Yellowing Africa Memories And Shades Of Dark Safaris

PICT9928

There are the experiences we had, and the ones we think we had: so many versions of the ‘truth’. And much like conscious memory, the Kodak negative from which this image comes, is much degraded; the colours distorted. I’ve had to do some de-saturating to reduce the negative’s livid cast. Not very successful, but the result, I think, is all my own  ‘Out-of-Africa-nostalgia’ effect.

Naturally my writer-self loves the romance of this and related yarns of the old safari era. And yet these are not the real story. They never were. That’s one of the problems with nostalgia, particularly the Anglo-African variety. It’s usually a longing for something that never was. It was the kind of longing that brought British settlers of the gentry class out to East Africa in the first place. Anything would grow there, they said. Fortunes would be made. And until the predicted riches rolled in – from ostrich feather farming, flax, wheat, coffee and tea –  the hunting potential for the sporting man (and sometimes woman) was limitless – herds of wild game from sky to sky, and a country full of cheap household servants and farm labourers. And all so handily available just when home supplies of both (animal and human) were on the wane.

Here’s a poster of the time, pre-1920, summing things up. The similarity to a Punch Magazine cartoon was apparently deliberate.

Uganda Railway and aristratic game resort

As railway advertisements go, this one truly takes the biscuit, and on so many fronts. Please note the very small print towards the bottom: ‘Arrival of the first Cook’s excursion and the result of carefully preserving the big game’. Also I’m not sure what the bipedal beast behind the train is meant to be. It looks like a bear to me. Perhaps he came with the aristocrats, captured on one of their North American shooting expeditions – also popular at the time.

So: elite settlerdom in East Africa seemed a fine idea. And as long as the European lower classes were kept out, the incomer Indian labourers and traders kept in their place (these mostly the survivors of the 18,000 ‘coolies’ imported  from India in 1896 to build the Mombasa-Uganda Railway), and the local Africans did the field work for minimal pay while their own traditional hunting practices were outlawed, then, by Jove and St. George, it would be paradise on earth. The British East Africa Protectorate (Kenya Colony after 1920) was, and forever would be, a dedicated White Man’s Country. A lordly sporting estate writ large. The happy hunting ground of new white landowners who believed that only they, gentlemen (and under certain circumstances, gentlewomen) had the god-given right to hunt. All the game was theirs.

Uganda railway poster

But hang on a minute. In this safari story the real protagonists are invisible, or overlooked, deliberately excluded; these, the many African hunters and expert trackers who facilitated the pursuits of their white overlords on the imperial safaris of the early 20th century; they who risked arrest for the crime of poaching if they dared to hunt for their own pot as their people had done for countless generations before the British invaded.

It is not for nothing that the settlers referred to their African workers as boys, reducing them to beings of little or no account. From such aristocratic notions of superiority and entitlement – a mind-set that persisted among many until Independence in 1963 – does the modern state of Kenya derive. In some ways little has changed. Ever since Uhuru, the post-colonial rulers (and with a similar sense of dynastic entitlement) have been intent on commandeering all resources for themselves, and ignoring the needs of those they rule.

*

But back to the aging photo of magnificent beisa oryx. It  was taken nearly 20 years ago. The Farrells were, in the manner of Kenya’s  well-honed, post-colonial tourism model,  ‘on safari’; flown in a twenty-seater plane – out of Nairobi and into Lewa, winging left at Mount Kenya.  Touching down on the airstrip cut from bush you could spot elephant and the strangely foreshortened view of Mount Kenya’s summit.

Scan-130608-0028 - Copy

Our destination was a small tented camp in Laikipia, northern Kenya, a three night sojourn out in the wilds. I should say at once that when we stayed at the Lewa Downs safari camp it had not accrued the expensive, life-style look it has now, nor the uber-nouveau-colonial glamour of Lewa House and its secluded guest cottages. (Prince William apparently proposed to Kate Middleton while staying there as a family guest). In our day we had a big green tent, one of a dozen. There was a small shower room and WC attached, and the whole lot camouflaged by a thatched canopy. When the flaps were back we could lie in our bunks and gaze at miles and miles of Africa  and inhale the sweet aromatic scent of thorn brush. The accommodation was simple and functional although we naturally thought a tent with its own clean, running water and a flush loo was a great luxury. But then as many travellers in Africa before us, and in pursuit of our own pleasure, we chose to ignore any moral issue associated with this provision. The camp was otherwise low-key, mostly set up to attract birding photographers, and one of several similar small camps run by the East African Ornithological Society.

Scan-140809-0028

*

The camp we stayed in occupied a small corner of the Lewa Downs estate, once a colonial cattle ranch staked out from former Maasai grazing territory in 1922 under the British government’s post-war Soldier Settlement Scheme. The colonial administration’s plan at that time was to double the colony’s European population. Meanwhile the Africans’ side of the story was as follows. All Kenya’s indigenous peoples had to live on their allotted tribal reserves unless they were working for Europeans. They could not acquire land outside the reserves. All men over the age of sixteen had to wear the kipande pass book containing their work record. All Africans paid poll and hut taxes, which had just then been increased to recoup costs from the European war effort. Taxation also had the aim of impelling Africans into the labour market. Africans who had served in the Great War were not eligible for the new settlement land (10,000 soldiers, 195,000 porters of whom 50,000 had perished).

For Europeans, however, that it is to say for ‘men of the officer class’, there was on offer by lottery or at cheap rates, large blocks of land in the fertile Central Highlands and the Laikipia Plateau below Mount Kenya. Officials apparently believed that such men, newly returned to civilian life and most with little or no practical farming experience, would in an untried African environment,  produce export quantities of cash crops. This trade in turn would fund the upkeep of 600 miles of now largely purposeless, but very expensive Mombasa-Uganda railway that the colonial administration had built between 1896 and 1901. (Also known as the Lunatic Line).

The railway’s original purpose was to provide access to land-locked Uganda, then believed to be the future source of vast natural resources. There were strategic reasons too. In the last decades of the 19th century, during the big European land grab of Africa, relations with Germany had become increasingly scratchy, and especially over possession of Uganda. British paranoia raised the spectre of the Germans sabotaging the source of the Nile at Jinja in Uganda, thereby scuppering Britain’s major shipping lanes in the faraway Suez Canal which relied on Nile water. Once thought of, only a railway would serve to bring troops swiftly to the scene to defend the vulnerable head waters.

Africa 1914 (St. Francis High School website)

*

Twenty years later, these functions unrealised or redundant, only large-scale European settlement would make the best of a bad job. Along with this ‘House that Jack Built’ mode of thinking was the idea that veteran officers, used to handling men, would be well fixed to manage and ‘civilise’ (i.e. instil discipline in) African labourers, this despite knowing nothing of their employees’ traditions or way of life or their language. Also if things went wrong at some future time, an uprising for instance, the officer chaps would usefully know how to handle a gun and not be afraid to use it.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that it sounds like a very bad joke with a dollop of Wodehouse daftness thrown in. But this is how the British Empire did things in East Africa. They were not prepared to invest in indigenous Africans, but they were prepared to take a punt on the ‘right sort’ of Europeans of whose farming prowess they knew not one single thing.

*

Roll forward 96 years…

Today Lewa Downs is still owned by descendants of the Craig/Douglas families who began the ranch. But now, and in cooperation with local indigenous communities, and the Kenya government, the owners use their 62,000 acres not for farming, but to protect threatened wildlife. Among their wards are populations of black and white rhinos whose territory is watched over around the clock by vigilant rangers, and whose horns are defended from poachers by armed Kenya Police Reservists.

lewa a

It is an award-winning, avowedly non-profit-making enterprise that has set out to demonstrate that up-scale tourism can serve both wild life conservation and local community development. Other funding comes from donation and sponsorship, and a big proportion of the total income is spent on community projects including clinics, education,  water management schemes, and low-interest loans to kick-start women’s small businesses.

Anyone who stays at Lewa Conservancy can be guaranteed unforgettable experiences – the full-on African wilderness, magnificent game viewing in breath-taking country, the chance to see how some of the tourist dollars are being spent. There are bush breakfasts, night game drives, camel riding, and star bathing. It would seem to be the 21st century eco-socio-sensitive take on the self-serving champagne safaris  of the 1920s and ‘30s when white hunters – John Hunter, Bror Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton et al – ran commercial shooting expeditions for the elite of Europe, India and America.

And while the trophies these days are photos and memories, and not elephants’ feet, tusks and antelope heads, and while the safari guests’ presence may help to fund laudable causes, and not the free-booting life-styles of maverick aristocrats and misfit adventurers, still the packaging of today’s safaridom evokes something of the old elitist romance. If we don’t watch out it clings like a parasitic infection and blinds us to the many ironies.

But have a look for yourself at what the Lewa Conservancy is doing for people and wildlife. The model is not without its critics. Other settler descendants have pointed out that big landowners who stayed on in Kenya after Independence have been increasingly under pressure to start sharing their acres if they were not seen to be doing something very useful with them. The Craigs and their management team seem to have come up with quite a solution. The safari story continues…

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

 

 

 

Giraffes And Other Animals ~ Graceful In Their Own Unique Way

200

This week’s Daily Post photo prompt induced a ‘long ago when we lived in Africa’ moment, and thus a nostalgic trawl through the old photo files. It was giraffes I first thought of. They may seem an ungainly composite of various creatures, but to see them moving across the plains is a sight that cannot be forgotten. They lilt in time to some inner rhythm of their own. This is more apparent when you see several moving together. And you wonder what is this giraffe music, beyond your hearing, that they stride forth to with such synchronicity?

IMG_0027

Some of the plains’ song you can hear of course – the wheesh of dry grasses, the ceaseless koo-kroo-ing of collared doves, the crickets’ whine. And as you scan the bush country, looking for any signs of wildlife, these are the sounds that fill your head. The sun is hot on your scalp, the light too bright, and the spicy scent of thorn trees too rich for the over-sensitive. But just when you think all the game has gone and there’s nothing more to see, magic happens:

Scan-130429-0031

This cheetah mother with six half-grown cubs, walked out of the undergrowth beside the park track. When we stopped the car to watch she didn’t so much as blink at us. It seemed we were the least of her problems. She was trying to make the cubs stay in one place while she went off to hunt. But they were not having it.

IMG

No sooner had mama parked them and moved out sight, than one (there always has to be one) goaded the obedient ones out of the cover that had sheltered them until they all decided to follow.

IMG_0003

In the end, mama gave it up as a bad job, and gathered the offspring and disappeared into the bush. It is a mystery how she had ever managed to rear so many teenage cubs.

These photos, sadly ageing, were all taken in Nairobi National Park, a gem of a park that borders the city. It covers only 46 square miles, but when we lived In Nairobi during the 1990s the wildlife corridor to the south was still open, allowing for seasonal migration. Today there are all kinds of pressures from one of the fastest growing conurbations in Africa – the need for farm land and for better transport links. It’s a thorny issue however you look at it – wildlife versus humans: probably no happy solution; gracefulness seems not to be a natural human trait.

Scan-130429-0032

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

Daily Post Photo Challenge Graceful

The Tsavo Big Game Show: it’s a dangerous pursuit

lone elephant at twilight

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden, blood-chilling scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching. 

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.

Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.

G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.

And yet…

Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.

The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool  – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.

But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.

The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.

But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by  all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Kenya; Chyulu Hills; Campi ya Kanzi - Giraffe in the Chyulu Hills

Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

Daily Post Prompt: write here, write now

And more presents:

Field of Thorns

Right Down My Alley

Overcoming Bloglessness

Yi-ching Lin Photography

The Dragon Weyr

One Starving Activist

…of Maasailand

I wrote this piece around 2000 after several visits to the Maasai Mara. It was long-listed in the Brandt Travel Guide travel writing competition.

Cheetah

Dances with warriors

Night on the Mara River – darkness wraps round, close as a Maasai’s blanket.  It is cold, too, on the river’s bend. We press closer the campfire, our white faces soon roasting red. No one speaks. There’s too much to listen for. A hyena whoops across the water?  It sounds close. It sounds unearthly, sending shock waves through vulnerable bones – mine, conjuring packs of predators, out there, circling our ring of light. And even as I think it the Maasai are on us.  Six warriors, spears in hand and naked to the waist.  Their leader tosses his ostrich-feather head-dress that looks like a lion’s mane.  He is fearless.  He is lion.

Then the singing starts, a nasal falsetto that resonates through time and space – the winds’ whine through Mara grasses.  The Maasai girls trip lightly into the firelight, their wraps like flames – yellow, red; close-cropped heads hung with beads; chins jutting forward as the crescent necklets – tiny beads so patiently strung – rise and fall on skinny chests.  The moran start to leap – higher, faster.

Their dance fires the blood as it was once meant to in the days when the young morani proved their courage by killing a lion; but we see the collecting box left discreetly in the grass.  These kids are from the nearby settlements, but before I unravel the question of exploitation – theirs or ours – the dancers pounce, dragging us into a conga, pastoralist-style.  I let the Maasai girl take my hand.  She’s about fourteen years old and she is boss. After all, this is her land – the big skies and the rippling oat grass, and our small camp in the outer reserve remains there only on her clansmen’s say-so.  The hand that grips mine is small and hard.

So I follow her, graceless in the rhythms I cannot fathom, wend with the snake of dancers on and round the camp. The dancers know we’re squeamish and should not be put at risk, so we stray no further than the firelight’s edge, never crossing the bounds of the vast out there.

And of course, being on safari, and staying at a luxury, tented camp, we have been taken to visit the vast out there. We went earlier that day and naturally, being tender wazungu, we ventured only in daylight, with the rising sun at our back, and we went, not on foot, but in the Land Rover whose solid sides we were sure would protect us from too much closeness with the wilderness.

Mara country

Our driver-guide, Sammy, had decided to take us to the famous river crossing where, over several days, tens of thousands of migrating wildebeest had been piling up, snorting and stamping on the dusty bank. For days they had been steeling themselves to make the seasonal Russian roulette dash that would take them over the river to much needed grazing.

Waiting for the wildebeest to cross the Mara River

“Perhaps they will cross today,” Sammy said as he found a good vantage point and stopped the Land Rover. At first, infected with the drama of the thing, we scrambled up through the viewing hatch with binoculars and cameras. The beasts unlucky enough to find themselves pushed to the head of the queue, teetered nervously on the brink. Eventually the sheer weight of numbers behind would force the vanguard to cross. It was a case of stand your ground and starve, or risk the gaping reptilian jaws of the massive crocodiles that were watching and waiting in the water.  Even leopard, we were told, would dare some daylight hunting and crouch in the brush across the river and wait for lunch to arrive. We did not see one.

But we did see the remnant corpses of earlier wildebeest meals snagged on riverside branches and we did see the flocks of ever-watchful vultures. We also realised that a dozen tourist trucks from other safari camps had now joined ours, their occupants craning with camcorders primed, willing the show to start. In the end we could not look. It was time to leave.

As we drove off our mood was swiftly lightened by a close encounter with the famous wildlife photographer, Jonathan Scott. We could add him instead to the morning’s, ‘seen’ list. He pulled alongside in his jeep to talk Marsh Pride movements with Sammy. After that we headed back to camp for our own feeding time, a large lunch that promised outrageous gluttony compared with the Maasai’s simple milk-based diet.

Maasai boys mind the clan's herds on the Olololo Escarpment

As we jolted back across the Mara grasslands we marked the pastoralists’ bleak brushwood corrals with their dung-plastered hump-backed huts; saw the distant red dots of herds boys’ shukas; heard the tinkling bells of shifting herds; watched the shaven-headed, much beaded women setting off on their long daily trek for water. And all of them seemingly at ease in the vast out there, walking each day where lion and leopard walk, fetching water, doing washing amongst crocodiles and hippos, sharing the grassland with elephants, buffalo and wildebeest. And all we could wonder was, how? How can they live here, so unchanging, while our world presses round and people like us come in droves on our own seasonal migrations?

But then, when we look more carefully, we can see changes. There’s a big thatched house that is not at all traditional and with an old jeep parked outside. There is talk of the womenfolk settling in one place (while their husbands move the cattle herds) so the children can go to the schools and clinics that tourist dollars fund. Near our camp is a new stone-built trading centre where the Maasai sell chickens and beer.

For a people so long resistant to change even these small innovations seem remarkable. Ever since1883 when Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson, introduced red blankets and coloured glass beads to the Maasai, in return for safe conduct across their territory, outsiders have tried to “develop” the Maasai.  Now, it seems, they are doing it for themselves and in their own way. And so it is fitting that, before we leave Maasailand, we visit the Mara curio shop and, in a bid to hang on to the spirit of place we are drawn to buy red ‘Maasai’ blankets (polyester, made in China) and locally beaded jewellery. As I hug the tacky blanket and put on the beaded bracelet, I begin to smile deep down. The absurdity of my transactions is pleasing: somehow the dance has come full circle.

Maasai moran

© Tish Farrell 2011