May 27, 2006

Things Didn't Work Out

In addition to everything else, Marina gives me a birthday party. She makes the bread herself, along with mashed potatoes, barbecued meats and egg plant, fresh salad, lemon meringue pie and brownies. Her friend Ellen, from Peace Corps days in Togo and then New Haven, arrives from the DRC where she’s helping several pygmy tribes to learn the art of zoning land. Baptist, Marina’s boy friend is there. He’s Swiss, good natured, and the director of a small NGO focused on stopping forced marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM) — known locally as “cutting”.

All three, Marina, Ellen and Baptist speak Swahili. They are not wide eyed idealists but perhaps typical of a new generation of Expats looking to fit in to Africa rather than rule it, and content with an uncertain future rather than a romanticized, glorious past.

Dick arrives. He’s from the previous generation, from the 19th Century really. Tall, gaunt, with baby thin, clown-like hair on either side of a bald head, aviator glasses, a slight stoop, a dry wit and a weird biography, even by colonialist standards. He’s in his late 40s, although perhaps older, was born in Kenya and for years tried to leave, but never successfully. He went off to England for a while, got pieces of an education, but then things didn’t work out. He went to Bolivia for 12 years. He mumbled something about cocaine and having married a woman who liked to fight. But things didn’t work out and he returned to Kenya. He exported rare birds — he has a penchant for marginally illegal activities — but that didn’t work out either. These days he lives with his sister and his elderly mum, who run an upscale lodge. This is an odd lot; his mother, for example, always goes dreamy eyed when Dick puts a certain kind of cheese in a little tin, lets it hide for a few months until it turns blue with mold and smelly as a bushman’s socks.

During desert I asked Dick about the case of Lord Delemere’s son, Tom, who on the day I arrived was charged with having murdered a game warden walking on his property with another man and two dogs. Tom’s father owns two large properties, which total more than 150,000 acres. The murder is front page news in Nairobi, in part because this is the second time Tom has killed a black Kenyon. Six months ago he killed another man who he also claimed was trespassing. The case was dropped for lack of evidence.

Dick was defensive about Lord Tom, although I don’t think they know each other and they travel in different class circles. But there was the suggestion of white Kenyans giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Dick said the rumor around was that the killing was not in cold blood as many black Kenyans have suggested but rather a weird accident, in which Tom coming down a hill and spotted two men on his property. Land is lord in Kenya, especially for that generation of whites. The story is murky but predicated on Tom being a little wild and wild about his wild animals. Dogs present an unneeded predator to the environment. So with or without warning, Tom shot the two dogs with a .303 and killed them with one bullet each. But second bullet ricocheted off a bone and hit the game warden hiding in a bush.

Why was the warden hiding in a bush when he would have every right to visit? It’s not clear and later Dick suggested that Lord Delemere's son may have been involved in some marginal activities involving animal meat, but the whole story made more sense when Dick told it, even when he explained the second bullet’s extraordinary trajectory. “I was in the Red Cross once,” he had explained earlier, one of his few more benevolent tours of duty in the absurd. “We had some dodgey time then.” Once when driving near the Sudanese border a man tried to hijack his ambulance. Dick got out ran around the ambulance and tried to pull the man out. In the struggle the jacker’s gun went off. The bullet went through Dick’s hip bone, his penis, one testicle and out.

“I looked down and there was blood but I didn’t feel anything,” said Dick in his deep voice and in between long sips of beer. “But the same thing could have happened here.” He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘I know it sounds strange but this is a strange place and a lot of things happen that you can’t explain.’

“But whatever really happened out there,” Dick added. “Tom will have to leave the country.”

He didn’t say it with sadness exactly but clearly the case spreads doubt. Between the lines there’s always the worry that even in Kenya, someone could do what Muggabee did in Zimbabwe. The difference is that Kenya is more stable and a couple of black Kenyans, including a former president, own huge tracts of ranch land. This case could call people’s attention to the fact that the new colonialists, the new land lords, are black not white.

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