Life in Voi and a Taste of the NFD


Excerpts from the book Bwana Karani by Mervyn Maciel

Life in Voi and a Taste of the NFD

The experience I had now gained in the many aspects of administration work had now made me ‘eligible’ for a transfer elsewhere. I had, in a way, come well through my probationary period, and the powers that be felt that I was fit to move out on my own. That they felt so confident, gave me added pluck and encouragement too. For me, it was a case of ‘so far, so good’! Not surprisingly in late 1948, I was posted to Voi in the Teita District. I had heard a lot about Voi — notorious in days gone by for its malaria, a town where the grave of one of the victims of the ‘Man-eaters of Tsavo’ — Capt. O’Hara, still stands (and which I was able to visit). Voi also served as a junction for rail traffic bound for Tanganyika.

The Author - Mervyn Maciel

The Author – Mervyn Maciel

I was delighted over this new posting, and left Mombasa by train on a Saturday, arriving at Voi a few hours later. I had passed through this station previously on my first trip to Nairobi. There to greet me were three Goans from the DC’s office — the Cashier, Mr. Silwyn Pinto, the District Clerk, Mr. L. G. Noronha and the Rationing Clerk, a Mr. P. J. DeMellow (who spelt his name differently from the rest of the D’Mellos — and who I was to replace). Accompanying them, was a rather serious-looking Goan, Germano Gomes by name, who was temporarily stationed at Voi while staff quarters and a district office were being completed at the nearby sub-station at Mackinnon Road where he was actually posted. Gomes, as I’ve said, looked very stern and gave me the impression of being a strict disciplinarian. I was not sure what to expect in the way of a reception, especially since the man I would be replacing, had had his services terminated. I never really found out why he was removed from there, nor did it worry me at the time since my prime task was to do the job I had been sent out to do.

I must admit, however, to being somewhat embarrassed by the remarks of one of the Goans who had come to collect me from the station.

Having driven down from the boma (administrative headquarters), in the government three-tonner, he just couldn’t understand how my luggage was so little — consisting of a large cabin trunk, a camp bed, mattress and holdall; that was all, nothing more!

I wondered if he had realized that I was new to the service, and the things I had brought out with me were in fact the very items I had arrived with from India! This was, after all, my first job since leaving  school, and the few possessions I had were my ‘all and everything’.

As I was to learn later, administrative staff who transfer between districts invariably carried ‘tons’ of luggage, and it was certainly a big joke among my colleagues — to see the 3-tonner being driven back to the boma almost as empty as when it had first arrived at the station. The driver of the truck, a fierce looking Mteita tribesman, with piercing eyes and distinct tribal markings all over his face, must have been equally amazed, but didn’t utter a word.  He merely grinned at me. Shingira was a very good driver, who I got to know and like. It was he who, in the months ahead, gave me my first driving lessons at the wheel of his three-tonner…

A map of the Taita Taveta District

A map of the Taita Taveta District – Image Courtesy of  Kenya Daily Post

Voi had no police station during my time, but a small force of six Kenya Police was stationed there under the command of a Sgt.-Major — Mohamed Lali, a Bajun from the Lamu district. Tall, tough and always smartly turned out, Sgt.-Major Mohamed Lali came directly under the DC as far as the day to day work and discipline was concerned; otherwise, his superior was the Superintendent of Police for the Coast Province who was stationed at Mombasa.

An incident involving three off-duty Kenya policemen, and over which I had some dealings, needs to be mentioned. One evening when the DC, Mr. Stevens, was away on safari, Sgt.-Major Lali came dashing to my house after office hours, with a familiar looking Government form in his hand. I immediately recognized this as being the one we always sent down to the local Medical Officer whenever there was a case involving assault causing actual bodily harm’. It so happened that the three policemen (all of the Nandi tribe) had got themselves so drunk that evening, that they attacked and savagely beat up a European farmer who had stopped briefly in the township on his way from Mombasa to his farm at Thompson’s Falls in the Rift Valley Province. Dr. Jodh Singh, the local MO who examined Mr. Swanepoel indicated the extent of the injuries on the form which was then returned to me by the Sgt.-Major. This would be required as evidence at a later date.

As Mr. Swanepoel had nowhere to sleep that night, Ignatius and I offered him the hospitality of our government bungalow — a gesture he much appreciated. After spending the night with us, obviously in great pain, he left the following morning. The next day, I reported the incident to the DC and the policemen concerned were charged and placed on remand. Their case was later tried by Mr. Stevens in his capacity as First Class Magistrate, and the three were sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, with a recommendation that they each receive six strokes of the cane. I was a principal witness in this case. Without in anyway wanting to condone the action of these men, I felt very sorry for them. Here were three young men with a bright and promising future ahead of them — who had ruined their whole career because of drink. .

During our stay at Voi, Ignatius and I were very fortunate to make a trip to the Teita Hills, helping in the population census that was being conducted about that time. While in this area, we stayed at the Government Rest House at a place called Ngereni, high up in the hills at Wundanyi. On this safari, we stopped briefly at the main hospital at Wesu; the whole hospital area seemed always enveloped in a thick cloud of mist which kept lifting very slowly. Apart from the roads leading up to the Teita Hills, which were very steep and windy, the area itself was healthy, and there was talk even then of moving the administrative headquarters from Voi to Wundanyi (this transfer was achieved several years later).

Satwant Singh & friend @ Moshi 1950

The author’s friend and colleague at Moshi station 1950


Due to Voi’s proximity to Tanganyika, Ignatius and I were also able to visit the town of Moshi — thanks to a kindly Arab trader (Shariff Ali) who ran a regular bus service between Voi and Moshi; I recall having a haircut there since we did not have a resident barber at Voi! Yet another sub-station where I was fortunate in being able to do a spell of relief duty was Taveta on the Kenya-Tanganyika borders. This district was well known for its sisal plantations and one of the early European pioneers, the late Col. Ewart S. Grogan lived here. Although my stay at Taveta was very brief, the young Goan  cashier (Peter de Souza) and his wife were perfect hosts to me. The DO at the time was a Mr. A. D. Galton-Fenzi, a tall and well-built young man who always seemed so full of energy. He and Peter de Souza were greatly instrumental in having a tennis court built at Taveta with the help of prison labour. The District Cashier prior to Peter’s arrival was a middle-aged Goan called Ivo Coelho, who was a good friend of ours.

As bachelors, Ignatius and I found that our house was regularly being used as a sort of ‘entertainments centre’. While we were happy to entertain our guests, the frequency of such ‘get togethers’ was beginning to make inroads into our meagre finances.

Under the existing rules governing advancement within the service, there was no prospect of our receiving any substantial financial reward (other than the annual increments) for some considerable time. Seniority was the main criterion for promotion in those days.

Although in our own minds we knew we were doing a good job, and certain that our immediate superior was aware of this, we did realize that, as newcomers in the service we could hardly expect to receive any preferential treatment. The only solution was for us to move to a district where there was not too much of a social life, and where we could live relatively debt-free.

A taste of the NFD

‘We had heard of inducements made to those who served in the  N.F.D. One received a hardship allowance of Shs.4/- per day in the case of the Asian staff, while the European staff received Shs.6/-. I could never really understand the inequality of this allowance especially since we endured  the same hardships and  inconveniences as our European colleagues. In some cases, I feel the Asian staff were at a greater disadvantage.

Mervyn Maciel

Mervyn with Rendille Warriors at Marsabit

A further attraction of a frontier posting was the certainty of being granted an interest-free advance of three months’ salary, repayable over a period of 12 months. The purpose of the loan was to enable staff to buy a good supply of tinned food and other necessities in advance of their posting; this was because many of the commodities that were freely available elsewhere in Kenya, were either in very short supply or just not obtainable in some of the frontier stations. The granting of the loan itself was a mere formality, but application had to be made none the less.

Ignatius and I lost no time in applying for a posting to the frontier, much to the surprise of local colleagues and, I daresay, staff at the Secretariat; very few, if any of the Asian staff ever applied for a posting to the N.F.D.  Surprisingly, and much to our delight, within the space of a few weeks of our applying, our posting orders had arrived. I was transferred to Lodwar in the Turkana district (on the Kenya-Uganda-Sudan borders), while Ignatius was to go to Wajir in the heart of the Somali country, not far from the Italian Somaliland border…


To Read More visit Bwana Karani – By Mervyn Maciel

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