Copyright: G J Wright

In December 2018 I had a telephone call from the UK (to New Zealand) which was as clear as a local call—fibre optics, the internet and satellites.  This caused me to reflect on communications back in the 1950s.

In 1957 I had to call my mother in the UK from Kisumu in Kenya.  I booked the call 24 hours in advance and was advised to sit by the phone at the appropriate time to receive the call.  The call came but it was only through the intervention of a friend at the UK end that I was able to convey a message to my mother and to get her reply.  The line was appalling, but the charge was for a few minutes was exorbitant.  Submarine cables, copper wire and relays.

Most of the towns in Kenya had telephone systems and were linked to the national network, but upcountry the police relied upon wireless telegraphy.  At each headquarters, police stations and outposts were trained African operators who maintained the communications network using Morse code.  Although not essential to job of decoding and recording Morse, most operators were literate in English.

In the more settled areas, headquarters, police stations and posts were linked by VHF wireless telephony.  Probably apocryphal, but I recall the story of an African on a post responding to the parent station on VHF; ‘’Excusa me sah, please to speak up, the wind it is blowing your words about’’.

On Saturday at noon in Lamu all the wazungu adjourned to Petley’s Inn for a few convivial rounds of Tusker beer which accompanied a debi (A four gallon kerosene can) of freshly caught and cooked king prawns.  Some joker at Colony Headquarters in Nairobi must have known about this occasion because every so often the signaller would deliver an encrypted message.  A sheet of five letter groups which had to be rendered instantly to intelligible text and a reply encoded and sent.  I won’t describe the arcane process of decoding and encoding because if I did then I would have to contrive your demise.  Today one can enter text into a window on a desktop computer, click encrypt, apply a password and the message is impenetrable to all but the CIA.

A certain Assistant Commissioner, Northern Frontier District introduced a ritual dubbed ‘’Morning prayers’’.  This involved calling all Divisional Headquarters and contactable outstations every morning at 0800.  The circuit would come alive precisely at 0800 with the words ‘’Good morrow to you all’’.  He would then call each station in turn asking if there was anything to report, to which the invariable reply was that there was nothing to report.

This was a little bit of harmless fun, but ‘’Vulture Black’’ then perceived that there were those on safari who lay outside of his writ.  He decreed that patrols would carry a heavy ex-army pack set radios of the kind designed to be mounted in tanks and other vehicles.  To balance the load and power the radio, a 12-volt lead acid battery was added.

A foot patrol in the Mandera district consisted of an Inspector, a corporal and six men.  Baggage was conveyed on the backs of four hired camels with their local leader who literally led the first camel with the others tied nose to tail to follow.  We progressed at a steady three miles an hour.  So, under the new contact rule we had to hire a fifth camel.  Each camel was equipped with a wooden bell suspended about its neck and which emitted a dull clunk at each footstep—so a silent passage was impossible.  Fires had to be lit and maintained at night to guard the camels against predators

We set out at dawn each day and so at about 0700 I started to cast around for two suitable thorn trees on which to hoist the aerial.  This ideally had to be at right angles to the intended direction of the signal, toward Isiolo.  With everything rigged and ready to go, I switched on, warmed up the set and started to tune to the desired frequency in the 40 metre band.  I was soon aware of a powerful commercial station which spread over our frequency and using very good English.  Very soon the station identified itself: “This is the international service of Radio Peking broadcasting to you…blah, blah…”  The best laid plans of mice and men, on safari we were never able to join morning prayers.

At about this time I arrived at the Post at Melka Murri which was perched on a bluff a about a thousand feet, giving an excellent view out across southern Ethiopia.  The whitewashed post resembled something out of Beau Geste with a three-storey tower and crenelated walls.  Its Achilles heel was that there was no water closer than the river one thousand feet below.  Water was collected daily in jerry cans transported on the back of donkeys.


Figure 1 Melka Murri.  Painting by Jack Sullivan from a slide.

One hot afternoon, I was resting in my eyrie at the top of the tower when the post sergeant appeared followed by a stranger, rather dishevelled and clad only in a loin cloth.  ‘’Huyu na lete burua kwa wewe effendi” and sure enough there was the letter held aloft in a cleft stick.  Before then I had always believed that the cleft stick idea was a creation of fiction writers telling yarns of the Dark Continent.  But, where else on his person could he have carried it.

On another occasion, during the rains, I was stuck at Melka Murri and receiving supplies by airdrop courtesy of the Airwing.  A signal arrived advising that an important letter awaited me at Rhamu some 50 miles to the East.  The next day I set out in our 5-ton diesel truck — no four-wheel drive —to attempt the trip.  All went well until about five miles from Rhamu where we had to cross lugga which had recently been in flood, with more rain threatening.  With much heaving and slithering we reached the far bank but could not climb out.  At this point the heavens opened and we had no choice but to hike the remaining few miles to Rhamu.  The track rapidly flooded and we found ourselves wading.  At the post the signaller ceremoniously presented me with a blue aerograph form, an airmail letter from my sister! The truck shifted downstream during the night but with the muscle power of all the post personnel we extracted it.

On a monthly pay and rations safari calling first at Rhamu, the sergeant reported that one of the constables was suffering from acute toothache.  This was unusual because Africans took great care of their teeth, constantly cleaning them with an mswaki, a twig plucked from a certain bush.  There was nothing that I could do save prescribe Aspro and promise to pick him up and take him into Mandera.  On my return few days later the sergeant reported that all was well, that he had dealt with the toothache.  It transpired that the pain had become excruciating and so, ever resourceful, he had had others hold the man down, administered a dose of rubbing alcohol and removed the offending tooth using the signaller’s pliers.  The patient was all smiles.

On the monthly pay and ration safari, after visiting Melka Murri I would push on a further 50 miles to the post at El Roba following a rough track.  As well as the official gear I also carried a couple of kit boxes laden with such delectables as Cigara Kali, Simba Chai, Sabuni, Kiwi polish, combs, razor blades and etcetera—a regular hawker’s delight.

In some places the track was contiguous with the international boundary and in others the positioning was uncertain.  At the bottom of a deep valley was an Ethiopian Police post, a curious location but probably sited adjacent to a spring or well.  We always stopped and the Ethiopians raked together enough cash to buy a few luxuries.  They told us that they were often up to six months in arrears for pay.

One evening just on dusk we arrived at the post to find the garrison across the track, up in arms, old SMLE No 5 rifles, and demanding that we stop.  Stop we did.  Bouncing from rock to pot hole it was not possible to speed past and up the hill.  Through my driver, a Gurreh, interpreting, the sergeant demanded to know who we were and why we were driving inside Ethiopia.  I pointed out that we were same people who routinely stopped so that they could access the goodies in the kit box and that his troops were standing inside Kenya on the left side of the track.  I wasn’t sure about the latter, but I knew that he wouldn’t know either.  They moved to the right side of the track.  After further short exchanges I told my cook and two constables in the back of the truck to lay below the steel sides of the truck and the driver to make best speed up the hill.  No shots were fired and I never learned the reason for this episode.  I suspect that they were hard-up and had hoped to coerce access to the kit box.

The Ethiopians were notoriously unpredictable and had a reputation for supplementing their rations by stock raiding inside Kenya.  After the Rhamu attack, below, the local Ethiop District Commissioner, some of his staff and police, crossed the river on makeshift rafts and offered their assistance.  They didn’t like the Somals!

One evening in mid-November 1963 we were relaxing beside the pool at the Mandera Whaling Club and, as was our custom, studying the expansive vista of the heavens.  A breathless signaller arrived and handed me a signal.  Lacking in any detail, the signal informed that the post at Rhamu had been attacked and the assailants repelled.

Rhamu lay about fifty miles West of Mandera.  A platoon of 5 KAR under lieutenant John happened to visiting and it was agreed that they would accompany me as support.  We set out, a Landrover and an army five ton Bedford truck, but we soon ran into trouble.  The expedition was thwarted by a washed out lugga which proved to be impassable and the post too far for a night hike.

The next morning an RAF 21 squadron Twin Pioneer flew myself, Lieutenant John and a section of the platoon to Rhamu airstrip.  We were met by the post sergeant who reported that since the attack there had been no more excitement.  The attack had been repelled by rifle fire, but the attackers had escaped.  The only casualty was one of a local chief’s camels which was dead!  I later found that the post had expended over two hundred rounds of ammunition.

Damage to the post was minimal.  Apart from a very small crater just inside the gate, a hole had been punched in the side of the signals hut and an unexploded grenade lay where it had landed.  Doubtless the attackers had expected the post to be flattened, but unfortunately for them they had chosen Italian percussion grenades—which suggested origins in the Somalia Republic.

Lieutenant John offered to demonstrate what a real grenade could do and so we adjourned to the range where his troops casually primed the bombs.  I was inclined to keep my distance, but John assured me the devices were quite safe until the pins were pulled and then only became active when the lever was released.  After I, the post sergeant and several constables had thrown a grenade from a trench, John said that he had one more demo.  He draped some old sacks on thorn bushes in a circle, donned a steel helmet, lay down with his hands extended above his head holding a grenade, He warned us to take cover and pulled the pin gathering his arms by his sides.  After the explosion, expecting the worst, we found John standing and pointing to the shredded sacks explaining that the fragments flew up at 45 degrees from any point of impact.  Maybe so!

There was no more excitement before I left Mandera a couple of weeks later, but my successor, Phil Smith, was ambushed and killed whilst descending the scarp to the salt flats at Melka Dekacha.  The road was poor and trucks had to slow to a crawl on the descent.  The shifta were dug-in on the Ethiopian bank of the river with a light machine gun.  Phil was killed whilst engaging the position on the far bank of the river with a Bren gun.

All my remote stations in Kenya were off the grid and we relied upon firewood for cooking and kerosene for lighting and refrigeration.  The Tilley pressure lantern provided an excellent light but there was always the background hissing sound.  The kerosene powered refrigerators needed constant attention and when they faltered it was the custom to take them for a bumpy ride in the back of a Land Rover.  This always seemed to do the trick.

I often wonder, would our days on the frontier have been enhanced if we had had satellite telephones, access to the Global Positioning System (GPS), the internet, electricity and solar voltaic charging devices, coffee machines, all the other technology commonplace in the 21st Century, and mountain bikes? Possibly just the latter as an alternative to Camels.

Copyright: G J Wright