Grenade geekery update

I felt my professional [sic] reputation was somewhat at risk if I left that rifle grenade go unidentified. With regular access to the internet, I've checked it now, and am 99.9% certain it was a Yugoslav M60P1 30mm rifle grenade.

So, not very interesting, and could have come from almost anywhere. Still, it does underline the fact that Kenyan forces actually use a fair bit of Eastern European-spec weaponry, at least in terms of their SALW - in contrast to the assertions of a number of 'arms experts', who told the media around the time of the MV Faina "arms to Kenya/Sudan" episode that Kenyan forces didn't use any former Soviet bloc weaponry (and thus that the T-72 tanks, AKM rifles and multiple rocket launchers on the MV Faina were unlikely to be for Kenya). So much for that. Yugoslavia/Serbia's arms industry is, admittedly, something of a bridgehead between NATO-standard and former-Soviet specs and calibres. But I've also seen lots of Kenyan police with AK-47s and AKMs, including both former Soviet types and Type 56-2s.

I really need to get a new job.


In the queue with UNHCR

On Wednesday we went to visit a particular District Commissioner to clear some upcoming programme activities. He's the senior government representative in a pretty large area: if you want to do something in his district, then protocol demands that you get his blessing.

There's a lengthy queue of people waiting in the sun outside his office – petitioners ranging from tenant farmers who've been evicted from their land, to local hotel-owners wanting the DC to open their new bar. We join the queue.

We've been waiting about half an hour when a gleaming white UNHCR Land Cruiser pulls up, and four people get out: three ex-pat staff, and a Kenyan member of what NGOs universally refer to as their 'local staff' (why can't they just have 'staff'?) They're three UNHCR Protection Advisers, up from their office in Nairobi's leafy Westlands suburb and 'out in the field' to find out how the local government is providing for IDP's livelihoods. Jolly exciting.

I've heard various stories about the attitudes of international agencies here in Kenya. I'm pretty new to all this, and my experience of the international humanitarian sector is very limited. Maybe these were an unusually insensitive bunch: I've no doubt UNHCR has its fair share of sensitive, talented, community-embedded people, often working in infinitely more challenging circumstances than central Kenya. And I'm the same as them, of course: a white do-gooder, arrogantly joining the queue outside the DC's office. All the same, from an ill-experienced mzungu to some aid industry old hands, I humbly submit four tips for being 'out in the field':

  1. You find a group of people from a local NGO (us) waiting in the queue outside the DC's office. Don't walk up, ignore all the black staff members, introduce yourself to the only white one, hand your card only to him, and look only at him while you're talking. Then don't raise your eyebrows and look surprised when they white guy awkwardly introduces one of the black guys as actually being in charge.

  2. When the DC comes out to meet you and starts talking, don't irritably tell your only black colleague - a fully-fledged programme officer - that she should be taking notes for you.

  3. You have aid funds to disburse. As you well know, the DC wants them for his district. He will therefore suggest that you can jump the queue outside his office.

    That doesn't mean that you should jump the queue outside his office.

    If you are going to jump the queue, don't grin apologetically at all the people who have been waiting here since early that morning, and sit in the DC's office for the next hour.

  4. Just because you're 'in the field' (actually a pretty big, central town) doesn't mean you have to wear the aid industry field uniform (jeans and floaty Indian tops; or worse, in the case of the 40-something male Senior Protection Adviser, an Eminem T-shirt, a safari hat, and a pair of bright pink jeans). You're here to see a government official – you could pretend you think he's important. Everyone else in the queue, including the guys who've been evicted from their farm, have managed to wear a jacket, and most of them a tie. I can't see any lions and tigers around here. You could at least wear a fucking shirt.


Update: : Having taken the piss out of UNHCR's swanky Land Cruiser, on the way back from the DC's office our creaky Nissan Mistral gave up the ghost. Serves us right.

Tit for Tat

The big news in Kenya last week started with the supposed Mungiki demonstrations on Thursday: a day of protest called by the activist Oscar Foundation to protest the government's rejection of the recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings, Philip Alston. Alston reported that Kenyan police death squads had deliberately killed hundreds of suspected 'Mungiki' and Sabaot Land Defence Forces last year. Businesses, and especially matatu operators, are very fearful of the Mungiki – the secret Kikuyu militia, with powerful connections to some Kikuyu politicians, which extorts money from them in many parts of central and western Kenya. So whether or not the demonstrations were hijacked by Mungiki, transport across the southern Rift and central Kenya was disrupted for most of the day; matatus refused to operate; fires were lit by demonstrators to stop traffic; and trucks were used by protestors to block roads...

...And ended with the murder of two Oscar Foundation leaders who had supplied evidence to Alston's investigation, shot dead in broad daylight while stuck in traffic in central Nairobi, just half an hour after a government minister had accused their organisation of fundraising for the Mungiki.

It's interesting to see how this has been reported in Europe and Kenya. The two have been described neutrally in the European and North American media as "human rights investigators" or "human rights activists", killed for protesting against EJE's of suspected Mungiki by the Kenyan police. Both daily Kenyan papers and TV news have likewise stressed the impunity of the double murder, and widely reported the resulting international criticism. But the Daily Nation (the slightly more conservative of the two main Kenyan print dailies) described the Oscar Foundation bluntly as "an NGO with links to the Mungiki". And most people I've spoken to are broadly critical of both Philip Alston's report, and of the Oscar Foundation’s support for it. There is enormous fear and hatred of Mungiki and Sabaot Defence Forces amongst many Kenyans(as well as some loyalty amongst communities supposedly 'protected' by them). A common refrain from opposing communities, as in all situations of ethnic conflict (Sri Lanka?) seems to be to ask why the international community was silent while Mungiki were murdering and extorting their way through central Kenya, and Sabaot Defence Force members were killing people in Mount Elgon (although in fact they weren't silent at all).

Is the Oscar Foundation a Mungiki front? So far the government hasn't produced a shred of evidence to support this allegation. What is probably true is that they're not simply the non-partisan human rights organisation they've been portrayed in the Western media. Their leaflets, circulating in Nakuru earlier this week (translation below) were only in Kikuyu language, addressed at mobilising a single ethnic community. They weren't explicitly inciting violence, and their legal advocacy and human rights documentation work seems credible, according to other human rights organisations.

So they're more community rights activists than human rights activists - advocating for a community which already has powerful political patronage. That doesn't make their murder any less appalling, or any less indicative of the near-total impunity of the Kenyan government's security apparatus. But its causes and consequences are about ethnic politics, not simply a Manichean struggle between brutal state repression and the human rights community, as it's being depicted in the European media.


People of Njamba Njithi [a youth group], are you just going to sit and watch as we get wiped off? Let’s come together and protest against the government killings led by the illegitimate killer squad Kwekwe and Police Commissioner Ali.

Now we have said “enough is enough!” Michuki and those killers should tell the people in accordance to what he said that "we will only be hearing of burials of our children". This disease is with the other one and now we are tired of seeing orphans and widows.

We now are urging President Kibaki to fire Police Commissioner Ali, Ministers Michuki and Saitoti, Attorney General Wako and all murderers within his government as per the UN Special Rappoteur’s recommendation.

On 5th March 2009, Oscar Foundation, a human rights organization in conjunction with parents and friends of the missing children will demonstrate with the aim of demanding for 6542 bodies of missing people and 1721 that have been killed. The demonstrations will take place throughout the nation. You are urged to come out dressed in black as a sign of mourning.

The meat wars

Sunday afternoon, for many middle-class Kenyans, means music, Tusker beer and nyama choma: roast meat (nyama), usually beef or goat, ordered by the half-pound, and served with ugali (maize meal). But usually with more meat (nyama), in often epic quantities. Nyama choma is both national dish and recreational ritual. At the moment (the end of the dry season) meat is fairly cheap, grain at record prices. And while people in the north-east of the country are actually starving, throughout the Rift, choma joints in every town and village are still filled with boozy men gnawing on hunks of burnt cow.

Each choma joint has a glass cabinet at the front to keep the flies out, hung with bloodied carcasses, from which your bit of cow is carved as you order it.

If that doesn't put you off your Sunday barbecue, maybe this should: this carcass may well be a conflict good. It's not as seductive as a blood diamond destined for Amsterdam. And unlike West Africa's diamond wars, it's a conflict driven not so much by the consumption of the resource itself, as by climate, property and livelihood. But Kenya's cattle wars are brutal, transnational and remarkably under-discussed outside East Africa. Perhaps this is because they lack the cinematic international villains of other 'low-level' African insurgencies: Russian arms dealers, multinational mining companies, Islamic dictators. Or perhaps it's simply because they're not conducive to a dramatic political fix - a regime change or a glamorous peace deal. Instead, ending the meat wars probably means systematic changes to Kenya's internal security strategies, and more fundamentally to the political economy of Kenya's land.

Last week I was back in Samburu and East Pokot, travelling with two staff to see more of the areas where they work, and to trial the conflict monitoring tool we've been designing over the last few weeks. These two districts couldn't be more different to the rich soils of Kuresoi where I’ve also been working, and where in early 2008 thousands were forced from their burning farms following Kenya's disputed presidential election. Instead these are empty, semi-arid regions roamed by Samburu, Pokot and Turkana pastoralists who travel hundreds of miles with their cows and goats, through grazing lands blurring into northern Uganda and southern Sudan. This is where much of Kenya's nyama comes from.

Each year as the dry season progresses, reports trickle into regional centres about 'cattle rustling' incidents: a Deputy-Dan epithet which romanticises the real nature of a cattle raid in northern Kenya. Organised groups of dozens of men with guns attack homesteads and herders to take hundreds of cows, sheep and goats, leading them for days to strongholds like the impenetrable Suguta Valley, a furnace-hot region where temperatures can reach 60˚C and pursuing government helicopters, according to the District Commissioner, have been brought down by small arms fire from the raiders.

These raids - undeniably communal – have in the past been regarded as a symptom of tribal traditions and life-patterns. Young unmarried 'warriors' (morans) can't own cattle inherited from their families or that of their wives until they are married. Since systems of rigged endogamy amongst Samburu or Pokot give the best young wives to older men, this may not be until their thirties. Cattle they steal, however, is regarded as theirs. As a result morans, previously organised by groups of wazee (elders), pit themselves against their Pokot, Samburu or Turkana counterparts, simply to build up property denied by their own social structures.

Like all anthropological Just-So stories, this account doesn't really explain the dynamics of the current violence. For a start, it seems that unmarried young men can, in effect, own cattle. J, one of our Samburu fieldworkers, isn't married, but tells me he has a herd of forty cows, effectively held in trust for him by his family and herded by them. It also can't explain why wazees are reporting to local peace committees that morans are now raiding in smaller groups outside their control, and beginning to raid cattle from their own communities as well as from other tribes; nor why the frequency and lethality of cattle raiding appears to be increasing, particularly in Pokot and Turkana in Kenya, and in Equatoria in Sudan. James Bevan, who has undertaken several years of research in this region, claims that "[i]f you add up death and injury tolls, a lot of research institutions would call this a war."

The lethality is at least partly the product of this region having being flooded with small arms since the 1990s. Assault rifles have overflowed into Kenya from warring governments and rebel groups blithely arming communities in southern Sudan, northern Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia: a halo of civil wars and counter-insurgencies that has surrounded this region for nearly 20 years. Even the smallest raid now typically involves gunshot fatalities which might not have occurred with pangas and clubs in the past.

Guns, of course, last a long time, but are useless without fresh bullets. And with a calibre mix of AK-47s, M-16s and G-3s you need - as Tom Waits perceptively sang - just the right bullets. B, from Churo in East Pokot, names a man who visits the nearby village of Amaiya every so often. In a quiet corner on market day he takes orders for bullets for different calibre weapons; B says he then travels several hundred miles westwards into Uganda to obtain them.

This small arms epidemic may also help explain the new pattern of 'freelancing' raiders. Guns dramatically increase the ability of small groups to project power – and of small, armed communities to respond in kind. The Divisional Officer in Churo ascribes this privatisation of raiding, though, more to a kind of 'teenage angst' phenomenon, a fundamental collapse of authority structures. There may be something in this. J, one of the Samburu fieldworkers, is an educated guy in Hushpuppies.* In Maralal he introduced me to his younger brother A, dressed in Samburu beads and skirt, with his hair dyed with red dust, carrying a Samburu sword, and incongruously wearing an old North Face anorak over the top. A is a softly-spoken teenager who, to his brother's despair, has decided to leave school and rejoin the carefree morans, a decision which seems to be as much about rebellion as economic choice (although that too is undoubtedly limited).

It's a facile comparison, but I'm reminded of the boys who hang about with sovereign rings on BMX bikes at the end of my street in Moss Side. But this isn't just a Melanie Philips-style 'Broken Kenya', brought on by the ready availability of hip hop and condoms.** The Divisional Officer says that the ability of communities to regulate morans' activities has been dramatically diminished by a string of recent drought years, which have compelled morans to travel much further and longer to find pasture. They often leave their homes for over a year, he says, forming their own young-male solidarity groups away from the social constraints of family and village, and may not come back. And as the well-armed herders travel further, they rub up more and more against the diminished grazing grounds of other groups. This is in many ways an archetypal climate change conflict, with well-armed, hungry communities caught in the shrivelling grasslands of northern Kenya.

Oddly, though, as we drove I did see grass here in East Pokot and west Samburu. Quite a lot of it. People just can't get at it any more.

On the left of this photo, behind the fence, you can see long, plentiful grass stretching into the distance.

The land on the right – used in common by the communities here – has been stripped bare.

The fence marks the boundary of the Mugie Ranch, a private cattle ranch and game reserve fencing off a 49,000 acre stretch of land straddling Pokot, Laikipia and Samburu districts. Owned by a pair of Californian vinyard owners, most of the land is used for the Ranch's enormous private cattle herd. Another 20,000 acres of grassland is fenced off with electric fences for black rhinos, to be viewed by the wealthy white tourists flown into the ranch by private plane.

In this vast landscape, land access doesn't seem as immediate an issue as in the cramped, lush highlands of central Kenya. But there are still haves and have-nots, and the economic consequences for local communities of enclosing this great grassy tract on their doorsteps is fairly obvious. Herders intruding into the Ranch with their cows and sheep are met, B tells us, with armed police (not private security), alerted by the ranch's own patrols and scrambled there in their police Land Rovers (although on these roads I can't believe they ever get there in time). Yet when villagers in nearby Amaiya, just 10km from the Divisional Officer's station, were caught in-between an outbreak of fighting last week between over three hundred armed Pokot and Samburu herders, police and administration officials said they couldn't go to intervene because they didn't have any fuel for their vehicles...

The Mugie Ranch has an enlightening website which explains their economic model more clearly. The ranch, it explains, also engages in development work: building schools (that’s to say, a (primary) school, for the children of the ranch's employees), and helping local communities by, er, buying up their livestock:

Through buying livestock from the communities, Mugie contributes to the local micro economy. Since the communities no longer have large herds of cattle they have increased their numbers of small stock, sheep and goats, which contribute to over stocking and erosion.

Each family is able to sell one or two sheep a month which contributes to their household budget

It seems to me that in any other circumstances, privatising a previously common resource, thereby making it impossible for your competitors to continue operating, and then buying out their remaining stock, would surely be called something else. Certainly not 'development work'.

(On the other hand the Guardian’s travel section, although it gestures at the unfortunate problem of the people who actually live here, thinks the Mugie Ranch is a model of conservation tourism: "whatever humans think, the wildlife benefits" - ignoring the fact that the ranch's principal if carefully occluded business is making money by growing cows.)

And where does the raided nyama go? Communities mark their livestock with distinctive notches specific to their tribe. If Pokots decide to sell animals they've raided from a Samburu community, cattle brokers in regional markets will likely know that they're buying stolen livestock. It seems, then, that there's a certain amount of blind-eye-turning amongst larger economic players further down the supply chain, although provenance is likely to be blurred, B explains, because stolen cows will be sold in small local markets, possibly to traders from a different community; and then taken to (slightly) larger markets further south in places like Sipili or Nyaharuru, to which major brokers and big Nairobi butcheries will bring their trucks to buy in bulk. In some cases they may even be taken over the border to Uganda, cows flowing back in the opposite direction to the bullets used to raid them.

The government's principal response is a series of police and/or army operations, moving periodically, and with great force, through different districts to forcibly disarm communities and to recover cattle they believe have been stolen. We were in Samburu as one was sweeping through Samburu East (don't worry, Mum, nowhere near us). These operations somewhat stretch the European understanding of policing. In Suguta Marmar we met regular police officers coming from Samburu East, drinking soda at a roadside shop. Poorly trained bobbies on the beat – but dressed in combat fatigues with M-16s and G-3s slung across their shoulders, and Eastern European rifle grenades tucked under their epaulettes.***

These operations are periodic, and Sisyphean. Their result - aside from the rapes and dispossession that one Divisional Officer candidly told me generally results - tends to be that one community is disarmed; and tension is ratcheted up as that community feels the government's picking on them over the others, and in many cases that the police are confiscating their own cows (and thus their entire livelihood) rather than finding ones that have actually been stolen. Then, feeling vulnerable against their still-armed neighbours, communities scramble to acquire more guns.

This rotating injustice seems to have taken on a wider political resonance following recent international indictments of the Kenyan government and its law enforcement. We arrived in the district capital, Maralal town, about an hour after a large demonstration protesting against the ongoing Samburu operation had been broken up by administration police.

As well as calling on the police to return their cows and to "Stop Applying Double Standards" to the Samburu community, the demonstrators carried new banners demanding that "[Major General Hussein] Ali [the head of the Kenyan police] and Hassan Noor [the Provincial Commissioner of the whole Rift Valley] should be prosecuted at the ICC". This is powerful testimony to the desperate appeal of international justice in a community where local judicial mechanisms are completely broken. Last week the report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston on extra-judicial killings by the police in western Kenya, several hundred miles away, demanded that Police Chief Ali be prosecuted; and the Kenyan media is full of debates about whether the 'secret envelope' of the Waki Report, listing the suspected high-level organisers of political violence following Kenya's disputed 2007-8 election, should be passed to the ICC. These processes are addressing political violence which has nothing to do with the fighting in Samburu – whose conflicts and human rights abuses generally fall far outside the competence of international courts. Yet we heard people demanding "To the Hague!" in every soda shop and bar-room conversation in Samburu District.

There seems little prospect of repairing trust between government forces and these communities any time soon. We spent the afternoon in Maralal town interviewing witnesses after the demonstration. The police's standard response was to deny any use of force at all, and to add (incongruously) that the crowd itself turned violent. Video of the demonstration taken by a bystander showed no evidence of any violence from the protestors. At Maralal District Hospital we were shown admission records for people admitted following the demonstration: all women, all Samburu - the community against which the current operation is proceeding - although the demonstrators were predominantly men, and a mixture of Samburu, Kisii and Kikuyu residents. A journalist for the Daily Standard, who covered a second demonstration in Maralal several days later, confirmed this apparent pattern of Samburu women being targets of police violence. One girl we interviewed, badly bruised all over and with a fractured arm, said she was beaten by the riot police while walking down a side-street several streets away from the demonstration itself. Her clothing was visibly identifiable as Samburu. She told us she was just 14 years old.

Conversely, (justifiable) suspicion of the police arguably generates spiralling accusations from community members too. We were told by several witnesses, for instance, that the police had fired live ammunition directly into the crowd: not at all implausible given the Kenyan police's past form. But no gunshot wounds had been admitted to the district hospital that day. Video footage we obtained showed the police only firing into the air, and close-up footage of cartridge cases left at the scene showed only blank cartridges, not live rounds.****

And so we're back at the earlier question: who has just the right bullets? At the moment everyone in Samburu seems to have just the right bullets: the Kenyan police, who may sometimes use blanks, but aren't shy to shoot people in the head with live rounds (or military rifle grenades); the Amaiya bullet-peddler with his good friends in Uganda; cattle-raiding morans who can get the right calibre ammunition for their weapons, whether they're SPLA Kalashnikovs, captured (or quietly donated) Kenyan police G-3s, or ancient M-16s from Somalia.

We can try to disrupt this halo of conflicts, local and transnational; its ingrained practices of violence and its spider-web of weapons flows. But those guns and bullets will probably keep flowing until they're not wanted any more. Until police and local administration can provide genuine security for rural Kenyan communities as well as white ranchers; until they can stop humiliating ethnic communities by beating their women; until those communities can find a grassy place for their cattle or an irrigated place to farm; and until those places themselves stop shrinking as the temperature rises. Until then, everyone's next door neighbours are looking increasingly, hungrily dangerous; and their lands and cows looking more and more attractive.

And sitting eating my beef chops on a Sunday afternoon, who am I to argue?

* That notorious hallmark of civilisation.

**As far as I can see, hip hop is a lot more readily available in Samburu than condoms. Marie Stopes International has a lot to learn from 50 Cent about distribution.

***For the weapons geeks who read this blog: no, unfortunately I couldn't get a photograph; and although I saw that the markings around the fuzes were a long string of numbers and Cyrillic letters, I couldn't read them properly because the police officer got very touchy when I tried to look at them more closely. I'd say they were about 200mm long, maybe 20mm wide, cylindrical (not bulging or tapering) with an olive drab metallic body separated into sections by circular notches along their length, about 10-15mm apart; a copper-coloured fuze; and small, white, plastic-looking fins (four, I think) at the rear. I'd guess they were to fit 7.62mm G-3s, which might also take rifle-fired grenades designed for 7.62x39 calibre weapons? They didn't seem to have adaptor muzzle attachments to fire them, but I think G-3s have a screw-threaded muzzle brake that is already designed to fit rifle grenades? Any ideas?

****Likewise - sorry, weapons geeks: the person who took the footage filmed the cartridges and canisters up close, but sadly didn't look at the cartridge headstamps or capture the markings on the other side of the canisters. The tear gas was French-type (you know the ones), but we obviously couldn't confirm the manufacturer or production date. The filmer promised they'll film them for us next time.


Mangoes update

I'm gutted.

Having blithely believed that Nakuru's fruit-sellers are operating some kind of glorious E.P. Thompson-cum-Robert Putnam collaborative moral economy, it turns out that, er, they're not. One of the other fruit-sellers, Theresa, finally told me today that none of them work together, they all compete with each other, and would I like some especially sweet bananas from Kampala these ones are much nicer than Naomi's? When I asked the others, they confirmed this was true. Like everywhere else, selling mangoes is every woman for herself.

So I'm gradually learning the hard way that the first methodological principle of arms trade research (everybody is always lying) should also apply to sociological inquiry (everybody is always already lying). Still, it's a pretty astute hustle, and one that could only emerge in a country besieged by bleeding-heart white do-gooders: rather than undercut your competitor directly, tell the white do-gooder that you're in a cooperative, and hike your prices accordingly.


Cillit Bang

I'm afraid this is the obligatory schoolboy "humourous foreign product name" blog post. This is the Kenyan brand of washing powder I've been using while I'm here.

It does indeed make my whites whiter than white. Etc.

Why I am not a real man

I spent a peculiar three days this week in and around Nyeri: a verdant corner of the Central Highlands, formerly a white-settler paradise, at the foot of Mount Kenya. It's not like being in Kenya at all. Friesian cows chomp away between thrush-filled hedgerows, growing from rich red soil with the hills and mountains of the Aberdares beyond. Everything except the colour of the soil would make you think you were in Scotland, or Alsace.

Wandering through the dusk taking these pictures made me think harder about the wave of colonial settlement here after the First World War - an agrarian re-population, deliberately generated by Colonial Office development policy and a soldier settlement scheme that brought upper-class officers from the mud of Verdun to this African Shropshire. This was an imperial mode quite unlike the minimal white settlement of colonies like India, and with a colonial aesthetic that was as much georgic as imperious (or, putting it less generously, more baronial than sultanate).*

Nyeri makes me realise that that particular moment of empire - arrogant and dispossessive though it might have been - was far more poignant than the gin-soaked White Mischief into which it ultimately developed in the 1930s (the largest landowner here, Lord Delamere, famously once rode his horse into the dining room of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel). In 1919, though, this place was where they were going to start again after the panoramic, mechanised carnage of northern Europe, to retreat and build a new tiny world - some of them as idealistic, in their way, as the young independence activists who at that time were also gazing across at Mount Kenya.** Places, of course, are never empty, and utopias always breed violence.

While we're here we've been staying at the major Catholic seminary just outside Nyeri (it's a long story). I don't like Catholic institutions very much, and this one was no exception. The place is a vast tract of productive land filled with sour, politicked old men. Sitting in the refectory eating cold cabbage when we arrive (it's Lent, to make things worse) are a taciturn, pipe-smoking monk in a hoodie reading a John Connolly thriller; a couple of wizened 80-something American missionaries who missed the boat home; and a burly 40-something priest with a smoker's cough who seems to enjoy shouting at a deaf, hunch-backed Indian Jesuit and hitting him with a fly-swat for comic effect.

Typical conversations with priests:

- discussing the disputed candidature of a proposed member of the new Kenyan Electoral Commission, accused of being a wife-beater: "Perhaps the wife is comfortable when she is being beaten. We cannot go into the home like that" (this from a member of a church which has insisted on expanding its purview into the home, the bed and the uterus).

- over breakfast: do I know how many devil worshippers there are in the Kenyan government? Did I know that the matatus are run by Freemasons?

Actually, I came to strangely enjoy the company of these sour old men; mainly because the remarkably self-possessed and joyous young seminarians, from all over Kenya, take no notice of them, and the ageing faculty don't seem to mind that they're the object of continual ridicule. Also, there are glow-in-the-dark crucifixes in every room, which takes Catholic kitch to a whole new level.

One thing I didn't enjoy, though, was my room. I'm no Bear Grylls, but I like to think that I'm fairly resilient about physical hardships. But there's one thing I'm ashamed to say I don't deal well with: the room's actually pretty comfortable for a seminary, but clearly hasn't been swept in a while, and I'm only in there for five minutes on the first night before I realise that it's filled with large, flat, swift-moving spiders. Spiders with smooth, fat, carapace-covered articulated legs, more like crabs than spiders. Like all photographs of spiders, this photo of one on the ceiling makes it look tiny: I swear to God (and I did, volubly, at that point), it was actually about 10cm across.

The minute I got in there I saw a huge one above the toilet, and another above the desk. Smaller ones start crawling from behind the bed and on the ceiling. I squash one that's sitting on the door handle - it oozes pale-green goo over the door - and no sooner have I done that than another one, twice as big, crawls out from within the door frame.

Fortunately, I have a mosquito net, which I eventually hang up, tuck around the bed, and climb in, fully clothed. My skin crawls all night, but this spider-filled chamber seems somehow appropriate in an odd, ossified community nestled in such an incongruous, beautiful setting. In the morning I get up exhausted at half-past six, and wander out into a shining morning, Mount Kenya looming out of the mist behind the church - inside which black-robed seminarians are already sitting, silent, with their eyes closed.

*Richard Drayton would argue that agriculture has always been about dominion.

**It also made me wonder whether there were any explicitly utopian schemes here in the White Highlands? Were there any Rolf Gardiners of Nyeri and the Aberdares?

Ghanaian Kung-Fu update

Someone emailed to remind me that black power kung-fu has a distinguished pedigree. In brief: my friend Dan Matlin's ground-breaking article on the writer and organiser Amiri Baraka, leading light of the 1960s Black Arts movement and intellectual inspiration for a raft of Black Power figures, describes the Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN), a self-help organisation established by Baraka in New Jersey in 1968. As I understand it, CFUN drew on an idiosyncratic post-colonial mix of Marxist ideology and a collection of bastardised Bantu and Zulu traditions called Kawaida, espoused by a former associate of Malcolm X. True to its black power connections, CFUN had a disciplined martial wing, Black Community Defense and Development, whose boy members received fortnightly training with handguns and rifles, and were instructed in tabura, "a form of African drills", and yangumi..."a form of karate".

So there you go. Although I'm not sure that Baraka - author of such widely performed works as Black Dada Nihilismus and Junkies are Full of (SHHH...) - has ever got as much popular exposure as Africa Magic TV.