I stood under huge skies in the open country of our farm in northern Kenya and, after months of London lockdown, I remembered those Japanese tourists I had once seen, weeping with wonder at the sight of Africa’s savannah after their lives imprisoned in cities. I’ve been savouring every little detail of home since we returned the other day: the taste of water and mangoes, the joys of talking cattle with the stockmen, seeing my 95-year-old mother at last, birdsong and crickets, long treks with our dogs tearing off wildly after baboons and buck. I woke up before dawn when several lions noisily killed a zebra in front of our house. I lay in bed listening to them scrunch up the animal’s bones and felt that all was well in the world. On my rounds of the farm I discovered that during the time we had been away, our wonderful Kenyan team had kept the place well in hand. Our new bull had been randy; scores of calves were born; young trees had shot up, rains had filled the dams and pastures were sweet and green. Oh, what happiness.
It has been a relief to be back among Kenyans, who are much more level-headed about Covid-19 than hysterical Europeans. The pandemic has inflicted great economic hardship, but people here take life as it comes. Many Kenyans we know simply went home to the village and survived among relatives, adopting a fresh interest in farming. Our neighbours spent the pandemic enjoying their cattle and farms. One young couple I know wandered for months across the slopes of Mount Kenya, with its giant heather and trout-filled tarns. Several lived on the beach, surfing every day during a year of the best wave swells anybody can remember. They had the best time of their lives. Broke though everybody is, for these friends 2020 could not have been better.
When you’ve grown up with malaria around you, survived lean years and the occasional political upheaval, a Chinese bat virus isn’t going to make you panic. Kenyans are younger and healthier than Westerners. As of this week, we’ve lost 554 people to the virus and this is probably thanks to the natural resilience of ordinary folk, since during rush hour Nairobi seems as crowded as ever. A great problem we face is that bars and restaurants are not allowed to serve alcohol, though in one brasserie I visited I was offered ‘ginger beer’ — which turned out to be white wine. It was such fun to be living in an echo of Prohibition.
Look around Africa, and it’s clear that aid money earmarked for virus control was quickly eaten — as all aid always is. Otherwise, I’d say the continent has responded very well. Virus deaths across Africa this year are a little higher than the number we normally lose to snake bites — and significantly lower than traffic accident casualties. In many countries, economies are reopening. In Somalia — supposedly the most corrupt country in the world — the courts have sent officials to jail for stealing public virus funds. This would never happen in Britain, where cowboys win multimillion contracts to dump fake Chinese PPE on nurses and doctors. Tanzania’s authoritarian President John Magufuli famously exposed how bogus Chinese testing kits were when he secretly ordered them to be used on a goat, a pawpaw and a ‘wild bird’ — and got false positives every time. After admitting to just 21 deaths, Tanzania has now declared the pandemic over. Ironically, if Boris’s Conservative government was a sub-Saharan regime, the Western press would be talking about how its Covid track record simply reconfirms how useless and corrupt African rulers are. Instead, it turns out that Tanzania has done a better job than BoJo.
After a time at home on the farm, we headed for my mother’s house on the north coast. We have spent our days swimming and surfing. One morning, a pod of dolphins swam all around us in the water, very relaxed, with babies nuzzling their mothers. They splashed around and came so close I thought about the absurdities of social distancing. There are no tourists here at all, which is a tragedy for many local people. Kenya needs you back, readers. The beaches are empty. The national parks are empty. The people are friendly, sensible — and not hysterical. This year almost nobody saw the great wildebeest migration across the Maasai Mara. Think of what a wonderful chance this could be to see East Africa. My invitation to host any of you passing by the farm for a cold Tusker on the veranda still stands.
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