Sunday, 2 August 2009

Kidnap, Arrest & Murder

Part Two

In the late 80s & early 90s I was living with my boyfriend, Willie on Kiwayu, an island at the northern end of the Lamu archipelago, off the East African coast. He owned a tented safari camp, but mostly he was a deep sea fisherman. Whenever clients asked to be taken bird-watching, they would mysteriously end up two miles out to sea.
[map from my notebook]

Kiwayu is seven miles long, half a mile wide and lies parallel to the mainland, a few hundred metres offshore. Two brackish wells supplied two hamlets of about sixty people. The locals were cheery, roguish crab-catchers and fishermen. They grew a little maize and kept goats that were rarely eaten, being symbols of wealth; symbols that liked to eat their meagre crops.
Oo the landward side we made a long jetty, where we tethered our dhow Munira. Here the water was always calm, although the tide rose & fell nine feet every day. At low tide we could see miles of mango-fringed sandflats, that at high tide became a mass of serpentine channels, through which we would wind our way whenever we sailed to
Lamu, thirty miles to the south. Beyond us to the north lay Simambya, uninhabited - its name coming from the elision of the Swahili words 'kisima mbaya' meaning bad well. Twenty miles beyond Simambya was the Somali border. We rarely ventured that way - the Somalis had a reputation as trigger-happy crazies. Shifta, armed Somali bandits regularly came across the border to rob, occasionally to kill, always to terrify and occaionally to rape [men]. At least once a year they would block the landing strip and attack the local hotel across the bay from us on the mainland.
[above, Kiwayu girls]. Below, interior of our shack at night]

There was nothing anybody could do. The airborne rescue team was a figment of the Shiftas’ imagination, there were no police within fifty miles, and the handful of guards had only sticks and machetes; no guns. We were safe on Kiwayu, the islanders believed the Shifta were afraid of the sea, afraid of getting trapped on an island and would never come, and while we lived there, that was the case. We lived in a simple but beautiful shack and lived a Robinson Crusoe life of subsistence fishing, drinking salty coffee, swimming in the coral garden and having safari clients. It was an incredibly happy time.

Every few months friends would visit, warning us of their arrival by buzzing us before landing on the mainland, or they would arrive through the back channels from Lamu. With our panoramic views we could spot their boat from miles away. On day, we were coming from the jetty, up the ‘staircase’ we had carved into the sandy cliff, when we were met by a stranger approaching us from our camp. There had been no boat, no plane. Where on earth had he come from? He was a tall, handsome 29 year old, incredibly thin and wearing a curiously girlish pink straw hat.
He introduced himself as Nick Della Casa
[left] and said he had arrived to meet a plane piloted by a friend, but was three weeks late. Over supper he told us he was a war reporter and had been wandering through southern Somalia hoping to get a story because unrest there was looking like it was turning into civil war.
Somalia was suffering terrible floods and many nights the ground had been so waterlogged he’d slept in the branches of trees. Having shot enough film, he hired a boat that brought him south, but not knowing safe anchor lay on the inland side of Kiwayu, his captain had dumped him on the reef and he’d had to swim in. This was the reason why we had failed to notice his arrival – he was lucky to have made it across the reef without damaging himself or his camera, but he was luckier still they hadn’t abandoned him on Simambya where he would have quickly died of dehydration.

[Above, Buno, Kiwayu's hatmaker, trapmaker & only entrepreneur, who would have given a damned sight better service for Nick than the Somali boatman. That clam shell is somewhere in north Norfolk now]

Nick turned out to be an outlaw character. Educated at Rugby, at eighteen, he went to Sandhurst - but in the middle of training, he took off for Rhodesia and became a mercenary.
He fought there for several years, with the promise of land if they won. ‘The shocking thing was’ he said, ‘the propaganda was so good, we were certain we were winning against the guerrillas right up until Smith signed the accord with them.’
Hardened, bitter and unwilling to go home, he and his fellow mercenaries headed for Angola where they continued fighting for years. He saw and did terrible things until finally, he realised he wanted to stop. Still hooked to drama and adrenaline, he became a freelance war reporter for Frontline News, seeking out conflict and sending film reports back to newsrooms in London. Nick was beguiling, but clearly quite a nutbar.
He ended up in Mozambique where RENAMO guerillas were trying to oust the government. With his camera, he walked into the bush to try & interview the RENAMO leader. Instead the insurgents kidnapped him, keeping him captive for 18 months, moving him constantly; all of them living on the edge of starvation. Having established warm relations with his captors, when he was freed he asked if he might return and conduct the interview he had come for in the first place. They agreed and then were so livid when his report turned out to be highly critical, they put a price on his head.

Nick stayed with us for weeks.
[picture right, shack back door]
Willie adored him. Late at night over endless drinks, they swapped adventure tales they talked of ones they might do together one day. Nick wanted to go to the Middle East while Willie suggested Kenya’s Northern Frontier District to see if they could ‘bump into’ the Shifta and interview them. Nick finally left us, looking slightly less thin, keen to get back to England to see his girlfriend Rosanna, who was suffering from ME.

Willie’s and my life continued peacefully on the island, fishing, safari clients, exploring, and eventually discussing the idea of having a child.
We flew to England for a few weeks to see our families and while there had a picnic in Richmond Park with Nick and Rosanna. She was not at all what I had expected. She was tall, frail, very English and rather old-fashioned in manner. They brought along champagne so we could toast their engagement.

Back in Kenya and 6 months later, a message arrived, out of the blue. It was Nick. ‘I’m here! In Nairobi! Come as soon as you can. I’m ready for our Shifta project.’ I was appalled. When they had discussed it before, I had assumed it was all just whisky talk. Back then, it had seemed like the worst idea in the world, but it was about to become reality.

Next Week, Part 3……