Tuesday, 24 August 2010


In the past two days I’ve been busy sorting through two decades’ worth of letters and postcards written home to my parents in Southport. They cover the period from 1976, when I went up to Cambridge, through to the late 1990s when I was working in Iringa and internet access changed all of our writing habits. I’ve rarely had the time, energy, or desire to write a narrative diary, so letters and now emails are often my only record of events (internal as well as external) that haven’t found their way into fieldnotes, notebooks, and my decidedly duff memory. On more than one occasion when researching this weekly blog I’ve been confronted by evidence of my own misremembering. And that’s why I asked recently if I could have all those old letters back: I need all the help that I can get.

I haven’t had time to read all of this correspondence, only to dip into it while marvelling at the diversity of postage stamps, franks, envelopes, writing papers, letter headings, inks, and typewriter prints that it’s made of. Sometimes I wrote letters on the obverse of photocopies of documents or newspaper articles of interest, and one of these in particular has caught my eye. It’s a partial copy of the front page of the Daily Nation dated Thursday, 16 July 1987, with the bold headline Echakara: Underwear mystery deepens. Stephen Achirya Echakara was an Assistant Minister in Moi’s government who died some days after being violently robbed of his Peugot 404 pick-up in Langata, Nairobi. His female passenger, a Ugandan, was also attacked, and she reported that two of their three assailants had tried unsuccessfully to rape her. The police later recovered everything that had been dropped at the scene of the attack, apart from her panties.

Much was made of this detail when she was cross-examined during the trial of two of the alleged attackers, and it was this scurrilous angle that the newspaper ran with. I assume that this was part of an attempt by the defence to cast aspersions on her character and evidence, linked to the admission that she was having an adulterous affair with the Assistant Minister. Alas I didn’t copy all of the article and can’t now remember more details of the case, though I can see from a quick search of the internet that the two defendants were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death (so much for that below-the-belt defence strategy), only to be acquitted many years later as the victims of a miscarriage of justice. There are also a number of rumours in circulation suggesting that Echakara was in fact assassinated on the orders of business and/or political rivals, and that his erstwhile mistress was part of the plot.

The Daily Nation’s titillating headline reminds me of another (but mercifully less consequential) underwear mystery from my time in Kenya. This found its way into my fieldnotes when I was studying the entrepreneurial achievements of Amkeni, a women’s group in Chilulu, Jibana Location (Walsh 1986), just down the road (or up the path) from the pseudonymised site of David Parkin’s Palms, Wine and Witnesses (1972). One Saturday afternoon (this was in October 1986) I was sitting with a housemate listening to records on a battery-operated player, when we were joined by a young Giriama man – let’s call him Charo – who had clearly had a drink or three of palm wine and was bursting to tell us his story.

Charo and another man, Kazungu (also not his real name), worked as live-in farm labourers for a neighbouring Jibana family. One day Kazungu had to give up his room and bed to a visitor, and so moved in with Charo for the duration. Charo took pity on Kazungu – who would otherwise have had to sleep on the floor – and invited him to share his bed So they slept at different ends of Charo’s bed and did so without incident until one night Charo was rudely awoken by Kazungu, who was thumping him with his fists. It transpired that Kazungu had woken up earlier to find that he was completely naked and that his underpants were on Charo’s head. Hence his unannounced attack on Charo, who managed to calm him down, telling him that they’d discuss matters further in the morning.

But Kazungu wasn’t mollified, and subsequently spread his account of what had happened. He then confronted Charo with the claim that he’d consulted several local diviners who’d pronounced that Charo was a witch. Charo countered this accusation by denying that he’d played any part in the removal of Kazungu’s underpants and their translocation to his head. “Show your evidence!” he exclaimed, before taking out some money and offering to visit any diviner to check out whether the accusation would stand or not. Kazungu refused, and the result was a stalemate.

When he told us this story Charo was quite excitable and evidently very upset: he’d done Kazungu a favour by giving him space on his bed and in return was being accused of witchcraft for no good reason. I remember thinking at the time that Charo could just have easily accused Kazungu of witchcraft for kicking his underpants off and onto his head; indeed it seemed to me that he had a stronger case for suspecting his bedfellow’s behaviour. But the obvious interpretation to a sceptic is that Kazungu’s wardrobe malfunction was a purely involuntary and innocent act.

I should emphasise that there was no explicit suggestion at the time that sexual desire or impropriety was a factor in this incident, except of course in the humour that I saw in it – which draws on the same tradition as that mischievous newspaper headline. I don’t have a database of Mijikenda underwear walkabouts with which to compare this case, and don’t know what happened to Charo and Kazungu afterwards, and whether and how their dispute was resolved. With hindsight I can now think of a number of penetrating questions that I could have asked. But this is one underwear mystery that I’ll probably never get to the bottom of.


Muhoho, Paul and Catherine Gicheru 1987. Echakara: Underwear mystery deepens. Daily Nation (Nairobi), No. 8274 (Thursday, 16 July 1987): 1.

Parkin, David 1972. Palms, Wine, and Witnesses: Public Spirit and Private Gain in an African Farming Community. London: Intertext Books.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Amkeni Women’s Group, Jibana Location. In Martin Walsh, Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province (Report to World Education Inc., Boston). Mombasa, June 1986. 44-76.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


The shortest (and least serious) article that I've ever written was about the longest insects in the world. I wrote it to see how easy it would be to get something published in the East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin. 'A Stick Insect in Same' was published in September 1991, and here's the text in full:

In early September 1990, while staying in Same (between the North and South Pare Mountains) in north-east Tanzania, I stumbled upon what was by far the longest stick-insect that I have ever seen. It was clinging to the sides of some cement steps, and at first I mistook it for a growth of leafless twigs. Not until I saw that these grey twigs were perfectly symmetrical and growing out of nothing did it dawn on me that I might be looking at a living creature. I showed it to some of my colleagues, members of local women's groups, and they were only convinced of its real identity once they had frightened it into moving. Like me they were astounded by its size, and all of them declared that they had never seen anything like it before. They were, indeed, somewhat alarmed, and killed it with a few well-aimed rocks.

I had all but forgotten about this incident until recently, when I came across the following statement in last year's edition of The Guinness Book of Records (p.40): "The longest insect in the world is the Giant Stick Insect Pharnacia serratipes of Indonesia, females of which have been measured up to 330 mm (13 inches)". How I wish that I had made use of a tape measure and camera that day! I could swear that my Same stick insect was much the same size as the longest of its Indonesian cousins. It was certainly much longer than the norm - or what I suppose to be the norm in my ignorance of the relevant entomological records. I would be very happy for someone to write and enlighten me. Otherwise, and not just for those with an eye to the record books, I would recommend a visit to the hostel recently opened by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Same. The hostel buildings enclose a small garden, host (one hopes) to the relatives of a very long, but unfortunately very dead, stick insect. (Walsh 1991)

A couple of months later, in November 1991, I found a dead stick insect in our swimming pool in Nyali, on the north coast of Mombasa. It wasn't quite as big as the one I'd written about, but, with a body length of 180 mm and an overall length (including legs) of around 291 mm, it was impressive enough (the photograph and sketches shown here are of this apparently drowned specimen). The next week I bought a second-hand copy of Pinhey and Loe's introductory text, A Guide to the Insects of Africa (1974), with Ian Loe's illustration of the Congolese Palophus leopoldi (= Bactrododema leopoldi (Schouteden, 1916)) on its cover. This looked superficially similar to my Nyali stick, but was evidently a much longer species, described as the largest stick insect in Africa, "which, with legs stretched out in front and behind, measures over 400 mm" (1974: 20).

Then, searching for better sources in the library of the National Museum and East Africa Natural History Society in Nairobi, I discovered an old reference to large stick insects in the vicinity of Lohumbo in Shinyanga District in (what was then) Tanganyika:  a report of a male "which measured fifteen and a half inches from the tips of the front legs to the tips of the hind legs", and a collected female specimen, tentatively identified as Palophus episcopalis (= Bactrododema episcopalis (Kirby, 1896)), whose total length was "just over fourteen inches" (Carpenter 1942: 75). At c.394 mm the male was reputedly almost as long as the Congolese record-holder. And both of these African Palophus (= Bactrodema) were longer than the 330 mm that The Guinness Book of Records gave for the Asian Pharnacia serratipes (= Giant Malayan Stick Insect, Phobaeticus serratipes (Gray, 1835)) (McFarlan 1989: 40).

I therefore wrote to the Editor of The Guinness Book of Records drawing his attention to the different measurements and enclosing photocopies of my article and the two sources on African stick insects that I'd found. I ended my letter by noting that "Unless the basis for these measurements is different, or they are simply wrong, then it appears that the Palophus of Africa should be described as the longest insects in the world" (Mombasa, 4 December 1991). In reply I received a courteous letter from the Deputy Editor, Maria Morgan, thanking me for my observations and promising to follow up on them: "It may be that the methods of measurement differ slightly but your letter will receive our fullest consideration and the entry will of course be amended if necessary" (Enfield, Middlesex, 6 January 1992). Much to my surprise the next edition of The Guinness Book of Records was changed to read: "The longest insects in the world are stick-insects (walking sticks), especially of the African species [sic] Palophus, which can attain lengths of 400 mm 15¾ in in the case of Palophus leopoldi" (Matthews 1992: 38). It looked as though this had been done without reference to proper scientific authorities, but merely in response to my amateur intervention and ultimately on the basis of the sketchy description in an introductory guide.

The African pretender, Palophus leopoldi (= Bactrododema leopoldi (Schouteden, 1916)), reigned supreme for two years, through to the 40th edition of The Guinness Book of Records (Matthews 1993: 41). Back in England I corresponded with Paul Brock, the Treasurer and Membership Secretary of the Phasmid Study Group, and became PSG Member No.1234. Stuck in a dull academic job, I dreamed of searching for more East African stick insects, until I was discouraged by the discovery that reference materials were few and far between and often difficult to find. This was compounded by the realisation that scientific collecting and study would require the kind of dedication and expertise that I singularly lack.

I planned an early version of this note, describing how the entry in The Guinness Book of Records had been changed without any real evidence, and making the point that the interesting scientific question was not how long particular species and specimens were, but how and why some stick insects had evolved to such large sizes. Using the few sources at my disposal, including Brock (1992), I drew up a table of the reported lengths of the longest stick insects. As soon as I did this, it dawned on me that two different measurements were being reported in the literature, body length and the total length including the outstretched legs. The earlier records in The Guinness Book of Records were based on body length (330 mm for Pharnacia serratipes), whereas the reports for Palophus spp. that I'd found were based on overall length (e.g. 400 mm for P.leopoldi). It may be that some of the African Palophus (= Bactrododema) had bodies equal or greater in length to the Asian Pharnacia (= Phobaeticus), but there was no actual evidence for this. When writing to The Guinness Book of Records I'd expressed some caution about the basis for different measurements, and now it turned out that I was right to do so.

In the summer of 1994 I returned to East Africa and forgot about my phasmid fantasies. The next edition of The Guinness Book of Records gave primacy to Pharnacia kirbyi (= Phobaeticus kirbyi Brunner von Watenwyl, 1907), a species from Borneo. Although I didn't know it at the time, phasmid researcher Phil Bragg had published a paper in The Entomologist pointing out that the original record was based on a misidentification, and that the African record was based on the measurement of overall rather than body length (1995: 26). I didn't see another large stick insect until one day in May 2002, driving from Dar es Salaam to Iringa in a project Landrover. As we sped along the road approaching Kitonga I caught sight of a very large stick crossing in front of us, heading into the bush northwards. We were travelling at 110-120 km per hour, and I had a split second in which to ask the driver, Aston, to slam on the brakes. I thought of the hassle, hesitated, and the moment had gone. Gone too, I mused, was my chance to change the record books again, this time with some real evidence. Instead the world record is now held by another Bornean species, recently described by Phil Bragg (Chan's Megastick, Phobaeticus chani Bragg, 2008) and displayed in the Natural History Museum in London.  

Afterword, 20 August 2010

Martyn Tovey has kindly gone through different editions of The Guinness Book of Records (and its successors) and painstakingly examined the entries for the world's longest insect. His analysis shows a surprising number of changes, updates, and errors. One change is of particular significance to my own tale: whereas early editions had all made it clear that the principal measurements given referred to the body length of stick insects, this detail was omitted from the 29th edition (published in 1982) onwards, and wasn't reintroduced until the 41st edition (1994), which picked up on Phil Bragg's observations. Martyn's notes are reproduced with minor amendments below. For details of the different editions and their dates of publication readers are referred to his wonderful Guinness Record Book Collecting website.

The longest insect record appeared in the very first edition in 1955 (under Insects, Largest), as:
Some tropical stick-insects (Plasmidae) have a body length up to 13 inches (330 mm.) [p.34]

The entry was slightly modified in the 2nd edition in 1956 (now known as the 5th edition):
Some tropical stick-insects (Phasmidae) have a body length up to 13 inches (330 mm.) [p.30]

The 10th edition (1962) has:
Some tropical stick-insects (Phasmidae) have a body length up to 13 inches (330 mm.) and in the case of the Palophus titan from Australia a wing span of 10 inches. [p.29]

The description changes slightly for the 13th edition in 1966:
Some tropical stick-insects (family Phasmidae) have a body length up to 13 inches and in the case of the Palophus titan from Australia a wing span of 10 inches. [p.35]

In the 18th edition (1971), the record changes again to:
Some tropical stick-insects have a body length of up to 13 inches (e.g. Phoboeticus fruhstorferi) and, in the case of Palophus titan from Australia, a wing span of 10 inches. [p.41]

The next (19th edition) moves the record into its own category (Insects, Longest):
The longest insect in the world is the tropical stick-insect Pharnacia serratipes, females of which have been measured up to 33 cm (12.99 inches) in body length. [p.42]

In edition 28, published in 1981, the record becomes:
The longest insect in the world is the giant stick-insect Pharnacia serratipes of Indonesia, females of which have been measured up to 330 mm (13 inches) in body length. [p.46]

The 29th edition had a reference to the record in the usual place, but the actual record was shown in a two-page table of "Superlatives of the Animal Kingdom". It omitted the detail "in body length". The table appeared in the 30th, 31st, 32nd and 33rd editions. For the 34th edition (published 1987), the record was back in the main text as:
The longest insect in the world is the Giant stick-insect (Pharnacia serratipes) of Indonesia, females of which have been measured up to 330 mm 13 in. [p.39]

The record in the 39th edition is:
The longest insects in the world are stick-insects (walking sticks), especially of the African species Palophus, which can attain lengths of 400 mm 15¾ in in the case of Palophus leopoldi. [p.38]

The record changes in the 41st edition to:
The longest recorded insect in the world is Pharnacia kirbyi, a stick insect from the rainforests of Borneo. The longest-known specimen is in the British Natural History Museum in London, UK: it has a body length of 328 mm 12.9 in and a total length, including the legs, of over half-a-metre 20 in.

The total length is given as 546 mm (20 inches) in the 42nd edition, but 54.6 cm (21.5 inches) in the 43rd. The 1999 44th edition (published in 1998) has a picture of the specimen from the Natural History Museum (pp.258-259). The 2008 54th edition updates the record:
Two stick insects share this record, depending on how they are measured. Pharnacia kirbyi is a stick insect from the rainforests of Borneo. The longest specimen known had a body length of 32.8 cm (12.9 in) and a total length, including the legs, of 54.6 cm (21.5 in). This makes it the longest insect in the world based on head-plus-body length. A specimen of Malaysia's Phobaeticus serratipes had a head-plus-body length of 27.8 cm (10.9 in), but when its outstretched legs were included, it measured a record 55.5 cm (21.8). [p.45]

The 2010 56th edition (published in 2009) has a new entry:
On 16th October 2008, the UK's Natural History Museum announced a new holder for the record of the longest stick insect: Phobaeticus chana - aka Chan's megastick - from the rainforests of Borneo. The longest of the three known specimens [...] measured 56.6 cm (22.3 in) with its legs stretched; its body alone measured 35.5 cm (14 in) - also a record for the insect class. [p.48]

Paul Brock adds that in his opinion "an Australian species Ctenomorpha gargantua Hasenpusch & Brock, 2006 will compete for the 'longest insect in the world' title, as they are over 300mm".

I remain very grateful to Paul Brock for his correspondence in 1993-94 and for taking the trouble to send me hard-to-obtain literature on phasmids. I'm sorry that I've been able to make no better use of it than this! Thanks also to James Walsh for his photograph and drawing of the stick insect (very likely Bactrododema sp.) that appeared in our swimming pool that Sunday morning in 1991. Martyn Tovey and, again, Paul Brock are thanked for their contributions to the Afterword.


Bragg, P. E. 1995. The Longest Stick Insect in the World, Pharnacia kirbyi (Brunner). The Entomologist 114 (1): 26-30.

Bragg, P. E. 2008. In Frank H. Hennemann and Oscar V. Conle, Revision of Oriental Phasmatodea: The Tribe Pharnaciini Günther, 1953, Including the Description of the World's Longest Insect, and a Survey of the Family Phasmatidae Gray, 1835 with Keys to the Subfamilies and Tribes (Phasmatodea: "Anareolatae": Phasmatidae), Zootaxa 1906.

Brock, Paul D. 1992. Rearing and Studying Stick and Leaf-Insects (The Amateur Entomologist 22). Feltham, Middlesex: The Amateur Entomologists' Society.

Brock, Paul D. 2004. Taxonomic Notes on Giant Southern African Stick Insects (Phasmida), including the Description of a New Bactrododema Species. Annals of the Transvaal Museum 41: 61-77.

Carpenter, G. D. Hale 1942. Notes by E. Burtt, B.Sc., F.R.E.S., on a Species of Palophus (Probably episcopalis Kirby): A Giant Phasmid (Orthoptera) from Tanganyika Territory. Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London (A) 17 (7-9): 75-76.

McFarlan, Donald (ed.) 1989. The Guinness Book of Records 1990 (36th edition). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Publishing Ltd.

Matthews, Peter (ed.) 1992. The Guinness Book of Records 1993 (39th edition). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Publishing Ltd.

Matthews, Peter (ed.) 1993. The Guinness Book of Records 1994 (40th edition). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Publishing Ltd.

Pinhey, Elliot and Ian D. Loe 1974. A Guide to the Insects of Africa. Hamlyn: London.

Walsh, Martin 1991. A Stick Insect in Same. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 21 (3): 48.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


My home town, Southport, is a sleepy seaside resort on the north-west coast of England with too many golf courses and a sea front ruined by moronic planners. Among the town's many attractions are a number of tacky shops selling seashells and other tourist tat by the seashore, or rather where the seashore was when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Apart from buying the odd stick of rock and saucy postcard, I'd never really take much notice of these flagships of seaside culture. Not, that is, until the day in the late 1980s that I wandered down the narrow alleyway and up the fire escape that led to the shell shop that was furthest from the retreating sea.

Tropical Shells Galore had evidently been established without much thought for the second of the four Ps of marketing (Place). I'd passed the sign advertising its conchological wares countless times in my youth, but it was a second-hand bookshop that took me into the alleyway, and a hand-painted warning in up-country Swahili - "Mbwa kali!" ("Fierce dog!") - that drew me up the metal stairs for the first time. Entering the first-floor doorway, I found myself inside not just an emporium of tropical shells, but a cross between a cabinet of curiosities and a contemporary curio shop. The Borgesian catalogue in the shop's brochure (click on the image below to read the list) gives some idea of the wonders it contained - exotic and unusual objects from East Africa, the Indian Ocean and assorted other places, including an unnamed British borstal for young delinquents. I remember in particular the model dhow and turtle shell, familiar from tourist shops and restaurants on the East African coast. Others recall the 'witchdoctor', wreathed in incense, who made wishes come true when you pressed a coin into his hand.

The keeper of these curios was an unassuming man, but he had a tale to tell. During the war Rex Grundy had served in the RAF and ended up settling in Kenya, where he ran a hotel on the coast near Mombasa and exported shells for button-making and other purposes. In 1958 he packed up and sailed back to England, opening Tropical Shells Galore with the stock and other knick-knacks that he'd come home with. He continued importing shells and made his own shell ornaments that he sold by mail-order: apparently a more lucrative business than the shop (perhaps not so surprising given its concealed location, though Rex Grundy is said to have been a less than enthusiastic salesman).

Unfortunately I didn't get another chance to ask him about his life in Kenya. The next time I came home from Mombasa the shop was closed and emptied of its contents, the victim of a landlord's plans for redevelopment. The second-hand bookshop I used to visit was also closed, but subsequently reopened in another building in the alleyway.  The bookseller, Tony Parkinson, inherited the mantle of Tropical Shells Galore, and now sells shells, minerals, fossils, and (among other things) a small selection of antiquities and ethnographic objects, in addition to three floors-worth of books. I go there whenever I'm back in Southport, but still miss the old tropical shell shop.

If the curio shops of East Africa and the (post)colonial diaspora haven't already been studied, then they should be. Likewise the history of the shell trade and its analogues (many species of marine mollusc on the Kenya coast have declined in abundance and/or size since the start of the tourist boom in the 1970s, and the collection and purchase of seashells and other marine curios is now discouraged).  Looking around the room in Cambridge that I'm sitting in now, I realise that it resembles a compact version of Tropical Shells Galore and Parkinson's of Southport ("Booksellers, Naturalists & Antiquarians") without the shells, and that my jumbled writing has something in common with these museums of personal memory and imagining. The only difference is that I'm not selling anything. Not yet.

الحمد لله ربّ العالمين

Sunday, 1 August 2010


Last week I met Robin Palmer, who maintains Oxfam’s ‘Land Rights in Africa’ webpage and is the author of a stimulating think-piece on land grabs: ‘A New Scramble for Africa?’ (2010). This, and another paper that he forwarded (Zoomers 2010), set me thinking about the different kinds of land alienation that I’ve come across in East Africa. The case that troubles me most is the expansion of Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park (Walsh 2008; 2012). I’ve also been exercised by the negative consequences of land adjudication in Mbeere (Walsh 1993), and of commercial ranching near Mount Kasigau (unpublished field notes), both in Kenya. In an earlier note (‘Giriama Bird Names’) I referred briefly to the ongoing conflict over a land grab for the cultivation of a biofuel crop (Jatropha curcas) in Dakatcha (inland of Malindi, on the Kenya coast). But the land grab on the coast whose deleterious impacts I know most about is the development of the ‘Diani Complex’ of luxury tourist hotels and amenities south of Mombasa.

In August-September 1985 I lived with and studied Agwiraye women’s group in the village of Mwamambi in Diani Location, by the main road from Mombasa and on the outskirts of Ukunda, about 3 km inland of Diani beach and its ‘tourist paradise’. Here’s how I began my description of the local economy:

Mwamambi is surrounded by alienated land. To the north and west are thousands of acres of farmland first alienated during the colonial period. One of these plantations, a few hundred metres inland of Agwiraye’s meeting-place and known by the name of its present Indian owner, Kaslak, was the scene of violent clashes in the early 1970s when a group of Kikuyu land speculators tried to enforce the removal of local Digo squatting and farming illegally on land which they still claim as theirs. But the most disruptive alienation in recent years, altering the entire character of the local economy, took place under President Kenyatta in 1972. This comprised the decision to convert the whole of the area between the main highway and the beach into a tourist paradise under the name of the Diani Complex. The Complex, stretching some 10 km from Kongo to Kinondo, was subdivided into 4 strips or ‘beaches’. Beach 1, a 1 km wide strip along the shore, has become the site of more than 10 major hotels. Beach 2, ¼ km wide, comprises an access road and the services along this. Beaches 3 and 4 cover the rest of the land inland to the main road. From here locals were to be resettled along the road and to the west on land designated as a Reserve, where most of Agwiraye’s members live and the group meets. However, development on beaches 3 and 4 was stopped in 1978 by the new President [Moi] and Digo continue to live and farm there. But the damage was done. Locals lost land on beaches 1 and 2, some selling and some receiving compensation. Otherwise considerable uncertainty remains over land rights in the area, and only some landowners have been issued with title deeds.

Before this development the local Digo grew most of their grain crops (especially maize) ‘chini’, on the rocky land just inland of the sea, and tended coconut palms interspersed with other crops (including cassava and rice) ‘juu’, on the land rising up from the main road. Young men sought wage labour in Mombasa and elsewhere, eventually settling down to look after their land and derive some income from the sale of copra, dried coconut kernel. This pattern has now been thoroughly transformed. The beach hotels have brought an influx of migrant workers from up-country, Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Kamba, spawning the rapid growth of settlement and services along the main highway, especially in Ukunda. Digo have also found work in these hotels and the sector which has grown up around them. Many, already suffering from land pressure, have sold their land to immigrant entrepreneurs, while others, more canny, have built accommodation to rent out to immigrant workers. The result is an incipient class division, partly, but not entirely, along ethnic lines.

This has had a further, detrimental, effect upon local agriculture. Because many men, young and old, are now in paid employment they have little time to devote to their fields. Consequently a lot of land between palms which used to be under cultivation has reverted to bush: the women alone cannot clear and cultivate all of it. This uncultivated land, including large areas of alienated land, harbours wild animals which are damaging to crops: monkeys, warthogs and wild boar. It also encourages the few local stock owners, who would have once grazed their animals far inland, to leave them to roam in between the homesteads. Meanwhile men are no longer free to guard the crops at night, while the culling of wild animals is discouraged by the government and prohibited without a licence. Women, especially those with small children, are unable to guard the crops themselves. As a result a very high proportion of women’s agricultural enterprises fail, including those right next to their homes, the crops being eaten or trampled by animals before they are ready for harvesting. (Walsh 1986: 26-27)

As I went on to write, the members of Agwiraye women’s group were seriously affected by this. Most of them had husbands who were employed or absent for other reasons, and a number didn’t have husbands at all. Their farming suffered accordingly: over half of members’ fields weren’t cultivated in 1985, in many cases because of the threat from wild animals:

The result is a vicious circle. Because such a high proportion of agricultural enterprises fail, households are becoming increasingly dependent for their subsistence upon food staples purchased from the local shops. Thus household members, particularly men, are under increasing pressure to find and remain in wage employment, one of the major causes of local agricultural decline in the first place. This has a somewhat different effect upon gender relations than the well known scenario in which women with labour-migrant husbands find themselves bearing a much heavier agricultural burden in order to stay alive. In Mwamambi most of the working men continue to live at home and do the shopping themselves to feed their households. The burden of agricultural labour upon their wives is reduced, and in 1985 a few group members had abandoned cultivation altogether. But women without working husbands are not so fortunate: a fact reflected [...] in the difficulty they experience in sustaining membership of the women’s group. (Walsh 1986: 28-30)

Leaving aside the specific features of this case, it’s a depressingly familiar story. The bitterness and simmering resentment that I found in Mwamambi are reproduced up and down the Kenya coast. As we now know, the different alienations of land – and the feelings of alienation – experienced by the people of the coast, and the Digo in particular, provided a fertile ground for political manipulation and the eruption of widespread violence and ethnic cleansing in August-November 1997 (Kenya Human Rights Commission 1997; 1998; Human Rights Watch 2002). But there seems to have been relatively little research on the Diani case since the 1980s (cf. Migot-Adholla et al. 1982), and while writing this note I’ve struggled to find online references to the social and economic consequences of hotel development there (Hannan 2008 is a rare exception). Instead the good works of The Colobus Trust, established in 1997 to protect the Diani population of the Angolan colobus (Colobus angolensis), are ubiquitous.

Unless they’re documented and commemorated, land grabs are readily erased from the collective memory of all but their victims. In August 1987 I discussed local land alienations and their negative impacts with a group of Lutheran World Relief volunteers staying in one of the Diani beach hotels. I can’t remember which hotel it was, but I do recall drawing my young audience’s attention to the magnificent coconut palms in its well-manicured grounds. These were once the property of local farmers, as was the land below them, but now they were excluded from the hotel premises, and the nuts went unharvested except by hotel staff instructed to make sure that they didn’t drop on the heads of unsuspecting holidaymakers. For obvious reasons, this isn’t the kind of information that you’re likely to read in a hotel brochure or get from a tourist rep. I’ve visited and stayed in my fair share of beach hotels in East Africa, often when working as a development consultant. It’s easy to enjoy these carefully prepared representations of exotic Africa when you can afford it and don’t know or care about the backstory. And the same goes for other processed and packaged products of land grabbing, including many wildlife safaris and ecotours (for which see Igoe et al. 2010; Igoe 2010).

My thanks to Robin Palmer and Jim Igoe for kindly sharing the recent papers referred to in this note. And my apologies to everyone who can’t readily access commercially published journal articles.


Hannan, Lucy 2008. Trouble in Paradise / Tourism and Minorities: A Kenya Case Study. In Ishbel Matheson (ed.) State of the World’s Minorities 2008. Minority Rights Group International. 28-39.

Human Rights Watch 2002. Playing with Fire: Weapons Proliferation, Political Violence, and Human Rights in Kenya. New York: Human Rights Watch.

Igoe, James, Katja Neves and Dan Brockington 2010. A Spectacular Eco-tour around the Historic Bloc: Theorising the Convergence of Biodiversity Conservation and Capitalist Expansion. Antipode 42 (3): 486-512.

Igoe, James 2010. The Spectacle of Nature inthe Global Economy of Appearances: Anthropological Engagements with theSpectacular Mediations of Transnational Conservation. Critique of Anthropology 30 (4): 375-397.

Kenya Human Rights Commission 1997. Kayas of Deprivation, Kayas of Blood: Violence, Ethnicity and the State in Coastal Kenya. Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Kenya Human Rights Commission 1998. Kayas Revisited: A Post-election Balance Sheet. Nairobi: Kenya Human Rights Commission.

Migot-Adholla, S. E., Katama G. C. Mkangi and Joseph Mbindyo 1982. Study of Tourism in Kenya: With Emphasis on the Attitudes of Residents of the Kenya Coast (IDS Consultancy Reports No. 7). Nairobi: Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi.

Palmer, Robin 2010. A New Scramble for Africa? Mokoro Newsletter 52 (May 2010): 4-5.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province. Report to World Education Inc., Boston.

Walsh, Martin 1987. Development in Diani and its Lessons. Presentation to a seminar on ‘Issues in Development’, Lutheran World Relief Volunteer Conference, Diani Beach, 27 August 1987.

Walsh, Martin 1993. The Social and Economic Impacts of Land Reform: A Kenyan Case Study. Paper presented to the East African Seminar Series, African Studies Centre, University of Cambridge, 9 November 1993.

Walsh, Martin 2008. Pastoralism and Policy Processes in Tanzania: Mbarali Case Study. Report to the Tanzania National Resource Forum (TNRF), Arusha.

Walsh, Martin 2012. The Not-So-Great-Ruaha and Hidden Histories of an Environmental Panic in Tanzania. Journal of Eastern African Studies 6 (2): 303-335.

Zoomers, Annelies 2010. Globalisation and the Foreignisation of Space: Seven Processes Driving the Current Global Land Grab. Journal of Peasant Studies 37 (2): 429-447.