SIAFU THE TIM BAILY STORY
As told to Robert Leader
PROLOGUE: A NIGHT IN THE BUSH
It was a pitch black night in Tanzania. It had been raining heavily and my friend and traveling companion Peter Hooper was at the wheel of our Land Rover as we searched for a campsite when suddenly the road ahead disappeared under a continuous sheet of water. Pete braked and stopped the Rover. Our headlights shone on the gleaming black surface and disturbed the frogs which plopped in from the bank and caused a storm of minor ripples. Beyond the gleam of the headlights was the dark unseen tangle of the African bush.
I cursed moderately, lit a cigarette and relaxed for a moment. Then I reluctantly got out of the Rover to scout for a possible way round the flooded section of the road.
My boots squelched in the red mud but after a moment I found a set of tyre tracks skirting the pool. Someone had been through ahead of us and so I called to Pete to bring up the Land Rover and follow me slowly as I walked ahead between the tracks to search for any pitfalls and obstructions. The headlights turned to catch me in their beam as Pete started forward and then suddenly I was frozen in mid stride by a blood chilling growl from my left. I whipped round and there partly illuminated was a large lioness. The big cat glared at me for one baleful moment, and then with one fluid movement she was gone, swallowed up in the black night.
Later, when we had circumnavigated the flooded section of the road to find a dry campsite, we built a blazing fire and took care to keep it replenished through the night. The rain had stopped and the stars were sharp and clear. After a good meal from a guinea fowl we had shot earlier in the day, plus some hot coffee under my belt, I was able to relax, gazing into the red glow of the fire.
Around us was the nocturnal drone of Africa. Only the desert nights are ever silent and here in the bush every hidden leaf was alive with insects, all of them buzzing, drilling and sawing like a million noisy construction crews. Somewhere a bird made slow plopping noises, like an idiot monotonously clicking his tongue. Lion and leopard punctuated the sounds with careful coughs and in the distance half-human screams kept sounding. They were the cries of a rock hyrax, a small furry animal the size of a rabbit and perfectly harmless.
This was the kind of night when I am most at peace. I was in the wilds of Africa, my first and lasting love, a land of violent and staggeringly beautiful contrasts reflecting every diversity and raw extreme of nature.
It was also the kind of night when it is easy to think, when one thought follows another into a pleasant, dreaming reverie of old memories. I reflected on my narrow escape from the lioness. It was not my first encounter with the raw and primitive side of savage Africa and I knew that it would not be my last. I had been born and raised in Africa and one of my earliest boyhood recollections is of sitting in a tree for over four hours to escape the snorting attentions of an angry rhino I had disturbed below. I had been out hunting with my first firearm, a small .22 rifle which I used to hunt small gazelle to keep our meat larder stocked. Eventually the rhino tired of waiting for me to fall on to his pugnacious horn and wandered off.
My parents were Tynesiders who had come out to Kenya shortly after the First World War. They farmed at Kitale in the beautiful White Highlands, where I was left very much to my own devices and allowed to run wild. My father had a full time job looking after the native labour force and running the farm and my mother was kept equally busy looking after the native women. Kenya was very primitive in those days, our roads and communications were very poor, and the few schools that did exist were not readily accessible to the out-lying farms. So, in common with the other white farm wives in the area, my mother ran a small school to teach the native women to read and write, taught them hygiene and also ran a small dispensary of basic medicines.
I was the only white child in that particular area and so my playmates were all young Africans. I began to learn a little about the African people. My nursemaid was a young woman named Jabeetchi from the Nandi tribe. Her children were my friends and hers was the first African language that I learned.
Sadly my parents had to leave Kitale. For two years running our farm lands were plagued with swarms of locusts. These short-horned migratory grass-hoppers darkened the skies in their millions before descending to eat out lands literally bare. All our crops and the grazing land for our cattle were stripped within hours. There was nothing left and when the swarms reappeared for the second year my father had to give up the farm.
This was a terrible blow to him but he succeeded in acquiring a new job as a Government Agricultural Officer and was eventually posted to Makueni where we spent the next five years.
It was at Makueni that I met an African who was to have a very great influence on my life. His name was Kitiko and he was a poacher from the Wakamba tribe. Africans usually look much older than they are so although Kitiko had the appearance of a man of forty-five he was most probably in his early thirties. He was short and wiry and immensely strong and like most of the older Wakamba he had his front teeth filed to sharp points. Before the arrival of the Europeans in East Africa the Wakamba were cannibals.
There was a native detention camp close to Makueni and Kitiko was a habitual detainee. He was always poaching and he was always getting caught. The detainees would be sent out to work on the surrounding farms, mowing lawns and cutting firewood and doing other similar tasks to work out their time, and Kitiko would always put in a request to come to Makueni. He knew that with us he would be well fed and cared for, and he would work frantically to complete his allotted tasks so that he could then slip away and teach me bush lore.
I was about thirteen years old at that time and I think it was then that I first fell in love with the wilds, the rolling green hills of the Highlands and the sun-yellowed grass of the golden plains. Following Kitiko through the bush, crouched over the tracks of a buck or gazelle with the sun hot on our shoulders was an exhilarating way to spend and afternoon. Kitiko taught me how to hunt and identify small game and how to avoid the dangerous Big Five. I was an eager pupil and he was as happy to teach me as I was to learn, for we both considered this a far better way of spending the time than in the drudgery of work. I pestered him repeatedly to take me out on one of his real poaching trips but that he steadfastly refused. I was the son of a silikali, the collective Sahili term for all the white administrators and officials and people in authority and leading me into genuine crime was just not done.
In the bush Kitiko could move bent double and as soundless as a shadow. I never saw him unless he deliberately showed himself and often I thought that he allowed himself to get caught on his poaching trips because he was as happy as a detainee as he was as a free man. In reality there was very little difference between the two and as a guest of His Majesty he never went hungry.
The Africans are a typically carefree people, and although clever they have a simple sense of logic. The native prison at Kisumu was always referred to by the internees as “King Georgie’s Hotel.” Security was very lax but one evening a prison officer decided to sharpen things up a bit and count the number of prisoners who had just returned from a working party that had been cutting hedges in the neighbourhood. He had expected to find a couple missing but to his bewilderment he found that he had one prisoner too many. A re-count failed to resolve the problem and so the puzzled officer held a roll call. One by one the prisoners answered their names and were allowed to drop out of the ranks, until at the end of the roll there was just one old and very uncertain African left standing alone in the middle of the compound. He admitted rather reluctantly that he was not a prisoner and he had committed no crime. He was merely in the habit of tagging on to the tail end of the returning line of prisoners each evening in order to get a free blanket in which to sleep and a free meal. Each morning he would drop out of the line after it left the prison and return to his wife and his hut for the day. His sense of logic saw no justice in providing free meals and lodging for criminals while he had to provide his own.
My own carefree existence and indeed that of everyone else was overshadowed in 1952 by the onset of the Mau Mau crisis. All over Kenya the dominant tribesmen of the Kikuyu tribe were swearing the blood oath in their hideous secret ceremonies. By flickering firelight in the darkened forests they swallowed their ritual bowl of goat’s meat soaked in blood and sprinkled with soil and all the vilest ingredients they could devise. Their sworn enemies were the white settlers and with sharpened pangas they set forth in massed gangs to embark upon a campaign of terrorism and murder. Throughout Kenya the white farmers and their families were butchered, their homes and crops burned, their women raped, and their cattle and livestock slashed at the hocks and cruelly crippled. A state of emergency was declared and troops were quickly dispatched from the UK.
I was fourteen years old at the time and I remember the alarm at Makueni when the security forces received word from their informers that there was a large band of Mau Mau heading in our direction. Their avowed aim was a recruiting mission to swell their numbers but for good measure they also intended to wipe out our boma, the enclave of government houses where the District Commissioner and all the other government officials had residence.
Extra troops were drafted into the area and everybody prepared weapons. Firearms were kept loaded and a man did not even pass from one room to another in his own household without a revolver in his hand. Guards were posted at night and every house was ready with flares, rockets and sirens and other warning devices fitted on to the roof tops, all ready to give the alarm at the first sign of a raid. We waited in anticipation for some weeks but nothing happened.
Finally an army patrol found twenty-eight slaughtered Kikuyu bodies only a few miles away. Tribal jealousies, the blight of Africa, had this time intervened on our behalf. Our local Wakamba had stayed loyal. Not only had they resisted the recruiting mission, but in this case it was the Mau Mau who had become victims of a massacre. Those who had survived the arrows of the Wakamba had fled back to their own territory.
Despite the Mau Mau crisis, which lasted for four years, life had to go on. For me that meant school. My schooldays were infamous for I tended to be a rogue. Because of the way we had been brought up, in the freedom of the open air and to a certain extent running wild in the bush, all of us young Kenyans were little toughs. And yet there was a spirit there that made us more than just juvenile delinquents. My education was attempted at St Mary’s School for Boys but my main occupation at that time was to lead a catapult gang of kindred spirits. There was a girl’s high school on one side of us and a girl’s convent on the other and we used to make night sorties to harass each in turn. I was eventually expelled after numerous warnings but my father went to see the priests who were my teachers and persuaded them to take me back for the following term. Some of the priests seemed to consider that I wasn’t all bad and that I was worth a second chance. After that I tried hard not to let them down.
It was at this time that we moved to Ngong where my father worked among the Masai, the tall, sinewy red-orched warriors who in the past would go out alone with a spear and shield to slay a lion and prove their manhood. The Massai are a nomadic, cattle-herding people and very few of them ever got round to tilling the land despite my father’s efforts.
However, his new job suited me, for it meant a lot of moving around Kenya to cover his vast area, and travelling around with him as much as I could helped to increase my spirit of restlessness. In between school terms I spent all my time with him on safari. They were exciting days: I faced my first charge by a magnificent bull elephant with trunk raised and ears spread, and many other memorable first experiences. I also strengthened my love of the bush and the plains, of the harsh dust-filled splendours of the African sunsets, the sounds of native music floating across the bush beneath a night sky jeweled with stars, and of the warm companionship around a glowing night fire.
I was growing up and beginning to experience more keenly and more consciously the deep mystique of Africa. I knew that one day soon it would all be swept totally away by the leprous advance of roads and cities and civilization without any but the Africans themselves having penetrated its understanding, and that the world would be poorer for its loss. Until that evil day came I knew that this was the life I wanted to lead, although I did not know how I would be able to achieve it.
When I left school I went into coffee farming. The social life in those days could be pretty hectic for we young farmers were an irresponsible lot and threw some wild parties. Invitations were never issued. That was too formal for us and the word was just passed around casually and hundreds of people would arrive. Nobody would turn up with just a single bottle of scotch, the Kenyans would always bring a crate. Feeding all those people was quite easy. We would simply drive out into the bush with rifles and shoot a couple of Thompson’s gazelle and then hold a barbecue on the lawn.
At the same time I joined the Kenya Regiment as a territorial and here I did take a more responsible attitude. This was more my kind of life and by the time the Kenya Regiment was disbanded due to the coming of independence I was an assistant platoon leader due for promotion to Lieutenant.
I quite enjoyed soldiering, although the only action I saw was being chased round the Aberdares by a buffalo. We were on a live patrol, which means that we had been issued with live ammunition. A white farmer and his wife had been murdered and the whole Kenya Regiment was out looking for those responsible. Ours was an eight man patrol with myself in charge. Most of the other patrols had a native guide but my bushcraft was considered good enough for us to manage without one.
The Aberdare range of mountains runs along the edge of the Great Rift Valley and reaches to thirteen thousand feet. It is all high forest and jungle and can get bitterly cold. On our third day out we were high up in the thick stuff and looking for that bandit gang was like looking for needles in a vast green haystack. All we found were buffalo which were everywhere in the area and proved quite a nuisance. It began to rain and got so miserably cold that we could barely close our stiff fingers around our rifles.
I decided to call it a day and told the men to relax while I unstrapped my pack and then heaved myself up into a tree to try and spot a reasonable camp site. We were surrounded by vegetation like giant celery with only a few buffalo paths forced through it. I spotted some cedar trees which looked as though they might give us some shelter for the night. They were a short way off but there was a narrow path leading in that general direction so I shouted down and pointed it out to the patrol. The men set off while I scrambled down and re-slung my pack and then I hurried to catch them up.
Because it was still pouring with rain the man who was now in the lead had his head down, and because the foliage was so thick he didn’t realize that we were following up behind two buffalo until he was only about fifteen feet behind them. They saw each other in the same moment for the trailing buffalo had stopped and turned his head as he heard our approach. Immediately the buffalo wheeled round and charged.
From my viewpoint at the tail end of our column it was like looking down a close tunnel of greenery. The leading man was tossed aside by a vicious hook of the massive black horns and then the rest of the men were desperately throwing themselves left or right as the buffalo continued to bore straight through us at full speed. The second buffalo spun round and followed the first and one man got his boot crushed. The leading buffalo missed me with his horns as he swept past and I used both hands to fend myself off from his massive flank as I fell backwards into the undergrowth.
When we picked ourselves up we found that the man who had been tossed had two smashed ribs. Darkness was closing in and so we could not radio for a spotter plane to fly him out until the following day. In the meantime it was still raining and we had only groundsheets in which to bivouac in the most extreme conditions.
There was a rather interesting human sidelight to this story. The chap who had been tossed was one of the quiet ones, small and insignificant. He took his injuries very bravely and made no fuss. Yet the man who reacted with the worst case of shock was a totally opposite type. He was the bully of the group who was always bragging about his strength and prowess. During the night he approached me miserably and asked me to tell his girlfriend back in Nairobi that he loved her. I was surprised and asked him why he couldn’t tell her that himself. He answered that he didn’t expect to get out of the Aberdares alive. He was unhurt but he was that badly shaken.
I learned then that it is usually the blusterers and those with the loudest mouths who crack first in a crisis. The quiet, steady chap who doesn’t really rate himself as anything special is more likely to take things calmly in his stride.
Kenya’s independence in 1963 turned all our colonial lives upside down. The Kenya Regiment was disbanded and many of the white farmers were selling up and moving out. The air was rife with stories of how the whites in Tanzania had been treated and we all knew what “Africanization” meant. There was no future in Kenya and the exodus caused great upheavals. My parents decided to leave and go back to Tyneside, a big decision after forty five years in Africa. They were going to retire but I still had my full life before me. I was at a loss because I could not picture myself settling happily anywhere outside of Africa. If I was forced to leave Africa then I would leave my heart behind.
I was managing the coffee estate at the time and was working at the edge of the fields one afternoon when a friend stopped by for a few minutes talk.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “There’s nothing for us here anymore and I’m fed up with the whole situation. I’m going down to South Africa and give it a try down there.”
I didn’t hesitate. If there was any soul-searching to be done then sub-consciously I had already done it. On the impulse of the moment I said simply:
“Okay. I’m with you. Let’s go.”
My employers were good enough to waive the one month’s notice that I should have worked and two weeks later we went.