It has always been my wish to write about my experiences in Africa; this, not so much out of pride for having had the good fortune of working in Kenya’s Provincial Administration, an opportunity I often think of as extraordinarily rewarding, but more in an effort to share my experiences with the reader, and with those of my colleagues who may have, like me, enjoyed the delights and varied attractions of a district life.

Why the title Bwana Karani you may well ask. To the reader who is familiar with the lingua franca of East Africa, i.e. Ki-Swahili, this will not present any problem. For the benefit of the others, however, I have to explain that the Swahili word karani means ‘clerk’, and it was in this humble capacity that my working career with the Provincial Administration began. It seemed fitting therefore that this book should bear the title of my very first job. While the literal translation of the title would read ‘Mister Clerk’, a term which certainly doesn’t sound right in English, the courtesy title Bwana Karani was an accepted one, and extended to all such personnel in the civil service and other commercial quarters too. In the Marsabit district of the Northern Frontier Province for instance, one was often referred to as karani guda (senior or chief clerk) or karani dikka (junior clerk).

Working in the districts of Kenya was, I must admit, not everyone’s cup of tea whereas, working in the N.F.D. (Kenya’s lonely and uncompromising Northern Frontier Province) was worse still. Although climatic conditions varied in this vast region of some hundred thousand square miles (twice the size of England), the mode of travel, especially during the period I was stationed there had improved considerably from that obtaining during the time of my predecessors. Some of these journeys were made on foot like the one undertaken by the first Goan District Clerk, a Mr. John Fernandes who, Sir Richard Turnbull tells me, marched up with Mr. G. F. Archer from Naivasha in 1909! These officials, and many like them who served in the frontier in those early and pioneering days, were almost certainly a special breed of men. The N.F.D. had a certain appeal — an attraction more easily experienced than expressed. It was a compelling place for some of us, undoubtedly a land of scorching heat and inter-tribal hostility, but none of these considerations could dampen my desire to be part and parcel of this Province which had its own mystique.

It is as well to explain here that the life of a Goan (there were more Goans serving in the districts than other Asians) clerk in the Provincial Administration, especially in the N.F.D., was not all honey and highballs; it was tough and uncomfortable, and lacked the variety of a safari; there were the unhealthy climatic conditions that one had to endure in some regions, and many areas were not without their dangers. A former Provincial Commissioner, and one of the ‘grand, old men’ of the N.F.D., Sir Gerald Reece, once said that it was in this Province that ‘real life’ was to be found. How right he was. For me, the attraction of the N.F.D. was that great feeling of freedom, the sheer vastness of the districts and general spaciousness of the areas. I was also fascinated by the customs and colourful life-styles of the extraordinary tribesmen who inhabited this Province, and quite prepared to leave civilization behind.

Despite these considerations, however, many of my friends considered me ‘crazy’ for volunteering to serve in this remote and, as they termed it, God-forsaken region. Some even felt that it was a sort of punishment to be posted to the N.F.D; but then, does one volunteer for punishment? Be that as it may, I have no regrets. My wife, who shared part of this frontier experience with me, and enjoyed every moment of it —  despite having a child with a congenital heart condition to look after, has been very keen all along that I should tell the story of my life in those outlying areas. It is an area which, like the peoples who inhabit it, is fast vanishing. Our children, who have listened to the many accounts of our life in the wilderness, have also felt that the story should be told, if only for the benefit of many who, like themselves, will never experience such a life in today’s highly civilized world. With their encouragement and interest, and the backing I have received from many friends and former colleagues, I have finally taken the plunge!

The book has a frontier bias, and an Administration bias at that. I make no apology for this, since the best years of my life were spent in the N.F.D. Since part of my service career, especially during the latter years, was with the Agricultural Department, a period which I also enjoyed, I am including a note of the time spent there.

I sincerely hope that those of my colleagues who may have at some time or another served in this harsh and rugged corner of the African continent, will be able to relive some of their own experiences of  bygone days. For others who have not ventured beyond the ‘civilized’ shores of Mombasa or the attractions of that great metropolis, Nairobi, I sincerely hope that these pages will provide some insight into the life and conditions under which some of us chose to serve. The book is a collection of real life experiences as far as I can recall these, although I am aware that the picture is by no means complete.

I am very conscious of the debt of gratitude I owe to the tribesmen of the various districts I served in.

Without them, these pages could never have been born.

Mervyn Maciel


Sutton, Surrey (England)