European environmental narratives

The explorers traversed different parts of East Africa—across different geographical spaces, encountering different African communities and often crossing the countries during different seasons of the year.46 Whereas the explorers provided different analyses in their narratives, perhaps reflecting the purposes of their journeys, we find comparable highlights about the environments they traversed. Different readings of the narratives, unless supported by adequate knowledge of the environments in question, could lead to diverse conclusions about environmental change. Some examples will suffice.

Richard Burton,4’ while crossing the Horn of Africa from the coast of the Red Sea and traversing a hyper-arid environment inland from Zayla, described the environment as barren (Figure 2.1). His visit was during a dry season after the trees had dropped their leaves and the annual grasses had withered away. The boulder-strewn landscape appeared desolate and lacked aesthetic value to the observer. In the second example, Major H. Austin,4S during his journey across the present-day Turkana region of Kenya, described the country as very stony and uninhabited at the time. These two examples infer that the territories that these travelers explored were arid; however, their dryness had little to do with human activities or recent climate change.

Our next set of examples comes from explorers reporting their observations during dry and wet seasons. Count Samuel Teleki,49 on his journey through the Maasai plains in the area of Lake Jibe (north-east of Mount Kilimanjaro), describes the vegetation and the topography surrounding the lake as follows: ‘charming ... with acacia-woods lining its shores and the rugged heights of the Ugweno mountains forming a back ground; but very dreary was the view on the east of the monotonous bush-clad steppes stretching away.’ In the same region, Joseph Thomson’0 traveled from the coast into the interior of East Africa, first during a dry season and again after the rains, describing the variations of the environment and its spatial- temporal characteristics. He found the dry season objectionable, while the region appealed to his aesthetic senses after the rains. In his report of the dry season, he refers to the landscape as ‘dreary’ topography, except for the presence of large Acacia trees and Euphorbia alternating with open grassland, which ‘at this period formed yellow fields of burnt up grass, making us wonder where the [cattle] herds ... get sufficient sustenance to keep them alive.’ A few days later, he entered an area that had recently received rain. The vegetation made a positive impact on his judgment:

Curiously enough there is more variety of flowers in these wastes than in the richer lowlands. In the tropics, where everything is favorable to a luxuriant [vegetation] growth, nature usually spends her energies in producing an infinite variety in [plant] form and green ... foliage.

These readings of landscapes during differed seasons were quite revealing about European visions of pre-colonial African environments.

Our previous discussion showed how David Livingstone presented lakes drying up, seasonal rivers and widespread vegetation dieback as evidence in support of the desiccation theory. However, the reports we consulted contain few examples that might be used as proof of environmental desiccation. The purported evidence lacks descriptions of cause and effect factors. The closest is the observation by Count Teleki when his caravan visited Lake Stefanie (Figure 2.1). He remarks:

Close to the northern edge of the lake were numerous dead trees, and from the tortuous windings of a brook flowing into it at the northeastern corner—stretched up the bleached skeletons of many others, but [what happened to them]... was somewhat of a puzzle.’1

Count Teleki did not attempt to interpret the causes of the mass tree deaths. Two plausible explanations present themselves. The first suggests that the water of the lake had dried, causing mass mortality of the vegetation. This is a common ecological phenomenon. The second explanation is that if the lake water were salty, seepage into the soil around the lake would kill the plants that were not salt tolerant. This might provide a chronological history of environmental change—if analyzed with the site showing expansion and contraction of the lake waters, which would reflect alternating dry and wet cycles and mass mortality and regeneration of vegetation. By studying changes in water levels and shifts in the composition of woody and herbaceous vegetation, a history of vegetation change could be reconstructed.52

Earlier, however, Count Teleki’5 gave a graphic description of the landscape and topography of the plains on his way to Mount Kenya:

[the] scene spread out before us was of character, it was wanting in charm, for the fresh green woods of the valley ... were untenanted by any living creature.... On the wide plain the hot sun seemed to have withered up every trace of vegetation.

The text depicts the traveler’s impression of the environment during a dry season. A reader might note that the judgment of the environment was based on Teleki’s failure to observe any wildlife, which he would have hunted. His claim that there were no living creatures was an exaggeration. Although the dried-up vegetation would indicate the absence of rainfall, it did not imply environmental desiccation.

While journeying through the central Rift Valley of the Maasai steppe, Teleki’4 gives two other accounts of the changing landscapes. First, he describes the grasslands, and, second, the cultivated landscapes of the Mount Kenya region. The text of the first narrative states:

The beginning of the next march was across a district____ Undulating

ground ... fairly sprinkled with acacias, but with little grass.... As we advanced the district became more and more undulating, the trees rarer ... while the grass became more and more luxuriant.

The landscapes varied, shifting between wooded landscapes to grasslands. In each case, the travelers seem to be inspired by what they see. In the second report, the travelers use metaphors that point to European landscapes. Count Teleki’"' states: ‘we had passed through Districts [in the Kikuyu country] so carefully and systematically cultivated [landscapes] that we might have been in Europe.’ The text is a clear indication of the advanced nature of African cultivation systems before the region came under British colonial rule. The greater part of the narratives does not support the environmental desiccation theory popularized in Europe. The journals contain detailed descriptions of the potential of the environments traversed. We provide a general viewpoint.

Using the journal reports, we can compare the accounts of several of the travelers (both missionaries and explorers) and make deductions about environmental conditions at the time of reporting. As much as possible, the explorers traveled along the roads and routes that the African people used. Johan Tyrrell,56 for example, explains how the observations were made: ‘Travellers using narrow winding tracts traveling on foot recorded significantly more detail than others.’ Some of the narratives could therefore have referred to the same regions, crossed by several of the travelers at different times. While the political situation in some cases had changed, consistent presentations of the African environments can be recognized. In these reports, the physical and biological features of the environment were described in detail, including the colors of the foliage of vegetation and growth patterns across landscapes.

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