Zannah was born in Nyeri, Kenya. Her parents, who lived and worked in Kenya at the time, became friends with Gordon and Vanessa Murray, a Kenyan couple of European descent who managed a family-owned farm near the town of Nanyuki, northwest of Mt. Kenya. Zannah’s parents left Kenya 30 years ago, but the two couples stayed in touch, and the Murrays – when they heard that Zannah would be traveling to Kenya – generously invited her to visit their farm (even if that also meant allowing some random American to tag along).
Zannah and I made the short flight from Nairobi to Nanyuki in a single-propeller, nine-passenger plane that stopped twice along the way. As we approached our second stop, Samburu National Reserve, we could see rhinos and giraffes grazing in fields next to the landing strip, with the jagged peak of Mt. Kenya rising in the background.
A security guard raised Lolomarik’s front gate for us. A dirt road took us past the primitive homes of some of the farm’s workers before crossing a line of trees and arriving at a beautiful single-level stone house surrounded by green grass, manicured bushes, and a tennis court. The front porch faced Mt. Kenya. In clear weather the mountain’s rocky summit appeared over the treetops.
Gordon drove up, welcomed us to the farm, and offered to give us a tour. Lolomarik grew vegetables for many years, but a variety of factors shifted its focus to herbs – the familiar Simon and Garfunkel array of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, along with several others. The herbs are sold primarily to a wholesaler in the UK that then distributes them to local supermarket chains and other large retailers. The herbs travel as cargo on a nightly British Airways flight and can be on store shelves a day or two after they’re cut, but at that particular moment a snowstorm had shut down Heathrow, causing a big headache for Gordon and the manager who handled his logistics.
Gordon showed us around the office, the herb-processing facility, and the fields. Lolomarik employs about 400 people, down from a high of about 2,000 in years past. Zannah and I rattled off a continuous string of questions and Gordon patiently answered every one – switching effortlessly from analyzing the big-picture forces that drive the industry to explaining the details of the specific growing techniques used with each different crop. Large farms are amazingly complex operations.
After the tour, Gordon told us that Tash had talked him into flying her and Heather to their party that night. The party was at a place called the Gin Palace on the edge of Lake Naivasha, four hours by car but only 35 minutes by air. Gordon, who began flying in the 1970s, kept two planes at a landing strip right on the farm, and his larger plane could carry six people. “Do you want to come along?” he asked me and Zannah.
We weren’t about to turn down a chance to fly over the Great Rift Valley in a private plane. An hour later, Gordon, Tash, Heather, Zannah and I were rolling down the grass-covered runway. Tash and Heather were happy to be flying instead of driving, but they still weren’t satisfied with their cavewoman outfits.
Gordon landed and drove us to Lookout Point. Vanessa, Colin, Beth and Jens had been joined by Jamie (one of Vanessa and Gordon’s two sons), Jamie’s wife Danni, and Danni’s mom Christine, who was visiting from England. The view was beautiful. We drank wine and Tusker as the sun set on what had been a very interesting, entertaining day.
It was impossible, in that environment, to avoid thinking about inequality and skin color. Every time we left the oasis of the Murrays’ modern house we immediately passed a cluster of dirty shacks that housed some of their workers, and over a fence the faces of black children peered at the white faces driving by in luxury SUVs. Black Kenyans prepare the Murrays’ food, clean their house, feed their dogs, mow their lawn, maintain their tennis court, and wash their cars.
This was my first experience with the descendents of colonial settlers in Africa. It’s a fascinating situation. What is it like to be born in Kenya and consider yourself a Kenyan, but at the same time to have white skin and be culturally more British than Swahili?
When tribal violence swept Kenya after the 2007 elections, killing more than 800 people and leaving 600,000 displaced, the homes and businesses of Asian (primarily Indian) Kenyans were especially hard-hit. Asian Kenyans who had lived in the country for generations suddenly realized that they were still considered outsiders. How awful must it be to feel unwelcome in your own country? It sounds as if there’s not nearly as much resentment towards white Kenyans, but the us/them dynamic is dangerous and volatile. If you were a white Kenyan, wouldn’t you worry the fault line might shift before the next big shake?