27 APRIL 2002, Page 50

Wild life

Embracing fatalism

Aidan Hartley


eanwhile, back at the ranch, it's been torrid. A leopard disembowelled 18 ducks. Elephants ravaged the vegetable garden. Hector, the terrier, was blinded by a spitting cobra before I bludgeoned the serpent to death. One of the lions from the neighbouring game reserve — where they have names like Pussy Galore, Romulus and Remus — pounced on a prize ewe. That's just the animal kingdom for you.

Now for human error. The generator blew up, while the drunken mechanic went AWOL. For a week we've been living by candlelight. Attempting philanthropy, we recently donated materials to the Samburu tribesmen with which to construct a school. On completion, the building was used for a ceremony to infibulate a teenage bride with a razor, without anaesthetic, Shocked, we asked her brother, a dude in wraparound shades and ochre braided dreads, how such a thing could be tolerated in modern Kenya. 'Women mean nothing,' he explained. 'And we shall circumcise them until the end of time.'

In Africa, setbacks rush in thick and fast. They come not in threes, but in thirtythrees. Some people wrongly believe that, if they shout at everybody, things will change. Some seek solace in booze. The best response, one discovers, is to say 'Africa Wins Again.' Say 'A-W-A', and you'll pull through. Embracing fatalism helps prevent a coronary attack. But, meanwhile, life and the nation continue circling the plughole. Occasionally, an outrage occurs that rouses me from moral torpor.

The robbery of Mpuni was just such an outrage. Now, nothing much fazes Mpuni, a rheumy-eyed, lop-eared codger, the ranch driver since colonial days. This week, I despatched him to a town on Mount Kenya's slopes, to pick up a mechanic to mend our generator. He returned terrified out of his skin.

Through the town flows a river, and at the bridge three thugs waylaid Mpuni. They yelled, 'Out of the car! You've run over a man!' In Kenya, mobs gather at accidents. Hit a pedestrian, and within seconds you've got a burning gasoline-filled tyre around your neck. 'We're going to deal with you,' the men menaced. As if by magic, a traffic constable appeared. 'Yes, it's you,' the policeman confirmed, 'What did I do?' Mpuni wailed. 'You hit a man on a bicycle, who fell into the river.' Mpuni drove immediately to the police station. His accusers followed on foot. Nothing was recorded at the front desk. But in the carpark the constable demanded £5 in local currency from Mpuni, which he handed over. 'Where is the injured man?' Mpuni asked. 'At hospital,' the men declared. The constable vanished, leaving the three thugs to bundle Mpuni back into the vehicle. They drove to the hospital where, unsurprisingly, there was no injured bicyclist. Clearly, there had been no accident and was a scam by the constable and thugs. The men returned with Mpuni to the car and tried to force him down a dark alley, making it clear they intended to hijack the vehicle. Thinking quickly, he swung into a well-lit petrol station. By good fortune, I had given Mpuni some cash, and he managed to get the thugs out of the car by handing over £30.

'That night Livingstone was on duty,' said the police boss. He barked into the radio. 'Papa Charlie Livingstone, come to my office.' The boss smiled at me. 'I'm sure the money your driver gave Livingstone was not a bribe. It was a friendly tip, no?' I replied, 'That depends.' A man knocked and entered with a bottle of whisky, which he placed on the boss's desk. We all looked at the bottle. Seconds later, another knock. A constable entered. When he saw Mpuni, then me, he began shaking like a leaf. 'I'm prepared to agree it was a "tip", sir, so long as we deal with these three fellows — and so long as our vehicles are no longer harassed,' I offered. We all smiled. On the office wall a notice said: SOME MEN ARE LIKE BALLOONS — FULL OF HOT AIR AND FIT TO BURST. The boss turned to the constable. 'Where are the men?' Livingstone replied, 'Shall I go now?' He raced off, and reappeared within ten minutes with one delinquent who promptly, without even a beating, admitted robbing Mpuni and wasting police time with a false crime report. Formally charged, he's now looking at two years inside minimum, more if he doesn't grass on his friends. And Livingstone? Well, having embarrassed the boss, I expect he's up for a transfer to some desert outpost. Rarely does a criminal get nailed in Kenya. For once, we won.