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Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

So I went to Robert Njoya's house still thinking of him as just a poacher, meaning a kind of thug. The house he had built consisted of mud-and-sisal walls, under a tin roof. Two pepper trees, with weaver nests hanging down, grew in the yard, which was hedged in by bougainvillea. Beyond the yard, Njoya had farmed a couple of acres of barely arable land subdivided from his father's farm. One of the children told me that this year's harvest had yielded a single sack of maize. There were four sons under the age of 9. If custom held, they would subdivide their father's land, in their turn.

Gidraff, the eldest, remembered his father: "He used to take us to town for town visits. He bought us footballs. He wasn't hard, but not too soft, either. Everybody had duties in the house. I was washing the dishes, Michael swept outside, John collected rubbish around the house. The baby would sleep. We would all go to dig in the shamba." Then they showed me Njoya's grave, a hump of earth beside the maize he had planted, with a wooden marker on which his name and dates and the letters "R.I.P" had been crudely painted.

Later, their mother, Serah, came home and invited me into the whitewashed living room. There was a small television. Wooden chairs draped with embroidered cloths lined all four walls. Robert, she said, had been "a hard-working man" who earned his living mostly as a mason, building houses. For a time, he also made dried flower arrangements for the export trade, sometimes using cactus from Soysambu. The meat he got from poaching, she said, was the only meat they ate.

She was a slender 28-year-old, her hair wrapped in a blue kerchief, with smooth dark skin and perfect white teeth, and she seemed incapable of anger. Of Cholmondeley, she said, "If he came and asked me to forgive him, I would forgive him."

Then the 3-year-old, Jokim, ran into the room bawling at some> injustice committed by his siblings, and she picked him up on the seat beside her, comforted him, wiped his nose, and launched him back out into the fray.

The children were still asking about their father, she said, "especially that one," referring to Jokim. But even Jokim understood their father would not be coming back. It had gotten into his mind that Tom Cholmondeley was a pilot. Now, "when he sees an airplane overhead, he says, 'That is Tom Chol-mun-lee passing, who killed my father.' "

Richard Conniff wrote The Ape in the Corner Office: Understanding the Workplace Beast in All of Us (Crown). Photographer Per-Anders Pettersson is based in Cape Town

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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