The White Man’s Grave

The White Man’s Grave

Today, not even the most adamant critic of living in Sub-saharan Africa, would suggest that it was a particularily unhealthy area in which to live. This shows how very far medicine has advanced in the last 100 years, because for well in to the 20th century, Africa, and West Africa in particular, was called ‘The White Man’s Grave.’ If the snakes did not get you, then disease would! Caucasians dared not venture into Africa without donning a pith helmet and a spine pad, otherwise heat stroke or brain damage would strike them dead. Jackboots were strongly advised for both male and female attire because behind every bush a poisonous snake might strick and the leather of such boots offered a slight chance of survival. Every snake should be killed on sight, despite the fact that less than 10% of the snakes of Africa are seriously poisonous. It was thought that if they bit you, they injected you with poison through their fangs. And non-poisonous snakes like pythons were constrictors, who could strangle you to death and then swallow you whole! There was no 100% cure for a snake bite; the anti-venom serums were only about 60% effective. The majority of snake bites took several hours to kill you. Others killed you instantly. The ones that took several hours to kill might, if you were lucky, responded to a series of timely anti-venom serums and death might be avoided. One did of course have to have the serum handy and there were certain serums that had to be frozen at all times. Serums effective against African snakes were and still...
Mishkids and Civil Servants

Mishkids and Civil Servants

Here in England we are all geared up for the Olympic Games, starting this week. I hope Kenya’s athletes are on top form and win many medals. I have just been reading a fascinating book – Mishkid: A Kenyan Childhood, by David Webster (available on Amazon). David was the son of Eric Webster, a missionary in Marsabit. Mishkid stands for missionary kid. David tells of the early days in Marsabit, the hazardous roads, the building of a clinic, church and school. Something he says is very true: ‘My generation of white Kenya kids represented several very different communities. The children of civil servants, and other government employees, were often relative newcomers to Kenya. Their parents had been posted to the colony. They sometimes arrived at school fresh from England, with very white skins, rosy cheeks and relatively long shorts. We called them, disparagingly, “pongos.” They soon tanned and toughened up and took inches off their shorts. Their parents, the colonial officials of the day, are usually regarded nowadays with disapproval, even contempt. They are accused of exploitation and arrogance. The truth is that many of the white government officials of the time carried out their jobs with exemplary dedication and expertise. Many indigenous Kenyans who recall those colonial days remark on the lack of corruption, and the ability to get a fair hearing and a just ruling. Some of the white provincial and district commissioners, and young district officers, were men of great ability and integrity, and do not deserve to be tarred with the racist, exploitative brush.’ Two days ago I met up with several of just such officials,...
Remembering Birds

Remembering Birds

Birds are an integral part of the African scenery. When I think back over the many years I lived in Africa I recall many aural images. In my head I hear the piercing call of the African fish eagle, the raucous squawk of the Hadada ibis and the booming sound of the Kori bustard. But my favorite sound of all is the descending three notes of the red-chested cuckoo – Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain! However, my most vivid remembrance of birds comes from an incident that took place, not in Africa, but in the Amazon jungle. After finishing college I did a stint working in Colombia, South America. I lived with the Carapano Indians who were located in a remote valley. My simple house was built of split palm trees and it faced a beautiful pool of clear water, tinted red by the tannic acid from the falling leaves. It was a great place to swim – as long as I kept a watch for hungry piranhas. My purpose in being there was to lengthen a dirt airstrip, a herculean job since most of the trees were over three feet in diameter and the largest tool I had was an axe. And then there were the buttressed stumps that had to be dug out of the ground. Every afternoon I came back to my house exhausted, took a swim, hung up my hammock and tried to sleep. Usually it was impossible since I was surrounded by noisy Carapano children who were intrigued by the big white man with a black beard. The Carapano Indians...

Platform Parties

The Good Old Days of Platform Parties From the end of WWII until the Kenyan Emergency was declared there were around 40,000 expats in Kenya at any one time, mostly from the UK and mostly on contracts that included ‘passages.’ Some of these expats working for the administration had longer contracts, but even the shorter ones had mid-term home leave and in the times before jet travel all this added up to much coming and going by sea via Suez. Any younger reader who might imagine the eight-and-a-quarter hours in a jumbo jet between Heathrow and Nairobi as being vastly preferable to a fortnight on a passenger liner making the same journey should think again. I intend writing about the prelude to these delightful voyages and comparing the first step with the modern equivalent of two or three hours in a smoky, isolated, departure lounge divorced from your friends and well-wishers. It had become the custom for all expats going on home leave at the end of their three-year contract to have a farewell party at the popular and flourishing Nairobi, East African Railway and Harbour’s station restaurant and bar, which had a deservedly good reputation. It was the ideal place to wish farewell to the departing expats by the remaining expats. The 6 pm overnight train arrived at Mombasa promptly twelve hours where they would board the British India Line ships, which would carry the expats to the London docks. These ships were all named after a castle – whether or not the preceding town could boast a castle – the Cape Town Castle, Braemar Castle, Uganda Castle...

Rogue Rhino

I had a memorable encounter with a rhino when I was five or six years old. My parents had been transferred from Katangulu to Nassa, where they continued to minister among the Sukuma people. I had become more fluent in Kisukuma than English because I played daily with the African children. One day they asked my dear dad to shoot a marauding rhinoceros that was destroying peoples’ gardens, stomping all over their food supply of nearly-ready crops. A truckload of men, one or two with guns, had come to drive this rhino away from the area, hoping to persuade it to head back onto the Serengeti plains. They weren’t very good at aiming their rifles. They hurriedly drove off, leaving a very angry beast behind. Now the rhino was a threat to peoples’ lives. That’s when they summoned my dad. I wasn’t present when the actual shot took the rhino down, but it fell right in its tracks, looking like it would rise again at any moment to take up his charge! My dad enjoyed photography and wanted a picture of this epic event. Our neighbors were Ed and Esther Arensen and their two boys. My dad thought it would be creative to take a photo of us kids on the back of the dead rhino. However, being so young, I was not convinced the huge creature was really dead. I was SO fearful that once I sat on the back of this massive monster it would rise up on its feet and run as fast as it could with me straddled across his back! I could imagine bumping...