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
"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
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 born in the early 1920s to his father's second
wife. He was born 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.
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
"Naam", he agreed. "Jin-ja beer, Effendi."
"But here", I challenged, as the fog began to close in again. "Why do you mean
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
Then he added, with a grin: "Wote timamu, Effendi."