My Big Basket Of Beautiful Borlotti And A Few Shades Of Africa

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I cannot tell you how excited I get about the prospect of the late summer borlotti harvest. I grow the climbing version, also called Firetongue or Lingua di Fuoco – you can see why – and just now the leaves are falling from the stems and leaving clusters of hot pink pods to light up my allotment plot.

I harvested the first row last week, prompted by the sudden appearance of a fungal looking disorder on some of the pods. Usually I let them dry on the sticks, but the ones in the header were quickly blanched and put in the freezer. This anyway means they are much quicker to cook – favourites in chilli, re-fried beans and bean soup.

I’ve been keeping my eye on the second row. They are at the other end of the plot, and seem to be drying nicely with no signs of infection. I showed the diseased pods to the Resident Plant Pathologist chez Farrell i.e. Dr. Graham, but all he said was, ‘It’s probably due to the funny weather.’ Which is a bit like going to the G.P.’s surgery with an ailment and being told: ‘there’s a lot of it about.’ Ah well. As long as I have lots of pods to shell I’m happy. Until you open them you never know quite what colour the beans will be. I’m easily pleased. When all is said and done, they are SO very beautiful.

The basket is a favourite too – made by the Tongabezi people of southern Zambia (they who were forcibly displaced from their ancestral Zambezi Valley lands by the British in the 1950s so Lake Kariba and the hydro-electricity dam – between what was then Northern and Southern Rhodesia – could be constructed.) I bought it long ago in the museum shop in Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. The beans are also grown in Africa where they are called Rose Coco, and sold by farm mamas who measure out the quantities in old (scrubbed) jam tins at their roadside market stalls.

It’s interesting the apparently unrelated resonances that, well, resonate down one’s personal time-line on a Monday morning here on Wenlock Edge.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

In the Pink #17

Tales From Hunter’s Lodge ~ Further News Of The Crocodile

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23 February 1994

This morning when I peered over our balcony rail I could see a pair of well-polished black boots and the shiny black barrel of a rifle propped against the veranda wall of the room below us. A wildlife ranger come to hunt the reptile. I wandered down for a word and found not one, but two young men, both smartly kitted out in Kenya Wildlife Service uniforms. I asked them if they had come for the crocodile.

Probably because I was a mzungu and therefore presumed fervent in my desire to protect absolutely all wild creatures no matter how inconvenient or deadly their presence may be to the locals, their response was defensive. They were clearly expecting an argument: “Crocodiles are very dangerous,” said one. “The manager is very worried about his staff and their children. It will have to be killed.”

I did not disagree, but told them I had seen it a number of times. “And weren’t you frightened?” I said I wasn’t. They seemed so surprised I did not like to tell them I had also been running around after it trying to take a photograph. It would have sounded most foolhardy and eccentric after what they had said. I left them to their watch, wondering who would get a shot first, me or the rangers. I hoped it would be me.

As I sat up on my balcony I was convinced that they would have no luck that morning. I had only seen the crocodile after lunch. Anyway, it did not matter. Soon there was much chattering down below. Rose the chambermaid had arrived and was doing her level best to distract the rangers from their quest. She did so for a good hour or more. Nor was it idle chitchat, although there was much laughter. From the snatches of conversation that were in English. I gathered that she was conducting an evangelical crusade; she had a captive audience and, as a born again Christian, more than enough zeal to win a hearing from even the most obdurate of unbelievers. And not only was she extremely eloquent, but she was also very handsome. Already she was broaching the subject of the sort of man she would marry. A smart young woman.

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16 March 1994

As has become the habit, we collected Dorothy from Pangani en route for Kiboko. There had been rain in the night and the gaping potholes in the roads of the estate’s shopping centre were now red-mud lakes. The women vegetable sellers sat along the broken pavements, in front of them their produce – neat pyramids of tomatoes, red-skinned onions, mangoes, small pink potatoes. A girl stared at us from the clinic doorway; the pile of refuse on the corner of Dorothy’s road sweltered in the humid atmosphere.

The drive from Pangani followed the network of ring roads that take you to the south side of the city without hitting the centre. It was hair-raising. We dodged matatus that either pulled up or pulled out in front of us without warning, sometimes barely a hair’s breadth of leeway, all over-laden with passengers and luggage. Then we nearly collided with a man pushing a wide handcart that lurched along the broken tarmac on wobbling wheels. The sea of traffic swept round the large walled island that serves Kariokor Market (the place for kiondos, the local sisal shoulder bags, and used truck tyres), and on into Haile Selassie, the heartland of the tea and coffee trade. Here humanity and motor vehicles jostle for space and it is all push and shove beneath the looming post-war warehouses of ‘the cup that cheers’.

As we headed out of town on the Mombasa highway we were soon aware of a strong police presence, an armed officer stationed  under every roadside thorn tree; near the airport approach road the flags were flying. Later, we discovered that President Moi was expected to pass that way. He was scheduled to meet the arriving Sudanese President, General Omar Hussan Al-Bashir. Out along a ridgeway, and leaving Nairobi’s industrial concrete wasteland behind, strode a young Maasai herdsman, red shuka shawl draped over his shoulder. Ahead of him trailed a file of motley coloured cattle, their pied shades a smaller variation of the white and grey and black clouds that swelled on the skyline behind them. Africa’s two worlds.

There was much game to be spotted on the Kapiti Plains. Thompson’s gazelle were grazing so closely to the road that at first I thought they were goats. Then, beyond a stretch of whistling thorns I spotted the head and neck of a giraffe. The rest of it was lost from view. It was striding out along a gully that ran parallel to the highway. Soon we were passing several more elegant necks and heads, all south-bound. And then at last, a hundred yards from the road, a gathering of eighteen fully emerged giraffes; as many as we had ever seen at one time and with the russet hides of the reticulated variety that we had not seen before. When giraffes move with intent like this – the loping gait – they seem to dance to rhythms that only they can sense, but you long to join in with. Alongside were kongoni and ostrich too, and we were not even in the park.

Down on the lowland plains the skies were grey. The wasted maize crop from the December planting still clung to the crusty soil, rows of skeleton stems. On some of the plots men were out with ox teams ploughing in the aborted effort. The long rains were expected, and soon it would be time to take another turn of the roulette wheel and sow the seed for the next maize crop.

At lunchtime Hunter’s Lodge simmered gently in the heat. Even the weavers were subdued. As we drew up in the car park we noticed a small overland truck parked right down at the pool edge, the travellers’ washing lines strung out between two acacias and bowed down with wet T-shirts. Out in the water, wading thigh deep were two young Akamba boys, wielding their fishing rods and casting their lines as they went. We had never seen anyone in the water before and we knew then the wildlife rangers had been successful and the crocodile killed.

The afternoon was sultry and I sprawled on the bed and slept. Later Joyce called in with some fresh towels. She told me she had just come back after two months leave at her home in Kibwezi. This small township is about half an hour’s drive south from Kiboko, but if you have to depend on a matatu for a lift, then it is too far and too expensive for her to travel to work each day. And so her husband, who works for the forestry department, lives at Kibwezi with their oldest boy who has just started school there, and Joyce lives with her three year old son in a single room of the staff quarters at Hunter’s Lodge. Sometimes her husband comes to visit at weekends. When I said that it must be hard to live separately like this, she laughed and did not seem to think so.

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Before bed that night we went down to the terrace bar for a soda. Only the manager and the barman were there. It was  as if we were stepping onto an empty stage after the play was done. Yet there was still a sense of drama. The empty white bentwood chairs on the empty lawn glowed faintly at the  edges of the light cast by two lamps hitched up in the acacias. Across the pool, fever tree branches reached out from the darkness. A lone firefly winked on its steady course over black waters. A bush baby cackled, piercing the soundscape of cricket and frog call. Up above, the sky seemed to be bursting with every star in the universe. On the northern horizon the sheet lightning flickered, fitful bursts of a failing element. Against the stars we could just make out the ghosts of bats’ wings as they wafted silently. It was the sort of night you swear you will never forget, but always do.

17 March

The fundi is still at work across the pool, carefully placing the grey fluted tiles on the summerhouse roof. He has a radio on – Congolese rumba rhythms issue faintly. Today there are two young women at work in the garden. One is raking up the dead grass. She wears a turquoise blouse over her kanga wrap and her hair is braided into corded rows from forehead to nape. The other girl barrows the debris away to a far corner of the property. Her hair is close cropped and she has on a brown and orange kanga. Flashes of vivid colour on a parchment-pale landscape; cobalt blue darts of the greyhooded kingfisher as it sweeps the lodge lawn for insects.

It is only 10 a. m. and already it is hot. The girls work slowly, pausing often to exchange a few words. The air is spiced with the scent of the tiny sun-baked acacia leaves that fall in drifts; the chatter of weavers is overlain by the more intense whine of insects. This is how I remembered Hunter’s Lodge all the time I was in Zambia; this was how it was on the day I first came here, two years ago.

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copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

 

Once In Africa ~ Everyday Moments At Hunter’s Lodge…Until The Crocodile

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When I ran away to Africa in February 1992, Hunter’s Lodge at Kiboko was the first place Graham took me to. Then it was a run-down safari lodge, developed in the 1960s-70s from the erstwhile home of great white hunter, John Hunter. We were told the place had had its heyday back then. Asian and expatriate European families would drive out from Nairobi to spend the weekend there and also, before the nearby highway was paved, it was a very welcome place to break the red-dusty, hour-on-hour, gut-wrenching drive from Nairobi to the Mombasa coast.

In the time we spent there – and it was pretty much our second home during that year, and again at the end of 1993 (the Kiboko field station where Graham’s team of Kenyan researchers were monitoring methods of Larger Grain Borer control was just  next door) – we were always surprised if we arrived at the Lodge to find someone else staying there.

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To me it seemed like an oasis, and indeed John Hunter had meant to be one. He had once known the spot as a popular elephants’ watering hole on the Kiboko River, and so had decided to dam the watercourse to create a small lake to attract bird life. This was the place he had chosen to end his days after a life’s-work of ivory hunting, celebrity safari running, and game control work for the colonial game department.

He was a speak-his-mind Scotsman who had been among the earliest arrivals of white settlers in what was then the British East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya Colony). In the 1920s and ‘30s he hunted with the likes of Denys Finch Hatton and Bror Blixen who considered him an elder statesman in all matters of stalking and bush-craft. On his own admission, he had cleared the Kiboko-Makindu location of over 1,000 rhino. He had also helped rid the area of its elephant population – this to protect colonial sisal and orange plantations and the farm plots of the local Akamba people in the native reserve further north. In his day, the colonial ambition was to develop the agricultural potential of East Africa to help pay for the very expensive railway the British government had built from Mombasa to Lake Victoria (built 1895-1901). Ideas about game conservation did not begin to take hold until 1948, and even then some colonial administrators were still likely to see Kenya as their personal hunting ground.

Hunter’s Lodge, then,  was a place of many resonances, currents and undercurrents, many I only unravelled later; am still unravelling.

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Our day there began with breakfast at 7 am in the dining room with the surprising ‘ogival’? doors front and back, presumably part of the original Hunter home. By that time the weaver birds in their papyrus clumps were at full chirp, the storks in their fever tree roosts honking and bill clattering, the pied kingfishers taking up diving positions. By then, too, the vervet monkeys would be eyeing up their options: our veranda door carelessly left ajar, the possibility of later pickings in our room should access prove feasible?

In the dining room where we rarely saw anyone but Reuben, the old Akamba waiter, who unfailingly asked us if we would have eggs with our breakfast. We never did, and only realised very much later that every day we had stayed there, we had been charged for a full three course English breakfast. Usually we had wheat flakes with milk that had been boiled. We learned to take a plastic tea strainer with us to sieve out the skin. The milk was delivered by local Maasai women, who would arrive at the kitchen door in all their red and beaded regalia. The tea always had a sulphurous taste from the local spring water. The boiled milk didn’t help much.

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Graham left for work at 7.30 and for the next five hours till he returned for lunch (chips or cheese sandwiches) I wrote, read, wandered the garden, and watched. Time there was like a waking reverie, a guided meditation, never being anywhere but ‘in the moment’. Since few guests came, the hotel staff had a routine that did not involve providing hospitality. I watched the daily comings and goings of the garden workers – the sweeping, mowing, the tending of the vegetable shamba. I’d hear the bell that summoned all the staff to their tea-break, leaving no one at all around.

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Sometimes I chatted with Joyce the chambermaid. I also watched the goings-on at the bungalow across the pool, said to be the home of a local politician. And I learned to identify many local birds. There were said to be over 200 species in the vicinity. One day a lone pelican dropped in. That was a surprise. Sometimes the giant kingfisher would perch on the thorn tree by our room. Then there were the tiny malachite kingfishers – brilliant little jewels of birds. The greyhooded kingfisher was the one I saw most often.

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Around 5.30 Graham would return from work, and we’d go to the pool terrace for tea. At some stage we were usually joined by the Lodge’s disconsolate peacock (its mate had been eaten by a python). The bird invariably tried to eat the sugar. Later we would return to the terrace for supper – Tusker beer, steak and chips. There was never much choice. If we were lucky, John the Maasai barman would be on duty. He was always very charming, and always had an awful lot to say on pretty much any topic.

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And now here’s an excerpt from the Kenya Diary, written on our return to Kenya after 9 months in Zambia. It includes a far from usual occurrence at Hunter’s Lodge:

20 December 1993

Monday morning and we are off to Kiboko again, out on the dusty Mombasa highway, dodging lorries and potholes, heading for the southern plains. We remark upon the vistas of unaccustomed lushness as we leave Nairobi behind. There have been good rains, and the wooded slopes of upland Ukambani beyond the Machakos turn, are as green as we have ever seen them. And even down on the semi-arid flatlands of low-lying Sultan Hamud and Emali the dark ochre soils seem bloated with wholesome moisture and the promise of a good maize crop.

The locals clearly think so too, for they are out in the fields in force, husbands, wives, grandmothers, children all busy weeding the leafy, foot high seedlings; some guiding a pair of yoked oxen and earthing up the new crop so as to husband every drop of rain, a rich man with a tractor preparing his acres. It is a hive of industry, the bright primary coloured cottons of the women’s kangas and headscarves against the brown and green striking up impressions of carnival optimism.

And for my part I long to thrust my hands into that warm humus-smelling soil and plant out lusty seedlings of courgettes and broad beans, crisp lettuce and cherry tomatoes. I picture a healthy crop of vegetables lying newly plucked in my basket; savour their freshness. But it is only a pipe dream. For it is scarcely so easy, especially here where expected rains may fail and in a few days the hard-nurtured crop be burned to a crisp and blown away with the parched soil. And so as we pass by, we wish them good fortune and good rains, these hard-working hopeful smallholder farmers.

South of Emali the farm fields give way to low thorn scrub. In our previous 1992 trips we had only ever seen it as thickets of thorny shafts and barbs. But now the spikes and spines have burst into luscious greenery, a wrap of verdant baize on every scaly twig, and a delicate flowering of ivory catkins, of golden mimosa pompoms and pink and yellow lanterns that yield a heady scent of orange blossom. From time to time their perfume is drawn in through our open windows and makes a change from the more usual blasts of truck fumes. And amongst all the fresh new greenery, forging its way up through the low trees and shrubs are spires of purple wild flowers and on the open grassland carpets of Parma-violet mauve and forget-me-not blue.

It is just past midday and overhead the sky is as perfect as the glaze on eggshell china. The sun burns. Our journey takes less than two hours, even with all the trucks, but when we turn off the highway at the Akamba woodcarvers stalls at Kiboko and negotiate the roughly made up drive to Hunter’s Lodge, see the low white building with its red pantiled roof and flagstaff standing in the shady garden, there is always a sense of relief, a release of barely held breath. It always seems too like a home-coming, though goodness knows why for there is rarely anyone there to greet us unless Joyce is on duty or John the Maasai is about. Usually we just get the key and tumble into our room with all our belongings and collapse on the brown candlewick-covered bed. Listen to the seamless twittering of golden weavers, the raucous calls of marabou storks and herons way up in the rafters of the fever trees.

We picnic on the veranda. There is so much to watch, the endless high-tension cycle of hunting, prowling, stalking, making a kill, keeping alive, courting, mating, rearing, being hunted – ripples across the pool. After lunch Graham goes off to the field station. I doze within the green cocoon, mesmerised by strands of reflected light until the sun begins to slip through the trees. And suddenly, at the day’s end there is a flurry of heightened purpose amongst the bird-life: swifts, swallows and martins duck and dive over the water in a frenzied pursuit of insects; three bright white and black pied kingfishers fly fast and low over the green surface; the russet speckled giant kingfisher, the size of a young rook and with a beak like a pile driver, plummets from a nearby acacia into the pool, exploding the glare with a mighty crash; there is a flight past of sacred ibis; the eerie hkaa, hkaa hkaa-ing of their cousins the hadadas; and in the fading light a tiny crimson-bibbed and azure helmeted sunbird pierces the trumpet flowers of the thevetia and sips up the nectar concealed within.

All afternoon, across the pool, the local fundi has been working on the new summerhouse in the garden of the Akamba politician’s bungalow. It is octagonal, open-sided with a low wall and a conical tiled roof supported on slender round columns. It will be lovely when it is done. Other men have been cutting the grass with pangas; their hearts were not in it though and they made small progress, but than what is the hurry? The sun is hot, there is always tomorrow and anyway the owner of the house rarely comes. There is a diversion too. Five Maasai women call round to speak with one of the men; all with shaved heads, all shoulders draped in red cotton shawls of identical shade. They lay down their heavy loads at the garden gate, plastic bottles of water, which they have been carrying on slender backs supported by a leather head-strap. They stop for a while chatting, a cluster of exotic birds, then take up their burdens once more and set off in single file along the track that skirts the garden and strikes out into the bush.

Meanwhile I sit in my own private box, watching the pageant unfold, watching as the setting sun casts a low glow through the (earlier) shadowy recesses of the acacia wood so that it takes on all the seeming insubstantial qualities of a back-lit drop from the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But instead of Cobweb and Mustard Seed, a small troop of baboons takes the stage, swings up through the branches, the low light dancing off the coarse hairs of tawny coats. I watch them for a few minutes, while they try to make up their minds whether a raid on the politician’s garden is a viable proposition. Then there is the low rumble of a Land Rover as it comes to rest in the gravel car park below our room. Graham is back. It is time for the interval and a pot of strong Hunter’s Lodge tea out on the terrace by the crook-backed bridge.

21 December

It’s true. I’ve seen it. There really is a crocodile in the Hunter’s Lodge pool; a touch of melodrama and a real-life villain for the piece. Peter Giles (Graham’s former boss) thought he had spotted one, but no one really believed him.

I was busy writing a letter, out on the veranda. Beyond its shade the lawn and pool were full-lit by afternoon sun. It was hot and sultry out there and I was glad of the breeze that funnelled through the open stable doors of our room and out to where I was sitting.

Suddenly there was a commotion of weaver chatter on the branches of the young thorn tree where they were busy building nests. The little tree was right at the water’s edge. I scanned it for incident. Nothing unusual there, but there was in the pool below it. Just off the clipped lawn and heading in an easterly direction cruised the snout, head and shoulders of a partially submerged crocodile. Not massive by any means but perhaps a good four feet long. My heart pounded with thrill of it as I rushed and fumbled for the camera. It had taken me eighteen months to finally convince Graham of the existence of the giant kingfisher, and only then by showing him the beast in action; he was hardly going to believe in the reptile sighting without some sort of proof. I hurried out of our room, down the open staircase, past a chambermaid occupied with the task of sweeping up the unremitting cascade of leaf and twig from the acacias. Round the end of the building where the remnant fairway sign announces ‘hole number 3, 43 yards’, across the sloping turfy lawn (more cautiously now) and down to the water’s edge, camera at the ready.

But there was not a sign of him. Completely disappeared. I patrolled the lawn edge, walked round to the terrace and stood out on the crooked bridge for several minutes and scanned the waters with binoculars. He had gone, submerged, made wary perhaps by the sudden rash of visitors who were now laughing and shouting out in the gardens. I returned to my veranda and was so engrossed in seeking out the disappearing crocodile that I did not at first notice the vervet monkey who had crept into the bedroom over the stable door. But I caught sight of him on his way out. He was making off with half a loaf (tomorrow’s lunch) tucked under his arm. And just to add insult to injury, it turned out that the wretched little creature did not even really like bread. A few minutes later I saw it abandoned, impaled on a branch of the acacia tree outside the veranda.

But more surprising than any of this, when Graham arrived back and I told of the crocodile, he was almost as excited as I was; took no convincing at all. When I tackled him over the gross inconsistency of his confidences in my wildlife sightings he told me that of course he believed in the existence of the crocodile; after all it was a corroborative second sighting, wasn’t it? But what about the giant kingfisher, I asked, ruffled. Oh that’s quite different, says he; only you had seen it! I refrain from biting his ankles and we repair to the terrace for afternoon tea.

Later, after dark we return there for a glass of Kenyan beer. We sit in the dim spotlight of a single lamp strung up in the thorn tree. We hear the cackle of bush babies away in the gloom. The fireflies wink on their course across the pool. A rangy cat trots nervously through a pool of light and disappears across the lawn. The young bow-tied barman sorts through his receipts. A waiter sprawls in a garden chair away in the shadows. There are no other customers. We are happy to be here.

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Related: The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Amy at The World Is A Book sets Lens-Artists’ challenge #7: Everyday moments

Life After Death But Perhaps Not In The Way We Usually Consider It?

I know many people do not care for them, but I like graveyards. In my teenage years many moons ago we lived next to one – an unassuming village sort with a few brooding yews and a small plain church presiding. It had one tunelessly doleful bell which was very trying to the nerves of us Ashfords come Sunday morning. My father, who was a godless soul as far as I know, took to mowing the grass around the nextdoor graves. This was after he had deeply offended the vicar by mowing our own lawn during evensong.

Pa was deaf and had switched off his hearing aid and so presumably had missed the Sunday evening bell tolling, although this is hard to believe. Anyway, around seven on a summer’s evening he was happily whizzing over the grass with a very noisy flymo only to be fruitlessly hallooed over the church wall by the vicar who had worked himself up into a whirlwind of white cassock.

I think it was me who spotted the poor man waving his arms, trying to catch Pa’s attention. It was a bit embarrassing. Ma tut-tutted. We all knew that Pa was a bit obsessive-compulsive when it came to grass-mowing. But all was smoothed over in the end.

Anyway, to get back to graveyards. Here I am posting some photo details of St. Bride’s churchyard memorials (See earlier post The Little Church By The Sea.) I’m including them for a very important reason. While we were away at St. Bride’s I happened to read an article by Harriet Carty in April’s The World of Interiors magazine. Harriet Carty is an environmental scientist who lives in Shropshire and she is also director of a non-religious charity called Caring For God’s Acre. My interest was thus piqued on several fronts. This is what the organisation says about itself and what it does:

There are about 20,000 burial grounds in the UK and they contain a fantastic wealth of biodiversity and history. They are refuges for wildlife and stepping stones of habitat within our increasingly nature deprived landscape.

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Burial grounds are unrivalled for the wealth of built heritage and social history they contain. We encourage appropriate management of heritage and the appreciation and surveying of monuments. Good management of a site creates a haven for wildlife without losing accessibility to the built heritage.

In the article Harriet also mentions lichens in particular, saying how churchyards provide  sanctuaries for one third of the 2,000 species found in Britain – the stone walls and memorials being ‘ideal hosts for these slow-growing colonies.’

 

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I don’t know much about lichens, apart from their presence indicating unpolluted air,  but I would say there are a good few species on these stones. Of course lichens are not the only life forms to have found protecting spaces in graveyards. There may be slow worms, voles, nesting birds, toads, bees and butterflies. There’s also the social history too. So much may be gleaned about past communities from their memorials. Over the next four years Caring for God’s Acre will establish a national data base, listing all the natural and man-made treasures in the nation’s burial grounds. A fascinating project. But most of all I find it very heartening that new life thrives on and around the monuments to those humans who have left the living world. I like it that even on ground dedicated to the dead, the circle of life turns ever on.

 

Squaring the Circle #March22  Circles in squares and squares in squares are happening all month over at Becky’s

In which  #SixGoPottyInPembrokeWithCockapooPuppy – holiday snaps #4

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Portrait Of My Aunt

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Miriam Wilkinson nee Hickling:  21st February 1914 – 17th March 2003

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There was only one thing my aunt loved more than her Devon garden, and that was the Derbyshire Peak District – the lanes round Bradwell, Ashford and Hathersage, the byways of Fox and Bennett family forebears. To a child brought up in the suburbs of Manchester, the Peak District of spring and summer holidays seemed like heaven.

For most of her married life, Miriam was a nomad – living in 42 different rented flats. Each one she tried to make home, and always with much flair and limited funds, as she followed her engineer husband from one telephone exchange to another, whenever and wherever he was dispatched to oversee the upgrade of Britain’s telecommunications. They had married at the start of World War 2, and the header photo probably dates from around this time. After a makeshift marriage whither my grandmother had arrived wearing only her shopping clothes since she looked down on the whole affair, Miriam had been left married, but stranded with her unsympathetic parents while my uncle was posted off to West Africa.

Looking back, he must have been helping to provide British navel and military intelligence with radio surveillance capability since he had no service rank as far as I know. He apparently lived in some style out in Africa. But it was all change a year later when he was posted to Coventry during the Blitz, presumably to work on restoring bombed out telephone connections. And this is where married life actually began, in a dismal rent room smelling of boiled cabbage and with Luftwaffe bombs raining down.

My uncle did not cope well with either the bombing or the war-time privations. Miriam had to keep him together on all fronts, while she went to work in a munitions factory. I cannot imagine what it was really like for her. She had lived a life of quiet and modest gentility, though always within the orbit of rich relatives. She had endured her mother’s spirit-crushing jibes while doting on a father who, in her hearing, had once described her to a family friend as ‘a dud’. Neither her mother or father had the faintest idea about parenting or how to prepare their two daughters for adult life.

My grandmother had been mostly brought up by a housemaid and a slightly dotty aunt as her own twice widowed mother drifted around in black silk dresses, taking covert sips of gin, while presiding over a Cheshire Inn. Grandfather had been abandoned by his own mother, who apparently fled merchant-class respectability and ran off to be an actress. She deposited grandfather with his dour Victorian Hickling grandparents, though returned in later life from time to time, wafting in at the family firm for a cash injection from ‘master Georgie’.

You can well see how lives of ‘quiet desperation’ get handed on from generation to generation.

Miriam had a talent for drawing and writing but even this outlet was denied. She had poor eyesight and had terrible headaches, but my grandfather would not let her have spectacles. No visible signs of imperfection would be tolerated. She told me how once, when returning from a childhood trip to Derbyshire by train, she had developed a rash on her face. Her parents being highly alarmed, took themselves off to another carriage to complete the journey to Manchester leaving Miriam alone in a state of disgrace. By the time she was fourteen she had suffered four nervous breakdowns and had to be taken out of school. Both she and my mother, who was eight years younger, were sent to small private schools. My mother was not allowed take up a place at a prestigious girls’ high school despite gaining a scholarship. My grandfather would have no ‘blue stockings’ in his family. He had some notion that providential husbands would somehow materialise: both his daughters would ‘marry well’ and thus be taken care of.

They did not and they were not. But each in their own very different ways made the best of very bad jobs, though in my mother’s case her methods of choice were destructive and damaging to others. Miriam remained stalwart, loyal to a man whose nerves were fragile, and who, in extremis, once attempted to strangle her as she slept.

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My mother, Peggy, probably sixteen years old, Miriam around the time of her marriage circa 1939. Both stepping out with so much intention.

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Miriam did not have a home of her own until the mid-1960s. It was on top of the hill in Pinhoe, near Exeter. There she made a garden that was filled with wildflower reminders of girlhood Derbyshire holidays – dame’s violets, bloody cranesbill, saxifrage, cowslips, primroses, the wild yellow pansies of the limestone uplands.  In their latter years, she and my uncle took to having an annual spring holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District. It was a source of great joy to both of them. Sometime later I took her ashes there.

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Miriam around 4 years old c 1918. The first time she met her father was when he returned from France at the end of the Great War. He had been an ambulance driver, and came home with gas-damaged lungs, which left him an invalid for the rest of his life. It left him the poorer too with years of medical bills to meet.  He said wearing a gas mask got in the way when he was trying to pick up the wounded.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Daily Prompt: constant

Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

In December 1993 we returned to Kenya after nearly a year spent in Lusaka, Zambia (Graham had been overseeing the distribution of European Union food aid during a period of extreme drought in southern Africa). For much of the preceding year he had been in Kenya working with a team controlling Larger Grain Borer, a crop pest introduced to Africa in consignments of U.S. food aid. (Short-term emergency assistance can too often lead to unintended long-term chronic consequences). The reason for returning to Kenya was to wind down the LGB project. Predator beetles had been bred and released in affected areas; it was time to let them do their work and leave Kenyan scientists to monitor progress. We were thus not expecting to be in Kenya long, but somehow that ‘not long’ stretched to January 2000. For some of those years I kept a journal. Here is the first entry:

Sunday 19 December 1993

Our first trip out to the Nairobi National Park since our arrival back in Kenya. We had thought of it often while we were away. Of stately giraffes. Yellowing plains beneath the hazy blue of the Ngong Hills (the four peaks  said to be the knuckles of a giant’s clenched  fist). Groves of fever trees along the Athi River.

Now we have returned well prepared with map, camera, binoculars and a picnic. But as we pull into the main entrance on Langata Road we see that there have been changes since our last visit: the stand of  tall eucalyptus trees that lined the approach have been felled, and their ground carved up, exposing the red raw earth of a building site. It looks as if a new wildlife service administration block is nearing completion. We had heard about Richard Leakey’s large loans from the World Bank: this must be one of the newly funded enterprises. But at the entry gate little has changed ; there are still negotiations over the size of the Land Rover and its appropriate tariff and much accompanying paperwork. It is worth it though. As residents, a day’s pass costs us a mere two pounds thirty pence.

Once through the main gate we drive slowly through open woodland and dense shrubby undergrowth. Judder over the sleeping policemen meant to slow you down because it is quite likely that a giraffe will step into the roadway here. Even on to the asphalt. And the presence of a tarmacked road in a game park always takes me by surprise. But in this instance it was probably laid for the benefit of dignitaries going to the famous ivory burning ceremony in 1989. It took place just a kilometre or so within the park, a big show involving President Daniel arap Moi setting light to the retrieved tusks of nearly 2,000 poached elephants, an act intended to demonstrate Kenya’s commitment to conservation. There is a monument to mark the event and a picnic site where you may get out of your car and  feel the grasslands wind on your face. The Athi Plains stretch out below.

But it is not a wilderness view by any means; perhaps even challenges the sincerity of the grandiose ivory burning gesture. To the north, where a hundred years before there were only empty plains, city high-rises glint in the sun. Directly behind the wire fencing of park boundary there are more recent developments: grey-stone apartment blocks whose half-built elevations have all the charm of a post-war bomb site. Then as we turn towards the plains a large passenger jet takes off from nearby Jomo Kenyatta airport and soars into the blue above us. It seems an unlikely spot for game watching.

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But just as we are turning on to the dirt road, a blue Land Cruiser approaches and pulls up beside us. The driver is English. His accompanying family look red-faced and querulous. He, though, is excited.  “There’s a lion back there guarding its kill. Just follow the track. There’s a group of four trees. He’s under the one nearest the road.” He pauses. A wrinkle of doubt. He has clearly had a hard morning with cross children. “If you’re interested?” He adds, half query, half-throwaway remark.

We are. We drive off – full of hope. Will the lion still be there?

We drive slowly, scouring a landscape dotted with low bushes, hoping the four stunted thorns will make themselves obvious in this terrain of few landmarks. They do. A stone’s throw from the track lie the remains of a large antelope. But there is no sign of the lion. Any other time we would have driven on, but being forewarned we pause for a better look.

The antelope is lying in the shadow of the little tree. We scan the scene with binoculars. Nothing. But just then a mighty tail flicks up above the grass. Graham turns off the car engine, and in the next moment up comes a mighty head to go with the tail. He fixes us. Yellow eyes. Yellow mane. Then his head flops back into the grass and once more he is invisible. We wait and decide to eat our sandwiches – pastrami and horseradish. Perhaps the lion catches a scent of them for suddenly he is on his feet. He is massive. He is staring at us. He is heading our way. A frisson of fear, despite the sheltering Land Rover. But no. He has merely risen for a stretch. Then he returns to his tree and sits down with his back to us,  a posture that reminds me of the yellow labrador I once owned. The similarity is, of course, misleading. Then down he flops. An occasional tail twitch, a momentary fix of an eye, a large yellow lion stretched out in a clump of bright yellow daisies. We leave him in peace and drive on.

And it is hard to register such sightings. Are they real? Here we are out on a Sunday morning drive. We have just picked up the newspapers from the street vendor, driven past crowds of citizens on their way to church, are barely beyond the city limits. We are not at the zoo, nor in a contained English safari park. The animals that browse and hunt here are wild; they come of their own accord. For although the boundaries with the city are well fenced, there is still an open corridor to the south-west which allows the game access to and from the Maasai Mara. And as we push on along the dirt road we see Maasai giraffes with their lacy butterfly markings, strung out along a low gully, peacefully browsing the short-rains greenery of the acacias. And behind them, towering on the skyline, the garish blue and red construction of the Carnivore restaurant’s water splash.

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It puts you in a quandary. Part of you yearns to recreate the illusion of out-of-town wilderness,. Perhaps a planting of quick growing gum trees to screen the areas of urban spread. But then, despite their commonplaceness here, eucalyptus are not natives, and they might just suck the plains dry of their precious moisture. Some indigenous forest trees then. But they would take longer to establish. Would have to be fenced off from the foraging herbivores until they reached maturity. And anyway, how could you possibly blot out the airport and the cement works?

Leave it as it is then; an ungainly halfway house between the natural world and city living. As outsiders we would rather see the plains teeming with wildlife and no ugly signs of human enterprise and industrial development. But it is too late for that. And besides, who are we to complain? Our empire-building forebears had their chance to manage well and wisely this land of plenty. And for the most part they ignored both the needs of its wildlife and, more particularly, the needs of its indigenous peoples.

So no, we have no room to criticise.

All we can do today is be grateful that we can drive out to the Athi Plains in our car and see a lion, or watch the quiet grazing of wildebeest, gazelle, eland, kongoni, zebra and know too that there is always a chance that we may just spot a family of cheetahs out hunting, or come upon a reclusive rhinoceros browsing quietly. But that within an hour we can be back inside the well-tamed confines of our suburban Nairobi garden, drinking a cup of tea. But perhaps it seems too convenient, too small a challenge; almost as “easy” as the early white settlers had it, when they looked out of the newly installed drawing room windows to find a pride of lions stretched out on the veranda.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

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Photos From The Old Africa Album

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After I had posted the Kenya diary excerpt yesterday (see previous post), I found I could do passable scans from one of our old albums. So here are the photos of ‘A Day At The Nairobi Races’  – two 6WordSaturday titles for one then.

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Members of the Police Anti-Stock Theft Unit from Kenya’s Northern District – completing the race that never was.

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The real racing begins which reminds of an even more historical account of the Nairobi races.

In 1931 Evelyn Waugh arrived in Kenya during Race Week which was by then a colonial institution. I gather it took place between Christmas and New Year when the smart-set settlers left their upcountry farms and headed for town. Every night was party night at the Muthaiga Club. Here are some excerpts from Waugh’s day out at the races from Remote People:

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.’

And some sixty years on to 1994 when these photos were taken…

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The Steward’s Enclosure. The colours of the day were red and white, and the lady in the red and white hat won ‘best outfit’.

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The Chief Steward

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But when it comes to the old colonial residue, one key thing has  obviously changed. In 1963 Kenya won independence from Britain. But here’s the catch. As colonial private interest dwindled, so came the invasion of the multi-nationals. The American corporation Del Monte was one of the first. They took over Kenya Canners and the Thika pineapple plant. Another big investor was the Anglo-African giant Lonrho, here sponsoring the races.  This entity started out in 1909 as the London and Rhodesian Mining Company. During the ‘60s Lonrho bought up British firms throughout Kenya including the Standard newspaper, farms, distributors, wattle estates, and a large vehicle importer*. During the ‘90s Lonrho also owned some of the country’s most prestigious tourist hotels including The Ark, the Norfolk Hotel and the Mount Kenya Safari Club. There’s a postscript to this later.

Now back to the album:

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The Kenya Air Force Band waiting for their next stint between the races

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The main grandstand

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And for the children – donkey cart rides, face painting and Mr. Magic

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Postscript: from the Standard newspaper 15 May 2005

John Kamau reports:

Nairobi — The once politically-connected Lonrho Plc has finally called it a day in Kenya after selling its last five prime properties to Saudi-billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

In what may be one of the largest take-overs in Kenya in recent history, Kingdom Hotel Investments, owned by Alwaleed, on Wednesday took over the historic Norfolk Hotel, Mount Kenya Safari Club, Aberdare Country Club, The Ark and Mara Safari Club. Alwaleed also owns the famous London Savoy.

All of which prompts me to ask who actually does own Kenya these days?

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Six Word Saturday  Please pop over to Debbie’s at Travel With Intent. She has posted some fabulous shots of the Forth Bridge – another example of how historical constructs can long endure, some far more useful than others.

 

*Charles Hornsby 2013 Kenya: A History Since Independence

The Way We Were ~ More From The Kenya Diary

Greater love hath no man than he who spent hours and days, and more hours and days transcribing this writer’s Kenya journal. Prior to transcription, and due to various computer glitches, it existed only on reams of faded, flimsy print-out paper. It was just about scannable, which was tiresome enough to complete, but the end result then required hours of copy editing. So thank you Graham.

And for those who don’t know the background to this, from January 1992 to January 2000, Graham aka the Farrell Team Leader, was working out in Africa on various British aid agricultural projects. The first year we were largely itinerant, travelling up and down the Mombasa highway between Nairobi, Kiboko, Taita and Mombasa.

Graham was working on a project to control Larger Grain Borer, a voracious grain-decimating beetle introduced to Africa in a consignment of US food aid. The actual home of this pest is Central America, and Graham had spent some time studying its behaviour in Mexico. He was then employed on a short-term consultancy project by the Natural Resources Institute in Kent, and thence despatched to Kenya.

His main base was the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi, but there was also a field station a hundred miles south at Kiboko, where the Kenyan project staff worked. When Graham had to make a visit, we stayed at Hunter’s Lodge, once the home of big white hunter, John Hunter, and later (in the ‘60s) developed into a small tourist hotel. The place had its heyday around this time, or until the horrendous dirt road to Mombasa was tarred, and coast- or city-bound travellers no longer broke their journeys at Hunter’s Lodge.

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In our day it was unusual to find any other overnight guests there, although there were plenty of staff, the waiters always smartly turned out in black trousers, white shirts and red bow ties, and ever in attendance in case anyone turned up.

Much of 1993 was then spent in Lusaka, Zambia. Graham was attached to the European Union Delegation, contracted there to organise the distribution of food aid during a period of prolonged drought. But at the end of that year we returned to Nairobi, in the first instance, to close down the Larger Grain Borer project at Kiboko, but later to run a crop protection project which involved British and Kenyan scientists working in partnership with smallholder farmers to overcome various crop and livestock problems. And here we stayed until the start of 2000 when the British Government closed the project down.

While we lived in Nairobi we were housed in a British High Commission house, which also came with Sam, our house steward. He lived with his family in a cottage at the bottom of the garden, but as we never had enough for him to do, he only worked mornings. His actual home was in Western Kenya where he owned three very small smallholdings in different places. Then there was Patrick, our day guard, also provided by the BHC. He never had much guarding to do either, so Graham paid him to look after the garden which he did with impeccable diligence. His home was also in Western Kenya, where his wife and children lived on his own smallholding. Sam told me Patrick had deployed his earnings from guarding and gardening on the building of a good stone house for his parents and was currently building one for himself. He was also paying for his children’s education. While he was working in Nairobi, which was 11 months of the year, he rented a room in one of Nairobi’s slums.

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The following extract gives a few glimpses of expatriate Nairobi life and those cultural events that owe more than a little to the country’s British colonial past.

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29 August 1994

Months have passed and no journal entries. In June we went home to England for three weeks. It was cold and windy and time was gobbled up visiting family and storming the shops. Then came the weeks of adjusting again to Nairobi living. It seemed very strange that, after all our days and miles of travelling, the only news Sam had when we got back was that the avocado tree had finished fruiting. Otherwise, everything was as we had left it.

And to root myself in once more, I took to gardening. Another effort to get the better of the over-shaded vegetable plot; flower beds cleared for tomatoes and herbs; a new plot excavated under my office window; seeds sown and the ever vigilant Patrick following up with the watering can at dawn and at dusk.

In July we went to the Ngong Racecourse for the Concourse d’ Elegance,  one of Nairobi’s annual multicultural events. It is a specialist car rally wherein owners show off their vintage vehicles including aged safari trucks (one of which had ‘starred ‘in  Out of Africa), wartime jeeps, a venerable Mini, period Peugeots, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes, Volvos and a red E-type Jaguar.

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Car owners from the Asian community were dressed up as maharajahs and Arabian Nights grand viziers, the Europeans in more peculiar costumes – a woman dressed as a large black spider, one chap in full Viking gear. There was an overall atmosphere of the English Village Fete. The Kenya Society for the Protection of Animals laid on donkey cart rides around the race course grounds; Mr Magic was doing tricks for the children; the East African Ladies group had a charity cake stall. There were welly-wanging contests, face painting, remote control model car races, hotdog stands and Lyons ice-cream carts.

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The racecourse itself is a picturesque colonial relic. Stands of gum trees, the tiered main grandstand creeper-covered and housing a shady restaurant, and nearby the race steward’s offices, the Jockey Club members’ precincts, the collecting ring sheltered by mature trees.

We thought we’d like to see what the place was like on race day, so a week  or so later we turned up for the Lonrho races. Kenyans take their racing seriously and the whole ground was humming with activity. The ‘old colonial’ set were very high profile, chaps in their grey plaid racing suits, members’ tickets dangling from lapels, their ‘good ladies’ in Ascot frocks and hats to match. In fact the woman who won the best outfit contest truly looked as if she was anticipating entry to the Royal Enclosure. At such times you can only blink: the British abroad – what are they thinking?

The first race was something of a novelty event being a camel race. The beasts and riders came from the anti-stock-theft police patrol in the remote north. There were four contestants, the riders in  bright racing colours. But the camels weren’t too lively and it took some time to cajole them to the starting line. And even after the gong  had been rung, it was hard to tell if the race had started. Every spectator head was craned, gazing across the course for signs of activity. Time passed. It was thus the biggest excitement when the first camel hove into view. He finally jogged  fast enough to reach the finish line, his rider waving not only arms but also legs to celebrate their mutual victory. It was hard to imagine that these camels ever caught up with any cattle-thieving bandits.

Then the serious racing began, most of the horses from wazungu stud farms up in the Rift Valley, and their riders so slender-limbed and tiny, I wondered if  the race horse owners employed their jockeys from the Okiek community,  the last of Kenya’s original indigenous inhabitants of slight-statured hunters. We sat in the grandstand for a while, watched the Kenyan Air Force band marching on the course between races, listened to the commentator who sounded to be the very same man who serves at every English agricultural show and sporting event wherever it is on the globe, looked at the Kenyan mamas in their elaborate kitenge costumes, had our ears blasted as two Air Force buglers dashed up into the grandstand to trumpet the start of the race,  admired the fine looking Kenyan rider, whose task it is to lead the mounted jockeys to the starting gate,  he sporting his  English hunting pink jacket and tight white breeches – yet another of Nairobi’s cross-cultural phenomena that challenge perceptions at every turn. It was all so absorbing that we didn’t even get round to placing any bets.

Our next trip to the racecourse was in early August, to another extraordinary multicultural event. This time to the Royal Ballet performing their specially created programme in aid of Kenyan conservation, Dances for Elephants. The week’s performances were aimed at raising funds for various Kenyan wildlife projects – rhino surveillance, Grevy’s zebra surveys, elephant monitoring, conservation education in Maasailand. It was the brainchild Royal Ballet Mistress, Rosalind Eyre and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, wife of Dr Ian Douglas-Hamilton, Kenya’s resident elephant expert.

Performances were laid on at several venues: at the racecourse, at the Lake Naivasha home of the Douglas-Hamiltons (complete with picnic hampers), at the Windsor Country Club and at the residence of the British High Commissioner, Sir Kieran Prendergast. Local businesses sponsored tickets so cohorts of Nairobi school children could go to the racecourse matinee and have their first ballet experience.  A congratulatory telegram also arrived from HRH The Prince of Wales, wherein he praised the sixteen dancers’ efforts and generosity in giving up their time. He also said he wished he could be with us, which we could not fail to doubt as we had recently read newspaper reports of another “Diana” scandal looming back in the UK.

We arrived in the racecourse at sundown, and again found the place was thronging.  It was a clear evening and I wondered if anyone had warned the dancers how chilly Nairobi was in August.

The audience was well catered for though. There was a tent serving hot drinks and hotdogs as well as a bar. We had come prepared with our own flask of cocoa, cushions and wraps. The grandstand was mostly filled with members of the diplomatic community and Kenyan professionals from the companies that had sponsored the event, but we could sit where we wanted among the concrete benches of the grandstand. The Jockey Club members’ padded seats comprised “The Circle” for which people had paid 3,000 shillings a ticket instead of our 700  bob. We settled down on Vitafoam sponge mats on the front row.

The stage was ingenious – two flatbed trucks parked tail to tail. Cranes rearing up behind each cab supported the roof and stage light tracking. Either side were the enormous speakers of the sound system that had been donated to the cause by Lufthansa. The racecourse and its stands of gum trees lay to their back and, as the sun disappeared behind them, black kites wheeled overhead,  mewing and on the lookout for abandoned hotdogs.

At dusk the dancing began – excerpts from the whimsical ballet ‘Still Life at the Penguin Cafe’, opening with the zebra dance, “White Mischief”. It could not have been more surreal, of itself and also because there was the stage backdrop of the African plains with the real African sky behind it, and real African ‘sound effects’  of cricket and frog call.

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Here is a version of what we saw out on the Ngong Racecourse on a chilly Kenyan night (best viewed full screen):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh0TPvus7r4

Unnerving ~ Being Judged By A Sheep

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It had never occurred to me until last week that sheep might have opinions. Being brought up within the purlieus of a Cheshire farm and on a picture book diet that included many iterations of Little Bo Beep, I knew they could be wayward. Also a close confrontation with a lamb in my formative years was the source of one of my first big life lessons: disillusionment.

That is to say, it was the moment when I found out for myself that things aren’t always what they seem. This revelation was unexpectedly visited upon me around the age of two. I had tottered determinedly across the field near our house, intent on grabbing a lamb. I had not encountered one at close quarters before, and I was spurred on by a sense of eager expectation that I still recall. Capturing one took a little time, but oh, woe. Where was the warm, cuddly creature I had imagined it to be? What was this clammy, rubbery thing I had grasped so firmly by the neck ? I was not impressed, and quickly abandoned the enterprise, feeling very let down. There was also some inkling, for which I had no words at the time, that I had been somehow  set up by my parents. Didn’t they know how lambs actually felt?

Then last Wednesday, after a good tramp around the Wenlock countryside the tables were turned: I found myself the object of ovine scrutiny.  I stared back, fully expecting the sheep to shy away as they usually do, but no, it went on giving me ‘the look’. In fact it gave me the distinct impression it was not impressed by what it saw. I felt quite self-conscious. Hmph, I muttered. Who’d’ve thought it, being made to feel sheepish by a sheep; clearly more to them than meets the eye. And so followed another important, if belated life lesson, and one of the hardest to grasp: do not be quick to judge. Or even better, Mrs. Farrell: do not judge at all, lest the boot ends up on the other foot.

On the other hand, perhaps the Wenlock sheep somehow divined a closet lamb strangler when it saw one.

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Echo Of Time Past ~ Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko

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I’ve not done an Old Africa post of a while, and this photo is rather the worse for wear. But perhaps that is fitting in all sorts of ways.

I also thought I’d post an excerpt from our 1990’s travels in Kenya – an account written not long after my arrival in 1992. During the eight years we lived there, we had many sojourns at Hunter’s Lodge on the Nairobi – Mombasa highway. Graham was overseeing a research project at the nearby field station and had to make regular visits. The Lodge had been built by great white hunter, John Hunter, around the late ‘50s – early ‘60s – his retirement home after a long career of game control, grand safaris and general  rhino and elephant slaughter.  He saw no irony in choosing a spot that had once been his favourite place for watching elephant at a sunset waterhole on the Kiboko River. He dammed the stream to make an ornamental garden lake for his guests’ pleasure. And instead of elephant, the place attracted a marvellous array of birds. The soundtrack here, then, is endless weaver bird chatter in the papyrus, and the clatter of stork beaks up in the fever trees. Oh yes, and the nonstop whine of crickets…

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Monday 17th February, my two bags packed once more and Graham’s few belongings assembled, we set off for Kiboko. Although it was still early morning, the sun was already beginning to scorch my arm through the open car window; sweat trickled down my spine. But I was pleased to be on the move again; and Graham, who was watching me from the side-lines – to see how I would react to a new land, confined himself to saying that he hoped I would like the lodge where we would be staying for a few days.

I imagine I will, but at that moment it was not my main concern. I was excited at the prospect of my first safari. Too opulent a term for us perhaps, conjuring up an entourage of well-provisioned trucks each manned with a local African guide and tracker, bullish Europeans in khaki shorts, legs the colour of seasoned olive wood above long woollen socks, bush-hatted and safari-jacketed, a powerful rifle to hand to fend off attacks by a raging buffalo. But no, there was none of this; just a couple of bags and a few supplies for the field station in the boot of a modest Peugeot saloon. And anyway, in Swahili safari simply means journey, and so it was the journey itself that I was looking forward to, even if it only involved a few hours’ drive down the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

We left the city by the same route I had come from the airport two days earlier. Now I could take it in with a more focused eye: the newspaper and magazine sellers out in force, and stepping between the traffic with all the ease of those who have taken up walking the plank for a living and survived to tell and retell the tale; the avenues of yellow blossomed acacias; the screens of puce pink bougainvillea; palm trees; throngs of citizens everywhere, waiting, milling, buying, selling, chatting, reading, walking; the welter of city centre multi-storey office blocks in as many styles, from oriental chic to Dallas smoked glass; the air heavy with dust and oily exhaust fumes and the smell of roasting maize cobs.

And as we head south out of Nairobi, through the flatlands of the industrial zone you feel that you could be leaving any city anywhere in the developed world. There is a Slumberworld bed centre, another for well-known names in bathroom and sanitary ware, a detergent factory, a Toyota showroom, a cut-price cash-and-carry warehouse, builders’ yards, air freight offices, the outposts of many a multi-national company, all neat brick buildings flying their corporate banners behind well-tended and irrigated flower beds.

At this point, you can only just glimpse the plains beyond. It is easy to think you are on familiar territory: the industrial estate, a modern major thoroughfare with white lines, UK road signs, traffic police operating speed traps, Esso service stations, driving on the left. The British-born may believe too quickly that they know all the rules, the received codes of behaviour that pertain here. After all, it did used to be “ours”; you would expect some sense of familiarity.

Or would you? The British of old empire days were not overly concerned about establishing decent infrastructure in the countries they colonized (“standards” maybe) beyond building railways to ferry their administrators and export their hard-won commodities, or erecting imposing edifices that represented the institutions of law and taxation used to control indigenous peoples, who though in their own land, found that it was no longer theirs. And so, having built the Uganda Railway across Kenya Colony, the British seem to have fallen short when it came to road building. For much of their sixty-year stay, the road between Nairobi and Mombasa port was three hundred miles of gut-twisting dirt corrugations that, if you were lucky, took a day and more to traverse. It was only on the last lap of occupation in the 1960s that the tarmac was laid, reducing journey time to a mere seven or eight hours.

And so quite quickly I see that we should not set too much store by apparent similarities, and the seeming familiar artefacts. The things that we British recognise now in Kenya are not necessarily the issue of what we left behind. Or, if there are remnants of our abandoned institutions, then it does not follow that they have exactly the same meaning or function for modern Kenyans. Therefore, lest they lead us astray or cause us to make wrong assumptions, we should ignore their supposed messages altogether; think of them as laying a false trail, for this is Africa and, as the locals would often tell us, anything can happen here.

It soon becomes apparent, too, that when the highway itself was being built, every effort was made to ensure that the ‘surface’ went as far as possible. There is only a thin skin, a makeshift causeway to hold the bush at bay. And while some stretches have been recently upgraded, for the most part it is rag-edged and pot-holed and, south of Nairobi, gives way altogether to a several mile detour on dirt road.

And even though it is not a busy road by European standards, it is one of Africa’s major transport routes, the main users being massively laden freight lorries hauling their own weight and the same again in trailers hitched on behind. Bales of iron rods from the Mombasa rolling mills; crates of Tusker beer; petrol in rusty tankers as battered and misshapen as badly squeezed toothpaste tubes; cargoes of maize; transporters filled with new white Japanese cars. That their drivers think they will ever make it to Uganda far to the north, or to Zambia way down south through Tanzania, or even to the next market pull-off twenty miles away often seems to be an act of supreme faith. Many of course do not survive the test, but are pulled off the road, the cabs bowed to the ground like broken-winded beasts, their drivers sprawled out asleep between the wheels to avoid the sun’s glare while waiting for rescue or inspiration.

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Much of the first hour out of Nairobi was thus spent leap-frogging trucks, and it should be said that African lorry drivers are very courteous, using their right indicator if it is not safe for you to overtake, the left when it is. Once past, I would watch them in the wing mirror, grinding along slowly in our wake, their exhausts billowing out evil-smelling clouds that lingered in black fog banks for many yards behind. But we were out in open country now, to the west the pale grasslands of the Athi Plains extending and merging into the distant blue horizon, to the east and south the land falling away into thorn scrub valleys, undulating hills and blazing outcrops of red igneous rock.

There were problems of perception here as well. The landscapes which the road bisects are on too vast a scale to fit a single frame; to absorb. Always too much foreground, so that the mind switches off and dismisses the whole as featureless bush: thorn scrub followed by thorn scrub, stretching as far as the eye can see, across plains that are scarcely interrupted by the scatter of old volcanic peaks – which would be impressive, if only you could find some sense of proportion.

That is one perspective. Another might be to take heart at the sight of so much space, to acknowledge the inherent grandeur of mile after mile of untamed, uncultivated, unbuilt-on land that yields only sporadic evidence of human activity beyond the margins of the road. Yet a third might be to wonder at the apparent absurdity of driving down a main road along with Mercedes, Land Cruisers and BMWs and seeing ostriches loping away beneath the spans of power lines beside the highway, or to pass by a large farm field fenced off against the bush, and to realize that in amongst the well-contained herd of grazing domestic cattle are also Thompson’s Gazelle and hartebeest.

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Nearly three hours out of Nairobi and we are bowling across the lowland plains, through the large dusty market settlements of Sultan Hamud and Emali. It is much hotter down here and the tarmac, straight and undulating before us, at one moment fragments into a heat haze and in the next, reforms, only to fragment again with each successive horizon. The bush now presses in against the bare dirt verges; it seethes with insect call; a callous thrust of sharp-tempered thorns. Yet not wholly impenetrable for this is Maasai country and, through occasional breaches in the bush, I could see baked terracotta drovers’ trails, worn and smoothed, season to season, by hoof and heel. We begin to see Maasai herders at the roadside too, men draped in their distinctive tartan shuka shawls. Always red.

Lads hare past on bicycles, the shawls now red capes caught up in the breeze and their cattle prods poised in hand as if heart-fired charioteers on the charge. And then there are the women, striding out along the track, tall and self-possessed; handsome heads shaved and dressed with strings of small coloured beads whose blues and greens mean God, and heaven and peace.

But as for us, we were by now hot and wet and dusty; our clothes welded to our backs. As we passed beneath an arch of tall fever trees, the first shade on the road in a hundred miles, we realized the urgent need for coolness; to stop being bounced and shaken and broiled. Only a little further. It was the next stand of fever trees that was to become our landmark over succeeding months. Here the Akamba woodcarvers have their stalls; here is a large petrol station with a cafe that sells bottles of chilled mineral water (the percolated snows of Kilimanjaro, or so the label suggests). This is Kiboko. And this is where we turn off the road for Hunter’s Lodge.

 

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A misty, mysterious Kilimanjaro pushes through the clouds. Its appearances are usually fleeting, caught here from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, where the road descends to the lowland plains of Ukambani.

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The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.

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It became a ritual. So you might call afternoon tea on the bar terrace a libation. We were usually accompanied by the resident peacock who liked to steal the sugar if he got the chance. The tea tasted sulphurous from the local volcanic spring water, and the milk needed sieving because it was delivered daily by the Maasai, and the hotel staff subjected it to heavy boiling before serving. Even so, we always looked forward to it – the interlude before twilight and the firefly fly-past over the pool, and the prelude to supper and a chilled Tusker beer.

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Paula at Thursday’s Special prompted this post with her December ‘pick a word’. So here we have aquatic echoes, an amiable Graham with chai libation, and a misty mountain protrusion. Cheers, Paula! Please visit her for further sources of inspiration.