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Wote Timamu, Effendi

By Ian D. St G. Lindsay

The Overseas Pensioner, Number 67, Spring 1994

(Official journal of the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association)

Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! Left! Right! Left! As on every other morning at this time, I could hear the single pair of booted feet marching up the concrete footpath towards my office in the Provincial Administration's Divisional District Officer's Headquarters.

Sitting at my desk, out of the corner of my eye, I caught the movement of a shadow in the doorway. I looked up as a grinning Tribal Police Sergeant Suleimani made his daily report:

"Wote timamu, (All present and correct) Effendi."

I thanked him: "Asante, Sar' Major."

As usual it was exactly 7.28 am, and the immaculately uniformed, stiffly starched and highly 'bulled' Sergeant Suleimani, standing smartly at attention, silver-knobbed malacca cane under his left armpit and right hand quivering at the salute, was reporting that his detachment of tribal policemen, or kan gas, were assembled on parade on the road outside my office. At this daily parade I would normally inspect, and occasionally address, the mustered tribal policemen (TPs) before they were dismissed to their allocated duties in the surrounding locations, or village areas, within the Division.

Originally a body of messengers employed by District Commissioners in the earlier days of colonial rule, the Tribal Police Force was officially constituted in 1929 as an executive under District Commissioners and, within the Chiefs and Headmen organisation, the Force was tasked with the performance of crime prevention and general policing duties in the tribal reserves, with the investigation of serious crime being the responsibility of the colony's police force, which generally operated outside the tribal reserves.

The Tribal Police Force, as its name implies, was basically recruited along tribal lines. Outside the tribal reserves, in the cities and urban areas, for example, where many tribes were represented in the local population, its ranks were a tribal melange.

My story is not about the Tribal Police Force, though it is of an askari - a very special character who, in this case, just happened to be a tribal policeman, but whose type will be well known to many former officers of the Colonial Service in Africa.

Suleimani bin (son of) Abu Abdulla, a Nubian whose family originated in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan in the Sudan, was born in the early 1920s to his father's second wife. He was born in the settlement which had been established on the outskirts of the city for the descendants of Mehmet Emin Pasha's Sudanese soldiers, who were levied at the end of the 19th Century for the opening up of Equatorial Africa.


A strict disciplinarian, Sergeant Suleimani was responsible for carrying out whipping sentences awarded by the elders of the local native court who wisely considered that, for minors, six of the best was a far better punishment than a term of imprisonment.

He took his responsibilities seriously, believing that, as an officer of the court, he had a duty to ensure as best he could that the offender did not, as the Koran puts it, 'return to transgress again.' I often wondered if he didn't also see each of the young rascals as a possible future suitor for one of his beloved daughters, this thought lending strength to his arm.

There was much ceremony attached to Suleimani's work. The delinquent was stretched out face downwards on a bench, a wet cloth or handkerchief covering his bared buttocks. Assistants sitting on the ground at each end of the bench holding his hands and feet ensured that the wrongdoer wriggled as little as possible.

So much for the preparation. In the execution, the Sergeant's method of attack was a complicated routine. The cane would come in low-level on the forehand, skimming over the head of the tribal policeman hanging onto the target's feet, striking a glancing, stinging blow on the underside of the gluteus maximus. In a continuation of the movement, a backhand blow would land on the upper side of the muscle on the return swing. The cane, which by now had soared straight upwards to the full extent of the Sergeant's arm, would then crash down in an audible Crack! onto the flinching buttocks.

"Numba Wan," Sergeant Suleimani would announce to the witnessing District Officer, the protesting recipient and anyone else who had turned up to watch the show.

At 'Numba Tree,' the yelling, writhing boy was released to run around and rub his burning flesh, all the while making loud and voluble promises that he would never, never sin again. After this breather, the Sergeant's assistants would round up the victim and the rest of the sentence would be carried out to even more yelling and squirming. It would be true to say, I think, that there was very little back-sliding amongst the youth of that area.

Islamic law observes the convention of not raising the caning hand above the shoulder, by requiring the scourger to hold a copy of the Koran under his armpit while carrying out the sentence. Sergeant Suleimani - himself a staunch Moslem - put his own interpretation on that requirement, however; he would hold the Koran firmly in the armpit of his non-striking hand!

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