This photo documents my first real-life encounter with lions. We were on a Saturday afternoon drive in Southern Kenya when some game rangers flagged us down and asked us if we’d seen the lions. They then headed off into the bush in their truck and we followed – in a Peugeot 304 saloon.
I’d only been in Africa a few days, a camp follower in the Team Leader’s Team (aka Graham’s Outfit). He was there working, as in serious crop protection entomologist, hot on the trail of larger grain borers (LGB), an alien species of wood-boring beetles imported into Africa on American food aid in the 1980s. The pest’s original home is in Mexico where it had grown a taste for maize, a proclivity it brought with it to Africa where it causes havoc in grain stores up and down the continent. The greatest incidence seems to be along the line of rail, doubtless due to beetle escapes from goods wagons hauling grain upcountry from East African ports.
Anyway, the Team Leader had business up in the Taita Hills, interviewing smallholder farmers to gauge how far these nasty dudus had spread. It is beautiful country on the way to Taveta in Tanzania – and the setting for much of William Boyd’s AnIce-Cream War and thus once the front line in the First World War guerrilla conflict between the forces of British East Africa (later Kenya Colony) and German East Africa (Tanganyika). And being rather remote, there was nowhere handy to stay apart from the 5 star Taita Hills Hilton. Oh dear, the trials and tribulations of exotic travel. The lovely Kenyan manager even forced a suite upon us (well stocked fridge, Air Con, swish bathroom and all).
The hotel also has its own game reserve, formerly a colonial sisal plantation run back to bush. To the south lie the plains of the Serengeti grasslands, to the north the vast expanse of the Tsavo game reserves. It is thus a wildlife gem, and you can stay there too, in an extraordinary stilted creation inspired by the traditional homesteads of the local Taita people, though rather oddly constructed using congealed cement sacks which instead reminded us of sand-bagged gun emplacements and so presumably with an intentional nod to the ‘Ice-Cream War’.
Not a thing of beauty then, but providing magnificent viewing of the wildlife, especially elephants which, in our time, would come in the night to drink at the ornamental pool within the lodge’s basement bar – a whole herd only a few feet away. At dawn you can walk along the raised walkways between the rooms and watch Kilimanjaro make its brief morning appearance, floating high above the horizon like a magic carpet mountain. The next time you’d look it would be gone – poof! Only a clear blue sky.
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 hadthought 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.
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 atus. 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.
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 backinside 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.
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):
Even locals told us that anything could happen in Kenya. And so one Lake Naivasha morning, when I thought I was alone in the grounds of an old safari lodge, I was both surprised and unsuprised when a young man suddenly stepped out from the papyrus swamp clutching two bunches of carnations. Fifty bob, madame, he said after the customary greeting. He seemed nonplussed when I started to laugh.
“Do you always keep your carnations in the papyrus,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“What, waiting for people like me?”
“Yes,” he said.
This exchange seemed to seal the deal. I didn’t even bother to haggle. And although I have no idea why I would have 50 bob on me in such a place, I bought a bunch. Given the general lack of wazungu humanity in that particular location, I also wondered how long he had been waiting for the likes of me to come along; or how long he would have been prepared to wait for a customer. Or if I was just the unexpected thing that happened to him, rather than he to me. (You could tie yourself in knots second guessing). The rest of the lodge guests, I knew, were male entomologists, engaged all day in seminars and workshops; only I was free to wander about the hotel’s straggling grounds buying flowers for which I had no particular need.
We had driven up the Rift from Nairobi the day before. Team Leader Graham was to attend a four-day international conference on the Larger Grain Borer. Along with his Kenyan colleagues there were some forty delegates from such places as Honduras, Mozambique, Italy, UK, Benin, Zimbabwe. Anyone who has read my post, Letters from Lusaka Part 1,will know that this small maize-grinding beetle, aka LGB, was introduced into Africa in a consignment of US food aid in the 1980s. Its natural habitat is in South and Middle America where it also has natural predators to keep it in check. In Africa it has no natural enemies and can thus eat itself silly while villagers, deprived of their staple crop, starve. Seventeen years on from this conference, it is still a problem.
So: while delegates debated what might be done about the ravages of this particular storage pest, Nosy Writer, like some latter-day colonial ‘mem’, dilly-dallied about the lake shore and its hinterland. At the time I was recovering from some strange digestive malady, so wandering and bird watching were all I could cope with. When the young man popped out of the papyrus I was still weighing up whether or not I should be deterred by the sign I had just read amongst the fever trees. I could anyway hear the hippo grunting, and having once been charged by a big angry bull in Zambia was already a little wary. The appearance of a boy with a bouquet, then, seemed like a piece of magic.
When I asked him where he got the flowers, he told me there was a flower factory ‘next door’. (Many international growers have their flower factories around the lake. There are strawberry and asparagus growers there too). At the factory (think acres of pink poly-tunnels under the tropical sun) he gathered the discarded side stems and inferior blooms from the refuse heap and made them up into bunches. Later, when I told this to Graham’s Kenyan boss, Gilbert, he told me that export stems had to be between 70-100 cm long, which meant there were probably plenty of rejects.
He also told me that the factory ‘next door’ was reputed to be owned by one of Kenya’s top crooks, a notorious Kenyan-Asian wheeler-dealer. Gilbert then added that he also owned the safari lodge where we were all staying. I could only blink in response. It seemed like another of those ‘anything can happen in Kenya’ moments; another of the endless moral conflicts. Here were a bunch of diligent, respectable scientists all funded by international development money patronizing the establishment of a member of the criminal elite who, from behind a front of untouchable respectability, was bleeding the nation on breathtakingly colossal proportions.
It’s the moment when you say, oh,bloody hell, I can’t cope with this, and go back to reading a book or bird watching, or listening to the plaintive call of a pair of fish eagles resounding off the water, or to the companionable grunting of hippos.
I also tried to distract myself from thoughts of the flower factories around the lake. There was talk of them abstracting too much water, and polluting the only freshwater lake in Kenya’s Rift with pesticide residue – all so the citizens of London, Paris, Amsterdam can buy the perfect, but scentless, long-stemmed rose, or metre-long carnations. Of course these places provide work for scores of labourers, and increasingly there are well qualified Africans in managerial positions.
The companies probably provide clinics and primary schools too, but the bulk of the profits from these huge concerns go to Europe and to their shareholders, not to Kenya whose human and natural resources are being exploited in the meantime. Then there’s the row about multi-nationals not paying local taxes. It’s the same old story – colonialism in a new form – the need for cheap labour to justify the cost of the daily absurdity of flying fresh-cut flowers out of Africa.
How do you begin to unpick all this. I can’t. It is easier to bird watch, and there are hundreds of species around the lake to look out for.