What Mr Sanders Really Did

Written by Veronica Bellers

"The Best Years Give of his Life in this God-Damned Spot."

"...Then the mosquitos ... phew" McCall February 1941

Lines attributed to a D.O. who died in Tana river District 1915
(From "A Nosegay of Cacti" collected by J.S.S. Rowlands.)

'Ship me somewhere East of Suez'
The man who could write such rot
Should come and live
And the best years give
Of his life in this God-damned spot.

I am sick of the dusky maidens,
I'm sick of all the things
One has to eat
And the prickly heat
That whisky and soda brings.

I'm sick of the spicy breezes
I loathe your coral strand
And the surf that roars
On the reef girt shores
Of this God-forsaken land.

I loathe your doddering palm-trees
With their everlasting quiver.
Give me some grass
And an English lass
And a Sunday on the river.

Accursed be these damned mosquitoes
Why were there ever made such things?
To buzz and bite
Through the sweaty night
And twang with their blasted wings.


If I'd only kept off women,
And left the gees alone.
Its always the same old story
'I might have stayed at home.'


I ain't a repentant sinner
And if I could put back the clock
It's six to four
I'd keep the whore
Who landed me in the dock.


Old Mac, the Government Doctor,
Gave me at most a year:
There's nine months gone
And I still live on -
If you call it living here.

I know that my number's hoisted
I'm only skin and bone
But I shan't much grieve
For the life I leave
When I start for the great unknown.

Most men who served in the Colonial Service can remember the excitement, the fascination, the friendships, the hard work and the achievements but they have played down the loneliness of living day after day far from home, often in considerable discomfort and surrounded by people who were very different from themselves.

During the Second World War J.A.G. McCall was posted to Brass in Owerri Province, Southern Nigeria; an area which he covered by launch (when it was working), car, canoe or bicycle.

On 6th September 1941 he wrote home:

"The last week I have been in Brass, and it has been a pleasant change after weeks of constant travelling. The other evening I was surprised to be disturbed after nine in the evening by the whole of my staff who had come to pay me a visit. They came to 'beg' me as they say in this country. On this occasion their begging consisted in asking that there might be less travelling. I rather sympathised with them, they don't get much chance of home comforts; they are always on the move, and only see their wives for less than a week every month."

At the time Johnnie was not married himself and he lived a very solitary life during the war years, relying on his Pye radio which brought him war news and classical concerts. He was not able to accede to the request of the staff to travel less, and the following day:

"I am off on tour again. This time I am doing an unusual tour. I am going to Degema as usual, but there I am abandoning my launch for three days and am going into the Ahoada division.... I can reach the most distant parts of this district more conveniently through Ahoada than from any other direction.... It will be a change to travel on roads and by car."

He adds rather shyly:

"It is not good to be always entirely on one's own. It is a well known fact, and it is pathalogical as well as pathetic, that the less a person in a lonely station sees of his fellow kind, the less he wants to see of them. There have been cases of chaps stationed in very lonely stations who have fled to the bush when they have heard of the impending once-three-monthly visit of the European Medical Officer. I don't want to get into that state. And as the doggerel rhyme puts it, "black mens' ways and black mens' faces" are apt to get a bit nerve wearing at times, for certainly their ways are as different to those of the European, as the colour of their faces. No Administrative Officer lives closer to the Native than does the A.D.C. Brass."

But keeping up a cheeryness, he adds: "Oh, but it's a great life and here I am after a year in Brass, still liking it as much as ever." It is only reading between the lines of his letters and imagining what it must have been like minute by minute of every day that one realises that sometimes he may have dipped into despondency.

Perhaps especially this was so when he was not busy. As the song puts it, "For there's nothin' like a Sunday, makes a body feel alone."

"My Sunday timetable" he wrote on 5 October 1941 from 'The Consulate, Brass,' "is different to that of other days, as of course is the Sunday programme of most people. I get up at six. That is normal, unless I want to lie-in but that is not very necessary in a place when any late night on Saturday is out of the question. I go over to the office and either work or write letters until ten, when I have my breakfast. Then I return to the office as now, and do not have my lunch until four in the afternoon. Lunch on Sundays consists of palm oil chop - the dish celebre of the West Coast of Africa. This is chicken boiled in palm oil, and served with all manner of titbits such as local red pepper etc. It is an acquired taste, and I did not like it at first, but now that I think of my coming lunch today, my mouth waters. It is undoubtedly the best meal of the week, and I should have it every day, if it were not so very rich, and thus fattening, and this is a question to be reckoned with in Brass when one never gets any exercise. Chicken, chicken, chicken ... every day and every meal. Unless you open a tin, there is no other staple food to eat. I refrain as far as possible from opening tins, particularly in wartime, when tins mean imported articles."

One of the places on McCall's beat was Nembe "which is surely one of the last places it was ever intended that a white man should live. It is a town lying in the midst of a mangrove swamp, and in the wet season it is difficult to find a dry spot in the Rest House Compound. The town is a collection of the most ramshackle, tumble-down houses that ever you saw in your life. Most of them are built of "pen" (corrugated iron) and were put up in the palmy days of the last century when the Nembes controlled the oil trade in these parts. Now they have lost all that trade and much of their former wealth. There is little prospect for their future, and they have become an idle and discontented people torn by dissension and intrigue. This attitude to life is reflected in the condition of their town. There can be nothing uglier than a broken-down, and rusty corrugated iron house, and as they were built quite indiscriminately, and close together, the picture of ugliness, dirt and stink has to be seen to be believed.

I think I have already described to you the rest house. It is a mud wall building with a corrugated iron roof, and it also is falling to pieces. (The Nembe Native Administrtion has no money to repair it.) Inside, the floor is perpetually covered with a green slime, and the floor has cracked and sunk, and looks as if it might at any moment fall into the creek. There are large gaps between wall and floor, and also large holes in the walls. When darkness falls the rest house becomes alive with crabs - crabs large, medium, small and tiny. They run all over the place, and Easten [the auditor] who was having his first taste of the delights of Nembe, played games with them and even tried to arrange races between them. Then the mosquitoes ...whew. Unless you want to be eaten alive you just have to go to bed."

Not every officer lived in such places with unappealing animal life but one in the Sudan Political Service living in Renk on the Upper Nile had a daily routine during the rains of "walking down a cleared path to the river before breakfast, picking the leeches off his legs, wiping the mould off his boots, followed by breakfast, after which he would proceed to the office where he spent his mornings giving his clerk a thorough grounding in the mysteries of the Civil Secretary's filing system." The clerk subsequently rose to the top of his profession. [Set in Authority]

To say that these batchelors were not lonely would be to ignore the basics of most young mens' characters. And if a man was lucky enough to have met and become engaged to a lady in England, the waiting for her to join him was almost unbearable. Brian Carlisle was in just such a position in 1953. His frustration was exacerbated by the fact that Hazel's family were unhappy about her going to live in the Sudan once the couple were married.

"My darling," he wrote in March of that year, "sometimes all this wrangling about when you are going to come out makes me feel an awful cad and beastly selfish. But seeing other people bring their brides out ...I just thought it was the natural thing to do but this criticism does give me qualms. But when a man really loves a girl like I love you this separation really is absolute hell and I don't want to prolong it. I think in a way it is worse for me than an engaged man in England because I live alone and after 5 years out of 6 in outstations in the Sudan I am fed up with being alone..."

He was not the only one to feel that way. In 1941 my father, Hal Williams, was transferred from Narok, where he was living with my mother and three year old brother, to Garissa in northern Kenya. At that time the Italian Army was threatening Kenya's northern border and units of the Kings African Rifles and South African troops were being drafted in to defend it. Administration officers were given military ranks and the whole area was put on a war footing.

Wives were strongly discouraged from living in the Northern Frontier even in peacetime. It was a bafflingly masochistic policy which made life far more spartan than was necessary and no provision or thought was given to where the families left behind would live. For about a year after his transfer my mother and lived in a variety of places: she rented a house for a while but that was too expensive, and for short periods she, the baby and ayah stayed with her aunt, Olive Collyer, in Kabete. Then my mother took a job as a nanny, which provided money and a roof over their heads. But it was a difficult period.

Meanwhile in Garissa Dad was bored to extinction. Low morale sapped his energy and he was worried about money. On 14 March, 1941 he sent an official request for a transfer to "The Hon. Chief Secretary, Nairobi. Thro' Officer-in-Charge, N.F.D. [Northern Frontier District"]:


I have the honour to ask that the question of my transfer from Garissa be considered by Government.

2. The facts are that in October 1940 I was stationed at Narok when I was notified of my transfer to Garissa. In common with the great majority of the Administration I had applied to be released for military service but had not applied for Administrative service in the N.F.D. and had no desire to leave Narok involving as it did the keeping up of two separate establishments. However as I understood it was a special case and that my services were considered to be of use to the war effort at Garissa (which was then a war zone) the situation was accepted without complaint and I was only too happy to stay as long as those conditions applied.

3. I would now submit however that these conditions no longer apply and would ask that my transfer be arranged as soon as is convenient.

I have the honour to be


Your obedient servant"

His request did not find favour at all. Hoskins, the Chief Secretary made him sweat for five weeks before replying on 26th April 1941:


Dear Williams,

I have deliberately delayed answering your letter of 11th of April for some time until I could have an opportunity of discussing it with Reece and also of making a cool and unbiased judgement on it.

First of all I like officers to write frankly and to say exactly what they feel and I appreciate the confidence shown in me by your writing so freely.

After five years of the most comfortable stations in the Colony you have been required to serve in the Northern Frontier District and you have been there six months and find yourself bored to death with no work to do. The work in the NFD and in other outlying stations - even in Narok - is what you make it. If you are content to wait for work to be forced on you there may be less than half an hour's work a day, but I cannot believe that in a district of the extent and population of the Garissa District there is not ample work, and surely a mass of arrears of work, to keep two men busy.

I am afraid that the North appeals only to a limited number of officers and that we have to require others to serve there even though it does not appeal to them. In wartime we expect every officer to put his heart and soul into any job to which he is sent.

As to the double establishment, your wife has, I know, relations in Kenya and my latest intelligence was that she was with you in Garissa.

You were certainly sent for a special purpose to Garissa but the war is not over though its focus has altered...

Had you put your back into the job at Garissa, even though you did not like it, I would have done my best to have met your wishes over your next station, but the best advice I can give you now is work. Look for work and make yourself enjoy work with the consolation that you are doing the job that you are required to do in wartime.

Yours sincerely."

Although I do not have my father's reaction to this rocket, from the later correspondence it seems clear that it gave him a tremendous jolt. And the Chief Secretary was right, my mother had unexpectedly turned up in Garissa and without doubt that was the real reason why his spirits and his work improved dramatically.

Without letting him know, my mother had packed her toddler son and the ayah into the Ford V8 box body and headed north.

"We spent the night at the hotel at Thika and here I went and saw the local policeman who was a friend of ours. I told him that I was going to Garissa the next day and as Hal did not know about it, would he telephone Garissa at about 5 pm to find out if we had arrived? The policeman was delighted to do this and he also asked me to take one of his askaris who was returning home. This was a good move for me too, to have a policeman with me. Also in the hotel at Thika were two army officers who, when they heard I was on my way to Garissa, asked me if I could take their driver back. He, they said, could help me with the driving. Actually it turned out that he had only driven staff cars and the old Ford defeated him. But he would have been able to help me change a tyre if necessary.

The road had been recently graded to accommodate the increased military traffic and the 228 mile drive went very smoothly. We crossed the Tana on the ferry, which was just below the house, and drew up at our door just after 2 pm. Hal, having an after lunch nap, opened an eye when he heard the vehicle. He thought he was seeing things when that eye seemed to light upon what seemed to be his very own car. His concerns about insanity or delirium changed to incredulous delight when he saw it was indeed his own family.

When the army headquarters heard of our arrival they gallantly offered to service the Ford and a driver came over to collect it. As he backed it out of the garage the fan belt broke. On opening the bonnet, there it was in ribbons. It just saw us there and that was all."

In July Mr Hoskins wrote a personal letter in his own hand:

"Dear Harold,

Some weeks ago I wrote you a stinker in reply to a letter of yours saying that you were bored to extinction - couln't find half an hours work a day to do. You deserved it!

Gerald Reece is now in Nairobi & has told me that you seem to be putting your back into your work & to be liking it better. I understand that your wife is still with you - which may well make a difference to your outlook on life.

Anyhow Reece seems to be very pleased with the way you are doing the job & I want to thank you for the way you have got down to it.

Let me know if you like it any better. These days, I cannot hold out hopes of a speedy release which would merely unsettle you but you may be surprised to hear that I take considerable interest, not only in the efficiency but also in the happiness of administration officers.

Good luck to you both, don't let your wife stay too long as she hasn't quite got your robust frame."

My mother and father spent a supremely happy year together in Garissa. Her presence not only proved that she was quite robust enough to survive but that she was able to make life so much more comfortable for my father and others in the boma. She sent down to Nairobi for a dozen hens and she also made a vegetable garden. She was able to nurse the sick and injured that arrived and she could help my father on safari.

Her happy time in Garissa exploded the myth that women could not survive in the NFD and after that time most wives accompanied their husbands on such postings. Thus the spartan Beau Geste lifestyle began to give way to normality.


Many years earlier in 1923, Major Clarence Buxton did not want to leave Narok at all. But a serious clash with his immediate superior led to a precipitate transfer. Buxton was to become closely associated with the Masai and fiercely to defend the tribe's interests. [see "The Position Isn't Easy or Comfortable"]. As one colleague put it,"He gallantly defied all encroachment both of Government and settlers, corresponding over his Governor's head with the Secretary of State, caring nothing for the ensuing rows or any personal consequences."

But it did take its personal toll and at times his frustrations weighed him down. He wrote gloomily to his mother:

"I havn't done a sketch for six months or more! The pressure of everything is too much and the Kenya ways of doing things more futile so that one's time and energies are just wasted....the pettifogging trivialities with which we fritter away our chance [is] appalling."

The row began innocently enough. He was, at the time serving at the District Headquarters of the Masai, working under the DC, Major Rupert Hemsted, who was very knowledgeable about the tribe, having studied their characterics for over ten years.

Buxton had enjoyed working with Hemstead, carrying out his policy which was aimed "at the development of the power of the Native Councils so that they might restrain the hubristic habits of the Muran [warriors]. The Masai elders agreed that the Muran were no longer required for the defence of the tribe and could not be employed for their aggrandisement by raiding, but they were unable to prevent the Muran from enjoying their old privileges or to divert their energies to peaceful industries. Consequently, the repression of cattle thefts, looting and murders which took the place of war was left to the European Administration, the Elders merely advising the Muran not to commit these excesses and being defied by the 'sirits' of lawless, lazy and licentious warriors".

Buxton had been impressed by the "unswerving loyalty" of the Elders when some Muran had gone on the warpath, causing the European and Indian traders to flee in panic from Narok but he believed that the elders "lacked the means to exercise any effective control over the Muran who had defied them no less than the Administrative Officers."

In order to achieve more effective control, Buxton asked Hemsted for permission to increase the number of Tribal Police that were under the direct orders of the Tribal Councils. The DC agreed to this because such a change would have been in line with his policy of indirect rule throughout Masailand and the plan was implemented. It meant, of course, that because the numbers of Tribal Police in the Manyattas [villages] was increased, there were less of them at Narok.

Major Buxton believed that the system worked well. He introduced a number of checks and balances which ensured that the Tribal Police under the control of the tribal elders were kept up to the mark.

Suddenly the policy was reversed. In June 1923 Mr Henry Horne took over from Major Hemsted. He decided to return to the system of concentrating all the Tribal Police at the Government station. Major Buxton objected strongly. At Mr Horne's suggestion he submitted his views in writing:

"I am not prepared" he wrote "to reduce the number of Tribal Retainers with Councils unless I receive definite instructions to that effect."

Horne responded that he did not propose to discuss the matter further and would go to the Secretariat and explain that he could not tolerate Buxton remaining in charge of Narok District. As good as his word, three days later Horne travelled to Nairobi and the following day Buxton received telegraphic notification transferring him from Narok to Kisii in Nyanza Province.

Down but not out, Clarence fired off a furious letter to the Chief Secretary. He said that he recognised that "if a junior officer disagrees with his senior, it is best for the sake of social convenience and official harmony that the junior should be transferred." But he believed that both Hemsted and Buxton leaving the district at the same time would be detrimental to the well-being of the Masai, especially in view of the fact that there would also be a reversal of policy. He also thought that: "as I had been in charge of Narok District for seven months I feel that I have a duty and a right to express my views on the administration of that district and to protest against the decision on a matter of such importance to the Masai."

His arguments were to no avail. Off he went to Kisii.

Although Buxton returned to Masailand to fight another day, precipitate transfers such as this could cause great bitterness. In his book "Kenya", Dr Norman Leys described another transfer during the First World War which produced the worst result of all.

"A certain district officer refused to carry out an order that he thought involved injustice, was naturally rebuked, and was transferred in disgrace to a lonely post usually kept for those unpopular with authority, and shot himself in the head."

This particular suicide may explain the presence of the ghost who was often seen at the District Commissioner's house at Kipini in Tana District. Suicides were very rare, despite the privations and the loneliness. "We were always extremely busy." was Johnnie McCall's response when I asked him if he ever felt overwhelmed by solitude.

One of the few suicides that did occur happened in Western Kenya. And it was all the more baffling because he was pleased to have been given the job he had. Although nobody ever knew for certain the reason why he shot himself it appears that a mixture of family problems, an injury to the head and the volume of work may all have contributed to the tragedy. I tell the story not out of ghoulish inquisitiveness but because it is necessary to remember that the men and women who went out to serve Africa did not simply live their lives in a kind of Boys Own Annual pursuit of adventure until the time came for them to retire to the rose covered cottage in Britain, suitably bemedalled by a grateful government. They were doing a difficult job which caused great interest, yes, but also frustration, loneliness and anxiety. Very few, but some, were overwhelmed by it.

We shall call him Archie Snow.

I knew him slightly because we children had been devoted to his elder daughter, Tamsin. She had told us of serious difficulties in the family which we had kept to ourselves at her request.

Snow had also had an accident at a swimming gala which some people - but not all - believed changed his personality and was the underlying cause of the tragedy. The swimming gala was an annual event and much enjoyed by all the participants (especially the children). One of the competitions was known as 'the plunge' and consisted of each competitor plunging into the pool and seeing how far along it he or she could float, head down, without taking a breath.

I can remember the sunshine, the excitement and the triumphs that day which was suddenly darkened as if by an unexpected eclipse. Archie Snow plunged in and floated down the pool for a very long way indeed. Then somebody realised that there was something wrong and he was pulled out. He had lost consciousness. History does not relate what the medical diagnosis was but there was talk of a burst blood vessel in the brain. One of his fellow officers wrote:

"I knew Archie Snow quite well and liked him a lot. He was a quiet, friendly and gentle person. His wife, Ingrid, was a disagreeable and universally unpopular woman.

I was not around at the time of Archie's suicide but always assumed that his marriage had a lot to do with it but I believe he was also going a bit eccentric towards the end. He grew a beard, which was most unusual for a D.C. then." He was certainly bearded at the time of that swimming gala. The Provincial Commissioner at the time had been concerned about him and had had him examined by the local government doctor who had passed him as fit. The officer who told me this suspects that this medical clearance was probably premature.

Snow's senior DO believed that, for what ever reasons, the volume of work running the district overwhelmed him and this was the catalyst for his tragic decision. Certainly, his widow put it about that the Provincial Commissioner had put too much pressure on Archie but his senior DO seemed to be of the opinion that there was good reason for concern about the lack of output while another colleague told me that the PC "certainly did not contribute to Archie's state of mind."

" I was the senior DO during the whole time Archie Snow was DC." wrote my informant. "I had been posted there in 1952 under the previous DC, and took over temporarily as DC myself after Archie's death.

My office door faced his, so I was in close contact with Archie whenever I was in the boma. All the same, my job was somewhat independent as I looked after the network of African Courts, did most of the magistrate's work and made up my own programme of safaris. I was not therefore part of the day-to-day administration of the location on the ground. This was the job of the other DO's and agricultural officers. However, Archie used to have a basket of "elevenses" sent to his office each morning and regularly invited me in for a coffee and a chat. I thought at the time that I was fairly close to him but on reflection, after his death, I realised how little I knew of his inner feelings....Archie himself never let on to me [about personal tensions] though we did of course discuss everyone else's problems!

At first meeting, and for most of the time, Archie was a friendly and gregarious person with a ready laugh, but I learnt from one or two small incidents that he was extremely sensitive underneath, as I shall explain.

Before coming to the district Archie had had a mainly desk job in Nairobi. On arrival at the district it was clear that he relished the idea of being DC of such a large district in Kenya (in terms of population). He seemed to be full of energy. Within a couple of months he had organised a weekend social safari to Mt. Elgon for an assortment of officers and wives. I did not go as we had a young family.

Occasionally Archie would come up with some 'unusual' scheme, such as cutting down some of the tall, dark trees near the DC's house (abandoned after a couple of days); constructing a complicated set of traffic islands at the T-junction by his house (not that there was all that amount of traffic in the boma); and damming up the water furrow to make a swimming bath (stopped by the Divisional Engineer).

If I remember correctly he gave up going on safari fairly soon after he arrived, on the pretext that there was far too much office work to do. He gave up writing monthly reports. After I took over I naturally wrote the annual report for that year and, finding the departmental contributions for the previous year, I wrote that one too. I believe that no annual report had been written for the year before that either.

In fact when Archie died, we found a number of metal safari boxes full of papers which had not been dealt with and the African District Council estimates for two years in his safe. These should have been submitted to the PC's office - one lot well over a year before. The PC and I spent a couple of days sorting out the papers.

The picture I have of Archie in the office was of a man who had let the job get on top of him. He shuffled paper about, welcomed any interruption and achieved very little. I know from personal experience in my later career that once you let yourself get overloaded, your output decreases.

My recollection is that the situation I have described had set in well before his swimming accident and this seems to be confirmed by his failure to submit reports and deal with the estimates etc. over a long period of time.

His extreme sensitivity did escape control on one or two occasions. A particular incident was when we put on a concert to raise funds for the church building. It was called "Much felling in the Trees" and based on the BBC series "Much Binding in the Marsh". The Education Officer who wrote most of it was posted away and I got left to compere it, including taking part in the final theme song in which we poked fun at all and sundry, including Archie's aborted swimming pool project. At the end I happened to pass Archie who said tensely "Not a performance to enhance one's promotion prospects."

Another instance related to the complicated traffic islands he laid out near his house. One morning we found that someone had driven straight across them. Archie was furious, quite out of proportion to the offence, and seemed to take it as a personal affront. He did not manage to identify the offender - though I think quite a lot of people knew who it was.

I had no idea that Archie was contemplating suicide. We knew later, from a paper Ingrid found after his death, that he had contemplated such an act years before when DC Maralal."

One sunny morning before breakfast, Archie left his house and went down to the river, taking with him a gun which one of the DO's had left in the DC's safe for safe-keeping. He walked some way up the river filled his pockets with stones and shot himself in the head.

To our great sadness, my sister and I never saw his daughter, Tamsin, again.

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