Held at Gunpoint

For reasons that will become obvious, there are no pictures to accompany this story!

Not all our outings were without incident – one turned into what, at the time, was really scary, when we were held at gunpoint! Admittedly we were, in effect, illegal immigrants, and as such deserved the treatment we received, but to us four young teachers it was just a slightly risky way of spending a free Sunday in a beautiful wild part of the country. The problem was that in order to visit the closed Northern Frontier District of Kenya you were supposed to procure a visitor’s pass – normally no problem – the only drawback being that it took three or four days to process, which meant that you couldn’t plan a visit at short notice.

Undeterred by the lack of official approval, we set out for the day, knowing that one of a friend’s farm tracks would bypass the guard post and bring us out onto the desired road a few miles further on. The outward journey was thus accomplished with great ease and we never gave a thought to a the presence of a little tin hut on the roadside at the tiny village of Kacheliba, many miles further on near our destination, the Turkwell river. The river at this point along its journey from Mt Elgon to Lake Rudolph was wide and slow-moving, and haunt of the flies whose hosts, at one stage in their development, are the freshwater snails which abound in the river and can carry the debilitating Bilhartzia disease, so swimming in the water was best avoided. The sheer beauty of the place was enough. Checking the abundant and varied bird life kept us busy all day whilst exploring the river banks and various game tracks into the surrounding bush. Our most exciting find was a tiny scops owl, beautifully camouflaged with its mottled plumage, and only given away by an inadvertent head movement. A diversion occurred whilst we were having our picnic on some conveniently placed enormous flat rocks in the river bed,when we discovered that if we threw pieces of food into the air while the ever-present black kites were on patrol, we could almost guarantee that a kite would have caught it before it hit the ground. This game developed into a competition, the winner being the thrower to attract the most strikes. Inevitably our supply of spare scraps was not inexhaustible and the the kites took a dim view of our cheating by lobbing up small chunks of wood as a substitute, and took themselves off to a more profitable site.

Time moved on inexorably, and so we began our homeward journey. No sooner were we in sight of the “innocent” tin hut than we were brought to a sudden halt in a cloud of dust and flurry of loose murram by a couple of uniformed and very irate armed policemen brandishing their guns and waving us down in no uncertain terms.

Where were our passes…. How had we got past the checkpoint without them…. What were we doing in this sensitive area anyway…. (and most suspicious of all) What were we doing with camera and binoculars?

We were bundled into the village Police Post at gunpoint and questioned so very determinedly that we soon realised there was no point in bluffing it out – we had to tell the truth. This didn’t satisfy them, however because they knew nothing of the existence of the farm track detour, being many miles away and so wouldn’t believe our story. What to do with us next was their perplexing problem, as they couldn’t raise their superiors on the radio for advice, and obviously shouldn’t let such suspicious lawbreakers go free. All our conversations were conducted in Swahili in which I was fluent having lived all my life in Kenya. This meant that I, alone, was held responsible in their eyes for the whole escapade, yet was not treated with quite such suspicion as the other three. In order to defuse the situation, I traded on my being slightly in favour by chatting informally to the elder of the two very jumpy policemen whilst his colleague tried in vain to make contact with their boss. It turned out that I had been to school in the same village where he had been born, and knew enough of the locality to satisfy him that I was kosher.

Having eventually been given their instructions several hours later, they allowed us to proceed on our way, having first confiscated our film (innocent, of course), and we were on strict instructions to be sure to attend the local court next day back in our town of Kitale where the inevitable prosecution would take place. This event was really a non-event, in that we turned up, pleaded guilty, and were let off with a caution and a small fine. The only trouble came when we wanted to get out of the JP’s office. There were several doors to choose from – which was the one we had come in through? In reply to our query we were answered urbanely with “Choose whichever you like. Jump out of the window, for all I care”. Henceforth he was always known as “Jump-out-of-the-window Norman”! Maybe the outcome would have been different if I had let on that as a child I had often stayed on his farm, as his daughter,Vicky, was one of my best friends. (She was officially The Honorable Victoria Mary Bathurst Norman – his wife being the daughter of Lord Bathurst). If he did recognise my name he never showed any sign. Probably just as well in his position of magistrate, but rather wounding personally when, later on, I had to apply to him for a drink licence for the bar at the local horse show which I was organising, and despite my asking after Vicky, he treated me as a complete stranger. Oh well! Thus ended our brush with the law – somewhat frightening at the time, though entirely brought upon ourselves by the rashness and impatience of youth, and not one to be repeated.

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