In one of Kenya farmer Karen Blixen’s short stories, a character says, ‘I know of a cure for everything: salt water…Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.’ After two months on the Indian Ocean shore since Mum left us, I set off on the two-day drive back to the farm.
At dawn in Tsavo I had breakfast watching a young leopard, and passed a herd of 400 buffalo, many elephant, kudu, giraffe and buck. In four hours on the back roads I saw just one car. I reached the Nairobi highway, overtook scores of juggernauts and then diverted along the track following the Selengei river, where Ernest Hemingway used to hunt, passing very few cars until I arrived in town towards evening.
Unlike elsewhere, Kenya’s cities throng with life: crowded markets, gridlocked traffic, busy bars and shops. Early next day I zigzagged through the wacky races of Nairobi rush hour, fleeing north toward Mount Kenya, left the tarmac again and for three hours passed more great wildlife herds until, at last, covered in sweat and dust, I reached our farmstead with cattle, dogs and a cold Tusker.
The entire roof of our home had been ripped off. It’s the hot, dry season and a few days before my return a team of thatchers — led by a short, noisy man called Bashora Dadi — had begun knotting thousands of makuti coconut fronds to the roof, replacing the thatch Bashora had done for us in 2006. All his people are Waata, whose ancestors were famous hunters, using long bows to shoot arrows tipped with deadly desert rose poison into elephants. Bashora calls his job ‘fighting’, or ‘a war’, as in ‘today we are going to fight your roof’. He follows me around the farm, demanding cash at all hours, complaining how ‘wars cost money…I will die one day, Aidan… my men miss their women — they need meat!’ The Waata have a story that the first elephant was a shrewish wife who grew tusks and big ears when she became angry with her husband for being lazy. The thatchers’ hunger is insatiable! A lion half-ate a calf a few nights ago and we all consumed what we retrieved from the kill within hours. Cockerels and cabbages disappear in great quantities, in between rude jokes and shanties shouted from the rooftop.
A truck driver arrives with more makuti thatch from the coast, and as we unload he demands a cocktail. I give him a beer and say he looks like a military man. ‘Police,’ he says. ‘The Somalis ambushed us and killed everybody except me. I played dead and decided it was time to leave the service.’ Other trucks are rolling in with timber for cattle crushes and floorboards, farm purchases, feed and stock salt. The tractor team is working overtime in a race against the onset of the long rains, digging a dam to irrigate a new avocado field we are preparing with furious speed while it remains dry. Each day brings more broken things: the farm motorbikes, the internet, a cattle-weighing scale and the Lister water pump, which belches bits of twisted gear metal.
My wife, Claire, joins me on the farm, tired from her work in Nairobi, and we wash out of buckets and sit making our calls in a roofless office, with the fish eagles circling in the blue skies above us by day and the constellations spread out above our office desks by night. We get little sleep, because as soon as I arrived we weaned 27 Boran calves, and they are in the yard behind the house, keening for their mothers until dawn. There are livestock to dip against ticks, chickens’ eggs to collect, wethers to castrate, calves to feed, trees to water and plant and farm books to update. A vet is on his way to vaccinate the livestock against foot and mouth disease — and the fertilizer will soon need spreading on the Rhodes grass pastures for when the first downpours arrive.
Out of the old thatch come snakes, dead bats and barn-owl nests. The new thatch takes shape on the roof and glows a handsome copper. Bashora assures me the makuti is such good quality it will last for 20 years, by which time we will both be around 75 years old. I realize that the next time I ask Bashora to redo the roof, that will probably be the last time we have to tackle it — and then the time after that will be the children’s turn. Between today and that day, I hope to sweat a lot.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2021 World edition.