Elsa and me
By BILL FAIRBAIRN
Shortly after joining the Daily Nation in Nairobi as a sub-editor in 1963, I sought the role of reporter assigned to meeting people to uncover news and writing it up rather than editing and headlining stories written by others.
I had missed out on seeing Britain's Prince Philip, a week earlier on Jamhuri Day, December 12, turn to Jomo Kenyatta in Independence Stadium when the Union Jack came down and before the Kenyan flag was raised, to ask Mzee: “Are you sure of this decision to break with British rule?”
The one-word answer from the imposing Kenyan leader, of course, was “Yes!”
I wanted out of my desk editing job at the Daily Nation because I longed to be out and about reporting rather than sitting around the desk, drinking tea, and editing other staff stories.
Opportunity knocked unexpectedly when I flew down to Mombasa for a short vacation. I learned that scenes for the British movie Born Free were being shot up the coast near Malindi. I arrived at the film scene hotel in time for dinner and after sitting down noticed principal actors Virginia McKenna and husband Bill Travers sitting at a corner table on the other side of the dining room. I knew I was onto something big for my newspaper if I could get the photograph I wanted.
Next morning, I found that Open Roads Film Company of London had barricaded the beach. They had laid wires into the sea at one end of the long, sandy beach. The other end was protected by cliffs. They did this to privatise the shooting of film scenes such as Elsa the lioness swimming to an islet a short distance from the beach. So, I hired an African fisherman to row me around the blocking wires to reach the tiny offshore islet that I understood Elsa would swim to. But the film company’s public relations officer had misled me. The swim I sought to photograph for my story was not being shot that day. The film crew had decided to do it the next day. I learned later that the public relations officer had phoned the Daily Nation office in Nairobi to affirm my photographic credentials and that the newspaper’s chief photographer had told him, quite rightly, that I was not one of the paper’s staff photographers.
I was not down heartened waiting in vain on the islet for Elsa to swim out to my camera. Frustrated, I asked the fisherman to row me to the beach and he did so. I sat down on the warm sand 25 metres from the shoreline. Hey, presto! Who, but Bill Travers, lion keeper George Adamson and Elsa, the lioness, came walking toward me on the shoreline. I clicked my camera as they approached then sliding nearer clicked a second time when they were abreast of me. Elsa’s ears pricked up. But I had a good usable photograph!
The next scene was never shown in the wonderful film Born Free and I can understand why. A fellow came running over the sand toward me like Anthony Quinn bearing down on Peter O’Toole in the film Lawrence of Arabia. Reaching me and regaining his breath, he exclaimed: “You ruined that scene for our film by trespassing on our beach!”
I said sorry and introduced myself as being from the Daily Nation newspaper adding that the beach was a public beach and I really had sought a photograph of Elsa the lioness swimming in the sea.
“What?” he demanded, with incredulity marking his face. “That’s the photograph we want for cinema billboards. Get the hell off our production area!”
He was no bigger than me so I retorted in kind: “You can go to hell! This is a public beach.” He was as mad as a March hare saying it was the film company's rented beach for the time being.
He pushed me with a pointed finger in the direction he wanted me to go. I resisted and safely laid down my camera. We wrestled for a short time. I was getting the better of him pinning his shoulders down in the sand when he toned down the argument. Fantastically, he offered me a photograph of Bill Travers shaving with the lion’s tail … if I would not bother production the next day by staying at the hotel. I laughed at the offer knowing I had a better photograph in my camera.
At that comical point, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I shook his hand saying it was a good offer and retreated with my camera outside the wire. There I bumped into George Adamson's wife Joy and told her of being herded off the beach.
“Oh, I know all too well what you are up against,” she remarked about Open Roads. They're not open at all. Jump into my car to my place and I’ll give you a story.”
It turned out that when we arrived at her house her story was a rant about her view that she should have been playing herself in the movie and not Virginia McKenna acting as she was the real woman who had trained Elsa,
even giving the lioness her name. All the while Joy's pet cheetah roamed around me giving me the creeps as I sat bolted in my chair while she made us cups of tea.
To this reporter's delight, Joy had more to complain about than her disdain at the very attractive Virginia McKenna playing the lead actor in contrast to Joy's not so attractive features. She got to the heart of her belief in being born free in the jungle. “What will Open Roads do with Elsa when they finish their film? Put her in a circus? They would not agree with my idea of training her back to the wildlife! They say she will be a danger jumping on cars and other stunts they had trained her to do for the film. Or else be killed in the bush as a tame lion.”
My story of Joy's misgivings and the photograph of Elsa on the beach appeared in the Daily Nation front page a few days later under a headline saying “Born Free lioness has never been more a prisoner.” This prompted a letter from the film company to the Nation publisher inviting news photographers to their camp in the Kenya Highlands.
I was not chosen to go since I was neither reporter nor photographer. I was a night shift desk editor hopefully awaiting a reporter's role that did not come about until a month later. The photographers assigned to the Open Road camp invitation took their pictures from inside a cage with four lions playing the different ages of Elsa outside the cage.
Nevertheless, I counted my article as a scoop that got me off the desk. I’m sure on account of it I was switched to reporting.
And what assignments they were every workday on a great Daily Nation newspaper in sunny Kenya! I travelled to President Jomo Kenyatta’s farm where they were holding to cover a party rally and there was told by Moses, an African photographer colleague, that he had chatted with Jomo's daughter Mary and that she wanted to meet me.
“If that happens, I'll buy you a beer,” I responded with a laugh. I had never encountered Mary who, Moses said, was aged 17. Her interest in me made me wonder if, in looks, she resembled her rugged father. And I wondered what his action would be if he crept up on me sniffing around with his daughter.
I was at home in my row cottage near Government House the following Saturday afternoon when, lo and behold, Mary came cycling along and knocked at my door. She was a lovely lass and I was fast smitten. Yet I had the sense to doubt that she and I could ever have a relationship. I had actually been baking scones the day she came so I put the kettle on and we enjoyed scones with strawberry jam. I next brought out my set of checkers and showed her a few games I knew.
When this beautiful girl or woman stood up and faced me, I did so want to kiss her. My courage deserted me while today, at age 84, I would have cast doubt aside. So, I suggested it was time she left for home or her father would come after both of us. She stayed another hour enjoying card games and more scones and strawberry jam.
Such was Mary’s romantic impression on me that at the Daily Nation editing desk a few days later I phoned Government House intending to ask her for a date. Guess who answered? Yes, Jomo! I was stricken silent when in his deep growly voice he demanded: “Who is this?” I thrust the phone down shaken to the core. I often regretted not asking permission to court his daughter perilous as it might have been for both of us as it turned out.
Moses actually had played a trick on me. As it turned out years later, this young lady was not Jomo Kenyatta's daughter at all. I have no idea who she really was.
To finish my story I also remember being one of only two whites on the Daily Nation cricket team fielding near the boundary of Kenya’s National Park when playing against the Aga Khan Club. I knew there were lions in the park. I also knew that the lions would have to be good jumpers to clear the strong fence between them and me and that I
was on the boundary because I was a good runner an attribute I certainly would have used for my life.
I was also a keen billiards player on occasion at the Aga Khan Club, having represented Scotland in the British Boys Billiards Championship in London when I was aged 15. In Kenya, I defeated the then East African billiards champion in a handicapped tournament and the result went into the Daily Nation.
I must say that I found the first two Africa-born black editors of the Nation extremely capable. Hilary Ng’weno and George Githii built for the future.
Note: Bill Fairbairn today is editor emeritus for the Riverview Park Review in Ottawa. His first full-time job, apart from work during World War II as a newsboy delivering papers in his home-town in Scotland, was apprentice printer and at the same time sports reporter starting at age 15 on the Jedburgh Gazette in Scotland.
Then consecutively came journalism on the Blyth News, the Derby Evening Telegraph, the Sheffield Telegraph, the Rhodesia Herald, the Northern News of Ndola, Zambia, the Daily Nation of Nairobi, the Sun (London), The Scotsman (Edinburgh). In Canada, he worked for a year as news editor for the Williams Lake Tribune in British Columbia, then journalism instructor at Cariboo College on the aboriginal reserve near Kamloops, the Montreal Star, Radio Canada International (CBC), the Montreal Gazette, Legion Magazine and for the past 19 years the Riverview Park Review.
Bill served two years National Service in the British infantry from 1953-1955 rising to corporal. He has published five books,
Run for freedom, the Printer's Devil, On the run in Africa and Newsboy – adventures from a life in journalism.