Kenya year three: a new normal

Storm clouds roll in from the sea at Diani Beach during rainy season.
© Andrew Brown/2022/Kenya

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.

For my kids, Zefi and Ayla, the main attraction of Diani was the two labrador dogs, Jimbo and Rufus, who lived at the beach house we usually stayed at. I also enjoyed running along the beach with the dogs in the morning. They would occasionally chase after crabs without ever actually catching one. There was also a troupe of colobus monkeys that lived in the jungle next door, who would regularly visit our compound and snatch any food that we left out. And there were two prehistoric-looking hornbills that perched in the top of tall trees and made a racket with their calls.

Our favourite outing in Diani was to visit a sandbar that emerges from the sea around 10am most mornings. The quickest way to get there is by speedboat but on a recent visit we tried something different: a traditional sailing boat. This was a catamaran made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, some branches, a large white fabric sail and lots of rope. After clambering on board through the shallow water, we sailed swiftly downwind to the sandbar in around 15 minutes. It was a real pleasure skimming silently over the waves without the sound of an engine. At the sandbank, we snorkled in the shallow water and found numerous red starfish, which we returned to the sea, as well as a sea urchin shell complete with cartilage mouth parts inside, which we kept.

The return journey was a different matter. We were travelling against the wind so we had to tack across it, which meant zig-zagging towards the shore and then back out to sea. At the furthest point, we switched the sail to the other side of the boat. This was a complicated and strenuous process so I helped the sailors pull the rope and lock the sail tight in its new position. What had been a 15 minute outward journey took over an hour to return. It was a hot day and we tried to stay in the shade of the sail as much as possible. My daughter Ayla kept herself entertained by singing “the sea is green, the sea is green, the sea is blue, the sea is blue,” as we passed over alternating patches of sand and seaweed. It was exhausting but quite an experience.

Walking down Diani beach with Jimbo to our sailing boat, and a crab hiding behind Ayla’s Crocs shoe.
© Andrew Brown/2022/Kenya

Our third year in Kenya was easily the most normal to date (see my year one and year two posts). We were fully vaccinated, I was back in the office 2-3 days a week, our kids were back at school and COVID-19 had become more of an annoyance than a potential death threat. The one thing we couldn’t do was international travel: Hong Kong had ramped up their inbound quarantine to three weeks and the UK continued to be at the epicentre of the pandemic, with wave after wave of new variants and infections. So we stayed in Kenya, lived life mostly outdoors, and explored the many great destinations that the country has to offer.

At work, my focus on COVID-19 was also reducing, with two new issues taking over: the Horn of Africa drought and upcoming 2022 general election. On a visit to Garissa, which borders Somalia to the northeast, I produced stories about the impact of drought on children. Three rainy seasons in a row (now four) had failed in this area. Driven by climate change and coming on top of the pandemic, it was the shaping up to be the worst drought crisis in 20 years.

Drought response

Kaha plays with her son Sudeys, 1, who is recovering from malnutrition.
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

Our first day of filming in Garissa town was brutally hot, dry and dusty. We were at Medina Health Centre when Kaha Hassan brought her one-year-old son, Sudeys, in for a check-up. After the failed rains, only a few scrubby bushes and skinny animals had survived. Goats with visible ribcages roamed the grounds of the health centre, searching for something to eat. The morning sun beat down on the sandy ground, drying it out even more.

Kaha waited on a bench with six other mothers and young children. When her turn came, she presented Sudeys to a health worker, who measured his weight and height. Sudeys was calm on the scales but when he had to lie down on the measuring board, he burst into tears and clung on to his mother afterwards. The health worker wrote down his results with satisfaction – since his last visit, his arm measurement had changed from red (severe wasting) to yellow (moderate wasting). She told Kaha that Sudeys was improving and gave her some ready-to-use therapeutic food to continue his treatment at home.

Afterwards, I interviewed Kaha. She told me that her family were forced to leave their home in Modogashe, 150 km north of Garissa town, where they used to herd animals, due to the drought. “We lost eight cattle to drought and four goats,” Kaha said in Somali. “We had no pasture, no milk and no water. We couldn’t pay rent anymore.”

Kaha moved to Garissa to stay with her in-laws. “I feel happy when I go to the health centre because they are supporting us,” she added. “Sudeys is doing much better now and is even trying to stand. When the drought ends, I hope to go back home and continue to raise my family.” Read the full story here.

Community Health Volunteer Abdi shows a mother how to check her son for malnutrition
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

It was also election season and one of the likely Presidential candidates was in Garissa campaigning at the same time as us. While we were out, he held a rally at our hotel. We returned to find a crowd of supporters waiting to be paid and two camels in the garden, presumably brought in to demonstrate a local cultural connection.

When I’m in the field, I have a personal tradition of a cold beer at the end of the day. Garissa is a majority Muslim area where alcohol is legal but very hard to find. Our local colleagues had two suggestions: the Police Officers’ Mess or Government Guest House Number 9. We went to the latter, which turned out to be a budget hotel for visiting civil servants from other parts of Kenya. They had a well stocked bar, so I got a few bottles to take away. Then came the next challenge: finding a bottle opener. After trying a few stores without success, we gave up. Our videographer Mike claimed – truthfully, it turned out – that he could open one beer bottle using another. “In Kenya, this is an important skill that all students learn at university, ” he explained.

Born to run

A herd of wildebeest contemplating making the river crossing to the Serengeti.
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

This was also the year that we saw one of the biggest wildlife spectacles on Earth: the great wildebeest migration. In August each year, over two million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and antelope, migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya, in search of greener pastures. Along the way, they have to cross the crocodile infested Mara River. There are moments of intense drama as desperate animals fight for survival. After each crossing, there are a few less wildebeest.

Finding two million wildebeest in the Maasai Mara was harder than I thought. At 1,500 square kilometres, the Mara is vast, and the Serengeti is even larger. But after a fruitless morning drive, our guide Daniel finally spotted a herd (technically a ‘confusion’) of around 10,000 wildebeest that were heading south. “There’s a river crossing less than one kilometre from here,” Daniel said. “It’s hard to know when they will cross. It could be one, two or three hours.”

After a while, the herd stopped moving and settled down to graze, so we took the kids back to the campsite for lunch. I came back out with David to try to catch the river crossing. But when we got back to where we had left the wildebeest, they were gone. David made a few calls on his radio. “The main herd has already crossed Sand River,” he said. “But there is a smaller group heading towards the Mara River. We might still catch them.”

Wildebeest swim across the Mara River and climb the hill on the far side, heading towards the Serengeti.
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

We crossed the Mara River on a cast iron bridge and made our way up the far bank. It was dry and hot and I could see sand twisters forming in the distance. Just then another cloud of dust appeared but coming up from the riverbank. “It’s started!” David exclaimed. He sped up and drove fast towards the river, small rocks clanging against the bottom of the safari car. Arriving at the river, he swerved into a patch of bare ground at the top of a high bank overlooking the river.

I could now see what had caused the cloud. Two thousand wildebeest were in the process of crossing the river. On the far side, they had slid down a sand bank, causing the dust to rise into the air. As we arrived, the penultimate group was swimming in the middle of the river and then clambered up the rocky slope on our side of the river. The final group was still on the far side, some of them twisting around and tossing their horns in the air in agitation. As I watched, one animal at the head of the last group leaped into the river, and the rest followed, swimming in a line towards the opposite shore. I clambered into the front seat of the car and fired off a dozen photos, then it was over.

I was lucky to have seen it at all. “Sometimes we have to wait for hours after the herd arrives at the river,” David explained. “None of the animals want to go first, because they will be a target for the crocodiles, but as soon as one goes, the rest follow. None of the wants to be last either.” However, there were no crocodile attacks this time. “They’re all full from the big crossing yesterday,” David said. Read the full story here.

Election advocacy

Alice Mwajuma brings her children to Bunde Health Centre for a check-up.
© UNICEF Kenya/2022/Lameck Orina

Other than the drought, my main focus at work was the 2022 general election. We identified six priority issues for children and set about persuading political parties and candidates to include these in their manifestos. We also ran a public advocacy campaign, with my team producing multimedia stories on the same issues. One of these was primary health care and I travelled to Kisumu, where UNICEF was supporting the county government to pilot a primary care network, to film a story.

It was mid-morning at Bunde Health Centre, when local farmer Alice Mwajuma brought her two children David, 5, and Dahzur, 2, for a check-up. Long antlered cattle wandered down the earth road outside, stopping to munch on the occasional patch of green grass. Alice and her boys arrived on a boda-boda motorbike, washed their hands and put on masks before entering the compound. The health centre was quiet and cool in the shade of large trees. Blue and white buildings sported graffiti art illustrating health messages.

Alice, David and Dahzur joined a short queue of mothers and children waiting for their consultations. The two boys had recently developed an itchy red rash on their arms, which Alice was concerned was not going away. After just ten-minutes, Alice and the boys saw a doctor. They were taken to another room for a lab test, back to see the doctor for a diagnosis, and finally to the pharmacy to pick up their medication.

“The doctor told me that David and Dahzur have a fungal infection,” Alice told me afterwards. “She gave me some medicine to treat it. They need to take it for five days. I like coming to the health centre because it’s close by and convenient. We were seen very quickly, and it was not expensive. It’s much better than travelling to the district hospital.”

As this was an advocacy story, I took an interview myself. “UNICEF believes that primary and community health should be the cornerstones of universal health care,” I said. “We can use this to prevent and treat early the majority of childhood conditions. It’s actually more cost effective: the return on investment for primary health is close to ten to one.” Read the full story here.

Lamu Island

A donkey walks down the high street at Lamu Town, while nearby a carpenter works outside a furniture shop.
© Andrew Brown/2021/Kenya

With travel restrictions lifted within Kenya, we were keen to explore further. One place that I wanted to visit was Lamu Island. Close to the border with Somalia, Lamu was founded in the 12th Century and is one of the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlements in East Africa. Similar to Zanzibar, it was colonised by Arab traders in the 14th Century, who build a port and mosque. In the 19th Century it was taken over by the British and became part of the slave trade. Even today, it is a mixture of indigenous, Arab, African and European influences, all of which contributed to form the Swahili culture and language.

We were staying at a beach house on the far side of the island, so we took a boat into town, going through the narrow sea between the island and mainland. This looked like a broad river, with mangrove forests lining both banks. After half an hour, we arrived at Lamu Town, where we took a walking tour. There are no cars on Lamu Island and the main form of transport is donkeys. These animals roam through the narrow streets of Lamu Town and out across the island, where the rough terrain and small winding paths gives them an advantage over motorbikes. In Lamu Town, we saw workshops where carpenters carved elaborate doors and beds with distinctive patterns. Elsewhere in Kenya, you often come across houses decorated in this ‘Lamu style’.

We also visited old courtyard houses in the Arab district, which were designed to stay cool even in fiercely hot summer weather. Interestingly, many of these had exterior walls made from blocks of coral, brought up from the seabed.

Amboseli National Park

Pink flamingos wade through a reflection of Mount Kilimanjaro in Lake Amboseli. Later, a bull elephant strides across green grass towards the lake.
© Andrew Brown/2022/Kenya

We finished the year with a new safari discovery: Amboseli National Park. Every safari in Kenya has its own distinctive feature, and Amboseli is characterized by dramatic views of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, which lies just over the border in Tanzania.

Amboseli is a short 40 minute flight from Wilson Airport in Nairobi. Flying towards the mountain just after sunrise in a 12-seater aeroplane was an experience in itself. We had the whole plane to ourselves and sat directly behind the pilots, looking over their shoulders at Mount Kilimanjaro. The mountain started as a small peak in the distance but grew steadily larger as we flew directly towards it. We came in low over a plain full of wildlife and landed at a tiny airstrip close to the lake, still early in the morning and in time for a safari drive.

It was photographer’s dream. I was able to capture a wide array of wildlife close up, with Mount Kilimanjaro rising out of the clouds in the background. Even better, on clear mornings the surface of the lake reflected the mountain, its sharp image occasionally disrupted by flamingos, wildebeest and other animals wading through the shallow water. The park is most well known for elephants, but we also saw giraffes, zebra, pelicans, cheetahs and lions – the last coming a bit too close to our open-sided safari vehicle for comfort.

My children Zefi and Ayla watch sunrise over Mount Kilimanjaro from the porch of our cabin. Two dung beetles fight over a pile of poo, spotted on a walking safari.
© Andrew Brown/2022/Kenya

Other highlights of Amboseli included watching sunrise over Mount Kilimanjaro every morning from the porch of our cabin at Tawi Lodge. Interestingly, there were radically different amounts of snow on the peak on different days, with much more on the morning after a rainy day, rather than varying by season as I had previously assumed. We also did a walking safari, which provided a very different perspective on the wildlife, including a battle between two dung beetles. The first beetle had painstakingly made a ball of fresh poo, which was stolen in a matter of minutes by a larger beetle as we watched. See more photos here.

As with the Maasai Mara, there was a David Attenborough connection. When we got home, we watched a new series of Dynasties, which featured a family of elephants struggling to survive through the dry season in Amboseli. Several of the scenes closely mirrored those we had seen in real life just a few days before. At the end of the episode, after an epic journey by the elephants, the seasonal rains came and the park returned to life. For us too, it was the year that we first felt that our journey through the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to end, and we emerged into a world that had begun to feel more like the one we knew before.

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