, Nairobi, Kenya, May 12 – Blood was already pooling in the seat of her car when a second bullet tore through the driver’s door and thumped into Kuki Gallmann’s abdomen.
“It felt like a punch,” the 73-year-old author and conservationist said this week, speaking for the first time since being wounded a fortnight ago by suspected illegal herders on her 88,000-acre (36,000 hectare) ranch in Kenya’s central highlands.
Chronic issues of climate change, population growth and inept law enforcement are being compounded by drought and ethnic politics, creating an unusually violent and dangerous situation in Laikipia.
Already dozens of people have been killed or wounded by illegal herders who have brought tens of thousands of livestock onto private land, grazing illegally, killing wildlife, rustling cattle, burning property and intimidating residents.
Gallmann, who wrote the best-selling “I Dreamed of Africa” which was made into a Hollywood film, simply has the highest profile of Laikipia’s many victims.
– Ashes in the air –
Early one Sunday in late April, Gallmann visited Mukutan Retreat, her tourist lodge and the scene of the most recent arson. The last of three cottages –- stone-walled, cedar-floored with thatched papyrus roofs -– had been set alight the day before.
She found blackened stone, smouldering wood and flurries of ash floating in the morning air.
She also found three sets of footprints in the dry red earth, leading away from the burned building.
Gallmann, followed by a pick-up carrying Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers deployed to protect her, got back into her Land Cruiser with one of her wildlife scouts and drove up the escarpment.
Reaching the plains Gallmann found a tree trunk dragged across the track. This has become a common enough occurrence and Gallmann thought little of it. “We have seen trees across roads every single day of our lives for the last two years. I’m quite blase about this, only I can’t move the bloody things,” she said.
While three rangers rolled the tree aside, Gallman’s scout, sitting next to her, shouted “Mama, mama!” and pointed to the right.
“Iko watu tatu,” he called out: there are three people.
Before she could turn to look the first shot was fired, punching through the car door and into Gallman’s abdomen. “The first bullet hit me. I knew it had gone through my guts.”
She slumped sideways then tried to sit up but another volley hit the car, and she was struck a second time. One of the bullets tore through her intestines and blasted a ragged hole out the other side.
The rangers shot back and the gunmen disappeared. The car had been hit five times, three shots striking the driver’s door. Gallmann was the only one wounded. The rangers lifted her, bleeding, into their vehicle and drove the short distance back to her home along the rough, bumpy track.
As waves of pain washed over her, Gallmann refused to contemplate death. She first called the local police chief -– “This is Kuki Gallmann. I would like to officially report that I’ve been shot in the gut,” she told him -– then called a neighbour and asked him to send help.
“Will you please get a helicopter to pick me up,” she told him. “I will be at the graves.”
– Tragic connection to the land –
Gallmann arrived in Kenya from Italy in 1972 with her husband Paolo and son Emanuele. When she was pregnant with their daughter, Sveva, in 1980 Gallman’s husband was killed in a car crash. Three years later her 17-year-old son also died, bitten by a puff adder.
Those tragedies fuel her determination to stay at Ol Ari Nyiro, the former cattle ranch she turned into a wildlife conservancy.
Her land has suffered poaching, illegal logging and encroachments for decades, and she has seen troubles escalate in lockstep with Kenya’s election cycles when politicians use ethnicity in lieu of a political agenda.
“Illegal grazing has always happened one way or another, but it was small scale,” she said. “Prior to every election I’ve seen there has been a similar build-up of violence.”
Both husband and son are buried in the garden at her house, an acacia tree marking each grave. Gallmann intends to be buried between them and that is where she asked the rangers to lie her down.
“They took me from the car and put me on the grass. It was a clear day with birds. It was a good place to be,” she said.
– Bloodied, but unbowed –
As Gallmann drifted in and out of consciousness a helicopter arrived. She was flown first to Nanyuki, the regional town, where British army medics at a military training base gave her a blood transfusion, then to Nairobi for surgery.
Recovering in hospital, Gallman speaks more quietly and hesitantly than usual, but the voice remains melodic with extravagantly rolled ‘Rs’ still with a strong Italian accent. Several times while speaking she inhales sharply, wincing with pain, her hand involuntarily jerking towards her stomach.
Having lived so much of her life outdoors, being confined to a bed is torture. “Inertia and inaction is the worst punishment,” she said.
And so she intends to go home to the ranch and to rebuild. “I’m not beaten, I’m simply wounded. As soon as I am fit to return I will,” she said. “I am here to stay, Ol Ari Nyiro is here to stay.”