Copyright: G J Wright
In October 1961 I returned from home leave in England and on reporting to Colony Headquarters in Nairobi, I found that I was posted to Mandera in the Northern Frontier Province. Mandera is situated in the absolute top right-hand corner of Kenya with borders on Somalia and Ethiopia. The provincial capital was then at Isiolo, a dusty township about 50 km north of Nanyuki.
I had requested a posting to the NFP, but often wondered if my experience pursuing convicts and search and rescue in the Lamu District played a part. The landscape, flora and fauna, and the Muslim populace at Lamu was very similar to that in the North Eastern Region.
Although there were at the time political stirrings and murmurs of “Uhuru”, I had no idea that Mandera was to be my last station in the Kenya Police.
At Isiolo I reported to Provincial Police Headquarters and was ushered into the presence of the Assistant Commissioner, Mr Leslie Pridgen. I had not previously met Mr Pridgen who had a reputation for being a stickler for discipline and stories of his eccentricities were legend.
During the Mau Mau emergency Pridgen served in Central province where he formed the habit of descending without warning on police stations and posts and performing rigorous inspections. Staff devised a warning system whereby when he left the station a warning was broadcast on the VHF radio system, simply “Vulture Black”. He became universally known as Vulture Black.
During World War II he had apparently served as a petty officer in the Royal Navy, being captured and imprisoned in North Africa by the Vichy French. It was said that at one station in the Fort Hall district the African latrines bore a sign reading “Petty Officer’s Mess”!
During his time in captivity he developed a penchant for the English language and essentially swallowed the dictionary. At Isiolo the legend grew and he was reputed to also be fluent in the Somali language, having learned it by use of a horizontal dictionary.
I received a brief lecture on the benefits of serving on the frontier and was advised to get out as often as possible on foot patrols, “good for the mind and the body” he told me. Well, Mr Pridgen had a reputation and I took what he said with a pinch of salt.
As the crow flies, Mandera was about 400 miles north of Isiolo, but probably another 150 miles following the tortuous unmade roads. I stopped the night in Wajir where I took refreshment at the Royal Wajir Yacht Club. The Prince of Wales visited Wajir in the mid-1920s and conferred the title “Royal” on the club. I witnessed the sunset ceremony at the Fort, the quarter guard turned out, a bugler played sunset as the Union Jack was slowly lowered. There’s a nice story about an American visitor who on witnessing this scene said “gee you British” as he dabbed his eyes.
The following day, I set out in a Land Rover, heading north to Mandera by way of El Wak or, the Wells of God. The place is noted for the stone lined deep wells with spiral steps from the surface to water level well below. The side of the Wells are inclined outward until at the surface they are from 30 to 40 feet across. The idea being, that groups of herdsmen would stand on the steps passing goat skins of water to the top for camels and other livestock.
El Wak was also noted for its “Beau Geste” like whitewashed Fort which stands only 5 miles from the border with the Somalia Republic. After running for 250 miles from the Garissa district on a bearing of almost due north, at El Wak the border deviates to a bearing of about 40° for 100 miles until it meets the Ethiopian border. A fine example of a border across ethnic and tribal lines, imposed by the colonial powers.
At Mandera, the police station and divisional headquarters were situated in a similar whitewashed Fort. On meeting the Divisional Commander, Geof Harcourt, I found that I was to take charge of three outposts, Rhamu, Melka Murri and El Roba all situated at about 50-mile intervals along the Ethiopian border. Personnel at each post comprised a sergeant, two Corporal’s, 25 constables and a signaller.
I was allocated a large square flat roofed house which consisted of one large combined dining area and lounge, with a shower room at one end. The walls of the house were about half a metre thick. There was no glass in the windows, just wooden shutters. The house was whitewashed inside and out. At one end was a flight of solid stairs leading to the flat roof in the corner of which was a small square structure containing a bed. Nearby was a small building containing servants quarters and a kitchen. All cooking was on a woodfired stove. The lavatory was a small building in the garden situated over a long drop.
Later, I received a letter from the Kenya Inland Revenue Department assessing the value of the rent-free house at several hundred shillings a year, against which I would be charged income tax! My protestations and description of the house were all to no avail.
Water was delivered daily in a 40-gallon drum which had been collected from the river by a team of convicts. Before consumption, the water which contained a lot of sediment was passed through a patented filter device which contained two white composite “candles” through which the liquid dripped into a lower container. The “candles” had to be periodically cleaned of sediment. I told my cook and houseboy, Hussein and Mohammed, to boil some of the filtered water, cool it, before placing it in bottles in my paraffin powered fridge. Asked why, I said that there were likely to be dudus in the water and that boiling would kill them. Mohammed appeared with a glass of filtered water pointing out that they could see no dudus. It was pointless trying to explain that the microbes or bacteria could not be seen with the naked eye. They just laughed. I should explain, that dudu was the generic name in Swahili for insects. I knew of no Swahili word for microbes or bacteria.
The water in the small swimming pool at the nearby Mandera Whaling Club was also changed weekly by the convicts. They first emptied the standing water using buckets before refilling it with river water. There was always a film of sediment on the bottom.
The Mandera Whaling Club was another of the jests to be found around the NFD. It consisted of a small thatched building with an interior bar and fridge and a small patio facing the swimming pool. The club employed one boy, Gabo Duale, who served as Barman, cleaner and, living to the rear of the premises, also provided some security. The club owned a decrepit, clinker built, 12-foot dinghy, said to have been left by some crocodile hunters. On bibulous occasions this would sometimes be launched into the pool, where it promptly filled with water.
As well as other curious rituals, when we had visitors, in the evening club members would sit on the patio and stare at the sky. Upon being questioned by the visitors, they were told that we were contemplating infinity! How far did the cosmos extend, and if it stopped, what lay beyond? At night, the skies at Mandera were something to behold, with no light pollution the sky was all revealing and immaculate.
One visitor, the Bishop of Nairobi, who flew in presumably to minister to the flock ensconced himself at the club and waited for the flock to gather. He waited, and waited, but the flock seemed to have deserted the pen and he spent the evening alone. There was no plot, there had been no discussion, but it seemed that the club members all have the same idea, urgent business elsewhere.
One evening, just back from patrol, I went over to the Whaling Club to find the usual group enjoying an evening beer but was surprised to see a Somali youth also taking refreshment. It transpired that he had been picked up in the township by beat constables who found his appearance unusual. He claimed to be from Mogadishu where he had been the houseboy to an American sergeant, his English certainly had intonations of North America. Unusually, he also claimed to be a Christian and went by the name of John. He was aged about 17 years. I could see why the constables would have been suspicious because he appeared to be well fed and dressed in smart khaki drill which was a size or two too small for him. He said that he wished to go to Nairobi. However, the District Commissioner, Hugh Walker, had decreed that he should be returned to Somalia. John was personable, talkative, friendly and philosophical about returning to Somalia.
Another unusual drop in was a young German on a Vespa motor scooter. He said that he had left Cairo three months before and was headed for Cape Town. Quite how he had made it through Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopian on the scooter was beyond imagination. At Moyale, which was on the main route between Addis Ababa and Nairobi such arrivals were commonplace, but not so at Mandera. He seemed to be ill equipped for such a journey and totally unaware of the hazards that he might face. It really did appear to be a case of “Where ignorance is bliss”. We arranged for him to be conveyed to Nairobi on a trader’s lorry.
Among other duties, was a monthly pay and rations safari in a five ton, Morris or Austin, diesel truck. For the first hundred miles or so the international border followed the thalweg, or centreline of a river, the Webe Dawa. Rhamu was a small trading centre and boasted a Muslim ashram with impressive gardens on the river.
Departing Rhamu the truck was invariably followed by a mob of small boys. Later I formed the habit of buying one of the ubiquitous bags of nauseatingly coloured sweets which I scattered as we drove away. This became a ritual.
Melka Murri was yet another of the ubiquitous white forts, perched upon a hill about 1000 feet above the river. Its Achilles heel was that it had no ready water supply. Two leaders and a string of donkeys carried water in jerry cans from the river, sometimes twice a day.
Leaving Murri, the frontier then departed from the river and continued in a westerly direction to El Roba. The vehicle track was less used and in places difficult to negotiate.
Not far from Murri was the site of a World War II incident. It was recorded that a sangar had been constructed where two Italian soldiers manned a machine gun. A threatening pride of lion had approached the emplacement and as they move to attack, the soldiers swung the machine gun onto them and it jammed!
At El Roba, the post consisted of about a dozen circular Rondavels with walls constructed of concrete plastered onto chickenwire with a sheet aluminium roof. Here again, water was problematic. Over the years, a small reservoir had been constructed in the top of an enormous sheet of rock using heat and water to crack the rock. A large bonfire would be built on the surface, fuel would be added until the rock surface was intensely hot, and then water was dumped to effect the cracking. A slow and laborious business.
On the monthly pay and rations safari, I would also take a couple of kit boxes with items such as cigarettes, tea (Simba Chai), sugar, soap, brasso and Kiwi boot polish, not forgetting the ever essential Dawa ya Msharubu. The latter, Sloan’s liniment, bore a drawing of a sage looking gentleman with an enormous moustache – hence, “medicine of the moustache”. The cigarettes, called Sigara kali, or fierce cigarettes, came 5 to a paper packet which cost sumuni, or five cents. Noting that there were 100 cents to a shilling, they were ridiculously cheap. It was said that they were made from the sweepings of a tobacco warehouse floor!
At the bottom of a valley halfway between Melka Murri and El Roba was a poorly sited and miserable post manned by members of the Ethiopian Police. From the point of view of defence and visibility over the adjacent landscape, the post could not have been more poorly sited. I suspect that the location was determined by access to an aquifer in the valley. The track descending into the valley and that on the exit side, literally had the lorry bouncing from rock to rock at walking pace or less. On the pay safari I would stop and give the Ethiopians access to the supplies in the kit boxes. This always occasioned an agitated collection and counting of coins. My driver, Mohammed, was a member of the local Gurreh tribe and spoke their language. He told me that they were often months in arrears for pay.
On one occasion, descending into the valley, we approach the Ethiopian post to find the personnel strung across the road aiming their SMLE No5 rifles at us. A conversation ensued between Mohammed and their sergeant. It seems that he was concerned that we were travelling the vehicle track half inside Ethiopia! I pointed out that his troops strung across the road were also standing inside Kenya. A lengthy conversation ensued among the Ethiopians after which those on the Kenya side shifted back into Ethiopia. Meanwhile I had told personnel in the back of the truck to lie down behind the steel sides and told Mohammed to drive away. Half expecting a fusillade of shots, we reached the ridge and drove away. I never discover the reason for this ambush, probably a game to ease the monotony.
I always found contacts with the Ethiopian Police tortuous and unpredictable. At Mandera the lieutenant from across the border would occasionally visit. He would always accept a bottle or two of Tusker beer but being a Coptic Christian, he would never stay to lunch. My cook, Hussein, was a Muslim and of course any food handled by him was unclean!
On the other hand, Tenente Elmi Roble of the Somalia Police from the village of Bula Hawa would visit, stay to lunch, but being a staunch Muslim would never accept a beer. Along with a colleague from Mogadishu, Elmi Roble had attended the recent CID course in Nairobi, so we had that in common. I recall that when we had course dinners, his colleague, Mr Mohammed from Mogadishu, would take the occasional beer.
At one point, I had a couple of weeks local leave and Elmi Roble had agreed to arrange transport for me for a visit to Mogadishu. On the first day of my leave I crossed the border to Bula Hawa only to be told by Elmi that I would have to apply for a Visa to visit Mogadishu and this could take some weeks.
I returned to Mandera just as an army Beaver aircraft landed. The pilot, a Guards captain, offered me a ride to Nairobi, but with a one-night stop in Nanyuki. As we were approaching Nanyuki and still a few miles from the airstrip, the pilot suddenly described a series of sharp turns and steep descents before landing. I question these manoeuvres and he told me that he was practising a tactical landing under fire! It would have been nice to have been warned. On reaching Wilson airport at Nairobi, I found that an Air Wing pilot, Roy Drummond, was leaving for Mombasa almost immediately. So, I had a ride to Mombasa.
It was on this trip that I complained to Roy about the potholes whilst flying over the Royal Nairobi National Park. The turbulence lessened as we gained altitude. But, at this point Roy handed the controls of the aircraft, a Cessna 180, to me and climbed over into the back seat, apparently to take a nap! The distance from Nairobi to Mombasa by air was about 270 miles on a course of about 60°. It was downhill all the way because Nairobi is about 6000 feet ASL to Mombasa at sea level. Roy had trimmed the aircraft to fly straight and level and in fact there was really no need for me to touch the controls. Passing Voi off to starboard I called to Roy that he had better resume his seat, but he didn’t hurry. Eventually, he climbed back into the left-hand seat and trimmed the aircraft for descent. As we approached Port Reitz airport I expected him to take over the controls, but he simply continued to adjust the throttle and the trim. To my amazement, I landed the aircraft!
When I returned to Mandera I set about organising camels and gear for my second foot patrol along the frontier. For transport we hired four camels and a leader, who was also usually the owner. One of the rituals when we hired camels was to inject them, using a large veterinary syringe, to guard against trypanosomiasis and sleeping sickness. The technique was to have the beast kneel when four men would each place themselves on each upper leg to prevent any movement. The head was then pulled to one side and secured with a rope to expose a large blood vessel.
I successfully managed to do this a number of times, but on one occasion I could not force the needle through the very tough skin. I tried several times, bent a needle, before giving up. At that, a Somali Sergeant took the syringe, dismounted the needle and threw it with some force into the vein like a dart, whereat a jet of blood emerged. He fastened the needle onto the syringe and completed the job. I was reminded that among pastoral tribes they often used a small bow to shoot a hollow arrow into such a vein. The blood that emerged was mixed with milk and taken as a very nourishing food.
The loading of the camels was also something of a ritual with equal balanced loads secured to a wooden frame on either side of the beast. The last camel was reserved to carry two baramels containing water. These rectangular shaped containers were fabricated in copper and covered with what appeared to be solder. On one side, the top, was a screw cap about 6 inches in diameter.
All done, we set out on patrol. We walked West along the frontier at about 3 miles an hour, the camels maximum speed. I tried several kinds of footwear, the then fashionable chukka boots which were made by Bata. I eventually found them rather hot and uncomfortable. I then tried sandals, including those which were issued to the constables and made from old motor tyres, but although these were good as I had found in Lamu, the edges of the straps tended to chafe the feet. Perhaps predictably, I return to the old Boots Ammunition and never looked back.
We typically walked from dawn to about 10 AM and rested through the hot part of the day, resuming the patrol at about 4 PM and continuing until dusk. When we stopped the cry would go up “Korio don!” Or, find firewood. I took my tea from a 1-pint glass beer mug to which condensed milk had been added. Standard hydration.
At night, after a meal, usually something simple like curry and rice, often curried guineafowl, but sometimes goat or antelope, we would settle around the campfire. The askari would take this as an opportunity to ply me with questions. Those were the early days of Earth orbit satellites and one could be certain of seeing at least one during the evening, I think that it was called Telstar. The Africans were fascinated and puzzled by the idea that it circled the entire planet and remained in a fixed orbit. How could it do this, they asked. I had a rough idea but translating this into Swahili was something else!
Another, perennial question; “Kwa nini watu wa Ulaya hawawezi kukubaliana kuhusu dini?” Or, “Why can’t Europeans agree about religion?” Their confusion could be forgiven because there were about two dozen different Christian religious sects in Kenya. Ranging from the Church of England, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, to Church of God in Africa, African Inland Mission, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventists and so on, ad infinitum! Whether an African subscribed to one or more of these organisations, depended entirely on which of them had staked a claim to an area in which the African lived. It was random and some of the more fundamentalist American sects would reward “converts” with a bicycle, a radio, or some other desirable artefact.
This religious melange defied any rational explanation and I would simply throw up my hands and tell them that it was “because they are all mad”.
We would spend a night at Rhamu where I visited the local chief, Abdi Noor Ghersie, who had a large conical grass hut a few hundred yards from the police post. Inside, the large wooden framed, grass thatched hut was draped with sheets. In pride of place was a large framed picture of the Queen, together with another framed certificate appointing him chief. Abdi would then have been in his late 60s, a rotund figure with a large henna dyed beard which, apparently, signified that he had completed the Haj to Mecca. Women, who I took to be his wives, laid a small low table with a dish of neri neri, or dried meat, and little yellow cakes and poured glasses of tea.
Sometimes when on safari in a vehicle I would use a large tent which incorporated an open area at the front, rather like a Veranda, in which stood a folding table. Abdi would appear, seemingly out of nowhere, accompanied by one of his minions carrying a large foaming bowl of what he called susa, or fermented camels milk, which he would cheerfully place on the table. I was wary of this delicacy, for two reasons. Firstly, the bowls were made of plaited grass with the interior liberally smeared with grease all was kept sanitary, I was told, using camel urine and smoke. I thoroughly disliked the taste of smoke in milk. I solved this by creating an impasse by placing two bottles of Tusker beer on the table and inviting Abdi to sample my Susa, at which I would drink his.
Secondly, the incumbent District Commissioner, Clive Smith, had succumbed to a case of Malta Fever, or brucellosis, after frequently accepting and drinking susa offered by chiefs when he was on safari. Before being evacuated by air, Clive ran such a high temperature that at one point he was placed in a bath into which ice was added. The Medical Officer advised avoiding this customary delight.
We pushed on at a leisurely pace to Melka Murri, sometimes through the thick belt of doum palms bordering the river. At Melka Dakacha the palms gave way to a large flat plain prized by locals for the salt content of its soil. During the dry season, the tribes had untrammelled access to the plain and the river. In the wet season, when the tribes were obliged to move to the hills, they were permitted to pick up salt earth which was transported to their livestock by camel.
The Doum palms (Gingerbread Palms) found on the River margins, produced clusters of fist sized nuts which were consumed by baboons, and by wild pig. There were stories of elephants eating these nuts which then fermented internally rendering them drunk and incapable.
Crocodiles basked on mud flats at a bend in the river. I thought that a briefcase made from the belly skin of a crocodile would make a good memento. But always, on arriving at the river edge I would see the crocodiles slipping away into the water. I could get no explanation for this and concluded that the crocs sensed footsteps approaching the riverbank. I did manage to shoot one crocodile, but it was too small for the skin to be of any use or value.
At that time game of every description was prolific. Although one could not but be aware of the wild animal population, I don’t recall that it caused us, or at least me, any great concern. I always work to the idea that if one left the game alone, it would ignore you. Inevitably one stumbled across game, including big game whilst travelling, I do not recall any threatening incidents. When we camped at night whilst on foot patrol we always posted a roster of sentries and lit and kept burning two big fires. This designed to protect the camels and keep predators at bay. I recall one campsite when, on taking a stroll in the morning, I found lion pug marks all very close to the camp perimeter. At sunset, the night became alive with the cough of lion, the howling of hyenas, the curious high-pitched yelp of wild dog and sounds unidentified.
On one foot patrol and camped by a vehicle track I awoke in the early hours to the sound of what I recognised as the “tock, tock” of wooden camel bells. I slipped out of my sleeping bag and from under the mosquito net to find the sentry comfortably asleep by one of the fires. I could see movement on the nearby track and on investigation found what must’ve been scores of camels trudging towards the east. I could see no herders, so put the billy on the fire and idly watch the passing heard. I later made enquiries and learned that the camels had been bought and were owned by a Somali gentleman, one Haji Bob who made a good deal of money by buying livestock and exporting it through Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia for sale to Haj pilgrims.
The locals attempted to protect their livestock at night by building enclosures using branches hacked off thorn trees. I heard of cases where lions had leapt the thorn barricade and helped themselves to livestock. On one pay and rations safari I was flagged down by a group of Gurreh who complained that a lion had been taking their livestock. They pointed to pug marks beside the road and said that the lion was still in the vicinity and would I please shoot it. I was not about to take on a lion with a .303 rifle, but I did follow the tracks for some distance and was amused to find that occasionally Simba stopped and judging by signs in the sand, sat on his backside rather like a domestic cat, presumably to survey his surroundings.
Shooting guineafowl one day with my 22 rifle I came face-to-face with a leopard in an area of scrub. He stopped, stared at me for a moment, then turned and walked leisurely away. Guineafowl, two species, were present everywhere in large numbers and were always a welcome addition to an otherwise rather bland diet. The flocks were so dense that on one occasion aiming at one bird, three fell!
Later, I acquired a Fulton regulated .303 match rifle with Parker Hale sights, using this mainly to bag the odd Thompson’s gazelle as a change from goat meat. I had permission from the Game Department to so use the rifle for small game, provided that I used 217 grain soft nosed bullets. In the ordinary course of events when on safari, I would buy a goat for about five shillings. I would have the choice cuts and most of the animal was eaten by my accompanying Askari.
On one patrol we were stalked by a pack of wild dogs, wiry animals with protruding round ears. One animal emerged onto the road about a hundred yards to the front whereat I took a shot at him but missed. These dogs, which hunt in packs, are held to be the most dangerous animals in Africa.
A feature of life in the NFD was “morning prayers”. Every morning at 8 AM every divisional headquarters was required to be on the radio, ready to be contacted by the Assistant Commissioner at Isiolo. Mr Pridgen would open proceedings with the words “Good morrow to you all”. He would then call each station in turn for a situation report. The response was invariably; nothing to report. The point of this exercise was never clear because any situation which arose requiring his attention would be routinely communicated. Perhaps he just wished to check that everyone was up and on deck at 8 AM!
At some point during my first year in the Frontier the Assistant Commissioner decreed that those on foot safari would also join the daily ritual. This involved hiring an additional camel and loading it with a heavy ex-military transceiver and a fully charged 12 V battery. Complying with the 8 AM schedule meant that one had to stop, find two suitable trees sufficiently spaced to allow the long wire aerial to be hoisted at roughly 90° to the desired direction of propagation. Having done this, switch on, tune the radio to the requisite frequency, one would encounter a massive signal announcing itself as “Radio Peking”, rendering Isiolo unreadable. There proved to be no way around this and the idea was quietly dropped.
Near the post at El Roba lived a Gurreh gentleman, Hindo Mamo, who would take the goat skins, tan them, and turn them into a variety of decorative and sometimes useful articles. I have a dagger and two sword sticks for which he contrived the sheaves, using goat skins. I had a safari box made from two wooden .303 ammunition containers which held files, a first-aid kit, and my Sony portable radio. He sewed a goatskin cover onto this box and which I still use today as a foot stool. One day he arrived at the post and presented me with an elegant walking stick. He explained that he had selected a suitable sapling which he had then pegged down to shape the stick. Little did I think then that I would ever need a walking stick, but today I use it often and it’s very comfortable in the hand.
Clearly Hindo Mamo and his family relied upon the police post, doing minor jobs in return for some rations and other desirables. Hindo had a son, Isaak, about 12 years of age who, like most of his tribal contemporaries, was unschooled and largely illiterate. Father and son approached me one day and ask if I could give the boy a ride to Mandera to attend school. I was so impressed by this request that I paid Isaak’s school fees for one year. Returning from leave on one occasion I brought Isaak a football which was received with enthusiasm. Some weeks later I enquired about the football only to learn that he had sold it!
The local blacksmith who made both the dagger and the sword sticks was a member of a sub tribe called Tumal. They were looked down upon and despised by the regular pastoral tribesman who preferred to sit in the shade under trees, doing nothing. The blacksmith contrived a workshop in the bush. He had a boy whose job was to hand pump a goatskin bag to supply air to the primitive furnace. It always amazed me what he could do with just a few simple tools. Whilst I was at Mandera I supplied him with broken lorry springs and empty .303 brass cartridge cases. The handle of the dagger comprises black cow horn separated by layers of brass.
Giraffe liked to amble along the vehicle tracks and on approaching them in a lorry, they would set off at a gallop. It was some time before I realised that so long as we followed they would continue to gallop, but if we stopped they would stop and invariably disappear into the bush. I think that their high centre of gravity made it difficult for them to make a sudden turn at speed.
The fort at Melka Murri had a three-storied tower at one corner. The room at the base of the tower served as an armoury and store, that at the top was reserved for visiting officers. The South side had a flat roof to give shade, the north side was open to catch the breeze. As mentioned elsewhere, the post was vulnerable for want of a reliable water supply. Water was used sparingly, but on arrival Hussain’s first job was to heat up a container of water for my ablutions. I would pour water over myself using a glass 1-pint beer mug (which was also used for tea when on the march), soap up, and then wash down with more warm water. Hardly a luxurious shower, but it served.
There was no sanitation of any kind and when one felt the need, you just ambled into the nearby bush and selected a suitable place. I always favoured one particular spot and was constantly intrigued to find that what I had left on a previous visit had completely disappeared! I believe that the so-called dung beetles are responsible for this public service.
Whilst at Melka Murri I encountered something which I had read about, but never thought that I would see. On the second day a local arrived carrying a cleft stick into which was secured a note. Practical, since he had no pockets. The message, from a local sub chief, reported trouble at a waterhole about 15 km south of the post.
The fracas, subject of the chief’s note, epitomises the error of running international borders through ethnic or tribal entities. The clash, which involved the Degodia a tribe of nilo hamitic Somalis and the Gurreh or Garre, a Cushitic tribe indigenous to the Mandera District and southern Ethiopia. A tribal demarcation line existed, north to south through the Mandera district about 45 miles west of the border with the Somali Republic. At no time were Degodia nomads permitted west of this line. The waterhole, scene of the affray, was well to the west of this line.
I selected a Corporal and six men, all but two down country tribesmen, and set out for the waterhole on foot. Our guide, the message carrier, took us directly to the site. On arrival we were greeted by a tranquil scene and nothing seemed to be amiss. We took up a position on top of a large flat rock overlooking the waterhole.
A delegation of older men arrived and after a short conversation with our Somali speakers, it was clear that things were far from tranquil. We were conducted to a large tree off to one side of the waterhole where we were shown three dead bodies. The spokesman said that the men had been killed during an attack by Gurreh tribesman who were led by chief Haji Mohammed. The chief, who sported a hennerd beard, had a reputation as a hothead and I had always found him unpleasant to deal with.
I explained to the Degodia delegation that they were far from their home territory and that they should have expected opposition from local Gurreh whose water they were taking. The spokesman said that their water sources were dry and that they were desperate. Whilst this conversation was taking place, a man arrived and said that the Gurreh had attacked a group of women and children who had started to move east with their livestock.
At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a Cessna aircraft flew over at some height. I knew that the Commissioner of Police, Sir Richard Catling, had been scheduled to visit Mandera that day and, judging by the heading, was now flying to Moyale.
At the scene of the latest attack several women had been beaten and injured, whilst a 10-year-old boy lay dead and showed serious head injuries. The boy had been some distance from the group and herding six goats. The women said that Haji Mohammed had led the attack shouting “Kuduf”, beat or strike.
I recorded brief statements from two of the male delegation and from two of the women. I took photographs of the dead and gave permission for their burial. They were in no doubt that the leader and instigator of the attacks was Chief Haji Mohammed.
I returned to Melka Murri and sent a signal outlining the situation and requesting a vehicle. In a reply, Divisional Headquarters said that the District Commissioner would send tribal policeman to the scene who would conduct the Degodia to the east beyond the cut-off line.
On return to Mandera I prepared a case file for submission to Crown Council seeking permission to charge Chief Haji Mohmmed and associates with murder. After some months I received a letter from Crown Council who regretted that although they agreed with my findings, it had been decided that with independence for Kenya at the end of the year it would be politically inappropriate to go ahead with the charges!
On a subsequent pay safari using a lorry and on reaching Melka Murri we encountered a violent rainstorm. On attempting to carry on to El Roba, the road was found to be impassable and we returned to Murri. I radioed Mandera explaining that we were stuck and likely to be so for some days. On the third day I had a signal from the Rhamu Police Post notifying that they had an urgent letter for me, no details. I was puzzled by this but assumed that the road between Mandera and Rhamu was open. The following morning, we set out and with some difficulty reached a broad lugga about 5 miles west of the post. It was evident that a heavy flow of water had passed down the lugga piling up silt over the vehicle track. Having come so far, we decided to chance a run at the Lugga. All went well until we reached the rise on the far bank where the lorry became irretrievably stuck. All runs at the bank were unsuccessful and manual pushing hardly help, the wheels just spun. I decided to leave the lorry and go on to Rhamu on foot. We waded through a substantial amount of mud and finally reached the post just before sunset. There, I was presented with the urgent letter, a blue aero gram from my sister Joy in England! The sergeant and the signaller could be forgiven for believing that such an impressive looking document was “urgent”.
The following morning, I took all the staff from the post leaving only the sentry and the signaller. On arrival at the lugga we found that the lorry had been shifted about 30 yards downstream by an overnight fresh and was firmly stuck in the mud. We could have used a bulldozer, but by dint of a combination of the engine and manpower the lorry was eventually set on the bank.
I had found whilst at Lamu a useful procedure when a vehicle became stuck was to rev the engine and sound the horn. Then boil the billy and make tea. Within an hour or so the vehicle would be surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers. When it was deemed that there was sufficient manpower available, they were set to pushing the vehicle. Never failed!
Every year the district commissioner received reports of individuals or groups who had foolishly camped in a Lugga and had been swept away and drowned. One would have thought that locals would have been aware of the hazard, but apparently not.
On a trip into the bush south of El Roba we encountered a group of Gurreh who appeared to be semi nomadic. At this point they had set up a temporary village. A group of silent children approach the Land Rover and stood eyeing the vehicle. My driver, Mohammed, spoke to them and found that this was the first time that they had ever seen a motor vehicle. One boy said that they quite often heard vehicles passing, but by the time they reached the road it had gone. Another remarked that the Land Rover was losing its skin, pointing to an area of the bonnet where the blue paint was flaking. Probably having no word for “engine”, they ask about its Moyo, or heart. We lifted the bonnet to show them the engine and they examined it with keen interest. I quietly told Mohammed to start the engine. Shrieks, and they all ran away, but some boys did return with more questions.
On my next local leave heading for Nairobi, I took my cook Hussain for the trip. His first time out of Mandera district. We left the lorry in Isiolo where it was to pick up supplies and continued in my Volkswagen beetle. Hussain’s first ride in a car. On the road from Nyeri to Thika Hussain let out a yell, pointed and said “Kumbe, Nyoka”, a snake. A locomotive pulling a string of wagons emerged from a tunnel. It is quite probable that he had never heard of the railway and its attendant rolling stock.
Hussein met up with tribal acquaintances and stayed in the police lines in Nairobi whilst I joined Alec and Alison Abell for a trip to Alison’s home at Soni in the Usambara mountains in northern Tanganyika. We travelled south from Nairobi through Kajiado and Arusha to Soni. I recall that when we stopped near Kajiado some Masai in full tribal regalia demanded payment for allowing us to take photographs. We took no photographs and they receive no payment! A sign of things to come. We stayed in Alison’s old family home for about 10 days and visited Tanga on the coast.
At about 100 miles from El Wak on the way back to Mandera the truck took a rock outcrop too fast and broke a spring. The front offside sacked ominously with the mudguard resting on the wheel. Having just become resigned to hike to the post at El Wak a Mercedes trader’s truck appeared heading in the same direction. The driver and his passengers descended and inspected the damage to the police lorry. After some discussion, they took to the damage with some lengths of wire and with a few tools managed to jury rig the suspension. They opined that if we took it easy, the repairs would hold up as far as El Wak.
Eventually arriving at El Wak and looking forward to a cold beer I was disappointed to find that the incumbent, Colin Watkins, had gone to Mandera and switched off his paraffin powered fridge before leaving. A warm beer had to do.
In the area where we broke the lorry spring, a few months later Somali shifta (bandits) ambushed an administration lorry and killed the District Officer, Ken Arnold, a friend from Lamu days. Ken had been a member of the Kenya Police Reserve through the Mau Mau emergency and had been awarded a Colonial Police Medal for gallantry.
In mid-1963 the Kenya government had appointed a Commission headed by a Nigerian judge to take evidence and adjudicate on a claim by local Somali that on Kenya’s independence the North Eastern Region should be ceded to the Somalia Republic. A large Barraza was held at Mandera where several thousand Somali made plain their view that the area should become part of the newly independent Republic of Somalia. The Nigerian judge took evidence from the chiefs and a range of tribal representatives. Finally, the commission reported its findings and the Kenya Government ruled that the area should remain part of Kenya. Going through the motions, I believe it is called.
About this time we increasingly encountered rough barricades laid across the road. Pointless, because we just drove around them. Wherever possible we had locals clear the mess from the road.
On the evening of November 13, 1963, I was sitting in the Mandera Whaling Club with police colleagues and a Lieutenant John of the King’s African Rifles who was on a training expedition with his platoon. Shortly after 8 PM I was handed a signal reporting that the post at Rhamu had come under attack by Somali shifta using hand grenades. In the political atmosphere then prevalent in the North Eastern Region this came as no surprise, but it did represent a serious development.
I left at once for Rhamu in a Land Rover, accompanied by Lieutenant John and his platoon in their Bedford RL. We encountered a lugga which showed all the signs of the recent heavy rain and found it impossible to cross. Back at Mandera, we signalled Nairobi requesting the assistance of the RAF. The following morning a Twin Pioneer aircraft arrived and commenced a shuttle service to Rhamu.
At the Police Post I was astonished to find very little damage, just a hole in the wall of one of the Rondavels and a small crater just inside the gate. The sergeant in charge reported on events. The customary sentry had been present at the gate when approached by two Somali males who spoke to him in the Somali language. They then immediately threw the grenades. I took statements from the sergeant and the sentry and photographed the minor damage. A reconciliation of ammunition stocks showed that the personnel at the post had fired 200 rounds of .303 ammunition, but it was unclear at whom or what the shots had been aimed. Some of the rounds had been put through the post’s two Bren guns. The only casualty reported had been the death of one of Chief Abdi Noor Ghersie’s camels.
A search of the immediate vicinity revealed an unexploded grenade from which the attackers had omitted to draw the pin. Later enquiry revealed that the grenade was an Italian M 35 percussion grenade. Clearly the attackers had expected widespread damage and injury but had selected the wrong type of weapon.
A signal requesting a supply of coiled barbed wire elicited the response that there was none available in the colony, it had all been recently sent to Rhodesia. We had enough barbed wire to run two strands fixed to steel stakes all the way around and outside of the stone walls. When sandbags became available, Sangars were constructed on two corners giving coverage of all four sides.
On the first night Lieutenant John and his troops put up a demonstration of 2-inch mortar parachute flares which gained the attention of the locals. The following morning Chief Abdi arrived protesting the use of the flares reporting that one had fallen, still burning, near some grass huts. I apologised for the near miss and invited the Chief to inspect the damage to the post caused by the two grenades.
The following day, we went to the rifle range by the airstrip and after some musketry training by the Post-Askari and Lieutenant John’s troops, he primed and demonstrated the use of 36 grenades. Sub-inspector Charles Mbagori, the post sergeant and myself each took a turn at throwing a grenade. Lieutenant John explained that shrapnel departed an exploding grenade in a cone shape. He demonstrated this by rigging some opened up sandbags which he hung on thorn bushes before exploding a grenade. To emphasise the point, John lay full-length, extended his hands above his head where he held a grenade. As soon as his intentions became clear, I protested, but he just laughed. We ducked into a trench and he pulled the pin. He stood, still laughing!
A couple of days after the attack on the post we had a visit from the Ethiopian District Commissioner and police offering help. They paddled across the crocodile infested river on a raft of logs bound together with rope! There was no love lost between the Habash and the Somali and I took this visit as a measure of their keenness to get stuck in!
Once we had things sorted at Rhamu I turn my attention to the other two posts, Melka Murri and El Roba. Murri stood on a hill with plenty of cleared ground on all sides and was in a good defensive position, except for the need to rely on water from the river. El Roba however was quite exposed, perched on a slight rise with only a wire fence. The Post was also surrounded by quite dense bush. At El Roba we constructed two sangers by digging trenches which we lined with timber cut from the surrounding bush and filled the half metre space between the timber with earth and rocks topped with sand bags.
When I arrived back at Mandera I received a letter from Colony Headquarters confirming that my application to resign from the Kenya Police on a limited compensation scheme had been accepted. My last day of service was to be the day on which the Colony became independent, 12 December 1963, a little over three weeks away.
In the meantime, we flew to El Wak in an RAF Twin Pioneer for an Operations Group and on landing adjacent to the Fort noted that the union flag was at half-mast. We learned that US President John F Kennedy had been assassinated. During the flight we had flown over a convoy of KAR Bedford trucks heading north for Mandera.
The remaining couple of weeks at Mandera passed in a flash with the time taken mostly in handing over to my successor Chief Inspector Phil Smith. Early in December I flew to Nairobi in an RAF Beverley aircraft. My remaining time in Kenya was taken up mainly in saying farewell to many friends, in particular, the Cade family at Kiambu, who had been very kind to me throughout my time in the Colony. After I sold my Volkswagen beetle Jim Cade loaned me his old Land Rover for trips to Kisumu and the Coast, visiting Mombasa, Kilifi and Malindi.
In late January 1964 I sailed from Mombasa in the British India ship MS Kenya heading for Durban via Beira in Portuguese East. I spent a week in Durban before heading for Cape Town overland, visiting places of interest in between. Any thought of remaining in South Africa was quickly dispelled by the atmosphere and sharp divisions between the races. At Oudtshoorn in Karoo where the temperature was 40° C, I was banned from the dining room of the hotel because I declined to wear a tie! I found a pub which served food and where the clientele was almost entirely Afrikaans, but the atmosphere was more relaxed. At Oudtshoorn we visited an ostrich farm and were entertained by Africans dressed as jockeys riding ostriches in a series of races.
On the bus I met the Rae family from Lincolnshire, mum dad and three boys who were on holiday. We found that we were sailing for Southampton in the same ship, the Union Castle Line, MS Edinburgh. In Cape Town I did all the regular sights, up Table Mountain on the cableway where at the top I had coffee and wrote postcards. Fortunately, the famous white tablecloth did not descend on that day and the views were magnificent.
The voyage to Southampton took about three weeks with all the usual jolly occasions on board, including the crossing the line ceremony. The only break was a brief call at Madeira where we made a quick circuit of the sites on the island by taxi.
On arrival at Southampton I took the boat train to Waterloo before heading for the London Volkswagen dealer’s showrooms, which were near Lord’s cricket ground, to pick up my new beetle. I recall that the car, a deluxe export version, cost me £490!
Last word from the Commissioner of Police, Sir Richard Catling:
NB: A few weeks after I left Mandera my successor, Chief Inspector Phil Smith, was ambushed and killed whilst descending the scarp at Melka Dekacha. It was impossible to drive down that track at any speed and apparently a Bren gunner standing behind the cab of the Land Rover was killed by the first burst of automatic fire. Phil Smith managed to seize the Bren, returned fire, but was hit and killed. The ambush, using automatic weapons, was dug in on the northern, Ethiopian side, of the river. A vehicle behind the Land Rover, carrying a platoon of Kings African Rifles, managed to reverse back over the ridge out of view.
Phil Smith was awarded the Uhodari Medal by President Jomo Kenyatta.
After Kenya independence:
Colin Watkins joined the British Army, the Corps of Royal Military Police, served in Aden and Northern Ireland and retired as a Colonel.
Geof Harcourt joined the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Muscat, became commander of the Sultan’s Guard and retired as a Major General.
Hugh Walker, the District Commissioner, a fluent Somali speaker joined the Somali service of the BBC.