Home / 15 : GOOD AND SAD TIMES AT MARSABIT

15 : GOOD AND SAD TIMES AT MARSABIT

Conrad, now nearly three months old, looked rather frail; he certainly wasn’t putting on any weight as Clyde previously had; what was worse — he was highly susceptible to colds and coughs. Dr. Broadbent, our family doctor gave us some medication which he said would ease the problem. The treatment did work, and when Conrad was ride of his cold, we all left for Nanyuki via Nairobi. From here we got a lift in to lsiolo where we spent the day with another old friend, John Pereira — himself a frontier veteran. Elsie seemed very happy to be back at Marsabit and many of the locals, who remembered her well during her brief stay previously, were equally delighted to welcome her back.

Although there were no children of his age to play with him, Clyde seemed quite at home in the company of our gardener Arero and our Boran cook, Godana. As he was able to amuse himself without too much attention from Elsie, she was able to devote more time to Conrad who now needed full time attention.

The general security situation in the country had not improved, and in some of the areas of the Central Province — notably the Aberdare and Mount Kenya forests, army patrols were constantly on the look-out for terrorists, following the second forest offensive that was launched earlier that year. At Marsabit itself, there were now not just the detainees who had arrived following the declaration of the State of Emergency, but also two elderly and well-known Kikuyu members from the Central Province — Jesse Kariuki and ex-Senior Chief Mbiu Koinange. Meanwhile, Elijah Masinde, the leader of the proscribed Dini ya Msambwa sect, who had been restricted to Marsabit for some years, was transferred elsewhere within the Province (I think it was Mandera), well before the original batch of political detainees had arrived. Both the new arrivals had a 24-hour guard followed them wherever they went. Mwangi Macharia, the banned trade unionist, was a very industrious individual. He was allotted a small shamba which he cultivated, and from which he was able to enjoy fresh vegetables and potatoes in abundance; some of his surplus produce was sold to locals at the station. He could put his hand to almost any job — be it plumbing, masonry, woodwork, etc. Because of his exemplary behaviour, Mwangi was later allowed total freedom and, on the DC’s recommendation was taken on as a handyman/plumber by the Ministry of Works. He proved of great help and played a significant role, as I have recorded earlier, in the laying of the first pipeline in Marsabit.

Ex-Senior Chief Koinange was a very old man. For his long — service with the Administration, he received a pension which he would collect from me at the end of each month. On such occasions I would also help this likeable old man to write letters to his family back home in the Kikuyu reserve. He would always offer to compensate  I me for the little help I was able to give him, but I could never bring myself to accept any reward since I felt it was my duty to help where I could.

Within a few months of Elsie’s return to Marsabit, Conrad’s health began to suffer. The local hospital assistant tried his best to help with several injections of penicillin. Crystalline penicillin is very painful, and I can well imagine the agony Conrad (who was mere skin and bone) went through. The treatment had no effect at all, and after further consultations with the hospital assistant, the DC agreed that the child and Elsie be flown out to Nairobi. In our hearts, we felt quite sorry for the trouble we were causing the Administration, but in the circumstances, there was little we could do as the problem was beyond our control. An aircraft of the Kenya Police Airwing was called in and the pilot, Capt ‘Punch’ Bearcroft (who had only one arm) alerted the authorities at Wilson aerodrome and asked  if an ambulance could be made available to evacuate Conrad to hospital Sadly, on their arrival at Nairobi, there was no sign of the ambulance and although Capt.  Bearcroft stayed with Elsie for some time in the hope that one would turn up, he had to leave eventually so as to get back to his base at Nyeri before nightfall. The European receptionist at the aerodrome, seeing Elsie in a state of panic, and realizing that Conrad was now gravely ill, immediately called for a taxi. The drive from the airport in to Nairobi must, without doubt, have been one of the most frightening experiences for Elsie. The driver of the cab had obviously consumed a fair amount of alcohol and it is something short of a miracle that she and Conrad arrived unharmed and sale at the house of a friend. Completely worn out and exhausted by now —  having had to carry Conrad in her arms all along — Elsie had the added humiliation and embarrassment of apologizing to our friends for having arrived without any prior warning  somehow, the message I had sent earlier via the Posts & Telegraphs system at Marsabit had got delayed), Mrs. Nobert Menezes and her family were very understanding though, and when Conrad’s condition deteriorated during the night, they quickly summoned a doctor friend of theirs. Dr Maisie Fernandes adrninistered what emergency treatment she was able to, but told Mrs. Menezes in confidence that she didn’t expect Conrad to survive the night. The next morning when they met at church, DrMaisie enquired whether Conrad was still alive. Hearing that his condition had not improved, and  realizing that he needed urgent hospitalization, the doctor had him admitted to the privately-run Radiant Health Clinic.I was informed of these developments and granted a few days’ compassionate leave to visit our gravely ill son. We were very fortunate in having good and dependable friends in the persons of Mr. and Mrs. Price, and I was able to leave Clyde in their safe hands while I made for the clinic. On arrival there, I was immediately taken to see Conrad. He looked very ill from the non-stop cough he had developed, but despite his frail condition and the pain he must have been in, he still managed to put on a smile when he saw me. Elsie pressed my hand in hers as we both stood there watching him helplessly. The strain of the past few days was written all over her face, and I wished I could do more to help her. She had been through some hell during the past few weeks. A child specialist was called in to see Conrad and I was asked to remain in Nairobi until the results of the various tests and X-rays were known. Meanwhile, my in-laws had collected Clyde and taken him to Kitale. As a relative of Elsie’s lived fairly close to the Radiant Health Clinic, I moved in with him while Elsie was allowed to remain with Conrad. We took it in turns to spend time with him, and kept an almost round-the-clock watch; in this way we tried to share our problem. At weekends, Elsie’s cousin, the late Raymond Col(l)?aco, would relieve us. It is precisely during one of these periods that the worst happened. Raymond, seeing that both of us were worried and strained over Conrad’s condition, suggested that we should go over to his house and have some lunch, while he stayed behind with Conrad.

The nurses were never far away in case help was needed. We had not quite finished our meal when Raymond rushed back home to tell us that Dr Patience Davies, the specialist, had visited Conrad only a few moments previously, and asked to see us rather urgently. Fearing the worst, we left behind our unfinished meals and raced towards the hospital, panting from the sheer exhaustion as we ran; it took us some time to get our breath back once we had arrived the there. We were introduced to Dr. Davies by one of  the nurses, and without wasting any time, she told us quite coldly (all well-intentioned no doubt) that the tests had shown that Conrad had an enlarged heart — a congenital condition for which there was no real cure. As she had finished talking, the words sent a chilling shiver down my spine. I realized then how Elsie’s heart must have been deeply pained too. We stared I at each other nervously, trying hard to contain our emotions.

“Oh Lord,” I said within myself, “why us? Why our dear Conrad?” The poor child had suffered so much already and I was I more or less ‘arguing’ with God as to why He wanted him to suffer even more. This was certainly a testing time for our faith.

In addition to the defective heart condition, Dr  Patience Davies also told us that Conrad’s liver and stomach were both on the wrong side — the liver on the left and stomach on theright; an abnormality no doubt, but nothing to worry about so long as we remembered this and made the hospital staff aware of it if ever Conrad needed abdominal surgery. We stood in silence — limp, cold and totally helpless. We gazed at the angelic look on Conrad’s face and wondered if he knew that we too were sharing his pain with him. For a brief moment, we lost all interest in life. When the specialist left us, we both broke down. The tears could be held back no longer. We had been through such great strain and anxiety during the past few days — Elsie more than I, and we wondered if we had the strength to go on in this fashion much longer. Because the cough he developed often left him tired and breathless, Conrad had to be ‘doped’ on occasions with small dose of ‘chloral’ syrup to induce sleep and give him the rest he so badly needed. The cough was incessant and quite irritating, and all our efforts to try and alleviate his condition proved in vain. The nurses, seeing we were so worried and desperate suggested that we go home ,while they looked after Conrad; reluctantly we left, praying hard for a’ miracle. Despite the anxious times we were going through, we were determined not to give up the fight to save Conrad.

Being a private hospital, the charges at the Radiant Health Clinic were very high, and the worry of being able to afford the cost of hospitalization weighed heavily on me. I made up my mind, however, that I would submit a strong case for compensation, since it was the failure of the ambulance to turn up at the aerodrome that had forced Elise to make alternative arrangements. Had the ambulance arrived, she and Conrad would have been taken straight to the Government hospital. The present case was a genuine emergency. (I am pleased to be able to record that my case was strongly supported not only by the Provincial and District Commissioners, but by the pilot who had flown Elsie out to Nairobi, Capt. Bearcroft himself; I was duly reimbursed with the full cost of Conrad’s treatment and stay at the Nairobi clinic.)

When he had recovered sufficiently to be discharged from hospital, we agreed that Elsie should returnto Kitale with Conrad and remain with her parents until such time as he was better and well enough to join me at Marsabit. A few days later I saw them off while I returned to Marsabit. From letters I received after her return to Kitale, it appeared that the family doctor there felt that Conrad’s condition would not alter wherever we took him. In fact he suggested that Elsie should join me at Marsabit as soon as Conrad was better so that the whole family could be together again. I had felt that a period with her family at Kitale would give her time to unwind and also provided a much-needed rest after all she had been through. When I got back to Marsabit, I discussed Conrad’s condition with the DC and our other friends too. Everyone tried to offer words of comfort, but in the state that I was, these words seemed so hollow and meaningless, however well-intentioned they were. My mind was on the family, particularly Conrad, and I wondered how Elsie was coping with this problem all on her own. Subsequent news from Kitale suggested that Elsie was optimistic about Conrad’s health and felt that his general condition was improving, even though very slowly. The pneumonia he had earlier developed in Nairobi had cleared, but he was still very weak and frail. When he had recovered sufficiently enough to make the journey, we decided that Elsie and the boys should join me.

Several weeks later, they travelled by RVP taxi (one of the fastest taxi services at the time) from Kitale to Nairobi where, after a brief stop, they took a similar service to Nanyuki. I myself had a large amount of cash to collect from the Standard Bank of South Africa at Nanyuki for our office requirements at Marsabit. I had therefore arranged that my trip should coincide with the family’s arrival there.

On all occasions when I went down to collect cash, I was always accompanied by two armed Tribal Police (Dubas) escort! They sat in the rear of the Land Rover, rifles in hand, keeping an eye on the cash box containing the money I had earlier collected from the bank while I waited outside the taxi rank looking eagerly for the Peugeot taxi to pull up from Nairobi. When it did arrive a few minutes later, Elsie seemed so happy to see me. Clyde was too tired from the long journey and half asleep. I was told that both he and Conrad had been car sick during the long trip, and that two British soldiers who were returning to their base camp at Nanyuki on the same taxi, had been most helpful and tolerant throughout the journey. After loading the suitcases and other small packages on to the Land Rover, we left for Isiolo. Here, we again spent the night with our old friend John Pereira, who seemed visibly moved on hearing of Conrad’s plight and the troubles we had been through. He did everything possible to make us comfortable, and we were able to relax sufficiently here before continuing the journey to Marsabit the following day. The cash box I had collected earlier from the Nanyuki  bank was meanwhile stored away in the DC Isiolo’s vaults. The next morning we left for Marsabit, arriving there late that afternoon.  Conrad had withstood the journey pretty well even though he must have been quite tired.

At Marsabit, we soon settled back into our old familiar routine. There was so much on our minds that we hardly found time to talk about our earlier days here. Conrad was our main concern now. We took on a young Boran lad by the name of Dima Boru to help Elise with the general housework and also assist over Conrad whenever required. We had tried for an ayah, but there was none available at the time.

Dima did his best to amuse Conrad — carrying and pacing up and  down with him, singing songs in his native Boran. Such songs were often about their livestock, the people and the natural surroundings they certainly couldn’t be described as a lullaby but as long as they kept Conrad quiet, this was all that` mattered. Perhaps because of his condition he needed to be carried all the time; he could never bear to be laid in his cot while he was awake. Even when he dropped off to sleep, there was a particular positionin which he had to be placed in his cot, else he would go into a frightening fit of incessant coughing. Having watched Elsie closely, Dima had now developed the technique of putting Conrad to sleep. Physically, his condition hadn’t changed much — he was still very weak and far too light weight-wise. Having Dima to look after Conrad meant that Elsie would lose herself in the garden and thus try to get things off mind. We had a good gardener in the person of Arero; not only was he a willing worker, but he was good company for Clyde.  With most of our attention now centred on Conrad, Clyde must have felt a trifle neglected. Things were not so bad when I returned from work as I was able to relieve Elsie of Conrad while at the same time trying to keep Clyde amused.

The nights were periods we dreaded most at Marsabit, especially when it came to Conrad. There was no way of getting instant help in an emergency. No telephones — any messages that needed to be sent to the hospital assistant or even neighbours, had to be through one of the domestic staff. A few months after returning to Marsabit, Conrad started to put on a few ounces of flesh but very, very slowly. For Elsie and myself it was certainly painful to see him develop so slowly. We were determined to do all we possibly could to make his life comfortable. Although we were now restricted in our movements as a result of his health, we took advantage of every opportunity that I came our way to get out and about whenever he felt well. I even used to take the family out on pay safaris, and one such trip was to Badassa, a few miles out of Marsabit where I was sent to pay out one of our road gangs.

As a rule, the Boran never worked  long as domestic servants — the urge to go back to Dirre (Ethiopia) was always there; it was not long before Dima Boru approached us saying he wanted to return home, but would wait until we had found someone to look after Conrad. Word soon gets around and I have no doubt that the locals were quite experienced in the art of advertising. Within weeks of Dima telling us of his intention to go home, we had found and taken on a young Burji girl called Maria. She was tall and slim with an ebony-like complexion but very attractive features. Conrad took to her instantly. Godana, our cook/houseboy had gone on leave and not  returned due to some domestic shauris (problems). We were now left  without a cook or houseboy, and Elsie’s hands were more than full with the never-ending jobs she had to cope with. Fortunately, Arero, our faithful gardener always came to the rescue and helped out whenever required; besides, there was always a host of willing volunteers from among some of the station labour force — all eager to help with odd jobs or act as errand boys. Because of the great strain on us as a result of the continuous attention we had to give Conrad, both Elsie and I could sense how frayed our nerves were. There were the occasional outbursts, and at times periods of sheer despair and frustration, since neither of us could bear to see the poor child suffer so much. We felt that all our efforts were not producing any results — try hard though we did, we noticed very little improvement in his general condition. One thing we constantly had to guard Conrad against was colds, and we wondered how in a damp and cold climate like Marsabit, this would be possible. He just didn’t seem to have the resistance or the stamina to fight such an ailment —  nor was there any medication we could give him to prevent him  catching a cold. Thanks however to the regular supply of firewood we received free of charge — we were able to keep the whole house reasonably warm since we had a log fire burning each night. As the day brightened and the thick mists around Marsabit mountain lifted, our ayah Maria would walk Conrad out in the garden. He badly needed the fresh air and it did him good. On some of his ‘brighter’ days — and sadly such days were rare — Conrad would try his best to join in and play with Clyde. He could never engage in anything strenuous and could hardly walk as his legs were very feeble and thin; whenever he was able to sit down and play, however simply and innocently, it was always a relief to the ayah and to us also, since he otherwise had to be carried throughout the day — and this could be quite tiring. What we dreaded most was the fit of coughing that often plagued him and which we were unable to control. It would leave him tired and restless; besides, the poor child had got to know the taste of chlorol and hated the stuff; unfortunately, we sometimes had to force a dose down merely to calm him and give him a much-needed rest.

Both Elsie and I were madly in love with Marsabit despite the problems we were going through. We adored the countryside, the open deserts, the interesting people — in short, we loved everything this district had to offer and kept praying desperately for some change in Conrad’s condition. We had accepted the situation as put to us by the specialist in Nairobi, and realized that however much we did, his condition would never improve — nor could we expect him to have a long life span. He would not be able to play like a normal child, we were told — and we had to ensure that he did not engage in too active sports as he grew up; he would ‘puff’ and tire easily with the slightest exertion. These were very hard and cruel facts for a young couple like ourselves to swallow. When I look back at this particular period in our lives, I cannot help feeling that but for our faith, even our marriage might have suffered.

As the days passed by Conrad seemed better; sadly this period was short-lived, but while it lasted, we made the best of it taking him wherever we went — even to such far off places like North Horr (a risk we surely must have taken, when I now consider the long drive through the Chalbi desert!) Weeks went by and Conrad developed a cold again, and within a few days his condition had worsened to such an extent that the dreaded pneumonia had set in once more. The frequent and painful doses of crystalline penicillin which the local hospital assistant so patiently administered seemed to have no effect at all. In desperation, we sought the help of Miss Gibbins, a European nursing sister who was attached to the BCMS mission at  Marsabit. Canon Eric Webster (who was the rural Dean stationed at  Marsabit at the time), was most helpful in making her services available to us; she arrived on a bicycle in true African missionary style, and at once set about to do everything she possibly could do help. Seeing that the hospital assistant had done everything that was humanly possible in the circumstances, and seeing Conrad’s condition worsening by the hour, she decided it was best to inform the DC of the seriousness of the situation so that arrangements could be made to evacuate him to Nairobi. She even offered to stay the night with us and keep watch over Conrad, adding that she would be quite happy to use the camp bed we had. We felt that this was a very considerate gesture on her part and were most grateful. As soon as word reached the DC, he immediately signalled the PC at Isiolo requesting the urgent despatch of an aircraft, complete with doctor and oxygen tent, to fly Conrad and Elsie out to Nairobi. I also sent a   telegram to my friends there and to my in-laws in Kitale informing them of these developments. The next morning confirmation was received from the PC and the Kenya Police Airwing that a plane would be arriving at Marsabit late that evening. If visibility there was bad, the pilot had arranged to land at the temporary airstrip a few miles outside Marsabit ata place called Hogitchu. Mr. Wild was an ex-RAF officer and seeing the general weather conditions knew immediately that there was not the slightest hope of the of the plane landing at Marsabit airstrip. He suggested that we should stand by to take off from Hogitchu and meanwhile despatched a truck to the area to pick up the doctor and pilot, since it was felt best that the doctor should examine Conrad throughly before they flew out.

Despite being torn with worry, and visibly weighed down with the strain of the past few days, Elsie quickly packed together a suitcase of clothes for herself and Conrad, the bulk being taken up by nappies and warm clothing he would need. As always in times of trouble, there were any number of friends who rallied round and gave us the courage we so  desperately needed. In her heart of hearts, I felt sure that Elsie had realized that there would be no return to Marsabit this time — things hadn’t worked out quite the way we had hoped for, but the welfare of our ailing baby had to be of paramount importance. Both of us agreed that I would now almost certainly have to ask for a transfer out of the N.F.D. and preferably to a district which had a resident doctor and well equipped hospital.

We were now virtually all set to leave for the airstrip when the DC’s driver, Abdalla, pulled up in his  truck bringing the Indian doctor and the KPR Airwing pilot. Normally, whenever a plane arrived at Marsabit or Hogitchu, it was always a welcome occasion to which most of us looked forward since it always brought sacks of mail, fresh provisions, etc. On this particular occasion, I felt no such excitement; in fact the feeling inside me was quite the reverse. After the doctor had examined Conrad, we all left for Hogitchu. I had been told that the Indian doctor was not a good traveller, and that he had been air sick during the short flight from Nyeri. For a moment, I wondered how he would cope on the flight especially if Conrad needed be given oxygen. I guess the same thoughts raced through Elsie’s mind, but then such things are best left to Providence, and we resigned ourselves to accept the present situation as the African would — “shauri ya Mungu” (God’s will). We said a sad goodbye and waited until the plane took off and was airborne before returning

It was very fortunate that Clyde was with me when I got home, else I would have felt completely lost. His very presence was a source of great strength and comfort to me, although I was fully conscious how much he was missing Conrad and Elsie too — after all, who can ever make up for a mother’s love? The following day I received a telegram from a friend in Nairobi informing me that Elsie and Conrad had arrived and were safe at the King George VI Hospital. A   police ambulance had met them at the airstrip and driven them straight to the hospital. Henry Price was a loyal and trusted friend who we had met during our first overseas leave in India. He happened to be on leave at the same time as we were. He and his entire family did much for us during those very difficult years and  even afterwards. Words cannot adequately express the gratitude we owe them. Henry was an Anglo-Indian who was well known and respected in Nairobi social circles. Despite not owning a car in those days, he visited Elsie and Conrad daily in hospital. He would wait patiently with them, sacrificing his leisure hours and even trying to amuse Conrad as best as he could. He and his Goan friend, the late  Damien Nunes, also helped Elsie with most of the shopping she needed while at the hospital. I was grateful for the great personal sacrifice they were both making for our sakes.

Elsie, despite the many problems she was going through, never kept me waiting for news. She wrote a detailed letter telling me all about  Conrad, the kindness and care of the hospital staff and even the genuine concern and understanding of the senior specialist who was treating Conrad. There was not much the hospital could do for

him, but they all — nurses and doctors alike — did their best to make his stay as painless and comfortable as they possibly could. Because of his rare health condition, teams of doctors and students would come to see him; for them, this was an interesting case to study even though it brought little relief or comfort to us. The senior  specialist, Dr Harris had expressed a desire to see and talk to us   jointly and Elsie had asked if it would be possible for me to get down to Nairobi as soon as convenient.

It so happened that while Conrad was being treated, Elsie herself was taken seriously ill in Nairobi. As she would be requiring surgery, it was considered best that she too be admitted as an in-patient; previously, because of Conrad’s condition, she was given special permission to stay with him in hospital and even share the same room. When news of Elsie’s condition reached me, I was truly shattered, and could well imagine her thoughts at this hour of need. Here again, I must record my gratitude to my good friend Henry Price who never let us down. He was at the hospital every evening, visiting both Conrad and Elsie — not an easy undertaking for a young man who led an active and busy social life. Following her operation Elsie was kept in hospital for nearly four weeks, and during this period, a 24-hour round-the-clock watch was kept over Conrad by the nursing staff. His condition had begun to deteriorate quite suddenly and rather rapidly too. He was gravely ill and the  hospital staff were anxious that I should get down to Nairobi as soon as possible. Henry telegraphed the latest news to me at Marsabit, and once  again I was granted  compassionate leave to visit them. As good luck would have it, I managed to get a lift to Isiolo and from there another truck conveyed me straight to Nairobi. Things couldn’t have worked out any better in the circumstances.

While in Nairobi, arrangements were made for Elsie and me to see Dr Harris, himself a very busy man who was much in demand. When we arrived at his office, there was no beating about the bush. He told us quite bluntly and coldly that Conrad’s condition would never improve — it was something we had to live with since there was no known cure for it. He went so far as to tell us that Conrad would not live beyond the age of fourteen at most. For a young couple like ourselves, it was as though a hundred arrows were piercing our hearts all at once. We were full of emotion and very shattered but somehow had to contain our feelings. We had hoped all along that Dr. Harris was going to give us some hope — even if it meant sending Conrad to England or anywhere in the world where a ‘miracle cure’ could be found. Quite rightly, he was giving us the bare facts — no hidden hopes. Painful and hard though these facts were, we had to accept them. He even went on to suggest that we should seriously consider having another child, and assured us that there was nothing to show that any future child would be similarly affected; the chances were a million to one. We were too broken-hearted at the time even to consider the thought of another child sinceour minds and hearts were centered on Conrad alone. Dr. Harris then told us that as soon as Conrad had recovered sufficiently, he would be discharged from hospital, and asked us to consider, very seriously, the possibility of moving out of the N.F.D. and obtaining a posting to a district with adequate medical facilities. He would, if required, provide a recommendation to support any application for my transfer. That day, we left his office very upset and dejected.

I remained at Nairobi until Elsie and Conrad were discharged from hospital, and later we all (including Clyde) stayed at the Price household for a few days. Even though not fully recovered and sufficiently rested, Elsie returned to her parents’ home at Kitale taking Clyde with her too, while I went back to Marsabit. Here, the DC and his wife and all our friends were disappointed that we would have to leave the district and the N.F.D. It hurt us dearly too since I never wanted to leave this Province. However great the attractions of a city life, my heart was right in this part of Africa and it was a great comfort that Elsie, despite all the problems we had been through also shared this feeling. However, we had to accept the fact that we simply couldn’t afford to risk Conrad’s life by remaining in an area which was miles away from a hospital proper. I had not given serious thought to the choice of a district, but felt that the Coast Province or a town like Kisumu in the Nyanza Province would be ideal especially because of their warm climates. There was no certainty, however, that I would he posted to a station of my preference, but in view of the special circumstances surrounding my case, I was convinced that the DC would  strongly support my application. Although I was born inNairobi, I never wanted to be posted there; somehow or other city life never appealed to me — the districts had more to offer!