Fighting The Mau Mau

Fighting the Mau Mau where the vultures fly.
Alex Knight's continued adventures.

By Jim Dyer
Published in the Western Mail; on February 12th 1988

© Jim Dyer 2012

Even though Alex Knight loved his rural Bassaleg, his term in Churchill's Secret Army of saboteurs had given him a thirst for adventure not easily suppressed.

Before the war he had struck up a fine relationship with the Foster-Steadmans, wealthy gentry of Lower Machen and it was to them he turned again in1946. This time it was the daughter, Mrs Pickford, who recognised Alex's talents and invited him to become farm, manager of 5,000 acres of wheat and crops in the beautiful, but wild, Crown colony of Kenya, East Africa. He didn't need to be asked twice and soon he was outward bound aboard the troop carrier Citral. Only a few hundred miles from Africa's highest mountain. Kilimanjaro, Alex was to settle in Taveto for a while and soon to discover the dangers and delights of an environment teeming with wild animals, sun-baked and colourful.

Alex stayed with the Pickford's for some five years before moving onto a massive 30,000-acre estate in the Amboseli Game Reserve, renowned the world over for wildlife. There he joined the prosperous land-owner Colonel Ewart Grogan, a controversial but generous personality said to have walked from the Cape to Cairo. Over the years Alex became well known in the colony and friendly with the natives, who he recalls as being gentle, but superstitious.

He was not short of company either, as he was joined by brother Godfrey and recalls an unexpected meeting with a giraffe one evening as they returned from the huge, crocodile-infested lake Jipi, straddling the border with Tanzania. 'It was a clear night and all of a sudden all we could see were legs. Although there were lions prowling around I got out and inspected the damage. The giraffe, a beautiful creature, was dead. The next day the boys from the camp came and towed it back, where I reported it to the head warden, Mr Tabler. He gave it to them and they cut it up for meat.'

Memories Flow

It was Mr Tabler too who gave another pet to Alex – a lioness cub, docile and affectionate, which he raised from six months old. It was this magnificent lioness which featured in the film Where No Vultures Fly and which, Alex recalls sadly, was shot by mistake.

On another occasion they had trouble with rogue elephants trampling maize and grapefruit crops. When scaring tactics failed Tabler gave permission for them to be shot. The same night they shot two and wounded another, eventually dispatching it the next day.

As Alex talks the memories of happy times come flooding back. His six-cylinder Studebaker, his large cedar wood, coconut-roofed house, 'Girigan', built on an anthill, and the enormous range of birds and animals.

He speaks affectionately of Hduta, a local Kikuyuan girl, who kept house for him and Helen. 'She was employed on a yearly basis for eight shillings a month. Her husband, Kinywa, was allowed two acres of land for each of his wives, salt, water, wood, medical care and schooling for the children.'She died in ill-advised pregnancy after Alex had rushed her 100 miles to the nearest hospital.

Alex also recalls that her daughter was tragically struck by lightning, causing tremendous burns. It was Helen who tenderly dessed her wounds and nursed her back to health. This young girl was later callously sold by her father, and an enraged Alex soon arranged for her to be brought back.

Mau Mau

But it was not always bliss in this semi-paradise of a country, and again Alex's earlier war training and tenacious approach to anything he tackled was to be called upon. Appointed a reserve police officer in the Kenya Police Force in 1949, he had risen to the rank of inspector. He had mastered many of the African dialects and was well-respected by the natives and white settlers alike.

For years before Kenya gained independence in 1963, when Kenyatta became their first prime minister, there had been much political unrest. The large Kikuyu tribe formed the main thrust of the Mau Mau, a primitive secret society aimed at driving out the colonists by intimidation, murder and witchcraft. After the first outbreak of lawlessness in 1952, under their leader Dedan Kimathi, some whites were murdered and a state of emergency was to last until 1960. Many Africans too were terrified of the black magic powers of the Mau Mau, and so the struggle for freedom from British rule began.

Alex traversed the country on his police duties searching out the Mau Mau. In the Aberdare Mountains in north Kenya a friend went in as an informer and was shot. No chances were taken when they interrogated suspects, as Alex said. 'The law was precise. If the suspect moved an inch he would be shot.'

Superstition was rife among the native tribes; many marked their women with goat's blood to take away the curse of the Mau Mau. With friend John Evans, now in New Zealand, he was patrolling a bridge when a car careered towards them. They shouted 'sumama' – stop - and shot into the radiator, bringing it to a halt. It was transporting a group of Mau Mau and as one tried to run away, he was shot in the legs. He remembers too the uncompromising stance of the South Africans in one raid with more than 500 police when three Kikuyu were shot.

In an extremely 'rich' life packed with adventure Alex Knight has travelled most of the world. He has sailed down the Nile, bartered in St Helena, gambled in Las Vegas and visited Asia Minor, New Zealand, Cyprus and Suez. He has refereed a British Lions match in Nairobi. What a man.

Jim Dyer – 8th January 1988


Published in Western Mail; on February 12th 1988