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Aidan Hartley: Kenya is special like no other African nation

My farm is my home, and I'm here to stay — I will cover wars and crises no more

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

16 November 2013

9:00 AM

As I write this, my hands are seared and bruised from holding a hot iron after branding our cattle. We have castrated our steers and piled up the testicles on fence posts to fry later. We fought the cattle to the ground. We pulled their tails and they bellowed.

I feel so happy. The cattle brand sizzles into the flesh with a hiss and a cloud of smoke as it burns in the brand KH9, which has been the Hartley mark here in Kenya since 1936. Finally we might have a stud herd that can make a difference. This has all been going on in my absence, but I have come home to the farm after covering dozens of wars and crises for 25 years and I will do it no more. Cattle rustlers and bandits will still shoot at me but I am going to be a farmer for the rest of my life. And the farmer’s foot is the best manure for me because I can personally fight off armed cattle rustlers and diseases such as foot-and-mouth.

This morning I went for a walk on the farm and found myself lying on my back, looking up at two African fish eagles calling triumphantly to each other as they wheeled about the sky. I found a buffalo hoof mark in the mud; a dik-dik midden, a swath of trashed bush where a herd of elephant had passed like a cyclone — and a dung beetle rolling a ball of turd like a miniature Sisyphus. Above the birdsong, in the distance, from my neighbour’s farm several kilometres away there was the sound of the weaner calves lowing plaintively for their mothers. Sunlight and cloud shadow passed over the land in racing dapples. After walking for an hour, I found myself in a corner of the farm I had never found before, standing in front of a wild caper tree, with a trail of bees emerging from a hole in the trunk like a line of musical notes.


I am in one of the best places in the world. Near here, in November 1897, Lord Delamere, having trekked for a year down through the burning wastes of Somalia and Kenya, rode his horse up the steep escarpment from Lake Baringo in the hot trench of the Rift Valley to the northern marches of the Laikipia plateau a few miles from my home. Here he saw for the first time the cool waters, the green grass, the fresh breeze and cavalcades of clouds that I see each day. In her biography of Delamere, Elspeth Huxley wrote that these things astonished and excited him. Here ‘was a promised land, the realisation of a Rider Haggard dream of a rich and fertile country hidden beyond impenetrable deserts and mountains. Here was a modern Eldorado, waiting only for recognition.’

More than a century later, we have the cool nights, breezy days and air that is clear and fresh. We still have the huge green circles that are remnants of the boma enclosures of the Laikipia Maasai who were exterminated by their fellow Maasai clans in the late 19th century. The conflicts are not over and we have cattle rustlers and gunfire, but when the fears of the night lift and I listen to pigeons in the roof and lion at dawn I am a very happy man.

Huxley believed Delamere’s first encounter with Laikipia’s Elysian pastures bound his allegiance to Kenya. Until then, Europeans had seen East Africa simply as a place to be possessed, occupied, pacified or administered. But Delamere saw it as a place ‘of fine possibilities’ where a man could feel alive and invigorated.

For decades people have baulked at Huxley’s emphasis on the whites’ colonial project coming at the expense of black East Africans. But the truth is that the moment of that first encounter Delamere had with Laikipia helped create a sense of manifest destiny for all Kenyans, the recognition that we are special, in a way that is shared by no other African nation. Oh, the light here at dusk, I wish you could see it.


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