Herdsman who almost toppled government

How old is Tonne Saba? That question, and his real name, is as old as the ridges of the land where I was born. When I was young, some said he was 40. Others said 60. But he did not look a day over 20. Decades on, no one knows his age.

Thin as a reed, Tonne Saba stood at well over 6 feet and walked delicately, as if afraid that the powerful gusts of wind that rage over the Lake Basin could topple him over and sweep his slight frame and the wide bottomed trousers he loved into the depths of Lake Victoria.

He nicknamed himself the seven tonne man, a pointer to the self-deprecating humour of a man who barely weighed 40 kilos. But it was not just his humour that made him special. He was a specialized, a professional, in a world bubbling with mediocrity and incompetence. He was, as he liked to remind everyone, Kenya's finest herdsman.

I get tickled when I hear the grandfather of Barack Obama dismissed by wazungu as a 'goatherd'. Africans were not foolish. In the old days, it is 'useless' boys who were not man enough to manage livestock that were sent to school. Today, I will bet my last shirt that if you get hold of the best CEO in town and employ him as a herdsman, he won't last three days.

Goat herding is a tedious, sweaty job. Day in, day out, including on Christmas day, you lead animals that behave like Kenyans out to pasture. You ensure they don't steal, kill each other or get lost and that they have enough to eat. And the thankless bastards never say thanks.

That is precisely the point Tonne Saba aimed to prove when he announced that he would be registering a national union for herdsmen with himself as interim chairman. In his view, his lot was underpaid and looked upon, in spite of their tough job and their contribution to national development.

Everyone who heard the news broke into laughter. But as the men of the clan blew the breeze over a game of bao at the local market and their women and children worked the land, it was generally agreed that Tonne Saba had the capacity to bring the whole nation to a halt.

It would be chaos, they reasoned, if all herdsmen downed their tools. To this day, I am still shocked that Special Branch, the precursor of National Intelligence Service (NIS), which had the capacity to sniff out a scoundrel who surreptitiously broke wind in a gathering of 100,000 men, never cottoned on to this threat to national security.

Tonne Saba, for a reason I no longer recall, never did make good his threat to register a trade union for his cadre of professionals but if my memory serves me right, he scared employers into raising the minimum wage for herdsmen who had previously earned what was basically an ugali allowance.

I hear he is still alive, whiling away his retirement in predictable penury after years of distinguished service. His name does not register on any government record. He never stole anyone's goat. And that is why he will never be a footnote in Kenya's history.