Here she is, our Japanese crab apple tree, Evereste, caught this morning in first flush over in the guerrilla garden. Full-on sun too, though the air is icy. It is both heartening, and yet surreal to see spring vegetation unfolding so graciously around us. Such strange and unprecedented times we’re living through; so many unsubstantiated and unchallenged narratives. Only time will tell which ones are true (or maybe not). In the meantime there are the small certainties, the truth that this apple flower is perfect in its own particular way. And that if a bumble bee happens by to pollinate it, then in October there will be a miniature rosy apple growing here, which in turn will give us pleasure and in December make a meal for a hungry blackbird.
When we walked into town yesterday down the Cutlins path we pleased to see members of the McMoo clan back in the meadow. And a little family group by the looks of it – daddy, mummy and junior McMoo.
And the parents all but canoodling while offspring was exploring the peripheries of the town’s electricity substation.
On the return trip, shopping accomplished, we found the local jackdaws had discovered the McMoos too. They were busy plucking the bull’s winter coat for a spot of nest building material.
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.
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.
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.
Mention of Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park inevitably brings up residue of British colonialism, and in particular the extraordinary connection with the UK’s present monarch. The original Treetops was little more than a 1930s bungalow-affair, a rickety contrivance lodged in the branches of an ancient mugumo tree, a species of wild fig which happened to be very sacred to the local Kikuyu people. Princess Elizabeth spent the night there in February 1952 and, as the well trammelled narrative goes: she went up the tree as a princess and came down a queen, although it was only later in the day that she was informed that her father, George VI had died.
Here’s the original Treetops where the royal party stayed, taken from the book by its builder, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, Treetops Hotel.
The Sherbrooke Walkers, like most of the early settlers in British East Africa, were of the officer-gentry-aristocracy class. Eric Sherbrooke Walker had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1, followed by a stint in military intelligence with the White Armies in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising wherein he earned the Military Cross and other honours. After the war, during America’s prohibition era, he took up rum running off the West Indies and made enough money to marry Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. They then set off on an adventurous trip across East Africa, which soon left them short of money and in turn led to the notion of setting up their own country house hotel.
In 1926 they pitched up in Nyeri in the forested highlands of Kenya’s Central Province, bought 70 acres from the colonial government, and set about creating the genteel Outspan Hotel. By the end of 1927 they had built ten rooms and opened for business for the New Year of 1928. The big attraction to their settler guests, who though well-heeled usually had very primitive facilities on their African farms, were rooms that came with private bathrooms and running water. So began a successful enterprise of country inn-keeping in the English manner but with views of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range thrown in.
The 1920s was the era of the grand East African shooting safaris when the likes of Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton and John Hunter acted as Great White Hunters for extravagant entourages of European (especially British) royalty and Indian maharajas. But by the 1930s, many safari goers had begun to turn their attention from trophy hunting to big game photography – an activity greatly promoted by American adventurers and film makers, Martin and Osa Johnson.
And it was this new craze that prompted the Sherbrooke Walkers to create Treetops. Small parties of guests could spend the night in the top of the mugumo tree and watch elephants, rhino and forest hogs lit up by a spotlight, do more early morning game watching over tea and biscuits before being transported back to the Outspan for hot baths and breakfast. As a unique combination of eccentric British-gentry-rustic with elephants thrown in it could not fail. As more and more visitors wanted to stay there, so rooms were added, and more props put in to hold up the tree branches.
And then in 1954 the original Treetops was burned down. This was during the so called Mau Mau uprising when it apparently became a target for the Land and Freedom Army. Later the place was rebuilt and added to over the years. The header version dates from September 1996, the fourth iteration under the ownership of Block Hotels. When we went I had been spending previous week alone at the Outspan, which still served as ‘base camp’ for Treetops, while Graham was at a seminar at the nearby Aberdares Country Club. He then joined me for the trip to Treetops.
In a letter to my aunt written shortly afterwards I told her that were among a party of 99 – (Israelis, Koreans, an international museums outing, and 40 retired Americans from the Friendship Club) all of us being ferried into the Aberdare National Park in a bus, and then deposited in the bush so we could walk the last few hundred yards to Treetops – ‘a rustic fortress between two waterholes’ was how I described it back then. Before we set off Dishon, the ranger who met us pointed out the well timbered refuges along the path, to be resorted to in case of charging buffalo or elephant. He was also carrying a rifle.
But there were no alarming encounters. In fact we saw no sign of any big game while were there, only the red billed hornbill that sat on the tree outside the dining room, baboons, buck and warthogs.
The rooms were tiny, more like cubby holes, and the building was very noisy. Many of the elderly women guests were up all night. When I could not sleep around 2 a.m. I got up and found them, of all things, putting on their make-up in the ladies’ communal washroom. When the actual ‘wake up’ call came at 6.30 a.m. the place was surrounded by an Aberdares fog. And so it seemed that whatever romance there might once had been was quite lost. The best bit was driving out of the park through the Kikuyu smallholdings. Out of the stands of maize came files of school children in coral coloured sweaters and jade green dresses and shorts, trotting off early to the local primary school.
I gather from looking at the current website that Treetops is under new management and the number of rooms much reduced in order to provide en suite bathrooms. It all looks very luxurious, but somehow also misses the point, the batty English tree-house charm of the original. Though whether that was ever at all an appropriate installation in the African highlands is another question.
The Flat Top Acacia or umbrella thorn is characteristic of Kenya’s wooded grasslands, especially in gullies. It tolerates drought and degraded landscapes and in traditional communities has long served in all manner of useful ways. It provides wood for fuel and charcoal making, and poles for house-building; the frondy branches make good goat fodder; the tiny puffball flowers feed bees; the bark produces edible gum; the roots are nitrogen-fixing; and the tree has medicinal qualities. My Kenyan tree book however tells me that, though quick growing and wonderfully shade providing, it is not a good idea to plant this acacia around your homestead since its branches tend to fall off.
This photo was taken in Nairobi National Park on the edge of the city centre.
This is Mount Longonot, one of several old volcanoes in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. The caldera was formed in a series of huge explosions around 20,000 years ago. Can you imagine it? Any humans standing on the Great Rift escarpment, where I was standing to take this photo, would have had an absolutely astonishing view. And indeed, there would have been people around then – East Africa’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, small statured, fine-boned people whose presence long preceded the 16-17th century arrival of Bantu farmers and the Nilotic cattle herders.
The volcano is officially ‘extinct’ though Maasai traditions make report of fresh lava sometime around the 1860s.There are also active steam vents which Kenya is hoping to exploit to produce clean geothermal energy. You can see more about this HERE with some excellent photos of Longonot. (The smoke on my photo is most likely from stubble burning).
As I mentioned in an recent post about the Maasai Mara, until the arrival of British colonial settlers in the early 20th century, the entire Rift Valley was Maasai grazing territory and the landmarks thus have Maasai names. Longonot derives from oloonong’ot meaning ‘steep ridges’ in Ki-Maa. A fitting description.
But to my mind (and in true Conan Doyle The Lost World style) the most magical thing about Longonot is the hidden forest on the crater floor where zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hartebeest, lion and gazelle may roam. There is a path to the top, but it is quite a hike, nearly 2 miles to reach the rim and a good 4 miles around it. Back in our day you also needed to enlist the services of a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger to go with you, which didn’t always work out. It’s a big regret that we never did do this climb.
Here’s another view of it showing the oloonong’ot .
And the highest point of the cone seen from Lake Naivasha (2,776 metres; 9,108 ft): a seine fisherman and papyrus beds (where hippos may lurk) in the foreground.
It is fairly uncommon to catch hippos like this – snoozing ashore, though they may do it on sand banks in rivers. Their usual routine is to spend the night in the bush, roving far and wide and chomping masses of grass. Then at first light they start returning to the river so they can be well submerged in their watery territory before sun up. Their hides are 2 inches (5cm) thick, and although a red oily secretion gives some protection, they are very susceptible to over-heating and drying out. It can thus be fatal to find yourself between a river and a hippo intent on swift immersion.
We had our own alarming charging hippo encounter on the Luangwa River when we were living in Zambia. That story is HERE.
These particular sleeping hippos were caught on an early morning game drive, around 7 a.m. We drove right by them along a secluded stretch of the Mara River flood plain. Not an eye’s blink from any of them.
And the origins of the saying: to sleep like a top?
My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells me it relates to the children’s toy, the traditional wooden spinning top. Once well whipped into action, there is a point when the top seems perfectly still and silent.
And here’s an early 17th century usage:
“O for a pricke now like a nightingale, to put my breast against. I shall sleep like a top else.”
The Two Noble Kinsmen a play attributed to a John Fletcher – William Shakespeare collaboration.
Topi can be found across Africa in various local races or subspecies. They also look like Coke’s hartebeest, but are distinguished by their handsome damson coloured thigh patches – very fetching on their chestnut coats. The males are keen on showing themselves off by posing on top of termite mounds – keeping an eye on their females (usually 10-15) and showing would-be rivals that they are on the look-out.
Square Tops #4 Becky has a very special ‘square top’ this morning.
It’s back again to the old Africa album for today’s ‘square top’. This photo was taken on our August dry season trip to the Maasai Mara: one of the senior lions of the Marsh Pride (often featured in BBC wildlife films). He is busy calling to his brother, the growl-cum-rumble-cum-roar passing back and forth between them; sounds to make the neck hairs tingle. For their part they turned not a single hair nor gave any sign that they registered our presence as our Land Rover passed close by. Humans, what humans?
P.S. Anyone remember the Top Cat cartoons?
I spotted this little cloud the other day as I was crossing Townsend Meadow on the way to the allotment. And though it has no obvious silver lining, it does seem an optimistic little entity. Very buoyant.
Onwards and upwards, everyone!
Square Tops #2 A big non-mingling hug to Becky for setting us off on this topping mission to keep spirits up every day in April. Follow the link to join in. Square offerings only.