Notes on passing through


Kenya: developing the margins (and the unfinished business of making a nation state)

Turkana herder by gas flare

Remote. Marginalised. Left behind. In Kenya, these journalistic and development clichés apply not just to one or two neglected backwaters but to vast expanses of arid and semi-arid land that make up fully 80 percent of the national territory. In those areas, now highly vulnerable to climate change, relatively sparse populations of pastoralists continue to raise cattle, donkeys, goats and camel on their ancestral land, but they have lived at the margins of national development since Kenya’s independence in 1966.

Finding Palestine: a short tour of the shrinking West Bank

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip. Spending a few months as a trailing spouse in neighbouring Jordan, I make time to visit, with around 70 words of Arabic and no guide book.

The cab driver who takes me from Amman to the border says he paid 50,000 dinars (USD 70,000) for his second-hand car and the licence to operate this route.  “Jordan government is thief,” he says. “Thief.” Like nearly half of Jordan’s population he is of Palestinian origin. His family left the small city of Nablus after the 1967 Six Day War, when the Israeli army routed the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan and occupied the Palestinian territories. Nablus is only 100 kilometres from Amman, but he has never been there.

Vandalism in an antique land

There may be something new in the way that ISIS has set about destroying ancient monuments in  Syria and Iraq—but archaeological vandalism itself has a very wide spectrum, as I realised during a recent visit to the Sudan National Museum.

Ten days in hospital

May has come to South London, blustery, fresh and often wet, but many Britons on the streets are sporting short sleeves and bare legs as if holidaying in the tropics. Even the hospital, stuffy and suffocating by tradition, turns out to be airy, with a chilly draught coming from the window berth I have luckily secured. Perhaps they’re saving on energy.

Our ward has a motley, shifting crew of patients. Of the languages I know, English is the only one that confers this subtly coercive title, redolent of the administrative grandeur that made it possible to run an empire, upon the bedridden malades, enfermos, bing ren.

Malaŵi: what did 20 years of ‘development’ do?

British imperialists picked some fine spots from which to supervise their dominions. The colonial administration of Nyasaland, a 900 kilometre long strip of south east Africa that has been known as Malaŵi since independence in 1964, was headquartered on the lower slopes of Mount Zomba. Salubrious breezes ruffle the trees and flowering bushes that surround a cluster of early 20th century brick buildings, quaint and dinky now, making one wonder how so much power could be exercised with so little concrete. A dilapidated Gymkhana Club, built in 1923, looks out over a wide lawn that probably doubled as a cricket and polo pitch. It is easy to imagine the few dozen colonial officers and their wives gathering here for gin and tonic at sundown, some brightly planning an amateur performance of Charley’s Aunt in the surprisingly ample hall behind, others complaining about the insufferable stupidity of the houseboys and yearning for home.

Mind the civility gap

A few pleasant days in London entertaining small grandsons—chasing pigeons in the park, stamping in puddles, riding on trains and buses—are marred only by occasional incivility, which first surfaces at the London Transport Museum.

The dream of reason produces monsters

A day is not long to spend in Madrid, and the two hours we can spare for the Museo del Prado are hardly sufficient, so we ignore most of its treasures and concentrate on Goya.

Over the hill

We go up the valley looking for Lorenzo, who grazes his cows on our patch of mountain. Twenty seven cows this year, not much to keep a family on, but not too bad either. Smallholder husbandry has declined steadily in the years that we’ve been coming to Cantabria, but Lorenzo seems to be clinging on somehow, almost thriving. He has Parkinson’s disease, causing a distracting shake to the hands that he clasps around a long walking staff, so it takes some time to notice the surprisingly jaunty twinkle in his eye.

Preaching at the poor in Middle England

In the UK for a week on family business I make the mistake of travelling by public transport in a country that is configured for the private car. The journey from my sister’s house outside Ipswich to my brother’s in Northampton, a distance of around 80 miles, takes 7 hours (on three buses, one train and one taxi) and costs a total of GBP 28.30. But I’m not in a hurry, and enjoy looking out the window. January’s cold snap is over. Snowmen dissolve into the bruised grass of town parks. Where there are still fields, water lies flat upon them.

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