The waters of Lake Victoria are calm off Dunga beach, Kisumu, as young entrepreneur Vincent and fisherman Nicholas climb into a wooden boat and head out to check on their fish. Storks perch on rocks emerging from the water along the lakeside, while further out white-sailed dhow boats cut across the breeze. “It’s calm now but, in a few hours, it will be very choppy,” Nicholas observes.
The boat soon arrives at the offshore fish cages. Visible on the surface of the lake are 12 square metal frames, supported by blue plastic tanks filled with air. Under the water, a series of nets holds around 5,000 tilapias in each cage. Nicholas takes off his shoes and clambers onto a walkway at the edge of the cage, which rocks gently under his weight. He peels back the top layer of the net and reaches in to grab a few large fish, which he throws into the boat. They lie at the bottom, thrashing their tails and gulping at the air.
We visited Nairobi National Park in mid-March, towards the end of the dry season and during a prolonged drought. Over the previous three months, the unforgiving sun had wrung the last drops of moisture out of the vegetation. The grass, where it remained at all, had turned into dry yellow straw. This was clearly affecting the herbivores, which were weak from lack of food and easy prey for predators. Like in Amboseli, we saw lots of dead animals lying by the roadside – some eaten, others left almost untouched. The lions, however, looked well-fed and the vultures were numerous.
It’s a hot and humid morning on John Ochieng’s farm on the outskirts of Kisumu town, near a small lagoon. John is a bright and healthy 77-year-old who strides through the fields in bare feet, some of his toenails missing after decades of labour. He enjoys practicing his English. “How are you coping with the atmospheric pressure this morning?” he asks UNICEF, with a twinkle in his eyes.
John collects a bag of manure from young entrepreneurs Chelsea and Steven of Saniwise Technologies. Their company has designed an eco-friendly toilet and sells manure and chicken feed produced as a by-product. John draws some water from a borehole and leads the UNICEF team to a nearby field where he is growing spinach, aubergines, tomatoes and lettuce. He carefully packs some of the manure around a small lettuce in the centre of a hole in the field, then moves onto the next one.
I’ve written about Amboseli National Park before, including during the dry season. This time, we visited at Christmas on a last minute deal, having cancelled plans to visit Hong Kong. As this was our third visit, I took less photos, but got some amazing shots from our safari camp, Tawi Lodge, which is situated right next to a watering hole. You can be having lunch or a swim and suddenly notice giraffes or an elephant wandering over for a drink or mud bath. We were also there during weaver bird nesting season. These birds like to construct their nests over lakes or swamps, as the water makes it harder for predators to approach – and our swimming pool seemed to work just as well. Fimally, there was an extended family of mongoose living under the wooden decking, who would come out in the early morning and late afternoon to dig for food.
Nairobi National park is a unique safari experience just across the road from Nairobi’s Central Business District, and 40 minutes drive from our house. We stayed at Ololo Lodge, a beautiful farmhouse and safari lodge on the opposite side of the park. It was also directly under the flight path for JKIA international airport, so jumbo jets would frequently thunder past overhead. At 120 square kilometres, the park is not very big compared to others in Kenya, and even at Ololo, you can see the tops of the tallest buildings in Nairobi. There is also a raised railway line that bisects the park, although animals move freely beneath it.
Our second visit to Amboseli National Park came in October, towards the end of the dry season. The contrast with our first visit in April was stark: the green grass had dried, shriveled and turned yellow; it was hot and dry, with regular dust storms twisting their way across the parched landscape; and the lake had shrunk noticeably, although it was still large enough to sustain a small flock of flamingos. Elephants drank swampy water amongst dead trees and hungry baboons tried to grab snacks from passing safari cars. Most disturbingly, the plain was littered with the carcasses and skeletons of dead wildebeest, zebras and other animals. Vultures and hyenas were thriving on this macabre buffet, but there were so many dead animals that the scavengers had mostly had their fill and many carcasses were left untouched. This is why Amboseli literally means ‘dusty and salty’ in the local Maasai language.
Monika Muema, 73, sits at home weaving baskets in the single-room makeshift house she shares with her granddaughter Alice, 13, in Kajiado town. There is a bed on one side of the room and a sofa on the other. A bag of maize flour on the floor provides the main source of food. Monika’s gnarled fingers move in and out of the strings with surprising dexterity, adding neat rows of red, black and white. Afterwards, she packs up four completed baskets and walks slowly to the main road, where she sets up a roadside stall on a corner opposite a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) stop.
Kajiado town is a small Kenyan trading centre, close to the border with Tanzania. It’s surrounded by open grasslands, where Maasai pastoralists tend their cattle. A line of wind turbines turn slowly on a hillside outside town. Hard hit during COVID-19 travel restrictions, Kajiado’s economy is now starting to recover. Close to the centre of town is a compound of a dozen houses. This is clearly a middle-income area. The houses are small but well-made and painted white and blue. A large water tank in one corner provides water for the houses, which are also connected to the electricity grid.
Aside from the safaris, Diani beach is one of my favourite destinations in Kenya. At low tide it’s hundreds of metres wide and made up of soft, powdery white sand. Early in the morning, translucent white crabs emerge from holes in the ground and scuttle across the sand, looking for food. On our latest visit, I saw three of them clambering across a coconut that had fallen from the palm trees at the top of the beach, snipping off pieces of white flesh with their pincers. The crabs were well camouflaged and hard to spot when they stayed still. It was only the motion that gave them away. But they generally stayed close to their holes and scuttled back in at the first sign of danger.
It’s a quiet mid-morning at Bunde Health Centre in Kisumu, when local farmer Alice Mwajuma brings her two children David, 5, and Dahzur, 2, for a check-up. Long antlered cattle wander down the earth road outside, stopping to munch on the occasional patch of green grass. Alice and her boys arrive on a boda-boda motorbike, stopping by a fruit stall on the road outside. The health centre is quiet and cool in the shade of large trees. Blue and white buildings sport graffiti art illustrating health messages, such as the six ante-natal care steps for pregnant women to take.