Taveta and General Duties

In March 1959, I returned from UK leave and found that I was posted to Coast Province, specifically to the Taita Division.  At the Divisional Headquarters at Wundanyi, I met Assistant Superintendent Derrick Golder. He told me that I was to take over the Police Station at Taveta down on the Tanganyika border and in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The town of Taveta is wedged into a projection of Kenyan territory bordered by Tanzania.  The irregularity in the border was created c.1881 when Queen Victoria gave Mount Kilimanjaro as a wedding present to her grandson, then Crown Prince of Prussia and later Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.  Subsequently, the border was adjusted so that Kilimanjaro would fall within the German colony of Tanganyika instead of Kenya’s British protectorate.

Taveta Township was little more than a village, with a road and rail link between Voi and Moshi in Tanganyika and about 3 miles from the border.  To the west of the dirt road was the ramshackle African quarter and a few rudimentary shops, and to the east, the police station and the police lines.  My house, a typical two bedroomed MOW structure with minimal spartan furniture, was about one hundred yards behind the police station.  The Station occupied an old colonial building with broad verandas all around.

Just outside the police station was an iron railing fenced CWGC cemetery with about a dozen graves.  As I recall, I mainly for men of the volunteer Rhodesian Machine Gun Corps, most of whom were under 20 years.  There was also one young pilot of the Royal Flying Corps.  Halfway between the Station and my house was a cenotaph commemorating the brave “Mussalmen and Hindus who gave their life for King and Empire”.  The four sides of the monument were inscribed in English, Swahili, Urdu and Hindi.  I often wonder what became of these sadly isolated monuments, but understand that the CWGC still cares for them.

Having lived in messes over the past three years, I had had no need for personal servants. Still, on arriving in Taveta, I knew that I should look for a cook houseboy.  This problem was solved when a Mkamba gentleman, one Mtuku, presented himself at my office door with a bundle of references.  He had worked for my predecessor.  Mtuku was as far round as he was tall but proved himself to be a reasonable cook and reliable houseboy at 100 shillings (£5.00) a month plus a ration of maize meal (posho), tea and sugar.  At the end of the first week, he told me that he needed a kitchen toto, so Malemba was added to the household.  I can’t remember his wage, but it was probably 25 shillings a month, plus rations.  He was perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age, illiterate, and not very bright. Still, he boosted the cook’s heshim (prestige)!  I suspect that he was a relative of Mtuku.

In the station district were three large sisal estates.  One near lake Jipe owned by Colonel Ewart Grogan and managed by his young grandson, another, also owned by Grogan, was managed by a South African.

I had met Grogan in Nairobi, where he held daily court at noon in the bar of Torrs Hotel.  A wiry old gentleman, probably in his eighties, his main claim to fame was that starting in 1895, he had been the first man to walk from the Cape to Cairo over three years.  White-haired and sporting a Van Dyke beard, he presented an impressive figure.

The third, Ziwani, was managed by a large South African, Jack Prinsloo, who, at 44, played rugby for Moshi.  My predecessor took me out to meet Jack and explained that there was a standing invitation to dinner on Tuesday evenings.  He also warned that Jack liked to play Monopoly and that Jack would always liked to win the game.  Jack’s wife, Maria, and two sons, about 10 and 12, did not speak English and seldom spoke anyway.  The boys wore combination khaki drill short overalls, and I never saw them in any other clothing.

The food was always plentiful and good.  Jack had casks of good South African wine, which he liked to categorise as “Gnats piss”, and continually urged visitors to drink more whilst roaring with laughter.  On my second or third visit, he said something to the boys in Afrikaans. They scuttled off to return a few minutes later with plates bearing strips of what I took to be dried meat – the famous Boer biltong.  It was tasty but quite salty, and the next morning I paid for the indulgence. My mouth felt as if someone had attacked it with a blow torch.

Leaving one evening, Jack yelled for me to wait, walked over to a tree where he hacked a leg of a hanging buck.  At that point, it seemed that I had passed the test.

This was interesting because a few weeks later, I was visited by the Warden of Tsavo East National Park, David Sheldrick.  He told me that the Game Department had information that Jack Prinsloo sent his Labour into the park to drive antelope onto the sisal.  Game on a farm could be legally shot by the farmer.  Knowing Jack, this allegation did not surprise me.  Sheldrake asked me to keep my eyes and ears open and to pass any information to him.  It was unlikely that I would ever witness such an event, and I knew that the game department had paid local informants.

A few weeks later, I had a call to a sudden death in the park near the Ziwani Estate boundary.  I found a dead African at the scene who had clearly been hit by a poisoned arrow of the type commonly used by poachers.  Although station staff made extensive enquiries, no one was ever brought to book for the killing.

One Tuesday evening a few months later, I was at Ziwani and sitting with Jack taking our first beer of the day when a Piper Cub aircraft flew low over the house.  About 30 minutes later, an African appeared and reported that the “ndege” had fallen into the sisal.  We found the aircraft had nosed into the ground at the scene, but the pilot was nowhere to be seen.  The cockpit was littered with empty beer bottles, which seemed to go some way toward explaining the crash.  I later found that the pilot had walked out to the Voi Taveta Road, where he had managed to get a lift.  I reported the incident to the CAA, who later told me that the pilot was a veterinarian, one Brian Sherriff, flying from Nakuru to Tanga. It was believed that he had fallen asleep at the controls! No surprise there.

After a few weeks in charge of my first police station, things began to fall into place.  My sergeant major, Magazini (his father had been an askari in the German Schultztruppe in WW1 — hence the name), had the troops well organised and ensured a measure of continuity.  We had 35 staff, sworn police constables, or more commonly askaris, including three corporals.  These, in turn, were divided into those who were English literates and received a few shillings a month extra pay, those who were Swahili literate, and the remainder were illiterate.  The latter were mainly from the nomadic tribes, the Masai, Turkhana, Samburu, Orma and the like.

The English literates tended to be from the Central Province Bantu tribes, the Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and Wakamaba and the Nyanza tribes dominated by the Nilotic Luo.  The missionaries, who opened schools, had tended to gravitate to those more settled tribal areas and were generally excluded from the nomadic places, particularly the Muslim North-East Region.  Somalis and Galla tribesmen from the Northern Frontier District tended to be divided by whether they were nomads or from one of the towns, Mandera, Moyale, Wajir or Garissa, some of the latter being literate.

One surprise was when one of the Report Office English literates told me that he had completed the Hollerith cards for April 1959 and that they were ready to be sent to Nairobi.  It had probably been assumed that I was au fait with the Hollerith data recording system, but this was my first encounter.

The constable demonstrated to me how crime statistics were recorded on these stiff paper cards.  Although the name, punch card, springs to mind, I seem to remember that these cards were marked up with special pencils.  Perhaps the markings were later punched.

The Hollerith cards enabled the operators at police headquarters in Nairobi to record, analyse and extract information or data.  I never personally came to grips with the Hollerith system.  I found that literate constables were diligent and keen to do a good job of recording crime statistics.  I believe that the task was regarded as a sinecure by keen, ambitious young Africans.

Quite apart from the small War Graves Cemetery and the cenotaph to the Indian troops, as I got to know the Station area, I became aware of residual signs of the battles that had swept through the region between 1914 and 1916.  Partly filled trenches on the slopes of the two dominant hills, Salaitia and Latema, north and south of the township, where it was still possible to kick up relics of the battles, such items as corroded cartridges, shrapnel, steel ammo boxes and brass buckles.  It was, after all, only just over 40 years since the battles.

I could find very little on the East African war apart from some elderly locals who remembered the Wa-Deutsch.  They tacked on the Wa prefix, which, in Swahili, denotes the people of a particular tribe.  One told me that they liked the Germans who dispensed swift justice.  The British system of justice seemed to drag on for months, and by the time the accused came to trial, he had forgotten what it was all about.  On the other hand, the Germans, having established that the accused was guilty, administered a beating, which was the end of the matter!

I did manage to find one book on the war in East Africa, but it was skimpy and anecdotal.  In 2013 whilst researching the Internet campaign, I found that a book had just, in November, been published covering the war in detail.  The Guerrillas of Tsavo had been meticulously researched and written as a diary by one James Willson.  He had been manager of a game lodge in Tsavo. Like me, he was intrigued by the remaining structures and artefacts.

Not long after I arrived at Taveta and feeling my way, an African appeared and reported that a water pump belonging to Bwana Geriketcher had been stolen and that he knew who had taken it.  Blank faces all round and much scratching of heads. Who was Bwana Geriketcher?  Two crime branch constables went with the complainant to the scene of the crime.  When they returned, they reported that the mystery owner was none other than Bwana Agriculture or the local Agricultural Officer.  It seemed that an employee, a Chagga tribesman from Tanganyika, had taken a fancy to the pump and absconded with it.

The complainant, also a Chagga, said that he knew where the thief lived, high on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.  After contacting the Superintendent of Police in Moshi in Tanganyika, I had his permission to engage in ‘hot pursuit’ across the border.  Taking the two constables and the complainant, I set out.  We passed the Kibo Hotel and pressed on up the mountain with the Land Rover, which began to feel the altitude.  We arrived at the place indicated by the complainant, and there sat the pump in all its glory, installed and ready to roll.  The thief, identified by the complainant, we found in a hut nearby, and I arrested him.  The pump proved to be portable, and we had no problem uplifting it and the motor.  I didn’t have an altimeter but estimated that we were higher than ten thousand feet.  We returned to Taveta, reported the arrest to Moshi, and prosecuted the thief.

Whilst familiarising myself with the district, I visited the sisal estates, Ziwani, Jipe and one other, the name of which I forget.  At the latter, I found a young South African who told me that he found life very lonely, although it was a good job.  I suggested that when he made his weekly trip to Taveta for supplies, then he should call.  He did so, always made time for a beer and would often stay for a meal.  One day he asked me about the cenotaph which he passed on the way up to the house.  I explained what it was about and said that I found it a damned nuisance as I was often woken at night by the dead soldiers’ agonised cries.  It appeared that he bought my yarn because he never called again!

There was very little crime at Taveta, mostly petty theft, the occasional assault and traffic cases.  The road was unsealed. The speed limit through the township was 30mph, but this was routinely disregarded. Light vehicles frequently became airborne over the hump caused by the unguarded railway crossing.  Flicking through some papers, I came across this:

I can remember absolutely nothing about this case, the prosecution or the outcome. Still, clearly, someone was killed in a traffic crash!

Life at Taveta drifted along nicely and was not too demanding, perhaps a good place to learn the ropes.  There was not much social life but for the weekly visit to Ziwani and occasional trips to the Kenya Kyanite mine off the road to Voi.  KK seemed to consist of about a dozen families, many of them Scottish, who liked to party.

Just off the Voi road to the north of the township were several freshwater pools, all fed by springs originating from the snows of Kilimanjaro.  The water was cool, even cold, and crystal clear.  Every evening about 5 o’clock, I would take the Land Rover to the police lines and invite anyone to go with me to the pools.  A swim rounded off the day nicely and left one refreshed through the evening.

After I had been at Taveta for three or four months, I received a signal notifying me of my transfer to Kilifi on the north coast, about 40 miles north of Mombasa.  It was not uncommon back then for bachelor officers to be subject to a quick transfer of stations.  This proved to be the beginning of a series of peregrinations over the next three years.  So, the 5-ton Austin truck was loaded up with my meagre belongings and with the cook, Mtuku, and the kitchen toto, Malemba, on-board, we set out.

When we stopped to wait for the Ferry on the Mombasa side of Kilifi Creek, Malemba leapt down from the truck, crouched at the water’s edge and scooped up some water to drink.  His face was a picture, “a la, ni chumvi!”  He had never seen the sea before and naturally did not know that it was salty.