24 March 2009


Today’s adventure is a full day safari. All cultures that I have known within the tropics come to a stop in the middle of the day, and that includes the animals. The sun rises to a cool morning, creating a wonderful contrast of warm light and blue shadows, then climbs up, obliterating any respite from its withering inspection, and seems to linger indefinitely, until suddenly evening is there with a sigh. As a photographer, this is the magic time, and it’s quite short (l’hora de bruja the Spanish TVE crew called it at Minas Rio Tinto). The Park closes at 18:30, which makes it even shorter. The advantage of a full day excursion is that one can go further into the Park. Fortune does not smile on our venture as it had in the past days; there are some female lions lying in the sun with hardly the energy to acknowledge our presence, a mother cheetah with three nine month old cubs escaping the sun under a tree, lifting their heads periodically to watch for lions, who guard their territory jealously, and will kill any interlopers. The cheetah has only fleetness of foot as defense, an escape the lions foil through encirclement, so the ever-watchful mother has reason for caution.Thanks to the watchful eye of James, a Maasai from the area, a glimpse of the elusive leopard is provided, one of probably 40 in the park. His Maasai name is Somoine, but with christening and education, he became James. The Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the Reserve during the dry season, and Somoine (James) asks if we could stop and check on his brother who is tending the herd. Interestingly, Sonkoi, his brother from a different mother in a polygamous family, was not christened or “educated,” and their different demeanors fascinate me. The “forbidden fruit” comes with a cost(more later on this).Elephants never cease to stir wonder, and there are several groups to see, their social dynamic and solicitation of the young are amazing to watch.

Back at the camp, a glass of wine and splash of water to revive, and then a chat with the guides and staff about the impact of the economy on them, and their views on conservation. The camp has a capacity of up to 45 people (my guess) and there are no other guests; so the current economic situation has a severe impact on the people here. Kenya has very little in the way of mineral resources, so tourism and agriculture are its main source of foreign revenue. Americans and Europeans come to Africa to view the animals, and a psychic “return to Eden.” The people here view the animals from a utilitarian perspective: Maasai kill the lions as a rite of passage, others kill the animals for food. As tourists came with money, and that money trickled out to rural people, they have slowly begun to see the animals as a resource of a different type. But if that income disappears, the view of animals as food or aspects of ritual will again predominate; and there are not so many lions left.
Supper was even better, the chefs preparing it in the dining tent tonight. Even for a vegetarian there was ample variety, and all delicious.After dinner, entertainment consisted of a performance of Maasai traditional dances performed by the staff. Handsome like gods, it was fascinating to see the rituals which address the same issues we face in our society: health, religion, welfare, and marriage. As one who refuses to even sing karaoke, I was fascinated at the lack of self-consciousness exhibited by James, who goes back and forth between the western world and that of his forebears.

Departure from Nyumbu came too soon. The hospitality was genuine and touching; simply relaxing and reading would have been a welcome respite.But now we were to start the business segment of our trip: examination of Unilever’s sustainable tea production in Kericho. Tensie Whelan, ED of the Rainforest Alliance, is on the SAAB (Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board). Unilever (Lipton Tea being its largest brand) buys 12% of the world’s tea, and has made a commitment to source all of its tea sustainably by 2015. The SAAB was established to help them examine every aspect of their supply chain to reduce their negative environmental impacts. Rainforest Alliance certifies their tea, a process that specifies all aspects of production from the planting and harvesting, worker housing, water and chemical use to the packaging. The Kericho Tea Estate is an old plantation, and we were housed in the original owner's house, built in the traditional British style. It was absolutely charming, and I must here issue a grateful thanks to Julius, the Kenyan man who addressed our needs before we were even aware of them. Much of the discussion was quite technical and above the head of your lowly artist narrator, but the upshot is Unilever has committed to great leaps forward in its environmental and worker stewardship with no guarantee of remuneration for the investment. I believe that society will soon stipulate that producers adhere to strict environmental standards, either as a reaction, or hopefully as an aversion, to cataclysm, and companies that have made the investment early will be paid back in spades. Unilever, in spite of the economic downturn, is staying the course, and I personally hope consumers will reward them. The industrial Scars project is predicated on the notion that real forward progress towards sustainability can only be driven by the purchase decisions of the consumer. If we continue to buy toilet paper made by cutting down old growth forests and polluting waterways with chlorine chemicals, the companies doing this have no immediate incentive to change.

The SAAB is composed of a variety of experts from agronomists to environmentalists to social welfare experts, and meeting them all was a real treat. I am continuously searching for answers to questions raised by my photographs, and the opportunity to chat with experts in various fields provides background and research direction. There is no escape from history, and much of life in Kenya is influenced by British Colonialism, for good and bad. The hospitality and accommodation at the estate was wonderfully genteel in a way I have not experienced since shooting the British military bands a number of years ago. Evening drinks on the veranda with the sun setting over the plantation owners' gardens was a treat. A wonderful anecdote as related by Richard Fairburn, the plantation manager: the original gardener that came with the estate, when asked by Unilever to stay on, said he would like a job description, which was then drafted. He studied it, and responded, saying that there was no mention of sustainability, fertilizer or chemical use, and wildlife corridors, and that these items must be included. Unilever promptly gave him a greatly expanded area to supervise.

SAAB orientation meetings today, and they certainly don’t need an uneducated opinionated troublemaker such as me to irritate and impede the dialog. As an alternative, a satellite internet connection is offered: drugs to a junkie. But wait: remember dialup? Imagine ten times worse. No twenty. Constant disconnections when it even works. The things we take for granted.

Time for some observations you say?
There seem to be two rainy seasons in much of the area we have visited- big rains in early spring, and small rains in the fall. They do not seem to be subject to the wild fluctuation I am seeing in the northeast of the USA where we go from spring to winter several times in the course of a week.

Kenya is a nation of many tribes, a composition that predisposes interpersonal relationships as well as politics.These are roadside dwellings of people that were displaced by the violence of last years’ disputed election and accompanying intertribal violence, which was centered in the Kericho Region. Several of the Unilever local staff were killed, and the company made a valiant effort to evacuate and protect its people. The consequence of the unrest is much population displacement, with many people refuging in the Mau Forest nearby, and of course cutting down trees for fuel. The ramifications are affecting rainfall at the plantation and we will hear about resulting water shortages far away at the next preserve we visit.

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