My initial reaction to the shooting last week of Italian-born Kenyan conservationist and I Dreamed of Africa author Kuki Gallmann was shock, but not surprise.
Gallmann, whose powerful, evocative writing in books like African Nights and Night of the Lions moved a generation of city-dwellers in the west, was the latest victim in a recent surge of land invasions by increasingly desperate cattle herders from Kenya’s dry, northern frontier district.
The land invasions have been in the news since early this year, but the real story of the drought dates back to 2014 when, as The Guardian reported at the time, a prolonged dry spell had already pushed pastoralists to the brink of starvation. Food prices soared and cattle raids were already spiralling out of control. A Guardian story headed, ‘Drought in northern Kenya: ‘Today you are rich, tomorrow you have nothing’’ was a harbinger of things to come.
At last report, Gallmann, 73, was recovering from her injuries. (The family is in seclusion and has remained quiet since the shooting; there were suggestions at the time that Gallmann’s injuries may have been worse than was initially reported.)
Gallmann is not just another privileged property owner ensnarled in a land dispute, though. As with Born Free author Joy Adamson and Out of Africa’s Isak Dineson before her, Gallmann is a world-recognized writer who put a public — if romanticized — face on Africa’s wildlife conservation movement.
The roots of the problem run deep, though, and are not restricted to talk of drought and climate change.
In the late 19th century, the British settled the verdant highlands surrounding Mt. Kenya, the Laikipia Plateau, featuring the most arable, best grazing land in a predominantly dry country that, in the north anyway, is mostly dry flatlands and semi-arid desert, dotted with thorn scrub and the occasional acacia tree — good country for hardy antelopes and desert-adapted lions and elephants, but not much good for farming or sustainable cattle ranching.
The Laikipia farm estates have always been known as a place of privilege, ever since the British settled there in a colonial era marked by scandal and upper-class intrigue, when the region was dubbed “Happy Valley” and high-born British aristocrats partied hard while Europe was at war. The 1987 film White Mischief was based on the real-life 1941 trial of blue-blood Sir Henry “Jock” Delves Broughton, who was charged with the murder of philanderer and fellow Happy Valley aristocrat Josslyn Hay.
Laikipia made headlines more recently in 2010, when Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton while staying on the wildlife estate of a family friend and well-to-do descendant of the original English settlers.
The region would enjoy two more good rain years, and then — nothing.
“This time last year,” the Guardian’s Jessica Hatcher reported in 2014, “Samuel Aboto had 600 goats; today, he has none.”
The last good rains anyone can remember were between March and May, 2012.
The Laikipia farming estates are large by western terms; in Kenyan terms, they are vast. The Gallmann estate alone encompasses some 390 square kilometres (150 square miles).
Traditionally, estate owners allowed pastoralists to graze their cattle on the edges of their land holdings during times of hardship, but that is no longer enough.
As in Gallmann’s case, the land is set aside for both farming and large, increasingly important wildlife conservancies, where endangered species like rhinos and elephants are allowed to roam free and more-or-less keep to themselves, without fear of being harassed or shot at. Kenya’s state-owned national park system is justifiably famous and a generator of significant tourism revenue. Tsavo National Park — vast, wild, untrammelled and exceedingly dangerous in places — was the site of the infamous “elephant wars” of the 1980s, and is known for its unusually aggressive lions and abundance of venomous snakes.
As the recent surge in illegal hunting for ivory and rhino horn has shown, though, Kenya’s national parks — underfunded and near-impossible to police in places— can’t do the job on their own.
Increasingly, privately owned estates like the Laikipia-based Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Borana, Solio, Ol Jogi and Ol Pejeta, subject of the Canadian TV nature series Ol Pejeta Diaries, are playing an important role in wildlife conservation. They are the final custodians of East Africa’s last surviving wild rhinos.
The problem — as is so often the case with land disputes — is that nothing is quite what it seems.
Rapidly increasing populations in Kenya’s north have piled pressure on already scarce resources. People are less mobile. Where in the past cattle herders moved freely across borders into Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan in search of fresh pasture, tighter border enforcement around national and regional boundaries, coupled with the proliferation of automatic weapons — it’s said that an AK-47 is cheaper than a loaf of bread — has exacerbated an already tense situation.
As with the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn, international crime syndicates have moved in. The Guardian reported that, even in 2014, the conflict was no longer about traditional cattle rustling. It has become commercialized. There are businesses; criminal gangs are waiting to load cattle onto trucks and take them to market before anyone has a chance to respond.
The Kenyan government has said 1.3 million people are affected by the present drought.
Estate owners and local ranchers insist, though, that much of the problem is political, driven by promises from some local politicians — Kenya faces a national election in August — that pastoralists will be given more cattle and be able to keep the land if they drive land owners off their property, promises similar to those made by Robert Mugabe during the 2002 land invasions in Zimbabwe.
Even the land invasions themselves are not as straightforward as they might seem at first. A number of local media outlets in Kenya have suggested that heavily armed bandits are disguising themselves as herders and are looting multi million-dollar estates for their own personal gain.
The land issue is not necessarily race-based. Both white and black land owners have been affected. The former include a former chief of the Kenyan army, and a former speaker of Kenya’s national assembly.
Still, the spectre of white “haves” and black “have-nots” hangs heavily over the disputes. An op-ed piece in The Nation, Kenya’s national newspaper, noted that, “In one corner of Laikipia, rich aristocrats sip European champagne in cottages that are hired for Sh1 million a week [about USD $10,000], yet in another corner, half-naked, weary women trek for kilometres in search of water.”
Still, Gallmann’s shooting is not just another news story.
To give an idea of just how poetic and moving her writing is, here is a passage from the introduction to her book African Nights, first published by Penguin Books in 1994:
“Africa is a continent of extremes.
“There are droughts and there are floods. There is an Africa of tragedy and famine, of corruption and war, of blood and hunger and tears, of incurable disease and tribal clashes and misery and violence and political unrest.
"It is the Africa we read about today in every paper, the one we see daily in biased cable television reports. It is an Africa captive to and dependent on the blackmail of foreign aid, constantly judged, constantly criticized and never understood.
“Here the rich West has imprinted its competitive, frantic image, created alien needs, imposed alien philosophies and financed impossible schemes, unsuited to the potential and true spirit of this troubled and fantastic continent, all too ready to take back that help and sit in judgement of yet another failure.
“I do not sing that AfricaThere is no need for another negative reportage, which will leave a bitter taste and serve no purpose.
“There is a different side to this ancient land. It is the Africa that, since the beginning of time, has evoked in travellers a deep recondition, an inexplicable yearning to return. The place that still has what most of the world has lost. Space. Roots, Traditions. Stunning beauty. True wilderness. Rare animals. Extraordinary people. The land that will always attract those who can still dream.”
Here’s to the dreamers, then.
And here’s to hoping the rains return soon. It’s rainy season now, as you read this.