Magdalen Nabb


Postcards From Pakistan
A Well In Afganistan
Out of Africa






In a few days’ time I am leaving Italy for Kenya, leaving the streets for Florence for the Rift valley, leaving renaissance architecture and marble statuary for the savannah and lions and giraffes. The purpose of the exercise is to take part in a sponsored horse ride to raise money for The Brooke whose clinics give free treatment to the working equines of the world’s poorest people, those people who feature as a statistic on the news as ‘earning less than two dollars a day.’ They haven’t been a statistic for me since I first travelled around Pakistan with The Brooke and saw the dedication, patience and gruelling hard work of the Brooke vets who take clean water, medicines, hard cash and hope to the rubbish tips, clay pits and poor agricultural areas around the world.

We have too much of everything here in the rich world and it’s easy enough, with a mixture of sentimentality and guilt, to get a bit of money out of us and ease our consciences. And when we don’t feel like it, we can fall back on the all too real excuse that only 7p in the pound actually gets to the people we’re supposed to be helping.

I’ve solved this problem to my own satisfaction: I buy the books each year for a school for Afghan refugee children in Quetta where I know the organizer, the headmaster and the children, and give to The Brooke whose work I have followed in various parts of the world. None of that 7p in the pound stuff with either of those.

The thing about this sponsored ride, though, is that I have to collect a large amount of sponsorship money from other people, a new and alarming experience. I’ve had to extract money from people who have never heard of the Brooke, don’t ride and are being asked for money for some charity or other every day. Let’s say, I’ve learned a lot. My favourite contributors: an English friend in Vienna who wrote to say, ‘Here’s a cheque for three hundred. I’ve forgotten what you said it was for…’ and the British consul here in Florence: ‘I’m coming round to bring you some money—and remember that you’re a British citizen in my care, so, for God’s sake, don’t get eaten by lions or I’ll be up to my ears in paperwork for a year.’

The money having been collected and sent off to The Brooke, there are one or two other problems to solve. Information sheets about the ride talk about 40 kilometres a day. That’s about six hours in the saddle by my reckoning, an unknown saddle, on an unknown horse. Someone who did the ride in India last year says her ‘bottom went through’ on day two and her suffering was great. She advised a silicon seat saver. That brings me to another problem: I’ve never ridden in England And I don’t know the English for anything to do with horses. That ‘bottom went through’ thing, for a start. It sounds like something that might happen to wickerwork chair—and where do you buy a silicon seat saver? I’ve been searching Florence for months.

I’m also searching for yellow fever vaccine because I’ve received a frightening list of illnesses, insects and other dangers. There’s a worm on the list that I particularly don’t like the sound of. My investigations have turned up the information that Europe has run out of yellow fever vaccine and that my only hope is to find an international airport with emergency stocks. Found one in Pisa.

Back to the information sheet with the worms and so on. ‘We are riding and accidents happen. There is the question of AIDS. Take a supply of hypodermics and intravenous drip needles.’ Right. I’m also taking a supply of antibiotics, wound dressings and a fast healer for saddle sores, one for me, one for horse. That leaves the malaria problem. I wish I hadn’t seen that episode of C.S.I. where that man went mad, murdered his wife and then shot himself in the head after being given that new anti-malaria treatment by the army. I’m not taking that-and Chloroquin doesn’t work in Africa. Sprays. Lots and lots of sprays, for me and for the tent. The tent, yes. Have to buy a sleeping bag and a torch and folding hoofpick to carry on my belt. I can deal with this. I was in the Brownies (but only because we were allowed to wear the uniform to school on Brownie meeting days. What use will all that standing in a circle shouting incomprehensible drivel be when I’m faced with a lion or, if it comes to that, a sinister worm?) It seems to me that riding through the bush might turn out to be the easy part of this business. I’m exhausted with shopping and worrying and keeping track of other people’s money. I keep reminding myself that it’s all in good cause. We hit Nairobi on Saturday at dawn. Watch this space.

Nairobi at dawn. After a long and entirely sleepless night in economy class, we pile into vans for a four hour drive on bumpy roads: At least it hurts in a different place. I hope my horse is a smoother ride than this. I never had a blind date in my life until now. Perhaps you have. They only last an evening, though, don’t they? Whoever he is, we’ll be spending every waking moment together for the duration. Hundreds of Malibou storks crouch menacingly on the tops of acacia trees, watching our progress. Very Alfred Hitchcock. None of this feels real, probably because I’m very, very tired. That sleepless night in economy was preceded by a sleepless night between Italy and London and tonight…tonight, yet another blind date. I have to share a tent with a total stranger. Am I sure I want to do this? No, I am not.

Distracted by a stop on the equator where it is demonstrated to me—for a small fee—that water goes down the plughole in a different direction according to whether you’re standing 10 metres to the north or south of the equator and straight down if you stand right on it. I resist being photographed standing on the equator looking bedraggled. We climb back into the van and bump along towards Nanyuki where tents and horses await us. Also food. Very good food. I can’t remember what we ate because my thoughts were on my blind date with a horse. Named…?

Peppercorn! And well-named, too. The horses are well-bred and well fed, racehorses, show jumpers, polo ponies. Since there aren’t enough shows, matches and races to keep them in full employment they do safari as well. Peppercorn is a pony, light as a feather, fast, frisky and affectionate. I think I might survive this.

My blind date in the tent is Ruby. I met her once before in Cairo. We became acquainted on a rubbish tip there but that was a different adventure. She has a lively sense of humour and she snores. She tells me I snore. Every so often she rattles me awake. “You’re snoring!” “Ok.” I stay awake to let her get to sleep. She starts snoring. I rattle her awake. “You’re snoring.” “Ok.” And so the long night wears on. It is a very long night on the equator: twelve hours of day, twelve hours of dark. Seven to seven. Just before dawn, it’s Good morning campers, morning sickness from malaria pills, packing up everything, visit a hole in the ground, a fabulous cooked breakfast, into the saddle and away. There are about forty riders, a vet, a doctor, guides, jeeps with a supply of water and fruit.

We have all been given written instructions about everything. My favourite, intended to stop us frightening the wild life, was the terse: ‘Keep quiet. Wear brown and green.’ Another was: ‘The temperature will be around 35°C. Use high factor sun cream. Cover up.’ Once we get underway, I look around me, astonished. There are electric blue jodhpurs, purple jodhpurs, and acres of exposed milk white flesh. Every now and then the jeep drives past, sounding an alarm: ‘Sunburn police! Cover up, please!’ Safely covered –in brown and green over white t-shirt, I plaster more cream on the only bit of me that is exposed to the African sun, my face. I shall have good reason to regret this as the day wears on. After an hour and a half we stop for a break and another cry goes up which will become the regular punctuation of every day: ‘Water police!’ This because it’s easy to forget to drink sufficient quantities of water if you’re not used to it and dehydration is a very nasty experience indeed. The jeep brings us bananas and apples, too. I only want water but I take an apple for Peppercorn. I lean forward and offer it to him. He turns and looks at it and then up at me. His expression says, ‘What…?’ He has no idea what it is so I eat it.

We ride on. Almost midday and the sunburn police are getting stroppy. Lunch stop. The staff have gone ahead and an excellent meal worthy of the best of restaurants is waiting for us. After lunch, a tarpaulin is spread on the thorny dry ground and forty riders lie down in neat rows to ease their aching backs. Getting going again in the afternoon is probably the hardest bit of the day. Everybody staggers off behind a thorn bush and then we mount and move on.
The horizon seems limitless, the sky so high and blue and dominant that, sometimes, instead of seeing land and treetops against emptiness I see a reverse effect, the heavy sky looming towards me in front of a dark emptiness below. It makes me dizzy until I can force my brain to adjust to a proper perception of positive and negative. Then I can’t see at all. All that sun cream has melted in the fierce heat and rolled down into my eyes. It doesn’t much matter that I can’t see, since Peppercorn can, but then all around me people start calling out, ‘Over there! To the right! Thompson’s gazelle! A herd of zebra following us! Giraffe! And I no longer know where the sky is.
At the afternoon water stop I try to clean the wretched cream off my forehead and eyes but I still can’t see properly. Six hours in the saddle soon passes when you’re having fun. I must solve this problem for tomorrow. In the meantime I am content that I’ve survived my first day. Not everybody has. As Sam Goldwyn used to say, ‘Bring on the empty horses!’

Evening brings gin and tonic, good food and sunburn consultations with Fiona, a local woman, owner of many of the horses, safari expert. Tall, blond and competent, she has terrific style and blue lipstick and some good advice for me. No more cream above eye-level but leave protection in that area to the peak of my riding cap and sunglasses. Now, I’ve tried sunglasses but my friend Peppercorn is a lively soul and he occasionally gets bitten on the bottom by an imaginary lion. This involves some acrobatics on the spot followed by a bit of a cavalry charge before normal service is resumed and I backtrack to look for my sunglasses. The competent Fiona puts them on a string like a librarian’s glasses—or like soppy children whose mums string their gloves through their coat sleeves.It works, though. And another thing, A low hot sun burns the sides of your neck and the statutory bandana doesn’t stay in place in case of imaginary lions. Solution: a long-sleeved white t-shirt under my cap with the sleeves dangling down at each side. Perfect. Ruby suspects that we might not look as much like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa as we like to think but, if there are no bathrooms or laundries in the bush, there are no mirrors either so we can dream on.
And it really is like a dream. I can see, now, herds of zebra galloping beside and around us, keeping us company, and a family of giraffe, mum, dad and baby are as curious about us as we are about them. They seem so gentle and affectionate. They twine their necks in a spiral caress. Someone asks how many cervical vertebrae they have. Answer: seven, the same as you.

Peppercorn pursued by imaginary lion - Drawing by Ruby Grimshaw


“You’re snoring.”
“Ok.” I turn over, fighting with the constraints of my sleeping bag and force myself to stay awake until Ruby is safely asleep. Something is rustling about outside the tents. Rustling, stopping, sniffing, rustling again. The night before, there was a lot of noise, racings about, crashing and galloping. That was Peppercorn. The nights are cold, the horses corralled. Older, sensible animals get some sleep. Peppercorn takes advantage of the refreshing night air to break out with his three stable mates and go on a jaunt. The rustling outside doesn’t sound at all like a naughty pony and it isn’t, as the grooms will tell us next day. The imaginary lions are real. We don’t see them but the horses smell them. At night they investigate our camp site. Although, even that first night, it crosses my mind that this is the case and I did promise the British Consul not to get eaten…
It’s no use. What can I do about it, anyway? I’m too exhausted to run away, so if whatever is out there wants to eat me, buon appetito. Ruby is snoring gently. I fall asleep.


Day follows dreamlike day. Giraffe peer at us over the treetops. Snow capped Mount Kenya is always on the horizon. A fellow rider tells us that when they ruled a line across the map of Africa to divide Kenya from Tanzania, Queen Victoria insisted they made a little wiggle in it so that Mount Kilimanjaro lay on the Tanzanian side in the German protectorate. After all, the story goes, she had Mount Kenya so it was only fair that cousin Willy should have a mountain, too. So she gave him Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s a good story and if you don’t believe it, look at that wiggle on the map. Not a word of truth in it, though. The fate of Kilimanjaro was decided in 1886 when Victoria didn’t have it to give and when Kaiser Wilhelm I was Emperor. He had better cards to play than the British and he drew that border to suit himself. Another version of the story is that Victoria gave the mountain to her grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II for his birthday ‘because he likes anything high’. Although it’s a fiction, it does give an idea of the arrogant and arbitrary manner in which Europeans divided up other people’s countries. However, I once read a letter from Queen Victoria—I think to her daughter Alice—in which she said that she thought this habit of taking over other people’s countries was a dreadful business. As a matter of fact, she thought her grandson was pretty dreadful, too, but it’s a good story about Kilimanjaro and will probably never die. We did take over this country, though, and, riding along, hour after hour in the heat, there’s plenty of time to gaze at the blue mountain and wonder the opposite of what Americans are currently wondering: why do they not hate us? Why do Masai herdsmen pause and wave? Certainly, their thoughts are taken up with baked brown grass and bare thorns. The rains have failed for two consecutive seasons and their animals are dying. The coffee planters in the hills have irrigation plants. In our modern world there is no famine, only poverty.

Our itinerary mentioned a lunchtime stop beside a beautiful lake. There was a photograph of the lake with giraffe beside it. I supposed they went there to drink and that our horses might drink there, too. To sit beside water would feel like a benediction after so many miles of bush.
Towards midday we make our way down a short steep slope and then start across a flat, treeless plain. Someone asks, ‘It’s nearly twelve--shouldn’t we be able to see the lake by now?’ One of the guides answers, ‘This is the lake.’ Brown sand and stones as far as the eye can see. Not even a puddle remains. Lunch is waiting for us on the other side. Nowhere for the horses to drink and no shade either. We eat and rest. Usually, I sleep for twenty minutes or so but not today. It goes against my upbringing to eat and rest when the horses—who, after all, are doing all the work—are without shade or water. Above us, a complete rainbow--or rainring--circles the sun. What drop of water caused that? I don’t understand a rainbow without rain. I go in search of Peppercorn and try to get him to drink from my plastic bottle but it’s like the apple. He looks at me, not understanding. I slip him a lump of sugar. He understands that and seems pleased. Tomorrow night we are to camp by a river—but will there be any water in it?

There is water, though not a lot. The good news: we’re staying two nights, so tomorrow we don’t have to pack at dawn. Also, there are long drop loos and showers in a field! Paradise. The bad news: Hippo in the river. Well, it’s their river but I do question their habit of coming out of it to kill passers-by, given that they are vegetarians. Some people go looking for them –successfully—to take photographs. I hate being photographed myself, makes me tense and cross and I wouldn’t want to meet a hippo who felt the same way. We are taught to distinguish hippo poo from elephant poo and buffalo poo. Brilliant blue and green birds join us each morning to eat crumbs from our breakfast.

A shame to leave here but tomorrow we must move on. We are given a bedtime lecture about elephants. Apparently, they are sticklers for etiquette. We must never cross their path, even if they are at a distance. We must wait until they pass. If we meet them head on we gallop away as fast as possible. Last line of the lecture: “Always behave in a predictable manner.”

“You’re snoring.”
“Why aren’t you asleep? I always have to wake you up first.”
“I’m thinking. How do I know what an elephant predicts? Do you know?”
“No. And you know how when I went out of the tent for a pee last night, and met Anthony coming the other way, clutching his torch and toilet paper like me? I didn’t speak to him and perhaps I should have done. What do you think the correct form is?
More etiquette problems.

The elephants, when we reach them are standing about looking peaceable, at a distance. We concentrate on the problem of crossing a dry river bed. I look down what looks like a vertical stony drop to the bed and think I wouldn’t dream of putting my own horse to this descent. Still, there’s no way to go but forward. I drop the reins. “Peppercorn, you deal with it. You’re the expert.” And he certainly is.
He’s down there, across the giant slippery stones of the bed and scrambling up the other side, in no time without so much as a raised eyebrow. He has the advantage of being unshod. Horseshoes on those smooth humped stones might be another matter.They are. We’ve gone on quite a way before news gets around that four riders are missing. We halt and wait. A guide and the vet ride back to look for them. They are gone for a long time. We start worrying, the horses start fretting. At last they appear on the horizon. Two horses slipped on the smooth stones of the dry river bed and fell, taking their riders down with them. The riders of two more dismounted to help them and they slipped and fell. They reappear now under escort, both horses and riders bandaged and bruised but more or less all right. I slip Peppercorn a sugar lump, grateful to him for looking after me.

Today, for some reason, lots of people have horribly swollen lips. The effect varies from looking like a gorgon that could be stuck on the side of a cathedral, no questions asked, to looking like Meg Ryan after the silicone job. Those who can speak say they must have been bitten by something—or ‘itten aye hunhing’--but what? We’ve all spent a small fortune on mosquito sprays and creams and malaria pills but there isn’t a mosquito to be seen on this windy, burning plain, so? It’s the windy burning plain. Fiona comes to the rescue and plasters them all with her blue lipstick. Wanting to be fashionable, I queue up and have blue lipstick on, too, though my lips aren’t swollen.

Late in the afternoon we come to a halt. The trail we are on has been blocked by an unexpected elephant fence. As high as an elephant, obviously. Also electrified. Wasn’t there last time the route was checked. Well, it’s there now and no way forward. We turn right and try for another route. The ground is rough, thorny and full of craters left by anteaters. Peppercorn makes the decisions. Jeeps, unfortunately, are useless at making decisions and ours, with our doctor and water supply, falls down a hole and sticks. We wait around but they can’t extricate it and have to radio for help. We leave them there and move on, looking for a better route. We have to. In an hour it will be dark and we can’t be out in the dark with lions, leopards and hyenas. We go on for half an hour or so and stop. Elephants directly ahead. We turn and run. Another route, through bigger thorn bushes, their silver thorns as big and dangerous as daggers. Peppercorn navigating again. We’ve been seven hours in the saddle. My back is aching so badly I could cry. Not much point, though. Also, I’m tired and sore but I’ve had food and water. Peppercorn hasn’t had anything and he has never slowed down or complained. I can’t flop around on his back, making his job more difficult. He needs to be ridden. Despite his efforts to keep up, his three stable mates are much bigger than he is and have left him far behind. He’s as anxious about that as I am about the approaching darkness. He starts calling out to them, rearing a little, wanting his head. I give him a pat and tell him to go for it. He goes, Ghent to Aix, leaping the potholes, dodging the thorns, fast and surefooted as a hare. The wind sings in my ears and I forget to be tired. We overtake the rest of the gang and by the time we catch up with his pals we’re awake and cheerful from our gallop. Then it’s dark. We’re very quiet. How far can it be? On and on we walk in silence. At last, in the blackness ahead, we see torches. The advance party out looking for us to lead us into the camp. People are singing and dancing, the fire is lit and dinner is roasting. We fall out of the saddle and waddle, bow legged as cellists, towards the big tent and gin and tonic. We’re safe!

And suddenly it’s over. Peppercorn and his friends are on their way home and we are rattling back to Nairobi. Only one more stop before the plane to London: Lari. The reason why we’re here.Lari, a two hour drive from Nairobi. A big field, a shelter for us, the visitors. Dotted around are groups of schoolchildren in Donkey Club t-shirts, combed and shining and very excited. Beyond them are donkeys as far as the eye can see. Donkeys resting, wandering about, socializing. For once in their short brutal lives not working. Donkeys in Kenya know little other than hunger, thirst, exhaustion and fear. There is a myth whose origin no one seems to know that if a donkey is allowed near your cows they will become sterile. Another myth is that donkeys spread tetanus. So these unfortunate animals toil all day, continually caned as they haul massive loads and bring food and water for the family and all the farm animals, only to be turned out of the farmstead, without even a drink of water, to scavenge through the night for scraps or a few blades of burnt grass. If in their weary, night long wanderings they come too near someone else’s farm they are slashed or beaten for trespassing. They live in fear, suffer for two to three years and die. Properly cared for they would live for twenty eight to thirty years, work better and enrich the family. KENDAT (Kenya Network for the Dissemination of Agricultural Technologies) is a grass roots organization, supported by The Brooke, doing wonderful work to change all this. They have vets who visit all the farms, they broadcast on Donkey Radio, they have donkey clubs in the primary schools, all to teach people that the proper care of working animals makes economic sense. They teach that a donkey who is healthy can work more, that harness wounds are easily prevented, that you can carry a lunch box for you donkey when he works all day, that he needs shelter from heat and cold. They provide help and medicines at a nominal cost. We are here to help them and, on this special day, to admire them. The children have written songs and practised dances. They sing and dance their little hearts out and there isn’t a dry eye in the place. Everything else we have seen and done vanishes from our minds as we remember what it’s all about, the fundraising, the malaria pills, the burnt lips and aching backs. We’ve raised over a hundred thousand pounds for these children of a colonial past and a drought tormented present who are giving us all their passion and energy as they stand surrounded by their weary, ever willing beasts of burden and recite for us:

The Donkey’s prayer

Oh, God! Is my family cursed?
Where I found my mother, there I am.
No shelter, no food.

Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The burden my mother used to carry
Is what I carry.
Big, big burden of fodder to feed the cows.

Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The whips my mother used to get
Is what I get.
Whips, whips upon my back. I am full of sores.

Oh, God! Am I cursed?
The place where my mother used to sleep
Is where I sleep.
No shelter, no shade. In rain or sunshine,
My skin is my shelter.

Oh, God! Am I cursed?
Man, man, you say I am useless.
You don’t milk me, you don’t eat my meat.
Yet I am your beast of burden.

Oh, God! You did not curse me.
You gave me to man to serve him.
Who, who will rescue me?

Oh, God! Am I cursed?
There is some light in the tunnel!
I see KENDAT, Brooke, the Donkey Care Club!
Oh, please act quickly.
Save me from the cruelty of man




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