Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Topsy Turvy Tree

African Baobab - Adansonia digitata

I find trees to be veterans of great character. The dignity with which they stand rooted watching over us, silently, in selfless dedication marks them a species apart. I have been particularly fascinated by giants like banyans and baobabs whose gnarled existence of generations bespeak of passage of time. If banyan is akin to my mother, someone who I have grown under (metaphorically speaking) in India, then the baobab is my Godmother that has adopted me into its fold, into its African identity.

The baobab, first leaped at me, out of a children’s book, “Tree of Life” scripted and illustrated by calligrapher-artist Barbara Bash of San Francisco’s Sierra (nature) Club. The picture-book - a forever keepsake - explores the circle of life through cycle of seasons of a baobab from sapling to seedling. Brought for my toddler, a decade ago, it held me riveted as I explored the foliage world with him page after page. Imagine my surprise when the strange bulbous tree in my neighbourhood of South Mumbai suddenly assumed a name and identity. This century old animate monument was a testimony to colonial history and passage of people, continents apart, through the Indian Ocean. In an interesting development, when the hollowed out mature tree buckled as a result of death of a segment, it was salvaged and rejuvenated by Friends of Trees. Today, it stands a living heritage in its foster land, albeit forlorn and out of place.

India boasts a few baobabs on its coastal belt, but for all that, the baobabs are fixtures of African savannas that evoke mystique and romance of that land. Years later, destiny took us to Kenya, the home range of the mighty baobabs, where I saw the tree of life, more intimately, bark and blossoms.

The first time I saw the baobab on its native soil, it was in profound profusion. Rows and rows upon baobabs in multitudinous forms stretched out kilometer long like a file of military men. The ‘baobab boulevard’ came upon us serendipitously en route from Nairobi to Mombasa as the hill terrain gave way to coastal plains. Leafless, the bare boles and boughs looked as though a sweep of lightning strike had shorn them of their fuzz. Sinewy twigs flailing skywards seemed like many roots on top of an upturned uprooted tree. This fall phase of the deciduous tree lasts three seasons earning it the epithet of an “upside down” tree.  

Bullet-riven baobab bole at Taita
Baobabs do not flourish in Nairobi’s cooler climes as they are essentially natives of the coast. The one specimen that I saw in Nairobi at the eponymous Arboretum was a puny parody of the real thing to the point of being unrecognizable. In fact, the tree does become unrecognizable when it adorns a foliar crown. From a grotesque disfigured giant, it suddenly transforms into an Amazon of a bride.  And then come the blooms - pristine white and sweet scented. The only time I saw a baobab in bloom was this summer, smack on the historic railway station, Voi, of the erstwhile Uganda Railway. This tree was obviously the same age as the railway station (which was built towards the end of 19th century) and if trees could talk it would have tales to tell of the tyranny of colonialism and camaraderie of indentured labourers and locals. If the Voi baobab was mute witness to the dynamics of infrastructural development in the context of colonialism, the one in Taita will go down in history as a sniper post that actually was a minor battlefield in the EastAfrican theatre of war of WWI.  Legend has it that a German lady wished to avenge the death of her husband who was killed in the Battle of Tanga, and therefore, hid herself in the tree to ambush soldiers of Allied troops. The pockmarked bullet-riven bark bears out the lore.

Flowers give way to pendulous gourd-like fruits, the seeds of which taste like tart tamarind. With great fondness, I recall how Joseph (my son’s local friend) loved to barter mbuyu for a stick of gum.  Mbuyu (baobab seeds, candied and coloured) lollies found on the shelves of stores everywhere in Kenya are a favourite kiddy snack.

Like our indigenous coconut palm, the baobab is called the “tree of life” as all its body parts from leaves to shoots to seeds can be used productively by humans. Besides it is an entire ecosystem in itself supporting bio-diverse critters and creatures from snakes and bats to monkeys and bushbabies. Baobabs live for hundreds of years, some species even for a thousand, seeming almost invincible. A baobab reaches great height but is not tallest among trees; the bole though is unparalleled in its girth bloated as it is with hoarded water. For that reason, during drought it is the elephant’s last resort. Elephants strip the bark to get to the water spelling its doom. It is that knock of death from one giant to another (if the tree does not die of old age) that completes the cycle of baobab’s journey bringing it down dust to dust. Only for the Phoenix to rise again…

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Peoples of Kenya - I


When we heard of Harrison’s death we knew the penny had dropped. Our Kenyan odyssey had come a full circle and it was, just perhaps, time for us to leave and go back. Harrison was a swarthy Kenyan, a proud Kamba and a God-fearing Christian, the first of the local peoples of Kenya we had  privilege connecting with. When we touched Kenya soil it was his hearty jambo and karibuni that ushered us and eased us into an alien country. If Prado were a fighter aircraft then the Mission’s driver supremo Harrison would be Top Gun.

Wearing a clean brown safari suit everyday, lumbering with a limp, a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, he performed his duty as a driver almost karmically. His rustic wisdom articulated colloquially enlightened us about the city and its people more than any nuggets from “Lonely Planet” or counsel from local Indians. “All this talk of city being unsafe... don’t listen to people; if you do you’ll not even be able to eat or breathe… this is bad, this not good… I live here all my life of 65 years, I drive at night, nothing happens to me,” he would say in his robust Kenyan drawl. It was reassuring to have him drive us around; he seemed no less than a bodyguard in a city that was notorious for its crime and carjacking. Moreover, he would beat the notorious Nairobi traffic by navigating in and out of obscure lanes and bylanes as though he had a GPS in his head.

Having sired eleven children (all grown up now), he was the quintessential father figure who said it like it is, mincing no words, particularly when it came to punctuality! And yet, he was there for us always, assuredly, with his ever ready: “Hakuna Matata” meaning, “No problem”. He had a way with words and could hold his own in front of anyone. Once when he was dropping us at the American ambassador’s residence for an official function, the security at the gate, in typical American condescension ordered Harrison, scurvily, to go and park far away from the gate. The proud Kenyan let loose a politically-loaded repartee: “Who wants to be close to the Americans anyway!” Harrison had the chutzpah to speak his mind without fear. What struck me most about this person was his dignity and self-pride. Harrison owned a small “kioski” (he pronounced kiosk thus, in his inimitable way) round the corner from where we stayed. One night, the civic authorities demolished it without any notice or warning. We heard about it from the nonchalant owner himself who held no grouse against anyone despite the calamity.

Being driven by him, even as we got acquainted with the city of Nairobi we got insights into the man himself. When I raved about the beauty of green Nairobi, he urged me to go to the countryside to see how beautiful Kenya really was. One day revealed that he was a Marathon runner when on one of his runs he injured his foot such that he had to give up running altogether. His day began with a concoction of some medicinal leaves followed by a healthy porridge; he confided about his secret recipe for good health, on another drive.  He would never eat out no matter how late he had to stay on duty. A modest meal cooked by him, of ugali (maize flour porridge) and sukuma wiki (kale), the staple of most Kenyans, would see him through the day. He eschewed vices, stayed away from alcohol and smoking, but supported several wives back in his village!

Kilonzo Harrison was a farmer at heart who talked fondly of fields of Irish potato and corn back home in Machakos. He looked forward to going there to be with his folks during Christmas where he would play the guitar to while away evenings.  Accustomed to his business-like presence, it was difficult to imagine him with a floral shirt, strumming a guitar, and riding a motorbike, carefree, on country roads. Or perhaps not, but that was the real Harrison we never really got to see.

His death was sudden and though he did not die in a motorbike accident, in an indirect way, it was to be his nemesis. Down with common cold already, he contracted pneumonia when he indulged his motorbike in the wintry countryside air.  But something tells me that there was more to it. That though he may not have died a bitter man, he must have died a pained man with a lament in his heart. His sons did not share his old-world and Christian values and rebelled against him for the firm hand he wielded on them. In an unfair and uncaring world, his upright ways did not always get recognized or respected and he had to swallow hurt and humiliation on many occasions . It was unfortunate that after his retirement we did not get to see him or bid farewell to him as the curtain drew over our la affair Kenya.

(NOTE: The title, Peoples of Kenya, has been borrowed from Joy Adamson’s book of the same name which documents (with illustrations by the author, herself) the 52 various tribes of Kenya. While, my blog is not a study of any tribes, I present this series as portraits of ordinary Kenyans that I felt inspired to write about. The first one is on a proud Akamba, Kilonzo Harrison.)