Three shots rang out in the night air. Rustlers had attacked my neighbour’s boma a few hundred metres from home. At the time, our children were watching a cartoon before bedtime. Thankfully, the bandits were only after the cattle. They got away with a couple of dozen steers. Cow theft is a noble pastime for the Samburu youth. Stealing televisions is still beneath them.
When called, the police announced that they were not permitted to work in the hours of darkness in case of ambush. It was a revelation I sense might help ne’er-do-wells plan efficiently. After hours of milling about, we set off in the pre-dawn chill to pursue the raiders. We had torches and water. It gave me the chance to witness again the incredible talent even ordinary people here possess of tracking.
‘Look, there are four of them,’ said my friend Celestina. They wore thousand milers — sandals made from old tyres. ‘And, see, one is very big, like a giant,’ said Celestina. True enough, I saw the fellow had enormous feet. When the rustlers got away, the moon had not yet risen. But they ran with huge strides. They moved ahead very fast, unfazed by the herds of elephant we now encountered in the valley. Losing several cattle on the way, they advanced out on to the flat high plains and headed towards the forested hills on the horizon. They zigzagged, perhaps because they had become slightly lost, but they raced against the dawn. They had to get into the trees while it was still dark. If caught out in open country in the day, all would be lost. Vehicles and aircraft and posses of men were after them.
The sun rose. The trackers advanced briskly, sometimes at a jog, eyes always looking way ahead. They lost the spoor, circled, picked the tracks up again. ‘They are getting tired,’ Celestina announced. So were we. ‘They have lost half the animals now.’ It was amazing to see this. We found ourselves in an ocean of treeless short grass. In the heat haze, lone thorn trees or wild animals loomed up in viscous lumps from the horizon, became horned monsters, then took on the shapes of antelopes or zebras. Insects, diving swallows and wind in the grass. We pictured the raiders running ahead of us, driving what branded cattle they had left that could neither be sold nor kept but must be gorged on hurriedly in the forest.
The wooded hills came closer. It was mid-afternoon. We were moving into pastures where thousands of Samburu cattle were grazing, huge herds all around us. The trackers circled and circled again and then stopped. ‘We have lost them. They are gone.’ It was a terrible anti-climax. We looked up into the trees, sighed and turned back. But up ahead, we discovered, others had picked up the tracks into the forest and were hot on their heels.
Tracking is a part of the richness of life here. The farmhands sign for their wages with inky thumbprints on the muster roll. They spit in their hands and count the money ever so slowly, savouring each grubby note. But if some of these poor men cannot read, they possess talents of interpreting signs to which I am utterly blind.
One day the bookkeeper Silas returned home from western Kenya with his bags. When he alighted from the bus, dusk was closing in and so he left his luggage under a bush and walked several kilometres to the farm. Next morning I was preparing to drive out to collect Silas’s stuff when a youth rode in on a bicycle loaded with the bags. I was mystified how he had come across them, but the youth replied that he was cycling to work across the plains when he saw Silas’s tracks. He saw that Silas had walked this way the night before. His prints were lightly made, which meant he carried nothing. But Silas had been on a journey, so the youth assumed his friend had luggage. He tracked the prints backwards until he arrived at the bush where Silas had put his things. This all happened on a wide plain criss-crossed by thousands of animal tracks.
Last year, when the British army were training in our area, they ran an exercise involving a pretend attack on the farm. For this, they set up a recce, inserting a team to observe our movements through the night. ‘You won’t know where they are,’ announced an officer confidently. ‘No way.’ Early next morning, Celestina’s brother Wekesa came up to me. ‘I just thought you should know — there are three white men lying in the bushes on that hillside. I saw their boot tracks going along the road and turning off. One of them has just smoked a cigarette.’