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Jomo Kenyatta and the Texas Longhorns

November 26, 2014

Jomo

Jomo Kenyatta, father of the Kenyan nation and its first president, shook my hand on a beautiful seaside morning in December, 1967. I was out for a stroll, dressed neatly for a change, and feeling as spiffy as the bright equatorial morning. But strangely, the usually bustling docks of Mombasa Harbor were deserted.

Karl Drobnic

Tied up quayside was an aging cargo ship, its hull black except for splotches of rust, some white lettering, and a maroon stripe marking the water line. In front of the freighter, an armed semicircle of widely-spaced Kenyan soldiers ringed an area the size of several football fields. In those early years of post-colonial Kenya, President Jomo had encouraged British colonial civil servants to stay on and aid in the transition to independence, and while native Kenyans manned the front offices of the bureaucracy, a leftover colonial often sat in the back to cross the T’s and dot the I’s. Thus, when my morning amble took me towards the freighter, no soldier challenged me, assuming that my white skin was a credential for the ceremony about to happen.

The freighter rose high out the water, its dark sides looming far above me as I approached. No gang planks were down, a security measure perhaps, but an on-board crane had its arm hovered over two stout wooden crates, their sides slatted. Standing in each crate was a bull, two Texas Longhorns I was to eventually learn. Crew members stared down from the deck railing and I stared up. An Army captain and some subordinates, wearing ranger hats and dressed in starched shirts, creased shorts and knee socks, clustered near the spot to which the crates would be lowered.

African soldiers

One of the subordinate officers left the group and came to me. “You must come here,” he said and motioned me towards the little knot of officers. “President Jomo will arrive shortly.” I followed him to the group. At the back, one of the subordinates, taller than his colleagues, held a walkie-talkie device. “By him,” my guide said, and so I joined the lanky lieutenant with the radio.

“We bring the cows down when the car arrives,” Radioman said.

“Good,” I said, feeling I was in way over my head, and wishing I were somewhere else, for it was now evident to me that I was a security breach. Some time passed and then the head officer snapped to attention. The rest of the group followed suit, and I corrected my posture. “Car coming,” Radioman said to me. Far up the docks, a black limo had appeared and was headed slowly in our direction.

Radioman spoke into the walkie-talkie. “Start cows,” he said, looking up to the crewmen at the deck railing. Radioman held the walkie-talkie towards me. “Starting cows now,” came crackling out in a thick accent. Radioman looked at me. “Cows starting,” I said. Above, the crew dispersed and the crane began to take up slack in the ropes attached to the crates. The limo slowed to a crawl while the crates were raised and swung over the side of the ship. First one bull and then the other bellowed.

Radioman waited for a signal from his captain, then said, “Bring cows down,” into the walkie-talkie. The crates began to lower, the limo picked up speed, and as the bulls touched down, the car pulled to a stop about twenty feet away. An aide with a camera got out of the front and opened a rear door. Jomo Kenyatta, dressed in the open-shirted Kenyan style, emerged and walked over to the crates. He peered through the slats while the aide snapped pictures.

longhorn

Texas Longhorns

Cattle are highly valued in native Kenyan society, and the President was making a gift to the people of two Texas Longhorn bulls, meant to introduce new genes into the traditional Kenyan herds. When he was satisfied that the bulls were what he had ordered, he walked over to the captain and talked a bit in Swahili, of which I understood nothing. The President, who had lived and studied in England, and also in colonial prisons, eventually noticed me. “Thank you for helping,” he said in English and made a short step in my direction. The officers in front of me parted and Jomo Kenyatta extended his hand. I came forward, reached out, and shook hands with the first President of Kenya, Leader of the Mau Mau Rebellion, and Father of the Nation. “You’re very welcome,” I said and nodded a little bow.

Shortly the President was back in his limo and driving away. A few of the officers were busy with getting the crated bulls lifted onto a flatbed truck that had rumbled up from further down the docks and others were forming the soldiers into columns for the march back to barracks. I was left standing by the freighter, Radioman still close by, and it occurred to me that almost two hundred years before, George Washington had worn similar titles – First President, Leader of the American Revolution, and Father of the Nation. “Good luck,” I said to Radioman. “I wish you well.” And that is how, quite by accident, I met Jomo Kenyatta and his Texas Longhorns.


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3 Comments
  1. A great post. When we lived in Kenya in the ’90s, I was ever intrigued by the fact that even the locals were always of the view that anything could happen there. It often did.

    • So true. I even won a small lottery prize there once.

      • Better indeed than getting your car jacked – as during the era of the next pres whose dear son was said to be relieving expats of their newly imported 4x4s and from their own compounds. Such a good scam. I miss the humour but not the tension!

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