British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Ian D. St.G. Lindsay
Wote Timamu, Effendi
Tribal Police Force
Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Left! Right! Left! As on every other morning at this time, I could hear the single pair of booted feet marching up the concrete footpath towards my office in the Provincial Administration's Divisional District Officer's Headquarters. Sitting at my desk, out of the comer of my eye, I caught the movement of a shadow in the doorway. I looked up as a grinning Tribal Police Sergeant Suleimani made his daily report:

"Wote timamu, (All present and correct) Effendi."

I thanked him: "Asante, Sar' Major."

As usual it was exactly 7.28 am, and the immaculately uniformed, stiffly starched and highly 'bulled' Sergeant Suleimani, standing smartly at attention, silver-knobbed malacca cane under his left armpit and right hand quivering at the salute, was reporting that his detachment of tribal policemen, or kangas, were assembled on parade on the road outside my office. At this daily parade I would normally inspect, and occasionally address, the mustered tribal policemen (TPs) before they were dismissed to their allocated duties in the surrounding locations, or village areas, within the Division.

Originally a body of messengers employed by District Commissioners in the earlier days of colonial rule, the Tribal Police Force was officially constituted in 1929 as an executive under District Commissioners and, within the Chiefs and Headmen organisation, the Force was tasked with the performance of crime prevention and general policing duties in the tribal reserves, with the investigation of serious crime being the responsibility of the colony's police force, which generally operated outside the tribal reserves.

The Tribal Police Force, as its name implies, was basically recruited along tribal lines. Outside the tribal reserves, in the cities and urban areas, for example, where many tribes were represented in the local population, its ranks were a tribal melange.

My story is not about the Tribal Police Force, though it is of an askari - a very special character who, in this case, just happened to be a tribal policeman, but whose type will be well known to many former officers of the Colonial Service in Africa.

Suleimani bin (son of) Abu Abdulla, a Nubian whose family originated in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan in the Sudan, was bom in the early 1920s to his father's second wife. He was bom in the settlement which had been established on the outskirts of the city for the descendants of Mehmet Emin Pasha's Sudanese soldiers, who were levied at the end of the 19th Century for the opening up of Equatorial Africa.

Wote Timamu, Effendi
11th East African Division
The family had a four-generation tradition of military service. Suleimani's great grandfather was one of Emin Pasha's soldiers. His grandfather served in the Uganda Rifles in the early 1900s; his father was in the King's African Rifles in World War I and Suleimani himself, also in the King's African Rifles, served in Burma in World War II with the 11th East African Division.

At war's end, Suleimani, by then a Sergeant, stayed on in the army. He left the King's African Rifles towards the end of 1952 with the rank of Company Sergeant Major, and two months later, in response to a recruiting drive, joined the Tribal Police with the rank of Acting Sergeant.

From the outset Suleimani was held in high regard by everyone who worked with him and, although the establishment structure for TPs limited the senior rank to Sergeant, the presence, demeanour and general stamp of the man were such that both his subordinates and superiors, indeed even his contemporaries in rank, addressed him by his former military rank. This manifested itself as either "Sar' Major" or, more usually, from his fellow TPs at any rate, the complimentary "Major".

Some years earlier, when he was a soldier, Suleimani had met and married a 16 year old Boran girl, who had been given into prostitution by her father to pay some pressing family debts. On her first night in the brothel she had been assigned to Suleimani. It must have been love at first sight for, early in the morning, the pair stole away and wed. Two attempts by the girl's family and the bordello keeper to get her back from a very determined Suleimani were aborted in the face of a ferocious defence. Eventually, when reason prevailed, Suleimani undertook to pay the family debts in place of the customary bride price for his wife. By the time I met him, Suleimani was the proud and very protective father of two sets of twin daughters. He and his wife were the only Africans I ever knew whose obvious love for each other showed in their eyes.

Thoroughly loyal, absolutely trustworthy and always respectful, he was the ideal mentor for a new and untried DO. Remarkably though - in view of the ranks he reached, first as a soldier and then as a tribal policeman - Sergeant Suleimani was only partially literate. Moreover, his English was not very good, though clearly he understood more than he spoke. This lack of formal education however was scarcely a handicap, for he was above all a thinker. Problems for him were mere irritations interrupting the orderly and disciplined flow of life. When any hitch or difficulty presented itself, he would apply himself immediately and assiduously to its solution and elimination using, I imagine, a sort of NCO's mental military appreciation process.

There was the time the Nubian gin court exhibit went missing: a man and his two adult sons had been arrested for the umpteenth time for manufacturing Nubian gin, a particularly potent and often lethal high-proofed spirit. The distillation and consumption of the cloudy liquor, which was produced on illicit stills hidden in the bush, was strictly against the law, notwithstanding its extreme popularity amongst some tribes, despite its capacity to blind, paralyse and kill. The profits however were great, but so too were the personal risks and the punishments.

The three accused, as usual, pleaded not guilty and the case was remanded for hearing with the exhibits - some one dozen or so bottles of gin - being placed in a cupboard for safekeeping. On the day after the case was eventually heard and the three accused convicted. Sergeant Suleimani returned the exhibits to my office for destruction. As he put them on my desk, I absent-mindedly removed the cork from one of the bottles and sniffed the contents.

"What's this Sar' Major?", I queried, surprised. "It's not gin."

"Ndio Effendi, is Jin, Effendi", he insisted. "Jin-ja beer, Effendi", he. went on.

"Jinja beer? Never heard of it." Then the fog began to clear. "Oh, you mean ginger beer."

"Naam", he agreed. "Jin-ja beer, Effendi."

"But here", I challenged, as the fog began to close in again. "Why do you mean ginger beer?"

It was then I learned that on the day before the case was to come to trial every one of the bottles of gin was found to have been broached and, worse, emptied. The presence of the liquor had been too strong a temptation for those responsible for its custody. And, normally, that would have been that: no gin, no case. But Sergeant Suleimani had had other ideas, solving the problem with a few bottles of ginger beer. Fortunately, the court had not been as nosy as I.

Still on the subject of Nubian gin; some time later I was on patrol with a party of TPs, and we visited an area where stone was quarried and dressed. The stonecutters and their families lived alongside the quarry where they also grew and smoked bhang and manufactured and drank Nubian gin. Permanently under the influence of drink or a drug, these people were considered by the rest of the population as being kabila ingine (of another tribe).

The blasting technique used for extracting the stone was very crude; consequently the area around the quarry was a mass of rubble, in which the stonecutters would hide their illicit liquor by burying it in 44 gallon drums, and covering the lids with a layer of rubble, making it fairly difficult to find.

On this particular day, though, the quarrymen were out of luck: we uncovered 12 full drums buried in the rubble. But we immediately had a problem: how to get rid of their contents, for it was impossible for us to lift them out of the ground. After giving it some thought, I told Sergeant Suleimani to get the TPs to collect shovels from the stonecutters' camp, gather up any faeces they could find - cattle, dog, human, it didn't matter - and put it into the drums of gin. If we couldn't take it away, I reasoned, we could at least make it undrinkable.

"Ndio, Effendi," he said, "Lakini" he paused respectfully.

"But what, Sar'Major?" I asked.

He went on to explain that he believed the gin we had found had been made for sale: there was just too much for the stonecutters to be able to drink on their own.

"And so?" I persisted.

"When we have left," he continued, "They will simply remove whatever we have put into the gin, and sell it without saying anything to the people who buy it."

"Basi," I said. "What do you suggest?"

Turning, he called to the TPs, "Tafuta mtalimbo!" (Look for a crowbar!)

When a crowbar had been found he instructed his men to punch holes in the bottom of each uncovered drum. After one or two holes had been made, the contents began to drain away and soon the drums were empty, and the problem was solved.

Of course, when we returned on a follow-up visit, we found that the holes in the drums had been plugged with tar - the distillers would not give up that easily. Continued treatments with the crowbar, however, eventually ensured that the drums could no longer be used.

Another example of Suleimani's ingenuity occurred some months later when a particularly nasty piece of work turned up outside my office. The man had been released from a maximum security prison where, recalcitrant and uncooperative throughout his incarceration, he had been detained for a number of years on suspicion of being a member of a terrorist organisation. He was also thought to have taken a number of revolting and depraved secret oaths, which appeared to have affected his frame of mind. Though now free, he continued to maintain his defiance and obstinacy and simply sat on the ground outside my office, where he had been unceremoniously dumped by his relieved former gaolers, and refused to move or speak.

All we had to do to get rid of him was find out where his family lived; but no matter what we did, he refused to communicate. After two days of this. Sergeant Suleimani determined to put an end to the fellow's nonsense; the Serikali (Government) should not be made to look foolish by a wazimu (madman), he said.

Enlisting the aid of Namebu the Sweeper, whose job in the town was the least esteemed but the most essential - he was the local night-soil collector - Sergeant Suleimani returned within the hour with all the information we needed, and the news that the man was on his feet and anxious to be on his way.

It seems that Sergeant Suleimani had commandeered Namebu's donkey cart, which was used for the nightly emptying of the town's latrine buckets. Employing it as a tumbril, he had paraded the defiant one along the town's main street. The derisive comments and howls of laughter from the townspeople had quickly done the trick.

A strict disciplinarian. Sergeant Suleimani was responsible for carrying out whipping sentences awarded by the elders of the local native court who wisely considered that, for minors, six of the best was a far better punishment than a term of imprisonment. He took his responsibilities seriously, believing that, as an officer of the court, he had a duty to ensure as best he could that the offender did not, as the Koran puts it, 'return to transgress again.' I often wondered if he didn't also see each of the young rascals as a possible future suitor for one of his beloved daughters, this thought lending strength to his arm.

There was much ceremony attached to Suleimani's work. The delinquent was stretched out face downwards on a bench, a wet cloth or handkerchief covering his bared buttocks. Assistants sitting on the ground at each end of the bench holding his hands and feet ensured that the wrongdoer wriggled as little as possible.

So much for the preparation. In the execution, the Sergeant's method of attack was a complicated routine. The cane would come in low-level on the forehand, skimming over the head of the TP hanging onto the target's feet, striking a glancing, stinging blow on the underside of the gluteus maximus. In a continuation of the movement, a backhand blow would land on the upper side of the muscle on the return swing. The cane, which by now had soared straight upwards to the full extent of the Sergeant's arm, would then crash down in an audible Crack! onto the flinching buttocks.

"Numba Wan" Sergeant Suleimani would announce to the witnessing DO, the protesting recipient and anyone else who had turned up to watch the show. At 'Numba Tree,' the yelling, writhing boy was released to run around and rub his burning flesh, all the while making loud and voluble promises that he would never, never sin again. After this breather, the Sergeant's assistants would round up the victim and the rest of the sentence would be carried out to even more yelling and squirming. It would be true to say, I think, that there was very little back-sliding amongst the youth of that area.

Islamic law observes the convention of not raising the caning hand above the shoulder, by requiring the scourger to hold a copy of the Koran under his armpit while carrying out the sentence. Sergeant Suleimani - himself a staunch Moslem - put his own interpretation on that requirement, however; he would hold the Koran firmly in the armpit of his non-striking hand!

A few months before I quit the colony and the Colonial Service, the decision was made to include a contingent of Tribal Police in what was to be the last Queen's Birthday Parade, before the colony was granted independence. Sergeant Suleimani was given the task of training and preparing the squad of 60 TPs. Daily inspections and practices were held to refine and fine-tune drill movements and dress.

Wote Timamu, Effendi
Government House, Kenya
Finally the day arrived and, as the men formed up, ready to march on to the parade ground at Government House, it was obvious that Sergeant Suleimani had again done a first-rate job. The squad's turn-out was faultless, brass and leather gleamed, puttees were wound precisely and khaki drill uniforms starched and ironed to a glazed perfection.

Now, as anyone who has worn starched drill will know, a uniform without a stray crease or two is practically unattainable. Sergeant Suleimani had managed it for his whole squad, however, through the simple expedient of not allowing his men to sit down once they were dressed. And when they set off for Government House they had travelled standing up in the back of the DC's lorry.

As they marched onto the parade ground behind the leading military band, and under the command of Sergeant Suleimani bin Abu Abdulla, the men of the Tribal Police on that day seemed second to none.

It was some years before I returned to Africa on a visit to the former colony, now a republic. I went to see Suleimani, who by then was no longer a Tribal Policeman. It seems that, though he tried for a couple of years, he just could not come to terms with the new order. For men like Suleimani, old loyalties do die hard. Unable to switch his allegiance and, I suspect, unwilling to compromise his principles, he retired and opened a small general goods shop among his people in the settlement where he was born.

When finally it was time for me to go, I took Suleimani's hand, thanked him again for his loyal service and wished him well for the future.

"Kwaheri, Sar'Major na asante." I said, my voice quavering somewhat emotionally, as I bade him farewell.

As I turned to leave, the old askari snapped to attention, tucked his walking stick under his arm and, raising his hand in salute, answered:

"Masalkheri, Effendi."

Then he added, with a grin: "Wote timamu, Effendi."

map of British Empire
1956 Map of Northern Frontier District
Colony Profile
Kenya
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 67 (April 1994)


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