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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a version of what we saw out on the Ngong Racecourse on a chilly Kenyan night (best viewed full screen):
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pool at Hunter’s Lodge – a bird-watcher’s paradise; or just plain paradise. I spent hours just watching.
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.
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.
This long dirt road leads from Kenya’s Nairobi-Mombasa Highway to the National Range Research Station at Kiboko, about 100 miles south of Nairobi. The Range Station is a colonial relic, which (if I remember correctly) took over the land of a failed white settler sisal plantation. In more recent times, Kenyan scientists, both at the Range Station and the nearby Kenya Agricultural Research Institute field station, have been continuing the work begun there by British agricultural officers in the early 20th century. The emphasis, as then, has been on trialling crop varieties and developing livestock husbandry techniques to improve the lot of the people who live in this drought-prone region – the Maasai pastoralists to the west, and the Akamba agro-pastoralists to the east and north.
The Range Station has been monitoring rainfall patterns for over 90 years. When it does rain, it occurs in two seasons – the long rains from March to May, and the short rains from October to December. But the fact is Kenya’s climate is becoming drier, and it is marginal regions such as these that are hardest hit. In the ‘90s when we were living in Kenya and Graham was regularly working in this area, it hardly seemed to rain at all. One Christmas I remember driving past roadside stands of maize that were blowing away to dust.
In pre-colonial times, and for several hundred years before the British arrived in East Africa, the indigenous peoples had their own methods of dealing with disaster: they simply moved somewhere else. This was usually to other quarters in their large clan territories, or to places where they extended kinship ties. They would then stay with better off relatives until the hazard had passed. Those who had been ‘taken in’ would be expected to reciprocate should the need arise. This was how things worked. It was pragmatic, and flexible. The migrants would then return to their own homes when they could.
The colonising British, indoctrinated as they were with feudal-capitalist notions of land ownership, could not cope with such fluid community practices. Once the colonial administration had begun to encourage large-scale farming by European settlers, they felt obliged to establish fixed boundaries around tribal territories so that native land could not be sold to, or settled by the European incomers. It was seen as protecting “native interests.” The only problem was these officially designated boundaries did not take into account local emergency refuge strategies, or indeed many other traditional coping measures that involved moving somewhere else.
Today, and this is perhaps surprising to many outsiders, much of Kenya’s rural population still lives on ancestral land within these former tribal reserves. With little hope of acquiring new land, people’s clan and family holdings have been sub-divided, fathers to sons, down the generations, often leaving the ground depleted, eroded, and/or wholly insufficient to support family needs.
This in turn has created a situation of migrant labour, where village men travel to the city to work. They rent a room in one of the slums, and live away from home for most of the year while their wives remain in their homeland, cultivating the farm plot as best they can, and rearing the children. The social issues that arise from this kind of fragmented family living do not need to be spelled out.
Now, on top of everything else, there are the effects of climate change to deal with, both globally and locally created. Competition for fertile land and water sources is critical in many places. In this context, then, the British system of land ownership remains one of the toxic legacies of colonialism. At independence Crown Land became State Land, and so nothing much changed in the title deed/ownership department, apart from much grabbing of state-owned land by officials. It is hard to know how to unpick it all. We have all heard about Robert Mugabe’s attempts to do so in Zimbabwe.
As for the ordinary small holder farmer, they might not be physically confined to their reserves as they were under British rule, but if their land there can no longer support their families, then there is little choice but to trek up the highway to Nairobi and join the swelling millions of slum dwellers who eke out a living there.
However you look at it, this is a long, hard road .
The Nairobi-Mombasa Highway, Makindu District, in the 1990s, looking north towards Nairobi. It has been much improved since our day, but plans to turn this major trans-African route into a dual carriageway appear to have stalled.
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
You can read more about what we were doing in Kenya here:
For more long and winding roads travel over to Ed’s place at Sunday Stills.