We grew up up understanding that nature is wild and and dangerous.
By Phil Hall
In a film that hasn’t really stood the test of time, My Dinner with Andre, one of the characters played by Wallace Shawn says:
I enjoy getting up in the morning and having the cold cup of coffee that’s been waiting for me all night. It’s still there for me to drink in the morning and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight. I mean, I’m just so thrilled when I get up and I see the coffee there just the way I wanted it.
When I think of England I smile. From a plane flying over it looks gardened. And it is a garden; all the pests and dangerous animals seem to have been removed. Yes, there are a few vipers here and there. Of course there are foxes and squirrels. Surprisingly, as the sun goes down near a lake, there are midges, too. Rats. But the really dangerous animals in England are just human sidekicks; pitbulls and police horses.
When I was four we came to live in Langata and in those days Langata was a small leafy settlement sixteen kilometres away from Nairobi.
We had a VW Beetle. Its number plate was KGB 778. It would clatter smoothly in and out of Nairobi. From Nairobi we would head out across the flat plain covered in elephant grass towards our home. Our house was a cabin on stilts hidden by trees.
It took some time to get home. The landmark was Wilson Airport on the left. We would look at all the little aircraft parked in a row. They were like toys. The runway set off about 100 yards from the road behind a wire fence.
Later on when we moved for the first time to the UK I felt nostalgia for Kenya We all did. Perhaps our memories of Kenya got in the way of appreciating England as much as we should have. After all, my parents owned a pretty house with a plot of land right near the Thames in Abingdon.
Before I went to sleep I would fantasise about finding a little plane and flying back to Kenya. I imagined filling the plane up with mangoes, pineapples, papayas, avocados and grenadilla and bringing them back to surprise my family. Of course the little plane in my imagination was like one of the planes I saw parked at Wilson Airport.
Wilson Airport at dusk was beautiful. The planes were small sparks; landing, taking off, and taxiing. It’s odd if you are used to Northern Europe, but at the equator the sun sets quickly, like a curtain falling. It takes about half an hour for the horizon to dim and the colouring to fade to darkness.
As we drove, the sun setting, there was the strong smell of long grass whenever you rolled down a window. It gets cold fast near Nairobi because of the altitude. In 1964 there were still a few dangerous animals about. Animals could easily wander out of Nairobi National Park, and they did.
Whenever we could we visited Nairobi National Park. It is not a very big park and it wasn’t far from our house. It was busy. Even back then you could spot a pride of lions by the little circle of cars parked around it.
According to Mom, when we first arrived in Langata there were reports of a leopard wandering around nearby. You would think twice before stopping the car to pee. The headlights of the car picked out many eyes. Night was more populated than day.
Our house was on stilts because there were snakes, insects and rodents. It stood on tiptoe. Sometimes Mom and Dad went partying in town – they were in their late twenties. They would leave us with David the gardener. David enjoyed frightening us with stories about Hyenas. Hyenas have a special place in African myth and legend.
Listen. he would say, sharply. We would listen.
Invariably a a dog howled in the distance … another dog answered.
That’s a hyena. Do you know what hyenas like to eat?’
Little boys. he would say, and he poked us with his hard forefinger.
A book that any Kenyan boy or girl would know about and read was the Man Eaters of Tsavo. While they were building the railway to Mombasa lions ate some of the workers. When we drove to Mombasa from Nairobi for some of the road the railway would run parallel to us. We would match speeds with the train and wave at the people. Then either Mom or Dad might mention the story.
Once, when we woke up we saw a long, moving red path, almost a foot wide, crossing the garden. Army ants. They swarmed over the little animals that crossed their path leaving nothing behind but tiny skeletons. Odaouda, who worked for Mom and Dad, destroyed the army ants by pouring petrol onto them and setting them alight in a crackling flame.
We grew up fearing large animals. Elephants could squash cars and sometimes did. Leopards were beautiful, and cunning, but evil. Rhinos charged you down. Hippos crushed you in their jaws. Buffaloes smashed you up. Better not get close. Better not go near. Better back off.
Once we were getting a friend of the family from New York , Stephanie Urdang, ready to go trekking with the freedom fighters in Guinea Bissau. We decided to go for a long walk in the rift valley.
The view from the escarpment has always been our favourite. The whole Rift Valley is visible. The whole tear in the continent is exposed. A part of Africa is being ripped off. You drive up and on the one side there are rolling green hills. Karen Blixen lived somewhere nearby. On the other side there is a steep cliff. Below and in the far distance there are mountains, and beyond them is another range of mountains and beyond them, you think you can see the other side of the Rift.
We went many times. Sometimes we would drive down to the floor of the rift and stop at a huge rock and sit on it. We sat on the warm rock and reconnected to something very old living at the root of things.
On this occasion, with Stephanie we trekked up a ridge, all four of us reached the top, Dad arrived first and he found found himself facing a full grown buffalo. In Kenya many more people are killed by charging buffaloes than are killed by lions. The buffalo looked at Dad.
Normally, I feel, Dad would have bluffed his way out of danger and shouted something like:
Futsack! Which means Get lost. in Afrikaans.
But this time he couldn’t speak. The buffalo looked at him for a while. Then its shoulders shuddered and it trotted away, dipping down off the ridge.
When I took Teresa to Zimbabwe for the first time after we married her eyes were like saucers. She fell in love with Zimbabwe and Africa immediately. So much so that she has spent the last twenty years visiting different African countries as a project manager – for different charities.
In Zimbabwe my parents were the perfect hosts. They had come from Somalia where the civil war had just started. In contract, the early 1980’s, Harare was a peaceful, beautiful, happy capital, with jacaranda lined avenues and school children all dressed up neatly in ironed uniforms, ready for school in the mornings. In the evenings the churches were full of choirs practicing for Sunday prayer. The shops and markets had plenty of things to sell and Zimbabwean art was going through a renaissance.
Mom and Dad took pride in Zimbabwean products and so Tere and I sat down to a perfectly laid breakfast table, drank fresh orange juice and ate milk with cornflakes that tasted like wood shavings. I am sure they taste better now.
They took us to a Rhino Farm where I have pictures of Tere nervously feeding milk to a baby rhino with a huge milk bottle. The rhino quickly chugged the milk down. Then they took us to see ancient rock formations and carvings made by people thousands of years ago. From there we went to a camp at night. Of course, as Kenyans we felt that it was a little kitsch, but we didn’t mind Zimbabwe. It has its ancient cities, and it has its Ulurus. Huge outcrops of rock stacked up everywhere, laid bare by erosion.
And they sent us to Victoria Falls. One of the things you can do in Victoria Falls is to fly over them and see the falls from the air and the hippos. The light aircraft we were in circled round the hippos squashed together with their huge heads and bums touching in great rusty coloured hippo crowds.
The real name of the Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders. We went along the traditional walk unaccompanied, not at the bottom of the fall, but at the top. First a buffalo crossed our path. We waited from far away until he moved off. Then, as we walked along, and the path narrowed, we came across elephant dung.
It’s fresh. I said to Tere.
Suddenly, there was a whipping sound to the right. A crocodile flipped into the water, disturbed by our passing. Then we came out onto the road and about thirty metres in front of us we saw what I was hoping we would not see, a large elephant. Following behind her was a calf. The elephant was stripping leaves off trees.
Although I loved the fact that Teresa could witness it, to disturb a female elephant with a calf, on foot, is madness. We backed off slowly. Tere clutched my arm. We both stepped backwards until we were at the narrow path again. The elephant and her calf moved off into the forest.
But as we moved backwards, two tourists who were had come up from behind us moved forwards. They hurried to follow the elephant and her calf into the trees, with their cameras, whispering to each other in German.
We grew with an understanding that nature is wild it is also, possibly very dangerous, not so many Europeans. They had no sense of danger. They lacked respect. They seemed to think of nature as an adventure playground. Nature, for Europeans seems to mean something different. For them Mosi-oa-Tunya was like a cross between a place to have a picnic and a a petting zoo.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.