I made a mistake – SAMWEL MBELE MUNGUTI isn’t my real askari, he was just a filler and now my real one has arrived. He’s great. Much shorter than me and thin as a bamboo he sports a craggy face that inspires awe and fear at the same time. Another Samburu, he and his tribe make other Kenyans, already tough and strong by Western standards, look like Pekingeses in comparison. My Kikuyu gardener, a fifty year-old woman who can dig a 3 foot deep hole in solid earth in an hour looks at him with a nervous grin and says, “You know, he’s tough”. And I know he is. I’m reading a book about frontier men in Canada a hundred and fifty years ago. They used native Indians as trackers and there is, throughout the book, the theme of how no white man can understand the thoughts of the posed, contained Indians. They track, they make shelters, they are completely self contained and they can walk for days with little sustenance. That’s Ng’iroai I am sure. I am deeply intrigued by him. I want to know how many days he can walk without water. How far he can run in a day. How he can sleep curled up on a blanket on the concrete floor, which I strongly suspect he does, though I have yet to see his house. Does he want that? Does he want a proper bed, or is it just a pointless material thing like a back massaging settee might be to me?
Anyway, I am a long way from finding answers to these questions as currently even his name is proving a severe linguistic challenge. The beginning ‘Ng’’ is as the ‘ng’ in singer. So to speak to him I have to start sotto voce, “singer, singer, singir, singir, ingir, ingir, ngir, ngir until I can crescendo the or-ay-ee onto the end, of the ng to make Ng’iroai. It doesn’t do much for spontaneous conversation with that lead in. But as the only things I can say are, come here, tea, and it’s fine, there’s not much chit chat to be had in any case.
My gardener, Jane (thankfully), was thrilled to be in the position of chief translator last night when I gave Ng’iroia the pep talk about what I expected from him. Wanting to take the lead, I told him it was necessary to walk round the house every 15 minutes to check for burglars. Within half an hour I realised, as the security lights illuminated the garden in a Las Vegas style fountain sequence, that that was ridiculous and we’d need to tone it down a bit. But of course I couldn’t tell him, as Jane had gone back home again, and my Swahili for foreigners, with astonishing predictability, contains nothing more relevant than “I am American, are you Tanzanian? Unfortunately I forgot again tonight to mention the casino effect when I had the chance of being translated, so for another night, Ng’iroai is left walking round and round the garden.