A charismatic African politician seeks justice for the war crime perpetrated against his father in 1950s colonial Kenya. With its widespread use of torture, internment and executions it would be easy to characterise the Mau Mau Emergency as Britain’s own little War on Terror, but the truth, as explored in THE FINAL CHARGE, is far more complex. Set against the backdrop of the deep divisions and institutionalised corruption in present day Kenya, THE FINAL CHARGE explores important questions about what it means to be a minority in a society, where responsibility lies for past wrongs and who gets to decide who is condemned as a terrorist and whom lauded as a freedom fighter: themes more relevant today than ever.
‘In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation.’ Barbara Castle, 1955
Five minutes earlier his biggest dilemma had been whether to attempt the Crocodile Steak.
It was the last evening of a fine holiday. Dinner at The Carnivore, feasting on exotic meats, prior to heading out to Jomo Kenyatta International and the charter flight back to Stanstead was part of the package. They were on their second round of Tusker beer, when a rich preacher’s voice, Oxford diction in Swahili rhythm, slowly intoned:
“Under the Provisions of Section 34 of the Kenya Criminal Procedure Code, I arrest you, Thomas Miles, for murder, contrary to Section 204 of the Penal Code in that you did, on the 30th day of April, 1955 at South Kinangop location unlawfully kill Wilson Mumbu Muya, alias General Jembe.”
The Nairobi restaurant exploded with flash photography and bellowed questions.
Tom Miles half rose, his mind and vision both out of focus. His face was reddened from two weeks fishing on the coast, his sparse white hair awry. The names echoed with the churning familiarity of an ancient nightmare: Jembe, South Kinangop. His eyes widened in horror and he froze. Guilty. The cameras caught it all. He couldn’t have been more different from the erect, heroic figure who now placed a manicured hand on his shoulder.
Stony faced men in dark suits dragged Tom Miles out of the restaurant, shouldering their way through the cross-tide of reporters like fishing dhows in a brisk wind. Out to the car park, where a pair of gleaming E Class Mercedes saloons awaited, their engines running. They drove slowly down the Langata Road with six carloads of newsmen in their wake. Past Wilson Airfield in to the city, heading for the Central Police Station. They took their time, easing over in response to flashing headlights to allow camera crews to speed past them so they could be in position to capture their arrival.
Tom Miles’ confused and frightened fellow diners left behind at The Carnivore were relentlessly interviewed by the few journalists who had elected not to pursue the story back down to the city. They confirmed, over the debris of what had been a fine meal, what a decent sort Tom Miles seemed – how he loved Kenya. How, just that very evening, he had reminisced about the days – a half century before – when he had escorted the lorry loads of detainees to the screening centres. How he had described the camp that had been thrown up virtually overnight right there – within a stone’s throw of what was now the most sophisticated watering hole in Nairobi.
Should one eat a crocodile, they recalled him asking, when a crocodile could eat you?
The Charge was in its thirty first year. Leo ‘Coke’ Kane loved it, because it was a test not of strength, stamina and fair play, macho attributes he had always despised, but of intelligence, enterprise and sheer devious cunning. A fiercely fought competition with no rules.
The fact that it raised money for a good cause was for Leo Kane completely incidental.
Leo Kane was tall yet looked, as he had ever since a bout of childhood pneumonia had nearly killed him, somewhat gaunt and undernourished. Thin rather than slender; weedy more than wiry; weather-beaten, not tanned. Women, even those many years his junior, felt a need to mother him, to cook him meals and worry about how much he drank. From this, he did nothing to discourage them.
Leo and his two sons had driven in the last six Charges. They had never won, or ever even been among the first four who qualified for trophies and car badges. Only twice had they completed the course, having on all other occasions ended up hopelessly lost. But they had loved every minute of it, as did all the other lawyers and their kin who took part. For men who made their living pouring over volumes of rules, deducing principles, distilling precedents and delighting in interminable debates about definitions, interpretations, due process and pre-trial protocols, the Charge was a joyous, anarchic release. They said there were no rules, but there was one, pithily summarised by Nick Friedlander when accused of tampering with a fellow charger’s ignition system three years earlier: You can cheat. You just can’t bleat.
This year Leo had assured his boys, victory would be theirs. He had told them that in every previous year too, but this year, he really believed it. Why? Because he had a secret weapon up his sleeve – although he would never admit it to anyone, he had been practicing. Every weekend. To win the Charge was suddenly very important to him. It was one of his resolutions.
Three years earlier, on his fortieth birthday, Leo had made a whole raft of such resolutions: all could be summarised under one heading – to hit middle-age head on. He had traded in his sensible family car, the sole material possession the bruising divorce settlement had left to him, for a glitzy little 4×4. He had surrendered the lease on his apartment, forsaken his office in Nairobi, and moved back to the coast. He had even begun smoking again – something he had kicked in his late twenties.
He had decided to win the Charge – the final Charge.
For there was no doubt about it: this was going to be the final Charge. The authorities had made that abundantly clear. It smacked too much of a rich, white boys’ game. It was also dangerous: not so much to the competitors as to those across whose path their bouncing vehicles careered.
Over the years, there had been numerous claims for crops damaged and cattle stampeded into barbed wire fences. All had been more or less amicably settled out of court.
Then, two years earlier, four youths had been flung from the back of a pick-up which had swerved to avoid the lead car.
Not that it was the competitor’s fault; the pick-up had no headlights, and its driver was as high as a kite on Miraa. But the competitor, an old hand sensing victory for the first time, and slightly nervous of mob vengeance, had kept going, relying on the softer consciences of those behind him to deal with any injuries.
Unfortunately, the pick-up was full of PNU Youth Wingers – the ruling party’s young bloods – returning from a rally. The government had wanted to put a stop to the Charge there and then. For good and forever. The organisers pointed out that they had a contract with the Department of Wildlife which allowed them to race across National Park land and which still had two years to run. Even a government as authoritarian as the Kenyan regime was wary of breaching a contract with 42 lawyers.
So for its last two years, the Charge was restricted to National Park land, and notice was given that the agreement would not be renewed. A decades-old tradition was coming to an end, and Leo was determined that, in their dotage, his boys would be able to recall, if not a victory, at least a place in the first four, in this, the final Charge.