The Tana River Floods

Copyright: G J Wright 2018

Tana River Floods

Barely had I settled into my role as officer commanding Kilifi police station when I was ordered on detachment to Hola.  I was picked up from Kilifi by an aircraft of the Police Airwing with gear for a two-week stay.

In March 1959, Hola was at the centre of what was to become an international scandal when 11 Mau Mau detainees were beaten to death by prison staff.  A selected group of detainees, fewer than 100, who were especially uncooperative, had been segregated to a separate camp.  Detailed to work on digging irrigation ditches, a fracas had ensued, resulting in 11 deaths.  Foolhardily the prison service tried to cover up the incident by suggesting that those who died had taken water from a cart used by all those on the site.  A whistle-blower informed Nairobi of the true state of affairs, and the bodies were flown to the capital, where the truth emerged.

Informed opinion held that the fracas resulted from a case of mutual animosity.  The same African prison staff had been with the same detainees through various camps throughout the country for years.  On that day, the refusal of the prisoners to willingly work and various other factors had caused the guards to snap with predictable consequences.

Curiously, some years later, I met the whistle-blower in a Post Office in Basra.  I was invited to his flat for coffee, but Hola was not mentioned.

On arrival at Hola in April, I found that the incumbent had pleaded ill-health and transferred to Mombasa.  There was a suspicion that it was the bright lights he missed rather than any question of health.

The police station at Hola was newly opened.  It consisted of two Ferovals, concrete Rondavels with a sheet metal roof joined by a concrete walkway, all topped with a makuti thatched roof for shade.  The Inspector’s quarters were similarly constructed.

The police station, the District Commissioner’s offices and the detention camp were all situated a couple of miles West of the Tana River.  The experimental agricultural facility site had been deemed suitable for the development of a cotton-growing industry.  Ultimately, the whole enterprise could be transferred to the local Pokomo as a going economic enterprise.  At that time, the Pokomo subsisted on the banks of the Tana River by horticulture and fishing.  Their custom was to intensively cultivate an area of land. When its fertility was exhausted, they moved to a new site.

To the West, away from the river, on the arid plains lived a nomadic Nilo Hamitic, Muslim tribe, the Orma.  There was no love lost between the Orma and the nominally Christian Pokomo.  The Orma were typical of their ethnic group, tall, lean and always immaculately dressed in clean white sheets, one half wrapped around the lower body and the loose end thrown over a shoulder, with a pot and stick (or spear) in their left hand.  It remains a puzzle as to how they always managed to appear spotlessly clean in that arid environment.

Initially told to pack for a two-week stay at Hola, my stay lengthened into a couple of months.  Subsequent events revealed that I was now considered an expert on the location of the shifting Pokomo horticultural settlements along the banks of the Tana River.

Doubtless, in the wake of the then-recent events, I was visited by the Commissioner, Sir Richard Catling, and Her Majesty’s Inspector General of Colonial Police, Sir Ivo Stourton.


Figure 1 The VIP Visit

One morning a note landed on my desk from the officer in charge of the Prison Department advising that a detainee had absconded.  It was thought that he had headed for the river and intended to cross to the north bank.  Intriguingly, it was also noted that the man had only one leg and got around using a single crutch.

I assembled a pursuit party a corporal and three-man and informed Mombasa of my intentions.  At the riverbank we found a group of local fishermen still discussing the intimidating behaviour of the “Kikuyu” who had insisted that they take him to the far bank.  He had told them that he was “a General” and that if they did not comply with his orders, it would be the worst for them.

The same three men volunteered to take my party across the river in three canoes.  They took us to the point where the General had disembarked and we were able to immediately spot the direction that he had taken on one of the tracks.  His unmistakable track was easy to follow with the imprint of the crutch at every pace –dot one and carry one.

After about a mile we came to a collection of huts and there, sitting atop a garden look out platform, was the “General”.  Locals built the platforms to use as lookouts over their gardens so that they could spot destructive incursions by baboons and protect their crops.

Efforts to dislodge the General were thwarted by his free use of his crutch to beat back those who try to dislodge him.  The corporal, only half in jest, suggested that we could shoot him.  Finally, I managed to get his attention and the corporal and the men were able to seize his leg and pulled him off the platform.

Right, we had him on the ground, but how does one induce a one-legged man to walk?  We decided that the only way was to build a stretcher and lash him to it.  Arriving at the landing site the next problem presented itself – how to safely transport the General across the mighty Tana River.  We lashed three stout polls across the three canoes and formed a stable raft.  The stretcher was then secured across the top, athwart ships.  He was then returned to the starting point where I gather that he was suitably punished.

I never did learn the point of the General’s escapade because the border with the Somali Republic lay 150 km to the north through arid desert live with game of all sorts including many dangerous species.

Finally, back at Kilifi, I began to pick up where I had left off in April.

This idyll was interrupted by yet another detachment, this time to Malindi, just forty-miles up the coast, and a stay at the famous Sinbad Hotel.  The signal advising this move revealed that 21 Squadron RAF were active at Malindi dropping supplies to villages on the Tana River that were cut off by floods.  That the maps being used by the RAF were inaccurate and that I was to liaise and advise on the village locations.

At Malindi airport, I found the RAF detachment and an element of the Royal Army Service Corps. They were engaged in dropping prepacked sacks of maise meal to predetermined dropping zones adjacent to Pokomo villages cut off by floods.  It seems that the maps supplied to 21 Squadron dated from the World War II era and took no account of the shifting nature of local horticulture and population centres.  This is where I came in; I was to fly as their “native guide” and ensure that the loads reached predetermined locations.

21 Squadron, a famous World War II bomber Squadron and formed in 1916, was then flying Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer short take-off and landing aircraft and stationed at Eastleigh, Nairobi.  The aircraft were also affectionately known as Twin Pin by Stonehenge Aviation.

Twin Pin

Figure 2: The Twin Pin

Although I did not know it at the time, the aircraft had something of a reputation. Several had been lost both in RAF service and civilian roles.  With a crew of two and a maximum speed of about 140 knots, the aircraft had a range of just over 600 miles and could carry one ton of freight.  With everything deployed, large flaps, leading-edge slats, for STOL, it was a sight to behold.

Arriving at Malindi Airport, again courtesy of the Airwing, I found the ground crew awaiting the Twin Pin’s return from its last sortie of the day.  I decided to wait and meet the aircrew, who turned out to be two Flight Lieutenants, one the pilot and the other the navigator co-pilot.  I hitched a ride with them to the Sinbad Hotel, booked in, had a shower and changed.  Over dinner and libations from their NAAFI stock, I heard of their problems with the maps issued and the lack of certainty that they were hitting the correct DZ.

The following day at the airport, I found the RASC boys loading the aircraft in preparation for the first sortie.  The maise meal was loosely contained in two sacks so that if the inner one burst on impact, the meal would be contained in the second.  The load, about one ton, was stacked and secured under the main spar leaving only a narrow space between the top and the upper fuselage.  Finally, all was ready, and the crew had done their checks, and we were ready to go.  I asked where I should sit for take-off and was told to please myself.  So, I stood in the doorway of the cockpit bulkhead and watched the take-off.

We climbed to 5000 feet and set a course almost due North and were soon over the flooded plains.  Some people and stock could be seen clustered on occasional high points.  The first sortie’s target was the village of Kilimani and resort to the map showed that it had shifted some miles to the North.  Having determined that we were in the right place and ascertained the wind direction, the pilot set up the aircraft for an approach to the DZ.  The propellers to fine pitch, leading-edge slats deployed, and the barn-door-like flaps extended. The speed dropped significantly, and we passed over the DZ at about 100 feet in a trial approach.  The waiting crowd was clustered to the side, and the DZ was clear for a drop.  The RASC boys were now prepared, and the plane swung around for an active approach.  Back to just under 100 feet, the green light on and half the load was dispatched.  The rest of the load was dropped without a hitch, and the aircraft climbed out to cruising altitude, typically about 5000 feet.

I was amused to see that once the aircraft was levelled out and trimmed, the pilot settled back with a paperback, and the navigator retired to the fuselage, presumably for some shut-eye.  On one later trip, whilst I was asking questions about the aircraft, the pilot flipped a few switches and said, ‘’you have the machine’’.  After weaving about somewhat erratically with too much control input, I finally had the aircraft flying straight and level.  The pilot lifted his eyes from his book and said, “well done”.

We hit the coast a few miles North of Malindi and descended to about 100 feet above the beach, and roared past the line of hotels waving to holidaymakers on the beach.

A few days later, it was decided that I should fly into some of the villages on the Tana in an Army Alouette helicopter to assess their ongoing needs.  The chopper flew much lower than the Twin Pin, and, on the way, we saw a lot of big game milling around in the water, mainly elephant and buffalo.  At Kilimani, we were welcomed by the Irish Catholic Brothers with tea and small yellow cakes, all served by African Sisters.  When I enquired if there was anything that the Brothers needed, they all exclaimed that they had been well looked after early in the piece by “Young Jimmy Mulligan’’.  It seemed that the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Coast Province, Mr Mulligan had caused a case of brandy to be delivered.  They were happy.

At another village, we were met by a delegation of Orma. They were demanding supplies of rice since their religion did not allow them to eat maise meal.  One of our number uncharitably commented that if they were hungry, they would eat what was delivered.  I suspected that there was more to it than that; like many nomadic tribes, their diet consisted of meat and milk mixed with blood.  Rather more a matter of heshima, or prestige.

We took a slightly different route back to Malindi and continued to see the game plunging away from the sound of the chopper.

A few days later, I was driving out to Malindi airfield one morning when I met an African dancing about in the middle of the road.  I was inclined to drive past him as this kind of behaviour was not uncommon, but there was something about his demeanour that induced me to stop.  ‘’Ndege imeanguka’’, he said in rough Swahili, ‘’The bird has fallen’’.  I knew that the only early start was to be by the Army in the Alouette, and so fearing the worst, I perched the informant on the wing of the Land Rover. He directed me through the bush to the scene.  We arrived at the site and found the helicopter apparently intact with the pilot, his mechanic and a Daily Nation reporter standing despondently nearby.  No one was hurt.  It seemed that he had had a flame-out and did not have time to set up for auto-rotate, which resulted in a heavy landing.  Closer examination revealed the extent of the damage; among other things, the main rotor had clipped the tail rotor, the skids were bent outward, together with other damage.  The machine was flown back to Nairobi in a Beverly in pieces, apparently a write-off.

About the same time, we were all in the Twin Pin about to start the engines.  The right-hand engine started okay, but the left misfired and belched a huge cloud of flame. The African standing by with a CO2 extinguisher inserted the nozzle into the front of the cowling and released the gas.  ‘’Phew’’ said the pilot, ’if that engine had fired, he would have been minced’’.  Whilst this was going on, the navigator leapt from his seat, pushed me aside, clambered over the load and ran — “He was once in a plane that crashed and burned’’, said the pilot.

On one sortie up the Tana River, we set up to approach the drop zone, and everything looked normal.  Flying slow and low demands concentration on the part of the pilot. Perhaps he could be forgiven for not noticing a pole that had been erected on the edge of the DZ.  It was a tall, slender pole with a piece of ribbon or cloth tied to the top, a thoughtful wind direction indicator.  It hit the outer wing on the right side.  As we pulled up in preparation for the next drop, I commented on the pole to the pilot.  He immediately cleaned up the aircraft and climbed out.  When we reached a suitable safe altitude, the aircrew spent some time examining the wing. They concluded that there had been no damage, at least none that was visible.  We completed the drop taking care to avoid the ‘windsock’ and headed for base.

As the flood relief operation drew to close we were seated in the Sinbad lounge one evening when the manageress approached and said that she wanted to talk to me about corkage for all the liquor that had been brought into the hotel.  I pointed out that it was not my liquor and that I had no control over it.  She said that she knew me, held me responsible and that I should come to an arrangement with the other official guests.  She had some justification, but I felt that she had left it a bit late in the piece to suddenly demand corkage—how would we calculate what was due anyway.  The other official guests were less charitable in their remarks.  I suggested that she should sue me.  I heard no more.

So, I returned to my hardship station at Kilifi to await the next disruption.  This turned out to be another hardship posting to Lamu to receive restrictees from the Central Province Milltown operation.

Copyright: G J Wright 2018