Who shot Kuki Gallmann? The story of a Kenyan conservationist heroine
Since she moved to Kenya, she’s lost her husband and son. Now she’s been shot by tribesmen determined to take her land. But Kuki Gallmann’s going nowhere
Darknes and light: Kuki Gallmann poses for a portrait inside her Nairobi home about a month after being shot by armed men on her ranch in Laikipia County, in Kenya.
There is thunder and the equatorial rain falls perfectly straight, drenching the lawn and a pair of towering candelabra trees that frame the driveway which leads to a two-storey, colonial-era house. Inside, logs burn in the grey stone fireplace, worn kilims are spread on the parquet floor and Kuki Gallmann – 74 years old and recovering from two bullet wounds in her abdomen – sits regally upon a chair of wrought iron and stained glass shaped like a resting bird.
The first shot hit Gallmann and as she fell sideways she felt another bullet tear through her guts
After she was shot on a Sunday morning in April, Gallmann, a celebrated conservationist and author, spent a fortnight in hospital before being discharged to convalesce in her house in Nairobi. Every surface in the large living room is covered with picture frames, pretty paperweights, dainty pottery bowls, delicate baskets, gilt candlesticks, tiny cairns of semi-precious stones and stacks of books. But Gallmann is not yet truly home.
She longs for Ol Ari Nyiro, “The Place of Dark Springs”, an 88,000-acre nature reserve in Kenya’s central highlands overlooking the Great Rift Valley, where her husband and son are buried and which has become, in recent months, the epicentre of a violent struggle pitting private landowners against semi-nomadic herders. Gallmann’s shooting dragged these tensions into the light and while her wounds were grievous, she is unbowed.
“As soon as I’m allowed I will go back,” she says. Her doctors tell her that she is not yet strong enough and security officers advise her it is not yet safe, but “in my heart, I’m there,” she says.
Gallmann dismisses talk of banditry (the government’s preferred term for the attacks) and of desperate drought-stricken pastoralists seeking pasture (another common framing of the issue). “The people who attacked me, they were militia,” she says firmly. “Prior to every election I’ve seen there has been a similar build-up of violence.” But she has never been shot before.
Kenya’s Laikipia plateau is bordered by Mount Kenya’s jagged 17,000ft peaks to the east and the Rift Valley’s plunging slopes to the west. In between are undulating savannah, forests, winding rivers, waterfalls, rocky hills and steep-shouldered escarpments. The land is home to elephants and rhinos, giraffes, zebras and antelopes, wild dogs, bat-eared foxes and lions.
It was here that white, often British, settlers came to farm wheat and raise cattle during the first half of the 20th century, before independence. Gallmann was a latecomer, arriving in 1972 with her husband Paolo, her young son Emanuele, a pile of luggage shipped from Venice and a ready-made, romantic nostalgia for a place she had never been. Italian-born and aristocratic, Gallmann swiftly fitted into the privileged lifestyle of the wealthy expatriates she found here, but she and Paolo were on the hunt for land.
In Ol Ari Nyiro, on the western edge of Laikipia, they found their imagined Africa. In her best-selling memoir, I Dreamed of Africa, Gallmann describes, “The uncanny feeling of déjà vu… as if I had already been there.” From the extravagantly folded ridges of the ranch’s highlands, “Africa was there below us in all its unsolved mystery.”
“I totally and utterly fell in love with Ol Ari Nyiro and I felt – and it’s irrational and difficult to explain – that I had come home and there was a reason for me to be there,” she tells me, her English still heavily accented and melodic even after all the years away from Italy. When her husband died in a car crash in 1980 while she was pregnant with their daughter Sveva, she stayed. Three years later, when her son, then 17, was bitten by a puff adder and died, she stayed.
A pair of yellow-barked fever trees mark their graves outside her Laikipia home and she plans to be buried alongside them when she dies. “I am a bit of a veteran at overcoming tragedies and challenges,” she says with a smile that stops short of her pale blue eyes. “Losing someone you love is a test of endurance.”
Beautiful country: a Maasai warrior gazes towards Mount Kenya across Laikipia Plain. Photograph: John Warburton-Lee/Getty Images
It was between those trees that Gallmann lay bleeding on the morning of 23 April as she waited for a rescue helicopter to whisk her to hospital in Nairobi, nearly a six-hour drive away. Usually, Gallmann wakes at dawn, walks into her south-facing garden and sits at a wooden table to feed the birds, of which there are hundreds of species. The first to arrive are the superb starlings – iridescent blue, beautiful and common as muck – followed by bright yellow weaver birds, master builders whose nests resemble miniature Andy Goldsworthy sculptures.
But that morning Gallmann was in a rush: she wanted to inspect the smouldering ruins of Mukutan Retreat, her luxury tourist lodge, which had been set ablaze the day before. She drove there, accompanied by armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers and one of her scouts, to find the stone walls of the cottages blackened, the cedar floors turned to char and the thatched roofs gone. Ash hung in the air like snowflakes. Decades of poaching, illegal logging, encroachment and occasional violence had taught her caution so the visit was brief and, as she always did, Gallmann left by a different dirt track to the one she had driven in on.
Reaching the higher plains she found a felled tree blocking the route. The rangers had finished moving the trunk when her scout called out: “Mama! Mama! Iko watu tatu!” There are three people, in Swahili. Before she could turn to look the first shot hit Gallmann “like a punch in the lower abdomen” as she sat in the driver’s seat of her open-backed Land Cruiser. She fell sideways and felt another bullet tear through her guts. Three more shots hit the side of the car before returning fire from the rangers chased the ambushers away.
They lifted Gallmann into the back of a 4×4 and drove her home. On the way she called the local police station to report the incident, and a neighbour to ask for a helicopter. Bumping and bleeding up the track, the pain coming in excruciating waves, Gallmann stubbornly willed herself away from death.
“I did not think that I was going to die because I won’t allow myself to die,” she says. Nevertheless, she told the rangers to lay her on the grass between the fever trees to wait. “It was a clear day with birds. It was a good place to be,” she says.
The helicopter landed and took Gallmann to the regional capital, Nanyuki, where British army medics at the large training base gave her a blood transfusion and staunched the bleeding. Then she was flown on to Nairobi for surgery. After that, “I don’t remember anything for two days. Two days lost,” she says.
The shooting was “only the culmination of years of threat, vandalism, attack,” says Gallmann. Her left hand is crippled from being hit by a rock in 2009 and last Christmas Day bullets were fired over her Laikipia home.
Nobody has been arrested, but Gallmann has no doubts about the motivation for the attack. “They want the land, and the way of the raiders is to burn the homesteads to take the property,” she says. “They” are Pokot pastoralists who have invaded private ranches and conservancies along Laikipia’s western fringe, bringing with them tens of thousands of livestock, poaching wildlife, stealing cattle and intimidating landowners and workers. Similar, though mostly less violent, incursions have been launched by Samburu pastoralists from the north and east.
Some ranches have closed and some owners are considering selling, but others, among them Gallmann, are hunkering down. “They are going to get tired of it. I know I will outlast them. There is no doubt in my mind.”
Yet Kenya is transforming at breakneck speed. The population has more than tripled, to around 45 million, in the years since she arrived. Villages have become towns, and towns have become cities. Wilderness has shrunk, wildlife has declined, livestock has increased and grassland has been grazed into dust while a changing global climate has made droughts deeper and more frequent. These chronic, underlying factors are spurred into violence by politics.
As soon as I’m allowed I will go back. In my heart, I’m there. I am a veteran at tragedies and challenges
The increasing pace and aggression of the Laikipia invasions comes ahead of an election in August which, like all others since Kenya’s first competitive vote in 1992, is characterised by a violent jockeying for position ahead of the polls. Nearly a decade ago more than 1,100 people were killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes when a stolen election was violently disputed, but that year was remarkable only for the scale of the killings and for the fact they came after, not before, the vote.
The rupture led to a constitutional referendum to replace Kenya’s tightly centralised government with devolved power. But with it has come devolution of corruption – national conflagration has been replaced by dozens of smaller, local ones, none more violent or dangerous than in Laikipia.
The unprecedented effect has been sometimes deadly insecurity in Laikipia, the destruction of the region’s tourist economy and the threatening of wildlife populations’ already tenuous existence. Estimates of those killed or injured run into the scores, the vast majority of the victims are smallholder farmers with just a few rain-fed acres of maize and a handful of goats, whose livelihoods are wiped out – and sometimes their lives, too – in a single night raid by armed pastoralists.
In the weeks running up to Gallmann’s shooting, the violence in Laikipia had intensified as a belated government security response made matters worse. Soldiers were accused of shooting at pastoralist herds then retreating, leaving landowners to face revenge attacks. Thomas Minito, a local Pokot politician from Baringo county to the west, was charged with incitement in late March over the arson attacks on Gallmann’s property.
Minito denied the charges, but was never put on trial because in May he was found dead, his battered corpse floating in a river hundreds of miles from where he had last been seen, in the company of men claiming to be police officers. His murder remains unsolved. Another local political leader, Mathew Lempurkel, a Samburu and the MP for Laikipia North, was charged with incitement over the March killing of ranch owner Tristan Voorspuy, a former British officer. He denies the charges.
Amos Olempaka, a human rights activist, aspiring politician and member of the Ilchamus pastoralist tribe, who traditionally fish the fresh waters of Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley, says raids by armed Pokot have been going on for more than a decade, but have changed in nature and worsened recently. “It has shifted from local cattle-rustling to a well-planned and executed mission,” he says, blaming Pokot politicians for driving the violence. “This thing is like a cartel, because it has taken a commercial shape, and they are using it as a form of territorial expansion.”
The tensions of modern Kenya are writ small in the clash between Gallmann and her assailants – the wealthy white landowner and outsider, committed to protecting the environment and its wildlife, versus impoverished local men whose traditional livelihoods have been disrupted by powers beyond their control and who are illegally armed and politically incited.
The Laikipia situation is just the most recent expression of a toxic brew of politics, ethnicity and land that lies at the heart of Kenya’s most intractable problems, yet despite the dangers and the challenges, Gallmann still believes coexistence is not just possible, but necessary. “Since many, many years my aim is to try to prove that people and environment can survive together, you have to have a balance,” she says.
“The people have increased, the cattle have increased and the weather has changed. But I am an optimist in the capacity of the environment, if given a chance, to rejuvenate itself, and restore itself. We have to sit back and let it be.”