Murder on the Lake, a BBC Four programme, was nothing to do with Cumbria, but concerned a real life murder case from Kenya. Lake Naivasha is evidently a beautiful part of the world, but it was the scene four years ago of the brutal killing of a well-known conservationist, Joan Root. I remember hearing about the crime when it was originally reported, but I had no idea of the extraordinary story behind it.
Joan Root rose to fame working with her husband Alan. They filmed wild life with sensitivity and skill, travelling around the Africa they loved. One of their documentaries was nominated for an Oscar. They had a home at Lake Naivasha, but it was only when Alan left Joan for another woman that she retreated there on a permanent basis. Her psychology was evidently complex and intriguing – although she did wonderful work, there seems to have been a darker side to her personality.
This became apparent when the lake experienced the ravages of commercialisation. Flower farms were established, providing work for thousands, but attracting many more than that. Slums developed, and crime became commonplace. Poachers reduced the fishing stock, threatening the delicate eco-system. Joan became involved with a ‘Task Force’ that drove the poachers out, but it seems that some of those whom she funded were ready to resort to violence. Joan, whose behaviour seems at times at best to have been naïve, became a hate figure in some quarters.
In the end, she was savagely murdered by intruders who broke into her home. She phoned a neighbour (who was working away at the time) during the attack, and he conjured up a terrifying picture of her final moments. But who was responsible? The poachers, perhaps. But when they looked for people with a motive to kill poor Joan Root, the police were spoiled for choice. Former members of the Task Force, some of whom had a possible financial motive, were accused of the killing, only to be acquitted. One neighbour suspected a contract killing, and another – in a twist that I found hard to credit - accused an elderly white woman of being responsible for the death. She had feuded with Joan (the feud seemed rather mysterious to me, and I wondered what the viewers were not told) and, amazingly, was tried for having arranged another savage attack, this time on a white man who, like Joan, had tried to buy her property. But she was acquitted.
The mystery remains unsolved, but the case is shocking. Whatever her faults, Joan Root was a remarkable woman who suffered a death all the more horrible because of the beautiful location in which it occurred. She deserves not to be forgotten, and one can only hope – without great optimism – that one day the truth will become known and the culprits found.