre provides for head to head contact. The resident giraffes are much addicted to the ‘giraffe nuts’ which visitors hand out to them, though I have to say, from the donor perspective, a slurp from a long giraffe tongue is not the best of experiences.
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.
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.
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.
Ostrich and the Ngong Hills
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.
Impala and rooftops of park rangers’ quarters, Nairobi National Park
Flamingos at dawn on Lake Elmenteita
Hippos going with the flow in Lake Naivasha
Travel Words: Photo Challenge April Lines #1 Please visit Jude to see her examples of horizontal framing. Lots of pointers and ideas.
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.
This is Mount Longonot, one of several old volcanoes in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The caldera was formed in a series of huge explosions around 20,000 years ago. Can you imagine it? Any humans standing on the Great Rift escarpment, where I was standing to take this photo, would have had an absolutely astonishing view. And indeed, there would have been people around then – East Africa’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, small statured, fine-boned people whose presence long preceded the 16-17th century arrival of Bantu farmers and the Nilotic cattle herders.
The volcano is officially ‘extinct’ though Maasai traditions make report of fresh lava sometime around the 1860s.There are also active steam vents which Kenya is hoping to exploit to produce clean geothermal energy. You can see more about this HERE with some excellent photos of Longonot. (The smoke on my photo is most likely from stubble burning).
As I mentioned in an recent post about the Maasai Mara, until the arrival of British colonial settlers in the early 20th century, the entire Rift Valley was Maasai grazing territory and the landmarks thus have Maasai names. Longonot derives from oloonong’ot meaning ‘steep ridges’ in Ki-Maa. A fitting description.
But to my mind (and in true Conan Doyle The Lost World style) the most magical thing about Longonot is the hidden forest on the crater floor where zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hartebeest, lion and gazelle may roam. There is a path to the top, but it is quite a hike, nearly 2 miles to reach the rim and a good 4 miles around it. Back in our day you also needed to enlist the services of a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger to go with you, which didn’t always work out. It’s a big regret that we never did do this climb.
Here’s another view of it showing the oloonong’ot .
And the highest point of the cone seen from Lake Naivasha (2,776 metres; 9,108 ft): a seine fisherman and papyrus beds (where hippos may lurk) in the foreground.
It’s back again to the old Africa album for today’s ‘square top’. This photo was taken on our August dry season trip to the Maasai Mara: one of the senior lions of the Marsh Pride (often featured in BBC wildlife films). He is busy calling to his brother, the growl-cum-rumble-cum-roar passing back and forth between them; sounds to make the neck hairs tingle. For their part they turned not a single hair nor gave any sign that they registered our presence as our Land Rover passed close by. Humans, what humans?
P.S. Anyone remember the Top Cat cartoons?
We are told so many things these days. One of them was that the snow on Kilimanjaro would soon be a thing of the past. This photo was taken in Kenya before the prophecy in the late 1990s. We were driving down the old Mombasa highway just south of Kiboko when the mountain put in one of its astonishing appearances, and on a monumental tromp l’oeil scale. It is actually miles away over the Tanzanian border yet it looks as if you could just pop across to it.
Since Al Gore’s 2006 prognostication, travellers have apparently been beating a path to the summit while the snow was still there. Anyway, people will be pleased to know that there have been recent good snowfalls on the mountain. There’s a very nice researchers’ blog Kilimanjaro Climate and Glaciers blog with posts covering the October 2019 (when snowfalls resumed) and February 2020 when there was further snow. The research indicates some shrinkage of the north and south ice fields in their thinnest portions at lower elevations, but a metre of snow was recorded on the summit on 3 February. The satellites are also keeping their eye on things up there. This next image shows the entire caldera covered in snow.
There could be an important lesson here. The absence or presence of snow on Kilimanjaro has long given rise to controversy. In the 1840s when the first missionaries, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann reported back to Europe of sightings of snow on both Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, they were ridiculed by the experts: how could there possibly be such frigid matter in the equatorial regions. But there was and there is. Which all goes to show. We must choose our ‘experts’ wisely. Only ones with direct evidence and well informed experience of REALITY need apply.
With all that is presently going on in the world, a visit to the old Africa album and the banks of the Mara River seems like a soothing thing to do – a bit of virtual safari-ing. It’s handy too because this week at Lens-Artists, Amy at has given us ‘river’ as the theme.
For six of the seven years we lived in Kenya (this was in the 1990s) we somehow managed not to go to the Maasai Mara. Then in our final year we went three times, always staying at the small Mara River Camp below the Esoit Oloololo escarpment, guests of the Koiyaki Lemek Maasai group ranch wildlife trust. It was Godfrey Mwirigi who lured us there. We came to know him at Elmenteita where he managed Lord Delamere’s Camp, but one morning in early May 1999 the phone rang in our Nairobi house. I mention this because the phone ringing was an unusual event; it was an instrument that rarely functioned.
It was Godfrey on the line. After the usual exchange of greetings I told him he sounded hazy. ‘I’m ringing from Mara River Camp,’ he says. Now I’m even more astonished – phoning all the way from the Maasai Mara when trying to ring up the next door neighbours was often impossible. He told me he had just started his new job as manager there and when I asked him how it was going he says, ‘Fine. Fine. I can see hippos from my office. It’s lovely here. We’ve had no rain yet and there’s plenty of game.’ It sounded like an invitation. It had to be an invitation. So two weeks later we set off to see him – Saturday morning flying by Fokker Dash on the regular domestic plane service out of Wilson Airport in Nairobi, whence, having negotiated the usual city traffic turmoil and checked in, the flight took only 40 minutes from city centre to touch-down on the plains’ landing strip. We were there almost before we were ready for it. Banking over the nearby marsh beside the landing strip I spotted elephants. Amazing!
A safari truck was waiting beside the landing strip to pick us up, the camp driver and assistant manager, Tito there to greet us. Tito told us the Mara River Camp would be a further 40 minute drive over rough tracks, and she apologised for the state of them. We bumped along beneath the escarpment, following the ox-bow meanders of the river, its banks wooded with acacias, wild olives, crotons, cordia, and Kenya greenheart.
The camp itself was on a river bend, twelve large tents set under the trees. The soundscape filled with bird-chatter and the grunting of hippos, the air lemon sweet from cordia blossom. As it turned out Godfrey was astonished to see us. He flew from his office with open arms. The tour company had mixed up our names and he was expecting a Mr and Mrs Graham. He then told us that he couldn’t have come to meet us from the plane as he’d had visitors. Important ones. The Maasai elders who jointly owned the 300 square miles of ranch in which the camp stood had come to check out the new manager, to see if he came up to scratch. I asked what would happen if they didn’t like him. ‘They are very powerful,’ said Godfrey, meaning a swift transfer out. This seemed unlikely, however. I had caught sight of the departing wazee, one an imposing grizzle-headed ancient wrapped in a red blanket. The members of the little delegation were all smiling as they walked away.
[From the Kenya diary]
After lunch under the trees – battered lake fish and vegetables, Godfrey comes to join us on the riverbank for a spot of hippo watching. In a few weeks he has made himself at home here though his actual homeland is on the faraway flanks of Mount Kenya. I remember that when he took over as manager at Elmenteita camp he had to take the safari guide’s exam and learn to identify some 600 species of birds. I ask if there will be more exams now he has a new habitat to get to grips with. He laughs and says mammals are his next assignment, though he has two years grace before he needs to go in for the silver medal exam. Below us the hippos snort and blow, sometimes submerging completely, then rearing up like whales, bottoms first, or doing their fearsome yawns which show the teeth that can bite a tough old crocodile in two, especially if it has designs on one of their babies.
Godfrey begins to tell us about his other recent Maasai experiences, and for a moment we see that in some ways he is as much a traveller in Kenya as we are. The Maasai, he pronounces, are very interesting people with some very unusual customs. For instance the day before a group of women had come singing and dancing into the camp, and because rural Maasai rarely speak Swahili he had to ask Tito, who is Maasai, to explain what was going on. She told him they were there to collect money, because they were all childless women who needed to go to the elder for a blessing. This man had to be paid, but after the blessing had been duly delivered, the women would be free to consort with any man they chose in the hopes of conceiving a child.
Poor Godfrey was trying to get away with donating only a hundred shillings, in harambee (Kenya fund-raising) fashion, but they invaded his office waving twigs and saying it was not enough. Five thousand bob (£50) was what they needed. And it was only after a lot of persuading that he managed to convince them that he truly didn’t have it. They told him they would go off to other camps and try there. When they had gone Godfrey told Tito that if he’d known they were coming he would have gone to his tent, but she only laughed and said they would have looked for him there too.
The view across the river: Maasai lads minding their herds below the escarpment.
Extraordinary. I’m up and dressed by 5.30 a.m. Now is the time for hippos to return the river after a night spent browsing far and wide, and it is a foolish person who finds himself standing between a hippo and the river. They are of course intent on being submerged before the sun can overheat their sensitive skins. Round the camp the hippo slipways to the water are mostly on the far bank and I watch the huge hulks pass like ghosts through the woodland, a mother nudging her baby, before they start edging slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly, down a deep gully and into the water. Thus does the long day of snorting and blowing and wallowing begin.
Up again before 6 a.m. Am aware of Graham’s astonishment even though he pretends to be asleep. I go hippo spotting until it’s time for my 7.30 wilderness walk with Daniel. The sun is just lighting up the river and steam rises off its slow–moving surface. This morning the hippos are ‘late going home’, as Godfrey puts it, with only two so far immersed and two others beached along the bank apparently dawn-bathing. I see the big shapes moving through the woodland. In front is a mother with a small round calf. It is not anxious to go down the hippo-chute. She nudges its bottom with her nose, and small as it is (though clearly sure of what it does or doesn’t want) it turns round and nudges her right back. For a long time they make no progress, and then the way is blocked by a big male who takes a good fifteen minutes to negotiate the gully. But then I suppose when you’re as big as he is, any untoward gathering of speed down the bank could end up with terminal burial in the river mud.
The walk along the riverbank with Daniel is uneventful. We look at plants, and see a little bee eater with its lime-green back, an immature augur buzzard, a yellow bishop. The sun is hot by 8.30 and I’m feeling hungry, but Daniel is determined to take the outing seriously. He’s brought some of his reference books too. ‘It’s not very often we get guests who are interested in plants,’ he says. ‘It’s easy to forget what you’ve learned without practice.’ To prove the point he picks a piece of the plant whose name I ask but he doesn’t know and slips it inside his Flowering Plants of East Africa book, for future identification. I forget about breakfast and continue to set him floral challenges.
On the way back to camp we see leopard prints on the track. ‘Oh yes,’ Daniel says. ‘They come round the camp at night.’
It’s nearly nine when we arrive back. I find Graham and Godfrey having a leisurely breakfast with the hippos, who are by now all safely ‘home’ in the river; or they are until one huge beast suddenly emerges and climbs ponderously back into the wood. This behaviour is so unusual we pick up the binoculars for a closer view and see that his hide is covered with bleeding scratches. It’s hard to imagine what might have caused them, other than a serious tangle with an acacia thicket. Godfrey says the fish are probably irritating the wounds, hence the unexpected exit.
Graham and Godfrey
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.