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The Last Great Explorer : Wilfred Thesiger Has Spent a Lifetime Satisfying a 'Craving for Barbaric Splendor, for Savagery and Color and the Throb of Drums'

April 28, 1991|Michael A. Hiltzik | Michael A. Hiltzik is The Times' Nairobi bureau chief and author of the forthcoming book "A Death in Kenya" (Delacorte Press). and

YES, HE IS CONTENT here," says Lawi Leboyare. Lawi is a solid-looking Samburu, 36, the mayor of Maralal. He is also Thesiger's adopted son. For a couple of years, Thesiger has been living in cramped quarters with another Samburu family on the next hilltop, but Lawi has been hard at work building an annex to his own house for his friend. Cheerfully he gives some visitors a tour: two spacious rooms fashioned substantially of concrete, with heavy wooden doors. "He will be peaceful here," Lawi says.

When he met Thesiger, Lawi was 8, living in destitution with his aged grandmother in a waterless hollow, attending a local mission school. Thesiger used to stop near the school on his travels across the countryside and took to giving the schoolboys impromptu boxing lessons. "I noticed he was a remarkable little boy," Thesiger recalls.

"I was the best boxer," Lawi continues proudly. Thesiger began paying Lawi's school fees, something he still does for selected children among the Samburu families of Maralal, until one day, as the youth was finishing primary school, Thesiger returned to his car to find Lawi waiting inside. "I'm coming with you," he told Thesiger.

The two of them traveled together, in a companionable male relationship that seems to be the type Thesiger has always most enjoyed. His books document a succession of highly appreciated native friends--bearers, guides, guards and interpreters--but few conventional relationships. "All my life I have felt the need of human company," he wrote in "The Life of My Choice." But family life, except what he experienced with his parents and brothers and the metaphorical variety he enjoys with the Samburu in Maralal, is almost entirely unmentioned in his books except as one of the "commonly accepted pleasures of life" (a category encompassing good food, beer, wine and tobacco) by which "I have never set much store."

"Sex has been of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled," he wrote. "Marriage would certainly have been a crippling handicap."

In 1971, Thesiger bought a Land Rover, the only motor vehicle he would ever own, and Lawi was appointed its driver. Thesiger arranged for Lawi to get a mechanic's education from Saddiq Bhola, the garage owner in Maralal, whose grandfather had come to Kenya from India as a laborer for the epic construction of Britain's East African railroad.

For 10 years, they lived together in a tent on a hill outside Maralal, until one evening they decided to build a house near its summit. This is where Lawi lives today, a man of means, a husband and the father of a son, owner of the wines and spirits store in town and of 300 head of cattle as well as a truck and bus service. A lot of it was started with Thesiger's help.

"He's like one of us," Lawi says of the ease with which Thesiger lives among the Samburu. "He's family. He taught me a lot . . . the way a father advises his son."

IN 1930, HAILE SELASSIE, a friend of Thesiger's family, invited him to be a guest at his coronation, and in 1933 gave the young Englishman his blessing to embark on what became his first journey of self-discovery. Three previous European expeditions had braved the country of the ferocious Danakil tribe in eastern Ethiopia to seek the source of the mysterious Awash River. All three had vanished, presumed dead, probably violently.

Ask Thesiger today what drove him to undertake such a perilous expedition with only a few native porters and soldiers, and he erupts with a schoolboy's glee. "This river that flowed where nobody knew--good Lord, how could you resist it?"

As he relates the tale of his fantastic journey, he characteristically reveals more about himself than perhaps of the places or people he encountered. His voice is like his prose: deadpan and crisp, exuding sang-froid at the often horrific displays he witnessed. One feels he met every challenge with this same serenity, reveling in the sheer adventure of coming face to face with savage murderers and, at their hands, receiving not death but dinner. Without irony he generously appraises the Danakil, who kept his party alive with gifts of milk and roast meat: "They might be a murderously inclined race, but no one could call them inhospitable."

Or take, for example, this description of his meeting with the fearsome sultan of Aussa during the same journey. Aussa was the most menacing part of the route, and Thesiger's guard of 15 unhappy soldiers would have been worthless in an attack. One night he was summoned to a moonlit forest glade to meet the sultan, who was surrounded by a huge retinue of armed men. He takes up the story in "The Life of My Choice":

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