1961 Easter at Lamu

Copyright: G J Wright

Lamu Island

In 1960 I was posted from Kilifi to Lamu to relieve an African Assistant Inspector and to take charge of the Lamu police district.  Belying the pervasive atmosphere of calm and tranquillity, my sojourn at Lamu was to prove to be the most eventful period of my entire Kenya Police career.

Lamu was a curious mixture, although probably unique in its isolation and inaccessibility it was not an uncomfortable station, but it did offer independence and call for a measure of personal resourcefulness and initiative.  It was virtually impossible for anyone to arrive at Lamu unannounced by land, sea or air.  The rough, sandy road from Mombasa and Malindi terminated at Mkowe on the mainland where all vehicles, official and private, were housed in not too secure conditions.  To ensure that a boat was waiting at the wharf at a pre-arranged time, official visitors would announce their ETA by signal or a not very efficient telephone.  Private arrivals took their chances on transport.  Arrivals by air were either pre-arranged, or aircraft would buzz the town before landing on the strip on the adjacent island of Manda to await a boat.  There were no scheduled passenger services by sea, but it was possible to arrange passage from Mombasa in a Jehazi, a local sailing craft.

The idea was that I would prepare for the reception and security of over one hundred Kikuyu detainees from the Fort Hall District in Central Province The detentions resulted from Operation Milltown which was launched to break-up an incipient secret society known in Kikuyu as Kiama Kia Mwengi. The state of emergency imposed in 1952 to counter the Mau Mau insurgency was not relaxed until 1961 and so membership of any secret society remained contrary to the emergency regulations and adherents liable to detention. The detainees were technically in the custody of the District Commissioner.

In those days Lamu was not easily accessible and received very few visitors, making it an ideal spot for holding a group of recalcitrant detainees.  One of a group of islands in a small archipelago, Lamu served as the administrative centre for the islands and an area of the mainland.

When I arrived, the administration consisted of the District Commissioner, John Simpson, who also acted as a First Class Magistrate, Ken Arnold, a District Officer who was later to be tragically killed in a Somali ambush near Wajir, and, as a nod to the status of the area as part of the Zanzibar Protectorate, an Arab Liwali. The latter was a Third-Class Magistrate with judicial power confined Muslims and natives of the Protectorate.

Among other European residents were George Lowe, the agricultural officer, and his wife, a government forestry officer whose name escapes me and, as far as I can remember four civilian residents.

Henri Bernier, a wealthy scion of the Swiss Nestlés family, and head of the Red Cross in East Africa and Portuguese East during WW2.  He lived in a small villa at Shella with several handsome young African “servants” from Portuguese East. Digger Owles an elderly New Zealander lived a solitary and somewhat primitive existence in a small bougainvillaea clad cottage on the beach a couple of miles to the west of Lamu town.

When I arrived at Lamu, I was booked into Petley’s Inn for the first week or so where I met the landlord, Ba Allen, or kichecko as he was known to the locals — so named for his maniacal laugh.  Ba Allen and his brother, whitehunter Bunny Allen, were long-time friends of my friends the Cades of Kiambu and so I received a warm welcome.  Always appropriately dressed and sporting a monocle, Baa was the archetypical Wodehousian character and conversation with larded with “…old boy”.  Nothing really troubled Baa, except perhaps running out of gin.  The accommodation and food at the Inn was abysmal.  Whatever it may have been when owned by Percy Petley, the building was run down and in desperate need of renovation.

By way of corollary, Alec Abell sent me a book titled “Tales from Africa” by Douglas Collins.  So, I learned of the death of Ba Allen.  It seems that at about the age of 75 years he became obsessed with the idea of returning home, to England.  He told acquaintances that he knew a widow on the Welsh borders and planned to look her up.  He spent a few weeks with his widow before one fine morning walking from her farm he was hit and killed by a car and caravan that lost control.  A sad end for an old warrior.

The only vehicle allowed on the island was the District Commissioner’s Ferguson tractor.

Through the time that I spent at Lamu I cannot recall much in the way of weather.  Cool, clear mornings, hot days and magic evenings when a large moon hung low over Manda Island shedding a silver pathway across the mile or so of smooth water that separated the two islands and pointing directly at the first-floor veranda on my flat.

4-06-2008 10-15-10 a.m._0246
My quarters above the Police Station. The DC’s house beyond

My flat, such as it was, was on the first floor above the police station and accessed by steep, concrete, outdoor stairs to the rear of the building.  Inside consisted of a large hallway running the width of the building, giving access to a kitchen, shower area and one of the wonders of the modern world, an upstairs long-drop lavatory. This small room was graced by a wooden throne and offerings descended into a hole that was flushed twice a day by a salt water tide from the harbour.  I don’t think that there was a pipe to the harbour, the water table rose and fell with the tide. At right angles to the large entrance space, was a hallway leading to the veranda, with two square bedrooms on either side. The few small windows were glassless and could be closed only with ill-fitting jalousie shutters.

The building was in the local Arab style, similar to many that could be seen in the Persian Gulf in those days. Thick, coral block plastered walls and ceilings and floors constructed of mangrove poles laid close together and then topped by lumps of coral and concreted over. Shady and cool, but I hate to think what would have happened in an earthquake!

Mangrove or boriti poles were in those days harvested from a local mangrove species under the control of the Kenya Forest Service.  The remarkably straight, reddish poles up to four metres long and varying in diameter, were so dense that when stacked on the foreshore the tide would rise and fall over them, leaving the stack undisturbed.  Boriti which was apparently unpalatable to most bugs, also produced a thick bark that was removed and used as a tanning agent.

Although by the early 1960s the trade had almost died, for centuries, perhaps millennia, large sailing craft from Aden, Red Sea, Mukulla and the Gulf, visited the East African Coast on the north-east monsoon winds delivering carpets, dates and other goods, to return on the Kusi, the south-west monsoon, with boriti and such delights as dried fish.  Modern building materials, mainly reinforced concrete, gradually supplanted the traditional structures in Arabia and the demand for boriti poles died.

Then unforeseen, Lamu salvation was to lie in late 20th-century, by tourism.  Henri Bernier’s home was turned into a boutique luxury hotel, more hotels and restaurants came into being to cater for the tourist trade.  The airstrip on Manda Island was developed and several hotels built above the beaches. Even a German run naturist colony.  A sad day for the locals?

Although there was predictable, and understandable, opposition and resentment at the arrival of the Kikuyu restrictees from Fort Hall, there was a plus side.  Boat owners and the owners of rentable properties in the old town were quick to seize the opportunity of a quick profit.

For their part, the newly arrived gentleman from Fort Hall district behaved themselves and, I believe, regarded their exile is something of an exotic holiday.

That is, until shortly after their arrival a serious fire occurred on the outskirts of the old town which, although there were no casualties, resulted in a considerable loss of property.  Inevitably, the restrictees immediately came under suspicion and were blamed for the fire.

Shortly after midnight, I was awakened by the duty report office corporal with the news of the fire.  From the balcony of my quarters I could see the glow, and the streams of people heading along the waterfront intent on getting onto boats.

I arrived at the scene, to find the Sergeant Major arguing with people at the door of a mosque.  The well in the mosque was the only local ready source of water and the morons were denying the police access.  Fortunately, the Sergeant Major had had the foresight to instruct staff to tear off the thatched roofs downwind from the seat of the fire.  This move undoubtedly saved many houses from destruction.  By morning, the fire had been contained and was largely out.

Investigation provided a quick result and I had a witness who had seen a male actually lighting the thatch on a house belonging to one Binti Zamzam Mohammed.  It transpired that the arsonist had a thing for Binti Zamzam, but she had turned him down.  In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of the matter but the presence of the restrictees complicated matters.  I completed the investigation file and send it off to Kilifi.

Id al Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, coincided with Easter in 1961 and it promised to be a busy weekend.  HMS Loch Fada, a Loch class frigate, was to make a courtesy call over three days, the Liwali was demanding a full police guard of honour, and the Governor, Sir Patrick Rennison, was passing through on a visit to the Shell Farosel oil exploration site toward the Somali border, and the Commissioner, Sir Richard Catling, would also be paying a brief visit.

The Liwali, an honorary position, with a rank equivalent to a District Officer, also served as a third-class magistrate with power to try Arabs and Africans.  As part of the Id celebrations, the incumbent, citing precedence, was demanding a full guard of twenty-one constables commanded by the inspector, the same as would be provided for the Governor.  I demurred and offered six men commanded by a corporal.

In the first place two guards of honour in three days would place undue strain on station personnel, and secondly, I did not consider the Liwali’s rank justified the same guard as the Governor.  In light of tentative support for the Liwali by John Simpson, the District Commissioner, I sought guidance from Divisional Headquarters at Kilifi setting out my reasons.  The Assistant Superintendent, Graham Clark, concurred with my decision.

In the late afternoon on Good Friday the Loch Fada anchored in the fairway off the customs wharf and the District Officer, Ken Arnold[1], and I took the police launch Kusi and went out to the ship.  We were warmly welcomed and stayed for sundowners.  We were invited to a curry lunch on board the following day and conveyed invitations ashore for other Europeans and local dignitaries.  Like other RN ships in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, the Loch Fada carried Goanese chefs and stewards and so an authentic curry was guaranteed.

Loch Fada

Figure 1 HMS Loch Fada

The Liwali’s parade passed without further ado and on Saturday, the well-lubricated curry lunch aboard the Loch Fada was much appreciated.  The Commissioner flew in with Graham Clark and was collected from the strip on Manda island in the launch “Kusi’’.  The Commissioner visited the lines and the police station before paying his respects to the District Commissioner, John Simpson.  On the DC’s jetty, before departure for Manda and the airstrip, the Commissioner turned to me offering his hand and said, “Thank you Wright, it’s been a long time since the Kenya Police had any standing in Lamu”.

On Easter Monday, the Loch Fada left and we escorted her down the harbour in the Kusi.  Off Shella at the harbour entrance, as she increased speed, we dipped the Kenya Police flag in salute, Loch Fada responded with the white ensign and headed to sea.  Thus, ended an unusual and enjoyable visit.

Graham Clark stayed over and I was due to accompany him to Kiunga near the Somali border on Tuesday morning to inspect the site of a proposed police patrol base.

The Governor, Sir Patrick Renison, visited Lamu during a tour of Coast Province that included a trip to the BP Farosel seismic survey sites inland, towards the Somali border.  The Governor used a Nairobi based chartered Cessna for his tour.


Figure 2 The Governor’s Guard of Honour

It had been arranged that on the Monday after the Governor departed, a Cessna 180 aircraft of the Kenya Police Airwing would collect me at Lamu before flying on to inspect an old WW2 airstrip at Kiungu near the border with the Somali Republic.  We hoped to site a patrol base nearby.

The airstrip serving Lamu Island was on the adjacent Manda island, directly opposite the town and necessitating a 15-minute boat trip.  To save time, I took with me Constable Zebadayo to secure any baggage offloaded from the aircraft.  On arrival at the strip I found the pilot, Arthur Edwards, Assistant Superintendent Graham Clark from Kilifi and Superintendent Jack Irwin of the Mombasa CID, the latter arriving unannounced.  Another passenger was along for the ride.

It transpired that Jack Irwin wanted to discuss the file on the Lamu Township fire.  The Lamu locals remained convinced that the fire had been set by the Kikuyu ‘Milltown’ restrictees and since my enquiries suggested otherwise, the matter had become rather sensitive.  Consequently, it was decided that I would remain at Lamu with Jack Irwin to discuss the enquiry, and Graham Clark would make the Kiunga trip.  Constable Zebadayo stayed at the strip.


Figure 3 The Police Launch “Kusi”

About mid-afternoon I returned to the strip with Jack Irwin to find the Cessna parked by the terminal, a small open hut.  The baggage was reloaded and with no more ado, the plane took off, climbed out and immediately set course south.  As we walked back to the wharf, I remarked to Zebadayo that it was unusual for Bwana Edwards to make such a sedate take off.  Arthur normally roared down the strip, climbed rapidly, executed a wing-over and emerging from that manoeuvre on a reciprocal course, buzzed the terminal before flying down the harbour weaving among the masts of anchored dhows.  Then Zebadayo told me what had happened when the plane landed.  It seemed the Arthur Edwards, Graham Clark and the other passenger had emerged and closely inspected the undercarriage and wheels.  Zebadayo’s conclusion was; “Migou ya ndege, imevunjika”, or loosely, “The leg of the bird is broken.”

The following morning, I was having breakfast when the corporal from the report office knocked on my door and announced that Headman Ali from Kiunga was waiting to report that a man had been found dead on the beach just north of the village.  Ali told me that the man, a local called Sefu Bin Ahmed, had been found headless near the top of the beach a few hundred yards from the village.  The body had been removed to a cell in the administration building.

My reaction was that Sefu had met a hungry lion and I asked Ali if he had noticed any animal tracks in the vicinity.  He replied that Sefu had been hit by Bwana Samaki’s aeroplane.  He was adamant about that.  An Italian known as Zappa, locally called Bwana Samaki or Master Fish, used a Navion aircraft to fly crayfish from Kiunga to Nairobi.  I happened to know that Zappa was at that time in prison at Nanyuki for civil debt, but the suggestion that an aircraft was involved rang a bell, so I decided that I should visit Kiunga and see for myself.  I knew that there had been only two aircraft in the vicinity the previous day, the police aircraft and that carrying the Governor.  I contacted Graham Clark at Kilifi to let him know that I was heading for Kiunga, whereat he said; “I know what you are going to say.” I explained what appeared to have happened and said that I would report as soon as possible.

The trip, by Landrover, to Kiunga, fifty miles as the crow flies, but by a necessarily more circuitous route avoiding inlets and soft going, was much longer.  It was no light undertaking over a road that was barely a sand track interspersed with pockets of the notorious black cotton soil that could swallow vehicles up to the chassis!  Barely a hundred miles, the trip, wet or dry, could take anything from four to six hours of hard and thirsty going, depending on conditions.  In fact, if wet it would probably be impossible to get through at all, except on foot.

The area was sparsely populated by members of an aboriginal tribe of hunter gatherers, the Waboni, who subsisted still by hunting and gathering.  Many bush fires were caused by their use of smoke in collecting wild honey.  Vegetation consisted in the main of low arid bush with pockets of denser forest, home to all manner of game including elephant, rhino and lion.

In the circumstances and suspecting that this incident would not be written off as just another unexplained local death, I decided to take the government doctor with me.  Being aware of the nature of the trip, Dr Bauri was a reluctant starter, but was finally persuaded of the possible need for ‘expert’ medical evidence.  He was also sometimes known in Lamu as Dr Bure — bure being the Swahili word for useless! I had previously met him at Kilifi where he had lived up to his nickname at post mortems.  His technique was to have African mortuary assistants dissect the body, lay out all the relevant parts on the slab, then dash in holding his nose and confirm that the deceased had succumbed to shock and haemorrhage!  In fact, we could have been looking at a case of plague, but we would never have known.

On arrival at Kiunga, we went at once to a cell in the administration building where the body was laying covered, on a string charpoy.  It was indeed headless, with nothing above about the level of the Adam’s apple.  I had the doctor note the condition of the body, certify death, and then gave permission for burial.

Headman Ali led us north for a few hundred yards along the beach and showed us a spot in the sand where he had dropped an old tyre and inserted a stick as marker.  The site was above the previous high water mark.  Ali insisted that there had been no sign of the head, but a quick search revealed some portions of clean bone lying among the coral, which the doctor agreed could have been part of a skull.  Casting around a little further, I picked up a barely recognisable bag of skin with ears attached.  The head had been severed and crushed by a very heavy impact.

At this point we were joined by two men whom Ali introduced as local fishermen.  After a lengthy conversation in a mixture of the local Bajun dialect and Swahili, Ali said that the men had witnessed the aeroplane hitting Sefu Bin Ahmed.  After noting the position on beach where the body and various parts had been located, we returned to the administration building where I took statement from the two fishermen.  It was soon clear that they had not seen the aircraft hit Sefu, because their view was obstructed by a small offshore island, but they said that they had seen the aircraft flying low along the beach and had heard a noise which they described as “Pow”.  They carried on fishing and did not learn about Sefu’s death until they later returned to the village.  Dr Bauri and I returned to Lamu where I called Divisional Headquarters at Kilifi and reported what I had found.

The next day I had a signal to let me know that an Airwing plane would pick me up at Manda to accompany a scene of crime team and photographer to Kiunga.  A member of the team was my old friend from Kisumu days, Reg Hudgell.  I learned that after landing at Kilifi to deposit Graham Clark, the police aircraft had made two more landings, at Mombasa and at Wilson Airport, Nairobi, before being impounded for examination.

The fixed undercarriage of a taildragger, Cessna 180, consists of a shaped bar of spring steel terminating on each side in the wheels and brake system.  Subsequent inspection showed that the starboard undercarriage leg had been fractionally displaced to the rear and the internal fuselage fixings stressed and a number of skin rivets popped.  Forensic examination revealed traces of blood and brain tissue on the brake back plate.

At Kiunga, Reg Hudgell took a series of photographs and we made measurements to facilitate production of an accurate scene plan.  The fisherman had confirmed that the aircraft they saw was flying south along the beach at the time and taking into account the likely position of the undercarriage at time of impact, we concluded that the starboard wing tip would have been no more than six to ten feet from the dunes at the top of the beach.  Precision flying! It occurred to us at the time that had the impact been lower on the body, the aircraft would almost certainly have crashed.

From that point, matters took their normal course and Arthur Edwards was eventually charged with manslaughter and a date set for a preliminary hearing in Mombasa.  I recall that when Constable Zebadayo and I flew down to Mombasa later in the year, he sat in the rear seat of the aircraft clutching a detailed and fully rigged model of a Lamu jehazi.  These models, more commonly described as dhows, were extremely popular among Europeans as souvenirs — I forget who had ordered this one.  One other vivid recollection of that flight across Formosa Bay at about 10,000 feet was that it was pleasantly cool and provided a magnificent view of the water discoloration caused but silt emerging from the mighty Tana River at Kipini.  The discoloration extended well out into the Indian Ocean and was being swept south by the tide.

My recollections of the actual preliminary court hearing are now hazy, possibly because the magistrate stopped the show and dismissed the charge on the grounds that the Crown has failed to show the necessary ingredient of negligence on the part of the pilot, Arthur Edwards.

This was due in no small part to the expert evidence of an aircraft engineer from the Nairobi air charter company, Camplings, who described what the pilot would have been able to see from his seat over the port side of the engine cowling.  In Nairobi, the Cessna aircraft had been levelled to a flying position, the tail propped on trestles and the pilot’s arc of visibility calculated from his likely height above the beach when the wheel struck the deceased.  It was shown that whilst the pilot had excellent visibility over his left shoulder, across the cowling to the front he would have been unable to see anything on the beach to the right for a distance of some 900 feet ahead.  It was further argued that Sefu Bin Ahmed would have had time to emerge from the dunes, stand on the beach and remain unseen to the pilot.  The right seat passenger, Graham Clark, if he had seen the man appear, could have assumed that the pilot had also seen him and would take evasive action.  There were no handy comms headsets in those days between pilot and passengers and communication necessitated shouting above the roar of the engine.  But at the speed the plane was travelling, probably well over 100 knots, by the time any warning message had been delivered, it would have been too late.  Wing Commander Francome, as the superintendent in charge of the Kenya Police Airwing, also gave evidence that at the time of the accident, Arthur Edwards was surveying the beach against the possibility that it could be used as an alternative landing strip.

Arthur Edwards, now deceased, had served in the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant and a pilot in a VIP transport flight in the Far East.  He was a likeable and very sociable character, notorious for lighting up a stinking pipe whilst in the air, which did nothing for those susceptible to the severe turbulence often encountered whilst flying in East Africa.  I came to know him better a few years later when I was stationed at Mandera in North Eastern Kenya.  There is no doubt that he was a skilled pilot, but flying with him could be hair-raising if you were not expecting some of his antics.  He seldom just took off, but enjoyed surprising his passengers by climbing steeply after lift-off and then describing a wing-over at the end of the strip and descending on a reciprocal course for a beat-up.  I recall that the first time I flew with him off Manda strip he pulled this stunt, and as soon as could rise from my seat, I was moved to questions his ancestry! On one occasion at Rhamu in the NFD I saw him ignore the regular airstrip and land into a very small open area adjacent to the post and closely surrounded by thorn trees.  Ready to take off, he opened the throttle, held the aircraft on the brakes and at maximum revs when the tail was up, he released the brakes and departed.

The reason for Sefu Bin Ahmed’s presence in the dunes and his unexpected appearance on the beach was never fully explained, but the area was used by Kiunga locals as an alfresco lavatory.  Officially, Sefu was described as a border smuggler and doubtless there was a shilling or two to be made carrying hard to get goods into southern Somalia — only seven miles away.  The final act in the drama was an ex-gratia payment of 1500 shillings, or £75, by the District Commissioner to Sefu’s relatives at Kiunga.  A king’s ransom for those people and I had the distinct impression that they valued the money more than the valued poor old Sefu.

The Commissioner’s red chili quest…

Catlin on Barretto

Reply to Catlin


[1] Ken Arnold CPM(G) was killed in late 1963 between Wajir and El Wak by Somal Shifta