Tonight on the Athi Plains, near Nairobi, as the sun sets behind the Ngong Hills—site of Karen Blixen’s settler pastoral, now the haunt of panga-wielding bandits—here on the verandah, with flying beetles bombarding my computer screen, I’m waiting to see the unicorn again.
In Athi River, as in many other parts of Eastern Africa, peri-urban smallholdings and industrial ribbon development are encroaching on the remaining rangeland. Yet there’s still a visible memory of what came before: the plains thronging with game, a dream of plenitude that thrilled early European settlers and found expression in Blixen’s Out of Africa.
The game ranch where I am staying looks like every outsider’s picture of a wildlife paradise, with herds of animals roaming wild and free. One night a month, though, they are cropped by marksmen to control their numbers and satisfy the national and international market for exotic game meat and hides. The gazelles that move like lines of surf across the grassland—the nervy wildebeest and the lyre-horned kongoni—are liable to end up turning on a spit at the Small World Country Club down the road, or at the Carnivore, a well-known churrascaria in Nairobi.
Further along the road, towards the international airport, there’s a vast flower farm—acres and acres of greenhouses sucking the precious ground water out to provide cut blooms for the wholesale markets of Holland. These flowers are Kenya’s main export; if Karen Blixen was setting up here today, instead of coffee she might be trying her hand at growing roses.
Into the mystic
At nightfall, with the city a glow like bushfire on the horizon and the sound of trucks on the Mombasa highway a distant murmur, the pastoral vision reasserts itself. It was here, last night, around midnight, at work on the verandah, that I had a glimpse of the mystic.
I looked up from the keyboard to see, head-high in front of me, looming out of the dark, a pale-faced ungulate with a single spiral horn, a creature that might have stepped out of a Bruges tapestry: a unicorn, come to lay its head on my laptop.
At that enchanted hour of night, emerging from the trance of words, to be staring into the eyes of this mythical creature felt eerie, but not alarming. And the reality of what I was seeing was almost as pleasing: it was a fringe-eared oryx—a large, rare antelope, one of a number introduced to Kenya a few years ago. Oryxes have long, straight, spiral horns; in the case of this particular oryx, at some point one had snapped off, leaving only a single horn remaining. Behold, the unicorn.
The oryx is one of a range of creatures that seem to find the computer’s blue screen and cicada-like key-clicks irresistible. Writing on the verandah, here in the dark, airborne beetles fall among the keys like buzz-bombs; fearsome horned moths cast shadows on the text; a praying mantis is poised on the surface of the screen peering hungrily at the digital stick creatures within. For a mantis, one can imagine, the letters that multiply on the screen may look like fellow-creatures ripe for eating—were they not trapped in a inaccessible looking-glass world.
From an insect point-of-view there is a universe of tiny beings in my laptop, living hieroglyphs that move and breed as fingers hit the keys. Working outdoors, once darkness falls, the surface of the screen becomes smeared with the night creatures’ frantic attempts to send chemical signals to the life forms they see beyond the screen, in the light-filled world of the computer. The smears on the screen mark their doomed attempts to communicate across the digital-analog divide, the barrier between mechanical and organic, worlds that only humans span.
“Digital creatures,” say the words on the screen—which I suppose I must have written—“captive signifiers in a termitary of words.”
That was the phrase I found there this morning. Blame the unicorn for the rhetorical inflation. The characters on the screen, and the words they form, though inanimate—whatever the night insects think—are symbols of hope somehow, emerging mysteriously from the mirror of the dark. ✭