Earlier this week, in the Tana river district of Kenya, at least 48 people were killed in an outbreak of ethnic violence. J.M. Ledgard visited the region late last year, and found it under threat...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2012
“It seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.” These words, from V.S. Naipaul’s “The Masque of Africa”, nag at me. The book itself, published in 2010 as his final word on Africa, was a meagre offering; for Naipaul, Africa is unspeakably bland and squalid. The “calamity” was what had happened to nature in and around Kampala, Uganda’s capital, where Naipaul spent a formative five months in 1966 at Makerere University. The Kampala of his memory was fragrant, but now it was lined with “moraines” of rubbish. Why is it so hard for me to escape his verdict? Perhaps because he was telling the truth.
Calamity is often staring you in the face in Africa. Where there was a forest, there is now a bare mountain. Where there was a mountain, there is a quarry. I am a foreigner, with romantic notions. I love Africa, and am embarrassed to ask whether its vitality goes hand in hand with despoilment, or is it carelessness? Where did Africa go? And what I mean by Africa, if I am honest, is paradise. Where did paradise go?
I hear elders tell how leopards used to enter the village when they were children, how the soil was rich then, the maize plentiful, the trees tall and thick, and so clouds gathered, rain fell, and streams were clear-flowing. There was no plastic then, no acid, no metal. There was also no medicine, no schooling, no communication, no alternative. I know that. Yet still I hope for the untouched continent that existed long before Naipaul shipped up; verdant, wild, celebratory.
Taking a speedboat up the Tana river delta before Christmas, I glimpsed it. It was a bright day, with that tarry heat you get on the Kenyan coast. The waters at the mouth of the river were turned to chocolate by sediment, and we cut a white trail. The banks were viridescent, there was a thickness of life, so many insects, so many flowers; some of the channels were narrow as canals, still as pond water, covered with lilies, and all about was the fulvous flashing of weaver birds leaving their nests, and gemlike blue kingfishers. I clambered out on to an uninhabited island and ate under a sausage tree. Squatting on my haunches against the circling ants and rotting fruit, I felt I was finally in a bit of Africa which matched my memory of the Tarzan films. This was a place where a calamity had yet to occur.
FROM SNOW TO SEA
The Tana is the longest river in Kenya. It seeps from the moors of the Aberdare Mountains, gathers snowmelt coursing off Mount Kenya, and wends through vast dry plains inhabited by Somali herders, before emptying into the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 kilometres later. It is a modest river, never wide or deep. Few Kenyans have seen it, or thought much about it; it flows through a few hardscrabble towns. The ranches along it have been bankrupted, the elephant herds mostly wiped out.
Its short recorded history has been one of rejection. White men ventured up the Tana cautiously and unhappily; on its banks Methodist missionaries were speared by tribesmen, the Utopian hopes of Austro-Hungarian Freelanders were shat away by dysentery, and colonial officers turned to drink and killed themselves. The Germans wanted the Tana for their own, but in 1890 they traded it for Heligoland. Attempts to make the river navigable failed because it was too serpentine. In 1906 the railway from Mombasa established a new way into the interior. The Tana has been largely untouched ever since.
Perhaps not for much longer. Kenya’s population has grown from 8m at independence in 1963 to 43m today. Incomes are rising steeply, so Kenyans demand more fuel, more meat, more sugar. That makes the Tana delta an enticing prospect. Existing schemes for industrial farming of jatropha for biofuel and sugar are just the start. Wherever possible the delta will be turned to farming and water siphoned off for irrigation; more cattle will be put on the floodplains. Efforts supported by the Delta Dunes Lodge, a luxury camp, have allowed locals to present a case for conservation to the government in Nairobi. They will be supported by international conservation groups. Still, it is hard for the poor to fight their corner in a system where power and avarice are ardent bedfellows.
The biggest industrial project on the Kenyan coast will be to the north in the Lamu archipelago. At a spot now occupied by a Kenya-US naval base, a super-port capable of handling huge container ships is due to be built. A motorway and railway will move its goods to Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda; oil will flow the other way. On arid land now inhabited by the hunter-gatherer Boni people, a new city will arise—call it New Lamu—with 2m people and an international airport. The reaction of well-heeled residents in the heritage-protected Lamu Town is predictably nimby-ish; a more considered view holds that as the development is likely to happen anyway, it is better to demand national-park protection for the Tana delta and its mangrove forests as the price for the super-port.