The Tana River Floods

Copyright: G J Wright 2018

Tana River Floods

In early 1959, I was transferred from the shadow of Kilimanjaro at Taveta to Kilifi on the coast north of Mombasa.  Barely had I settled into my house on the beach 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 over a period of 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 had been 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 site of the experimental agricultural facility had been deemed suitable for the development of a cotton growing industry.  Ultimately it was hoped that 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 and when its fertility was exhausted, to move 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.

Originally 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, during my stay at Hola I had a visit by the Commissioner, Sir Richard Catling, and Her Majesty’s Inspector General of Colonial Police, Sir Ivo Stourton.


Figure 1 The VIP Visit

Finally, back at Kilifi I began to pick up where I had left off back in April.  Kilifi was not a demanding station but curiously I was to deal with more sudden deaths and murders than at any other station.  The explanation for this clearly lay in the proclivity of the coastal Wagiriama tribe for palm toddy.  On the coast there was a veritable forest of coconut palms which were exploited by the Giriama for the production of a strong alcoholic tipple.  To scale and tap the palms the wagemaji (tappers) required a five-shilling license from the African District Council.

Although the toddy was freely and cheaply available from licensed tappers, giving rise to much drunkenness, it seemed to incite lethal dispute.  An essential tool for the tapper was a curved knife which was keenly sharpened on the outside of the curve.  It was this that did most of the damage in the frequent drunken fracas.

One night a Giriama reported to the station that he had killed a man on the Malindi Road a few miles to the North of Kilifi.  Nothing surprising there and the body was found slumped on the sand ridge to the side of the road.  The scene of the initial encounter was found and the dead man had run about one hundred yards, depositing a spurt of blood at every heart beat before he collapsed dead.

This offence attracted a nominal sentence in “Kingi Georgi’s Hoteli’’ which provided two square meals a day and a dry place to lay one’s head.

My bungalow on the North shore was built over a large water tank and the veranda was but a couple of yards from the high-tide mark.  The coastline was protected by a reef several hundred yards off-shore and at low water the lagoon was sheltered and still, with almost perfect underwater visibility.  Very large brain coral heads dotted the lagoon and were home to an amazing variety of sea life including crayfish and enormous grouper.  An occasional shark would be trapped behind the reef the sight of which leisurely swimming, I always regarded as poetry in motion.  I soon acquired all the goggling gear and a harpoon gun.  We were never short of fish for the table.

Out of the blue, this idyll was interrupted by yet another detachment, this time to Malindi, just forty mile 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 who were engaged in dropping prepacked sacks of maize 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 and 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 return of the Twin Pin 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 right DZ.

The next morning at the airport I found the RASC boys loading the aircraft in preparation for the first sortie.  The maize 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 target for the first sortie 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 rather 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 holiday makers 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 who were demanding supplies of rice since their religion did not allow them to eat maize 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 as, 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 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 and 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 at which 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 for an approach to the drop zone and everything looked normal.  Flying slow and low demands concentration on the part of the pilot and so 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 and 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 and that she 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