Wild life

Africa’s empty vastness has vanished under the concrete of the present day

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM



When I was a child in Kenya, the road from the Indian Ocean up to Nairobi was still a dirt track, with the way frequently blocked by a rhino or large herds of elephant. A few decades later, the route has two railways and the road is an unbroken column of lorries heading all the way to the Congo. Africa is growing so fast that older people like me feel a kind of existential jetlag — or a sort of phantom limb syndrome, in which our eyes still see empty wilderness, plains and forests of a recent past that have vanished under the concrete of the present day. Whatever still survives is changing at tremendous speed.

Twenty years ago two lonely stone pillars stood on the empty savannah west of where I write this on the farm we have built up. These columns were the entrance gates to a large colonial ranch settled by a white man who was buried nearby. To the local cattle nomads, the stone pillars resembled the long horns on a bull’s skull — and around them, aside from passing herds, there seemed to be nothing at all. Once we became so lost on those plains we slept at the foot of the pillars, which gave some comfort to us as the only landmark in northern Kenya’s vastness.

One day about 15 years ago, a lorry halted on the track near the pillars and thereafter it became an occasional bus top. People began to drop the odd few vegetables for sale there and every Monday men in red togas appeared out of the heat haze to sell each other goats and sheep. At some point a tin shack was raised between the stone columns and suddenly a cluster of hovels made from sticks and corrugated iron sprouted all around. Some said it was a ‘settlement’, but to me it began to resemble a refugee camp, with hungry children squatting listlessly in the dust as plastic garbage fluttered in the thorn trees. The Bull’s Horns, as the shanty was now named, was a place of moonshine, prostitutes and stray dogs with curly tails howling at the moon.

At that time the area was run by a violent politician who was given large quantities of money by Nairobi’s government to build schools, clinics and enterprises for his constituents. Suddenly a building the size of a garden shed went up close to the stone pillars and the politician proudly claimed it was a primary school. It was a one-roomed structure with windows that were swiftly broken by the local children, but nobody could have called it a school. In the town of the Bull’s Horns there was no place of learning, no clinic, no water, no market and the people in this rural slum lived in filth. But the settlement continued to expand very quickly.

A few years ago a woman politician won in the elections and children began turning up for classes at the school. To begin with, since there were no tables or chairs or books or a blackboard, they sat on rocks under the thorn trees while a village teacher did her best. The local politician set about building fresh classrooms, but one sensed that even if she completed this primary school and built ten more they would hardly be enough to educate all the children being born in our part of Kenya.

Meanwhile, Nairobi’s government had big plans for the village, where only a few years before, wildlife herds had grazed. Hundreds of plots were allocated to traders, covering an area of 300 acres. Teams constructed a cattle auction yard, a police station, a block of public toilets — even a mortuary. Out of the dust rose a vast building to house a new technical college, where nomads and cattle herders were invited to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters and mechanics. Power reached the Bull’s Horns and lights shone all night now, attracting bats and flying ants from the darkness.

The other day I visited the town, for that is what the Bull’s Horns has become, and after getting lost in narrow alleys between shanty neighbourhoods, I found myself at the Chief’s office where I enquired if I might be allowed to buy a plot of land on the main road, recently tarmacked by the Chinese. I was too late: the prices had gone through the roof. Today the Bull’s Horns is a thriving market where thousands of cattle, sheep, goats and camels are sold to town butchers at weekly auctions. It is a crossroads of all sorts of people and in among those hundreds of dukas (shops), I expect you could buy almost anything. Thousands of people live here. All in the space of 20 years.

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