THE BEER, THE BUSH, THE BULL MANURE

(An article I wrote for Logica Space Division's in-house magazine)

First transportBy the third puncture it was all getting a bit tiresome.  Night was falling, the headlights had all the power of a tired glow-worm and I was a long way from anywhere more comfortable than a thorn tree and some very enthusiastic ticks.

Finally a reluctant driver stopped.  I unstrapped the two legs of zebra and heaved them into the pickup, getting more blood onto an already crusty jacket.  The motorbike, a Yamaha XT500, was more tricky.  It’s been called the ‘Land Rover of the bike world’ and getting it on risked a hernia.

The zebra was part payment for some work.  Very much worth it, as the local beef had the consistency of four-year old chewing gum, but the weight was forcing the few remaining wheel spokes through the inner tube.  Twenty three hours, five punctures and 300km after leaving ‘Client Site’, I made it back (see photo) to my home office.  Note the protective headgear, roughly 50 kilos of zebra on the rear carrier, a rucksack full of dirty laundry, and the ‘paunch’ - the front of the jacket - containing some biltong, a half-full bottle of beer, a book, a week old copy of the Nation national newspaper to keep me warm over the Aberdare mountains, a samburu shortsword to wave at enthusiastic ‘tax collectors’, two large bunches of rhubarb I had picked up on the way and, mostly, the natural consequences of drinking too much beer for too long.

I had gone to Kenya for a year’s working holiday, initially to manage the start up of a Rotary-sponsored charity somewhat similar to ‘Outward Bound’. Not much in the way of programming there but plenty of fun and excitement, and many lessons about dealing with the various significantly different cultures, and the practicalities of working in Kenya.

Touristy Camel Safari - great fun!Following this I went ‘up country’ to a ranch that runs hundreds of camels used for racing, camel trekking (including British Army desert training), milk & meat production and some light work such as dam scooping.  Once a month each was weighed and examined and, if necessary, medicated. University researchers and development aid workers from Europe and Africa would come and admire the camels and study the most comprehensive written records, spanning 12 years, known throughout the world.

On a touristy camel safari a few years before, I had joked that they ought to ‘computerise the records’.  Ho ho - there was no electricity at the camel-manager’s house, and the most complicated electrical equipment on the ranch appeared to be the diesel tractors.  However, tucked away was a portable PC donated by a research centre - so I was invited to work there in return for a ‘grub-stake’ and a little pocket money.

Home very sweet home

This has to be the best place I have ever worked.   The manager’s house (see photo) is a collection of well-made and well kept ‘mud huts’.  Mine was the one with the open door.  The half-open kitchen is hidden behind the manager’s hut in the middle, and the bathroom is to the left with shower, sink, bath, Oil of Ulay, etc, the water heated by a wood fire oven just in front.

Both this site and the ranch house are beautiful oasis of green amongst the dry thorn bush. As I worked the birds twittered, the hippos splashed, grunted and peed in the dam nearby where we got our water, and passing camels complained to the world that they weren’t carrying anything for anybody if they could help it. Japper, the Ranch Owner, and a fake bush-type

At night the phrase ‘the stars in all their glory’ suddenly becomes extraordinarily appropriate.  I have never seen anything approaching it in Europe.  The first I saw of Hale-Bopp was when I popped out for a bit of quick relief (a mistake after chopping up a chilli) and glanced up to see a really splendid sight - not the little squidge visible in most of the UK, but a great, bright, white blob smudged up in a tail that filled half the sky from the horizon to zenith.  My attention was quickly diverted by the sudden effects of the chilli, and a dash for some very cold hippo pee delayed any more observation.

After dark the various visitors and members of the family might congregate in the ranch house sitting room around a fire, and we would consume more booze and an enormous supper.  The conversation would float over the days’ doings, various troubles both local and national, past adventures and future dreams.  This was not academically philosophical stuff - the ranch owner was responsible for the livelihoods of the hundred or so tribesmen who worked and lived on the ranch and all that they supported.  As such he was a ‘senior man’, effectively running his own domain with its own back-country policing, schooling and medication, the state provisions being sparse, non-existent and/or useless.

Wot, me?  Carry that?

This crushing boredom would be enlivened occasionally, say about once a week, by a call to arms.  The samburu tribe, instead of curbing their teenagers, give them knives and spears and a ‘licence to mischief’.  Off these moran then go to nick as much as they can of anything from anyone (including their own families) before they come of age and have to become respectable.  They would often cross the ranch with someone else’s cattle, so we would all rush out, track them down (well, I would watch), and by the time we neared them they would have scattered, leaving the cattle behind.

On one occasion the thieves were armed with shotguns, so we raided the gun rack before tracking them down.  As the least competent I was given a .22 rifle, which has all the stopping power of a rotten tomato.  A badly thrown one too, given my level of accuracy.  I was rather glad they got away…

On another, I had a far more effective Suzuki jeep, and this was the first occasion in almost five years that they’d actually caught anybody.  Amazing what you can do bouncing through the scrub with your foot flat on the throttle and your head trying to exit through the roof while two farm tribesman armed with spear and sticks batter you about the head and shoulders shouting "Kwenda! Kwenda!" (Go! Go!) and pointing at where they last saw someone disappear into the bush.

The Ranch HouseAnd so the days passed peacefully and productively.  There were no interrupting telephone calls (indeed, no telephone) and the only disturbance from fellow workers was the ranch owner popping in at lunch time to fuel the brain cells with a couple of beers.

After six months they had software that could give a full history of any camel, or break the records down by weight, breeding history, or medical problems.  It would show a camel’s breed-line, give direct access to ‘relations’, could do analysis on practically anything such as birth weights, average life weights, milk production, medical conditions etc versus breed-line, sex, castrate dates, and so on and so on.  All in OO Pascal running on a 286 portable, with a windows-like text UI providing dialogs, buttons, menus, etc, and a true multi-user object database that today has over 20,000 data items and hardly slows.
(Well, anyway, I was chuffed, and I’ll be happy to consult on any similar work.  On site of course.  Perhaps the New Zealand office?)
 

For some odd reason, I was rather keen on staying on.  The duty on computer imports was being reduced to a reasonable level, and companies were looking at modernising, but there was very little in the way of existing expertise.  I had been approached by several people already, so I resolved to set up a company, start work, employ and train a few people, sit back, and let the money roll in, though not necessarily in that order
The Neighbour's pet cat
This was ‘harder than I expected’  - a familiar phrase halfway through a project, perhaps?  The bureaucracy involved was ludicrous, on par with Logica’s purchasing procedures (Sorry, couldn’t resist that!).  And it didn’t help that I was working on a shoe-string, having spent my life savings failing to drive all the way to Kenya from the UK, and since then only earning (to me) pocket-money wages.

Nevertheless, I rented a small cottage in a rather nice compound of a charity school just outside Nairobi, and started the long, hard process of installing a telephone.  This was followed by several months of getting it connected, and then we entered the normal, everyday hassle of trying to keep it working.  This was complicated by everyone thinking the copper cabling was far more useful as a washing line in their own back garden.  Perhaps they were right.

Still, a few contracts came along.

The main one was for a tea transport company to manage the scheduling of drivers and ‘turn-boys’ and cargoes and tractors and flat-beds and containers and invoices and packing slips and part numbers and suppliers and stocks and so on.   Despite it being the most complex system I have ever worked on, it is about as interesting as broccoli, so no more will be said.

Safari Rally HQ.  Definitely my taste in shirts
A more posy one was the computer system for the Safari Rally, the roughest and toughest of the big international car rallies.   As each car struggled past a check point, usually with less wheels, struts, crew and engine bits than it had started with, the times were read over the radio to the headquarters in Nairobi.  These we fed into the system, which calculated penalties and rank of various categories, and displayed the results in real time to a set of terminals in the press room.  The first year my system went live was quite hairy - for a start the system ran far too slowly on the 20-terminal network, such things being hard to find to test on.  So much for capacity planning.

One particular ‘feature’ was that the results of the secondary race - a ‘fun’ one of VW beetles and Land Rovers and Robin Reliants - were mixed with those of the main race.  I had not expected anyone in it to get anywhere near the quality of international rally drivers and cars, so I hadn’t bothered to separate the data.  But a Kenyan in a Land Cruiser consistently came in 6th and 7th overall.  This is very impressive, since driving one of these is somewhat similar to commanding a tank steered by a deaf cow.

The Company Car Scheme
There were various other small contracts, but it is very hard to start a company with no capital, as many people had already told me (yes, always listen to your mother).  Any money I made was immediately spent on maintaining the phone line, fax machine, transport (a Morris Minor Pickup that required a lot of work to, amongst other things, stop the gear-stick from breaking off in my hand, but was otherwise a suitably tough little car), rent, bribes, licences and goodness knows what else.

My parents were very understanding and lent me what they could when times were particularly sticky, but I realised after a year and a half that I had not really moved on far enough to see a way of hiring people.

It was time to go home, get a 9-5 job, a suit, a mortgage on a house called ‘Dunroamin’, a wife, 2.3 children and a dog called Rover…

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