He was turned out in a crisp bush ranger’s uniform and handled his assault rifle like a man hardened in the field for years to take on bandits and elephant poachers. ‘Ah Mario, what a pleasure it is to meet you again after all this time,’ I said. His severe military face collapsed into a beaming smile as he snapped to attention and slope-armed his weapon. He then relaxed and we chatted for a while on the roadside in our farming district, where I’ve been around so long now that I frequently encounter people whom I’ve known all their lives. Some, like Mario, even have a few wrinkles, greying hair, a couple of wives and several children.
The farm has always been a refuge, remote from towns and the life outside. Over the years, we’ve had a succession of guests who also made it a temporary haven, passing through to forget their troubles among our herds and flocks and fever tree woodlands. The older visitors you tend to leave alone to decompress, the younger ones you push to turn in early and get up before the dawn to work in the yards or go out in the wind and sunshine. Ranch routines are physical and therefore pleasant.
The lost souls find comfort among the animals and like other farms the place is filled with orphaned creatures. There are the cats Bernini and Omar, rescued from a sack about to be thrown into a lake on Mount Kenya. Our collie Sasi lost her mother right after she was born. There have been foundling calves, partridges and a warthog called Pig who had big eyelashes, a straight tail and a coat of wiry hairs sprouting up from his dark-grey hide. In the rains there are lambs swaddled in rags, sleeping before the sputtering fireplace, and in the kitchen there’s always some guest on the mend, tucking into breakfast, while we chase around after calves with old baby-milk bottles.
Mario was a teenager when he appeared in camp from nowhere one day many years ago. I said he couldn’t stay, but the story was that his parents had given up on him a long time before. I said he must go to school and we’d pay the fees but he absolutely refused. The stockmen asked if we could give him a job on the farm but he was not yet 18. Where else was he to go, the stockmen asked? He had no home or relatives to care for him. And so Mario stayed on the farm, knocking about, generally getting in the way. He refused to learn to read and write, and he had no interest in the livestock, but he loved watching birds and wild creatures on the farm. He had a ravenous appetite and stuffed his face at every opportunity and in time he grew from being a stick-like adolescent into a great strapping fellow with a huge head, big arms and long shanks. He had no real idea of his own age and nobody else knew either, and so when he seemed big enough to be 18 and to legally work I sent him to the chief to get an ID card and took him on.
Mario worked as a labourer around the place. He never wished to take a holiday because he had no home and he stayed on the farm during his days off. He grew ever larger, into a giant of a man. We tried to persuade him to save his salary so that one day he might buy a plot of land to build his own house, but instead he bought flashy clothes, headphones and a smart phone with which he downloaded music from the internet. With these entertainments he became increasingly hopeless and instead of working he spent his days disco dancing maniacally by himself.
Finally the stockmen told me to let him go and he vanished. Everybody was sad to lose him, since the farm had been his home and he was so much a part of the life here. His towering frame and strength made him an imposing figure in uniform, but since he was still illiterate the police or military would not have been able to recruit him. His love of nature presumably gave him the ambition to become a ranger. Today, he is one of the heroic men who risk their lives defending Kenya’s elephants and wildlife from poachers.
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