Kenya’s secret waterway

The Tana is a river even most Kenyans have never seen. And now its ancient way of life is under threat from a super-port

J.M. Ledgard | March/April 2012

“It seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.” These words, from V.S. Naipaul’s “The Masque of Africa”, nag at me. The book itself, published in 2010 as his final word on Africa, was a meagre offering; for Naipaul, Africa is unspeakably bland and squalid. The “calamity” was what had happened to nature in and around Kampala, Uganda’s capital, where Naipaul spent a formative five months in 1966 at Makerere University. The Kampala of his memory was fragrant, but now it was lined with “moraines” of rubbish. Why is it so hard for me to escape his verdict? Perhaps because he was telling the truth.

Calamity is often staring you in the face in Africa. Where there was a forest, there is now a bare mountain. Where there was a mountain, there is a quarry. I am a foreigner, with romantic notions. I love Africa, and am embarrassed to ask whether its vitality goes hand in hand with despoilment, or is it carelessness? Where did Africa go? And what I mean by Africa, if I am honest, is paradise. Where did paradise go?

I hear elders tell how leopards used to enter the village when they were children, how the soil was rich then, the maize plentiful, the trees tall and thick, and so clouds gathered, rain fell, and streams were clear-flowing. There was no plastic then, no acid, no metal. There was also no medicine, no schooling, no communication, no alternative. I know that. Yet still I hope for the untouched continent that existed long before Naipaul shipped up; verdant, wild, celebratory.

Taking a speedboat up the Tana river delta before Christmas, I glimpsed it. It was a bright day, with that tarry heat you get on the Kenyan coast. The waters at the mouth of the river were turned to chocolate by sediment, and we cut a white trail. The banks were viridescent, there was a thickness of life, so many insects, so many flowers; some of the channels were narrow as canals, still as pond water, covered with lilies, and all about was the fulvous flashing of weaver birds leaving their nests, and gemlike blue kingfishers. I clambered out on to an uninhabited island and ate under a sausage tree. Squatting on my haunches against the circling ants and rotting fruit, I felt I was finally in a bit of Africa which matched my memory of the Tarzan films. This was a place where a calamity had yet to occur.


The Tana is the longest river in Kenya. It seeps from the moors of the Aberdare Mountains, gathers snowmelt coursing off Mount Kenya, and wends through vast dry plains inhabited by Somali herders, before emptying into the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 kilometres later. It is a modest river, never wide or deep. Few Kenyans have seen it, or thought much about it; it flows through a few hardscrabble towns. The ranches along it have been bankrupted, the elephant herds mostly wiped out.

Its short recorded history has been one of rejection. White men ventured up the Tana cautiously and unhappily; on its banks Methodist missionaries were speared by tribesmen, the Utopian hopes of Austro-Hungarian Freelanders were shat away by dysentery, and colonial officers turned to drink and killed themselves. The Germans wanted the Tana for their own, but in 1890 they traded it for Heligoland. Attempts to make the river navigable failed because it was too serpentine. In 1906 the railway from Mombasa established a new way into the interior. The Tana has been largely untouched ever since.

Perhaps not for much longer. Kenya’s population has grown from 8m at independence in 1963 to 43m today. Incomes are rising steeply, so Kenyans demand more fuel, more meat, more sugar. That makes the Tana delta an enticing prospect. Existing schemes for industrial farming of jatropha for biofuel and sugar are just the start. Wherever possible the delta will be turned to farming and water siphoned off for irrigation; more cattle will be put on the floodplains. Efforts supported by the Delta Dunes Lodge, a luxury camp, have allowed locals to present a case for conservation to the government in Nairobi. They will be supported by international conservation groups. Still, it is hard for the poor to fight their corner in a system where power and avarice are ardent bedfellows.

The biggest industrial project on the Kenyan coast will be to the north in the Lamu archipelago. At a spot now occupied by a Kenya-US naval base, a super-port capable of handling huge container ships is due to be built. A motorway and railway will move its goods to Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda; oil will flow the other way. On arid land now inhabited by the hunter-gatherer Boni people, a new city will arise—call it New Lamu—with 2m people and an international airport. The reaction of well-heeled residents in the heritage-protected Lamu Town is predictably nimby-ish; a more considered view holds that as the development is likely to happen anyway, it is better to demand national-park protection for the Tana delta and its mangrove forests as the price for the super-port.


The line between paradise and purgatory on the Kenyan and Somali coast is tissue-thin. When your thirst is slaked, the birdsong is paradisal. When there is not enough water, or the water is from a shallow well and brackish, the intensity of life becomes menacing. On one trip to Somalia, I swam ashore and spent a night and morning without water. Even that was enough to cause my lips to crack and my kidneys to ache. Income is usually enough to set you apart: on the Tana I could afford a boat, fuel and bottled water; the people and wildlife, the dirt, thorns, torpor and drama of the pitch-black nights felt like time travel, but with hydration and torches I was always on the side of paradise.

On my Christmas trip I was met at the seaside village of Kipini and taken upriver to a community lodge called Mulikani. The tide was coming in behind us like a bow wave. The river was stopped by the sea and the mudbanks, mangrove tendrils and crab holes were soon covered with water. We passed groups of hippo. Anywhere in Africa hippos demand caution, but more so on the Tana where they are poached for meat. As we arced around them at a distance, they snorted and swung towards the boat, agitated, while on the riverbank flocks of geese, ibises and egrets shot into the air.

A boardwalk of mango-wood planking led through the swamp from the river. The swamp was infested with mosquitoes. You had to keep moving. Sometimes I ran headlong. Yet the black mud floor was darkly beautiful, enough to make me want to pause. In some places the mud was smooth as bronze, in others it had been ploughed up by elephants and buffalo, or pricked by a leopard, and everywhere it was littered with baboon turds, studded with bright seeds and shaped like Mr Whippy ice-creams.

The lodge was just a few huts built on top of the dunes between the Tana and the ocean. I brought food and water, only to find cooks and porters. In the rainy season, when I visited, the cost of the astonishing views to the back, to the river and out to sea, was measured in blood. The mosquitoes rose from every surface and shadow. You brushed your teeth and there were mosquitoes on every vein on the back of your hand.

Below the huts on the ocean side, a path led through the bush to a deserted beach that curled along Ungwana Bay. The contrast with the swamp was extreme—and vitalising. The beach had a breeze, and no mosquitoes, and it stretched out of sight without any settlement or sign of any people at all. In its own way, however, the beach lay gaping, at the mercy of the human world. The high-water mark was a line of jetsam from passing ships and pirate vessels, and there were middens of beer bottles and flip-flops carried all the way from Thailand. Eels writhed on washed-up fish, crabs moved uninterrupted in metropolitan numbers. There were tracks of turtles, and terns hovered against a pastel-coloured sky. Nature and garbage, locked in their endless dance.


There are three peoples in the delta: Orma pastoralists on the floodplains, Bajuni fishermen by the sea, and Pokomo farmers who belong to the river. The Orma are Oromo people from Ethiopia. They arrived after Kenyan independence, tolerated as a bufferbetween Kenyans and Somali raiders. They have plenty of cattle, but do not like to sell them. Orma herders wear Masai-like robes, or else jeans with football trainers. They guard their cattle from crocodiles with long knives. The floodplains are flat and exposed. On overcast days they seemed to resemble somewhere far away, the Camargue perhaps. The Bajuni are a more worldly people. They fish for sharks far out to sea and build dhows by hand from local wood which they sell to Saudi Arabia. Bajuni sultanates have come and gone for centuries. Village chiefs and merchants occasionally make enough money to make the haj to Mecca.

Then there are the Pokomo. They have settled on the Tana since before recorded time, and there are a few thousand of them deep inside the delta. They call themselves “we, the river people”. They work the river and raise rice with rudimentary tools. In a good year a Pokomo farmer can feed his family and sell enough rice to buy sugar, flour, tea, candles, paraffin, knives, needles, pencils, paper, school uniforms and sundries. But good years are sporadic, and the Pokomo are desperately poor. Some of them supplement their income by finding work as labourers in towns. But no matter how hard they work, the Pokomo seldom get promoted. “Too easy-going,” a Bajuni employer explained. Which may be another way of saying Pokomo have too much of the river about them.

The Tana was always there when I visited the Pokomo, flowing just outside their shacks, rising and falling with the tide, in lustrous shades of black and brown. The Pokomo language, their dances and fertility rites are entwined with the river. They have words for certain types of ripple, for the pattern the rain makes when it falls on the water. All the river creatures have their place in the Pokomo mythology; the beady stare of the African fish eagle haunts the dreams of many a Pokomo child. The national anthem of Kenya is sung to the tune of a Pokomo lullaby. In many of their countrymen’s eyes, it is their only claim to fame.


We visited Ozi, one of the Pokomo villages in the delta. The villagers go in and out on dugout canoes. At low tide the river fell some metres and there was a muddy climb up the bank. It was a couple of hours from Kipini by canoe and a similar distance on foot to the ocean. Ozi looked like most of the villages up and down the coast: a loose gathering of thatched houses, chickens, children playing football with packed rags, sandy paths strewn with thorns and donkey droppings. A few large trees provided shade and in the centre there was a white square-shaped mosque, like a mint sweet amid the greenness, with a well outside for ritual washing before prayers. There was a shop selling basic provisions, a stall with tomatoes and onions, no electricity except for solar panels and car batteries. Nor was there a television signal.

The harvest had failed. There had been a drought, and the rains had come too early and too heavily. I headed to the village clinic to find out more—clinic staff are often a more reliable source than community elders because they listen to women and are less likely to boast or cover up failings. The medical officer, Simon Kariba, was in the middle of delivering a baby. “Not to worry,” he said, inviting me to sit in an adjoining room while the mother panted and pushed. “Yes, the hunger is bad this year.” Famished children were susceptible to chest infections, he went on, and there was a lot of bilharzia and other water-borne diseases from drinking from standing pools in the forest. The clinic was distributing Plumpy’nut—peanut paste—to keep infants alive. At least the malaria had abated; there had been only a handful of cases in Ozi in the last year (good news for our badly bitten party). There was a cry from next door. “Excuse me,” Simon said. A minute later he was at the door. “Come and see.” On a table was an exhausted mother with a new-born.

Another child for the Tana! According to the last census, a quarter of the Ozi villagers are under five. Thanks to the clinic, nearly all of them will reach adulthood, even if some will be stunted from malnutrition. So Ozi is as youthful as it is famished, and even if the industrial farms fail, even if China, Turkey and other investors stay away, even if no road is built and no electricity arrives, life will change radically in Ozi, as in so many African villages, for the simple fact that there is not enough land and work to go around.


But this is to frame things the wrong way around, the morose Western way—neurotic, necrotic, swimming in debt, as my professional African friends say. There was much about Ozi that was good and working. The community was self-reliant. They operated their own motor launch for emergencies. The diet was clean, fresh rice and bananas with other fruits and nuts (fish were too expensive to keep). If the rice harvest was good and there was some small income from those working in the towns, Ozi could get by. The mobile-phone revolution in Africa has shown how change can be radically good. If there are innovations towards solar power for irrigation and LED lighting for homes, new building materials, improved sanitation, rain catchment tanks, and video links at the school for children and the community, life in the village may swing towards the paradisal.

The Pokomo have to start with the mangoes. Everywhere I went in the delta there were varieties of mango trees, some localised to saline water, others to shade, some tall, all fulsome with fruit, overhanging the river. I was reminded of Andrew Marvell’s “Song of the Emigrants in Bermuda”, in which the sailors speak of an Atlantic paradise where the Lord “hangs in shades the orange bright/Like golden lamps in a green night.” The mangoes were beyond any weasel definition of organic. They yielded under the knife like meat, some sticky and sweet, others tart, all falling softly to the ground and rotting, with only the troops of baboons and endemic Tana colobus monkey snaffling through them. The Pokomo could not afford to transport the mangoes to market. A new mango-processing factory is planned close to the Tana, but the fact that it is being promoted in an election year makes people sceptical; a factory has been promised for decades. If there was a factory, or boats to ship the mangoes direct to Mombasa, the global economy would surely buy Tana dried mangoes, chutneys, jams and puréed mangoes for baby food. Properly packaged and marketed, those delicacies would benefit the Pokomo and protect the forest.

It has to happen soon. Deforestation is pitiless: satellite data and ground surveys suggest the delta has lost half its forest since independence. Greenery abounds, but much of it is new growth, without the density of the ancient ecosystem, which scientists say is a vestige of the Congo river-basin rainforest, perhaps dating back 5m years to the Miocene. Settlements are bursting out at the edges of the floodplains. There are new fields, some marked with barbed wire. The poaching of wild animals has reached devastating levels; elephant numbers have collapsed. The indigent Giriama people have been brought into the Tana as squatters, allegedly to shore up support for festering politicians. They are mindless hunters, killing anything in their path: topi, kudus and other antelope, right down to the miniature dik-dik. They are said to work with local officials to shoot hippos. The Kenya Wildlife Service, which has a mandate to protect biodiversity with armed force, seems powerless to stop it.


When the river is high and slopping, sweeping away cattle, inundating some smallholdings, there is a surpassing weight of crocodiles in it. They slip in from the submerged mangroves—Nile crocodiles, common across Africa, but on the Tana they had a different colour from crocodiles I had seen elsewhere, a colour that eludes words—a corpselike white-green on the bank, unmoving, but in the muddy waters alive, muscular and greasy as a roiling sickness. They were most numerous where the channels in the delta met. You could feel them slapping against the bottom of the boat. When I absently skimmed my hand on the water, a crocodile rose and snapped, the snap sounding more like a pop, and it narrowly missed. I hope the crocodile survives, I hope all of it survives; that the trees remain, the weaver birds, the swamps. But on another trip, sitting by the road watching bulldozers trundle to the edge of the Tana, overseen by Chinese foremen, I had a dark sense of inevitability; I thought, I am in a place where a calamity is about to occur. 

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