My assignment to the American Embassy Nairobi during 1979 to 1981 occurred during a tumultuous period. The security of regions throughout the world was on the edge. Nairobi had its own security concerns as tribal factions and bandits confronted an increasingly westernized city with violence. My job at the RCO office (Radio Communications Office) was to engineer two-way radio nets that enabled Foreign Service Officers to communicate with each other at missions across East Africa.
I had been provided housing at a small compound on the edge of Nairobi that consisted of a one-bedroom house and a separate duplex where a member of the U.S. Marines resided. “Happy Valley” was about three miles from the embassy in Nairobi and about a half mile from the town of Westlands.
A driveway ran down from the main road to the house. The Italian owner’s bougainvillea flourished amid lush green shrubs. Italian cyprus trees defined the edge of the property. At the bottom the Nairobi River flowed. A guard arrived before dark, although he slept most of the night. I had heard stories of “panga gangs,” knife wielding bandits that had robbed some homes.
It was within this environment that I sat up one night under a Nairobi full moon and wrote the short story, “Terror at Happy Valley!”
Happy Valley | 1980: A Mid-Summer Night
Chynna had just pulled back the curtains of the darkened living room window to gaze at the Kenya moon when she saw them. Beyond the front entry not fifty yards away a group of thieves were ravaging the Gunny Sergeant’s duplex.
“Mom! She called out in with a frantic whisper. “Come here quick.”
Her mother rushed over to the window and strained to see across the patio. She gasped and said, “How are we going to contact the embassy Marine Guard in Nairobi?”
‘My god,” Chynna said. “Look at those long knives they’re carrying.”
“A panga gang,” her mother replied, barely audible.
The compound suddenly went pitch dark. The gang had turned off the mains electricity. “The phone’s out again,” Chynna said, and in an even lower voice admitted, “The VHF radio didn’t work when I tried to call the embassy during the weekly radio test.” She should have reported it.
Through the bedroom window the outlines of the crazed men danced through a jungle of bougainvilleas from the floodlight moon. “Thank god for the Gunny that he’s not home,” Chynna said.
“A panga gang killed that UPI news reporter woman last month,” her mom interjected. “Those panga knives are like swords.”
Chynna glanced at her mom who was obviously taken back by the words that had escaped her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” her mom said. “We’ll be okay. The Gunny will return soon.” With halting speech she added, “Where is the gate guard, anyway?”
“He probably ran off with the chickens,” Chynna said. She remembered another option the embassy had installed for their security. “The siren alarm.”
“Does it work?” Mom said, but Chynna knew that she didn’t mean it the way it sounded. She knew that it hadn’t been tested in months, her responsibility, too. “I hope it—”
“Moja kwa moja,” voices cackled in the native Kenyan dialect that Chynna and her mom knew only a few phrases. The men had bashed open the Gunny’s door and rushed inside.
“We could make a run for it up to the street,” Chynna said, lacking enthusiasm.
“The security manual stated that we should stay inside and barricade ourselves in the safe room—our master bedroom,” Mom said. “Let’s go.”
Images of downtown Nairobi, only a few miles away, flashed across Chynna’s memory. After they first arrived in Nairobi she had seen thieves like this chased down by the local townspeople and beaten to death. “Mom, let me go for help. I know I can follow the river down to that Indian—Mr. Patel’s house. He will help.”
“Your father said to stay here if anything happened! Mom replied in angry puffs. Come on, to the safe room.”
Why did dad have to travel again? “Wait, mom. I know what the embassy’s instructions are—I went to that security meeting, too. They also said each incident would be different and we should consider our own situation. Who’s going to help us? We have no contact with the embassy… Dad won’t return for two days…The Gunny Sergeant is probably on duty all night.”
“We stay here,” her mom barked out, with her jaw set. “The gang may not even come here if they find what they’re looking for at the Gunny’s place.”
Once in the safe room—the main bedroom—they locked the regular door and then latched the special steel grated door. The small bedroom window was also protected by grated-steel. China joined her mother to peek out the window.
A panga knife ripped through the window directly above Chynna’s head! The knife had broken the window but Mylar film prevented the glass from shattering. They had dove for the floor. Chynna reached behind the nightstand and activated the siren switch. Nothing. For the siren to function, it required electricity.
She and her mom scooted on the floor next to the bed and held on to each other. Chynna and her mom’s whispers competed with the wild animals outside their Happy Valley compound.
“I think we should place all our valuables in the hall,” her mom said, and paused to catch her breath. “Our watches, rings… I have several hundred US dollars locked up.”
They began searching in the dark for jewelry and other articles of value when the pounding began on their front door. The panga gangs had finished with the Gunny’s place.
They froze when the front door blasted open. It was too late to do anything. She remembered the security meeting that had been an unwanted interruption at the time. The Regional Security Officer would have said that the front door had been compromised.
The panga gang sounded out with hyena-like shrieks that raised the hair on her neck. Chynna and her mom didn’t whisper a word, but they both knew… the bandits were known to be extremely violent. Mom squeezed her hand. “I think we should gather all the valuables we can find and place them in a pile next to door… in case they are able break through the steel.”
At the Regional Security Office meeting Chynna remembered the RSO stating that the steel-grated door was meant to delay intruders until help arrived. She followed her mom. While the panga gang members ransacked the house they placed jewelry and U.S. dollars atop a pillowcase in front of the secure door.
Chynna jumped when the sudden bash cracked the bedroom door and rattled the safe room steel door. Their offering would not be enough. She fought some primeval urge, reminded of the mindless terror in the eyes of the wildebeest before their predators bit their hind legs and took them down…
(To be continued)
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