Past Lives ~ Beneath A Tropic Sun

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Goodness, was this us – a seeming lifetime ago and half a world away from the present Sheinton Street homestead? Here’s Graham managing to look so unruffled in the steamy, sun-baked precincts of the old Portuguese fort in Mombasa. And there’s me perched on a rustic stool at a Tiwi Beach beach bar, a cooling Tusker beer to hand, a refreshing breeze off the reef. I’d not long run away from Shropshire with hardly a thing to my name. You could call it a mid-life caper; it was supposed to last three months, but somehow stretched into eight years. By the time I resumed permanent occupation of home territory, I did not recognise the place; it took us a lot of adjusting. These days I’m not recognising it either.

Back then Graham had not long completed his Masters field work on the Larger Grain Borer in Mexico. This tiny beetle of Central American origin is a voracious pest of maize, though it started out as a wood borer before it developed a taste for corn. If a grain store is badly infected you can hear it grinding its way through the cobs. Oh yes, it also likes another food staple of particular importance in West Africa: dried cassava. In the 1970s it was imported into Africa in a consignment of food aid and has invaded much of the continent since, most notably spreading along the line of rail. (A grim, if non-intentional “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” situation).

In its home territory LGB is prey to another beetle Teretrius nigrescens, TN for short, which keeps it in check. In Africa, though, the alien invader had no controlling predator. And so in 1992 Graham went out to Kenya on a 3-month consultancy project to work with farmers in affected areas: the Taita Hills near the Tanzanian border and Ukambani just north of the Tsavo national parks. The aim was to enlist their help in field trials to release stocks of TN which had been screened and bred by a British agricultural research institute. The three months extended to nine, and so began a series of contracts that took us next to Zambia, then back to Kenya until 2000.

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Our homes in Lusaka and Nairobi were way-stations for itinerant British crop scientists and socio-economists; the expatriates we mixed with were all aid gypsies who had roamed the globe from the Falkland Islands to Uzbekistan and Outer Mongolia; the Kenyan crop scientists Graham worked with were generous and welcoming; they had their own research projects that were dependent on UK funding; but some of them too had their own views about the value of foreign aid, and the abject dependency it too often created.

We were all caught up in the ‘development’ paradigm: the givers and receivers; a mindset predicated on notions of indigenous people’s ignorance and incompetence, while actually serving donor interests in other peoples’ lands. Our next door neighbour, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, put it bluntly: all aid should end. We’ll go back to ground zero, he said; it will be painful, but we will develop on our own terms. His wife was running a Nairobi slum project, set on undoing all the years of imported misinformation about infant feeding, and helping poor urban mothers to return to breast feeding their babies. On our late afternoon walks she would tell me the stories of her daily encounters. It didn’t take me long to fathom that in colonial and post-colonial Kenya things had been, and still were, going badly awry. Unpicking it was quite another matter.

Uganda railway poster

We British have our great explorers, Speke, Burton, Stanley et al to thank for informing us of East and Central Africa’s potential for exploitation and domination. In the late 1880s Britain’s invasion of East Africa was in the form of a military backed corporate enterprise: the Imperial British East Africa Company. They established their foothold  in a series of small forts across the territory we now know as Kenya. They did business by treaties, whose insidious long-term conditions the local people did not grasp until it was too late. When talking failed, military operations followed, targeting especially recalcitrant communities with punitive campaigns. This continued until 1914. The IBEAC’s interest was in the potential plantation wealth of landlocked Uganda to the north west. But to reap any rewards there they would need to build a 650-mile railway from Mombasa port, at that time a possession of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

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Shimba Hills smallholdings, southern Kenya

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In 1895 after the IBEAC went bankrupt, the line of rail surveyed but barely begun, the British Government proclaimed the territory a protectorate. The railway project was approved by Parliament in 1896, for by then thoughts of war with Germany were to the fore, and it was believed, if the territory were not secured, the enemy could sabotage the Nile headwaters in Uganda and so drain the distant Suez Canal dry, thereby strangling British trade with its other key occupied territory, India. And so the building of the Uganda Railway (using many thousand imported Indian labourers) began. Among disgruntled Members of Parliament back in London it came to be dubbed the Lunatic Line.

(Which is making me think: never was a lyric more apt: “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”)

At the time when all these plans were simmering, Uganda was described as a powerful and highly developed feudal state:

The country was populous, productive and highly cultivated. (Permanent Way  vol 1  M F Hill p 25).

This image ‘populous, productive, highly cultivated’ is worth fixing in the mind’s eye. I think I can be pretty sure that this is not how most people think of any African nation, past or present.

The 1892 reports of the IBEAC railway surveyors who trekked up from Mombasa in a caravan comprising 7 Europeans, 41 Indian surveyors, 7 Swahili headmen-interpreters, 40 African soldiers (askari), 270 porters, 24 cooks, servants and gun-bearers, 60 donkeys, also described the farming communities they traded with for supplies:

When they reached Ukambani (one of the areas later involved in the LGB-TN release project) the survey report states:

All about here large supplies are obtainable, as much as 4,000 lb of flour can be bought in one day by a passing caravan. The people (Akamba) are industrious and thriving, good cultivators, and possess large herds of goats and sheep. (Permanent Way  vol 1 M F Hill p72).

And then when the expedition reached the Central Highlands near present-day Nairobi, the Kikuyu settlements within the forest fringes are described as follows:

For the last few miles the path up to the Company’s post lies entirely through fields of grain and sweet potatoes…Long tapering spurs and narrow valleys, covered alike with waving cornfields. Clumps of graceful plantains and sugar cane, endless acres of sweet potatoes. (ibid p 74)

Rift Valley from Escarpment

Smallholder farms, Escarpment, the Rift Valley just north of Nairobi, taken around 1997.

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So: you may wonder, what happened to all this local prosperity and know-how? And it’s a question I am leaving with you. There are many answers and angles. Some of them I found in my readings of fifty years’ worth of Kenya colony’s agriculture reports, wherein I discovered that many traditional, long tried cultivation practices were actively discouraged by agriculture officers since they did not yield produce of export quality. It was a situation of totally conflicting interests. Ironically too, about the time we were leaving Kenya in 2000 I heard that German agricultural consultants there were advocating that smallholder farmers should return to mixed crop planting strategies, this to reduce the need for pesticides. Re-inventing wheels is a significant characteristic of foreign aid projects.

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Kenya Agriculture Research Institute entomologist, Paddy Likhayo, using a pheromone trap to monitor insect numbers around Kiboko, Ukambani.

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While Graham pursued food-decimating beetles and smut fungus on fodder grass, I wrote fiction: three short novels for the African children’s literature market, a picture book, Flame Tree Market,  that won first prize at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in 1995, and many short stories for the US children’s magazines produced by Carus Publishing, Spider, Cricket and Cicada. The first of the short stories, Dudus, (Swahili for insects) made use of Graham’s LGB-TN project in the storyline.

I suppose at heart my aim was to explode that development paradigm that keeps us in the rich world seeing receivers as beholden and incapable of helping themselves, and donors as those who know what’s best for so-called undeveloped nations. It touches me more than anything that my story book Jessicah, about a street girl, originally published as Jessicah the Mountain Slayer by Zimbabwe Publishing House, and Flame Tree Market  have continued to be published by Phoenix Publishers in Nairobi for the last 24 years. And yes, they do pay me royalties.

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By now you may be wondering about the success or not of the TN-LGB control project. Did it work? When I searched the available on-line literature this week, it seems that while TN has been exerting some control on LGB numbers in West Africa, the East African releases have ‘gone extinct’. It is thought TN prefers the humid tropics over the semi-arid tropics. LGB on the other hand, is utterly adaptable and has increased its menu to include plastic, soap, wooden domestic utensils and small-grained millet. Over a third of stored crops may be lost in 6 months.

All very dispiriting: a seeming charitable donation to relieve a famine situation delivered  fifty years ago to a Tanzanian port, creating the never-ending likelihood of significant food loss across East and Southern Africa. The upside is that the LGB project enabled the training of Kenyan researchers who are still on the front line, trying to improve the lot of pest-beleaguered smallholders. It’s something. Quite a big something.

Lens-Artists: under the sun

Top Heavy?

women and animal fodder

You will need to peer into these hazy photos to see the subject of this post: Kenya’s rural wives hauling fodder grass and maize stalks to feed their cows. And the reason for this particular form of haulage is down to the fact that smallholder farms are indeed small – a few acres or less, and there is little or no pasture for grazing. Farm stock is thus kept in pens, quite roomy ones, and their food brought to them.

While we were living in Kenya I remember reading some UN or similar study on the carrying capacity of African women. It basically said that the loads they habitually bore were physically impossible in relation to the bearing potential of their bodily framework. So here we have it: women working miracles.

It further makes me think of the biblical contention that the first woman was made from Adam’s rib. Clearly this is wrong. These farming women anyway are built from some naturally occurring version of high-tensile steel. In every sense they are the backbone of the nation. I even have some statistics for that too. A few years ago I was writing a school textbook on Kenya, which caused me to discover that 75% of Kenya’s daily food was produced by women smallholder farmers. I don’t expect this has changed much.

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The rural wife’s back has a lot to bear then. Much time may be spent each day seeking out wood for the cooking fire. There is water to be got from the stream or water point; the field to hoe; animal food to be gathered; spare produce to take to market; the baby to take to the pharmacy. There may also be much bending over an open hearth preparing meals, the family wash to pound in a bucket, and a broom to be wielded while sweeping out the house and the compound.

‘It is our days’ career,’ a young Kikuyu woman once told me when we met on a farm path. I was ‘labouring’ with clipboard and tape measure, helping Graham with his smutted Napier grass survey. She was bent double under a pyramid of grass for her dairy cow. When I remarked on the huge load, she gave me a lop-sided grin from beneath a canopy of green stems. In perfect English she spoke those five small words – unending hard work endured with good grace.

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And of course things have been changing.  Many educated women have made it their cause to return to their rural communities as educators, legal activists, medical workers and agriculturalists to improve women’s lives and livelihoods. Equally, country women have their own ideas about what they need and how this should be achieved. Women’s development groups, local missions and churches all have their part to play in airing ideas and giving women the skills, confidence and, most important of all, access to financing that will allow them to start new enterprises and so gain independence from traditional constraints. And one thing’s for sure: in the matter of ‘backbone’ the farm wives have been well and truly tested.

Square Tops #11

More From The Mara ~ Near And Far Beneath The Oloololo Escarpment

Soit Olololo Escarpment

When we lived in Kenya we made three trips to the Maasai Mara, staying not at one of the luxury hotels inside the national park reserve, but at the small Mara River Camp. The camp’s landlords were the Maasai themselves, the Koiyaki Lemek Wildlife Trust, whose clan elders jointly owned three hundred square miles of plains grazing – albeit a tiny pocket of the Maasai people’s original rangeland i.e. the entire run of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Such jointly owned remnant land holdings are known as group ranches, though they not ranches as Europeans understand the term. Here clan members and their families live, tending their herds while also claiming daily game viewing revenue from the foreign visitors staying at the camp.

And in case anyone thinks staying outside the national park might be second best, it wasn’t. In fact there was so much wildlife to see everywhere, there was no need to go into the park proper. Die hard conservationists like to contend that wildlife and humans don’t mix, that humans have a detrimental effect on habitat. This attitude has caused, and will continue to cause extreme hardship to the world’s remaining traditional communities, people who actually know very well how to care for their own natural resources.

But back to our first game drive beneath the Oloololo Escarpment.

We set out from camp at 3.30 p.m. in a re-purposed Land Rover: six seats in the back, one per window and three viewing hatches cut in the roof. Daniel Mahinda, our driver-guide, was keen to please us. When he asked what interested us most Graham said ‘grasses’. A surprising answer in ‘big game’ territory. He had recently finished his doctoral thesis on smut disease in Napier grass, an important local fodder crop, but I suspected he was being a touch facetious. I had stopped him from taking a nap, saying he could not sleep through Africa. And he had grudgingly agreed. But, looking back, I should have left him in our riverbank tent – to be serenaded by grunting hippos. The crop protection project he was running in Nairobi  was often very stressful, and for all kinds of reasons that could never be foreseen. Probably the last thing he needed was to be bumped around in the back of a Land Rover.

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Daniel (on a later December trip) with our niece, Sarah and distant elephants

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Anyway, Daniel took Graham at his word. Grasses it would  be.  This is what I wrote back then:

As we drive up the rocky valley out of camp there are several stops while Daniel picks us some red oat grass (characteristic of the Mara plains), pyramid grass, Maasai love grass and Bamboo grass. Then we stop to taste the leaves of the muthiga tree (the Kenya greenheart) which are very bitter, and Daniel says the tree’s twigs make good toothbrushes and the bark has medicinal properties – good for sore throats and toothache.

We look at the white tissue paper flowers that hug the ground and the tall sunbird plants (Leonotis leonotis) and the invasive thorn apple (Datura stromonium) and then Daniel picks us a pink flowering spike and says it is called devil’s whip. We also look at the clouds of white butterflies that are clustering round the thorn tree blossom. Then we forget about plants for a while and consider the sooty chat (a small bird that is a Mara speciality) and watch a huge breeding herd of impala. Then we drive along the meanders of the Mara River looking at baboons.

Daniel says there are about fifty in the troop with three alpha-males, and adds that they’re not averse to tackling a Thomson’s gazelle. We see those too. Then there is a grove of muthiga trees with every trunk bearing a series of scars (old and new) from where, over the years, small pieces of bark have been removed to make dawa (medicine). The Maasai are usually far from clinics, and so rely greatly on herbal remedies both for themselves and their cattle.

Soon after this we see elephants – first two males, one who shakes his big head aggressively as we draw near. We pause briefly for photos before driving across the marsh to see a family group whose matriarchs and young don’t mind us watching them for a while.

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By now it is late afternoon and Daniel has been doing a lot of talking in Swahili on his  truck radio. He sets off with purpose across the open grassland. After a while we see two stationary safari trucks on the horizon. We bump over tussocky ground towards them and pull up beside a swampy bank, and there they are – simba. Cubs and lionesses idling in the grass. The drivers confer over their radios, and once agreed that no hunting is in progress we move in closer. At first Daniel pushes along a grassy peninsula away from the pride and we wonder why, for all we can see is grass. But he knows where he’s going. And when a young adult lion raises his big head, I am stunned. Anyone on foot would scan this meadow-like terrain and not have one inkling that the lions were there. When the head goes down, he is gone: lost from view in twelve inches of grass.

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Daniel tells us there are six cubs, survivors from a litter of ten, the other four having died because the hunting has been poor; but, he adds, the wildebeest migration is about to start and these six now look likely to survive. We watch eleven big and small lions till the light fades to grainy grey and then leave them in peace. On the track not far from the camp we see a pair of bat-eared foxes – ‘Very rare,’ says Daniel. They eye us anxiously before trotting away into the grass.

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copyright 2020 Tish Farrell

Lens-Artists: Distance  This week Tina sets the challenge. One of the safari guide’s key skills is knowing when it’s best to keep a distance and especially when it comes to elephants and lone buffalo.

Going Mazy-Eyed In A Sea Of Grasses ~ Thursday’s Special

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I took this photo last night as I was coming home from the allotment. The sun was setting over the rapeseed field and illuminating the grasses along the headland. This is a broad strip of land on the town side of Townsend Meadow, left uncultivated as a defence against flash floods. The variety of grasses that grow here is bewildering, and I’m sorry to say I have never tried to learn which is which. They are very beautiful though in the evening light.

Grasses (Gramineae) are among the most successful plants on the planet and, excluding the polar zones, cover 40% of the earth’s surface. They of course include cereal crops, rice, bamboos, and pasture grasses and so are of immense importance to humanity. Grass is also an elephant’s food of choice, making up a substantial part of its 300-400 lb daily vegetable intake. I mention that fact here because our headland grasses have so benefitted from the agrichemical feeding of the rape plants uphill from them that they are now doing a pretty good impression of elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) also known as Napier Grass. This particular grass featured in he-who-builds-sheds’ doctoral research on grass smut in the Kenya highlands, and so is a species close to our hearts, and we both know how to identify it.

Coming up is another grass I know: wild oats. The sun was reflecting off its spikelets, which was all rather mesmerizing.

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Thursday’s Special: Lost in details  This week Paula has given us an intriguing challenge and photo to match. I’m interpreting it here both in words and images Who me?

Great Rift Zoom-In ~ Thursday’s Special

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This week Paula’s set us a very  different kind of challenge. She asks us to show her a zoomed in – zoomed out image. I’ve  applied so much zoom to this photograph that the detail is abstracted. I rather like it – the patchwork quilt effect. It is a view of smallholder farms at Escarpment, just north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. I was out with Graham (in his capacity as Smut Survey Team Leader) looking for outbreaks of a fungal infection on fodder grass. You can read the full story at an earlier post Looking for Smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms. Escarpment was one of the locations we surveyed, and living up to its name, it lies on the easterly elevation of the Great Rift Valley.

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(Click on the image for a larger view). The old volcano in the Rift is Longonot, and the zigzag of road seen faintly to the right of the valley bottom takes you to Lake Naivasha. Even now, after so many years away from Africa, this view stops my breath. And then I find myself breathing in – thinner air at 8,000 feet – whiffs of dust, thorn trees, diesel, roasting maize at a roadside trader’s hearth…

Thursday’s Special: zoom in/zoom out

So Easy To Be Green After The Rains In Kenya’s Great Rift

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It is hard for many of us to imagine living in lands that have rain only in given seasons with little or none in between. In Kenya, in theory at least, the long rains come during March and April, and the short rains between October and December. All depends on the movement of the Indian Ocean monsoon winds, and long before awareness of serious climate change,  Africa’s rainy seasons were known to be fickle.

So: the arrival of timely rains to plant or ripen crops is matter of survival  for most rural households. Only 15% of the country’s land is fertile enough and receives sufficient rain to support agriculture, and most of this is cultivated by smallholder farmers, women for the most part, while their husbands go to the towns to earn cash to buy stuff – medicine, fertilisers, stone to build a house etc.

The second photo was taken just north of Nairobi, from one of the Great Rift view-points looking over the smallholder farming community of Escarpment. The farms here were originally a series of single 12 acre lots, distributed by the British administration around 1951. I’m not sure what prompted this land hand-out to Africans, or how  the beneficiaries were chosen, or if they had to buy the land, although that seems unlikely as Africans were not allowed to own land as individuals. By then the native reserves, the only places where indigenous people could farm, were more than overcrowded. Land shortage, especially within the Kikuyu reserves, meant that the marriageable generation could not marry for lack of farm plots, and this was one of the main drivers of the Land Freedom Uprising of 1952 – aka Mau Mau.

When we visited Escarpment during  Graham’s Napier Grass smut survey, Njonjo, our driver-guide played host, since this was where he had his own farmstead. He told us that his family’s 12 acre plot had been so subdivided (from father to sons according to custom) that he only had a quarter of an acre. He proudly showed it to us anyway, with his good crop of maize, and said it adjoined his brother’s plot.

Of course there comes a point when further subdivision is pointless, and there is not enough ground to support even the smallest family. Nearer the city such communities have turned ancestral farm land into room rental land, and erstwhile family gardens are now part of the city perimeter slum sprawl. It’s how it goes. As I’ve said in an earlier post, the British left their constructs of Crown land, landed gentry land ownership and native reserves well embedded when they so ‘graciously’ handed Kenya back to Kenyans, and made them pay for it too, thus creating a great big debt that was only paid off in recent times.

British feudal notions about land ownership never did fit with the more communally minded African ideas about land usage and proprietorship, although they certainly came to suit the current ruling elite, a family that has hung on to power (one way another) since the British bestowed it upon them in 1963.  Let us hope we manage the exit from Europe with more wisdom. Much as we Brits like to think we went around civilising the world, we also left a lot of skeletons in cupboards when we beat our retreat.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Daily Post Photo Challenge: It is easy being green

 

Kenya’s Prolific Green Highlands ~ Thursday’s Special

napier grass on the Rift

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Nothing could have prepared me for my first glimpse of Kenya’s fertile uplands all  those years ago when I ran away to Africa. I’d flown out from Paris on the overnight Air France flight to Nairobi. It was my first long-haul flight, a good eight hours, and I did not sleep a wink despite being served a very delicious small-hours’ supper, and having a whole row of seats to myself.

I was pent up with the prospect of meeting up with Graham, whom I had not seen for some weeks, rather than wondering about my destination. Quite ridiculous I know. I was flying blind, having done not a scrap of  research on Kenya. In fact I had set out armed with only my brother-in-law’s comment: you’ll either love it or hate it; there’s no in between.

And so early one February morning as the great jumbo jet slid down the valleys of Central Province towards Nairobi, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Volcanic hillsides unfolded beneath us – every scrap of earth burgeoning green to their summits, the patchwork plots of Kenya’s smallholder farmers. Before we set down at Jomo Kenyatta International I was already in love. I did not know then that this was the start of an eight year affair with a land that could not be more different from my Shropshire homeland. I am still infected.

Some years after this arrival, when Graham was combining his project work at Kenya Agriculture Research Institute with some field work for his doctorate, I had the chance to visit many of those highland farms and meet the farmers and see at first hand the kind of crops that they were growing so prolifically – maize, tea, bananas, fodder grass, squash, beans, potatoes, plums, apples, cabbages and kale. This photo was taken on one of these expeditions, and like me it has aged somewhat. But it was the first image I thought of when I read through Paula’s list of word prompts as this week’s Thursday’s Special. Do drop in there to join in the ‘pick a word’ challenge.

For more of my Kenya story see also:

Valentine Day’s Runaway

Looking for smut on Kenya’s Highland Farms

Feeling shy, but darned if I’ll show it

Kikuyu child

I took this photo while we were out on  Kenya’s highland farms looking for smut infested napier grass. You can read the full story HERE. This little boy was torn between wanting to know what we were doing on his farm, and not wanting to talk to us. I love the nonchalant drape of his arm on the fence post.

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Go here for more bloggers’ compositions in response to the Daily Post photo advice: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/rule-of-thirds/