Kenya, my home (?)

Nelly @TateModern

Are you sad that the holidays are over?”

For seven weeks we travelled to the old continent and I definitely learned some interesting things. On the positive side I felt a recovering hopeful European vibe., I realised that Belgian food is still the best in the world (French quality-German portions). I discovered Uberboats exists and to my absolute delight I saw that Cola light is making a comeback in the UK starring Kate Moss on billboards saying “love what you love”, British for: “the hell with the opinions of others”. I really liked that. On the more depressing side were the increased prices for almost everything, some Air bnb disappointments and the fact that crop tops are still a thing.

But to answer the question, after almost two months of travel with a one and a two year old completely out of their routines, I can tell you the answer is NO, I am not sad at all. I am happy to be back in Nairobi, to be home again.

The vacation kicked off -after a rather peaceful 8,5 hour night flight (only one vomit)- with our taxi having a flat tire on one of Paris’ busiest highways. Standing for over an hour in the grass verge behind the guardrail holding on to our small children while monster trucks zoomed by only a few meters from us, I obliged my mind to stay positive “it could be raining now”, “we could have had an accident”, “despite massive strikes all our suitcases arrived”, “killing the taxi driver will not solve this”. 

This was only the start and I have to admit that I underestimated how chaotic those weeks turned out to be with the kids getting sick -Nelly even ended up in the hospital for some days- and with the usual “back to the homeland”- joys and disappointments on steroids.

Although I absolutely loved the family times, epic reunions, weddings, birthday parties, first haircuts and steps,… my “stay-positive-and-enjoy-every-minute”-intentions failed more than once. So, yes, I was glad to get on that Kenyan Airways plane.

The day of our flight they announced that William Ruto was elected as the new president, making him Kenya’s fifth president since independence. A man of the common people, who only wore shoes for the first time when he was 15 years old. Let’s see if changes will be made and promises will be kept or if it will just be a different name for a similar game.

As expected celebrations as well as a few violent protests followed the declaration of the results. When we were waiting to board, I got some worried messages from friends and family asking if it was safe to go back. Luckily, years of living in Africa taught us to contact reliable sources on site instead of reading the world press. By the time we landed all was peaceful in the streets of Nairobi and we made it home smoothly, in record time.

While unpacking my never used trainers I started to think about journalism and in particular the reporting on Africa, often magnifiying negative stories…

The work of a lifetime – not just a dream

Days passed and around day twelve when the euphoria of coming home calmed down, a backlash was inevitable. Feelings of doubt drizzled in and questions arose.

Can we feel at home far away from family and friends? Am I depriving my kids of Western culture? Are we really at home in a country where the majority of the people live such different lives than we do?”

I am used to these little existential dips and I know they pass. Needing routine as well as change just makes us very tiring creatures, I must say.

"What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" 

It’s one of my favourite quotes by Mary Oliver from the poem “The Summer Day”. I simply love it and I often think about it. Although it can also overwhelm me at times, the freedom that goes out from it is inspiring. My point here is that I truly believe that we all should be free to choose where we build our nest as long as we contribute to the local society.

Funny enough it was around this time of planning and reflection that I watched a documentary on the Dutch television about a contested region in Kenya. After watching it, a sense of injustice lingered in me.

The region is the homeland of Sveva, daughter of Kuki Gallmann, one of Kenya’s leading environmental activists who wrote the bestselling and Hollywood filmed “I dreamed of Africa”.

In the West of Laikipia County, about three hours drive from Nairobi, lies the beautiful Ol Ari Nyiro nature reserve, it is home to the largest and wildest animals of our planet: elephants, giraffes, rhinos, buffaloes, lions, zebras, leopards,….

Nine years after Kenyan independence, in 1972, the land was purchased by the Italian Gallmann family. What must have started out as an adventurous fairy tale soon turned into a tragedy: Kuki’s husband died when she was pregnant with daughter Sveva, and three years later she lost her son to a snake bite.

Kuki found the courage to carry on, determined to protect the area, to lifeguard an exceptional biodiversity. Without the family’s ongoing efforts of ecological conservation and the fight against poaching the reserve today would most likely be as barren as the surrounding region.

Clearly they would never have succeeded without the cooperation of the local population. Without a longstanding mutual bond of trust and respect with the local inhabitants, this would have been a very short-lived story.

Over the last fifty years many projects concerning education, poverty alleviation, public health, habitat protection, peace and reconciliation, etc. were set up for the benefit of the various neighboring tribes giving thousands of people better prospects.

Cattle herders were allowed to graze their herds on the property. For a long time, this all went off without a hitch. About five years ago, however, peace in the region came to an end. The lodge on the domain was burned down and Kuki got shot by armed herdsmen.

Leading up to the elections, over the past 18 months the situation became even more dangerous with a constant presence of armed pastoralist militia backed by politicians planning on a land grab. Over the years, hundreds of Kenyans lost their lives and thousands were displaced. Combined with the desperation of an unseen drought, these horrors caused a human catastrophe. Kuki was shot a second time.

In this documentary, journalist Bram Vermeulen places the conservation of nature versus human needs in a far too simple way.

It was obvious that he was prejudiced and wanted drama and sensation on the back of a famous name. It made my toes curl when he lifted a skinny cow while pointing at a barbed wire, thus insinuating that with the barbed wire down, everything would be solved. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Allowing uncontrolled grazing would completely dry out the entire area in a minimum of time with immense loss of biodiversity and no sustainable solution for the people.

Anyway, this is a complex story about which dozens of pages could be written. It has been a true nightmare for a great amount of people, including the Gallmann family. During hellish months with fear for her mother’s life and that of her young family, daughter Sveva bravely persevered.

Finally, a turning point came in August of this year. The results of the elections ended the violence. Peace talks are happening and can hopefully lead to long-term stability. It will take time for the region to recover from this but in the meantime, thousands of herds of cattle can graze again in peace. Luckily Kuki is also on the mend. 

It is unfortunate that this story was covered in the Dutch press in such a one-sided and incomplete way. The role of wealthy Kenyan politicians and cattle barons was minimized and the ending of the violence was hardly mentioned.

I understand that simplifying the world’s most delicate opposites sells easily. For sure this documentary will have sounded credible to people who have no clue about African realities. However, this is not an obvious story about rich versus poor or black versus white or nature versus man but it was presented that way and I find that particularly unfair.

The right to call home “home”

The belittling tone in which the journalist asked Sveva why her mother saw this conservancy as her responsibility kicked me in the stomach. As if he was asking her to justify why this was her home. To a woman who has been fighting for years to preserve a natural gem that otherwise would have been lost, a woman with -thank God- the same survival instinct as her mother, who speaks fluent Swahili and devotes her life to the protection of nature and the local culture, a woman with a Masters in Human Science from Oxford, a young mother, a white Kenyan… How such an example of a woman was pushed into a small uncomfortable corner on the soil where she grew up, where her father and brother are buried … it shocked me to the bone.

It also made me think about my own situation. I would like my children to believe that anything is possible, that they have “roots and wings,” in an unlimited and free way. Yet unsolvable question marks flutter through my brain. When do you have the right to call somewhere your home? And who has the right to deny you that?

By no means some sensationalist journalist….



4 responses to “Kenya, my home (?)”

  1. “Kila Ndege huruka kwa bawa lake”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting and beautiful article !!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautifull written.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love your articles!

    Liked by 1 person

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