Words from Kenya

Focusing on the violent attacks against white ranchers in Kenya is a dangerous mistake

Guns and Cows

The shooting of Kuki Gallman was a terrible thing and it made international news. It was not terrible because she is white, or Italian (though now a Kenyan citizen) or because she is famous (Kim Basinger played her in the movie) or because she is rich (I don’t actually know if she is but it certainly appears that way). It’s not even terrible because she has made an important contribution to wildlife conservation in Kenya. It’s terrible because it was a violent crime and all violent crime is terrible.

Since the ranch invasions in Laikipia made the headlines many people have voiced the opinion that the violence is in some way understandable, or even justified, because “colonial white settlers” have stolen ancestral land. This view would have had a great deal of sympathy from me if it wasn’t for the fact that Kenyans have been fully in charge of Kenya for more than 50 years. This Mugabesque tactic is a very convenient way of hiding a much bigger problem behind an emotive issue.

The day before Kuki Gallman was shot I was also confronted by armed and aggressive herders. Beyond the fact that I too have looked down the wrong end of a gun there is no similarity between Kuki Gallman and myself. Admittedly I am white, and I am also female, however I do not own any land in Kenya and being married to a local Kenyan I don’t run in the same social circles as most white Kenyan families. I don’t own a plane and I regard smart shopping as going to the AKK supermarket in Isiolo town. In short most would struggle to class me as a white colonial oppressor of the Kenyan people.

And this is the point, the noise being made about the few wealthy (and mostly white) ranchers that are being subjected to violence, obscures the fact that thousands of ordinary people are also being subjected to this kind of violence, and in many cases much worse.

On that Saturday I was attempting to keep around 2000 cattle, and a large number of aggressive and illegally armed men, out of the last remaining spring in the small village that I live in. Because of the drought all other water sources in the area have dried up and the fragile spring is all that is left. The steep dry sides of the spring could easily collapse and destroy our only water source. It would take far less than 2000 cows to make this happen and for that very reason the local community are careful to keep their own animals out of it. Without the spring the local school would have to close and the whole community would have to move away to somewhere else where they could get access to water.

So, when the cattle started to arrive, I stood with the one Kenya Police Reservist stationed in the community, and attempted to save the spring. We stood alone against the invasion because the rest of the community were far too afraid of the men who came with the cows to stand with us. I don’t blame them. Members of the same group have, over the past two years, repeatedly stolen livestock from our own and neighbouring villages, they have shot at homesteads containing women and children and ambushed and murdered local men out with their livestock, the most recent case being an old man who simply could not run away fast enough.

In the remote Kenyan bush nobody really expects to suddenly come across an angry white woman and that might go some way to explaining why just the two of us, against such well armed opposition, succeeded in keeping the cattle out of the spring and not get shot. Though had it been the day after Kuki Gallman was attacked, rather than before, I might not have been quite so brave in the face of so many guns.

This is not the first time this year that we have had to save the spring from destruction by invading herds nor do I expect it will be the last. Local people water their animals where the spring flows out into a sandy seasonal river bed, there the livestock can drink without damaging the spring itself. The herders who came that day, who have been repeatedly invading the area over the last two years, must surely also know this. To try to take their animals into the spring itself suggest that not just water but also destruction, intimidation and the removal of the local community from this area must be their ultimate aim.

We should not be blinded by reporting that might suggest a righteous black struggle against a white colonial oppressor. The violence of Kenyan against Kenyan, criminal against innocent victim, is so much more extensive and much more significant to the future of Kenyans, both locally and nationally. The big story here is the thousands of ordinary Kenyans who are being affected by this violence; ordinary homes being destroyed, livestock stolen, shambas stripped bare, children huddled in fear as they listen to gun shots night after night. Woman raped by armed men confident that no one will stop them, women, children, the elderly and unarmed, shot, injured and killed. Arrests for these crimes are so rare as to be non-existent, shooting a white person might get you into a bit of trouble but you can attack other Kenyans with impunity.

I have been watching this unfold in our area for the last 2 years and I wonder, where are the journalist who are prepared to name the instigators of this violence or those that ensure the criminals can act without consequence to themselves? Because most of these people are known to the communities involved. Where are the police who are prepared to maintain the rule of law regardless of any pressure on them to turn a blind eye? And where is the Kenyan government who should put the safety and security of their people before all other considerations?

Mugabe used this trick to distract the citizens of Zimbabwe from his failures in governance by blaming the few remaining white ranchers for all the country’s many problems. I hope that Kenyans are not so easily duped. White owned ranches are not the story or the problem. Dispossess the white ranchers and give the land over to pastoralists and they will succeed no better than the Zimbabwean farmers did. This is because the government will still not be supplying quality education, growth or development in the pastoralist lands of Kenya. Rangelands will continue to be degraded, man made droughts will increase and the horror of mass livestock death and human suffering continue.

This is what every pastoralist should be thinking of as we head into the elections. When you watch your animals die is it really because some white person owns a ranch or because your own government has ignored you for decades?

I know I am going to watch our livestock die this year (the animals we have left, the ones that haven’t been stolen). I’ve watched them die before, in previous droughts, and the pain, futility and hopelessness of it is almost indescribable, but all pastoralists know it. Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, or against some fabricated enemy, we should be coming together to hold the government to account and to demand the kind of development and support we need to ensure that we don’t have to go through that pain again.


  1. Andrew Denman says

    Thank you so much for an exceptionally well-written piece from your very valuable personal perspective. Though we live in the US, my partner is a Kenyan citizen, and we maintain a lot of ties there. I am very aware of the truth of your words and have watched with horror and frustration as the Laikipia situation has worsened. I have never been tolerant of political correctness, but here is a crushing example of how it can have terrible real world impact. Poor black pastoralists struggling in the drought and taking back land from oppressive whites is an easy narrative to sell in our racially charged times. The fact that it isn’t the real story at all does not stop lazy journalists from promulgating this myth nor an easily manipulated public from lapping it up. Thank you for sharing your story. I truly hope you will change some hearts and minds.

  2. Margaret Dalton says

    I do hope there is a human being in the government who cared about their fellow Kenyans rather tahini themselves and takes some notice of this sane and realistic woman’s comments.

  3. Kia kaha. Great article – I wish you much strength in a difficult world <3 from Sinai, Egypt

  4. To the point. Love this article. Hope more people will agree.

  5. I could not agree more to your not only well written ‘letter of your mind’,but also the love I can feel and the pain, less for yorself but for the whole situation, afflicting Kenyans.

  6. An excellent overview that has filled in many gaps for those of us who love and work in Kenya, but live elsewhere and didn’t have the whole story until now. Thank you, and may God bless and watch over you and all you love.

  7. Excellent article and I hope it is shared far and wide.

  8. Abdullatif says

    A well written article but then who cares? No one does and if any one did then we wouldn’t be here 50 years plus on.
    We have to care collectively to put things right and thats the only way out of this

  9. Tafakari says

    Are great article that captures the true story!! Those nomads have no right carrying guns they should all be disarmed like Museveni did with the Karamojong a military base shld be set up there purposely for that! And those of school age shld be forced to go to school.

  10. At least we get to hear a first hand account of what is happening and not the hogwash being peddled by the media.

  11. nellie faull says

    A very well written article, telling the truth. It is not only the white ranchers who are under threat, but also the black Kenyans, many of them have lost their lives because of these invasions. May the government step in and restore order in Laikipia.

  12. Burren Lodge says

    You could have gone further: what about the Kenyans who are daily victims of violence and threat? Those abused daily by predatory Police and at night by robbers and thugs the Police cannot be bothered to chase. What about the daily official extortion that everybody knows about and have to subject themselves to in order to get through another day. Your Laikipia thoughts are spot on, but the problem is much much wider. It is the problem of a failing state masquerading as a modern nation state. It isn’t. It’s a handful of masters and tens of millions of subjects. It’s rule, not leadership.

    • Lesley Tetiker says

      Never a truer word, written – Burren Lodge. Everyone and everything is in a mess, with only the faintest glimmer of somethings good- like maybe the elephant calf will survive. This is a 360% problem which can’t be fixed on local ground level.

  13. Joy Maylor says

    At last someone who talked straight honest truth. About time. The Kenyan Government needs to be held accountable here. Let’s hope the elections show this.

  14. Emmanuel Ngumbi says

    It is a good article which is well balanced, the hard fact that caught my eye …..”When you watch your animals die is it really because some white person owns a ranch or because your own government has ignored you for decades?”

    • monic rijkhoff says

      Very well put and I would say very true. I live not far from Isiolo up north- in tribal land. One of very few white women out here (like Emma-I was not born here nor do own a big peace of land). This article however belongs in the major Kenyan newspapers. the solution for the patoralists lies in holistic management- we have projects here that are very successful…just the county and government do not care. This would be LONG term solution not encroaching/destroying the last conservancies in Kenya. Look at the map- it is nothing compared to the rest of kenya and will not bring the solution. I just wish Kenyans would take all of this to heart. The last thing we need is what happened in Zimbabwe.

  15. Zoe Bullock says

    An excellent article ,none of us who know and love Kenya and it’s people wish to see the disastrous effect this could have on the country if the government allow this ro escalate.Let’s hope action is taken before it’s roo late.

  16. Howard Crooks says

    May 1 2017
    As Burren Lodge above says ” It is the problem of a failing state masquerading as a modern nation state. It isn’t. It’s a handful of masters and tens of millions of subjects. It’s rule, not leadership.”
    The Government should be ashamed of it’s non-action…but sadly… isn’t.

  17. Bruce Patterson says

    Great story and perspective on Kenya’s enduring tragedy. I hope that voters are listening

  18. Chap Kusimba says

    Spot on. Puts to shame the celebrity journalists and editors who regularly distort the reality on the ground to fans flames of racialized hatred. I hope Kenyans are listening and will use the power of the ballot box in August.

  19. Esme Blair says

    Excellent well written and exactly how African dictators are behaving. We once had a farm,employed 200 people, brick housing, fresh water and electricity, free school, creche and clinic. It was stolen by Mugabe land reform programme. Most of our employees died or were scattered into poverty. The farm is derelict. Yet it has two full dams, water security, food security. But this is not the point. Political will. A govt.that would rather rule 500 than 5million. The masses are expendable. Rule of law works only when it feels like it. Kenya is part of climate change, perpetuated by 50yrs of bad land practices. But so much easier to make it about race. Shame on all educated Africans….50yrs on, you should know better.

    • Mwongeli says

      Sad state of affairs, indeed! ….. Why, In this day & age?….. We have had more than 50 years of self rule or is it more appropriately SELFISH RULE……. The leadership in Kenya, at every level is mind bogglingly selfish & unless there is a deliberate change in the manner matters are handled, we are treading on dangerous ground.

  20. Well said. I live in the US but was born and raised in Kenya and my family is still there. Laikipia is one of my favorite places on earth. What is happening there is most certainly the result of the confluence of corrupt government, desperate, people and easy acces to weapons.

    50 years ago, my father, Dr. IGOR Mann, who worked for the Veterinary Department, tried to introduce abbatoies to the Northern Frontier District. The aim was to help nomadic people enter the cash economy by culling their huge herds for profit, while maintaing e ough animals for survival.

    It is better to have 5 healthy cows than 500 starving cows.

    This lesson has never taken root. The more livestock you have, the wealthier you are. The cows are like a bank account…gaining interest with every new-borne calf.

    It has very little to do with white settlers. I am sure that some wealthy Africans own land up there. Have they not also been subjected to armed raids? The herders will kill anyone, black or white, who impedes their search for food and water.

    I believe that Kenyans all over the world, as well as those at home, must set up a very loud cry against the government officials who have failed to contain this rapidly spreading virus. We must bring international pressure to bear through our lical and international media. We must set up a petition through moveon.org or avaaz…both mighty powerful instruments of change.

    But first, we must figure out some solutions. Does anyone have any ideas?

    My ideas might be too utopian, but can perhaps serve as seeds:

    1. I know that there are some successful irrigation projects around Lake Turkana, that have allowed Turkana and others to start growing their own food. If these efforts were hugely increased and given government support, this might eliminate the need for herders to go so far afield.

    2. Offer herders financial incentives for culling their herds. Perhaps large storage facilities with freezing rooms could be built. Meat obtained from the slaughter of culled livestock can be sold, or deep frozen for future use. This could be a privately funded, for-profit operation.

    Instead of complaining about all this, let’s see if we can find viable solutions to present to the people and the government.

  21. Linda Brown says

    The plain truth very well described. Fifty years on and everything is still blamed on the colonials. How can we get the real message through to our leaders?

  22. Lesley Tetiker says

    I have read a great deal about the wealthy white ranchers, in terms of land, not sure about liquid assets. And, we are all acutely aware of the millions living in abject poverty. I recently read the names of the high ranking African politicians owning their own huge acreage. I didn’t think to catch their names. But, I did keep this list, of the 10 richest Kenyans. Now, some of them more than give back to their country, but some are bleeding the country of any hope. Here is the link if you care to see the names. I’m not sure how many of the Laikipia ranchers have millions languishing in overseas accounts. I don’t know, but I would have thought that much of their money is reinvested in the land. Happy yo stand corrected.


  23. Ralph von Kaufmann says

    We all know that grasslands cannot continue to support more and more people and that the pressures are aggravated by loss of water and land to other users. The usual remedial ideas such as grazing schemes, abattoirs, ecotourism are not going to generate sufficient jobs. New businesses are needed to create alternative employment and to take the pressure off the natural resources. And, there are many business options but realising them would mean working with, not for, the pastoralists in a wholly new way, c.f. Three is company: fixing the grazing-land business conundrum, Plenary lecture to the International Grassland Congress, Delhi 2015.

  24. I grew up in Kenya albeit in Nairobi and have followed the new stories with sadness. One of my best holidays was to a ranch owned by Hugh Collinson in Rumuruti. I grew up in a colony and then later lived in various independant countries. Seven years voluntary work in Africa helped me see things from different perspective.
    Your account was more balanced one than newspapers and on other hand indignant crusty ex colonials in Facebook! Thanks for information which shows extent and tragedy of conflict.

    • It is all very convenient for you to gross over the hard facts of Historical failures and unjustices at the foundation of the Kenya-State, probably because such aeration of Colonial culpability is not sexy to white racial apologists. How can any justification – whether moral, economic, political, racial, historical, be adduced for the incredible socio-disparities between the millions of landless and dispirited indigenous Black-Africans in Laikipia, and the pitifully handful of a racial superiority-inclined caucasians occupiers to several hundreds of thousand of acres of land in the same geographical locality, land which essentially is uneconomically utilised and where Conservation is a pretensions excuse to the sustenance of racially-defined socio-economic privilege?

      It is useless to address the symptomatic expressions of this debilitating social disfunction of Laikipia without factoring their historical grounding. And Europeans and Kenyans of Caucasuan-extraction must confront the demons of their racist Colonial heritage, and forthrightly acknowledge the unsustainability of unjusfied privileges which are founded on this heritage. Forbearance is yet another una knowledges African trait, after all.

  25. Sideliner says

    It is all well and good that you blame the Kenyan government (easy enough), but I think you need to add that the pastorailists themselves have to accept some responsibility for the developing disaster that is pastoralism in Africa: too many people, too many animals, and too quick to resort to (traditional) violence to achieve their goals.

  26. 55 years ago I worked on Narok estate in Rumuruti/Laikipia. It was the most wonderful place. Lots of grazing, adequate water and beautiful Boran cattle. There was also much wild life and I remember on occasions walking across Ol Ari Nyiri–later to become famous by way of Kuki Gallman–searching for cattle stolen by the Suk/Pokot. Now it seems that everything has changed and mass cattle invasions, and killings, by the Samburu and Pokot are the order of the day. And who is to blame? The Samburu and Pokot and maybe the Kenya government as well. Why are they all to blame? It’s because the Samburu and Pokot never took heed of the lessons of better cattle management that were offered to them in colonial times. As far as I remember there was a scheme in operation in south Samburu district known as the Leroghi grazing scheme which was, I think, fairly successful. No doubt that has all been abandoned. Perhaps the Samburu are now claiming that Laikipia, before the advent of Europeans, belonged to them. Balderdash. History states that up until 1912 certain sections of the Masai occupied that country. However these people were persuaded, by then governor Girouard, to leave Laikipia and migrate south to occupy land that was adjacent to where most of the Masai now live, or did live. I personally feel that if the Samburu and Pokot now wish to destroy the whole of Kenya with their cattle depredations then that is their right. After all they do live in an independent self governing African country which they can desecrate in whichever manner they choose to do, any time they feel like it.

    • Ati “persuaded by Governor Girouard to leave Laikipia…”? This is the revisionist racism that colors every rendition of British Colonial History. To any African patriot ( Black-African , Asian-African, Caucasian-African) who is versed with African history beyond the apologist-renditions crafted by Africa’s estwhile colonial oppressors, it is tiresome, and incredibly insulting to read this article and some of the opinions expressed in solidarity to it. My Grandparents vividly recount a diametrically different history, of how thet were herded out of their ancestral lands in Laikipia, as were others from parts of Eastern Nakuru and upper Nyeri, by the same British Army still on Location in Laikipia, under Colonial Kenya and British Imperial Government imperatives, to make way for the creation of what later became ignominiously known as Happy Valley, into which demobilised British Army Soldiers of an exclusive Caucasian extraction were resettled as part of their enlistment promise by the British Imperial Government. (Africans and Asians who had served side by side with caucasians in the same British Army were not similarly “rewarded”). The only persuasion used to move Thousands of African family groups was a ‘move-or-die’ proposition, and the genocidal tactics the British had learned from the NAZI relocation and extermination of Jews and Gypsies in the just ended European War. No compensation was granted either.

      Further, my grandparents and others were forcibly inserted into lands that were ownered by other Maasai Sections in kajiado, Narok and parts of lower Nakuru -no compensation was granted to these Masaai Sections and neither was their agreement sought for this forceful resettlement of the Ilaikipiak in their midst. Others family groups fled & sought exile amongst the Tigania in Meru.

      In the hype of the emotions this article deliberately and shamelessly raises, it is forgotten that the genesis of this inhuman debilitating reality of the Northern Kenya region is the deliberate British Colonial Policies that expediently segregated the northern lands from those areas which the Colonialists considered useful to them – areas adjacent to their ‘lunatic railway’. It is nonsense to assume that these appropriated / stolen land must only “develop” under a whites-ownership that must sustain their privileged colonial-era existence, and that redistributing will automatically be socio-economically catastrophic. As is this disingenuous assertion that the reluctantly dished out largesse of the largely white inheritors of these dispossessed lands is good for the millions of disadvantaged mostly Black-African locals. Post-colonial Accords between Kenya Government and the British Government have sustained this historical imbalance, ringfenced the disenfranchisement of indigenous people in land ownership, and never provided reparations for those the land was stolen with the forced relocations of 1947/8, and neither integrated Black-Africans to the white-land-owner-driven local economy. Laikipia and parts of Northern Nyeri are today as racist as they were at the devilish times the grandparents of the present white land owners forcibly wrestled these lands from the ideal dige ous Africans.

      This entire article is subtly balanced to appeal to Colonial nostalgia, to accelerate the feel-good racist propaganda of the “inherent incompetence of the Black-African ” that is the traditional mantra of white Racism, to deflect intelligent reflection from the obvious immorality of the incredible disparity between socio-economic profiles of millions of desperately poor Black-Africans sharing the same geographical locations with a handful of privileged and racially-segregated white land-owners who never purchased the hundreds of thousands of acres of land which they individually claim, and whose Kenyan Citizenship is a mere convenience. In fact most of these White land-owners reject citizen-necessary Integration into Kenya, deliberately segregate themselves in racially-defined stratas – claiming it as a ‘democratic right’ such as was coined by the Boers to justify Apartheid, expresses foreign loyalties, and propagate the same racial superiority of their grandparents and parents. Most even openly express the view that the British Army BRITAK in Kenya is their personal safe-guard against the resentful and underprivileged Black-Africans and the British Embassy as their Allegiance focus-points.

      Until Kenya purges these odious colonial vestiges of racially-driven privelege, this historical resettlement will always burst out to the fore in moments of social challenges, such as the current sustained drought. Therefore, focus on the criminal nature of this manifestation, and propagation the racist theories of “inherent African deficiencies” in the midst of such manifestations, will never detract from the reality that challenging an unjustified and suppressive privileged class throughout history has always been condemned in the same language as that which this article and it’s supportive racist-apologists favor.

  27. Peter Kamau says

    First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist;
    Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist;
    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist;
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;
    Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  28. heather rooken-smith says

    The Story of Africa.
    it appears that no one comprehends that a country’s borders cannot swell to accommodate a population explosion of either human or animal. Who cares! It is almost too late!
    Governments are entirely to blame.

    • heather rooken-smith says

      The Story of Africa.
      it appears that no one comprehends that a country’s borders cannot swell to accommodate a population explosion of either human or animal. Who cares! It is almost too late!
      Governments are entirely to blame.

  29. Bernard Blowers says

    Enough said,all to true. Beware South Africa, To the ANC dictators, listen!!!! before it is to late, you have been in power 23 years, what have you done, nothing, but produced a Dictator, shame on you. Madiba must be turning in his grave.
    To The SABC and all Broadcasters, start telling the truth and not your Political claptrap, We want NEWS not Advertising!!

  30. Justin Bell says

    The day after Peter Kamau writes his comment “First they came for the communists…,” Tom writes his diatribe – “Until Kenya purges these odious colonial vestiges of racially-driven privelege”….. It is interesting to read his account for its point of view. And what a contrast! I hope that we learn from history. And I hope we consider the maths when we work on solutions to problems. We write or talk of many nouns as if they don’t change over time, as if they are the same. “Kenya” when I was born had about 8 million people. Today that same Kenya has nearly 50 million (my source – http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/kenya-population/) ! Is it the same Kenya? Although history and the errors of the past must effect Kenya, how much can the problems it has today be directly caused by what happened before independence – over 50 years ago? How can a modern Kenya with 50 million people find solutions to its problems and move ahead? Will purging the ex-colonials solve much or anything? So far history teaches, as Mr Kamau points out, that purging simply creates an appetite for more purging, until there is nothing but violence left. What is needed is pragmatism – Policies that take care of the natural resources that people and wildlife depend upon to survive, and policies that encourage employment, a livelihood, and opportunity for people to look after their family that do not degrade the natural resources (i.e. less pressure, not more – on the land), and propaganda tied in with improved health services educating people that any child born is going to need a job when older (half the people in Kenya are under 19 years old), so it would be very wise indeed for families be smaller …. in other words family planning tied in with good health care…. Some of these things are beginning to happen, but what is needed is so much more, and urgently. Are there any politicians out there in the upcoming election advocating similar solutions? There should be!

  31. D.W.Rooken-Smith says

    It is easy for some to blindly blame Colonialism for the present ills of Kenya…so why not go a little further back in history, to some actual facts ? In1873 the Royal Navy permanently closed the Zanzibar slave markets. The thousands of years that Zanzibar has been inhabited is lost in antiquity, as also the time the Zanzibar slave markets were in operation. Untold numbers of Africans were shipped to the Persian Gulf for possibly thousands of years. Swahili is a slave language and could be spoken from east to west Africa, and as far N as Aden. Maize, the staple diet for most black African countries, was introduced to Africa from America, possibly by Portuguese Slavers. Mangoes, Cassava, Bananas,Potatoes Rice etc: were all introduced by Moslem Slave Traders. In Kenya the British built the Railway, Hospitals, Schools and Law Courts, and put a stop to most Tribal warfare. Diseases were controlled in man/beast and with time the population growth was allowed to grow at an uncontrollable rate…which is quite likely the unintended crux of to-days problems. Controversy swirls over the White Highlands, which in 1900 was very sparsely populated…however there can be no denying that the colonial Settler turned Kenya into a highly successful Agricultural enterprise, aided enormously by the wonderfully fertile land and climate of Kenya…and in my recall, by the mostly cheerful and invaluable assistance of a growing African population. I do not believe any Settler became a millionaire, or owned vast acreages that could not be utilized. The unheralded beef baron of colonial Kenya, was undoubtedly Gilbert Colville, who was a blood brother to the Maasai, and lived life like one. For my part it really would be a great pleasure if I could hear more appreciation for what the British did for Kenya, instead of the present day misconstrued vitriol.

  32. D.W.Rooken-Smith says

    …as an aside, the British Govt: did not allocate Kenya land piecemeal by Freehold ownership…it was allocated on a 99 year leasehold basis. By independence in Dec/63 about 50+ years had already run on most Agricultural lands.

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