Every book we write contains funny stories, sad stories and unusual characters. These stories and people are the fabric of our lives, interwoven with our own histories, adding moments of joy, humour or tragedy to our everyday existence. The story below is one of our favourites, from one of early clients, Sally Kendall, an inspiring and intelligent woman. Sally was born into poverty and was expected to go into service. She had other ideas and eventually trained to be a nurse, rising to be matron for the whole of Tanganika (now Tanzania), which is where the following tale takes place. Enjoy.
A Lost Soul
Way up in the Bandari hills is a place called Chunya. I would drive up to an antenatal clinic there every so often. The first time there were only three ladies waiting to be seen; the next time there were 30 something; the following time there were 50. Word spread like wildfire, and all these women were eager to be seen by a medical professional — to make sure they were all right and that their babies would be born in good health.
On the last day that I was there, one fellow said to me “Najua mtu moja”, which means “I know one person”.
“Tu gani?” said I. “What’s his name?”
“Bwana Tiffin.” “Mister Tiffin.” I did not know anybody of that name, I told him. He wanted to take me to the man anyway, so I duly followed him to a compound three or four miles away. There in the corner, in a homemade bed, was an old man with a tobacco-stained beard. This man was wearing nothing but a pair of tattered old shorts; he was caked in dirt from top to toe and stank to high heaven.
“Who are you?” I asked in Swahili. “How did you get here?”
“Bwana Tiffin,” he replied. Then, to my great surprise, he said in a rather cultured voice, “I speak English very well.”
This old man had been under the African sun for so long that his skin had turned a leathery brown. That, combined with the dirt, made him look like a black man, but it turned out that he was white and originally from England.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, now feeling curious to find out how and why this English fellow had found himself in his current situation.
“I first came here in 1929,” said the man. “I walked from Pietermaritzburg in South Africa to Southern Rhodesia. Once there, I joined the Rhodesian police.” He told me that he had served with them for a number of years, and been in various fights and skirmishes along the way, until he had heard about the gold that was in the Bandari hills. Then he had decided to make his way here and try to find some of that highly desirable yellow metal.
“So, what’s the matter now?” I asked.
“I fell off my bicycle,” he replied, pointing to the tortured tangle of metal that lay in the corner of the room, “and I’ve hurt my back.”
The man was obviously badly injured, so I considered the best way to help him.
“Would you like to come back to Mbeya with me?” I asked. “I can try to get you some help there.”
“If you could take me, I would be very pleased,” he responded gratefully.
“Is there anything you would like to take with you?” I asked, looking around at his humble surroundings.
“Well, I suppose I had better bring that box over there,” he said, motioning towards a metal box on the floor in the corner.
With the help of a couple of local men, I helped Mr Tiffin into my car and then went to fetch his box. I reached down to pick it up, but when I tried to lift it I nearly broke my back; the thing was so heavy that it was like trying to lift up solid lead. After much ado and much help, I finally picked it up and put it into the car. As soon as I did, the back of the car sank a good few inches. I was terribly worried about my vehicle because it seemed so overloaded, but I had promised Mr Tiffin that I would bring his box and I felt I should honour the agreement.
On the journey back to Mbeya, I said to him, “With a name like Tiffin, you should come from Cumberland.”
“Oh, I do,” he said. “I used to work at the Cocklakes.
“The Cocklakes!” I said in surprise. “My goodness, my brother-in-law works there.”
“Well, I worked there during the First World War,” said Mr Tiffin. By then I was beginning to warm to this old man, who obviously had an interesting tale to tell and was in such a sorry state now. I got him to agree to let me send a letter back home and tell somebody about him.
“Don’t worry about it,” the old man said happily. “Don’t worry about it at all.”
When Mr Tiffin was ensconced in the hospital, I turned my attention to his mysterious box. I couldn’t resist opening it up to see what was the source of its unearthly weight. Once I lifted the lid, I immediately understood why it was so heavy.
Mr Tiffin, it appeared, had been successful in his search for gold in the Bandari hills, and each time he had found a tiny speck he had put it into this box. The specks had become a pile, and the pile had become a heap, and now the box contained enough gold to turn a prince green with envy.
“What shall I do with all this?” I asked the owner of the gold.
“I was hoping you would be able to help me with that when I’m better,” replied Mr Tiffin. “Until then, just put it over in the corner or something.”
I did not feel comfortable keeping such a large amount of gold at the hospital or at my house. If anybody had found out about it, I was not sure what might happen. The following day I asked the district commissioner for help.
“I don’t know what to do with this,” he said, clearly as stunned as I was. “This has never happened before. Take it to the bank.”
The nearest bank was in Iringa, 200 miles away. I was not sure that my car could take the strain. “No,” I said firmly. “You will have to take charge of it. Haven’t you got a strong room?”
Reluctantly he agreed to take it, and the fruit of Mr Tiffin’s years of labour was put into the strong room until the district commissioner could figure out what to do with it. Eventually, Mr Tiffin was given £25,000 for it — unimaginable riches for anyone in Africa.
But that is not the end of the story.
True to my word, I sent a letter home to the Cocklakes to tell them about this man that I had found. As a result of my letter, Mr Hunter, the managing director of the Carlisle Plaster and Cement Company, travelled all the way to Africa to speak to him. They had a long conversation and a good laugh together while I provided tea. It was wonderful to see Mr Tiffin reunited with somebody from his long-forgotten past, and it seemed to please the old man greatly.
I had got Mr Tiffin cleaned up well by then, shaved his beard and given him some clean clothes. After about half a bottle of whisky he felt much better, but his back was broken beyond repair and he was never going to recover completely. About three weeks after meeting Mr Hunter, he died. All of his hard-earned money went to the Tanganyikan Government.
© Sally Kendall 2008