Shillingi, and Kenya’s Black History

This year in the UK we are celebrating Black History in this month of February, 2016. Its purpose is to make people aware of the so-called Dark Continent which is often forgotten, cast aside as of no importance in our rapidly moving society, with its frenetic politics and economics, all tied up in red tape.

The biggest Lake in Africa is on Kenya’s western border, Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, from where the nomadic Nilotic tribes – like the Masai and the Kalenjin –filtered down from countries in the north (Ethiopia and Sudan). To the East lies Somalia. The problem of the Shifta bandits has been there ever since I can remember. They now call themselves Al Shabaab terrorists. The root cause of their hostility is still desperate poverty and jealousy.

Explorers in the 19th century looked for the source of the Nile, and the British built the railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria to open up the interior, and provide them with a foothold into what they believed would be undreamed riches from trade.

Coolies imported from India worked on the railway and fell victim to man-eating lions. The tsetse fly menace held up progress in the first hundred or so miles. Then the Bantu agriculturalists who had filtered in from the west of Africa formed a hostile barrier. More delays were caused by the fish-eating Lake tribes who sabotaged the railway, filching the sleepers for firewood. The colonialists finally won through at great cost to reach the shores of Lake Victoria in 1901. But it gained them an advantage over other European countries – Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland – in the “Scramble for Africa” up to the First World War.

After all this, came the “white settlers”, encouraged by the British Government to farm the “empty” lands along the length of the new railway, and prove its worth; lands which had been left to recover – sometimes for years on end – by nomadic people passing through with their cattle, goats or camels in a lengthy cycle. Land did not “belong” to the nomadic people (although livestock did). Capitalism was an unknown word. Land was used for as long as it was useful, then the people moved on to look for pastures new. There was plenty of land, and life was simple in those days. Until the Europeans came along.

Then came the devolution, when country after country fought back its Independence. In Kenya it was the terrifying Mau Mau uprising which triggered the change, and this is where my book, Breath of Africa, starts.


But let’s go back a moment. Surviving through all this history were the hunter-gatherers – elusive bushmen. Nobody knows where they came from. In Kenya, they are called the Wanderobo. They hold the secrets of Africa’s essence – its herbs and wildlife. There is a legend connecting Africa’s insects, birds, beasts and people in an unbroken chain which has a vital message to offer our modern world.

The African bee is the world’s most aggressive, and its honey is the world’s sweetest. There is an insignificant brown bird in Kenya, known as the honey-guide. Its diet is the wax from honeycombs, and the larvae inside, and its ability to digest the wax has helped scientists to find a cure for tuberculosis. But the bird has to entice others to brave the beestings and break open the hive. It displays energetically before a honey-badger leading it towards its favourite sweet. The honey-guide entices man in the same way. Even today, the Wanderobo are led by the noisy, fluttering bird towards the treasures of the beehive. Man and beast can break it open, satiate themselves on the honey. But they have to remember to leave aside a piece or two of the honeycomb in gratitude to their guide – or else next time … it will entice him to a viper’s lair.

Let me introduce you to Shillingi, the Nderobo guide who led our camel safari in northern Kenya about thirty years ago. He hid us under a scraggly tree in the desert and with finger to his lips made us squat in utter silence for minutes on end as he emitted a strong shussshing noise. What on earth was he doing? With a ponderous flap of wings, a hornbill alighted on a flimsy branch… then another… then a myriad of birds of all sizes flew in, chattering and squabbling with excitement. Shillingi stopped shushing, but warned us to remain still and silent. The whole tree was full of birds at a mere arm’s length. Then somebody moved, and with a flurry of flapping wings they disappeared.


Shillingi was a skilled fisherman too. The men in our party cast their rods for hours for catfish in a swift flowing river while hippos wallowed in a pool nearby, but Shillingi caught several on his simple line in the twinkle of an eye and we enjoyed a delicious supper that night.

The Wanderobo have survived to this day. If you were to visit Kenya as a tourist you will find more often than not, that your safari is led by none other than an Nderobo man.





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2 Responses to Shillingi, and Kenya’s Black History

  1. I always learn facts I don’t know from your blog, Jane. It’s a real education about Kenya and other parts of Africa. 🙂 — Suzanne

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