Return to Lodwar

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

by Mervyn Maciel
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Kenyatta Imprisoned
To many of us, Lodwar was little known in the past; but in recent years this dusty town in the Turkana district of Kenya's Northern Frontier Province has gained world-wide prominence. All this can only be attributed to the fact that it was at Lodwar that Mr. Jomo Kenyatta and his associates were restricted.

Those of us who have had the "misfortune" of serving in this district will surely not like to return there again; but having spent a greater portion of my service career in Northern Frontier Districts, I have always felt a yearning to re-visit these areas.

It was not until June 26th in 1961 that I planned to re-visit Lodwar - and why?

My Brother Wilfred (Maciel)
With Jomo Kenyatta
During the historic Maralal Press Conference, Mr. Kenyatta, in reply to one of the questions asked by my brother, had described Lodwar as "a hell on earth" - a place where "you sweat from morning to evening - if you are not sweating you are covered with dust"! And with all these enough-to-frighten-anyone remarks about the place, would any young man still like to go there? Yes - my brother and I were both determined to make the trip.

We accordingly telegraphed the District Commissioner at Lodwar for permission. The Turkana district, as are other Frontier districts, is a Closed Area, and permission to enter the area is obtainable only on prior application to the Provincial Commissioner at Isiolo or the D.C. I was not very optimistic, I must admit, about the D.C.'s approval to this trip since it is not usual to approve telegraphic applications; besides normal applications have to be submitted at least a month in advance giving precise details as to the size and sex of the visiting party, the type of vehicle it is proposed to use and the particular area of the district to be visited. Furthermore, at the time of my application for entry into Lodwar, all was far from quiet in the district; there had been a recent tribal clash between the Turkana and Kararnojong tribesmen who inhabit the Kenya/Uganda border areas. All these considerations only helped to strengthen my pessimism.

In the end however, I found that my brother's optimism had survived. Our trip was sanctioned by the D.C. and when reading out his telegraphic reply to my brother, I was filled with the same joy and emotion that usually grips a person who for the first time hears of his success in a popular Sweepstake! I was simply overjoyed, thrilled, delighted - so was my brother and equally so my wife. She knew, though, that she would be unable to make the trip with our two year old son but nevertheless, as she had previously spent a fortnight at Lodwar in 1950, she was thrilled at the thought that my brother would presently be seeing the INFERNO in which I, her husband, had spent two long years.

Time was not to be lost as the approval from the D.C. was precious and had to be made use of quickly. I accordingly took a casual four days leave and we set off from Njoro in the afternoon, arriving Kitale on the evening of Saturday July 1st. The fact that my parents-in-law lived at Kitale helped matters a lot as such problems as accommodation for my wife and son did not at all arise. There was one hurdle still to be overcome however, and that was transport.

Through my past service in Turkana, I had established good contacts with the local Government Contractor at Kitale and was relying on him for conveyance. This transporter, a Muslim, who has served the Turkana district faithfully for 30 years now was very willing to assist; unfortunately, none of his trucks had returned from their Frontier tours. Owing to the unusually heavy rains in many parts of north-west Kenya and Uganda, the roads were in most cases impassable and we were told that If any of his trucks did return we would certainly be transported to Lodwar.

To our good luck and surprise, a few hours after we had left the office of the transporter, word reached us that some of the stranded vehicles had returned to Kitale and we would probably be fortunate in obtaining a lift in one of them. From Lokitaung (a sub-station of Lodwar) too came an urgent request for maize meal and the transporter was naturally obliged to despatch a truck posthaste. A driver was immediately sent to us with instructions that we be ready to leave immediately after lunch.

My brother and I lost no time in preparing for the safari, equipping ourselves with a small supply of food and drink, the bare minimum of clothing and a hold-all containing our bedding. Since I had taken only four days leave our supplies of food and drink were restricted to safari requirements only.

Lunch over and the usual adieus said, we were in the huge Army-type 5 Ton Austin truck bound for our lonesome frontier trail.

Leaving behind the greenery of Kitale, we arrived at Kapenguria by 2 p.m. Kapenguria is only 21 miles away from Kitale and like Lodwar, this little town in Suk country has also gained fame the world over because of the famous Kenyatta trial that was held here in 1953. At Kapenguria there was likely to be a delay since there were several bags of posho to be loaded on to our truck, so we decided to visit friends there while the loading was in progress. An Indian trader readily drove us in his car from Kapenguria junction to the boma where we were treated to a refreshing cup of tea by friends. These friends, both bachelors, were busily engaged in improving on their culinary art. We left them about 3 p.m. and returned to our truck ready to resume the journey.

We were fortunate in having a very lively and interesting driver Kartar Singh (in no way connected with the controversial and now banned film which bears his name!) who throughout the journey kept us amused by his frequent halts for refuelling; fortunately the trucks needed no .ef uellin g, but Kartar Singh felt that he and we too needed a bit of refuelling every so often.

Bwana Karani
Turkana Belle
Not many petrol stations exist on this route, but it is amazing to see how many "human filling stations" one notices all along. Even the smallest duka which couldn't be selling more than a few pounds of posho and sugar a day displays large "Tusker Beer" notices. These flashing notices only helped to distract and of course attract our good old Kartar Singh who, at the sign of every such notice would stop and extend to us the cordial invitation "Chullo ek Tusker Lagainga" (Come on let's have a Tusker). The tea we had had at Kapenguria was till sustaining us and we tried hard to resist the temptation of a "refuel". However, there was no alternative - we had to join in since, according to Kartar Singh, the monotony of the journey had to be broken and this was one fine way of doing it! We reluctantly accepted this fact and joined Kartar Singh in this new endeavour to rid one of safari monotony. After we had gulped a few glasses of beer, we noticed a truck approaching us from Lodwar direction. It was one of the Government transporters' trucks which, according to the driver, had seen quite a rough safari. We were warned that we might have to camp out for the night. We were prepared for the worst. Kartar Singh, our driver and entertainer, was soon to leave us. He had been given instructions at Kitale to transfer his load on to this truck and return to Kitale in time to resume his Turkana trip with the mail for Lodwar and Lokitaung.

As soon as the transfer of loads on to the respective trucks was completed we set oft. Our new driver, a Sebei from Uganda, was equally cheerful and extremely efficient at the wheel. He was suffering from the strain of his earlier safari and look quite fatigued. If we were agreeable, he suggested that we drive until dark and then camp out in the bush for the night. This seemed fine and at 10 p.m. we stopped at Loroo on the Uganda border. With pariah dogs barking from the nearby village and hyenas laughing throughout the long night, my brother and I passed quite a sleepless night. At first light the next morning, in fact at 3 a.m., we woke the driver and resumed our journey.

The road was very rough and bumpy and the Loiya Escarpment nerve-wrecking. A road sign conspicuously displayed at the entrance to the escarpment reads "Private burial ground for reckless drivers". The sight of this inscription was enough to make anyone shudder, recoil and return. But these drivers have been plying on this route for several years and such hazards present no problem at all to them. After some five hours of rough and dreary driving - during the course of which we stopped at one stage at Loiya to sign the Log Book at the Tribal Police Post - we eventually arrived at Lodwar boma at a few minutes passed 8 a.m.

Bwana Karani
Government Quarters at Lodwar
The D.C. was away at Nairobi, so we reported on arrival to the Administrative Officer in the boma at the time. After these formalities were completed, we were taken over by a very hospitable and likeable staff of Goans who included among others, the Medical Officer to Mr. Kenyatta. The lavish hospitality we received from these gentlemen cannot adequately be covered in this article, but It is worth recording that they went out of their way to make us comfortable in every possible respect. Even the weather seemed to treat us with tender care the temperature being tolerable and sand storms less furious. Despite an absence of 12 years from this District, I renewed quite a few old acquaintances and noticed that there had been quite a few changes too. The shopping centre, for instance, had undergone a complete change although very much in keeping with N.F.D. standards. The D.C. now had a palatial house. There was a new 40-bed hospital where even major operations were performed by the young Goan medico, a new school and Prison and five separate blocks of houses - one of which was vacated by Mr. Kenyatta not so long ago. Even the office hours had recently been altered, and wisely too. Officials in Lodwar now work from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at a stretch with no afternoon session. This. for a hot place like Lodwar is a welcome change and also helps regulate tempers!

Bwana Karani
Turkana at Lodwar
The inhabitants of Turkana are still very primitive and prefer so to remain - clothing making little or no appeal to the masses. The men wear no clothing at all although they are very particular about plastering their heads neatly with ochre and proudly displaying ostrich plumes from the crest. The women clothe themselves very scantily with goats or cow hide - yet adorn their oil stained bodies with beads of varied hue. The main diet of the people is goats or camel milk, raw meat, posho and pints of fresh blood.

The district has unfortunately suffered a lot from famine and many of us will recall the excellent work put in by the R.A.F. in transporting Famine Relief supplies to these arid areas.

At Lake Rudolf, 45 miles away from Lodwar, the Government runs a Paupers Camp for those hardest hit by famine and drought. The numbers at these camp are steadily increasing. Posho is supplied free of charge by Government while fish which abounds in the Lake goes to supplement their diet. In return, the paupers turn out bundles of fine rope for the Administration - this rope is invaluable for donkey and camel safaris.

We were unfortunately unable to secure transport to Lake Rudolf (which I have visited on several occasions previously) and this was naturally a bit of disappointment to my brother. Since we had seen most of what Lodwar had to offer us, we decided to return to Kitale the following day. After an early dinner on July 4th, we left Lodwar for Kitale at 10 p.m. that night.

Thirty miles of sandy terrain had barely been covered when we came across the Lorogumo river which was in flood. If there were no further rains during the night, we would be lucky to ford it by about 10 a.m. the following morning. We therefore resigned ourselves to this fact and spent the rest of the night on the truck. Fortunately for us the river was receding and by about 7 a.m. we had crossed over and were now driving happily through hot desert country. There was little to be seen along this trail - scrubland, thorny bush, miles and miles of black lava rock interspersed only with primitive Turkana youths herding their goats or camels from their nearby manyattas (Masai term for village).

We had not had any breakfast and were naturally beginning to feel the pangs of hunger. However, we decided to endure until the nearest duka, some 80 miles away was reached. Meanwhile, on the way we bought a goat as a standby little realizing at the time that this poor creature was to be our main stay for the next day or two.

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana
Throughout the drive along the 80 mile stretch we encountered two rather bad road patches; but for the assistance and techniques of the driver and Turn Boys, we certainly would have been bogged down at some of the sand rivers. But this was not all; instead of a late breakfast we had hoped to have at the end of our drive, we found, to our utter surprise and dismay, a stubborn, swollen and angrily flowing tributary of the Turkwell river at Amudat. We were now on the Uganda border but just couldn't get across. The river was in spate and swelling fiercely every moment. There was nothing we could do. At the earliest it would take two to three days for the waters to abate and that too if there was no further rain. What a desperate situation we had encountered. With our food and drink supplies nearly depleted, you can well imagine the feelings of my brother and I. It was his first experience and one I am sure he will not easily forget. The only seemingly consoling words I could offer him in this our plight were, "Well, life's like that in the N.F.D."! We did not despair, however. After greedily devouring some half-cooked goats' meat in typical Robin Hood fashion, and gulping down cups of strong sweetened tea, we decided to park ourselves in the truck and retire there for the night. Stranded with us on the Lodwar bank of the river were two other trucks and one Land Rover belonging to the Ministry of Works, while early the following morning we were joined by three Kenya Police trucks from Lokitaung. On the Kitale side two civilian and one Police truck were also stranded; in fact this party had spent two nights at the river now but were in a much better position than we. On their side were based most of the dukas owned by the Indian and Somali traders who dwell on the Uganda border, while there was not the remotest sign of human habitation on our side. Naturally we had to do something about replenishing our food and drink stocks. The goat solved only part of our problem - for the drink part, we were fortunate in securing the services of a Turkana youth who gladly swam across the river and ferried bottles of beer to us at a remuneration of one shilling per round swim. This wasn't bad at all and we, as did the others, took full advantage of his services. At the end of our unfortunate experience, this energetic youth had earned a little under twenty shillings.

Villager from Daaba
Villager from Daaba
The weather in the mornings seemed clear and bright and we were hopeful we would get across - but it had rained the previous night and this only helped to swell the level of the river even further - much to our disappointment.

Among those marooned with us was a South African employee of the Ministry of Works who was as anxious as we were to get back to his family. He informed us that if the waters had receded sufficiently enough by 1 p.m. he would send one of his heavier trucks across and later get us all towed across to the other bank. No amount of anxiety would solve the situation - we needed pluck and grit and a good bit of optimism too.

The drivers and Turn Boys of the various stranded trucks kept planting sticks to mark the water level. Some of them were hopeful we would get across in about two to three hours time; others were hopelessly pessimistic and completely ruled out the idea of our being able to cross over for the next two days at least. This was much too much for us. There was no means of getting a message across to my family or to my office at Njoro informing them of my plight. but the South African was both anxious to get back and optimistic about the weather; for the best part of about two hours we kept consoling each other - by about 12:30pm the waters were receding but rather lazily. At approximately 1.30 p.m. when the level of the river had dropped slightly, the South African made bold and sent one of his trucks across. Faces that had been long drawn and dejected during the past day began beaming with joy as the first truck cut proudly across the waters of this stubborn river. The going was not easy, however, and at one stage it seemed as if the vehicle might be washed away with the tide; but a Police truck from the opposite bank together with scores of volunteers towed the truck to safety. Then followed the Land Rover carrying the delighted South African. We were next on the list and by no means did we have an easy passage. After us followed the remainder of the M.O.W. and Police trucks. We were all excited and overjoyed at having crossed the river to safety; so were our friends who were also marooned on the opposite side and who had also now crossed over safely.

Jubilant shouts could be heard from either direction as the whole operation was completed and then amidst thunderous cheering from the Suk and Turkana tribesmen and the various spectators who had congregated to watch our two-day ordeal, we finally departed.

The driver was shrewd enough to maintain a regular speed lest we get stuck again; in a little under two hours during the course of which we covered stretches of washed away and sloshy roads, we were at Kapenguria. All along the countryside between Amudat and Kapenguria we passed several batches of guinea fowl and dik-dik who all posed with a challenge which seemed to suggest their knowledge of our being unarmed.

Within a few moments of leaving Kapenguria we were back again in the farming zone of the TransNzoia. It all seemed such a change from the waste and barren scrubland we had travelled through all the way from Lodwar. Even the primitive spear-armed tribesmen had faded away and his place taken by a modern, richly clad, civilised and cultured townsman. This was the atmosphere in which we returned Kitale - to tell our family and friends of our fate and experience during that all too memorable safari to that "HELL ON EARTH".

Kenya Map
1963 Map of NW Kenya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
The Goan Voice (Nairobi)
August 12th, 1961
Books by the Author
Bwana Karani
From Mtoto to Mzee
Additional Articles
To Lodwar I'm posted
Wanderings Among Nomads
Memoirs of a Frontier Man
With The Pastoralists Of Kenya’s Northern Desert Once More
Escape from Zanzibar
The Life And Times Of An Indomitable Goan Lady Mrs. Mascarenhas Of Kisii
"Uncle" Gerald Reece of Kenya's N.F.D.
The Unforgettable Dubas of Kenya's Northern Frontier
Memories of life in Turkana in the 1940s
The Unforgettable Bwana Sasa Hivi of Marsabit


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