This post has been updated.
Since Kuki Gallmann moved to Kenya in 1972, the conservationist’s life has been plagued by loss and tragedy. In Africa, her husband was killed in a car accident, and her 17-year-old son died from a snake bite.
And yet instead of returning to a comfortable life in her native Italy, Gallmann stayed, compelled by her love for the land and desire to protect it. She would chronicle her experiences in the best-selling novel “I Dreamed of Africa,” which would be turned into a movie starring Kim Basinger.
Now, a wave of misfortune has struck Gallmann again, stemming from months-long local violence and drought. Gallmann, 73, was driving to her property in Laikipia on Sunday morning, assessing damage inflicted by arsonists at one of her tourism lodges, when her vehicle was ambushed by gunmen. She was shot in the stomach, according to the Laikipia Farmers’ Association.
Rangers with the Kenya Wildlife Service helped Gallmann flee the area, and she was taken to a hospital in Nanyuki, a town south of Laikipia, where a British field medic treated her. Then she was flown to a hospital in Nairobi to undergo surgery. Gallmann suffered serious injuries but was in stable condition after surgery, family members told authorities.
Though it is not yet known exactly who is responsible for the shooting, the gunmen are believed to be armed cattle-herders who have been invading Gallmann’s land and other nearby ranches in search of grazing land. A fierce drought has driven these herders — and tens of thousands of cattle — onto private farms and ranches, local media reported.
The Associated Press reported Monday morning that two suspects in Gallmann’s shooting were killed by security agents, according to Kenya Internal Security Minister Joseph Nkaissery. He blamed the shooting on “isolated banditry activity,” according to AP, and said a gun was recovered after Sunday’s attack and was being examined to see if it was used to shoot the conservationist.
Many residents of the area accuse local politicians of inciting the violence ahead of the August elections, trying to drive out voters who might oppose them and win votes by promising supporters access to private land. At least one local politician has already been arrested in connection to the violence. Mathew Lempurkel, the member of parliament for Laikipia North, in March was arrested in Nairobi for inciting the murder of Tristan Voorspuy, a British military veteran who was shot to death while riding a horse and inspecting the remains of one of his ranches. Prosecutors later declined to press charges against Lempurkel, citing lack of evidence.
Kenya’s political leaders and local farming authorities have denounced the violence and Sunday’s attack on Gallmann, one of the area’s most prominent ranch owners. The Gallmann family owns the 100,000-acre Laikipia Nature Conservancy and employs 250 Kenyans on its luxury lodges, ranch and other businesses on the land.
“For months these criminals have been rampaging around with their illegal weapons, destroying lives and livelihoods,” said Martin Evans, chairman of the Laikipia Farmers’ Association, calling the attack a “vicious assault against an elderly and defenseless woman.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta decried the shooting, warning politicians in the area not to inflame tension through “reckless rhetoric.” In a statement Sunday afternoon Kenyatta said, “Politicians encouraging invasions of privately-owned property or attacks on individuals can expect strong deterrent action in terms of the law.”
Raila Odinga, Kenya’s opposition leader and the country’s former prime minister wrote in a statement that his party, the National Super Alliance, detests and condemns “the hooliganism taking roots in this part of the country and demand action that will restore order before things get completely out of control.”
More than 30 people have died in the conflict over grazing land, the Associated Press reported. Kenya’s military and police have been working for more than a month to drive the herders out of the private land they’ve invaded, but their efforts seem to have escalated the violence. When driven from one ranch, nomadic herders will simply move onto another ranch.
U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec on Monday condemned the attack on Gallman “and all other violence that has taken place in recent months in Laikipia and Baringo.” Godec said in a statement, “I urge all Kenyans to refrain from violence and urge the government to take strong action to hold accountable all those responsible for the attacks and uphold the rule of law,”
Laikipia, located in Kenya’s central highlands, is one of Kenya’s most popular areas for tourism, and many business owners are afraid that if the herders are not stopped, the violence could spread and the economy could take a hit.
Late last month, a luxury lodge owned by Gallmann was burned down by suspected cattle herders in an attack believed to have been retaliation for a police operation. Police had reportedly shot dead about 100 cattle in her surrounding conservancy. Since then, a number of other lodge facilities and farm buildings on her property have been “systematically destroyed and looted by the invading militias,” the farmer’s association wrote in a news release.
After the arson fire at the Mukutan Retreat lodge, Gallmann posted a poem on Facebook earlier this month, writing that “with a bleeding heart” she was trying to gain the strength to see what was left of the lodge, “the monument of my love and loss and longing.”
“They burnt a bit of my soul,” she wrote. “They knew how it would hurt.”
As the armed men set fire to the lodge, they repeatedly shot at her daughter, Sveva Gallmann, who lived nearby. “Our operations buildings and our house came under direct gunfire from armed men,” she said in a statement, Reuters reported. “My nine-month-old daughter was in the house with her carers and I was shot at three times as I ran between the buildings to get to her.”
Speaking to the New York Times this month, Gallmann said that in the past few days, herders had been nearing closer and closer to her home and were attacking her property in revenge for the recent military activity against them.
This is not the first time raiders have tried to kill Gallmann. In 2009, she was driving alone across her property when herders surrounded her and hurled stones, hitting her in the head and hand, the New York Times noted. She barely escaped. Despite the dangers, Gallmann told the newspaper: “There is absolutely no question that I want to stay in this place, die in this place, which could be any minute.”
Gallmann has called Kenya her home since she moved there in 1972, divorced and recovering from a crippling car accident. She found a fresh start in Kenya with her second husband, Paolo, an adventure-loving Italian aristocrat. In 1980, when Paolo was driving home a cradle for his yet-to-be-born daughter, he was hit head on by a truck and killed instantly. Three years later, Gallmann’s 17-year-old son by her first marriage, Emanuele, was killed by a poisonous bite from a puff adder.
When her book first published, some claimed the white European’s story of love and loss in Africa gave off an air of colonialism. But others have praised Gallmann as a viable force in the field of conservation. The Kenyan citizen has waged a war against rampant poaching in an attempt to protect lions, leopards, elephants and other endangered wildlife in Laikipia. She has funded scholarships to help Kenyans use pharmaceutical technology and tribal medicine to halt deforestation and fight disease.
“Landowners? … I do not feel like a landowner,” she wrote in “I Dreamed of Africa.” “I cannot believe that we really own the land. It was there before us, and it will be there after we pass. I believe we can only take care of it, as well as possible, as trustees, for our lifetime. I was not even born here. It is for me a great privilege to be responsible for a chunk of Africa.”
In memory of her husband and son, she created the Gallmann Memorial Foundation, which promotes “coexistence” between humans and nature. “On the grave of both I swore to dedicate my life and my resources to making a difference for the chunk of Africa where we live, which they loved,” she said in an interview with Kenya Citizen TV. Both her husband and son are buried on her ranch.
“There is nothing that people can do to scare or to make me heart,” she said.
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