Wild life

What happened when I tried to buy back my father's farm

Once, there were 3,500 cattle in our ranch on Kilimanjaro's slopes. But the Tanzanian government needs to eat

25 October 2014

9:00 AM

25 October 2014

9:00 AM


I perused the brochure produced by Tanzania’s state corporation for livestock ranching, aimed at attracting foreign investors. Under ‘beef production’ was a photo of an American bison. Tanzania’s state bureaucrats might not know what cows look like — but they still know how to eat them.

My father Brian Hartley had 3,500 cattle when socialist president Julius Nyerere nationalised our ranch on Kilimanjaro’s slopes. In the 1960s, Nyerere seized farms in ways Mugabe never dared emulate. I still have the note Nyerere scrawled in biro, taking my father’s business partner’s property within seconds of arriving there.

Eating began immediately. Dad stayed on to manage his former farm because it was home — but Nyerere’s men arrived regularly to show Communist bloc comrades the fruits of revolution. ‘Bring meat!’ they ordered. After a year of butchering steers, Dad left in disgust.

The borehole that had yielded 1,500 gallons an hour broke. Stuff got stolen. Britain and Sweden poured in aid money to fund experts to rehabilitate the ranch. Around 1996, when my family scattered Dad’s ashes on the farm where his heart had always been, the cattle herd had declined to 1,665. They were no longer the pedigree animals Dad had selected as a judge of Boran cattle at the breeders’ shows.

In 2010 I visited the ranch with my sister Bryony and found there were 229 cattle left. They were inbred, swivel-eyed, low-grade things with horns but no hindquarters. On the film Bryony took of the derelict house our parents built, you can hear her sobbing. Workers with fluorine-blackened teeth were living in the stables. Charcoal burners were hacking down the forest. The grazing was gone and dust swirled beneath snowless Kilimanjaro’s dome. Where rhino and lion had once been common, now only spring hares hopped. The farm vehicle had no wheels.

In Dar es Salaam, the state corporation’s manager expressed consternation. He had never visited the farm but had understood there to be thousands of cattle. A government auditor’s investigation later failed to decide why so many animals had been ‘lost’.

The government was advertising for partners to revive the farm. ‘We are making a quantum leap,’ the manager said. ‘We need only serious investors.’ My brother Richard and I applied and won the tender covering an area of 25,000 acres. This was after lawyers advised against suing for compensation or the return of Dad’s farm. ‘Don’t bother,’ they said.

‘You’re mad,’ my mother said. ‘Do you know what they did?’ ‘These people have set it up almost as if they want it to fail,’ said a friend who farms in Tanzania. But for more than a decade I have been optimistic about Africa. I have believed in what they call ‘Africa Rising’ — the idea that we are the Next Big Thing. I pressed on not through sentimental need to resettle land dusted by my father’s ashes, but more because I knew we could make a success of land we loved.

The manager led a delegation of officials to my farm in Kenya. They got cow shit on their city shoes and suits. They took photos of each other posing amidst the Boran cattle herd I’ve built up myself in a country that always welcomed us without ‘eating’ our stock.

The officials seemed disappointed to hear ranching is a tough business. Forget, I said, the dreams of dividends, of air-conditioned vehicles, meat sizzling on barbecues. My parents lived frugally with hurricane lamps and an outside loo. And now with everything destroyed we were going to have to start again from scratch.

We started spending what was going to be a large sum of cash. We even agreed to pay the state corporation’s bills on valuation, surveys and other paperwork to sell 51 per cent of Dad’s farm back to us.

Four years passed. ‘Be patient,’ I told myself. ‘Things happen slowly in Tanzania.’ I asked to see the farm books. None existed. No audited accounts were ever produced. Occasionally, the manager asked me urgently to rush him a document to be presented to cabinet, since this was being discussed at the highest level. I made repeated visits to Tanzania. Nothing happened, but I always recalled my friend saying, ‘They’ve set it up as if they want it to fail…’ The manager wrote to say the police had taken a large chunk of the farm for use as a firing range — pity those spring hares. A second section of excellent land was removed to build tele-phone towers and government offices — in the middle of nowhere. A third area was to be cut off to give away to unknown persons for cultivation.

Not only had the cattle been eaten or ‘lost’. Now the land was being eaten away too, like a cookie nibbled at the edges — or should I say a beef kebab. What happened to 3,500 cattle and the farm? Gone, like the snows of Kilimanjaro.

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  • Bring Back Free Speech

    How sad, and a tale, in microcosm, of what has gone wrong with Africa as a whole. I hope, Mr Turner, that you get a chance to run the farm, and repair the damage that has been done.

    • I suspect the real reason is that, having bled the farms white, the government officials now hope that some proper management will build the farms up again. And then those same government officials will re-nationalise them and bleed them white again.

  • Adliya Plaza

    Africans: destroying civilisation from Dar es Salaam to Detroit.

  • The Elderking

    I hope you didn’t hand over any cash.

    Africa’s problem is that it’s full of Africans.

    • dave

      @ the Elderking, so what, America is full of Americans and the UK is full of British, what did you expect from Africa, you Kn)b

  • Christian

    It’s almost as if there’s such a thing as racial differences………

  • Mike

    A salutatory lesson that Black Africa rarely works for the benefit of anyone and only for those in power. Zimbabwe was a classic case of a thriving agricultural oasis in Africa under Ian Smith which is now a basket case with starvation, rampant AIDS, little or no health care, few jobs & shelter, BUT they do have a corrupted vote for despots like Mugabe.

    The liberal progressives should ask themselves what is more important, health care, food & shelter or a vote for disease, starvation and death !

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “I ain’t going to work on Daddy’s farm no more.”
    Take it away, Bob.

  • Terry Field

    There is one great hope for Africa, and more particularly, for the wildlife within it.

  • Picquet

    In the mid-90s, a meeting was convened in Arusha by the DC (I think it was) of all the local larger landowners, at which they were told that they no longer owned anything, and were to immediately hand over their titles. Most managed to get out of the hall, but I believe a few found themselves minus their homes. Oddly, this was at a period when a good number of former Rhodie farmers pitched up to do the business in the area. The ‘Whenwe’ bar did great trade.
    Seeing what happened to the coffee estates on Kilimanjaro was genuinely tragic; the region had produced the finest coffee in the world, but the scent of that coffee is gone forever, replaced with scraggly maize and banana.

  • dave

    You are a very bitter Man, you wrote an article on the 2010 South African world cup and it was all about how bad it was over here,nothing positive about SA, all about the farm murders and general crime in SA, you are still writing about the same crap, the Europeans came to Africa and colonized it, Africa is taking back what is theirs, dont cry when the African people were deprived of education and knew no better, did your Father etc expect it to be forever, me thinks not, it was a personal gain, a short term personal gain with no foresight,what did he give back to the community besides jobs, did he empower them to go further in life or was it self empowerment, I could debate this issue all year, by the way, im a white man living in South Africa, of English decent and have been here for 50 years, believe in empowerment of the poor and underprivileged, farm vegetables to help empower the same ( black or white ) and love my country, its people and culture, now, could you please re-write that article on the 2010 world cup and tell everyone what a great success it was, or is this against your principals

  • Nickyboy1001

    Aidan I love your accounts, your masterful use of the English language and, of course your love of Africa. Isn’t this a case of modern Africa meeting the bloody minded? They can’t let you have the farm as they know you will make a success of it, whilst they have failed – you and I realise that it is very difficult for an African to admit mea culpa. I wish you ongoing success with your farm and keep the words flowing please.