What Mr Sanders Really Did


Written by Veronica Bellers



Tax Collecting


The Government's wise and the Government's good,
It loves hard cash as a Government should,
And it taxed all creatures that walk or creep
Save Addax, Leucoryx and Mountain Sheep.

From A PASTORAL by B.K.C. Sudan 1924

The phenomenon of taxes was not entirely new when the British arrived. Tribute to the chiefs in the form of so many days work, slaves or produce was normal practice. But in East Africa it was the need somehow to acquire money in order to pay the tribute that many people found difficult to grasp. This was because currency in the form of cash was unknown by most. As late as the time of the great slump in 1928 people were still somewhat baffled by the whole concept. Phillip Mitchell wrote in his book "African Afterthoughts"

"I remember going to a Chief's village near a place called Singida on the central plateau and being told that he had gone into the town to try to buy shillings for his people to pay tax with. 'But' said his clerk, 'shillings are now very expensive and even for a cow the cattle traders will only give very few, so that I do not know how we shall pay the government tax.'

Another chief, an important Sukumu baron and rather a special friend of mine, said to me, 'I quite understand the situation. Do you remember about three years ago some white men came to Mwanza and started a shop called 'Banki'?' Yes I did remember. 'Well' he continued, 'they started them to buy the shillings; now they've got them. That's all!'"

In Machakos district, Kenya in 1920 Clarence Buxton and his sister, Lucy, went out on a tax collecting safari. They had a fourteen hour trudge through the thorn scrub when they found they had missed the Christian Mission that was near the village of Kangunda where rest houses had been prepared. They turned back and after a mile or so reached the village where, not surprisingly, they were "never more thankful to sit down".

"Our troubles were not over, however, for a good deal of our kit had not arrived and we had only one tent and three beds amongst five people and one knife and spoon for us all to eat with. On the camping ground were two thatched huts but not ideal to sleep in as the walls were just reeds far apart and no protection, while the front was open altogether!"

Having borrowed cutlery from the American mission, the resourceful cook, provided a dinner of "excellent soup, boiled eggs and cocoa."

Miss Buxton reported that the hut tax had just been raised from 5 to 8 rupees.

"Streams of people", she wrote "arrived at the camp....The different figures in their weird and scanty garments, most of them carrying their chits in a split stick - as they carry any letter in this country. Clarence says often an old woman comes along putting her tongue over her teeth, talking as if she had none, to show she is too old to pay tax. Another constant trick is that a man who has brought several taxes puts a handful of money down which is minus 2 or 3 rupees and which he hopes won't be noticed. When it is, he says they must have dropped on the way. Finally, to his great surprise, the missing coins are discovered in a corner of his blanket.

The money that is collected in a day is sent back to Machakos next morning, in boxes of 1000 rupees. The first instalment went off this morning at 6.30 in the charge of two askaris [police]. There are eight or nine askaris with the safari. They look very fine, as they are all tall men and wear the high red fez with a long black tassle, dark blue sweaters and puttees and khaki shorts - and of course full equipment when on duty."

In the evening Clarence organised an archery competition. A target was nailed to a tree and first the small boys, then the young men shot their bows and arrows. The boys were much the best and the audience were very enthusiastic. Finally, Clarence caused much hilarity by having a go himself and missing the target altogether.

After their marriage in 1935, my father and mother, were posted to Meru in Kenya which was a heavily populated district north of Nairobi. Because my father was the most junior DO, he and my mother went out on tax collecting safaris most of the time. They would drive to the locations by car with an accompanying lorry which transported the specie boxes back to Meru. Until then they were chained under the camp beds of the DO and his wife "using us as bait so to speak".

In Meru District the whole village came to pay the tax. The people would dress in their best and they would approach the camp singing, dancing and waving a contribution that would help to sustain the members of the tribal police. This contribution may have been a piece of wood, an egg or two, a hand of bananas or even a fowl and the chief would bring a goat or a sheep.

Some wives not unnaturally found this noisy crowd advancing on the tax collector disconcerting, or even frightening but my mother, all five foot four of her, was not so easily daunted. Besides which she was a straightforward and practical woman who enjoyed good company of any race or rank. When she went out on safari she would take with her their wind-up gramophone. A great favourite was "O For the Wings of a Dove" sung by a boy with an exceedingly high treble voice. This would send the Africans into paroxisms of laughter and she would patiently rewind the gramophone again and again while they rolled around in helpless mirth.

As well as the music she would take with her plenty of Ellermans Horse Embrocation which she rubbed on the rheumatic muscles of the old men and women which they found blissfully relieving. On the work side, once when the crowd of tax payers threatened to overwhelm them, the interpreter suggested that she was press ganged into writing tax receipts. My father was dubious to begin with - those were days when women had a strictly different role from the men - but the interpreter insisted and so she sat down and joined in.

In some distant districts my mother would submit to being prodded by the African women who were intrigued to see their first white woman and in Kisii district one day my father was happily splashing in his canvas safari bath when he caught the sound of giggling. Peering through the tent flap he found a line of maidens thoroughly enjoying the impromtu show.

After World War II in the Sudan Brian Carlisle also tried to make tax assessment a less painful duty for all concerned.

"To trade", he wrote "a person had to apply for a Traders Licence which I believe cost 4. If a trader's profits were deemed to be in excess of 150 a year he became liable to Business Profits Tax which went up gradually on a sliding scale to 30% or 40%. Very few people kept books of account which they were prepared to produce to Government so profits had to be assessed by a local board which was chaired by the D.C. and was composed of local merchants plus perhaps the odd notable. Fortunately it was considered quite an honour to sit on the B.P.T. Board but allied with this was an obligation to shoulder a reasonable assessment of your own profits.

"One of the qualifications to obtain a shot gun licence was to have a B.P.T. profit assessment of I believe, 350 and this was quite a carrot to some merchants to accept assessed profits of this level: I believe there was another higher level at which you were entitled to something else but for the life of me I cannot remember now what it was. Although I appreciate that paying tax is no laughing matter I used to try to keep the meetings from getting too serious." But in the far west, in Sierra Leone, tax collecting was rather more adventurous. As a junior officer, Pat O'Dwyer had a superior who dispensed handy hints to subordinates who were about to set out on tax collecting treks. "Always keep your carriers with you or they will lag behind. Accept the 'dash' given by the chief where you stay and then repay to the treasury in cash. As you will only be a 'small boy' the dash will not be great but the going rate is one shilling for a fowl and a penny for an egg."

Sierra Leone is a land criss-crossed with rivers and O'Dwyer used to watch nervously as the porters crossed the swaying liana tie-tie bridges, carrying specie boxes and chained together to prevent them making off with the cash, defying the ever watchful crocodiles beneath them.

Pat liked to shoot on the way which meant splashing through water and swamp This meant he would arrive looking very dishevelled. This embarrassed him as the Chief and his elders always greeted him in their best. They would escort him to his house where pleasantaries were exchanged and a pole found upon which to run up the Union Jack "To show that justice could be obtained if anyone wanted it." The carriers were expected to bring firewood and water before they were paid off; the Chief Messenger would bring the 'dash' and then at last he was able to rest.

At the first rest house he ever stayed in, Pat had just thankfully lain down on his camp bed, when, "I looked up and, coiled around the rafter, was a python. I took my 12-bore shot gun and shot it at very close range. The snake fell down, but the shot must have hit a nail or something because the grass roof ignited. It was in the middle of the dry season and everything was tinder dry. As the grass caught light I called the Messengers for help and they were magnificent. All the houses were very close together so they and some of the villagers got on top of the neighbouring houses armed with palm fronds and water and stemmed the flames. Had it gone on it would have burnt down the whole village which would have been a dreadful blow to my career in the Colonial Service."

In Northern Rhodesia Edwin Thornton considered himself privileged to have been able to experience the sights and sounds of those early mornings in the bush when camp was struck soon after dawn and the chill was still in the air; setting out on bicycles:

"with one's Messengers, the Chief, and Native Court, Treasury officials, and so on, along narrow footpaths amongst forest trees or through 'dambo' grasslands or maizefields, and all the colours and sounds seemed to be enhanced by the cold clarity of the morning atmosphere. Or one was punted across a dangerously crocodile-infested river in a twisted dug-out with no freeboard, by an old ferryman with a broken punt-pole, possibly a prototype for the chap who will take one across the Styx; but then at the other shore one rode triumphantly into the village amongst lines of village women and children ululating in, perhaps, spurious pleasure at the Bwana DO's visit. Even though one may have doubted their sincerity and their motives, it gave one a lot of pleasure to be welcomed by smiling faces."

"Village tours lasted about two to three weeks." wrote Dennis Frost, who also served in Northern Rhodesia. "When the Boma acquired its first three ton lorry I used it to carry us and our camp equipment to the starting point of the tour but we still relied upon our bicycles thereafter. Before each tour a Messenger was despatched to the chief to notify him of our plans and to secure his availability to come with us. Others went off to recruit porters to carry the luggage, both domestic and bureaucratic paraphernalia, from camp to camp during the tour.

The ritual was more or less the same at each village. Having been warned of our approach we would be met about half a mile out by all the small boys and girls in the charge of the school teacher or one of the elders, clapping their hands and singing out a greeting to us as they fell in behind our bicycles. A little further on we would come across the maidens in a bevy who joined in the singing and general jollification; then the married women and finally, at the entrance to the village the men and elders, male and female, would be assembled to accompany the chief and myself to the 'nsaka'. This was an open shelter in the middle of the village normally used by the elders as a meeting place to discuss affairs, maybe to eat their meals together, or just to while away the time. There, stools or chairs and, if the village ran to it, a table was set out for our use.

Once all were gathered and the chief and I and our assistants were safely seated, the headman led the village in a formal greeting, all going down on their knees and gently clapping their hands, wishing us well and hoping we had travelled safely. Then the villagers would squat on the ground, the menfolk gathered around the nsaka and the women and children seated a little way off but near enough to listen and chip in when they thought fit.

We in turn made small talk before getting down to the job on hand, giving ourselves time to recover our breath by asking the headman and elders if they were well and whether the crops or rains were satisfactory. We greeted anyone we recognised in the assembled throng; maybe a question to a pensioner from government service, or a joke exchanged with a newly released offender whom we had housed in the Boma gaol until recently, who had collected our water or firewood whilst awaiting Her Majesty's pleasure.

Once the formalities were over the names on the village register were called out and additions and amendments made as we proceeded to record, in the case of absentees, where they had gone, the numbers of people in the district working elsewhere, and those ho had not paid their taxes. In this way we had some idea of the movements of people between villages, or those who were working on the mines or elsewhere, and we were able to keep a check on potential tax dodgers. In the evenings and again at the end of each tour I consolidated these records of movements, together with a count of the number of taxpayers, traders and others on our books in an attempt to produce a profile of life and activity within the district as an appendix to my tour report.

After the roll call I would refer to the notes of the last visit to the village and ask what action had been taken to put into effect the suggestions or instructions issued at that time. This usually led to a general discussion during which questions were asked, complaints laid and information exchanged concerning everything from new government regulations to the state of the crops, the rains or garden raids and other matters of mutual interest.

Sometime in the course of these proceedings the young men wishing to apply for identity cards and told men applying for tax exemption would be brought forward by the headman to be examined by the chief and myself and a verdict given. If there were any litigants or complainants their cases were dealt with on the spot or they were told to follow us to our camp where they could be attended to in greater detail by the chief's court or by myself at the end of the day.

After these formalities had been completed it was usual to tour the village and village gardens in order to examine the state of the huts, latrines and rubbish pits as well as the gardens, crop storage facilities or anything else whichc ame our way. The chief and I would be accompanied by the headman and elders, and a motley collection of small children and pi-dogs, the latter merely out of curiousity, but the former so that they could relay our instructions and words of wisdom to the whole village.

All this took up to an hour depending upon the size of the village, after which e we mounted our bicycles, said our farewells and proceeded along the way to the next village, followed by expressions of good-will and assurances that what we had decreed would be carried out."



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