Monday, 16 May 2011

Why lions like eating Indians

Due to a sudden power cut this morning, I lost a whole bulletin so this time it’s being done on a document which I can paste in! I lost a superb text, full of wonderful phrases and now, I fear it will be impossible to remember how I wrote everything down. Here’s a summary....

Yesterday for lunch, maybe because it was Sunday, we had steak and kidney pie, an unexpectedly English menu. Because we are guests, this was our host’s favourite meal and very nice it was too. The avocado starter from some nearby tree was tangy, creamy, huge.

Then we set off for a visit to the National Railway Museum. Once again we were out on the terrifying roads, where chaos reigns. Appalling road surface, holes, overflowing sewage, groups of people trying to cross, children, beggars, men pushing or pulling barrows laden with goods, total lack of any lane discipline, no speed limits, traffic lights completely ignored, cross roads, markings or no markings, people cutting down trees on the central reservations without ladders or ropes, pedestrians, men down on the pavement (sleeping, drunk or dead, who knows?), flower sellers, lane changes, no signals of any kind, people overtaking or undertaking on a wild spree, accidents, in a frantic, almost merry free-for-all.

There are a huge number of people walking... everywhere you look. As our host said, it’s like a Lowry painting, but as you drive slowly past all the shanty towns, the road-side markets and churches, it reminds me more of Dickens’ London – the unmistakable stewpot of a growing, hungry, resourceful mass of people, working their socks off in appalling conditions, and doing their best to survive and improve things for themselves and their families. It is noticeable how clean and tidy everyone looks, however loose their clothing.

We are here visiting old friends, and being driven around by them in their 4x4 which has UN numberplates (Mark is working in the Development Agency). The car license plate exempts them from local road tax and also from local police fines imposed on the spot for any misdemeanours. These fines evaporate in the system so although they may provide an extra income for the police, the money does not help the screaming need for investment in safer roads.

It was a good idea to start at the Railway Museum – because it was the railway, known as the Lunatic Line, which is the whole reason for Kenya’s existence. The Brits (along with the other European colonists, loose aristocrats and merchants) were looking for ways to bring goods across country... maybe a line from Mombasa on the coast could connect up with the headwaters of the Nile? It seemed worth the venture and so they brought Indian coolies over (experienced in the construction magnificence of the Indian Railways) and these workers hacked their way by hand up from the coast through swamps, forests and mountains to the place now called Nairobi. In Masai that means ‘place of cool waters,’ as it was originally a watering place for their cattle.... there was literally nothing here in 1890. Hundreds of the workers died making the line. But the poor navvies had to face more than hard labour. They were preyed on by lions who evidently developed a taste for curry-flavoured human meat – and many poor Indians were devoured. Eventually they complained loudly enough for the railway company to do something. They set a wagon up with workers inside it for bait, and a young Englishman called Charles Lyall was on duty overnight with a rifle. He fell asleep while he was on watch and the inevitable happened... he was taken and eaten, the only white man to suffer this dramatic and terrible fate. However, he is also the only one whose death is commemorated, and the museum guide went so far as compare him with Jesus Christ, as he sacrificed himself for his fellow man. There is the very wagon where this happened. We went aboard, looked at where poor Lyall breathed his last.

From the very good maps and models inside the Museum building, it's very clear how the country coalesced around this 'lunatic line', with the great powers rearranging the map of East Africa, so that Zanzibar and Tanganika disappeared, and the European wars had their impact here too, as you can see in the Karen Blixen film ‘Out of Africa’.

The Museum is absolutely fantastic. There is a very large collection of marvellous steam engines (mostly from Manchester) in pretty good shape, along with various wagons, cranes, etc and they are crying out for restoration. All it needs is a group of UK railway enthusiasts to come and set it up, and some heritage funding.

There wasn’t any coal in Kenya so the engines were ingeniously converted to oil, with extra tanks fore and aft. Some of them are huge, especially for a one-metre gauge (an Indian Railway feature, apparently). How come the Indian Railways were metric? The Museum building has a marvellous collection of artefacts and photos, maps, tools, furnishings etc and we were free to climb into and around all the gear there throughout the whole site, as health and safety are not (as you know) an important aspect of life in Kenya. The guide was knowledgeable and helpful and I thoroughly recommend this as a place for you to visit if you come here.

Our final call yesterday was to Westgate Mall, which shows what happened to the descendants of the Indian railway navvies. This is a glittering state-of-the-art shopping centre, which could be dropped wholesale into north London and look completely at home. That’s because after they'd built the railway, the Indians took up trade – shopkeeping, in fact, and the Mall is a temple of retail. Very smart. Outside we had a cool drink and observed a tree full of weaver-bird nests. These miraculous constructions are made from leaves or strands of this and that... the tree in question looked as if it was dying because all the leaves had gone, but dozens of nests were dangling from all its top branches, like tiny shapely lanterns.

We watched ‘Out of Africa’ in the evening, a film which I think bears repeated viewing as it has so much in it, sufficiently historically accurate, to be a good aid to our understanding of what’s gone on here.

Today we went to see the Sheldrick orphaned elephant sanctuary, which was of course charming and interesting as well as a telling illustration of how Africa has been carved up, displacing both peoples and animals. They keep these dear little things in care for up to three years, feeding them on human-formula milk till they’re weaned, and then gradually (over 5 years) introducing them back to the wild. 84 successfully reintegrated so far. They are orphaned for various reasons – poachers kill their mothers, or man interferes in some other way, or natural causes. They are rescuable from a very early age, as young as a week or two, which seems miraculous. Elephants can no longer do their massive migrations across the plains, as they are a direct threat to farmers. It is frightening how quickly this magical powerful life cycle can be destroyed... in my lifetime.

We then went to see a similar set up for giraffes. There are nine sub-species of giraffe in Africa, three of which are in Kenya. The most endangered (down to a few hundred or so not very long ago) is Rothschild’s giraffe, which is identifiable by its white knees and socks. This sanctuary has a small herd with a successful breeding programme and has brought numbers up to safer levels. The giraffes come to a feeding platform for pellets, and there you can kiss them – they take a pellet from your mouth with great delicacy. I can report their long tongues are a bit sandpapery and I am told their saliva is very antiseptic, as they normally browse in thorny acacia trees.

I am very conscious of telling only a very small part of all the things we are seeing. I will try to fill in as we go. The whole botany of the place is amazing. The birds are beautiful. We saw a baboon in the middle of the road. The suburbs and slums are eating into the forest very fast. The roads are mended by young men wielding pickaxes... not a machine in sight. The verges of the roads are a sort of no-man's-land where people can set up shop, and they do. They make marvellous mahogany furniture by the side of the road, lovely looking stuff. They also have masses of little plant nurseries, hundreds of them, with every colour and size of plant, apparently tended by one or two youngish people or an old granny type. These are on fast-flowing roads, and I have not yet seen a single person stop to buy.

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