It’s been a while since I last posted, but I was busy packing up, selling off and re-locating from Dakar, Senegal back to Nairobi, Kenya. It’s been some years since I’ve lived here, and it’s barely recognizable to me. The city has been transformed into a fizzing, high rise boom town with new roads, upscale apartments, a burgeoning middle class and tangled traffic jams. I made this photo with my iPhone 6 Plus the night after our arrival. Although, I miss the laid back, idiosyncratic atmosphere of Dakar, I look forward to this new chapter in our lives in this most lovely (and also troubled) East African country.
Anyone who has ever lived or traveled in the drylands of Africa will recognize elements of this scene: orange light filtered through fine dust and a shimmering late afternoon heat. The town of Mandera, Kenya is where the country joins Ethiopia and Somalia in a volatile mix of ethnic, nationalist and Islamist aspirations. This particular visit was especially memorable for me because I got heat stroke. Despite it’s physical remoteness, I never felt alone. I traveled with a team of water technicians who were rehabilitating boreholes servicing largely Somali communities. We traveled widely and slept in tents close to camels and other livestock, so I always felt close to the lifeblood of these tough and resourceful people.
There was a time when Manda Island in the Lamu archipelago of the Kenyan coast was a pristine environment and virtually uninhabited. A desolate ruin of a Portuguese fort is on the eastern tip of the island and Takwa ruins drew a few tourists. Otherwise, Manda attracted little attention, until some land developers bought up the beachfront and sold it off to holiday jetsetters. I guess you can’t stop progress, but I prefer to remember when I could hire a private dhow for a few dollars to take me from Lamu town and drop me off at this beach without the distraction of up market villas.
There are mountains in the Samburu district of northern Kenya called the Mathews Range where you can walk in old growth forests sheltering leopards, elephants, antelopes and a fantastic variety of birds. This living belt of greenery is now threatened by global warming. While there, we came across some scientists who were studying the ecology of this area. They told us that the forest was drying out due to the severity and frequency of droughts. It was dying.
The Samburu communities are affected, as well, as it decreases forage and water for their livestock. When sustained climatic changes become the new normal, then cultures are threatened. People like our guide, here, abandon their ancestral homes for the poverty of the towns.
Some years ago, I had the opportunity to safari into the Loita Hills of western Kenya to see the Maasai Eunoto ceremony. It’s held once every 15 years to mark the passing of the young warriors into senior status. It’s an important rite of transition and is the last chance for the morans to enjoy their freedoms as warriors before their mothers shave their heads and they become elders.
I photographed this moran wearing a rarely seen relic of an old Maasai practice – the killing of a lion by spear. Only a warrior who has killed a lion in this manner can claim to wear its mane.
So much is written and said of Peter Beard that I have nothing to add except that he was generous with his time in autographing a pile of his books that I brought to him. One day, I showed up at his Hog Ranch establishment in Nairobi, Kenya where he was preparing for a fashion shoot in Turkana District for the French Elle edition. Maureen Gallagher, his prime model, was also there, and I had an interesting afternoon hanging out at his very unconventional residence.
It was 1991, and I was working with an aid agency in eastern Sudan. It was at this time that I was introduced to the writings of Wilfred Thesiger, explorer, photographer, writer. He was the last of that breed of adventurers who walked wherever he explored and eschewed the conveniences of modern life. Among other things, he is noted for those classics of travel writings, Arabian Sands and Marsh Arabs, as well as for his explorations in Africa (he was the first European to explore the Danakil desert in northern Ethiopia). His black and white photographs are celebrated for their classical evocation of the bedouin life, which has since passed into history with the rise of the oil states.
As a young man, I was deeply impressed by his accomplishments. In his autobiography, A Life of My Choice, he mentions being stationed as a British officer during the start of WWII in the border town of Gedaref, Sudan, which happened to be my base. A friend of mine who knew Thesiger encouraged me to write to him; he was living in Kenya at the time. I did so and expected nothing to come of it. However, to my intense pleasure, I received a letter from the old explorer in his very fine, aristocratic script thanking me for my letter and inviting me to visit him in Maralal, northwestern Kenya, whenever I passed through.
A year later, I did just that and was graciously invited, along with my traveling companion, to camp out at his homestead on the edge of town, which he was sharing with his adopted Samburu family.
Several years later, I heard that he had moved back to London. When I passed through London, I dispatched a letter to him, and once, again, he contacted me to invite me over for dinner. Along with another friend, we visited his flat located in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of London. We shared a humble fare of aluminum wrapped TV dinners. Although, he was soon to be recognized as the great explorer that he was and would be knighted by the Queen, he was still feeling unmoored from his traveling days while slowly losing his sight. The impression I got that evening was of a lonely old man looking forward to death.
The portrait you see above was caught just as he turned to face the window as the sun set over the Thames River. The more famous portrait of himself (behind his shoulder) graced the cover of his autobiography, and reminds us of a young man who set out to explore the world without any thought of celebrity or renown, but purely for his own pleasure.
Soon after it opened, I had the great fortune to stay at Kenya‘s first community based eco-lodge, Il Ngwesi, located in the thorn tree country of Laikipia district. James ole Kinyaga, naturalist and one of the pioneers of the lodge, was our gracious Maasai host. Here, he poses with the skull of a Cape Buffalo, which populates the bush around the camp.
Luxury brand Maiyet commissioned Cary Fukunaga to shoot this video for its fashion campaign, and it is gorgeously filmed. However, for some, it clangs because of the “White People in Africa” romantic trope. (You can see a critique of it on the website, “Africa Is A Country“.) Myself, I have mixed feeling about the video, as it provokes intense nostalgia of my many years in Kenya.