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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

July 25, 1993|DICK RORABACK

KING OF THE WA-KIKUYU by John Boyes (St. Martin's: $19.95; 240 pp.) There were giants in those days, some of them quite small. Thus did John Boyes, runty son of a Yorkshire shoemaker, become King of Kenya in the late 1890s. Uncrowned, of course--the British authorities were not amused--but king nonetheless.

It came about when Boyes, who lusted after adventure like most men crave food, wandered alone into untamed Kikuyu country to see what they might have to trade. ( Wa is a possessive, like O' or Mac. ) Armed only with a "miracle" rifle that could "shoot through six men," a "miracle" medicine (iodine), a "miracle" potion (seltzer: "He can drink boiling water!") and brass beyond belief, Boyes established himself as at least a minor deity.

But his most effective weapon was common sense. To a land where every hilltop had its own chief and war was as frequent as breakfast, Boyes brought the novel notion that differences could be resolved by discussion. (The pigasangi , or peace parley, centered on a tethered goat. For each agreement, the goat was coshed upside the head. When the goat was finished, so was the powwow.)

Further, Boyes genuinely liked Africans, and learned as much from them as they from him: how to use a "fire stick"; how to "stitch" a wound with the jaws of the bulldog ant; how to lure a bushbuck by attaching horns to a donkey. All of this (a reissue) in a prose clear, uncluttered and free of cant. P.S. After 2 1/2 years of this peace nonsense the Brits still were not amused. Boyes was ousted; Kenya reverted to warfare.

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