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the African Songbook: A Tragedy in Five Acts

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A tragic love story during the rise of the Mau Maus in Kenya

Drama / Romance
Ben Woestenburg
Age Rating:

Act One



They moved through the shadows as if they were a whisper on the wind. There were six of them. The plantation truck they used for their journey through the Rift Valley safely hidden in the trees, they went the rest of the way on foot. They moved quickly, cloaked in silence. A full moon flooded the distant hills and plain below with light so that the tiny whitewashed walls of the farmhouse and enclosure stood out as if it were a blemish on the landscape. A dog barked in the distance, perhaps catching the scent of something sinister on the wind.

They stopped on a low rise, overlooking the farmhouse. The leader, a tall man dressed in rags - torn pants and buttonless shirt, his sandals made of old tractor tires and rope - looked at the others where they stood on the rise. Grabbing the long, tight-braided curls of his shoulder-length hair and tying them with a rough cord he pulled out of his pocket, he nodded, pulling the machete-like panga from the rope belt around his waist and murmuring softly to himself as they walked toward the farmhouse.

He chanted an old Kikuyu war cry - “Mau-Mau-Mau-Mau-Mau-Mau,” - the words growing louder with every beat of his heart as he began running down the hill. The others picked up the cry as they followed. The dog promptly killed with a hack of the man’s panga, the six men burst through the door. Their war cries drowned out the screams of the man, woman, and two children inside as the six men quickly fell to the business at hand: slaughter.


7 February 1952



Algernon, Lord Whitney, sat looking across the table from Rheinhold Messner, sipping his wine and thinking how the man was everything he could never be. Messner was unnaturally handsome, his face tanned and still unwrinkled—a youthful man by all appearances, Whitney told himself. His hair was thick, still dark and unusually long, resting on his broad shoulders. By contrast, Whitney’s hair was thin and balding, and what little he had left, was white. Where Messner was tall, Whitney was short; Messner was fit, his body hard, while Whitney was soft and thought of himself as only half a man because of his missing leg. Whitney was feeling his age and knew he looked it. The worst thing about it, he told himself as he refilled his drink, was that he was only a year or two older than Messner.

Whitney had inherited his wealth, putting most of it to good use, while Messner made his fortune through poaching, leading Big Game hunters into the Savannah where they hunted lions, elephants, and rhinos. Messner’s latest adventure—according to Messner—had involved an American movie director and his quest for a man-eating lion. Whitney would have never publicly called Messner a liar, but he had a difficult time bringing himself to believe the man’s boasting.

It’s his damned national pride, he told himself.

With the war still fresh in the minds of everyone in the room, and a bitter reminder that the war he’d fought in had been for nothing, Whitney found it hard to believe Messner would readily admit the Kaiser’s war was a mistake. And yet, Messner was quick to point out how the imposed peace treaty not only allowed a man like Hitler to assume power, but demanded it. As far as Whitney was aware, Messner had not fought in the Great War. Whitney lost his leg at the Marne and walked on a prosthetic—using a wooden leg like I was a goddamned pirate—a bitter reminder of everything he had lost.

Whitney turned away from Messner, looking about the banquet hall with a sense of indifference. The trappings of the elite—an embarrassment of riches, he thought. One chandelier was worth more than the wages of all the waiters in their stiff white liveries. They looked as if they were little black exclamation marks lost in a sea of chiffon and silk, he thought, and sometimes he felt as though he were one of them, feeling as out of place as they must have felt, living as he did alone in the Rift.

His daughter-in-law, Natasha, sitting to his right, was lost in conversation with the woman next to her. Nigel, his son—holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other—was buzzing about the banquet hall like a bee in a garden, moving from table to table. The room was too warm, stuffy, even with the doors open, and he could feel the sweat slipping between his shoulder blades as well as down his ribcage. He wiped his forehead with a napkin and took another sip of his wine.

God, I hate these affairs. Whatever possessed them to think I give a damn if the princess sees me or not - or is she the Queen now that the King’s dead?

Well, long live the Queen!

He took another drink as he made the silent toast.

It took him a moment to realize Messner was talking to him. He turned as the man leaned across the table, looking both ways as he spoke.

“I asked you if there was any trouble up your way.”

“Trouble? What sort of trouble?” Whitney asked, a note of petulance in his voice that caught Natasha’s attention. She turned to look at him briefly and gently patted his leg, knowing Whitney’s dislike for the man.

“You must have heard about the killings?”


Messner sat back in his chair. “You should pay more attention to what’s going on— especially with what’s going on around you. You’re too isolated out there in the Rift.”

Whitney reached into his tuxedo pocket for a cigar. “I pay little attention to what goes on beyond the borders of my fifty thousand.”

“Naturally, no one knows who’s responsible,” Messner went on, “but you know how these people like to talk.”

“And what do they like to say?” Whitney asked, lighting his cigar. “These people?”

“Oh, Poppa!” Natasha said, turning away from the woman she was speaking with. “You’re not going to smoke that now, are you? In here?”

“What? This? Why not? Dinner’s over. I see other people smoking.”

“Cigarettes yes, not stinky old cigars.”


“Perhaps we could go outside for some air?” Messner suggested.

“Would you?” Natasha asked, affecting a smile.

Picking up his cane, Whitney pushed himself up with an effort. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with Messner, but things might be worse if he upset his daughter-in-law; she might withhold the children from him. He looked for Nigel and saw him several seats away chatting with the Governor. Nigel gave out a burst of forced laughter and Whitney looked at Natasha; she was being too obvious in her effort to ignore her husband. He would have to talk to her about that one day.

A good wife should be at her husband’s side, he thought, but who can blame her? I should have stayed home; but then, I wouldn’t see the children, would I?

Outside, Whitney found the night air cool. A soft breeze flowing up from the South stirred through the tall elephant grass growing in the garden below the stone terrace. The acacia trees swayed listlessly, looking like cardboard cut-outs against the night sky. Stars lit up the night and there was a full moon rising over the city to the East. He could almost see Perseus hanging on to the edge of the horizon, trying to get a foothold where the Milky Way disappeared into the South. He loved the night sky; it seemed as if the stars were the one constant thing he still had left in his life that made any sense to him.

Whitney was careful to rest his cane against the balustrade as he turned to face the banquet hall. Suddenly the music seemed too loud, the room too full, and he was glad to get away. His leg had been bothering him for the last week and he began rubbing it gently, kneading the muscles above the thigh—where my thigh would have been, he reminded himself.

The lights of the banquet hall spilled across the balcony floor shimmering like broken glass—dazzling and brilliant—as Messner caught a passing waiter’s attention. He nimbly picked up two glasses of wine from the waiter’s tray, offering one to Whitney.

“What was that you were saying about killings?” Whitney asked, accepting the glass of wine.

“I passed through the Rift on my way here, stopping in at one of the villages along the way. After telling me all their usual woes—”

“Their usual woes?”

“You know...how you Brits have stolen their land; won’t let them sell their coffee for the same price—”

“A moot point,” Whitney said.

“Any point in their favour would be moot I suspect. Anyway, the Chief told me about a secret society located somewhere in the mountains—not too far from your place, from what I understand.”

“A secret society?” he said, somewhat dubiously.

“He said something about blood oaths—animal sacrifices—the whole nine yards. They take their oaths seriously, these people. There’s another group farther south, he said, near Mt. Kenya. They’re the ones creating all the havoc right now. They’ve been killing Loyalists—Police and Home Guards—that sort of thing. They’ve even attacked some Guards posts, and some of the more remote farmhouses.”

“Why haven’t I heard about it?”

“It might be because they haven’t attacked any Settlers yet—”

“Settlers? How long do you have to live in a place before you’re not considered a settler anymore?”

“Perhaps after they take their land back?”

“Take it back? But it’s my land. My father bought it eighty years ago. I was born here. My brother died in the Boer war; I lost my leg at the Marne.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Messner said, waving the statement off with a lazy hand. “But your father bought his land from a Government that didn’t have the right to sell it to him in the first place.”

“We’ve made this a profitable Colony.”

“Indeed, you have. But profitable for whom?”

“The Empire.”

“Ah yes, the Empire,” Messner smiled. “Not so mighty now that you’ve lost India, is it? Now it looks like these Zwarten are going to try their hand at independence.”


“You look shocked? Why’s that? You can’t expect me to believe this comes as a surprise? They’re not the ignorant savages of your father’s day—not that they ever were. They’ve grown since then. You’ve given them government, and religion—and they’re good God-fearing Christians they are—but you’ve also given them an education; and with that comes taxation; representation—or should I say, misrepresentation considering you won’t let them have elected representation. Isn’t your son in Parliament?”

“Civil Service.”

“Really? I thought he was in Parliament. Even so, what better way for you to hold onto your monopoly?”

“Whitney Estates isn’t the only coffee plantation in Kenya, and it’s hardly a monopoly.”

Messner stared at him, smiling over his glass.

“What does any of this have to do with these killings you’re talking about?” Whitney asked.

“As I said, it’s a move toward independence. They even have a name for it: Muingi. It’s Swahili.”

“Yes. I know; it means ‘movement’. How original. You don’t seriously expect the tribes to get along, do you?”

“When you British first arrived here, you said you were going to form a government for them—you wanted to replace the tribal governments they had.”

“That’s how these things are done,” Whitney said, agreeing with a nod.

“But unknown to you English, the chiefs never really own the land, did they? It belonged to the people. The chiefs handed it down from family to family—the families owned the land. The land belongs to the people. As far as the people are concerned, you stole their land, and they want it back.”

“They want it back?” Whitney smiled over his drink.

“They’re little more than serfs working their own land. It’s only a matter of time before everything comes to a head.”

“When it does, we’ll deal with it,” Whitney said, putting his wine glass down on the balcony and grabbing his cane.

“And how do you propose to deal with it? By pretending it isn’t happening and hoping it goes away, like you did in India?”

“We’ll fight to keep this Colony; we’ll answer violence with violence. If it’s war they want, we’ll give it to them!” Whitney said, limping back into the banquet hall.


12 October 1952

Mozambique Estate


Whitney sat uncomfortably in the front seat of the Jeep kneading his thigh as he watched Daniel Nk’yassa standing on a rise overlooking Whitney Estates. Daniel was looking through a pair of binoculars surveying the rows of coffee plants cresting the horizon and melting into the distance. To Daniel’s right—to the south—were fields of cotton. The original rail line Whitney’s father built when he first bought the land—a blunt ribbon of steel pointing to the coast—bisected the four thousand hectares. To the East were the new vineyards, while to the West lay the huge palatial estate Whitney called home: Mozambique. Directly below, the new landing strip used for transporting fresh coffee beans to the auction houses of Nairobi. The cotton went overland by rail, to Mombasa on the coast.

Whitney remembered telling Daniel of his plans almost as soon as the Second World War ended seven years earlier—except that his plan originally involved Nigel. When Nigel returned home, he brought Natasha and two children. He insisted on living in the city where he was to take his post in the Civil Service. He wanted nothing to do with Whitney Estates, or Mozambique.

And who can blame him? Whitney asked himself.

“The city. That’s where all the power lies,” Nigel had explained.

Whitney remembered shaking his head at the idea, knowing the power was here, in the land, as long as a person had enough sense to look to the future. That’s why he was building a winery with a planned capacity of five thousand bottles a year; it was a step in a new direction, but it wouldn’t be ready for another three years.

Daniel jumped down from the rocks, walking toward the Jeep. He was tall and thin, wore his shirt open, his undershirt stained with sweat. His khaki shorts were dirty, his heavy boots scuffed, and the wool socks he wore folded over the edges of his boots.

He still looks young, Whitney noted.

There was a touch of grey coming in above the temples, but his black skin was still smooth, with no wrinkles. Whitney wondered if it was the result of a soft life. Daniel had never worked in the fields, not like he and his brother had when they were younger.

His father never had any wrinkles either, right up until the day he died, and he was closer to fifty than Danny’s thirty-eight.

Sitting in the Jeep and massaging the serrated muscles of his thigh, he undid the straps holding the peg leg in place and removed the small towel pressing against his leg. He sat back, dropping his hat down over his eyes and letting the warm air wash over the stump. It felt cool after the closeness of the towel.

“Relax, Inky. They’ll be here soon enough.”

Daniel affected a large smile as he leaned against the side of the Jeep. He was looking up at the clear blue sky, his hands on the binoculars.

“Did you happen to see Tommy out there by any chance?” Whitney asked, pushing his fedora up as he squinted into the sun. “He’s supposed to bring the Land Rover down to pick up the luggage.”

Daniel shook his head.

“How’s the leg today, Sir?”

“My leg? The same as it was yesterday, and the day before; the same it’s been for the last thirty-seven years...itchy.” He smiled.

“Itchy,” Daniel said, looking at the stump of the leg. He’d never known Whitney to have two legs.

Daniel grew up on the Estate. His father had served as Whitney’s unofficial batman until he died, caught unawares by a lion. That was when Daniel was eight years old.

It was the worst year of my life, Whitney thought. His wife had died a suicide that same year, while Nigel was sent to boarding school and wouldn’t return until late in 1947, by then, any chance of having a relationship with his son had slipped away.

Whitney watched Daniel bend down and pick up a handful of red dirt, crushing the dried loam in his hands—letting it sift through his fingers like the memory of a forgotten season.

The rain had better come soon.

Daniel brushed his hands off and then bent down again, picking up several large stones. He began throwing the stones at the trunk of a dead tree, hitting it three times.

“Will you relax?” Whitney said, adding a grin.

“I am relaxed.”

“You are? You’ve been standing at that ledge scanning the horizon for the last ten minutes. Were you watching the coffee plants grow?”

“She’s never been in a plane before.”


“Thandie. She’s never flown before.”

“Nigel’s an experienced pilot.”

“She might be nervous.”

“I suspect she will be. Or she might be excited. Don’t worry. The children will keep her company.”

“All right,” he confessed. “I’m nervous, but I’ve never been in love before—”

“Love? You never said anything about being in love with her.”

“I didn’t know I was until we left Nairobi.”

“But that was eight months ago! We were only there for a month! How can you possibly have fallen in love with her that fast?”

“How long does it take to fall in love?”

“What if she doesn’t feel the same way? My God, man! You can’t just throw yourself at the first woman that comes along!”

“She’s not the first woman I’ve been with,” Daniel said in his defense.

“Believe me, I’m well aware of that!” Whitney laughed. “I had far too many fathers crying to me as to how you deflowered their daughters. I was beginning to think there were more daughters than there were flowers in the fields! But you’re not eighteen years old anymore, and those girls you knew twenty years ago are still here. Only now they’re married, and they have children...”

“It’s not like that!” Daniel said with a laugh.

“It isn’t?”

“They ask me to visit them because their husbands are bad men.”

“Bad men?” Whitney smiled. “Why? Do they beat them?”

Daniel nodded.

Whitney considered it for a moment. “Are they beating them before, or after you visit them?”

The unmistakable sound of an airplane sounded in the distance, coming in low over the horizon and Daniel ran to the rocks with his binoculars, sweeping the skyline. He turned to his right, pointing southeast.


Whitney followed Daniel’s arm, and nodded. Nigel was a good pilot. He’d lived through the Battle of Britain and the Second World War, but to Whitney, there was something about flying that was frightening. As the small Beechcraft Bonanza came in for its final approach —the engine sputtering and coughing like an old man waking up in the morning—Whitney felt his heart skip a beat, knowing that was why he didn’t like Nigel flying.

“Do you see Tommy yet?” Whitney asked, strapping his leg back into place. Daniel jumped into the Jeep, throwing the binoculars on the back seat beside the rifle. He turned the key and grinned, punching the stick shift into gear.

“No. No sign of him anywhere.”

“Damn that man,” Whitney said.

The plane touched down with a small plume of dirt puffing up from under the wheels. Daniel spun the tires of the Jeep at the same time, leaving a cloud of dust behind as he drove down the side of the hill as if a child sliding down a sand dune, both of them screaming.


They were well on their way along the service road when Tommy Omoomu finally arrived in the Land Rover to pick up the luggage. It took a few moments to move everything around, and when they were ready, the children went in the Land Rover with Tommy. Whitney found himself looking at Thandie in the reflection of the outside mirror as he considered everything Daniel said about falling in love with her. He found himself grinning. His sudden happiness for Daniel startled him as he realized he’d never paid attention to the nanny of his grandchildren before.

Perhaps it’s time I did?

She had an undeniable beauty, and he could see she had white blood somewhere in her past.

Now there’s a story I’d like to hear.

“Why are you smiling, Poppa?” Natasha asked from the back seat.

“At times like these, I find myself to be a sentimental old fool,” he surprised himself by saying. “I’m glad you came out.”

He found himself enjoying the moments when Natasha and the children came out to visit. It had taken him years to accept that his efforts at rebuilding the family home had been for naught—his wife’s suicide had taken away whatever pleasure he might have felt in rebuilding Mozambique. But now, there was a resurgence of pride with what he’d done.

Mozambique stood on a gradual rise under the shade of a dozen acacia trees, the gentle climb of the Rift Valley sweeping westward. The mansion stood like a lone sentinel overlooking the landscape. He remembered how Natasha had whistled at her first sight of it seven years ago. She went through each of the twenty-seven rooms with the children, marvelling at the artistry— the lead crystal chandeliers imported from Vienna; the Italian marble sculptures; Egyptian linen wall hangings; the European craftsmanship—and asked Whitney about the French windows leading to the verandah, as well as the floor to ceiling mirrors inside the banquet hall with its parquet floor and table seating twenty guests. She asked if he was planning to entertain.

He turned to look at Natasha in the back seat holding her hair out of her face as the wind whipped it about, and laughed. It was a genuine laugh, and she smiled at him. He reached back and placed his hand on her knee, and she looked at him.

“I’m so glad you could make it.”


“What do you mean you can’t stay?” Whitney asked Nigel.

They were sitting on the verandah and Whitney was pacing back and forth, limping on his peg leg as he leaned on his cane. They were watching Daniel teach Sam how to drive the Jeep in the large circular driveway—there was a lot of grinding gears and sudden stops. Whitney was slapping at flies and bugs with his fedora, more disappointed in his son than he was upset. He paused, leaning on his cane as he watched Sam drive around the circular path.

“Look at Sam, Grandpa!” Elizabeth called out, waving at him and running out to chase the Jeep. Natasha called her back, fearful of what might happen, as Thandie chased her down.

It was close to seven months since he’d last seen Nigel and he was thinking how time was slipping away from him faster now than it ever had before.

My God, didn’t I just have this discussion with Danny?

I should have been a better father; maybe then he wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get back to the city. I should have never sent him away after Theresa died, but kept him here, with me.

He began rubbing his thin hair before putting his hat back on as he began pacing again. He paused with every tenth step when he was forced to turn around, and looking at Nigel waited for an explanation.

“Something’s come up,” Nigel finally said with a shrug. “I can’t believe you haven’t heard about this,” he added. Nigel was dressed in his usual white linen suit, brushing the seat cushion clean before sitting. He was the picture of his father as a young man, with the same brooding shape of the eyes, perfectly sculpted nose, and thin set mouth. His hair was dark, and thick, and had the same part on the right side. The only physical attribute he had of his mother’s was the steel grey colour of his eyes and the dimples in his cheeks.

“You’re a goddamned Civil Servant. What could have possibly come up that would have any effect on you? This is Kenya goddamnit, not Whitehall!”

“It’s these bloody rebels; they’re getting bolder. Cheeky bastards!” Nigel added as he crossed his legs and smiled. “Instead of attacking at night like they have been doing for the last ten months, they’re mucking about in broad daylight now. They’re burning down houses—European houses —and they’re hamstringing livestock.”

“And yet, I’ve heard nothing about any of this. Why is that?”

“It’s Mitchell.”


“He’s chosen to ignore it. He should have taken care of it long ago—when Messner spoke to you about it last February would have been the time to act—”

“Messner. A waste of air, that man,” Whitney said with a contemptuous wave of his hand.

“Well, he won’t be wasting air anymore, will he? He’s dead,” Nigel said, wiping at what he imagined was a spot on his white jacket.

“Dead?” Whitney stopped pacing. He couldn’t believe it; as much as he might not have liked Messner, he couldn’t imagine how the very people Messner had been working to help for the last fifteen years would kill him.

“They found his body somewhere outside of Nairobi. His camp destroyed. Three whites—him and two others—hacked to death with pangas. Seventeen blacks chopped up in total; I think some of them may have turned on him, because there were supposed to be about two dozen blacks with him.”

“How could you let something like this happen?”

“Me? It has nothing to do with me!” Nigel said.

“What about the Colonial police? Are they that useless?”

“All Mitchell was thinking about was his retirement! He couldn’t wait to get out of here. Our hands were tied. We couldn’t do anything until Potter took over in June, but he was just Acting Governor. Oh sure, he handed out fines and levies, and forced some of the leaders to denounce the movement, but there was little he could do. Maybe if we would have acted, instead of always reacting, this thing with Messner’s group could have been prevented. When Baring arrived, he saw the situation right away, and called for a State of Emergency!”

“A State of Emergency? That’s a little drastic, don’t you think?” Whitney said, and began pacing again.

“There’ve been attacks all across the country. Things have started to escalate. Baring’s not taking any chances. He’s already been in contact with London. They’re flying troops in from Uganda to help protect white Settlers here in the Rift.”

“And when is this supposed to happen?”

“It’s already gone into effect. That’s why I want Natasha and the children out here—”

“Have you forgotten Mozambique is in the Rift? Do you think it’s prudent sending them out here?”

“It’s just until we get things sorted out. Anderson’s in the area, so he’ll drop by whenever he can. Do you remember Anderson?”

“Should I?”

“We served together in the war. He says he’d be more than happy to keep an eye on things. In the meantime, we’ve started by arresting the leaders. We picked up nearly a hundred on the first day alone. We even managed to grab Jomo Kenyatta—”

“Should I know him?”

“He’s one of the top men, a local politician. Very popular. That should effectively cut the head off this ugly monster.”

“Provided he’s the man in charge. You people have bungled your way through this thing right from the beginning—”

“We’ve arrested eight thousand rebels so far—”

“Eight thousand? How can there possibly be that many natives involved in this?” Whitney asked.

“There’s more than that.”

“How did Mitchell let this get so out of hand?” Whitney said with an absent stare, pausing to look at Sam and Daniel in the Jeep before he started pacing again.

“He was thinking of his legacy.”

“His legacy! The man was a fool! A pompous ass! That’s his legacy!” Whitney stopped pacing long enough to pound his cane on the verandah to make his point. “God only knows why London sent a man like him out here in the first place. We need a man with backbone! Someone who’s not afraid to act. By the sounds of it, we stand a chance of losing this Colony just like we did India!”

“That’s exactly why Evelyn Baring is here.”

“I have a hard time taking any man seriously with a name like that.”

“He’s a good man,” Nigel said, smiling. “He’s firm. He knows what needs to be done, and he’s not afraid to act.”

Whitney nodded. “Good. We’ll match violence with violence if need be. If that’s the only thing these rebels understand, by God, we’ll make them see the error of their ways.”

“You’ve got enough men out here to fight and protect yourselves if you have to. They’re arresting everyone and anyone in the cities they even suspect of being a rebel. I’d feel a lot better knowing Natasha and the children were out here, rather than in the city,” he added.

“Is it really as bad as that?”

“They’re not killing whites yet—with the exception of Messner’s group—but it may only be a matter of time. They’re killing their own right now, and we want it to stay that way—”

“You mean you want to put a stop to it before it escalates,” Whitney said.

“Of course we want it stopped,” Nigel said, flicking a bug off the sleeve of his jacket.

Whitney nodded. “As long as everyone understands the natives are expendable? God forbid a man should have to die a violent death like that—at the hands of these monsters—but if they’re going to kill each other to make their point, I say let them. I’d rather it be someone else than Natasha, or the children. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect them—”

“That’s why I’ve asked Anderson to drop by. He’s the man responsible for rooting out any rebels in this area.”

“And what does that mean?”

“If there are rebels in the area, or suspected rebels, they’ll be packed up and sent to Concentration camps where they’ll be interrogated and dealt with. After that, we’ll send them out to the Reserve Lands, away from everything—and everyone.”

“Good. We can’t afford to tolerate—what was it Messner said they called it—Muingi?”

“That makes more sense than what they’re calling it now.”

“They’re calling it something else now?”


“And what is that supposed to mean? It’s not even a word.”

“I know. Some reporter misquoted a Kikuyu chieftain in court last week. The next day— after they found Messner’s body—there it was in big, black, letters across the top of the page: ‘Mau-Maus Attack White Settlers!’ or something like that. Blew everything all out of proportion. Now the whole world knows it, and Mau-Mau is the new Bogeyman.”

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