Northern Kenya

If I go out in darkness I dread neither the leopard nor the lion but I recoil from the aardvark: for me a terrifying creature. The ant bear, or earth pig, is a living fossil with snout of pig, a serpent’s tongue, ears of a rabbit and a kangaroo’s tail. A sangoma’s charm made from aardvark body parts gives the wearer powers to glide throwugh walls at night; ideal for thieves and seducers of guarded virgins. But who would wish to encounter an aardvark down a dark hole at night, this creature the size of a woman with vicious talons?

I think about this whenever I pass an aardvark’s hole, and I remembered it a few days ago when tribal cattle rustlers in the depths of the Rift Valley ambushed a column of Kenyan police, slaughtering dozens. That tragedy is all over the news. ‘Drought,’ blame the papers, ‘water, grazing and poverty’. Nonsense. In northern Kenya we have too many guns and young men with nothing to do but emulate the heroism of Miltiades.

So anyway, this happened not long ago and not far from home, when one clan launched a cattle raid on a second clan. It all went bloodily wrong. The second clan had been reinforced by government paramilitaries, who carried heavier weaponry and were lying in wait because they had been tipped off about the attack. They routed the first clan and hunted them down until they were all killed or had fled back to their flyblown bomas across the plains. The victorious defenders camped among corpses littered on the plain. Imagine warriors on their haunches with rifles resting while they roast meat on a fire that lights up faces as hard and chiselled as that of Chingachgook or Umslopogaas. I’ve met them and seen them and feel I can just picture what it must have been like at night on the edge of a battle like Marathon.

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As they sat around the campfire they heard what sounded like a gunshot. It was a crack, a report, a small explosion, but muffled and strange — as if it came from beneath them, or from far away, or perhaps very nearby. In low voices they talked about what this sound might be. All night they pondered it. In the early hours, still in darkness, they heard another noise just like the first. There it was again! They got up. They walked about in the mist.

At dawn, still worried, they searched the area. Very nearby, they came upon a system of holes, the work of aardvarks. ‘Lkelkele’, they said — which is aardvark in their vernacular. They thought nothing of aardvarks, but as one man approached this warren he fell down dead. A second man ran up to see what could have happened when he too fell dead. The warriors withdrew in fright. Bullets were coming from nowhere. After a third man went down, they realised shots were being fired from underground.

The warriors began shooting back, but where to shoot? They aimed down the holes. When there was silence another man approached, only to fall down. More gunfire. No amount of rifle fire poured towards the den would silence the sniper. Finally, the paramilitaries went off and found a grenade. A man lobbed that down the most likely-looking hole and there was a dull explosion. Then utter silence.

After a bit more silence they plucked up courage to investigate. Down the hole they found what was left of a young blood from the rival clan. He had on him several belts stuffed with ammunition, enough supply for days of fighting — together with a dead aardvark and a dead hyena. The men standing around the hole debated what had happened and this is what seems to be the most likely explanation for this bizarre and disturbing scene.

The previous night the dead warrior, badly wounded and bleeding in the cattle raid, had fled the skirmishing with his war party comrades. At some point he had been unable to keep up and it was by then every man for himself. There was nowhere to hide from his pursuers on that flat, high, treeless plain — until he stumbled on the complex of aardvark holes into which he crawled backwards so that he had his rifle barrel facing the entrance. It was his misfortune that the posse that was after him camped so close and then night fell. At some point the digger and inhabitant of this hole had decided to join him.

Imagine the panic of the man in the darkness with an aardvark coming at him. The warrior had shot it at point blank range, which explains the muffled first shot audible to the campfire group. The smell of blood must have been strong. The warrior was bleeding from his battle wounds and he had a dead aardvark in his lap. The blood inevitably attracted a hyena that entered the hole to eat whatever was down there. Bang went the second shot — but it gave him away. Cowards die a thousand deaths, the valiant taste of death but once.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated