The past is a foreign country

The famous opening phrase of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, came to mind when my photos app reminded me of where I was a year ago: Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The phrase was apparently first used by Hartley’s friend, David Cecil, in a lecture in 1949. We all plagiarize our past, and I am nostalgic enough about having lived in that foreign planet where travel was easy, to post this video today.

Tourism made up approximately 10% of Kenya’s GDP in the past decade, with some year-to-year variation. The shock that COVID-19 has had on travel however will have much wider impact than this number suggests. According to a study commissioned by the World Bank it’ll impact the net earning of the rural poor by almost 15%, of the government by about 10%, and of enterprises by a number more or less midway between these. These huge impacts are similar to what is happening across the world.

Zebra crossing

Today we take a day off from keeping house. We’ll eat what’s in the fridge. We’ll break out a bottle of Burgundy that had been saved for a day when we feel like resting. We will watch movies, and lose ourselves in the memories of trips we had made in the past.

Eritrean coffee

Since Kenya grows its own coffee, I would finish a meal with coffee without giving the order much thought. I should have paid more attention when I ordered one in an Eritrean place. After all Eritrea or Ethiopia are the place where coffee was first domesticated, and it stands to reason that serving coffee will be an elaborate tradition. It caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. This being a restaurant, the initial process of roasting and grinding was done before the coffee came to the table. My first inkling that this would be different when a procession of three people approached the table. One put the cup and sugar bowl in front of me, and another arranged a serving table. The woman then spooned the coffee ground into a little earthen pot, filled it with water and heated it on a flame.

As she poured the coffee into the cup I could get the aroma of good Eritrean coffee wafting from the stream of brown liquid. I admired the elegant earthenware pot, the ebena, from which the coffee was being served. The service ended with an incense holder being placed on the table. My saucer had a little biscuit on it; I later realized that the traditional accompaniment, the himbasha, is not very different. I tasted the coffee, very aromatic and not as bitter as an espresso roast would make it. No sugar was needed, although adding sugar is said to be traditional. I declined a refill, although tradition would have demanded two refills. A nice ceremonial coffee can really round off a trip to Kenya.

Moving art

I saw very little street art in Nairobi, but there was a lot of art on the streets. It was on the private buses and matatus which you can see everywhere on the roads. Here is a small gallery of this art, collected as I was driven around the streets of the city. I was told that some of the artists charge a lot for the paintings. It is clear why. Enjoy paging through the gallery; just click on any thumbnail to open it.

Lucy and diamonds in the mud

The ancestors of humans may have lived in rain-forests or grasslands, deserts or river valleys, but much of our knowledge of our own deep history comes from a relatively few fossils, a large fraction of which are on display in the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. This was one place that The Family and I were determined not to miss. We’d left it till the last day of our stay, but we kept aside the whole morning for it. There’s a lot to see, and it does take a while.

Our understanding of human evolution can change when new fossils are found. But what we do know now is that about 7 million years ago the climate became drier, and the dense forests of Africa broke into a patchwork of grassland and forest. In this new and cooler earth, East African primates diverged from their ancestors and became bipedal. Early hominins included the genus Australopithecus. The near-complete skeleton of a specimen called Lucy stands in the outer hall of human evolution. This is a little older than 3 million years. It is amazing to see that they are small, just over a meter in height. At half the height of modern humans, it is not hard to believe the explanatory material which says that they were “prey as much as hunter”.

About 2.3 to 2 million years ago genus Homo seems to have become common, at least if one is to go by the fossils found in and around Lake Turkana. The skull of Homo rudolfensis (photo above) was found by Richard Leaky. It has a largish skull, with a brain volume of 750 milliliters. I thought the face looked a little primitive, so I was surprised to find that the brain was among the largest of its time.

In a case next to it was a skull of Homo habilis (photo above). This looked more like a human’s I thought, but its brain was smaller (about 650 milliliters). The skull was found by Louis Leaky in the 1960s, roughly ten years before Richard Leaky’s find. There was quite a crowd in this side gallery where these more modern pre-human remains are on display. Both these species were tool users; it seems that the technology of stone tools in older than Homo sapiens.

The star of the show is the near-complete skeleton of the Turkana Boy (aka “Nariokotome Boy”, photo above) found in 1984 by Richard Leaky. This is a skeleton of an 11 year old boy of the species Homo erectus, which had died 1.4 million years ago. To my untrained eye the spine looked like it belonged to something that walked on two feet, but apparently it is not so clear at all. There were years of controversy before experts began to agree. Homo erectus, with a brain of about 900 millilitres (a photo of a skull is below) , seems to have evolved about 1.8 million years ago, and could walk, run, and throw accurately.

Another thing that experts seem to agree on today is that H. erectus created the technology of the symmetrical and well-shaped “hand-axes” that you see in the featured photo (these are called Acheulian tools, and have been recovered from across East Africa and Asia) and traveled out of Africa into Asia, A million years later, the African population evolved into Homo sapiens, built better tools, and migrated out of Africa again to eventually take over the world. Many details remain unsettled, but this big outline has lasted for about 30 years as more fossils are discovered across Asia and Africa.

Elephant orphanage

Is poaching a major problem in Kenya? You hear and read conflicting reports. By most accounts it has come down in recent years. In absolute numbers, you get a sense of it only when you visit the elephant orphanage in the outskirts of Nairobi, run by the David Sheldrick Trust. The wildlife service of Kenya partners with many private trusts and agencies to counter poaching, of which the Sheldrick trust is one. Once a day the orphanage allows in a limited number of people to watch their wards being fed.

We walked between the pens to the area set aside for the feeding. The doors looked extremely sturdy, but it is not clear to me that they would stand up to a determined adolescent elephant. I guess one can pen an elephant in a shed like this only if it trusts its handlers, and is willing to stay inside. The pitchfork leaning on the wall probably meant that there was straw inside. It all looked like a place which I would have liked to peep into, but the doors were firmly shut.

The elephant babies ran into a clearing prepared for them when it was time. It was absolutely clear that they looked forward to this outing. Large bottles of milk had been kept ready for them, and they were gone in no time. The smallest of the lot went straight for a bucket of water instead, and stayed glued to it. It reminded me of a child who doesn’t realize it is thirsty until it sees water.

Milk, water, branches, balls, and mud pools. These were the things that had been set aside for the kids. Milk and water seemed to be the first priorities. The ball? I wondered whether it would be an elephant’s favourite toy. It reminded me of the time when, as a kid I’d sat in the front row outside a circus ring and had to duck under a football kicked by a baby elephant. Here the elephants kicked it now and then, but it was largely ignored. I guess my childhood visions of herds of elephants playing football on the plains of East Africa were baseless.

What did the elephants like most? I knew the answer already, of course. They like nothing better than to wallow in mud and blow dust over themselves and each other. After they had fed, gnawed at the branches, and drunk water, they went straight at the mud pools like a bunch of exuberant children, trying to push their way into it. The smallest one stayed overtime since it had difficulty hoisting itself out. I’ve seen documentaries of adult elephants helping babies to climb out of pools. Orphaned elephants can die in many ways, not just by predation.

Things, beautiful things

As a tourist in Kenya you will see a lot of handicrafts, from roadside stalls to museum gift shops. One thing you cannot miss seeing is the beautiful sense of design in every piece. Things for everyday use are sold on the pavement: from wooden furniture to beautifully decorated trays. I suppose these things are used by locals, but I could easily imagine us keeping one of these trays on our table as a fruit basket. Tourists are confronted with little (or big) carved pieces of stone or wood. They are beautifully decorated with the colours, lines, circles, and stippling that I began to identify as a local artistic idiom. Click on any of the images below to go into a better view of the merchandise. I really loved them.

All this beauty comes from a land which was systematically devastated by wars of slavery, during which able-bodied people were largely taken away captive. Who makes these, I asked now and then. Often the answer is mzee, a Swahili word meaning old man, used more as a term of respect than a description of age. If art like this is the remnant of the culture of this continent, I wonder what it will be like when it comes to a full flowering.

Bush Air

On our way out of the Maasai Mara National Reserve we passed through a little airstrip in the bush. The land here was so flat that the two striped windsocks mounted on poles were visible for half an hour as we looked for secretary birds and lilac breasted rollers. When we pulled up to the airstrip I found that it was a busy place, full of planes landing and taking off every few minutes.

It would be a hard fate to go down in the memory of one’s friends as having been tripped up by a wandering zebra. “Tried to take off and hit a zebra!” It lacks even the dignity of crashing into an anthill.
—Beryl Markham in West with the Night

I was still reading Beryl Markham’s memoirs of flying in the early days of amateur flights in Kenya, when amateurs like her would sometimes be the only means of bringing dying adventurers from the bush to Nairobi. This strip was nothing like her descriptions of airstrips in the bush. No zebra or wildebeest would find anything to nibble on within a kilometer. I looked at the Landrovers lined up, glanced at the Maasai market in one corner, soaked up the chatter in French, Bengali, English, and Swahili, heard the continuous roar of engines, and realized that a hundred years had changed everything. There are several such airstrips in the reserve, and, if you fly in, then you land on the one closest to your hotel. It saves you a five hour trip if you come in from Nairobi, more from Mombasa.

I took a last few shots of the little hut that served as the control tower, and got into Stephen’s Landrover. There was a long trip ahead of us, and I was looking forward to it. I hadn’t had a good look at the trees in this patch of land on our way in. I was also looking forward to passing through the busy town of Narok again; it had looked charmless, but I love roadside towns.

Eating crocodile

Kenya was once known for its restaurants which served “bush meat”. I’d heard stories from people who’d eaten zebra steaks, or compared the tastes of the many antelopes that roam Africa. I suppose that when wildlife was abundant it made sense to eat what could be hunted or gathered from the wild. Across the world, recipes from a couple of hundred years ago contain ingredients which seem exotic to us. But with dwindling forests and wildlife, the practice either disappears, or is regulated. Kenya has taken the route of regulation.

It was a bit of a surprise for us when we went for dinner to one of Nairobi’s well-known restaurants and found an exotic meat on the menu. We had to try out the crocodile. When it arrived, the plating looked great. The mango and mustard sauce was perfect. The line of chili and masala sufficient. The crocodile bhajia was white meat, an interesting flavour, like a gamy chicken. Surprised, I asked about the cut. It seems that the bhajia uses the tail.

A line in the sand

A lot of wildlife watching is a matter of luck. You can try to bias the dice in your favour by various means. Our guide Stephen had kept the radio on, and was listening in on conversations between Landrovers across the Maasai Mara, hoping to pick up pointers on which way to go to see something interesting. As he sped along, I saw a weird line across the horizon.

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You can see how it developed. Sometimes the dice come up sixes for you, and you get to see something you had never even heard of.