A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

Fearsome Siafu

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siafu

Fearsome Siafu

Here follows a short story with postscript:

The snakes in Kenya were to be feared. The post briefing book, intended as a guide for Foreign Service Officers newly assigned to what was then a Consulate and likely written by some clueless wag down at Foggy Bottom, devoted an entire chapter to the snakes but not a single paragraph to the ants, or Siafu as the natives refer to them. Yet the Siafu were far more fearsome than the snakes. A native once told me that whenever you encounter wild animals including carnivores running in the same direction in the bush, you’d best do the same because that could only mean one thing: the Siafu were about to go on safari. Something in the last of the monsoon rains sets off the safari and whatever it is, it’s carried in the air and prompts nests across the land to all go on safari at the same time. When on safari, the Siafu eat everything in their path.

I was spending the night with a friend whose family rented a house in a deep river valley out towards the area where all the pyrethrum plantations used to be north of Nairobi just past the Prince of Wales High School. We’d decided to rough it and camp out in the back yard which sloped down to a tiny nasty gray stream. We had no problem setting up the pup tent and then managed to squeeze into it. Then the rains came. The tent wasn’t waterproof, a condition further compromised by the fact that our sleeping bags were touching the draped canvas. No choice; we had to retreat to my friend’s bedroom.

The next day we awoke to terrible ruckus and the smell of smoke. What had happened? Once we got up it was hard not to notice that all the sugar ants that had nests around the house were active running about trying to retrieve as many crumbs as they could from the floors, tables and cabinets.

Then we ventured to the dining room window which afforded us a view of the entire back yard. The servants were busy digging a trench all the way around the house and filling it with kerosene which they set alight. The chickens were out of their kier covered with what appeared to be red mud and seemed engrossed with eating something they were finding in abundance on the ground at their feet.

That wasn’t mud on those chickens; no, they were covered with red ants, Siafu. As they ate to their hearts content, the Siafu covered their bodies and burrowed deep in under their feathers. Then, chicken by chicken, the collected ants, as if acting on cue, all bit into the chicken at once. The chickens put up one heck of a fuss and even tried flying away but being flightless, failed. Within seconds they were killed by the combined grasp of thousands of little red pinchers. Within a few minutes the chickens were little more than a bloody mush seething under the weight of thousands of ants.

If we had managed to stay in that tent, the chickens’ fate would have been ours as well.

Postscript: The friend whose house I stayed that night was named Bud and he was a US citizen. His family came from Texas where his father had been part owner of a small chain of pharmacies. As there was some tort issue regarding that partnership, my friend’s father moved the family to Kenya to evade civil proceedings initiated by another partner still residing in Texas. That partner had somehow managed to get his tort case transferred to a Crown Civil Court in Kenya. I remember when his legal team managed to move the court to rule that he could take possession of many of the family’s assets and belongings. One afternoon his traumatized mother called my mother to report that court-appointed officers came to the house and confiscated their car and several other items of value.

Up until that point I’d never encountered anyone like Bud’s mother. She was a real Southerner whose family had been plantation owners for generations before the Civil War. Despite the traumas of the Civil War, her family had managed to retain some of their former status. She was the product of a society that held finishing schools and debutant balls with some regard. She was the first person to introduce me to delicacies such as lemon meringue pie piled high with inches upon inches of meringue billows. She also baked a killer rhubarb pie but that’s the stuff for another story. Whenever you visited, she would promptly bring out a massive pitcher of iced tea, a quite uncommon form of hospitality in what was then British East Africa. And then there was the Southern Fried Chicken…

My family lived in Kenya from 1958 until sometime in 1962. I didn’t see Bud again until the summer of 1967 when he passed through Washington, where we lived at the time, on his way to Carbondale to attend university. Except for that visit I never saw him again. I recall that he was obliged to enter into the Air Force ROTC program in order to pay for his tuition. I assume that he eventually accepted a commission and served as an Air Force officer.

And to think, he could have been eaten alive by the Siafu.

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Written by GW Abert

March 8, 2015 at 11:10

Posted in Africa, Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. This is really entertaining!!!!! Keep writing. I’d like to hear more about Bud’s mother & her cooking, too, along with whatever else you feel like telling.

    David

    March 9, 2015 at 01:52

    • Hi David,

      I’m glad you enjoy the blog so much. I don’t remember much else about Bud’s mother except for that rhubarb story that has yet to be written. I can’t even remember her name. I have some old letters that my parents sent stateside while we were living in Africa. They were given to me shortly after my mother passed away by appreciative friends who’d kept them as they found them interesting. If I go through this I’m sure to remember a few more stories and additional details of those I remember.

      Last summer a retired local news producer transferred my dad’s old 8mm and 16mm movie film to digital format. I have to learn how to use the video editing software before any of this footage can be edited into a meaningful way. I loaded something called Premier Elements, one of two parts of the Adobe Creative Suite that can still be purchased rather than rented. So far I’ve been able to look at some of the footage but have yet to fathom how to use the software beyond that.

      Cheers,

      George

      GW Abert

      March 9, 2015 at 14:08


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