Bells and Scouting

Bells and Scouting


A warm sea breeze blows strong through the whitewashed concrete louvres, where the high sun brings light and colour flying in from the palm trees with the nesting birds.  A weathered frame of thick wooden beams occupies the centre of the room, and a dusty stack of ropes and timber lies above the narrow ladder from the chamber below.  A blizzard of white dots on the floor, amongst the tired plastic bags and debris from the nesting birds, indicates painters who know that this high perch is not often frequented.

Looking through the narrow slats to the blue sky and white sand outside, the serenity erupts in the clash and whirl of metal and wood.  We are at Kilifi, on Kenya’s Swahili coast – past the miles of cement factories and sisal plantations stretching north of Mombasa; past the resorts where locals marvel at western hedonism; and host to a collection of sleepy county government offices and occasional round-the-world yachtsmen.

The ringing in my ears is loud enough to have broken eardrums, driven mad and even killed the unfortunate characters locked up the tall fenland towers in the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.  In the belfry in Kilifi, although the whirling hundredweights of bronze could still punish a careless move, the higher notes of the smaller bells are blown easily through the louvres with the warm breeze, a call to prayer for a devout community.  The Anglican church of St Thomas, sharing the architectural lines and angles of Cambridge colleges from the 1960s, is full every Sunday for three services a day.  The devout congregation sits in the close rows of wooden pews, facing the choir and the familiar large cross, and looking out not to stone walls, but to sand, grass and palms, where the year-round tropical heat sees no need for walls.

Today, the congregation have been informed that the sound of the bells requires no Sunday best, but is symbolic of something unique about their coastal church community.  Kilifi has the only ring of church bells in East Africa that are hung and rung for traditional English bell ringing – In England, this is taken for granted: the familiar singing of the wedding bells that are installed in nearly every parish church.  In Kilifi however, where the bells were installed in last year of colonial authority, ringing has perpetuated in isolation for half a century from any other practitioners of this art – musicians who have not seen another orchestra play for twenty years.

Downstairs, where the colourful ropes shoot up through the ceiling, only to reappear moments later, and where the connection between motion and sound is baffling to the uninitiated, I nervously take my rope, conscious under the watchful eyes of the local band that a mistake would undermine the credibility of their long awaiting training day.   Thankfully, after a few bumpy strokes on these unknown bells, and 6000 miles from home, the familiarity of a childhood knowledge returns to me: the physical setting of a dusty room up and away from the ceremony and seriousness of the church service; the unmoving faces of pure concentration from the circle of ringers; and the settling of the stern internal focus that is required for this unusual combination of music, physical balance, and numerical patterns.

Throughout the morning, it emerges that the local bellringers, amazingly, ring to a higher standard than most English churches.  From the retired village elders to John, suave young NGO worker, or Fiesta, the devout local pastor with a chunky metal necklace and gangland t-shirt, the enthusiastic band retains a far healthier profile than many UK counterparts.  Furthermore, it becomes apparent that they have an unusual musical ability, ringing more by ear than the usual means of timing pulls by sight of the surrounding ropes.  The explanation emerges over beef stew and ugali: under the palm leaf-shelter on a windy hilltop, the band puts on an impromptu, choral performance of well-known gospel tunes, crisp and clean notes floating over the fence to the neighbouring hospital.

Nestled in the foothills of the Aberdares, where Queen Elizabeth famously learned of her accession, the carefully tended lawns and secret gardens of the Outspan Lodge in Nyeri are a far cry from the heat, bustle humidity of the Indian coast.  The colonial terrace of wickerwork chairs looks over to Mother Earth’s breast – a wide dome stretching from end to end of the middle African horizon, and capped by the prominent nipple of Mount Kenya.

The Outspan, tired resting place for colonial romantics, houses a humble cottage in its grounds, by the name of Paxtu, or ‘complete’ in Swahili, last resting place of a powerful Lord of the realm – Lieutenant-General, Boer-war leader, and founder of the global Scout Movement – Robert Baden-Powell. “There is an old African legend about the majestic bull elephant. When he realizes that death is near, he returns deep into the darkest jungle. There he dies hidden from the world” – here, I am taken aback by the intimate nature of the small room in which a powerful man lived out his last days.  Amongst the colourful scarves and badges, familiar to childhood memories from around the world, the dimly lit also contains a number of pencil drawings, postcards from a devotee to the children of his empire.

This weekend, there is a different kind of safari on offer.  We drive slowly through the wild throngs, window open, shutter finger at the ready, looking for the perfect framing of the young animals in their native surroundings.  At home, this would land me in prison, but in Kenya, we are accosted by proud adults wanting photographs of their polite and curious entourages – for this weekend is the 157th birthday of Lord Baden-Powell, and Nyeri is a mecca for young Scouts.  There is an air of enthusiasm, framed by the optimistic words of the Scouting values etched in stone on the path up to Baden-Powell’s grave: ‘Trustworthy; Loyal; Useful; Friendly; Courteous; Kind; Considerate; Cheerful’. Many of the scout groups have prepared displays, framing Baden Powell’s austere figure with images of Rihanna, Manchester United and Eminem.

The next morning, far above the Paxtu plains where the herds of scarved young animals were migrating home, the earth got redder and darker with every metre of altitude. With the sun rising behind Mount Kenya, we took a white-knuckle ride past the climbing lorries, up to the merino sheep, onion field and dairy farming of the cold highlands, through the mossy trees of the upper rainforest, until our driver cheerfully announced the start of the ‘Kenyan massage’ as the rocky tracked turned on upwards.

Our target was Lesatima, at 4,000m the highest point of the Aberdares, high above the dangers of the elephant and buffalo crashing through the bamboo forest below, a barren Scottish moorland frequented only the occasional hyena, and broken by the triple cacti of the American Mid-West.   I couldn’t help wishing that we had spotted some scouts up here playing at being cowboys – but in Kenya nature is not free, and comes with expensive bills for rangers, landcruisers, and park permits.

Samson is our giant ranger, with tall cheekbones, a broad smile, and hands that no poacher wants to be caught in.  Supporting a wife and children in Western Kenya, he is highly educated (it is highly competitive to become a ranger), and walks daily amongst the hippoes, lions, elephants and rhinos of the lower park, monitoring their health and movements.  He intimately knows the dangers and daily behaviours of each animal, how to track with the wind and the ground, how to approach and not provoke, and how to know when something is amiss in the herds.   He counts himself infinitely fortunate to have been selected as a ranger, although he volunteers a fear of dealing with an incident if one of his tour groups was ever taken sick in the high moorlands, and sees a solution in the construction of a hotel below the summit of the mountain.  Samson doesn’t want to use his gun on animal or human, but has done so on several occasions – for poachers more heavily armed than himself, or for animals that repeatedly destroy crops.

In the Kenya Wildlife Service, Samson has listened to tour groups from all continents, and has worked for masters white and black – like many Kenyans, he is frustrated with what he sees as a decline in good management and leadership by example.  Schooled in the East African post-colonial experience, I was shocked to hear this Kenyan say, unequivocally and undoubtedly contrary to the prevailing political, academic and popular views in Kenya, that he thought that his country should be colonised again.  Realistically of course, the picture is far more complicated – 50 years have passed under the bridge, and perhaps it tends to be easier to live in a romanticised history than to engage and find solutions to the problems of the day.