5 : THE MARSABIT I LOVE
Whereas a posting to Lodwar in the Turkana district could be interpreted as being ‘sent to Devil’s Island’, the reverse could be said of Marsabit. For a start, the contrast in climate alone was so noticeable, so much so that a posting to Marsabit could well be regarded as a bonus; in Lodwar, the heat was, at most times quite unbearable; the sun seemed to be at its fiercest in the Turkana district no matter what hour of the day. In Marsabit, on the other hand, and in the boma in particular, it was a relief to see the sun. Thick early morning mists usually envelop the whole of the township and mountain area and visibility is reduced to nil. These dense mists are the result of the desert air cooling and condensing into thick clouds as the air reaches the cooler regions. Rarely do these clouds of mist release their grip from the whole area before the early afternoon, sometimes even later.
I had more than served my term in Lodwar, and being so much in love with the N.F.D. , did not want to leave this wonderful Province even though life here was hard and lonely. Many of my friends, especially those living in major towns like Nairobi, Nakuru and even Kitale, must have thought that it was odd for me to be sacrificing or rather ‘wasting’ the best years of my life, i.e. my youth, to go and live in the wilds of Kenya. According to them, there was hardly any social life in the N.F.D . , the area was inhabited by primitive tribesmen and the climate too, far from congenial. Quite a few thought that I had gone to the N.F.D. to amass a fortune. Whatever their thoughts and misgivings, I must say that my stay in Marsabit was far from dull or boring; in fact it was quite the contrary, and some of the best days of my life were spent there, days I shall never forget, and days I often look back on with a great feeling of nostalgia.
For the benefit of my readers, I am reproducing (in the Appendices), some topical verses I wrote when I was in Marsabit for the traditional N.F.D. ‘Somali Somali’ song. The mainspring of the chorus is not of course mine, but comes from the original composition of the song in Wajir, a few years before the war.
It occurs to me that this might be a suitable place in which to set down the history of ‘Somali Somali’, for if there is such a thing as an N.F.D. song, this, as it was first written, is it. Sir Richard Turnbull tells me that in its origins, ‘Somali Somali’ was essentially a 3rd KAR song. He goes on to say that the lyrics were written by various officers of the Regiment stationed in Wajir in 1935 on the eve of the Italo-Abyssinian war. Although there is no single person that one could claim was the author of the song, it is generally agreed that Captain (later Brigadier) MacDermott was what one might call its architect and prime mover; his, anyway, was the inspiration and the wit that got the whole thing going. The tune was dredged up from the prodigious musical memory of the Wajir Medical Officer of the day.
The song opened thus:
They say that the Itos are ready for war
They want Abyssinia: God knows what for!
If they must have some place, why not N.F.D.?
They can have every acre; it’s OK by me.
This was followed by:
Somali Somali we’re here for your sake
But what the hell difference does the N.F.D. make
Mussolini can have it, with a great rousing cheer,
Moyale, Mandera, Eil Wak and Wajir.
This second quatrain became the chorus.
There were a score or so of verses, each one painting a brief word picture of a character, a place, a situation or an event.
Since 1935 , any number of additional verses have been produced, some by soldiers, some by District Commissioners, some by police officers; and it has become a kind of local tradition that the name of any character of note should be commemorated in at least one verse of ‘Somali, Somali’. Each of the eight or nine verses that I have taken the liberty of adding to the song is based on some contemporary attitude of mind or state of affairs, or on the activities or idiosyncrasies of one or another of my colleagues in the N.F.D. or Turkana. And I respectfully make my bow to those distant figures who, fifty years ago, at Wajir, produced the basic chorus, and laid down the pattern of the song. What a lot of pleasure it has given to a succession of Government officers serving in the N.F.D.
Coming to Marsabit from the inferno of Lodwar was a tremendous relief, and I rejoiced at this happy turn of the postings wheel.Marsabit district is about the second largest in Kenya, extending as it does, over a vast area of some 28,000 square miles. Apart from the Marsabit and Kulal mountains, which by far constitute the only ameliorating factors, the remainder of the district is made up of waste and scrubland, with a small lacustrine section. A very noticeable feature is the switch from the cool mountain air of Marsabit to the hot desert conditions of Korole, Chalbi and Kaisut deserts, especially when travelling within a short radius outside the main township. Mount Kulal, a forest-clad mountain of some 7,500 feet, whose beauty has to be seen to be believed, runs parallel to Lake Rudolf(now renamed Lake Turkana). The area around it is inhabited by both the Rendille and Samburu tribesmen. In the Marsabit mountain area, however, uncompromising desert nomads meet on common ground. The Gabbra, Rendille and the Boran are all pastoralists, each with their own rich culture.
I was posted to Marsabit as District Clerk and David Dabasso (He was promoted as DC Isiolo, but sadly this promising young officer was assassinated shortly after Kenya’s independence.) was to be my assistant. David, a Gabbra, and perhaps the first literate member of his tribe, was a very efficient clerk whose life at Marsabit was unfortunately plagued by a series of domestic problems. There were any number of his relatives, including his two wives, living with him, and this in itself put a great strain on the man and his limited financial resources. The domestic pressures were so great that they were beginning to affect the general performance of his work.
In the early stages, I decided to spend as much time as I could getting to know the office staff, and later, with their co-operation, introduced some changes in the office with greater efficiency in mind. I must say that David Dabasso was very co-operative during this period, but neither of us liked the arrangement obtaining at the time, where a number of duties which I rightly considered to be that of a District Clerk, were being handled by a European Works Supervisor who, to my mind, had really nothing to do with the day to day running of the district office anyway. The individual in question, who the locals referred to as “Maja Pota” (Major Porter) posed more like a D.O.. Having been given far more freedom in the conduct and running of the District office at Lodwar, I could not bring myself to accept the present situation. Rather than put up with the unhappy state of affairs, I decided to make my feelings known to the D.C. (Mr. Bebb). From the initial discussion we had, he realized at once how strongly I felt and, while not wishing to ‘upset’ the status quo before he left on vacation leave in a few months’ time, agreed to try and remedy the situation gradually by getting me more involved in the day to day office work. Although not altogether happy with the limited responsibilities I now had, I decided not to pursue the matter any further — for the time being anyway. In many ways, I was relieved that I had brought the whole question out in the open.
Mr. Bebb was a man not given to going out much on safari. He was married but the couple had no family at the time. They did, however, keep two playful and healthy-looking Dalmatians, who frightened the living daylights out of the tribesmen whenever they accompanied the DC to the office. The locals, as a general rule, do not like dogs; this applied more to those of the Muslim faith, and such individuals always made sure that the dogs never got anywhere near them. There were constant cries of “kuth, kuth” (meaning “go away” in Boran).
With the responsibilities I had undertaken at Lodwar and the rather limited work schedule at Marsabit under the present set up, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands; this I instantly placed at the disposal of the Cashier, Tom Lobo. Such a co-operative atmosphere between Cashier and District Clerk had not previously existed, and he was naturally grateful for my assistance.
When the new DC arrived, the situation in the office changed dramatically. Fortunately for me, I had met Mr. Wild previously during my stay at Voi — he had replaced Mr. D. J. Penwill as DO at Mackinnon Road. We got on very well together and it was indeed a pleasure to be serving under someone I knew, and one who appreciated my work. I was also pleased to learn that he shared my feelings about the rather unfair distribution of the work at the office — a situation he was hell bent on changing as soon as possible. The Cashier, Tom Lobo, had now very few months before he left Marsabit on transfer; his was a growing family and he was naturally concerned about the education of his children.
My assistance to the District Cashier had hitherto been confined to typing out the various vouchers (i.e. in respect of staff salaries travelling allowances, traders’ bills, monthly returns, etc.). Seeing that I coped quite well with these additional jobs, I was now asked help with the issue of the various licences, i.e. firearms, bird/game licences. I did not in the least mind this since it all meant added experience.
An incident that I shall never forget took place during one of the occasions when a police officer came to have his revolver licensed. It was on a morning when the DC was away on safari that Inspector Ron Crossland of the Kenya Police walked into the DC’s office and jokingly threw his revolver across the cashier’s table, at the same time asking Tom Lobo to have the firearms licence renewed; seeing I was nearest the table, Tom asked me to do so. However, before actually getting down to renewing the firearms certificate, I grabbed hold of the revolver and pointed it straight at John Dixon, the police mechanic who was standing by the open window outside, less than two feet away from me. At this stage, I jokingly said, “Hands up, John”! Before I had time to pull the trigger, Tom Lobo took firearm off me and, pointing it to the ground, pulled the trigger. There was one loud bang which immediately shattered the relatively calm atmosphere of the office and caused total confusion among those inside and outside. The Kenya Police Quarter Guard(mounted outside the Police Armoury),fearing that some shifta (Ethiopian bandits) had raided the boma, quickly sounded the alarm. The bugle call brought more police and several of the townsfolk on the scene. I was most embarrassed, and none of us was amused over this rather childish incident which could well have assumed serious proportions. I recognize that it was I who caused this unfortunate incident, and really cannot think what possessed me that I should behave with such crass idiocy. The only relatively satisfactory thing that came out of the whole dismal episode was that I learnt a lesson that I have never forgotten. We made no mention of the incident to the DC when he returned from safari, although I am sure he must have come to hear of it through some of his ‘secret agents’.
Within a short time of his arrival at Marsabit, Mr. Wild got down to the task of reorganizing the office. Many of the changes he proposed were to affect me directly, and I was extremely pleased with the added responsibility I was now being given. It certainly showed a feeling of trust on the part of the DC, and this in itself gave me tremendous encouragement.
As there was no European District Officer at Marsabit during this period, quite a few of the day to day tasks that would otherwise have been undertaken by the DO fell to my lot. These included responsibility for the Tribal Police Armoury (which housed a fair amount of arms and ammunition), and also the TP uniforms and general equipment store. I was set more in the role of a Quartermaster. The other important duty allotted to me whenever the DC was on safari, was to carry out the weekly inspection of the prisons and attend to any grievances from the prisoners and detainees. I was also, as District Clerk, responsible for ordering all the prisoners’ rations and stores, and maintaining a daily register of the prison population. I found these new tasks very satisfying indeed.
On one occasion during the DC’s absence, I was called upon to supervise the administering of several strokes of the cane to a prisoner who had been so sentenced following a criminal conviction for theft. This recommendation was over and above the hard labour sentence he had already received. On all such occasions, the local hospital assistant took the place of the Medical Officer who was always required to supervise such canings. After half the number of strokes had been administered by the Corporal of the gaol — such strokes always being given on the bare buttocks over which was spread a wet muslin towel, the hospital assistant would examine the prisoner to see whether he was physically fit to go through the recommended number of strokes. If he was, the punishment would continue, and at the end of it all, the prisoner was expected to stand up and salute the presiding officer (in this particular case, me!) I did not much relish this particular duty and must admit to having some difficulty in curbing my emotions when it was all over. The prisoner in question had been given the full treatment.
Other occasions when I inspected the prisons were less unpleasant. Here, the Corporal i/c would have the warders perform an arms drill, after which I usually inspected them and discussed any particular problems they had. During such inspections, I made it a point of meeting and talking to those prisoners who had a particular grievance or problem to air.
At the office, Tom Lobo’s replacement as Cashier was Victor Fernandes, himself no stranger to the N.F.D. He had previously served as a temporary relief clerk in the Province and knew some parts of the district well. Having worked in Marsabit before, he knew some of the local staff and traders too and so had no difficulty settling down fairly quickly. I liked Victor and took to him immediately — he was in his late thirties, tall, of good physique and above all very jovial. He always seemed so full of life, and was a great do-it-yourself enthusiast who, in the short time following his arrival had made some noticeable changes to the Government quarter he occupied. I am no handyman myself, but remember spending many an evening with Victor helping him polish some of the coffee tables he had made; we sometimes worked late into the evenings and after hours of patient polishing, it was very satisfying to see the mirror-like finish the polish had imparted on the table tops. We used to prepare the polish with shellac crystals which we dissolved in methylated spirits.
On the whole, the DC Mr. Wild was a very friendly sort of person who was well liked by everyone; there was, however, also a serious angle to his personality, and this latter attitude had earned him the nickname of Bwana Nencho (Mr. Lion!) among the locals. Despite his sometimes serious appearance, he was always in good humour in the office, and had that great attribute of putting people at ease. We got on extremely well and became the best of friends latterly. (I was deeply grieved to hear of his untimely death in South Africa in July 1983.) Unlike his predecessor, the new DC loved the great outdoors. He hated being stuck in the office as much as he detested paperwork. He was more at home — at least so I felt — with a rifle in his hand helping the tribal and Kenya policemen fight the shifta at some of the border posts. He would try to be away on safari as often as possible. While in the boma, his time was taken up hearing court cases, inspecting housing and road work in the area, and also carrying out some of his other official duties like the weekly checking of the cash book and other financial documents. There were also the shauris of the locals to attend to, and the weekly inspections of the prisons, staff quarters and township to be fitted in to the whole work schedule.
Because of his preference for the outdoor life, both Victor and I were — on an alternate basis — encouraged to accompany the DC on some of his safaris to the remoter areas of this vast and interesting district. Places like Kargi, Maikona, Korole and North Horr still ring clearly in my mind. I must admit to being fascinated by these safaris despite the initial discomfort of some of them.
Quite often, a stock sale would be combined with a tax collection drive, and here it is necessary to explain very briefly, the tax collection system obtaining in the districts at the time. Legally, every adult male was liable to pay Native Poll Tax as it was then known. The rates varied from district to district, and the local Chiefs and headmen played a prominent part in seeing that any tax due was in fact paid by their subjects. The Swahili word for tax was ‘kodi’. Poor though they were, the tribesmen never evaded tax. They may have omitted to pay it for a particular year either because they had moved their manyattas to other areas or been away serving with the armed forces in various parts of Kenya. As long as the local Chief was able to confirm such situations there was no real problem. Arrears of tax would be paid ungrudgingly, and if hard cash was not available, the dues would often be paid in kind, i.e. by producing a sheep or goat. The animals thus handed in were bought by the local butcher who often accompanied the administration party on such sales; the proceeds from the sale of such animals was used to pay the tax and/or arrears of the particular individual for a given year. On a tax collection safari, we normally took one or other of the tax clerks who would come, fully armed with the various sets of tax receipt books, tax registers and most important of all, their steel cash boxes — each bearing a ‘TS’ (Treasury Serial) number. During my tour at Marsabit, we had two tax clerks — one a Samburu named Lekilepa and the other a Burji called Shadrack. Lekilepa was the younger of the two and spoke fluent English. It is sad to have to record that while I was still at Marsabit, these two clerks were charged and found guilty of misappropriating Government funds and later sentenced to terms of hard labour. They were replaced by a Boran named Ali Guyo and a Burji who had only recently left school then, Elisha Godana. The latter was well educated, and many years later, following Kenya’s independence, rose to become the Member of Parliament for the area, and even a Junior Minister in the government of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. I knew Elisha’s father, Daniel Godana well, and am sure he was pleased that his young son had secured a job in the DC’s office.
In addition to the tax collection safaris undertaken by the DC, Mr. Wild also carried out a weekly inspection of the township. This was more of a ‘showing the flag’ exercise, but it did a world of good and was in itself a great morale booster. In this way, it was also possible for the DC to keep in touch with his people and know what was going on in the district generally.
The Rendille interpreter, Sangarta, and I would always accompany the DC on such inspections which would commence at the tribal police lines. Dubas was the local name given to these smartly turned out tribal police. I am told that a tradition founded by Sir Gerald Reece was that these Dubas had to be chosen from families of proven courage. Most of the men thus recruited were from the Boran and Rendille tribes, although we did have the odd Turkana. During these inspections, the Sergeant or Corporal i/c of the Dubas would always be present, and of them I can still remember Sergeant Adano Dabasso, Corporals Golicha (see illustration) and Dub Gadafu. The Sergeant and Corporals were tough-looking characters who commanded a lot of respect among their men and who certainly had a great sway over them. The Dubas, especially when on ceremonial parades, looked so impeccable in their snow-white bafta uniform, red turbans and bandoliers.
To me, the visits to the staff quarters were rewarding in themselves as I got to know the families of these men and see the living conditions at first hand. Invariably, in anticipation of the DC’s visit, the small house, (consisting usually of single-room bachelor-type or double-roomed married accommodation) would be thoroughly cleaned out, and all the tableware consisting of very colourful and almost gaudy enamel dishes proudly displayed on a table outside. This looked more like a kit inspection — only that crockery and cutlery were substituted for arms and ammunition! As we looked round the house, there would be smiles from the shy wife (or was she a girl-friend perhaps!) and later a short list of requirements for improving it would be given. It was my job to note these and the list I maintained usually ran like this… ‘Sgt. Adano’s house needs repairs to fireplace and redecoration of kitchen’… ‘broken window in Cpl.Golicha’s quarters to be replaced and a new hasp and staple fitted to front door … ‘Kanchora’s and Leripen’s houses need whitewashing on the outside’, etc.
From the Dubas quarters, we would move on quickly to conduct a similar inspection of the station hands’, artisans’, masons’ and carpenters’ houses including other manual labourers’ quarters. The list of repairs and improvements kept growing, and in my own mind I wondered how much of this we would actually be able
to undertake especially in view of the limited maintenance funds at our disposal. Somehow however, there was always an answer to the financial problem; whereas our expenditure in certain areas, notably maintenance and upkeep of buildings was high, we were often able to show savings in other areas. The PC’s approval had to be sought for such ‘switching over’ of funds, and this was almost always granted, unless there was a more pressing need in another district.
Our next call would be to the prisons where things were more formal. As soon as they heard the DC and his party arrive, the prison Corporal (a well-built Kikuyu by the name of Wainaina s/o Keriba) would unlock the prison gates, salute the DC and then have the warders perform the usual arms drill. Then followed the inspection and when this was over, the prisoners were paraded; those having a particular grievance to ventilate were given the opportunity to do so. Most complained about the diet or the fact that they were too ill to do any more hard labour. Some complained of the cold at nights (prisoners were given coir mats to sleep on and were each provided with a blanket). Genuine complaints were promptly redressed, but one had also to remember that the individuals concerned were in prison for committing an offence, however small this may have been, and it was certainly not the policy of the administration or the prisons department for that matter, to ‘feather bed’ or make them feel too comfortable while in prison.
At every new ‘port of call’ during these inspections, the list I maintained kept growing longer and longer, and I so wished I knew shorthand. Having covered the Government staff quarters and the prisons, the DC would then proceed to inspect the township, calling at some of the dukas en route. There were three general provision-type stores, run mainly by Asians; one of these was run by a Goan, Simoes, about whom you will have heard in the earlier chapter. Simoes was the sole surviving partner of the previous Goan owner of the business, J. B Fernandes (who had died some years previously). The business was however still being carried out under the style ‘J. B. Fernandes & Sons’. Both Fernandes and Simoes had lived for many years in the Marsabit district and had married women from the local tribes — the former had married a Boran woman who had borne him two children, a son named Domnic and a very attractive daughter, Caroline. Simoes, who married very late in life, had a son (Henry) through his very young Gabbra wife. For his age, Simoes was quite active, but not a good business man at all; very few Goans are! He was awarded the Government contract for supplying rations to the police and Administration staff, a contract worth several thousand pounds. Unfortunately, he was never able to cope with this commitment since he hardly had the ready cash available to pay for bulk orders placed with the wholesalers. He was full of confidence though — never gave up and always kept assuring the DC that, given a second chance, he would ‘deliver the goods’; sadly, his failing health didn’t help matters much and the situation soon began to deteriorate. Simoes fell ill not long after he secured the Government contract for a second year running and had to be moved to a Nyeri hospital where he died. The business was eventually closed down and the contract later transferred to another Asian. Noormohamed Mangia & Sons were Ismailis, and their local manager Juma, and latterly Abdul, ran the business very efficiently and at great profit. They were far better organized than Simoes, who was very much of a happy-go-lucky character (a trait not uncommon in the Goans!) There were other Asian traders like Shah Padamshi Meghji (whom the locals referred to as ‘Godamso’) and Bachu and his father Kanji Jagan who were well-known tailors in the district. All three were Hindu, but Bachu was more of a modern Hindu who did not observe the strict restrictions of eating meat or drinking alcohol that his religion required. Padamshi had married a local Boran woman and had quite a large family. The remainder of the Asian trading community consisted of a Sikh carpenter Jagat Singh and his son, a Pakistani by the name of Mzee Adan. This elderly trader seemed almost cut off from the rest of the community; although his shop was open throughout the day, there was little evidence of any notable business activity. All the same, his shop was well stocked with the much-sought-after items like kerosene oil, match boxes, tobacco, etc. I cannot forget that much-liked and dependable transporter, G.H. Khan, a native of Kashmir, who was courtesy itself. Through his gentle manner, Khan, who was quite an old man, had endeared himself to most of the European community. He had a Ford V-8 truck which he nursed with great care. It is no wonder that this vehicle gave him many years of good service and certainly brought in a steady and healthy income. He never employed any drivers, but as age began to tell on him, Khan brought out his nephew from Kashmir. Mohamed Farid turned out to be a true ‘chip off the old block’.
There were smaller dukas run by the locals like the Somali Chief, Yusuf Sugulle (a very pleasant man indeed). Guyo Tassi, a step-brother of David Dabasso owned a small store as also did Daniel Godana, father of Elisha Godana. These dukas sold modest quantities of posho (maize meal), cooking oil, tea, sugar and also calico sheets (shukas) and blankets which were much in demand. The dukas were often used as a rendezvous for local gossip.
As in the case of the earlier inspections, the dukas would be appropriately ‘dressed up’ for the occasion, and despite the cost to them, the traders spent a lot of money painting the frontages of their shops in colours of varied hue, the outside walls often being given a liberal coat of whitewash. The whole idea was to impress the DC whose inspection tours were often used by the traders to ventilate some of their grievances, e.g. shortages of a particular commodity notably sugar over which some traders made a small fortune whenever the price went up! The need for increasing their quota of certain essential commodities was another point many of the smaller traders kept bringing up. The DC always assured traders that their complaints would be looked into — an answer that usually satisfied them. On returning to the office after these inspections, I would prepare a schedule of the various jobs that needed attention, and the DC would then decide on the priority that was to be accorded to each of these. The whole exercise proved very popular and kept everyone happy. There was a general feeling among the people that the Government was taking an interest in them.
Work in a district office, and particularly in a remote area like Marsabit, was varied and interesting. The day usually started with the handling of routine shauris (problems/complaints) from the tribesmen/townfolk. The district office was also a kind of meeting place for many people — Chiefs, headmen, road foremen, tribal police and others. The usual gossip was also conducted during such encounters; other topics discussed by the tribesmen included such common problems like the state of grazing in their particular areas, shortage of water, invasion by shifta — notably the Gelubba from Ethiopia. The Rendille Chief, Largo Ogum would make sure that he met as many of his people as possible whenever he came in to the boma; the Rendille living locally were pleased to have the opportunity of receiving first hand news from their manyattas. The Gabbra went through a similar routine whenever their Chief, Tulu Godana (a grand old man) was in the town. The local Boran Chief for the Marsabit mountain area was a biblical-looking character, an old man in fact, called Galgallo Duba. He and his assistant, Jilo Tukena were daily visitors to the district office.
Many of the local tribesmen would call in at the DC’s office for a variety of reasons; some to complain about their cattle who were dying from an outbreak of anthrax, others to report an epidemic that was playing havoc with their people. In such cases immediate relief measures would be provided by the Administration. Then there were those who had come to listen to a court case involving some of their relatives/friends; of particular interest were cases involving grazing offences, entry into the district without a valid permit, etc. In the case of grazing offences, a heavy fine would be imposed on the whole tribe/clan and this seemed to act as a deterrent.
In between dealing with shauris from the tribesmen and townsfolk, I also attended to the requests of our own staff, i.e. tribal police, prison warders, etc. There were the occasions when a contingent of Dubas had to be quickly despatched to a frontier outpost where a raid by neighbouring tribesmen had been reported. Rations, wages, arms and ammunition all had to be organized in a matter of a few hours, and this task fell to my lot. My job as a District Clerk, with the variety of work it offered, was very satisfying indeed. There was never a dull moment and certainly no room for boredom. Besides, if one was interested in the local tribes, as I was, there was always the opportunity to get to know the various customs and general way of life at first hand. I remember one such occasion when I invited the Rendille headman (Adiforu) to my house with express purpose of finding out more about his tribe. Through questioning him I learnt quite a lot about them, more so about some of their customs and beliefs; for example, the Rendille still practise infanticide, as they believe it ill-fated to allow second-born or subsequent male children, delivered on a moonless Wednesday to live; then again, the manner in which a woman styles her hair denote whether her first-born was a male, etc. I took a great liking to the Rendille, and like the Turkana, it was their simple life-style that impressed me. Primitive they may have appeared, but they certainly had their own culture and disciplines in life. Like their neighbours, the Samburu, they too were pastoralists.
As the DC’s office was the centre of the district administration, one always came in contact with a variety of people. There were the askaris of the KAR (King’s African Rifles) for example, who always had to report to the Administrative headquarters whenever they arrived on leave from Nairobi or some of the other units. Officially, their leave would commence from the day they arrived in the district; however, in the case of some of the tribesmen, especially those whose manyatta was several hundred miles from the boma, I was allowed, on the DC’s behalf to sanction an extension of leave; this would entail our notifying the Command Pay Office in Nairobi, organizing transport and quite often, an advance of salary for the individual concerned.
Once among his own people, the askari would quickly go ‘native’ and it would be extremely difficult to recognize one having previously seen him in his smart army outfit! I encountered this problem on one occasion when an askari, clad in his tribal shuka, spear in hand and hair all done up in tribal finery, would appear outside my office seeking an extension of leave. The transformation in dress styles was incredible. Thanks to the prompt intervention of our interpreter, Sangarta, all was well when the true identity of the individual was finally established!
Here, I am reminded of the case of a young Rendille private who had come home on compassionate leave. When he arrived at Marsabit, he was fortunate to secure official transport to a point not very far from the family manyatta. On reaching his destination, however, he discovered that his people had moved away several miles further into the interior; the reason? Lack of adequate grazing for their sheep and goats. This now meant a further journey on foot for Private Lenyasei — journey to his Chief to report that he would not be arriving at the new family homestead for at least another two days. From the Chief came a report back to us; we in turn signalled his headquarters in Nairobi so as keep them posted, while at the same time seeking their approval to an extension of leave. In this particular case, what should have been, in effect, a leave period of two weeks, ended up as an absence of six weeks. This was not uncommon, and on his return to the boma, Private Lenyasei was quick to give me a detailed account of the problems he had encountered on the journey, the condition of his family’s livestock, etc. He wanted to make quite sure that I had all the relevant facts regarding his unavoidable delay, just in case there were any repercussions when he returned to Nairobi. To save him being penalized or unduly disciplined when he reported for duty, I would give him a brief report to take to his Commanding Officer.
Some of the other problems I got involved in at work were purely domestic; not all shauris were referred to the DC; I dealt with quite a few of these. In my experience, I found that a certain amount of straight talking and counselling (where required) did the trick. Where I was unable to deal with a particular shauri, I would hand the person over to Sangarta, our interpreter. This grand old man, himself a Rendille and a former tribal policeman, was very helpful. He knew the people well, and was able to deal with many of the problems. One great advantage with him was the fact that although of a different tribe, he spoke Boran quite fluently. There were other occasions when I found myself in the role of a marriage guidance counsellor, when some of the locals, notably the Boran, brought their domestic disputes to the office! Before granting individuals an ‘audience’ with the DC, Sangarta would invariably conduct his own private ‘investigation’ into a case. The DC was popularly known as ‘Bwana Shauri’ (i.e. the person to whom one took one’s problems — no matter how serious or insignificant these were) . The very fact that the people could air their grievances was sufficient to make them feel good. It had a sort of therapeutic effect. Pleased or not after the DC’s verdict, they always felt that justice had been done!
Next on the agenda at the office were the court cases the DC was required to hear; the DC Marsabit (as were all other similar personnel in the Province) was gazetted a First Class Magistrate, and held court frequently to try a variety of cases — ranging from petty theft and assault to more serious offences under the grazing laws, serious cases of assault, etc. Preliminary inquiries into murder cases would also be conducted by him in the first instance, and the entire proceedings would then be submitted to the Supreme Court in Nairobi via the PC, Isiolo. Soon after the court sittings were over, the prisoners would be brought into my office since, another side of my job included responsibility for maintaining the register of incoming and outgoing prisoners by categories, i.e. remand, convicted prisoners or detainees; a tribal breakdown was also shown — ‘African’, ‘Somali’, ‘Arab’, etc. This distinction was important and enabled me to order the right type of rations. The Somalis and Arabs, for example, were classed as ‘Asians’ for the purpose of a prison diet. Whereas an African prisoner received the normal diet of maize (posho), meat and salt, a Somali prisoner was entitled to a special diet which included such items as rice, ghee (clarified butter) and meat.
As I have mentioned earlier, there was distinct variety in the work at the office. One moment I would be dealing with a tribal complaint — in between trying to reply to official correspondence, while at another, I had to abandon what I was doing, make a quick dash for the armoury and issue our tribal policemen with extra ammunition, clothing and rations. Such emergencies arose whenever we received news of a tribal raid which often resulted in the loss of many lives; at times like these, reinforcements had to be quickly despatched to the affected areas, and depending on the size of the skirmish, the Kenya Police, who had men at two strategically-placed outposts at Sabarei and Banya would also assist. The orders for the deployment of a particular force had, however, to come from the DC. I was somehow left with the feeling that the Kenya Police senior personnel never quite liked this arrangement, but then, one had to remember that the DC was the Sovereign, the Governor and the PC’s representative — so like it or not, his orders had to be carried out.
Because of the absence of any social life in areas such as Marsabit, I found myself working well beyond normal office hours as also did my colleague, the Cashier. These were the days when the word ‘overtime’ was unheard of (if we were paid overtime in the frontier — and we often worked well outside office hours — many of us would have ended up being quite rich!)
After tea in the evenings, the Cashier and I would join our police colleagues and go for long walks. Being Government officials, we were greeted everywhere we went — “Jambo Bwana Karani” or just “Jambo Bwana” were greetings that filled the air as we strolled along. Our route would take us through the township, then on to the open grounds around Marsabit airstrip. Quite often during such trips, we would encounter long camel trains plodding majestically along this route, with sticks and skins propped high up in untidy packs on the camels’ backs. These were used for erecting the tent-like manyattas which could be assembled and taken down in a few minutes (see illustration). On such occasions, time was of no consequence, and we often stopped to talk to the tribesmen, Government employees or even some of the locals en route. I can well recall spending some time with an elderly Arab (Haroub Bakheit) who had lived in Marsabit for many years. He was a much travelled man who had obviously met many a Goan in his days. Not only was he able to use a few Konkani words, but my biggest surprise was to hear him sing one of our traditional folk songs in flawless Konkani. Haroub was one of the township notables, who was also respected as an Elder.
At other times during the week, the Asian traders would take it in turns to entertain us to drinks (usually beer). We also met fairly regularly at one or another’s house, such occasions often taking the form of an impromptu party; these get-togethers, informal as they always were, became a regular feature of our lives in the N.F.D. The DC and Superintendent of Police (a Mr. Griffith) invited us round for drinks at least once a month. Such invitations were always reciprocated by us.
For a short period, I used to have my meals with the two bachelor police clerks (Savio Falcao and ‘Capy’ Moraes). I knew the latter well during my school days in India. When I was eventually allotted a large mud and wattle house (at one time used by one of the European officers), I decided to send for the cook John Vaz and I’d had at Lodwar. My girl-friend at Kitale quickly arranged things and soon my old faithful, Sheunda, was back with me at Marsabit. Since he was a good cook, I decided to go ‘independent’ so to speak and have my meals at home. My two colleagues did not mind this in the least. The house I had moved into had a thatched roof and a fairly large lounge which had been partitioned at one end to form a bedroom; the other end combined a lounge-cum-dining-room-cum-pantry. The kitchen and WC were outside, not a convenient arrangement as I was to find out later. Another drawback in this house was the absence of a ceiling with the result that all manner of insects, spiders lizards and an assortment of creepy-crawlies moved around quite freely! To guard against their landing on my bare body at nights, I slept under a mosquito net. While living on one’s own had its compensations, life did get a trifle dreary at times. I was therefore more than delighted when my old friend Capy Moraes approached me a few months after I had moved on my own and asked whether he could move in with me; I readily agreed and the move from his former lodgings was conducted amicably I am pleased to say. I was delighted to have someone stay with me, someone with whom I got along well and was able to communicate. Cook Sheunda did not seem at all displeased with the additional cooking, etc., expected of him, but to compensate him for this, I gave him a wage increase. It was important to keep him happy. Saturday afternoons, as I have already said, were spent at one or another’s house — the host entertaining us to drinks and a few snacks. After spending an hour or so together, we would each disperse to our respective homes . Lunch over, and I would have a short siesta and then return to the office sometime to catch up on any backlog of work, but more often to type out long letters to my girl-friend in Kitale. Because of the infrequency of mail services in the frontier, I found myself writing to Elsie almost daily — the letters usually taking the form of a diary of events. After all, I wanted her to share in my life and know how I passed my days, just as much as I longed for her to tell me all that went on at her end; this she did with religious regularity. My only regret was that whereas I had the luxury of the office typewriter, she had to write all her letters in long hand. There are times I wish I had preserved her letters; there were several hundred of these — warm, loving and affectionate letters which I would dearly love to have published. Alas, I do not have them — they are locked away safely in my heart. After completing my official work/letter writing, I returned home for tea. If Sheunda needed to be away, he would neatly arrange my tea on the trolley and never forgot to include my favourite tea-time snack — buttered toast and jam! When I look back on this life-style, I feel I lived like a mini ‘lord’, and ate and drank a trifle too much perhaps. Sheunda was a very loyal cook, who would always turn up and serve dinner no matter what hour of the night we turned up. Reflecting on this now, I feel a sort of guilt over my lack of consideration at the time. We understood each other though, and on occasions when I knew I would be late getting back home, I would always ask him to pack up early and not wait till I returned. He always seemed to display the kind of fatherly concern towards me which I greatly appreciated.
Of all the commodities in Marsabit, meat was about the cheapest. Normally, sheep and goats were slaughtered daily and I could ask for whatever ‘cut’ I liked, although I must admit, the local butchers had no real idea about the different cuts of meat. When one lives in a harsh environment, one is not fussy about such things as ‘cuts of meat’. Whereas I preferred beef or mutton, the locals liked camel meat. I tried it once, but didn’t like it. Quality-wise, the meat at Marsabit was much better than that at Lodwar. The poor animals in Turkana had virtually nothing to graze on. We, the Government staff were always supplied with the best meat available and were often sent far more than we than we could consume.
The local butchers during my time at Marsabit were, Abdulrehman Ibrahim (whose brother Dalab, had once plotted to murder me), Guled Abdi and Yusuf Ali. Abdulrehman was an ex-Government tax clerk who-spoke excellent English. He was very much of an extrovert. Guled Abdi on the other hand was a mild and kind-hearted individual who always included in my daily order, liver, tongue and even ox-tail; offal was never charged for, but I could not bring myself to eat such meats daily. I would use tinned foods and game meat quite often. The butchers were not in the habit of rendering any accounts for the meat supplied; instead, at the end of the month, they would each produce all the daily ‘chits’ I had signed; my job was to tot these up and pay them on this basis. There was never any argument over the amount we paid, although I feel sure they knew, quite by instinct I expect, just how much we owed them each month.
Yusuf Ali, who like Abdulrehman was a Somali, looked a much older man. Unlike the youthful and out-going Abdulrehman, Yusuf was more reserved. He was also the poorer of the two. Of the local butchers, the one who was awarded the contract for the supply of meat to Government employees, was always the most popular. Although tenders for these contracts were invited annually, I seem to recall that Abdulrehman (who was no doubt a shrewd businessman, held the contract more often than the other two. It was all a question of finance, and since Abdulrehman had more ready cash available to cope with a fairly large Government contract than did his two colleagues, he was assured of winning it regularly.
At Marsabit, fresh vegetables were a luxury; as also such items like butter, milk and cheese; the three Asian traders carried ample stocks of tinned food, so one never ran short. Most of the fresh food was ordered either from Nanyuki or Isiolo and came by road — except during the rainy season when emergency rations and mail were flown out every fortnight by charter flight. This service was referred to as the ‘milk round’.
Well before the start of the rainy season, the PC would send out a directive to all his DCs asking them to ensure that all officers in their districts stocked up with adequate supplies of food, drink, kerosene oil (there was no electricity at Marsabit), etc. The paraffin was required for our lamps and refrigerators. The Provincial Commissioner’s warning to those who ignored his instruction was plain and blunt. I do not think we ever ran out of food at Marsabit, but there were times when we did run out of beer. On one such occasion, when I was returning from local leave, and was unable to travel from Isiolo to Marsabit because of the floods, I was flown out in a light aircraft; with the exception of the pilot, my only other ‘companions’ on this trip were four crates of beer and two mail bags!
I have previously said that the life of the clerical staff in the frontier lacked the variety of a safari, and I know the PC and DC were well aware of this. For this reason, we would, from time to time, be given a Government vehicle to take us out on a picnic — quite often a journey of 100 or more miles. We looked forward to these occasions, as not only did they break the monotony of office work, but we were also able to see more of the district in this way; of great interest to me was the opportunity to meet and talk to the local tribesmen in their own surroundings. The hospitality of these primitive and so-called ‘uncivilized’ people has to be experienced to be believed. We never ran short of meat on such safaris. Whenever word reached the Chief or headman that we would be coming out to their area, they would always make sure that we were able to buy, at a very reasonable price, a fatted sheep or goat. There were the occasions when we went out on purely hunting safaris — armed with shot-guns and/or .22 rifles. We often brought home buck or dik-dik, and sometimes guinea fowl.
During trips to the more distant outposts like North Horr and Loiyangalani, we ended up with a large collection of sand grouse. During my stay in the frontier, I developed a liking for game meat, but somehow could never bring myself to eat or even taste buffalo or elephant meat. I could have, had I wanted to, tasted the latter since, whenever the animal was destroying local shambas, a ‘culling’ operation would be organized which meant the killing of several elephants. The tribesmen, especially the Turkana, were quick to carve up the carcass and denude it in no time. One such elephant was shot not far from my house by Terence Adamson, brother-in-law of the late Joy Adamson (of ‘Born Free’ fame). I was very fortunate in being able to obtain the feet of this animal. It took me some six months to cure these and this included a two-month period when I left them out to dry in the burning sands of the Chalbi desert.
Eating out in the wilds can be a great experience, and although I carried a supply of tinned food on safari, I rarely used this since I much preferred the meat of a freshly killed bird or even barbecued strips of game meat (my apologies to animal lovers!)
At the office, David Dabasso, whose family lived in Marsabit had more domestic problems than he could cope with, and in an effort to ease the pressure, had asked to be moved away from the district to a region where he could feel relatively ‘safe’ financially; he didn’t like the idea of being constantly pestered for hand-outs from an ever-growing string of relatives. He had also got himself heavily in debt, not just with the local traders, but even with one of his own tribesman. This particular individual, Jirma Liche, never failed to call at my office each week to see if I could help in any way over collecting his debts. When the PC’s office eventually agreed to transfer David to Wajir, I was successful in getting him to agree to paying off his debt to Jirma Liche by regular monthly instalments sent to me. He also asked whether I would send him news of his family from time to time, and this I was very happy to do.
David’s replacement was a Kikuyu from Nyeri. George Kihia Mahinda was an efficient clerk, an excellent typist and good company generally. He spoke very good English taking care to pronounce every word forcefully and distinctly; he was also good at drafting routine letters and dealing with minor, day to day problems at the office. He and his wife Joyce got on very well with the locals and within a short time of their arrival had learnt to speak Boran quite fluently. George was a deeply religious individual who took things a little too seriously at times. When on occasions we had a light-hearted discussion on a particular religious subject, George would tend to form the mistaken impression that I was an unbeliever! In moments like this, he would often say to me, “ . . . but, Mr. Maciel, I shall pray that you be converted.” He couldn’t see that as a Christian one could have a laugh and a joke as well without in any way hurting anyone’s feelings.
Victor Fernandes and I got on very well together both in and outside the office, and I spent many an evening with him listening to his collection of old-time favourites. He was exceptionally good with his hands and there was ample evidence of his creative work to be seen around the house. During his last leave in Goa, he had got engaged to a girl from Jhansi (U.P. Province of India), and I realized then that his bachelor days were numbered; This explains why most of the records he played were of a romantic and sentimental nature — and who can blame him for such a choice! In anticipation of his fiancée’s arrival, Victor had very tastefully decorated the whole house in colour schemes he had himself chosen — schemes that were not available from the standard Government range of colours, and which werekindly made available through the good offices of the DC. Not very long after his arrival, Victor left on the first quota of his local leave. He was heading for Mombasa to meet his fiancée, Lucy, who was due to arrive there very shortly. On- returning from their honeymoon, I was happy to welcome and play host to them that evening. Lucy was absolutely ‘green’ to Africa, and to be thrust into the wilds of Marsabit so soon after she had arrived, must have been quite an upheaval; on the other hand, this could be just the sort of atmosphere a newly-wedded couple would want to be in, I thought — quiet, peaceful, so natural and romantic in its own way. I spent many an evening with them and always enjoyed their hospitality.
The married families in the boma were now increasing — the two police clerks and myself being the only bachelors — a rare breed? The DC was married with five daughters, the Superintendent of Police· was also married but the couple had no children. A young married couple had also recently arrived from England. Paul Baxter was the newly-appointed anthropologist, who with his equally young and attractive wife, Patricia (Pat) and son Timmy, had come out straight from Oxford. For this young family, the entry into wildest Africa must have been a great and challenging experience. I got to like the Baxters and we got on very well together. Paul looked much too young to be involved in such an important study of the Galla tribes. Pat was a paragon of beauty, always so full of life and bouncing with energy. ·
In addition to the Goan bachelors (for a short while, we had a third police clerk by the name of Telles, who didn’t last long at Marsabit), there were two European Inspectors of Police — Ron Crossland and Jim Cable. There was also Major Porter, the Works Supervisor who` was married with one small son, and a Locust Officer, who I understand was married but didn’t have his wife with him. His name was Sehof, a South African who, in addition to doing a good job in controlling the locust pest, also spent some of his spare time collecting snakes! A most unusual hobby you may well think, but I understand that the serum from these reptiles was extracted and sent to laboratories in South Africa where it was used in cancer research.
Fresh produce was not easily obtainable in Marsabit and had to be imported from Kenya. As far as fresh milk was concerned however, we operated what I can only describe as a truly unique system. Through the good offices of the local Boran Chief, Galgallo Duba, the Administration and police staff each hired out a cow from the local tribesmen. A Government syce was provided to herd and do the actual milking; all we had to do was provide a container and pay a rental of Shs.5/- each per month. If the cow went ‘dry’ especially in the dry season (referred to as jilal in Boran) or at any other time for that matter, the animal was promptly replaced. The arrangement worked very well, and the tribesmen seemed quite pleased with the small rental they received each month. Besides, they also enjoyed the unique concession of having the whole of the milk herd grazed in the boma. The syce was equally happy since he too received a modest tip from each of the staff. All in all, this was a wonderful system which ensured that we always had a supply of fresh milk.
For some unknown reason, it was not the practice for the Asian clerical staff to go out on safari. I found this difficult to understand especially since they, of all people — who were virtually tied down to their desks from morning to evening, needed such outings most. Such was the system obtaining in all districts at the time and no DC had questioned it — neither did the clerical staff. However, the whole system was changed by Mr. Wild, without any questions being asked from the PC’s office at Isiolo. His proposal was that the Cashier and District Clerk would, on an alternate basis accompany him on safari. I was more than delighted with this arrangement and can still recall the many pleasant times spent on such safaris. Mr. Wild would sometimes take his whole family out on such trips. This was a good break for them too, and his daughters, young though they were at the time, seemed none the worse after the safari. The travelling allowance we were allowed to claim in those days was a negligible Shs.3/- per night, though I must admit that it often cost us much more on safari. The tinned food and beer alone added up to more than 3/-; the expense didn’t worry me unduly however, since the very thought of getting away from the office was comforting in itself. The one thing I was never able to understand about Mr. Wild was the amount of ‘stuff’ he took on safari, including all manner of clothing, a suit, etc. (perhaps he even had a dinner jacket tucked away among his wardrobe… just in case!) I always thought that one dressed informally when travelling on safari; not so with Mr. Wild however. He would go all prepared for the unexpected VIP who might suddenly turn up!
There was a set routine we followed whenever we accompanied the DC on safari. After our main official duty was over, and well before sunset, we would retire to our respective tents. A quick wash and change of clothes in the evening, and I would appear in shirt and trousers (not shorts) outside the DC’s tent. Here, drinks were laid on and we would sit back and talk until late into the night. For my sake, snacks that the DC’s cook had prepared would be served midway through our drinking session. Mr. Wild ·never believed in eating anything during such times — it interfered with his drinking he would tell me! We talked about various things — any subject other than work, and being an ex-RAF officer (he was a pilot who had been awarded the DFC for his war service), he often talked about the stars, their formations, how to identify a particular star, etc. No doubt some of what he said was too technical for me; in any case, my knowledge of the heavenly constellations is very limited indeed. After a fairly relaxed and enjoyable evening, I would bid the DC ‘good-night’ and walk back to my own tent. My cook who had waited patiently for me to return would quickly serve my dinner, and even at that late hour, I would sit down and do justice to the safari-type meal he had prepared. It was well past midnight before I retired to bed. Because of the heat in areas like North Horr, I never slept inside the tent, and would always get my cook to lay my camp bed well outside the tent. The tribal police and our domestic staff slept on groundsheets within earshot, and I could often hear their conversations well into the night.
Getting away on safari, however infrequently, was a very good and refreshing experience indeed; the rough travel, excessive heat and even the flies didn’t seem to worry me. I enjoyed every safari immensely. There was the experience of being face to face with Mother Nature, whether driving through the burning sands of the endless Chalbi desert or the cooler reaches of the Loiyangalani oasis by the lakeshore. Each area had its own particular charm, and one aspect that appealed most to me was this freedom of being able to sleep out in the open and admire the sheer beauty and splendour of God’s creation. The brightly lit sky at night, the millions of stars which adorned the heavens and which we took so much for granted, began to mean more to me now.
While on safari, I also found that I ate more than I normally would; perhaps it was the open spaces with their abundance of clean air that produced such a healthy appetite in me. There was never any shortage of meat either as most of the tribesmen were only too willing to sell us a fatted sheep or even a goat (depending on our preference), at a reasonable price.
Living in the frontier, under what can at best be described as rugged conditions, was not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’; the same applied to being out on safari. Personally, I enjoyed the great outdoors, an experience which always gave me a new lease of life whenever I got back to the boma. Safari life is however, not without its dangers. Depending on the particular area one camped out at, the presence of wild animals and predators had always to be considered; but all this was, after all, part of the experience and something which added that little bit of interest and excitement to the whole exercise. In areas like North Horr for instance, the constant chatter and laughing hideous looking hyena kept me awake for hours. During one such safari to this area, I remember the DC Carrying out what can be best described as a ‘cropping’ operation. The local tribesmen, through their chief, Tulu Godana, had complained about the destruction of there sheep and goats by hyena, and had asked for assistance from the Administration. The method we used was to poison a goat by injecting it with a heavy dose of strychnine. Once killed in this manner, several pieces of poisoned bait were placed along the path used by a hyena while some of it was even laid outside the tribesmen’s manyattas. When we awoke the following morning we counted ten dead hyenas. The chief and the local were extremely pleased that the Administration had come to their aid in this way; henceforth, their livestock would be saved from the threat of this ugly – looking and destructive beast!
In some of the warmer areas, notably North Horr and Karagi, I found that I rose fairly early in the morning; this gave me the opportunity to taking in as much of the beauty of a desert sunrise, – in itself a wonderful spectacle. Because of the intense daytime heat, we would often start work soon after an early breakfast, which consisted of a cup of tea or coffee and freshly made toast prepared by setting up an improvised wire grill.
The occasions when I went on official safaris were chiefly to assist with tax collection and pay tribal police/ road gangs who were working away from the boma. The stock sales at which tax was collected were widely advertised – no publicity machine though messages usually being sent out t through the various Chiefs and headmen. The tribesmen would bring in their livestock and the whole atmosphere would take the form of a cattle auction. One of the reasons for the DC’s presence at such sales was also to ensure that the tribesmen received a fair price for their animals. During these tax collection safaris, I soon found that unlike some of the larger and wealthier nations, where tax evasion is not uncommon, there was a noticeable degree of honesty among these simple pastoral people. If the individual could afford to pay tax, there was no option since non-payment was an offence punishable by a term of imprisonment or a heavy fine and no one really wanted that! The number of people who did not pay tax was negligible, and the only reason I can ascribe for this is their long absence from their manyattas either while in employment in other parts of Kenya (strangely enough . those of us who lived in the N .F.D., although within Kenya . always referred to
Nairobi and other towns as though they were another country!) or their move to a different area. Moving in search of grazing involved the uprooting of the entire manyatta – lock, stock and barrel; after all for these desert nomads, livestock was their sole wealth.
At most, I would spend one or two nights out on safari at any one time. The DC spent much longer periods since, in addition to the frontier to meet and talk to tribal policemen and askaris from the Kenya Police stationed there. This was more of a morale boosting exercise. Other occasions that look the DC on safari were those when a border raid involving local tribesmen has been reported. Causalities would often be high, as once was the case when an entire Rendille manyatta was raided by Gelubba tribesmen and men, women and children indiscriminately butchered to death. The Dc’s visit was not merely to see things for himself, but also to reassure the Chief and the rest of the population that the Government was taking action to combat such incursions and massacres. It was not always known where the enemy might strike next, but where any such threat had been reported by the chief, extra precautions would be taken by reinforcing the border patrols. Safaris were also made to drought – stricken areas to inspect and assess the seriousness of the situation at first hand, and introduce appropriate famine relief measures. Transport to the boma would have to be arranged for the very weak and those who were ill, while at the same time arrangements were made for the urgent dispatch of relief food and medical supplies to the affected areas. To convince the locals that everything was being done to alleviate their plight, the DC would hold open air barazas (meetings) at which such measures and other forms of Government assistance would be announced.
On returning from a safari, we were also able to bring back news to relatives and immediate family of safari personnel in the boma.
Tribal policemen would sometimes be away from their families for as long as three months at a stretch, and the regular safaris that the DC made thus provided a link between the men and their families.
In addition to going out on official safaris, we, the clerical staff were also encouraged to spend a day or more either at North Horr or even at Loiyagalani. I vivdly recall one such trip. In the company of three of the police clerks, I left Marsabit early one morning and headed for North Horr, crossing the blazing sands of the Chalbi desert en route; despite the intense heat, we stopped for a brief of the moment in the desert to take some photographs. None of us had cameras to be proud of — just the ordinary Kodak box camera with black and white film. The driver and his turn-boy must have thought us ‘mad’ to stop in the middle of a desert. There was no denying the fact that it was intolerably hot on the Chalbi — no sign of any life, merely one endless expanse of sand, hot burning sand with an equally hot sun burning brightly overhead. Even the upepo (breeze) was hot and uncomfortable; admittedly, while the heat was initially welcome, considering that we had driven from Marsabit which was cold and misty — the temperatures we were now enduring were far too excessive for comfort. We kept consoling ourselves with the thought that we would soon be arriving at North Horr. After driving some 90 miles through this desert, we finally made it to the oasis, and what a relief it was to us all. We were visibly tired from the long and dusty journey and were now anxious to unload the truck and just sit back and relax. Thanks to the foresight of the Administration, there was a modest guest-house at North Horr which the DC had permitted us to use. Its dom palm-thatched roof made it cool, and we were fortunate to be able to have a cold shower here — something we very badly needed. In no time at all, the area surrounding the guest-house which, only moments earlier was almost deserted, was now teeming with activity. There to greet us was the local Chief, Tulu Godana. He must have been in his late sixties then but looked a very fit and healthy individual. Only his white beard gave him away. With him were his usual followers — the Gabbra headman and several tribal elders who were obviously well known to him. Chief Tulu was the Senior Chief of the Gabbra tribe. In a spontaneous gesture of welcome, and at the Chief’s beckoning, a fatted sheep was produced as a zawadi (gift) for us all. We were very grateful and thanked the Chief for his generosity. When we asked whether he would like a drink, he unhesitatingly answered, “Farso” (liquor), “a-ye, a-ye” (yes, yes!) We offered him a bottle of beer which he downed without too much difficulty. Another bottle was opened and passed round and the elders in his group each took a sip in turn. A loud and uncontrollable belch from Chief Tulu seemed to indicate that he had now had enough. The conversation among us grew in intensity with the Chief and some of his companions asking after some of their friends at Marsabit. The usual gossip continued and after spending a few moments with us, Chief Tulu and his-party left and headed in the direction of the duka. There was only one duka at North Horr at the time and this sold the usual items like posho, tobacco, tea, sugar and shukas.
North Horr is a very sandy area, the only vegetation thriving there being the few dom palms and acacia bushes. At the time we visited the area, there was a water shortage — something not uncommon in these regions. This was evident from the swarms — literally hundreds — of sand grouse which had converged at the tiny spot where water was still standing. The half dried out lake was a few hundred yards from the guest-house, and we decided to go out and shoot a few grouse for dinner. judging from the hundreds of birds that were hovering above making for this spot (if only to dip their tiny beaks into the cool of the muddy water), no real skill was needed in shooting. A mere bang from our shot-gun brought down several of these grouse. There were so many of them around the water that they became almost oblivious of us (the enemy around them). When I look back on that particular ‘expedition’, I cannot but feel that the shoot was too cruel for words. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite appreciate it then — else I would certainly not have indulged in such a sport. Alongside the grouse, many hundreds of camels were also competing for the water from what now appeared to be a fast drying out lake. As for us, we were very fortunate in having a good supply of water since we had brought three barramils from Marsabit. There were also two Jerricans of this precious liquid which the driver and his party had brought. Not until one has been to barren areas like this can one begin to appreciate the sheer luxury of a fresh water supply. We had taken the availability of water so much for granted, and here were man and beast struggling through lack of it. For these hard hit people and their livestock, it is a case of survival. In extreme cases where the drought was severe, several people would die and many of their livestock perish; it is not an uncommon sight to see animal carcasses scattered over the affected areas in times like this. We spent some time at the water point watching the sand grouse and camels drink happily together. By now, we had bagged some thirty grouse and decided to make for our camp where we had them cooked. While on safari, I have found that the best way to eat grouse was to have the birds grilled over an open fire; this is precisely what we did on this occasion, and with a sprinkling of salt and pepper they tasted delicious. There were so many of these tiny birds to be cooked that we soon found our hard-working cook couldn’t keep up with the demand! Drinks go down well with grilled grouse, so the demand for more grilled birds increased with every bottle of beer we consumed. By now we had all had our fill and there were enough birds left over to go round our cook and some of his helpers. While we invited them all to feast on these grouse, I got the impression that they were not very keen over them. Lay a sheep or goat before them; ah, ah! well, that would be a different matter. How much meat was there to be found in a tiny little bird? they kept saying among themselves. They obviously had their eyes on the sheep that Chief Tulu had presented us with. We had reserved this for the following day.
We spent two days at North Horr and then moved on to Loiyangalani. The road between North Horr and Loiyangalani was very rough indeed, strewn in places with boulders which made the truck jerk from side to side as it attempted to manoeuvre its way through this difficult stretch. The heat too was becoming more and more unbearable, and though there was a breeze, all it produced were gusts of hot air.
Loiyangalani, a one-time military post, is set in the midst of a beautiful palm grove. It was a great relief when we arrived at this oasis, a welcome change from North Horr. In front of us lay the lake and not far across, the ‘island of no return’ more popularly known as Von Hohnel or South Island. Unlike the barrenness of North Horr, we had the open lake to gaze into; it was also much cooler and we were able to enjoy some of the fish that the lake abounds in — notably tilapia and Nile perch. This region is inhabited by one of the poorer tribes in East Africa — the El Molo, who are reputed to number only a hundred souls. They are a very poor and destitute people, but a tribe who, despite all their poverty and hard life-style, still managed to survive. They had come to terms with their inhospitable environment. Several visitors to this area have been amazed at the generosity of this tribe. They could teach many of us a lesson or two, not just in good neighbourliness, but also something in the way of learning to accept one’s condition in life uncomplainingly. I certainly learnt much by merely-watching their sheer determination to make the best of a bad bargain. Their diet consisted mostly of fish — which was plentiful in the lake, plus the odd crocodile or hippo if they were fortunate in hunting one down. Swimming is a risky business in this area, and none of us indulged in this sport, even though the heat was scorching and the waters of the lake very inviting. The nearest we got was to wade in the shallow areas while skinny El Molo mtotos (small boys) kept the crocodiles at bay by throwing knife-sharp stones into the water.
As was usual on such safaris, we had taken some chewing tobacco and a small quantity of posho (maize meal) with us; the zawadi (gift), especially the tobacco, is greatly appreciated by the local tribesmen, not only in this region, but in most other parts of the N.F.D. also, although not perhaps in the Somali areas. I must admit I was sorry to leave this tribe behind when the time came for us to depart, and so wished we had spent the night at Loiyangalani — but we didn’t and instead drove back to North Horr. The following morning we returned to Marsabit, tired no doubt and very sunburnt and dusty.
The whole outing had been well worthwhile; not only had it provided a welcome change climatically, but also a much-needed change of environment. I treasure to this day, memories of the area and the wonderful simple folk who inhabit it.
This, incidentally, was my last trip to the North Horr and Loiyangalani areas as a bachelor. I had to remind myself that I would soon be a married man, and unless my wife-to-be was willing to undertake such uncomfortable trips, I might never again see these areas or indeed the inhabitants.