Wild life

The warrior arched his body, readying to sling his spear at my chest

I thought of the spears of Ajax and Hector, points cleaving brains, skewering bone into bladder

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM


With a shriek, the warrior arched his body, readying to sling his spear at my chest. The tear-dropped javelin point flashed in the sun. In the heat, dust swirled up from the hooves of the young blood’s cattle invading my farm. In his hand, the seven-foot shaft lance quivered, ready, poised for release — and then he yelled again.

This is March 2015, I reminded myself, not AD 991 at the onset of the Battle of Maldon. I had asked the man to come with me to the police, where he would be arrested for trespass. The spear flashing was his response. He had pushed his cattle into what was left of my pasture, and many other herds had been there too for weeks — upwards of 7,000 beasts cropping the last of the grass. He and the other herders had vandalised the dry-stone walls that mark our boundaries. When our workers tried to push the cattle off, the young warriors had wielded their lances and swords and knobkerries and promised to murder them. Or they beat them. This was what went on all day, every day.

Over recent years, the young warrior’s countless cattle had depleted many millions of acres to the north, so that even a short dry spell — what the humanitarian aid groups invariably now call ‘the worst drought on record’ — had pushed them into desperation. Opportunistic politicians then urged the herders to seize what was left on the narrow high table of the farms on my home plateau of Laikipia. Some of the invaded farms have been large but many are smallholdings where very poor families planted a few stalks of maize off which to survive, only to have them devoured by pastoralists. The invaders used the rhetoric of poverty to excuse the migrations on to conserved pasture on private farms, even though many of the herds were owned not by the poor but by the Big Men, who boast of their often ill-gotten wealth in thousands of untaxed cattle. These people were rich yet we found they have sent boys of six or seven years old to mind cattle among wild animals, sleeping rough on the plains. With no hope of schooling, raised to be illiterate and easily manipulated, these children are unable even to speak the national language of Swahili —while many girls have nothing to look forward to except infibulation and marriage at 12 or so.

A few days before, I had hitched a ride on a microlight aircraft for a dawn flight around our area. We flew over 50 or 60,000 cattle invading a neighbouring wildlife conservancy, which is home to some of the world’s last elephant and other rare species. Down one valley we passed along a herd of cows that was two miles long.

Just beyond it we flew over a group of elephants. From the air and from the ground, you can see the elephants are going mad with starvation, smashing trees to suck the life out of them so that the landscape looks like a battle has roared through it. We blame poachers’ bullets and the Chinese behind the ivory trade — but the loss of habitat is a much greater threat to species such as elephant. And so here the warrior was, lance about to fly. I thought of the spears of Ajax and Hector, points cleaving brains, skewering bone into bladder, gouging in among teeth so that the tongue tastes cold bronze. I thought of Byrhtnoth on the causeway at Maldon, where the Viking ‘wolves of slaughter advanced’ —Wodon þa wælwulfas. I thought of Kipling and many others besides. I realised the young man might see himself as Horatius at the bridge, or me as the Dane wælwulf. There was indeed something heroic about him, which, despite my worry and annoyance at his trespass, impressed me. In a way, he was magnificent. There was something biblical about it all too. His cattle, ill favoured and lean-fleshed, were eating up my once fat and favoured cattle — and now they would all die together. One day it would rain, though as the wind kicked up great towers of dust that marched across the plains it seemed I think to the both of us that it would never, ever rain again.

Suddenly the heroic dreams vanished. The warrior would not accompany me to the police, this little guy in a snood, wrapped in a toga holding his weapon. Next month I would be 50 years old. I didn’t particularly want a spear in the guts. I got back into my vehicle, uttered a string of Anglo-Saxon expletives he didn’t understand, which he returned in a vernacular that I didn’t either. And we went our separate ways.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Perseus Slade

    Malthus strikes again

    • Dan O’Connor

      Yes, Malthus is coming to Africa .

  • Dan O’Connor

    As anyone on the ideological Left can tell you , there is no such thing as a ” Masai ” , only the ´Featherless Biped race
    ” Masai ” is just a meaningless artifical social construct . A racist concept that belongs to a former barbarous age that the ” more enlightened ” of us have transcended
    Western universities are crammed full to the rafters of ” highly educated ” people who believe this, because those who don’t are quickly purged from the system

    • Picquet


  • davidshort10

    I preferred the original photo. I wonder tho with what force the man could have hurled the spear. I don’t suppose Aidan wanted to find out……I would think using a spear for stabbing would be more effective and more certain…..

  • Aidan Hartley

    This is what happened since I wrote the article:

    • C K

      sorry man.. i commented on ur video. the herders in this video are really illiterate and violent and stupid.they only listen to their elders. they think they are supermen. i know this coz i come from a cousin tribe to theirs, the nandi. have a consortium of ur guys talk to the governor or to the OCPD and have them talk to their elders or just do it directly but to find a lasting solution, u need to dialogue. these cattle belong to the samburu or to some rich sob who hires them coz if its the latter then u have a right to sue.what they did to you is very cruel and criminal.sorry again

    • C K

      just to confirm, that was you taking the video? was it in ur stomach or? i could tell the force from the sound it made but you must be a hard nut coz u were still cursing after.man man.. damn. you know these men still have the 18/19th century mentality.. attacking and old man is a taboo and a curse in this community but if its someone outside your community, let alone a white man, which is why this man was targeting you specifically, is apparently allowed. yeah i know, the pit of my stomach turns when i think that cholmondeley maybe had a reason to shoot but still, this is kenya not the wild west, and if the govt wants you to obey the laws of the land (ie not shooting natives-even if this one deserved a hot lead) then we should also reciprocate.i advise you to take this matter up with the authorities.. even if just to make a statement. kenya is not zimbabwe and the world imo should be free and open to any human being. i migrated to europe to study two years ago and even though i get some racist vibes, this in your case is really extreme.if someone shot me here i would suppose they would go to jail or smt.. so with ur video evidence, even if you have to bribe a police chief, have something done.