Monday, 10 August 2009

Arrest, Kidnap, Murder: Part 3

Continued from last week.........

So....Willie & Nick were off to look for Shifta in the Northern Frontier District, a wild, remote semi-desert region bordering Somalia; a border, along most of it’s length, in name only.
Somalia in 1990 was sliding rapidly towards the anarchic meltdown from which it is yet to emerge. President Said Barre - months away from being toppled - had prohibited groups greater than 4 gathering in Mogadishu. At night the city lay in darkness, the generators having been sold off by the government. There were fuel shortages, petrol queues and the cost of pasta - their staple food since Italian colonial days - had skyrocketed, along with the price of khat, the amphetamine-rich plants the entire population chewed. Inflation was so high that millions
of coins, too low in value to be of use, lay scattered in the streets like so many seashells. The Shifta, who Nick hoped to film, weren’t rebels however, they had no political agenda; they were outlaws. [above, click on map to see out planned route]
I didn’t say anything, but thought were there was every chance they would get robbed,
if they were lucky; killed if they weren't. The Somali Shifta were known for their ruthlessness; they weren’t known for being genial interviewees. I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting on my own for weeks on end, waiting for news.
If Willie was going to die, I’d rather be there, so we flew up to Nairobi together.

On arrival, we were surprised to find Nick had company. With him was his brother-in-law, Charlie Maxwell, but he had never mentioned this on the phone. Charlie was about ten years older than us; married to Nick’s older sister. He was a genial, shambling, man and though ex-army, he wasn’t nearly as athletic as either Nick or Willie. I couldn’t really understand why he had joined this idiotic, open-ended safari: his wife was only weeks away from giving birth to their first child.

Our plan was to take a bus to Wajir, where we would buy camels. They would be our pack animals, as well as our ‘cover’ for the journey. We would walk them roughly parallel
to the border, hoping to make contact with the Shifta, but telling anyone who asked, that our intention was driving the camels to Kiwayu, to become a part of our safari outfit. The distance was about the length of England. Nick had arrived at the beginning of the monsoon and the rains had arrived in cataclysmic style.

When we reached the town of Isiolo beyond Mount Kenya, the place was a giant car park. Isiolo
is known as a dusty town, but just add water et voila, mud. Everyone was stuck; the rains had made the unmetalled road north impassable. After a couple of days, a great cheer went up when, like a filthy dove with an olive branch, a mud spattered Toyota Landcruiser staggered into town. Someone had made it through. Along with fifteen other assorted travelers, we hitched a ride in the back of a truck transporting sugar bound for Mado Gashe, a town half way to Wajir. Every couple of miles, the truck would get bogged down and we would all clamber down, lay branches and stones to give the tyres some purchase, tie ropes to the front axle and heave.

Eventually, outside the village of Kula Mawe we hit a section of black cotton soil, the quicksand
of the mud world and became utterly stuck. Kula Mawe was a gloomy place, even its name means ‘Eat Rock’, but what it did have was a small restaurant, where we could eat a bowl of greasy goat stew. When Willie and I walked in, the place was immediately familiar to us. Covering the whitewashed walls of the dining area was a large mural; a landscape, with fever trees, distant mountains and in the foreground, an exhausted looking buffalo. We were familiar with the vast oeuvre of this artist. His murals cropped up in little cafes and restaurants all over the country and I had become slightly obsessed by them over many safaris. They were distinctive in their ‘pastoral gloom’ style, making Kenya look like an overcast day in Wales and were always signed, "Masterplan". I was hating this trip, but finding Masterplan had got this far north entertained me for the first time in days.

By the time another lorry got through and succeeded in pulling ours out, we realised it was taking far too long to reach Wajir, which was only start of our safari. We decided to cut our losses, buy camels in Mado Gashe and set off from there. We had spoken to a camel owner in Nairobi about what to look for when buying. She said it was vital to check their feet and their teeth. You try.
Camels sit with their feet tucked firmly under their bodies and a get an ill-tempered look in their eyes whenever your fingers hover near their mouths. In the end we bought two rather old, very overpriced males, covered in strange, abstract brand scars. We named them Makende & Bila. We also hired two guides. One was young, the other a wizened Rumpelstiltskin figure. Both were Somalis with Kenyan residency and therefore useful when shooting the breeze with the Shifta.
We slept the night in sand dunes at edged of town so as not to attract interest from officialdom in our departure, and after loading everything onto our camels, moved off at dawn. Finally, we had arrived at the kamikaze section proper.

The land was flat, sandy under foot and covered in low bushy trees, evenly spread. Occasionally we would glimpse a slight rise and the promise of a view, but when got there, there was no view, just more of the same for mile, after interminable mile, like being a bad apple & sent to orchard hell.
I began to feel very strange; not ill, but
intensely claustrophobic and a little mad. Even though the trees were neither tall nor especially dense, if we didn’t keep we would lose sight of the animals within twenty yards, despite Makende being over six foot at the shoulder and even though the ground being hard and sandy, it did not show up their footprints. It was like being in a whiteout, but made of leaves. After about three days, Charlie woke up one morning & said he’d better head back to England. He packed up and doubled back through the trees; after twenty yards he had vanished. If we did bump into the Shifta, we were going to be upon each other very quickly. [our safari kit]

We had seen only a couple of people and no buildings, but once a day Rumpelstiltskin would walk off to find milk and after an hour or so he always returned with a full gourd for the chai, and he always manage to locate us. I got him to teach me useful Somali phrases: ‘Bir ow’, meaning, ‘where’s the water?’ and ‘aner dilin’ meaning ‘don’t shoot’.
Every afternoon we would chose a campsite and set about collecting enough dry wood to build four fires before sundown. One fire was for us, one was for the Somalis so we could all cook at the same time and one each for Bila and Makende. I have never known animals like fires they way they did. They would
fold their legs under themselves and warm their necks over the flames. If there was enough kindling to make only one fire for them, they would push and shove each other and keep us awake all night with their angry groans. From their sad, haughty eyes, to their kettledrum feet, I adored those camels.

Our guides told us we were nearing a small town some way off to the south, where we could buy any last supplies before the long push to the coast. I was feeling so generally odd, I bought a
pregnancy testing kit. It was positive. I was both elated and appalled. For months, this was something we had both been hoping, but to find out in the middle of this stupid project was not how I imagined it would be, especially as the medicine we had brought to use if any of us contracted malaria was the same stuff local girls used to induce abortions.
Willie was thrilled and told Nick, but he didn’t immediately respond because he was having a ferocious argument with Rumpelstiltskin although they shared no common language. He was getting increasingly furious; shouting at the old man about some perceived inconsistency in the change the man had given him after buying the milk. Willie explained to him that buying milk out in the bush wasn't like a corner shop, people would charge what they felt like, depending on how much they had & it would certainly double if they knew it was being bought for 'mzungus'. The last thing we needed was to lose our guides. Luckily the argument
petered out mainly because Willie managed to calm the indignant and old man by asking him to please forgive his friend's outburst who was new to Kenya and a bit of a hothead.
Willie and I went off to bathe in a large puddle. When we were out of earshot, he grabbed my arm. ‘If anything happens, don’t do what Nick says, ok? We can’t trust him.’ He was whispering urgently. This was very unlike Willie, who was neither conspiratorial nor a dramatist by nature What on earth were we getting ourselves into?

The next day, we came upon three police officers living in a concrete blockhouse beneath the first big tree we’d seen in ages. They told us they were nearing the end of a six-month posting.
‘Do you ever see the Shifta?’ Nick asked.
‘The Shifta? Why do you ask?'
'Oh.. just interested in them - keeping away from them that is.'
'We stay close to the station’ came the reply. ‘The last posting here had all their guns stolen.’
‘Are they close?’
‘They are always close. But we have orders to lock ourselves in.’
‘What if they attack the locals?’
‘The locals are all Somali tribe and there is not much to steal, except from us. This is not a job, it is a punishment. Anyway, the army are out there, they are better equipped.’
It was during this exchange that I came to my senses. I wanted to meet the Shifta as little as these policemen. I didn’t want to risk catching malaria. I didn’t want to be in danger with someone I wasn’t meant to trust.
I resolved to leave - how was another matter.
We walked back into the little town where willie thought I might be able to hitch a ride, but by a fluke of luck a Cessna flown by Dutch missionaries had just landed, hoping to press bibles on the illiterate. I hitched a ride back to Nairobi and flew down to Lamu, where I settled into waiting near a telephone, not confident when, or if, I would see Willie again.
A week later, the call came.

Story concludes next week