Kenya, Nairobi and the Great Rift Valley.

August 12, 2012

Dear Friends,

Last week we did the Nairobi tourist trek.  We drove to Lake Nahuru, on the floor of the Great Rift Valley on Tuesday.  It is what is called a  “soda lake.”  It usually hosts about a million (literally)  flamingos.  However, with larger than normal rainfall the lake has become more “sweet” diluting the brine in which tiny shrimp, flamingo food, live.  The flamingos have flown off to Tanzania, according to the rangers.

The trip was worth it even without flamingos. The park is surrounded by woodland so we saw familiar critters differently, including a pride of lions resting in a tree, another pride on a high rock, Rothschild Giraffes, with a slightly different pattern than giraffes in the Mara, needing to stretch their necks to reach tree branches.  We saw cape buffalo with birds sitting on their backs picking insects, a relationship beneficial to both species, herds of impala in full run, troops of baboons and a velvet monkey.

But for me the biggest interests in the Rift Valley are geological and historical.  At first geologists thought the Great Rift Valley was a single system running from Jordan, through the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and then cutting through Africa from Ethiopia to Mozambique, a valley with a broad flat floor and many lakes.  Now it appears that there are at least three rifts at work.  A rift valley is one of those places where tectonic plates are separating. Most rifts are on the ocean floor.  Only in Iceland and along this fault system is the separation happening on land.  Each year the floor of the valley falls a few millimeters and the valley widens a few millimeters until, eventually, a new “Red Sea” splits Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania in two and a new continent rides on the drifting Somali Plate.

The valley has a long way to sink.  The lake is about 5,700 above sea level.  The Escarpment above the valley floor rises sharply to over 7,000 feet.  Above that level is a bench land where many of the white farmers crated their “happy valley” colonial culture.  Above that bench the escarpment raises to 8,700 feet.  On Tuesday we drove along the edge of the lower escarpment, on Thursday we drove along the higher escarpment.  The valley bottom was filled with fog, but the orderly tea and coffee plantations, and dairy farms of the bench spread out 1,700 feet below.  Along the edge of the escarpment rickety pole constructions support wooden lookouts, each with a coffee shop or souvenir stand.  Touts lure us out to the overlook. “Don’t worry this one has held 100 people.” One tout asks me where I’m from.


“Oh S(short a)rrA(rolled R accent at the end)  P(short a)LEEN, Sarra Paleen.”  Well yes, but…

One of the great railway engineering feats was building the Uganda railway down the escarpment, across the valley and up the other side.  Having read “Lunatic Express” by Charles Miller I wanted to see the escarpment and the valley for myself.

On Wednesday we visited some of the remnants of English colonialism, the Karen Blixen house (built in 1907) and what is left of the Blixen coffee plantation.   Blixen was a Danish Baroness who operated a 6000 acre farm at 6000 feet above sea level 12 miles from Nairobi.  The farm failed in the early 30s, she sold it to be subdivided into a very high class residential suburb, later named Karen, complete with its own country club, polo grounds and racetrack.  Blixen went back to Denmark to become a renowned writer, having had two of her stories made into academy award winning films including  “Out of Africa”   In the early 60’s the Danish government bought the Blixen house and gave it to Kenya to use as a school as an independence gift.  When “Out of Africa” became a hit in 1985 the government decided that a better use of the house would be as a museum.   The government located and bought much of the original furniture.  Universal Studios was kind enough to give Kenya some of the replicas made for the movie to finish kitting out the museum.  The clothes in the closet were not worn by Blixen or her lover but by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.   The museum portrays the colonial period somewhat sympathetically (in contrast to The National Museum that we visited Thursday morning.)  The house looks comfortable, with three bedrooms.  It is very open and not huge like the colonial mansions that followed.

After the Blixen museum we had a coffee at the nearby and privately owned Blixen coffee plantation.  It has the older Swedo House that was her manager’s residence.  Swedo hosted Teddy Roosevelt when he went on his post presidential shooting spree.  It is now a boutique hotel.  Next to it is the old coffee “factory,” now a coffee house.  Across the lawn is a manor house from Nairobi, moved stone by stone to become part of the hotel and restaurant complex.  We, of course, had coffee. Wednesday was busy because we also went to the Kazuri Bead Factory that hires single mothers to make delightful and colorful beads that they ship around the world to craftspeople who want to incorporate “fair trade” product into their art.   Some of the women in the factory also make jewelry and one, does macramé using the beads.  Kazuri provides health care for the mothers and their kids.  Finally we went to the folk museum showing how different ethnic groups live in different parts of Kenya.   The Blixen Museum, National Museum, folk museum, and the Lake Nahuru National Park were swarming with kids all in school uniform using their summer holidays, still traveling in their school groups, to learn about their country.  They buzzed by the museum exhibits in high spirits so quickly that I am not sure they learned anything from them.  But the kids enjoyed the animals in the park, looking out from school busses, and a game of pickup soccer on Karen Blixen’s lawn.  One smiling little girl protected her goal against a team of boys.  The Coffee Plantation complex swarmed with a Chinese trade delegation in dark suits, white shirts and no ties, arriving in dark German cars and a Japanese bus with little flags on the fenders.

In Nairobi women are often addressed as “mama,” older women as “mother.” Suzi was called both.  On this trip I was called “grandfather” several times, by cab drivers or security guards.   At the national museum a group uniformed kids filed past, all wanting to high hive the “American grandfather”, and have their picture taken.  I posed with several kids while the teacher used the school camera to snap the event.

Riding in a car I notice roadside signs. Official notices are often titled “polite notice.” As in “polite notice, all visitors must obtain tickets, thank you.”  There was a poignant billboard with Nelson Mandela walking with a cane, the caption: “I can assure you, you will get there.  SLOW DOWN.” There is an elephant on a bicycle with the caption: “It’s more serious than it looks, overloading damages roads.”  There was a sign for a fence company, “Elephence” and we drove by the “Faith Based Furniture” company.   A consulting company advertised “We offer concepts, and detailed perfection.” What confidence.   We saw a Barak Obama bumper sticker and Obama mud flaps. (The National museum has added his portrait to those of important African leaders like Mandela. It is Obama in front of an American flag framed in a Kenyan flag.  The placard says “Barak Obama, Kenyan, First Black American President.  The birthers would have a field day here.  I guess they already have.)  The Montezuma and Monalisa “funeral service for the world” a black bus.  Mourners ride on top and in the place where the luggage usually goes there is a transparent panel so people can see the casket and flowers as they pass the bus.  A funeral procession would never be able to stay together in Nairobi traffic, and despite the traffic most mourners would not have cars.  Peter, our driver, says most people rent school busses for funerals to transport whole families from Nairobi to the village burial plot.

Nairobi Traffic… We were stuck at one traffic roundabout for an hour and a half coming back from the Rift Valley.   Hawkers walked among the cars selling an assortment of useful and unusual things, world maps, lamp shades, pre-paid mobile phone cards, books, magazines, newspapers, Rubbermaid tubs and toys.

Security has become much tighter in Kenya since my last trip because of Somali terrorists.  The “friendly checkpoint” is still friendly but more formally and thoroughly so.  More stores and shopping centers have scanners and personal searches and the national parks now have security at the entrances.   They are friendly as they request that we get out of the car, (note I said request, not order, something I have not much encountered with third world police).  Polite but resolute.  A cab driver I’ve ridden with, both on this trip and the last, Peter, says that his business is way down.  Business people go to their secure hotels for their conferences and don’t go out on the town or go shopping.   Tourists go from the airport to the hotel and then straight on safari, missing the local museums and restaurants.  Peter says he’s having trouble keeping bread on table and keeping up payments on his rented cab.

Take Care,

Rich McClear

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