Articles

Back to the Homeland

19/08/13

I recently paid a visit to Kenya, the land of my birth, more than fifty years since I left the country and more than thirty years since my last visit. We had watched apprehensively ahead of the trip as we wondered if the results of the flawed election process would result in the violence that followed the previous election. Luckily for all concerned common sense prevailed and Uhuru Kenyatta was declared President.

The teeming streets of Nairobi, confirm the country is booming. Nairobi, with its estimated population of five million, in vast contrast to the small provincial city where I attended school when the population was about three hundred thousand.
The dozens of M-PESA agents scattered throughout the country also attest to the dynamic nature of the environment (M-PESA -meaning mobile cash in Swahili, has provided a much needed banking facility for the bulk of the population, where provided one has a mobile phone one can receive and transfer small amounts of cash to anyone for a very small fee, to and from M-PESA accounts; and almost everyone has a mobile phone).

To avoid the Nairobi traffic jams we stayed at The Aero Club of East Africa at Wilson Airport on the outskirts. Apart from expecting Biggles to appear at any moment, this was a good place to be based; the food and service were excellent, although the rooms could be updated a bit.

The visit to my old school -which was then called The Duke of York School for European Boys- (makes one cringe doesn't it?) was a bit of a disappointment. The main buildings were in reasonable condition and the chapel (which we and our parents spent hours, days and weeks raising the money to build) was in absolutely pristine condition. However the boys' dormitories were filthy and the one kitchen I poked my head into looked like something out of the middle ages. The playing fields and swimming pool were in poor condition and looked almost unusable. The school name has been changed (understandably) to Lenana after the lesser of the two peaks on Mount Kenya-perhaps an indication of the aspirations that exist for the school. The uniforms are the same and despite the name change the school motto (Nihil Praeter Optimum-nothing but the best) has been retained. The school houses 1300 boarders, about double what existed in my day-probably a good thing.


LENANA- The Chapel


LENANA- Kitchen and boy's dormitory

The drive to the Maasai Mara game reserve was interesting if a bit long. A fairly recent development is that there are great swathes of Maasai land now planted up with wheat, on land rented mostly by some of the few European farmers left in the country. Ownership and the occupation of land, has and continues to be, a major issue in many parts of Africa. The British introduced their own system of land tenure, which involved ownership; maybe renting tracts of land from the tribe that occupies it will satisfy the ownership needs of the local population but will also inject much needed expertise from outsiders to make best use of the land for food production. The disadvantage of this is that most of the rent accrues directly to the local chief who passes very little of it on to his people.

There is plenty of game in the Mara, which had happy childhood memories for me as we occasionally camped there long before there were any lodges to stay in. There are two parts to the Mara: one, the Mara triangle, the pick of the reserve, is run by what is known as The Conservancy. It is very well run. There is one hotel, which enjoys some sort of exclusivity, so that there are comparatively few other vehicles around, the roads are well maintained and as already stated there are plenty of animals.

The part of the Mara run by the Kenya Wildlife Service, whilst well worth a visit, has an overabundance of facilities for visitors, so for my taste there were too many other vehicles around. To our consternation we found that as well as the game there were large herds of Maasai cattle sharing the grazing. The roads are unnecessarily poorly maintained.

Leaving the Maasai occupied lands we climbed up the western Mau through the tea growing areas surrounding Kericho, land traditionally occupied by the Kipsigis. Interestingly, apart from the extensive small scale agriculture the large bountiful looking tea estates run by major producers have also seemingly helped smaller growers, whose lands appeared to us to be well managed and of similar quality to the major growers. The Kericho Tea Hotel was a disappointment; we were indeed served with tea (but no cake or anything else was on offer)in the beautiful gardens, on fifty year old furniture; but the experience was a hollowed out shadow of what existed there in earlier times.

Travelling through the masses of people in what used to be the small villages of Molo, Elburgon and Njoro we eventually arrived in Nakuru, where I first went to school, the third largest city in the country with a population of something like two million. We stayed at the Rift Valley Sports Club, where one of our party was able to explain how, as a sixteen year old, he had climbed up the outside of the building, having been locked out. The rooms need updating but being in the centre of town the facility is convenient and inexpensive. The lake was in flood so we were unable to visit the acclaimed reserve.


NAKURU-Street scene

Staying in Nakuru for two nights we drove the twenty five miles to Ol' Kalou, where Roger, another member of the party, and I had been brought up on farms in the district. To our delight, on the steep climb all the way to Ol'Kalou we enjoyed the newly constructed tarred road, much in contrast to the poor dirt road we had to cope with in days gone by. The once famous Bahati Forest, where we often saw beautiful Colobus monkeys on our trips to Nakuru, did not even rate a mention; it has been completely destroyed and settled with the ever growing population. First we visited what had been our old farm. We had some idea what to expect on our visit to the farms having been back twenty and thirty years earlier, respectively. The people seemed to be very happy to see us and Macharia showed us around his sixty acres with some pride. In 1946 when we first arrived at the farm my father used to take a tractor and trailer to the river to fill twenty or so drums with water for the household and stock; this continued for a short while until he dug a borehole. You may well ask does Macharia still enjoy the benefits of a nearby borehole? No he does not. He collects water from the river with his donkey. The whole area has been electrified so it would not be difficult to get the borehole operating again. There is also another borehole less than a kilometre away, also not functioning. In the whole district there is no evidence of any mechanisation at all. Macharia and his wife were using 'jembies', a hoe-like tool. So the land use has reverted to subsistence farming and produces nothing more than the needs of current occupants. The area is much as it has always been; it is extremely fertile and the land varies somewhere between eight and nine thousand feet above sea level so whilst it is virtually on the equator the climate is temperate.

(The day I left to go home to Sydney there was a headline in one national newspaper discussing the high cost of imported food. The population of the country has increased fivefold since independence in 1963, from nine million to about fifty million; they are certainly going to have to make better use of the agricultural land that exists if they are to survive the next fifty years.)

The house that my parents painstakingly built in 1956 from the cut stone that could be spared from building pigsties, barns, housing for the labour etc. was very much still there, now usefully serving as a boarding house for the local primary school. My parents obviously had no inkling that their world would come crashing down only a few short years away with the implementation of the 'million acre scheme' whereby most of the European owned farms were purchased by the British Government to resettle the burgeoning population, people such as Macharia.


THE NEW HOUSE-BUILT IN 1956 (It looks bleak now,
but was surrounded by trees and a garden when it was built.)

We, the Europeans, were only very short term settlers; my parents were only on the farm for seventeen years, Ol'Kalou was settled from about 1916; there were only five (European of course) graves in the churchyard etc. What we thought we were doing there I don't know: not a soul seemed to have any insight as to how the place might develop even in the slightly longer term. The same situation applied to most of the so-called European farming districts in Kenya.

There are two noticeable developments in the up country areas: firstly the growth of private schools and then the extensive array of private 'Christian' religious establishments. Both these institutions appear to be commercial operations, for example when I visited the church in Ol'Kalou (built as an Anglican Church) I was told that the 'owner' was away. The church was, thankfully, in very good condition.

I have absolutely no issue with the transformation that has taken place throughout Colonial Africa in the past fifty years (the effects of Harold Macmillan's 'Winds of Change' observations made to the Cape Parliament in 1960) but a small part of me wonders whether more could not have been made of the legacy that was left behind.

It's notable that, now, there are fewer people living on what was my parent's farm than there were fifty years ago and the area produces nothing except the needs of the current residents. Pyrethrum (from which a natural insecticide 'Pyrethrin' is extracted) was one of the very successful cash crops grown by European farmers. For small scale farmers, to be viable, all that is needed is something like half an acre of the crop. Unfortunately the processing facility in Nakuru closed down from a lack of supply. It seems that the example of the tea growers in Kericho area has not been followed in this instance.

Ol' Kalou was never an attractive place and it is way off any tourist route; together with the general population it has grown enormously and haphazardly. It is now a dirty unattractive little town. All the Indian traders were pushed out years ago mainly by being told that they were not authorised to sell certain basic items such as sugar, tea and posho (maize meal). The railway ceased to operate years ago reflecting the fact that the area produces nothing much that needs sending anywhere.

OL'KALOU STREET SCENES AND ST. PETERS CHURCH

We spent time looking for the farm that Roger was brought up on and had a conversation with the family now occupying the house, who were friendly and happy to talk to us. On a previous visit Roger had found that the house was occupied by nine families, perhaps having something to do with the 'co-ops' that were put in charge after the land was redistributed. Apparently the 'co-ops' were merely a source of corruption and have now all been eliminated much to everyone's relief.

The situation there was much the same as with our old place in that the once productive farms had reverted to subsistence agriculture.

One has to experience the drive from Nakuru to the Coast once and once only. Nakuru to Nairobi is tolerable, but the road from Nairobi to the coast is just not adequate for the traffic with lines of heavy vehicles chugging along the single carriageway, making for a slow journey since overtaking is very difficult and hazardous. For some reason the railway (painstakingly built by the British in the early part of the 20th century) barely operates any more (we saw one train with three carriages) and it no longer has a service beyond Nakuru. There is a proposal from South African and now Chinese operators to resuscitate the railway; however many of the politically powerful 'fat cats' run transport businesses, so that may be a long shot. The last thing these people want is competition from a well run railway operation.

We had three glorious restful days with our host (an ex school friend) at his marvellous place on Tiwi beach, south of Mombasa who together with his wife had spent two patient weeks ferrying us around Kenya. One of the highlights was that at dusk Green Turtles surface just off the headland.


TIWI BEACH

Returning to Nairobi, this time by bus on the previously described ghastly road, we spent another night at the Aero Club in Nairobi before taking the shuttle bus to Arusha in Tanzania. The trip was an easy drive on a good road with little traffic.
The towns and villages in Tanzania are much tidier than those in Kenya, so there is much less rubbish lying around; apparently due to a government initiative.

The Serengeti was a wonderful experience, a visit I had wanted to do for as long as I can remember. We stayed in a tented camp so were closer to the wildlife than we had been in some of the more elaborate establishments we had stayed at in the Mara. As with most visitors at this time of year we wanted to witness the migration of the Wildebeest and Zebra crossing the Mara River into Kenya for the fresh grazing generated by the rains in April and May. We did indeed see at least a million Wildebeest; every hillside was covered with the animals and many Zebra. There were also fat looking crocodiles in the Mara River and although we did not see any groups actually crossing the river there were herds nearby plucking up courage to cross.


SERENGETI- Wildebeest and a Croc on the Mara River.


SERENGETI- Maasai Village

A visit to the Serengeti is well worth while. Don't be put off by the long journey and rough roads or the number of other visitors in the park. We had one minor excitement in that the battery in our vehicle gave up the ghost so it had to be started on the gears either downhill or with a push; thanks to Roger's skill when the vehicle stalled in a steep gully we were able to get it started again without much difficulty.

Both in Kenya and Tanzania most roads have speed bumps which some may say is unnecessary due to the bad state of those roads. Whatever the situation there are no speed traps, reducing the opportunities for the police to extract bribes from the local population. On many roads, in any event, there are endless police check points which create other opportunities for police corruption.

Returning east we spent a valuable couple of hours at the Olduvai Gorge, which is the site of where some of the earliest ancestors of Homo Sapiens lived some 1.9 million years ago. It was excavated largely through the efforts of Mary and Louis Leakey. Of personal interest to us was the fact that the younger members of the Leakey family (Jonathan and Richard) attended the same school as two of us in the party.

Olduvai (some would prefer that it be pronounced Oldupai) is not far from the famous Ngorongoro Crater. We stayed at a hotel on the rim of the crater, giving us the most marvellous view of one of the wonders of the world.

A full day trip into the crater is well worthwhile, despite the presence of Maasai cattle. The area is big enough to escape the presence of the large number of other vehicles. There is plenty of game, although the few Rhino (twenty five) left in the park kept to themselves during our visit, apparently due to the inclement weather (by Tanzanian standards that is).


NGORONGORO -FROM THE CRATER RIM

The party was then reduced to three who continued on to Selous Game Park in Central Tanzania and the others making their way home.

Having travelled by road for much of the journey we had decided to fly to Selous in a somewhat cramped single engine Cessna from Arusha via Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam and then to the Mtemere gate in the Selous. We stayed in a suitably primitive bush camp, on the banks of the majestic Rufiji River, just outside the park, which we loved. The Selous is a wonderful park, the largest in the world I understand, with large numbers of game, few visitors and no restrictions on where one might travel in the park (i.e. one doesn't have to stay on the roads-a necessary restriction in the Serengeti due to the number of visitors). It does not have the supposed glamour and reputation of the Serengeti but is only a five hour drive or a forty-five minute flight from Dar-es-Salaam. One of the highlights of the visit to the Selous was Patrick, the local guide provided by the camp, whose knowledge of the game was second to none (all self taught). He is also a herbalist and had a wonderful knowledge of the properties of the various plants in the area.


SELOUS: Lion (yes a metre or so away) and Croc.

Another positive and interesting thing about Tanzania is the apparent lack of tribal awareness, mainly as a result of Julius Nyerere's (Tanzania's first post independence president) collectivisation initiative or 'Ujamaa' as it is known. The policy was a total economic failure and caused terrible hardship but it seems to have had this one positive influence. This is in great contrast to Kenya where individuals' tribal roots are still very much part of who they are.

We found the people friendly and welcoming, almost without exception. One might have expected that in the places we stayed but even on the farms with people like Macharia they were more than welcoming and were very happy to show us around. My rather rusty Swahili, not having been used for fifty years, was generally welcomed, although most people, especially in Kenya, speak fluent English. (Swahili, a language derived from the small Kenyan coastal tribe of the same name, was introduced by Arab slave traders and is the lingua franca throughout East Africa-Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Zambia, Northern Malawi, Eastern Congo, and Somalia. I was, in days gone by, even able to use it in Aden- now part of the Yemen.

Corruption is rife both in Kenya and Tanzania at all levels of society and there is an attitude among some people of what I would describe as a rip-off culture (i.e. 'what can I get away with?').

I 'moved on' from Kenya years ago and since I left have never made any attempt to return there permanently. In many ways my roots are still there though; I found it easy to relate to the local population, where my Swahili helped of course and somewhat to my surprise I felt at home there. The country has much to cope with: the massive increase in population, the corruption at all levels of society which undoubtedly holds the country back, the incursions from the Somali in the east, the rampant tribalism-currently the Kikuyu are in charge under Uhuru Kenyatta, before that it was the Kalenjin under Moi, and before that the Kikuyu under Jomo Kenyatta. Best of luck to them, they are going to need it.

Guy Hallowes.
(Guy Hallowes is the Author of several novels largely based in Kenya, which are available as e-books from Amazon.com/ Amazon.co.uk)
August 2013