9 March 2014

Tanzania: Those Smart Guns and Lethal Arrows!

THE police boss, Mr Kimbo, invited seven seasoned newsmen, including me, to join a crack outfit of police officer who had been detailed to raid bhang farms in remote hill valleys.

Kimbo wanted the raid covered meticulously and reports published widely. Mr Kimbo instructed his boys to plan an ambush and capture as many kingpins as possible. The squad also had orders to destroy all the farms "with ruthless precision."

A Good Samaritan had tipped off Kuruya police that five underworld kingpins owned large bhang farms on steep, hidden valleys in a chain of rolling hills. So, the regional police chief assembled a crack squad of 23 policemen, armed them with sub-machine guns, and dispatched them into the area.

The squad left for the foray at high noon in a convoy of two motor vehicles led by Haruna, a no-nonsense crimes officer with a reputation for shooting suspected bandits at first sight. We watched the proceedings with that kind of confidence that bordered on awe.

The search-and-destroy squad had a quiet drive to Kanusi, a village on the foothills where it camped for the night. Shortly after midnight the party embarked upon the ascent, leaving its all-terrain vehicles parked in the village.

With the help of powerful handheld lights, we scaled the steep hills along a narrow footpath that was dotted with donkey dung and death traps -- black holes and slippery rocks. Kanusi villagers had told us that the bhang growers, who lived in the fertile valleys uphill, used donkeys to transport their contraband.

The opening stages of the climb appeared to be adventurous and full of fun. We cracked jokes as we shambled along -- but not for long. We had hardly covered a kilometre when the climb got dishearteningly steep, energy sapping and laborious.

I realised that the task that lay ahead of us would be tiresome and dangerous. In fact, I had never taken part in such an arduous venture. However, I wasn't the weakest link in the chain. We trudged on at a pace only a snail could envy. Each one of us had to use a sturdy walking stick for a third leg.

We eventually came to an uphill village where we stopped to give our bones a rest. Five local militiamen and a boy joined us. We left the village as the sun rose on the horizon. Haruna told us that the militiamen knew the terrain, the location of the farms and the faces of the culprits.

The men told us that the kingpins owned smart guns. The boy, a former labourer on one of the farms, told us that all growers were armed with bows and poisontipped arrows and could be dangerous. "Some own homemade guns!" he said.

This revelation caused disquiet among the squad, especially the newsmen. Our hearts sunk. With the spectre of a surprise attack with a volley of poisontipped arrows or guns looming, the ascent now became even more arduous. Our courage was now tainted with fear.

No wonder our hearts fluttered when a meaty wild hog flashed out of a thicket taking us by complete surprise. The animal thundered down the valley and vanished. An eerie silence fell on the party. Everyone appeared to expect a massacre.

It took us five more hours to reach the first bhang farm which belonged to one Kihope. The kingpin was infamously known as "Taxi" for his uncanny agility in climbing the steep and formidable chain of hills. His farm was tucked deep in a forest on a gentle slope.

Kihope, whom the local guides identified as one of the richest kingpins, was seen fleeing his home heading towards a heavily wooded hillside. His home, a flat-roofed mud hut, stood in the middle of his expansive maize and bhang farm. We saw chickens and a lean, shy dog on the compound.

We also saw a green maize cob roasting on the fireplace in the hut. Kihope, it seemed, was roasting the maize for munching when he suddenly discovered the presence of heavily armed policemen. The police destroyed Kihope's bhang farm, burning the lush green weeds with he help of petrol.

Then we trudged for an hour ascending another hill on our way to other farms. We reached a farm that belonged to another notorious grower, one Mazengo. It was a ten-hectare property. He too had deserted his home having discovered our presence on the hills.

The only signs of life on his compound were two starving dogs, tethered pigs and several chickens. The dogs were so thin you could count their ribs from a distance. The canines didn't even bother to bark or at least growl to frighten the unwelcome intruders.

The homes of other villagers, who should not have worried at all, were deserted too. The entire village, on the faces of three hills, was deserted. Apparently, the villagers were hiding in the thick forest. In one innocent home we found meat cooking on the fireplace.

Our foray roared on. We visited a farm belonging to the richest kingpin, one Matonya. It is this kingpin who gave us the creeps. He was such a scare for the entire squad. We were looking for the obnoxious plants in his farm when, wham! His gobore barked.

The slug dug a hole in the ground near Haruna's boot. Another bullet whizzed overhead and zipped into the wilderness. We fell on our stomachs to get out of the trajectory of the kingpin's bullets. The police returned fire sending well-sustained volleys of sub-machinegun bullets onto the kingpin's compound.

They also lobbed in two teargas canisters. The event was akin to a small war. Unknown to us, Matonya, whom we had seen standing on the compound slithered away.

Much to our chagrin, when we finally reached his compound crawling on our stomachs, we discovered that the armed kingpin had sneaked away taking his gobore with him. We saw his bare-foot tracks on the ground leading away from the compound.

A search in his hut did not reveal any suspicious objects. I now recalled the boy's warning about guns and poison arrows. I shuddered to imagine the presence of a platoon of armed village youths lurking in the thickets awaiting the opportune moment to attack us with arrows.

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