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

Bee-ing Bee-Minded

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An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.

Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.

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My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.

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The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.

So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.

So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.

Here’s another thought though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports, or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.

I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?).  This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).

The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival  were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during the World War 2 when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.

So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.

In fact when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they  needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.

All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.

As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be  grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Bees get a buzz from pesticides

Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids ‘impossible to deny’
Vivid

Valentine’s Day Runaway

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Friday February 14 1992 was the day I ran away to Africa. I was finally fleeing a marriage with too many guns in the closet, and much else besides. And I was leaving behind home, possessions, an aged father and three much loved labradors. The springer spaniel, though, I would not miss. The little beast was demented and I wished the husband joy of her.

At the time of departure I had very little money, and I had left a legal aid solicitor to handle my divorce. (With guns in the closet I discovered that such matters are swiftly expedited). When I boarded the airport bus in Wolverhampton bound for Heathrow all I had with me was one canvas grip stuffed with some summer clothes, and a small cabin bag containing paperbacks, my Olympus-trip, a mini cassette player and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I also had an Air France ticket to Nairobi and a stash of anti-malaria tablets.

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Long ago at Mzima Springs – the way I was then…

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I was off to be with the man with whom I was smitten, an entomologist working out in Kenya on a three-month contract to control an introduced crop pest, the Larger Grain Borer. I knew little about him, and still less about my destination. Years before, in a frigid Scottish university, I had written a masters thesis on the socio-economic relations between Mbuti hunters and Bantu farmers of the Congo. I had never been to Africa, nor wanted to go there. I had read too much about forest buffaloes, ants and yaws in the Ituri Forest to find the idea appealing. I was not the sort of person who craved adventure or who had travelled much. I was a museum researcher and an armchair anthropologist. When I set off from rural Shropshire on that dank and gloomy day, it was to meet up with the flesh-and-blood man who had sent me the plane ticket. I did not expect to look out of a plane window somewhere over Somalia, and fall in love with a continent.

It was un coup de foudre as the French say. Ludicrous and nerve-shattering. Perhaps I should not have flown Air France, (although with hindsight I have to say it was one of my best flights ever). But as we approached Nairobi the condition only grew worse. It seemed there was a plane jam at Jomo Kenyatta International; the 747 could not land. Instead, it circled and circled Mount Kenya. I could not believe it: this god’s eye view of the vast exploded volcano presented to me again, again, and again. Then, as a final flourish to this extraordinary entrée, we made our descent over the green highlands of Kikuyuland, the smallholder farms so lush from the short rains.

Those landscapes fused onto my retina, bedded in my cerebral cortex, and I was changed.

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My man in Mombasa – the way he was then…

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When I finally met G at the airport, he seemed like a stranger. I noticed that his hair needed cutting and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an oddly tropical look, this when I had only known him in the thick jumpers and anoraks so essential for surviving winter in rural Shropshire. It was a disquieting discovery to see that I did not know him at all in this landscape. As he drove me into the city I gazed out at the plains bush country around the airport, found myself blinking at the crowds and traffic chaos in downtown Nairobi. Someone had turned the colours up: it was all too bright, the road reserves dazzling with pink bougainvillaea, yellow cassia trees; the bright clothes and brown faces, the white smiles. When I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands I was still in tourist mode. I thought I had come to Kenya for a couple of months at most. Neither of us could have guessed that we would not live again in England for another eight years, or that our Africa journey had only just begun. And so yes, to thieve a line from Ms Brontë, and one so apt for this Valentine’s occasion – “Reader, I married him”; I married the man who bought me a plane ticket to Africa. How could I not?

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Kenya’s highland farms in the rains

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha

On Kenya’s Farms

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge

 AILSA’S TRAVEL THEME: ROMANCE

DP CHALLENGE

Weekly Writing Challenge: My funny Valentine for more bloggers’ stories. The ones below especially caught my attention:

Waiting on a Word

Aliabbasali

Words We Women Write

Letters from Lusaka Part 1

Notes from an aid nomad’s life in Zambia

Cairo Road - looking north

October 1992 and I’m expecting to start a new life in Medway, Kent, but instead I find we are off to Lusaka. It is hard to take in. I am barely back in England after nine months in Kenya where we lived out of a Land Rover, plying the Mombasa Highway. My heart is still in the Ngong Hills, the knuckle-shaped peaks that were my last view of East Africa before the plane rose through the clouds and headed for London via Bahrain. In that moment I find myself weeping for the loss of the Ngongs, recognising, with a twinge of shame, I would never weep like this for my homeland.  

Due to ticket problems I have to travel back to the UK alone. G will follow the day after. When we say goodbye at Nairobi airport there is no inkling of another overseas contract. Yet two days later when we meet up in England, the first thing G says is: how would you like to go to Zambia?

Zambia, I echo blankly. How would I know if I want to go there? But with barely a pause, I say yes; I’m up for it. I’ll find out later if I’m going to like the place. Besides, whatever happens, it’s bound to be interesting.

When we tell friends and family where we are going, they also look blank. Zambia, they say. What did it used to be? It is only months afterwards that I see how loaded is this seemingly simple question, how unfathomable the answer. What indeed did Zambia used to be – before it was Northern Rhodesia – before David Livingstone passed through it in search of lost souls and the Nile’s source, and claimed the falls known as Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders) for Queen Victoria; before the south’s Zulu Wars that pushed many displaced communities across the Zambezi?

We’re expected to leave within the month, but due to various administrative foul-ups, this stretches to two. It gives us time to unpack our Kenya life, catch up on dental work, have the jabs we have not already had, say hello and goodbye to relatives, and to get married. This last event takes place briefly before a handful of guests in a Bridgnorth building society office where the registrar has occasional premises. Our little marriage party finds itself queuing for attention alongside Friday morning withdrawers and depositors. It all seems fittingly bizarre for a life that no longer fits the norm.

At this point I am still no wiser about our destination. In these pre-Google days there is little time for research. To my annoyance, too, I find there are no handy books on Zambia, not in the public library, nor in the bookshops. By the time we come to leave, we have only the sparse Foreign Office briefing notes to go on. They speak of the climate and the kind of clothing we will need, and of the possibility of having to take a driving test if we want to drive in Zambia. No clear picture of the country emerges. I am becoming increasingly irritated at the lack of information, as well as at my own ignorance. How can I, an English woman, not know a thing about a land that Britain ruled and exploited for over sixty years, a land we only quitted in 1964 while I was in still at school? Why wasn’t it on the curriculum along with Cicero and Chekhov? How can the existence of a former protectorate pass so swiftly from the protecting nation’s consciousness? How can it become so very unimportant?

Then suddenly it’s too late for righteous indignation; it’s all down to family farewells, and wondering if the right things have been packed, when there is no way of knowing what the right things should be. Of necessity, it becomes a matter of travelling hopefully and telling ourselves that the contract is for ten months only. And ten months isn’t long, is it?

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So, November 1992 and we fly into Lusaka with the rains. It seems like a good omen – to arrive with rain. There has been severe drought over southern Africa for at least a year. Crops have blown to dust, rivers run to sand, and the granaries lie empty. In remote districts, we later learn, villagers have been surviving on a diet of wild mangoes. To add to their misery, the wildlife is hungry too. In one district villagers have been barricading themselves into their homes. The local lions have developed a taste for canine flesh and are breaking down house doors at night in order to snatch the dogs from the midst of their terrified human families.

And of course, this is why we are going to Zambia; famine is taking us there. G has been seconded from the Natural Resources Institute in Kent to the E. U. Delegation in Lusaka to supervise the distribution of European Union food aid to starving Zambians. The country’s then new President, Frederick Chiluba, tells the Head of Delegation that he does not trust his ministers to do the job. The consignments of maize meal and cooking oil must therefore be distributed through church missions and the Red Cross. Zambia is a big country, the size of France and the Low Countries combined. G will be in charge of logistics: checking the contents of grain stores, getting trucks on the road and ensuring that loads reach their intended destination. His boss at NRI is sure he is fitted for the task, although he has never done anything like it before.

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Food aid awaiting distribution in a Zambian warehouse.

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In Kenya, as a crop storage specialist, he had been dealing with another kind of food crisis – the spread of a voracious pest that gobbles up maize – the Larger Grain Borer. This beetle is a native of South and Central America, and (ironically) came to Africa in the 1980s in a food aid consignment from the United States. It has no natural predators in its new homeland and, across a continent where maize is many peoples’ staple crop, it also has all the food it can eat. If a grain store is infested you can hear the jaws of these tiny creatures gnawing the cobs to dust. In Zambia we find the beetles are already there too, spreading out into villages along the line of the Tazara Railway that links land-locked Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam. The Chinese built the line in the 1970s to provide Zambia with an external trade route through Tanzania after Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Southern Rhodesia cut the country off from all points south. Now the Tanzam is a handy vector for crop pests and thus, through such unintended consequences, is the frequent folly of donor good intention compounded. It is the sort of thing that happens in African countries all the time. It makes us question then (as we will do many times over the next few years) the ethics of our presence on the continent.

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That November morning, then, as we make our descent through grey skies into Lusaka International Airport, I note only how flat and tamed the landscape looks: large square fields of European-owned ranches (Lonrho, for one, is a big player here); service roads and farm buildings laid out in orderly grid patterns. It is also very green and looks more like France than the Africa I have come to know. I suppose I feel a little disappointed. It is bush country that I have fallen in love with, the smell of it triggering some ancient genetic memory that tells me that such landscapes mean home.

Once down on the tarmac, and as a matter of courtesy so we will not get wet in this welcome downpour, a bus arrives to ferry us the short distance to the low white terminal building. Our fellow travellers are European businessmen, each shouldering his laptop bag. By contrast, a tall African in a well-cut suit emerges from the First Class cabin wielding only a shiny new golf club. It seems utterly incongruous, as if he has just stepped out of a London taxi after visiting a golfing shop rather than flying half way across the world. It crosses my mind that I like his style.

By now I am both jet-lagged and deeply anxious about the forthcoming immigration process. Still fresh in my mind is the stony-faced inscrutability of Kenyan officialdom when I twice visited the notorious Nyayo House immigration department to extend my three-month travel visa; I recall the hours left in limbo, sitting amongst distressed Somalis and Ethiopians, all trying to secure sanctuary away from troubled homelands. But suddenly I see it’s not going to be like this. The officers, as they take their seats at the immigration desks are all smart young women. They are laughing and chatting and, when we hand them our passports and paperwork, they are still smiling, and at us.

Next we have our first, but fleeting taste of the diplomatic life, as G’s new boss steps up and introduces himself. His name is Bernard. He is French, frenetic and instantly engaging. He whisks away our paperwork and deals with it in minutes. There is then a worrying delay before we can claim our bags. Bernard tells us that British Airways on this route are well known for leaving cases behind in London. Finally, though, we have our luggage and are propelled into Bernard’s Peugeot, Bernard talking non-stop. He apologises for his poor English, saying that this is his first posting to an English-speaking country. Mauretania and Madagascar were his previous postings. Worryingly, he adds that he hopes we will speak some French. Beside me, looking wan, G winces; he does not fly well. He can barely speak. When he does, it is to utter a customary response in KiSwahili. I’m beginning to feel hysterical.

Soon, though, all smooths out as we cruise along the Great East Road into Lusaka. There is little traffic (not like Nairobi), and the place has a small-town provincial air – wide streets lined with jacarandas shedding mauve petals and acacias with russet coloured flowers, red-roofed villas. We pass the turn to the University of Zambia, the entrance to Lusaka’s agricultural show ground. The side walks are filled with people walking – young men in loose shirts and smart front-pleated pants striding out, country women in ankle-length chitenge wraps, city girls in high heels and sleekly cut frocks, and who seem to flow along the street. There are roadside stalls selling garden surplus – mangoes, tomatoes, okra, spinach.

E C Delegation

EU Delegation, Lusaka

*

And I am just thinking that I can cope with this when we swing into the grounds of the five-star Pomodzi Hotel, and Bernard’s car is instantly lassoed in chains whose ends the hotel porter quickly padlocks to an adjacent post. I have never seen nor imagined anything like this. Bernard explains that this is a necessary procedure even though it will only take a few minutes to escort us to reception. I see that other guests’ cars are similarly chained. It is then that my one sure piece of Zambia information surfaces. All along we have been ignoring it, that in that year of 1992 the country has a big security problem. Some months later the reasons for this become clear, but for now I am struggling to absorb this apparent evidence of an expected car-jacking – in broad daylight, and in such orderly and upmarket surroundings. I gaze, bemused, at the tail-coated porter who is now ushering us into the hotel foyer. After the humid warmth of outside, the hotel is frigid with air conditioning. The reception area is cavernous, all grey-white marble. A trolley appears and our cases are stacked upon it. They look shamefully shabby in these austerely smart surroundings. The porter politely motions me towards a comfortable armchair while G registers. This always takes ages, and by now it is lunchtime and I am hungry and yet too tired to want to eat. Then suddenly there are Englishmen everywhere. They seem to issue as one from the lift.

“Hello. I’m David…Peter…Tim…Paul…Alan. We’ve not been introduced but…”

As welcoming committees go, it is well meant but too much, and I wonder if I’m responding sensibly. They turn out to be G’s fellow consultants from the Natural Resources Institute, out on short-term missions relating to crop storage and food security. They include G’s head of section, the man who seconded him to the E.U. Delegation. He’s just off to Zimbabwe, and hardly have we reached our room than the phone rings, and G is summoned to an impromptu meeting and a trip round a Lusaka grain store that has flooded, none of which has anything to do with his present posting. He goes off looking terrible while I collapse on the bed, trying to come to terms with my new surroundings.

Here we are back in Africa, back in the so-called developing world, here to help deal with a food crisis. Yet now I find myself in a room that has more of comfort and opulence than I’m used to in England. There is a huge colour television that shows American and British world service programmes. There is a telephone by the bed and another beside the lavatory. The ivory tiled bathroom has abundant hot, clean water and piles of soft white towels. The flask of drinking water is chilled. We have our own veranda. The room service menu offers club sandwiches, burgers and steaks. A polite notice on the writing desk requests guests not to tempt the staff by leaving their valuables unattended.

This is a hotel designed not so much for travellers and tourists, but to cater for the expectations of international entrepreneurs. Its luxury is hard to reconcile with the hardship that G has been brought here to relieve. This is only the first of the multiple contradictions that we will encounter over the next ten months. We learn not to dwell on them, and so become part of the contradictions.

*

Now in Lusaka, we find ourselves dropped into a diplomatic no-man’s-land. Although G works for a British government institution and has been deployed by them on official business, neither the EU nor the British High Commission want to altogether acknowledge our presence in the country. We gather that the BHC has some bee in its bonnet about the cost of air-lifting us back to the UK in the event of some great ill befalling us. This is a puzzling response when all G asks for is some anti-malarial pills. They are not keen to give us any, since this establishes responsibility.

There is also a problem about finding us somewhere to live, this despite the fact that both missions have their own staff accommodation. We have been sent out with a stash of travellers’ cheques to pay for ten months’ rent and to buy a car, but house rents in Lusaka are twice the allowance we have been given. A Delegation secretary, a white Zambian, takes pity on us and directs us to a small company compound of eight houses where local Zambian Europeans and Asians live.

There is one house vacant, and we can just about afford it. The accommodation is very lowly by diplomatic standards, and full of dog-haired furniture, but we still manage to upset BHC consular etiquette because the compound has a swimming pool. Only officials of the higher orders may be allocated houses with pools. BHC staff kindly let us know of our gaff at social functions, although we wonder what it has to do with them since they were so unwilling to acknowledge our existence. Clearly the swimming pool has got under somebody’s skin.

Sable Road - our house by the pool 2

Home on the Sable Road compound.

*

Then, when we are among EU Delegation officials and their white Zambian staff, we are constantly regaled with tales of car-jackings, house break-ins, muggings and murder. At his house, Bernard has been newly issued with a gun and a short-wave radio to summon security in case of attacks by the locals. We presume that we are not important enough to warrant this scale of protection. When, after some weeks, I return to Zambian Immigration to renew my passport, and once more am treated with only good-hearted African courtesy, I consider switching my nationality to Zambian.

To be continued…

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/daily-prompt-travel/ Daily Prompt: Rolling Stone

© 2013 Tish Farrell