It is a brutally hot, dry and dusty day in Garissa town, in the arid region of North-Eastern Kenya, when Kaha Hassan brings her one-year-old son Sudeys to Medina Health Centre. Two consecutive rains have failed in the region and only a few scrubby bushes and skinny animals have survived. Goats with visible ribcages roam the grounds of the health centre, searching for something to eat. The morning sun beats down on the sandy ground, drying it out even more.
As the school day finishes in Lodwar, Turkana, a group of boys runs out onto a sandy football pitch between their classrooms. There is a flash of colour beneath their pink school shirts, which some of them peel off to reveal international football club shirts beneath. They run up and down the pitch with tremendous energy, gesturing at each other. Finally, 13-year-old Ezra, wearing an Atletico Madrid t-shirt, gets a clear shot at the goal. He lines it up and shoots. The ball swerves past the goalkeeper and lands behind the goalpost, kicking up a small cloud of dust as it lands. Ezra throws up his arms in celebration. But there is little or no sound from the players, all of whom are fully or partially deaf.
Sixteen-year-old Christine Aleper sits in a Grade 4 English class at Namoruputh Primary School, in Turkana County. It is a hot, dry afternoon and a sudden gust of wind blows dust through the open windows. Christine is much taller than the other children in the class, who range from 9 to 11-years old, and the only one wearing a blue and white school uniform. But the fact that she is learning English at all is remarkable, given her background. Standing by the board, her teacher, Hellen, explains the different types of articles – a, an, the – and when to use them. She asks for examples and Christina stands and reads out: “a ball, an apple, the sun.”
In August each year, 2.2 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 cross the Sand River and then the wide, crocodile infested Mara River. As the rains change, they do the same journey in reverse. These crossings are one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth, as desperate animals fight for survival. After each crossing, there are a few less wildebeest.
This was something my whole family wanted to see while we were living in Kenya. But finding 2.2 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. Finding the wildebeest at the exact moment that they decide to cross a river is almost impossible. But not quite.
It is late morning in Namoruputh Primary School in Turkana, hot and dusty despite the wintertime. The school is close to the border with Uganda, which is lined by a ridge of high mountains on the horizon where rainclouds gather. Behind a classroom, a large satellite dish has been installed, surrounded by a makeshift fence of thorny branches, gathered from the bushes that punctuate the sandy ground.
Inside, teacher Mwangangi begins an unusual science lesson. He draws a diagram of a flower on the blackboard, but instead of telling the children the names of the parts of the flower, or handing out a textbook, he asks them to Google it. The children bend over their distinctive lime-coloured tablets, searching for images with the right information. Cecilia Akai, 13, raises her arm “Teacher, teacher,” she says. He gives her a chalk and she walks to the board, where she writes ‘stigma’ on the correct part of the flower. After naming all the parts of the flower, the teacher asks the children to research their functions and they break into groups, searching and discussing the results.
I’ve visited the Maasai Mara three times so far during my time in Kenya, and been blown away by the experience each time. It’s the only place where I’ve seen a cheetah kill, watched the great wildebeest migration or had a sunset beer a few metres away from a sleeping crocodile. On two trips, we benefitted from a genuine Maasai guide, Moses, who grew up in the area and knows the landscape and wildlife intimately. And one of the very few up sides of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the animals were thriving and there were very few visitors, aside from a few Nairobi residents like us, so it often felt like we had the whole national park to ourselves.
Here is a selection of my favourite photos from the three visits:
In the small garden behind Dandora 1 Health Centre, a tent and table has been set up for COVID-19 vaccinations. Health workers sit at the table checking IDs and registering local residents who have turned up to get their jab – a mixture of teachers, health workers and older people. A small queue has formed, with people sitting on a bench or plastic chairs as they await their turn.
Dandora is home to both a densely packed urban community and one of the largest rubbish dumps in Africa. Outside the health centre, the sounds of children playing can be heard, along with boda boda motorbikes and the Friday call to prayers. A large graffiti mural shows a doctor with stethoscope advising residents to wear a mask, wash their hands, and keep physical distance, under the slogan “komesha korona” (stop coronavirus).
The COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world in 2020 seemed to upend everything. Busy city streets became deserted, aeroplanes disappeared from the skies and face masks became ubiquitous. Having spent the first year of the pandemic in Nairobi and Hong Kong, we saw reminders everywhere we looked. But one place at least seemed unaffected: the Maasai Mara. Here, antelopes, giraffes and wildebeests kept grazing the savannah, exactly as before. Lions and cheetahs kept on hunting them, oblivious to our human disease. Even the semi-nomadic Maasai people continued life much as before, herding their cattle across the open plains.
It was a clear November morning on the Maasai Mara. The afternoon storm clouds had not yet arrived, but the grass and trees were lush and green from the previous day’s rain. Wild animals roamed freely along the banks of the Mara River and through the savanna – herds of impala, giraffe and zebra, plus large numbers of wildebeest remaining from the recent ‘great migration’. This being Enonkishu Conservancy rather than the true national park, there were also occasional mud brick villages, schools and churches. Maasai herders, some wearing distinctive red shuka robes, watched herds of cattle or drove down the dirt roads on motorbikes. Continue reading “Cheetah kill: visiting the Maasai Mara during a pandemic (pt1)”→
12-year-old Diana Anyango lives in Korogocho, the fourth largest informal settlement (or urban slum) in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s a place where people live in close quarters, often without power or access to running water. Makeshift houses constructed from wood and iron are raised precariously two or three floors high. Clothes are hung out to dry on old electricity cables, stretched across narrow alleyways. From a wooden balcony, Diana looks out over the rusted rooftops to the formal houses and tower blocks beyond the settlement. The street below, usually busy with vendors and “boda-boda” motorbikes, is half empty. A few pedestrians walk past wearing face masks.