Saturday, 24 October 2009

The ugly reality of the flower trade in Kenya

Today we travelled the short distance from Nakuru town to Lake Navaisha – Henry’s family home. As we made our way, turning off the main highway into Navaisha town and on towards Fishman’s Camp on the edge of the lake, things began to change. Roads that, up until now, were potholed and treacherous, transformed into roads of smooth Tarmac, speed bumps that usually appear out of nowhere were clearly marked, there were barriers on the edge of the road, road signs, even a Barclay’s ATM made an appearance in one of the tiny local townships. The houses here were more uniform, each baring the ugly appendage of a tall TV aerial. We even passed a 24-hour hospital.

Soon, all became clear. Massive greenhouses, half a kilometer in length appeared on each side of the road. Lined up next to each other they stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Each flower farm was surrounded by high walls and the usual row of bougainvilleas. At their entrances, people streamed in and out.

This is the true reality of our flowers back home. Every time we buy a bouquet, the likelihood is that some – if not all – of the flowers will come from these ugly blots on the Kenyan horizon. Picked today, the flowers will appear on supermarket and florists’ shelves first thing tomorrow morning or the day after at a corner store in Australia.

Henry has seen the lucrative flower business expand exponentially as he grew up here. He is all too aware of the power of these foreign companies.

Each flower farm employs 6,000 plus people and there are hundreds of them bordering Lake Naivasha. In a country where unemployment is rife, these flower farms offer the local population the little security they strive for. The flower farms also manage the roads, ensuring that the truckloads of valuable flowers reach the airport undamaged and on schedule. Those workers who make it up the hierarchical echelons are given a small house in which to live. In addition, they have the money they need to own their own television – a rare and sought after luxury in much of Africa. I imagine they also have access to 24-hour health care – another valuable resource to which few people in Africa have access.

Yet, as Henry explains, there’s a darker side to the flower farm story. The flower farms are based next to Lake Navaisha – deemed one of the most beautiful lakes in Kenya – because they need water for the flowers. Water in Kenya is hard to come by so setting up shop next to a lake means the farms can have access to as much water as they want.

Each flower farm uses thousands of litres a day and there are hundreds of flower farms draining water from the lake. The result: Lake Navaisha is shrinking. At Fisherman’s Camp a walkway has been built to the edge of the lake because the camp is no longer at the water’s edge.

Wildlife is abundant here: hippos, crocs, flamingoes all make use of the lake. Local people use the lake for drinking water, for cleaning and for fishing. But this vital source of water is shrinking before their eyes. Worse, it is becoming toxic. Each of the flower farms uses pesticides, insecticides and fertilizer to grow beautiful, healthy flowers that will survive transportation to Europe and Australasia. Each day these chemicals leech into the lake. When one of our group asked Henry whether they could swim in the lake, he looked downcast and said: ‘there are flower farms round the lake. If you go swimming my friend, you won’t come back the same.’

Like much of Africa, the Kenyan government’s hands are tied. It wants employment for its people and thus it seeks external investment and the influence of foreign companies. But, at the same time, it can all but stand aside and watch whilst its country’s natural resources are exploited, potentially at the risk of the health and well-being of those same people for whom it seeks employment. It is an ugly side to Africa that locals like Henry are all too aware of but are powerless to prevent.

Game drive in Lake Nakuru national park

Lake Nakuru national park is one of the smallest national parks we’ll come across in Africa; however, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in biodiversity. Its large soda lake is home to thousands upon thousands of flamingoes; you can glimpse the shy black rhino amongst the undergrowth and almost certainly see the more common white rhino grazing by the lake. Lions inhabit the park, as to water buffalo, hyenas, guinea fowl by the bucket load, leopards, impala, dik diks, giraffes, zebra and the dinosaur-esque secretary bird. We managed to see everything bar leopards and black rhinos!

Heading into the Great Rift Valley

We leave Uganda for Kenya and, more specifically, a campsite just outside of Eldoret town. At 2300m and on the edge of the Rift, the climate here differs considerably from our last stop in Kampala. There’s a chill in the air, in fact, it’s positively nippy – not the weather you’d expect in Africa. At 4am it starts to rain. Hard! The following morning, the mist is thick and it’s raining still. As we drive, we can barely see 10m. It’s utterly miserable so our panoramic views of the valley deep below are somewhat marred. On a day like this it’s hard to believe that further north the country is experiencing its worst drought in 120 years: cattle are perishing, people are dying.

We start our descent into the Great Rift and the weather begins to clear. The Rift Valley is a huge tear running down East Africa caused by two tectonic plates pulling apart. Slowly, over millennia, it’ll rip this section of East Africa into two. As we inch down the steep, windy roads 

– Henry stopping occasionally to check the brakes – the climate changes dramatically: it’s drier, the trees are sparser, the ground changes from a deep red to a dusty, pale brown.

We traverse the base of the valley, heading for Lake Baringo (Baringo is Swahili for lake so this place is literally called ‘Lake Lake’). Here the land is parched: the goats are slender, the cows are baring their ribs, the rivers are dry. There’s been no rain here since March so everyone is waiting desperately for the rains that are due over the next few weeks.

At Lake Baringo we’re staying at Roberts Camp. Signs everywhere state that it is a nature reserve and that you enter and camp at your own risk because wild animals roam. And the animals that roam here are hippos – one of the most dangerous animals in the world.

We set up camp in the blistering heat, keeping our tents close to one another to discourage hippos from grazing in between them. Our tents are close to the edge of the lake – so close, in fact, that you can see hippos lounging in the water from the comfort of your tent.

That afternoon we head out onto the lake on a motorized canoe to catch a glimpse of the plentiful wildlife that inhabits this lake. The weather is scorching, the lake perfectly calm. First up is an encounter with the family of hippos we’d seen from our tents. Getting within a few metres of these beautiful creatures is, like the mountain gorillas, one of those special moments in life. Hippos, as you’d expect, have mastered the fine art of wallowing. They neither tread water nor stand upright but somehow manage to lounge quite comfortably in their large family groups.

Further along the lake we come face to face with countless crocodiles well hidden amongst the reeds that line the edge of the lake. As we approach they slip silently from their resting sites into the water.

It is at this precise point that the boat I was in starts to sink. Water begins to slosh about our ankles. Our guide is quick of the mark at locating the hole. He promptly plugs it with a very small piece of bolster wood then, with an old t-shirt, he begins to bail us out.

After this minor delay we continue on, spotting some of the many birds that are regulars at this lake. When our guide throws a fish in the water we get a striking close up of a fish eagle as it dives from one of the steep cliffs at the water’s edge, plucking the fish from the water.

Our tour ends in the fashion typical of most of my experiences on water (Whitsunday Islands, Lake Titikaka). The weather suddenly changes: dark clouds rapidly accumulate, there’s thunder, there’s lightning, the waves pick up and there’s rain (yes…there hasn’t been rain here since MARCH!) Our small boat battles its way through and we all breathe a small sigh of relief when it finally reaches shore.

Evening falls and we sit eating at dusk. Suddenly we hear the distinctive deep, guttural rumblings of hungry hippos emerging from the lake in search of food. An adult hippo must consume 40kg of grass each evening to exist so as soon as the sun begins to set they make an appearance on the shores of the lake to feed. Unfortunately, as there have been no rains since March, the grass is parched so many of the hippos have been going hungry. Lately, the staff at Robert’s Camp has been leaving hay out for the hippos to graze on so their nightly appearance is virtually guaranteed.

The lights on our head torches don’t phase them so we are able just to sit in silence watching and listening as the family go about their nightly routine. Going to bed, we can hear the hippos grazing about our tents: the muffled breaths, the grunts, the grass being torn from its roots. All that separates us from these magnificent African creatures is a thin piece of fabric. As I lie in my tent listening intently, I realize that I’ve had another amazing 12 hours in Africa.


Kampala is frenetic. Clouds of fumes and dust hang in the air. It’s hot. People lay and sit and wait. Cars weave in and out; minibuses crammed with people, horns blaring, push their way through traffic jams. Small wooden stalls, jam packed next to each other line the streets. A butcher swats flies off his display of goat meat. A row of huts selling spare parts for cars bustle will men welding, hammering, tinkering. Men in suits walk with purpose, a briefcase in hand. A woman, poverty stricken, barefoot, lays in the shade of an official looking building, occasionally shouting obscenities as people pass. The market is busy: women arrange their wares, piling tomatoes into small pyramid displays, deals are made, there’s gossip and laughter. Outside buildings the men with AK47s stand guard. Five policemen in white uniforms direct traffic; a man on a camel waits at the junction. A mosque comes alive announcing evening prayers; an elaborate Hindu temple stands tall on the horizon. Billboards encourage people to vote; a giant Coca Cola bottle is the centerpiece of the main roundabout. T.I.A.

Uganda…a fragile country coming to terms with its past

For the last couple of days we’ve been staying on the outskirts of Jinga – Uganda’s second largest city and the place where the country’s most infamous dictator, Idi Amin, grew up. It was here Amin’s mother came when she was displaced from her home in the north and where Amin grew up, joined the military, was promoted on independence from the Brits and finally became the dictator and butcher the West came to know. It is in this very country, in the areas we’ve travelled through that Idi Amin and his army massacred countless Ugandans. Indiscriminate killings, rape, pillage, torture – for eight years he ravaged the country.

The scars of Amin and Uganda’s bloody past are all too clear. The country is fragile, ever teetering on the brink of a coup, of a guerilla attack, of peasants taking up arms on the whim of the next politician, of inter-tribal disputes, of riots. Uganda also shares borders with Rwanda, Sudan and the DRC 

– all countries where civil war and instability reign. You travel here with the feeling that chaos could break out at any time!

Security in Uganda is tight. Outside every hotel, campsite, bank, even certain shops, a man in uniform with an AK47 sits and waits. Sometimes you see them texting on mobiles, chatting to friends or just sat in the shade out of heat of the sun. There are gates, intimidating walls with broken glass cemented into the top, barbed wire and, rather surprisingly, bougainvilleas (they plant these beautiful flowers in front of walls. Whilst they masquerade as a nifty piece of landscape design, they have very sharp thorns and grow in thick bushes which are great for preventing people getting within reach of said wall).

When we went gorilla trekking, we had armed guards front and back not because of a particularly feisty mountain gorilla but because of the risk of guerilla warfare overspilling from Rwanda and the Congo – the borders of which were only a couple of kilometers away. Apparently a few years ago this happened and a group of tourists were shot. Our guide was very keen to allay any fears we may have had by explaining that the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, which runs the national parks, is in fact a paramilitary organization with ties to all the Ugandan security forces and hence we were in safe hands (allegedly!).

Whilst Uganda may be considered instable, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a truly beautiful country with an equally beautiful people – the true garden of Africa. It is clean, welcoming and non-threatening (once you get used to seeing AK47s on every corner). The people here realize the value of tourism to this country. 

Everyone here is extremely friendly. I walked around Jinga on my own and felt completely safe. Everyone is at pains to tell you about their country and to ask you to spread the word back home of the experience you’ve had here.

A birthday by Lake Bunyonyi

Early Saturday and I wake up a year older. Unzipping my tent and I get my first glimpse of Lake Bunyonyi . Glimpse is not really the right word…the lake is literally on the doorstep of my tent. It’s barely daylight and mist clings to the surface of the lake. Directly in front of me is a small wooden pontoon and four canoes each of which had been skillfully carved by hand. An otter dives for fish; yellow bower birds continue to construct their intricate nests that hang from the reeds at the water’s edge. There are definitely worse ways to wake up on your 29th birthday!

We have the day to chill on or by the lake. First up, a brekkie of pancakes and then a little laundry. It’s hot; in fact, it’s stifling. Most of us decide to hire the canoes and cross the deepest lake in Uganda to the island on the horizon. Jon and I shared a canoe. It took us a while to master the art of paddling in an unbalanced, handmade canoe but after a few ‘Msungu corkscrews’ (Msungu means white man; corkscrew is what a msungu does when they first get their hands on a wooden canoe…i.e. go round in circles) we managed to head in the right direction.

On the island is a resort of small wooden cottages. It’s quiet as it is out of season so 12 of us have the restaurant to ourselves. The restaurant overlooks the lake and is open air with plastic sides rolled up. The menu consisted of 4 freshwater crayfish dishes to choose from. Fortunately, we all like crayfish. We ordered and then began the traditional 1.5hour wait for food.

Whilst we were waiting, the waiter asked if we wanted to see some local dance to which we said yes. We waited. The wind picked up; the sky grew dark. When the food finally arrived it was delicious. We tucked in. After eating, we decided to make a quick exit to get to the mainland before the impending storm took hold. Unfortunately, the dancers were already on their way so we decided to stick around and see if the storm would pass.

The dancers were children aged five to twenty. An entire village worth arrived along with a couple of elders. They danced to the beats of a drum and a ukulele plugged into a tiny speaker. A traditional dance involves hugely energetic sequences with lots of foot stamping and whoops of joy. One little girl in a turquoise dress was particularly enthusiastic and often led many of the dances and songs. It was hugely entertaining and put our mind off the storm that was continuing to brew outside.

30 minutes and a small donation later and we were back out on the edge of the lake. The temperature had dropped, the waves had picked up, the wind was blowing a gale…only the rain was left to come. It was a race against time to get back to shore.

We finally hit the shore just as the rain came in. When it rains here it pours so we ended up sat in the shelter of the bar nursing hot chocolates and waiting for the cook team to cook up a feast.

Unbeknown to me the rest of the group was plotting a little birthday surprise. When the cook team finally announced dinner, I headed up to where the truck was parked to find the shelter where we cook and eat decorated with balloons.. After dinner, Henry also presented me with a huge cake with icing saying ‘Happy 29th Birthday Emma’ on it and four massive firework type candles, which when lit, spouted giant sparks at least two foot high (they would most definitely be illegal in the UK). After that, I received a locally designed card signed by everyone. It was a truly great birthday and made up for the fact that I was unable to receive any birthday messages from home that day.