No apologies for showing this yet again. But the biting April wind here in Shropshire has driven back to the ‘old Africa album’ for a bit of warmth. And anyway, what can be more brightening than the sight of elephant babes. This photo was taken early one morning, on our last trip to the Maasai Mara. Happy times. Eight years in Africa gone in a flash.
The agricultural show can most probably be counted as one of the more useful left-overs from the colonial occupation of African nations. Back in 1995 when these photos were taken I remember being struck by a rural farmer’s glowing comment in a newspaper interview. He said he had to travel a great distance to attend the Nairobi show every year, but it was worth it. The exhibition stands were his university, he said.
I could believe it. The amount of expert advice available at every turn was indeed impressive, and I speak as someone brought up on agricultural shows: my father was a grain merchant for a farmers’ cooperative and my memories of the various company stands were weighted rather more towards alcohol delivery than education.
Of course the Nairobi show is also about selling and public relations, but I remember being particularly diverted by the National Archives stand which was showing 1950s newsreel footage of Land and Army so-called Mau Mau uprising; also by the Kenya Automobile Association’s novel pitch to drum up membership; and by the glorious conformity of the cabbage display put on by a seed company. And of course there was all manner of entertainment to be had: shopping, snacks, a helter skelter, close encounters with camels, ripping performance from the military band: all the fun of the fair in fact. And you could get your shoes cleaned with the ‘world’s no.1 shoe polish’, then have a swish new hair do in the next-door salon.
Life in Colour: Yellow This month Jude at Travel Words is asking us to think about yellow. Please pay her a visit.
It was meant to be a diverting event between the horse racing at Nairobi’s Ngong Racecourse. Officers from Kenya’s Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit were demonstrating their mounted expertise by racing their camels. The camel units usually operate far away in the arid zones of the Northern District, patrolling the border with Somalia, so perhaps the genteel and leafy ambiance of the Jockey Club enclave did not enthuse the camels.They certainly took much urging to leave the starting line and then, having started, there was little inclination to finish. An underwhelming contest then, though it added to the many and varied goings on of a Nairobi racing weekend.
The Ngong races are a hangover (pun retrospectively intended) from British colonial settler days when, for a week around Christmas, farmers left their lonely farms and ranches and gathered in town to let their hair down. For many it was a drunken spree, at least if you are to believe Evelyn Waugh’s 1931 account in Remote People. I’ve quoted from it before but it’s worth a second go:
I found myself involved in a luncheon party. We went on together to the Races. Someone gave me a cardboard disc to wear in my button-hole; someone else, called Raymond, introduced me to a bookie and told me which horses to back. None of them won…
Someone took me to a marquee where we drank champagne. When I wanted to pay for a round the barman gave me a little piece of paper to sign and a cigar.
We went back to Muthaiga and drank champagne out of a silver cup which someone had won.
Someone said, ‘You mustn’t think Kenya is always like this.
I see from the internet there has been plenty of racing at the Ngong Racecourse during January. These days it is a well ordered multi-cultural affair. I’ve also just had a quick trawl through the Kenya Jockey Club’s Facebook photos but found no sign of camels. Obviously lacking in appropriate competitive attitude.
It is distinctly shivery in Shropshire just now, the wintery weather set to stay for a couple of weeks at least. And so as ever when the parts are chillier than is altogether comfortable, thoughts turn to the old Africa album and days when we lived in warmer climes. Christmas and New Year are the hot season in Kenya, following on the short rains (a term that these days belies their frequent flooding capacities).
Lake Elmenteita in the Great Rift Valley was one of our favourite getaway spots, only an hour or so’s drive north of Nairobi. The shallow soda lake is the breeding and feeding ground for both greater and lesser flamingos (it’s mostly the former you see in this shot).
The small tented camp where we stayed nestled among fever trees at the foot of the East Rift escarpment, below the Aberdares range. I took the photo just as the early morning sun rose above the heights and lit up the flamingos. Of course this scan from an original photo doesn’t quite do the scene justice, the crispness lost in translation. But you get the gist. It’s still very lovely. Though come to think of it, this part of the Rift was very chilly at dawn: jumper and jacket and wellies required, so not so different from my usual Shropshire outdoor garb.
For those who want to know more about this extraordinary place plus a spot of Kenya’s colonial history see my earlier post:
Today I’m doing a two-in-one post for Becky’s January Square Ups, and Lisa’s Bird Weekly. Please pay them a visit.
Bird Weekly This week Lisa at Our Eyes Open wants to see birds with long wing spans.
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.