Aidan Hartley

Distance learning

A great white hunter takes aim at a few sacred cows in contemporary Africa

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Chalbi desert

I am in Kenya’s Chalbi desert, where temperatures soar to 140 degrees. Out here east of Koobi Fora, the Cradle of Mankind, black volcanic rocks tumble down to badlands of cracked salt — so blinding white that on the flight in I had the impression that we were floating over snowy tundra. At the northern shore of the Chalbi, where rock meets salt, is the oasis of Kalacha.

When I was a boy, safaris here with my father were pretty tough affairs. We’d spend weeks on end rambling on either side of Lake Turkana while Dad talked about livestock with the nomads. There were no tents or mattresses; we slept wrapped in blankets on the ground next to the fire. During one rare nocturnal rainstorm we all piled into the car, but Dad just rolled under the Land-Rover and went back to snoring. Inevitably the food used to run out, and for a week or so we once lived on nothing but chapattis, dried onions and tea. As long as Dad could brew his chai he was happy.

Times have changed. Aviator Jamie Roberts flew us here to the springs where he has built a set of bandas, or huts thatched with doum-palm leaves. I can’t think of a more pleasurable way to pass the heat of the day than to sit gazing at the herds of Gabbra camels and goats watering at the Kalacha springs while one nurses a cold Tusker and listens to Jamie tell jokes. I have brought our children: Eve, three, and Rider, who is one. They spend most of the day bathing in the swimming-pool or catching tiny green frogs in the springs.

The Chalbi is among the remotest of places on earth but ‘progress’ has transformed Kalacha since my boyhood. In those days the oasis had a police post and a chief’s hut surrounded by his wife’s dwellings — seven huts in all in 1976. Today there are 456 huts, an Africa Inland Mission station, a Catholic church with beautiful Ethiopian frescoes, a medical clinic, lodging houses like the Zam Zam Hotel and, sadly, a handful of tarts servicing the truckers who pass here on their way to the next village of North Horr (which logically enough is before the village of South Horr).

And on the edge of this haphazard cluster of huts I find the Kalacha School for Nomadic Girls. ‘WELCOME OUR VISITOR!’ trills a congregation of 250 girls in blue gingham pinafores. ‘Hello my every childrenth!’ lisps my Eve. This has to be a unique primary school, founded in 2001, where students — all of them boarders —are literally delivered and picked up at the end of term by camel. ‘May I talk to their parents?’ I asked the headmaster James Sora. ‘You could if we knew where they are,’ he replied. ‘They could be over there, or there, or over there...’ I sat in on a few classes and was struck as I always am in Africa by the intense enthusiasm children from poor backgrounds here have for learning.

Until quite recently the Gabbra nomads resisted sending their sons to school, let alone their daughters. James, 42, recalls being press-ganged into class by the chief and a unit of armed police. Even today, one elder told me he believed that to send children to education is to lose them as if they have died. They forget their Gabbra culture, which adheres to a complex cosmological calendar, and with a Western education a child will no longer be of use with the livestock. Traditions are given no scholastic value, though James tells me Gabbra ways are taught until the age of ten. Kenya’s economy is in such a bad way that nomads told me how their unemployed city cousins often drift back home, where they are stuck between two worlds. Meanwhile, a year ago our new government made the incredibly enlightened promise to provide universal free primary education. Indeed, it issued an edict making this compulsory. In many parts of Kenya classes doubled in size overnight, to 80 or more, causing immense strain on the system. For now, Nomadic Girls is surviving, just. Until now the government has had no budget to cover boarding fees, so parents pay these — five pounds per term.

The Gabbra are still true nomads, but the population has swelled and locals insist the climate has altered severely in recent decades. The land can no longer sustain the herds. The rocky scarps above Kalacha used to have knee-length grass, and hunters’ petraglyphs above a waterhole nearby prove that vast herds of giraffe, elephant and oryx once teemed here. There is scant grazing today and, thanks to guns, no wildlife at all. I think of this as we walk away from a classroom where the children are singing:

Young cowboy never die,

If die never decay,
If decay never smell,
If smell, smell sweet.