Aidan Hartley

Jubilant greetings to you, Celestino! How is the atmospheric pressure in your corner? 

The man who held the fort for me many a time, and who once saved me from bandits, is leaving Laikipia for his own home

Jubilant greetings to you, Celestino! How is the atmospheric pressure in your corner? 
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‘I am old and cannot work again,’ said Celestino. ‘But you are 46 and we have many years to go.’ ‘No. Working for you has made me blind.’ ‘We went over that and the optician said you need reading glasses because you are in your forties…’ He shakes his head: ‘I’m never going to have another job. I’m going home to grow my sugarcane.’ And so the man who appeared at my door without shoes 23 years ago is on his way.

Named after one of only two popes to have resigned, Celestino held the fort for me while I went off to Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans. He couldn’t boil an egg — he once declared eating too many eggs gave one influenza — but he could mix a wicked bloody Mary. He stood by me when my father died and at my wedding. Ten years ago, we carved a farm out of virgin bush together. When we moved in we used donkey carts loaded with our kit, and I will always picture the tired but determined Celestino urging the beasts onwards across the quicksilver land beneath a highway of stars as we trekked all night. And then the sun rose on the farm with all our things spilled out across the grass: carpets, pictures, plastic ducks and teddy bears, computers, tables, chairs and beds. All coated in dust and smelling vaguely of donkey. He sat there staring out over the empty landscape. I asked: ‘What is the matter?’ and he replied forlornly, ‘There are no shops. This is a terrible place.’

But he stayed to help me and together we made water run uphill, built a farmstead from nothing and planted trees and constructed five kilometres of drystone walls. We created so much so fast that it looked as if we’d been here for a long time. One visitor asked, ‘How many generations have you been in this place?’

We got drunk together, yelled at one another and once had a boxing match in the headlights of a car stuck up to the axles in black cotton in pouring rain. Unlettered and without skills of any particular kind, Celestino helped me build a Boran cattle herd that I hope will one day be a quality stud.

Many times, we’ve slept on the tracks of rustlers and shared a bite of food, a gulp of water. Together we’ve faced the bandits’ gunfire, hearing the breath of near-misses, and the crack of rounds flying wide. The other day Celestino had a brigand aim an assault rifle point-blank at his chest. He heard him pull the trigger and he heard the ‘clack’ of a dud round in the breach and then got beaten with the butt but survived. He was first to my rescue when a bandit ambushed me from so close that the muzzle flashes bounced off the windscreen of my vehicle. Afterwards he warned me that I had better take care, that he and I would not be so lucky next time. Of course there will be a next time, so I can see why he had to leave.

The stress was getting to him. He asked to have his heart checked, so we went to the doctor and asked him to examine us both at the same time. Studying the ECG results, the doctor told Celestino, ‘You are fit enough to fight a war.’ He turned to me, ‘But you, on the other hand…’ Celestino is a peaceful man, attached to a place of bananas and cane and houses like beehives, in the steamy benign farmlands of the Uganda frontier. He never really adapted to the arid, ascetic, wild, trigger-happy highlands of Laikipia.

It’s going to be tough to go on without him helping me but Celestino is at last going home like Bilbo Baggins after adventures he never wanted. I’m to visit him soon and I hope to help him with his sugarcane endeavours. He sent me a text message this week that started: ‘I hope you are physically fine, academically and spiritually good together with your family…’ He once opened a letter to me: ‘Get much sincere jubilant greetings. How is the atmospheric pressure in your corner? I am sitting here with my backbone on the shamba [farm]…’

I suppose my main worry concerns Celestino’s grandfather, Jacob Mukhamia Omanyo, who allegedly died at the age of 119. He claimed to have fought for the British against von Lettow-Vorbeck in the Great War — when the first and last shots were fired in Africa. Jacob died only in 2008, leaving 712 offspring in four generations after him. If Celestino is blessed with similar longevity, what on earth will he do for the next 73 years?