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The Agamemnon



We went to East Africa in 1960.
Or, more correctly, we travelled through from Mombassa to Zanzibar and on to Zambia.
This trip was part of the trip we made when we went to Germany to buy our Khombi camper. My father had ordered the Khombi direct from the factory in Westphalia as it was one of the first models they brought out featuring the camper part. And I think my father had requested that the Khombi be fitted with its own water tank. It was only available in Germany.
The return trip my father planned to travel through Europe to Italy or Greece and then sail across the Mediterranean with the Khombi on board to Cairo in Egypt. From there the plan was to take the Nile steamer to Khartoum and then travel down Africa on the Cape-to-Cairo 'highway' back to Zambia, making detours along the way to see places in Tanzania and Kenya where Livingstone had been.
My cousin, Derek Newall, was to accompany us and settle with us in Zambia.
The trip went according to plan over the European continent. My father recorded the places where they went on his cine camera. I don't remember much of the trip but we called at Pompeii to see the famous ruins from the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. And in Rome we went to Vatican City where apparently the Pope gave us a blessing.
Somewhere along the way, I think in Yugoslavia, Derek decided not to carry on with us and returned to Britain.

We caught the Greek passenger liner, the Agamemnon whose first port of call was at Cyprus.
On board ship I remember my parents, my mother especially, was terribly sea-sick and spent most of the time laid up in the cabin. One of the kitchen crew, a French man, took a shine to me as I was of similar age to his daughter whom he missed when he was at sea. While off duty he entertained me, would show me around the ship, and gave me chocolate éclairs as treats.
Six miles off Limassol in broad daylight, a French merchant ship, the Donnet who was leaving for Benghazi ran into the Agamemnon. How the accident occurred we did not know, and we were in the cabin at the time. All of a sudden there was a huge noise and a violent shaking of the ship. My father went to investigate and said that we had been in a collision with another ship and that it was wedged in the starboard side near the stern. Luckily we were on the port side of the Agamemnon.

Immediately panic set in with the passengers especially with those whose cabins were below deck. My father managed to get me and my mother on deck. But said later that the panic was quite frightening for those below as they scrambled over each other to get out ... he was shocked that the men weren't gentlemen in allowing the women and children to go first.
There was more shudderings and shakings when the two ships pulled apart. There was more panic when the Agamemnon started to take on water and she began to lean heavily. I think at this point even my dad started to panic! But the Captain and officers did everything they could to restore calm and the ship managed to limp into port.
Once on shore, we all went to see the damage and were thankful that the accident had not occurred at night when more people would have been sleeping in the cabins, and that the Mediterranean had been particularly calm that day, otherwise more people would have been hurt or fatally injured.

The accident was reported in the paper and said that the Agamemnon had been heavily damaged and that one man, a Cypriot of Nicosia, was fatally injured named Demosthenis Strouthos, who was born in Ayios Dhometios and had lived and worked for many years in Africa. He was en route for Greece on a holiday trip with his wife. Strouthos was sleeping in his cabin at the time of the collision.
As a result of the accident we had to stay at Cyprus until we could board another ship for Egypt. The delay meant that we missed the Nile steamer sailing and another wasn't available.
Instead of driving from Cairo to Zambia my father decided to take another ship to Mombassa, much to the intrepidation of my mother.
However, this trip was uneventful and we sailed through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and down the coast of Africa.

In the Suez Canal I was amazed to see dolphins accompanying the ship. Whilst on board my father taught me how to swim and I remember something of a celebration and frolicking amongst the crew and passengers as we crossed the Equator.
Just outside Mombassa the Khombi developed engine trouble and we had to return to the town. I remember the day spent hunting around various garages for the part and my dad getting more and more stressed out when one couldn't be found. Eventually one of the garages located one in Nairobi but that it would take several days for them to get it to Mombassa. However, some guy, a customer, said he was on his way to Nairobi in a few hours and offered to take my father there and bring him back. My mother and I stayed at the hotel.
A few more problems were encountered when they tried to fit the part and this meant a further delay. After this my father decided not to take his intended route into Tankanyika and we travelled instead down the coast to Dar es Salaam and across country to Zambia.

On the way we met up with a young German couple travelling in a VW Beetle and camped one night with them. Other than that I don't remember much of the journey back to Zambia apart from one occasion seeing the shells of some huge land snails (Achatina fulica) and my father taking a piece of cine film of the countryside near an elephant crossing roadsign.




Great Rift Valley

Stretching some 4,000 miles and running in two branches ... from Mozambique through Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zaire, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, The Red Sea, and Lebanon ... the Great Rift Valley is an ecological masterpiece in itself with considerable diversity of landscape, flora, and fauna.


Active and semi-active volcanoes, and boiling springs indicate that rifting is still in progress. Craters from old volcanoes form mini-ecosystems teeming with life.
Early cartographers T. Wakefield and Clemens Denhardt gleened what information they could about the area from Arab traders. And in the 1860s the first maps began to appear. Twenty years later explorers arrived. Different groups explored different parts, naturalists and botanists collected speciments, geologists collected rocks, artists drew pictures. Adventurists, hunters, enthusiasts, and settlers arrived in their droves.
Curiosity and speculation grew also over the source of the Nile and the hunt was on to find it. Stories from the ancient Greek masters Ptolemy and Homer fired and fuelled people's imaginations with romantic place names such as the 'Mountains of the Moon' or the 'Sea of Zinj'; and the allure of treasures of gold, ivory, and precious stones hinted at in Arab books set European hearts abeating.


The Rift Valley drew people like Dr. Gustav Fischer, the German naturalist ... Bauman, a German explorer ... Keith Johnson and Joseph Thompson, explorers from Scotland ... artists like Ludwig von Hohnel from Germany ... geologists like John Walter Gregory from Scotland ... and even richmen, like Count Samuel Teleki von Szek from Hungary.

Place names, hitherto known by local people by deep, dark, mysterious names like Basso Narok, were changed to those more familiar to European tongues, and claimed in the names of their Kings and Queens.
As these early Europeans tried to get to grips with tribal languages, tribal differences, and classifying each leaf and twig by their sometimes unpronounceable Latin literates appending the word Africannus or Niger to each species, so the tribes of Africa distinguished each white man by his idiosyncracies to tell them apart.
Gregory became 'Bulging Pockets' because he was always stuffing his trousers with rock samples.






The Jade Sea


The Jade Sea or Lake Turkana lies in the Rift Valley that runs through Kenya, its northern tip just inside Ethiopia. It is a place of spellbinding beauty. Its waters change colour from misty charcoal grey through to Delft blue and deep Jade green, hence its nickname, and sunlight sparkles on its surface.
Lake Turkana's cool waters look tempting but their bitter alkaline taste can never quench your thirst. Crocodiles lie sleepily along its shores making you wonder whether there is truth in the belief that these fish-eating saurians never eat humans. But they are not the only fishermen of these waters. Lake Turkana is a fisherman's paradise and many a white man risks his life and tiny aircraft to land on the twisted, rock strewn horror airstrip presenting a challenge to even the most skilled of bush pilots.

The remains of the petrified forest on Sibiloi Mountain make you believe that the Turkana people did indeed once belong to the Nimonia ... the forest people, and you wonder why they chose to stay in this landscape that looks so uninviting. And it is ironic that Lake Turkana, where today men and women and animals struggle for survival, may actually have been the birthplace of mankind itself.
It was here that Kenyan paleontologist Richard Leakey and his team of international scientists have spent many years carefully brushing away sand and dust from a treasure trove of hominid bones and stone tools to prove that man-like creatures with a high level of intelligence inhabited the shores of Lake Turkana nearly 2 million years ago, and thus replanting our ancestral roots by half a million years.
And 7 million years ago the forest on Sibiloi Mountain with its 15 metre high junipers made Lake Turkana a whole different ecological system ... but now they are strewn about like building blocks of the gods looking for all the world as just another rocky landscape, and in some places the lush plains have become desert where mirages play tricks on the traveller and sands hiss in the breeze.
Nature's volcanic playground keeps you guessing ... because just across the desert, its extinct peaks are capped with mist forests where elephant and kudu live and in its craters are pools of water. Marsabit is perhaps the most fascinating of the myriad volcanic mountains in the north and its crater holds the enchanting Lake Paradise. It is a place that travel writers are tempted to keep to themselves.

The Turkana people have evolved a material culture peculiar to themselves. They carve water troughs and containers from wood and decorate them with poker work, and make milk containers from camel hides, decorated with beadwork and cowrie shells. Their women wear enormous quantities of beads around their necks, and a neck-ring and bracelets of brass or aluminium.

Marriage is a 3 year ceremonial process designed to ensure the ritual, spiritual and social well-being of those involved. Not until the first child has been weaned and has reached walking age can the marriage process be completed.
Considerable numbers of cattle or camels are required to meet the bride price, and these the suitor obtains from his own herds and those of his father, his uncles and his bond-friends. The important position of the wife in the Turkana homestead is reflected in the close ties that will be perpetuated between her husband on the one hand and her father and brothers on the other. Sons remain within the family group, while daughters leave their homesteads as soon as they get married.
Milk and blood are their main diet, and cattle provide hides to make sleeping mats and sandals, and to cover their huts against rain. Camels are also important while goats and sheep are killed for guests, minor rituals or meat. Donkeys are used solely as pack animals.
They make dried milk from boiling large quantities of fresh milk and drying it on skins. Wild berries are crushed and made into cakes with blood, or ground into a dried meal. In the rainy season they grow millet and gourds near watercourses. And of course there is the fishing in Lake Turkana ...

Lake Turkana was formerly Lake Rudolf, the name that Count Samuel Teleki von Szek gave it in honour of  the Austrian Crown Prince, but before that it was the fabled Basso Narok. In the north-east lies its smaller companion, Basso Ebor ... renamed Lake Stephanie after Prince Rudolf's consort, and the Kenyans have given it yet another name that sounds like a character from Star Wars ... Chew Bahir.
The knowledge of the size and position of these lakes, especially Lake Turkana, was immensely important. Plotted on the map in 1891 by the Viennese geologist Eduard Suess, who had never been to Africa, they appeared as links in a connected chain leading north to the Red Sea.

He concluded that the whole line of the country from Lake Nyasa in the south to the River Jordan in the north had been fractured by a connected series of earth movements. He used the contemporary geologists term to describe the phenomenon ... he called it a Graben, or grave.
But he needed the valley explored scientifically, because as yet the theory of continental plates and shifts was not conclusive. The young Scottish geologist John Walter Gregory was an ardent follower of Eduard Suess and agreed with him that the continents were once a super-continent which they called Gondwanaland.
Gregory decided to see the Rift for himself and discover empirical support for his beliefs.
Like those explorers before him, he did not account for the unreliability of the local people, in this case the Somalis, he understocked on food, and then there were the fevers ... He ended up at Mombasa, far to the south, with malaria and dysentery, but with an unshakeable determination to carry on with the expedition. Despite repeated discouragement from Europeans, who urged him not to venture into the little known territory of the hostile Kikuyu and Masai tribes, Greggory left Mombasa on March 23rd 1893 accompanied by two European officials and 40 men.



He knew that his task of diagnosing Eduard Suess's Graben geologically would be daunting.
Lava from volcanic eruptions would cover the valley floor, immense deposits of silt would have been laid down by the lakes that have filled much of the valley with water at varying times and at varying levels, different parts of the valley may have slipped to different positions ... but he knew also that if he chose a suitable spot to make a cross section and was successful in collecting rock samples from selected points and using them to draw a cross section diagram of the rock strata underlying both the walls and the floor, he could possibly provide evidence that seismic activity had once torn at the fabric of Africa and pulled the super-continent of Gondwanaland apart.

Gregory found that the place he had chosen to make his cross section in the area around Naivasha was a hotspot for Masai belligerence and their tribesmen were busy slaughtering Kikuyu and harassing any caravan or traveller who seemed insufficiently protected. Despite his talents for diplomacy he was forced to move 100 miles to the north to Lake Baringo.
Here he found his 'jewel' ... to the trained eye the escarpments on either side of the valley look wedge-shaped and not just a series of hilly mountains ... and you can picture the land tilting and twisting and subsiding through seismic activity. But scientists need evidence of rock stratas so he set about chipping away and collecting rock samples ... he was finally forced to stop when his supplies ran out and new tribal hostilities came to the area.

Although he had traversed only half of the valley, the samples that he took back to England provided sufficient evidence to reach the correct conclusions about the Rift and addressing the orthodox geologists of his day said triumphantly:
'These valleys were not formed by removal grain by grain, by rivers or wind, of the rocks which originally occupied them, but by the rock sinking in mass, while the adjacent land remained stationery. For this type of valley I suggest the name of Rift Valley. Such valleys are known in many parts of the world, but that of East Africa may just be called - The Great Rift Valley.'

The Kikuyu and the Maasai are the most well known of the Kenyan tribes and are the most written about, but I don't think the others should be left out.
Culturally and linguistically Kenya is one of the most diverse countries in Africa. To reconstruct the history of its various people is not easy. About 30 different African tribes now live in Kenya, each with their own language, and the American linguist J. Greenberg has found that of the four language groups in Africa, 3 of them are to be found in Kenya ... Bantu, which belongs to the Niger-Congo language group; Nilotic, a member of the Nilo-Saharan group of languages; and Cushite, the only Afro-Asiatic language ... the fourth language group is Khoisan but it is no longer spoken in Kenya.
Through the series of migrations which lasted until the 19th century, the first immigrant wave was the tall, lean nomadic peoples speaking Cushitic languages from Ethiopia who moved south from Lake Turkana beginning sometime around 2000 BC. When the rainfalls began to decrease and the lake levels fell, these Southern Cushites restarted their migration and encountered little resistance from the indigenous people, but it is not known who these were. They continued moving southwards all the way into central Tanzania.

Then 3,000 years ago another group of Cushites called the Yaaku followed the trail and settled in the central part of Kenya. Today they are represented by a small and little-known group called the Mukogodo who now live near the forest north-west of Mount Kenya.
Over the next millennium, between 500bc and 500ad the roots of almost all of present-day Kenyans spread in from every section of the continent. A tide of Cushitic, Nilotic and Bantu groups arrived and chose to stay on. The ancestors of the Kalenjin group for instance, arrived from the area of the Nile Valley and began pushing the Southern Cushites and the Yaaku out of their territories and eventually occupied much of the highland area in western Kenya. Later this Kalenjin group developed into the present Kipsigis, Nandi, Marakwet, Tugen, Pokot and other tribes. One of the splinter groups are the Okiek, who until very recently were scattered in the mountain forest of central and western Kenyan and are called the Dorobo by the Maasai. It is thought that the Okiek are the product of interbreeding between the first Kalenjin immigrants and the ancient hunters.




About the same time as these Southern Nilotes were entering Kenya from the north-west, different groups of Bantu peoples, originally from southeastern Nigeria, were streaming in from the west and the south. The Bantus were influenced by the Southern Cushites and the Southern Nilotes who, in turn, were influenced by the Bantus. After many complicated migrations, mixings and splittings, the Bantus ended up at their present locations as late as the 19th century ... the main cluster is in central Kenya and comprises the Kikuyu, the Kamba, and other related sub-groups.
The Bantu who live near a lake are called lacustrine Bantu. The Luyha, the Gusii, and the Kuria who live near Lake Victoria have been influenced greatly by the Kalenjin and other Nilotic people.
When the Arabs, together with Persian traders, came in the 8th century they introduced Islamic culture and by the 14th century the new civilisation and language called Swahili were fully developed, and between the Bantu and the Arabs there was also interbreeding.
Another set of coastal Bantu, distinct from the Swahili mix are the Mijikenda, made up of 9 related tribes ... the Giriama, Kauma, Chonyi, Jibana, Kambe, Ribe, Rabai, Duruma and Digo. They claim they originated from Shungwaya, somewhere in southern Somalia on or near the coast. It was said to have been a kingdom, with a capital city of stone buildings, where people lived peacefully until the coming of the Galla marauders from the north.
These Oromo-speaking tribesmen had originally moved into southern Somalia in the 16th century, driving the previous occupants before them. They then continued as far south as the hinterland of Mombasa and are today known as the Orma people.
No one knows for sure whether Shungwaya really existed, but it is mentioned frequently in their oral traditions.
In the dry north of Kenya, an Eastern Cushitic language group had developed from the original immigration into the area 2,000 years before. These were the Sam people. Over time the Sam have diversified into numerous sub-groups such as the Rendille nomads and the Aweer or Boni hunter-gatherers. About 500,000 of their kin, the Somali, occupy most of northeastern Kenya with another 4 million living in the Republic of Somalia.


Dinka Man : Photo Michael Asher
The Maasai, like the Kalenjin, came from the Nile Valley. On arrival in the Lake Turkana region, they interacted with the Eastern Cushites.
There is a tendency among writers to refer to both the Maasai and the off-shoot group the Samburu as 'Nilo-Hamites' reflecting recognition of the Cushite influence on them.
An emerging recognition of the Cushitic imprint on the peoples of Kenya however, is somewhat embarrassing to African historians who have spent much time and effort trying to dispose of the 'Hamitic Myth'. This dates from the early part of this century from C.G. Seligman who wrote:
'The incoming Hamites were pastoral Caucasians, arriving wave after wave, better armed as well as quicker-witted than the dark agricultural Negroes'.
The implication was that the 'superior' Hamites introduced just about everything of value into Africa, and bestowing the Caucasian (white) civilisation on the 'backward' locals.
The 'Hamitic' tag is therefore usually replaced by the term 'Cushitic'.
The Cushites did not in fact come from Caucasia (which is in Europe) as has always been asserted, but from the Ethiopian uplands, from where many East Africans originated.
According to the most recent classification, they are not strictly 'Hamites' but South Nilotic (for example the Kalenjin), or East Nilotic (the Massai and the Turkana), while the 'pure' Nilotic tribes (like the Luo) are now called West Nilotic.




The Samburu live in the desert north of Kenya, and a third Maa-speaking group called the Ilchamus or Njemps, live on the southern shore of Lake Baringo.
There is some affinity between the Maasai groups and the peoples previously referred to as 'Hamites' - the Oromo. Of these, there are the Gabbra nomads who roam the arid northern lands around the Chalbi Desert, their cousins the Boran who live to their east who reach well north into their original Ethiopian homeland.

The Oromo-speaking tribes live along the Tana River in arid bush country. The Sakuye are a small group of camel herding people who live to the east of Mount Marsabit. And finally the remaining tribal group is the Nilotic Luo who are originally from the Bahr-al-Ghazal region of southern Sudan, now occupied by the related Dinka and Nuer. The Luo began to move into western Kenya through Uganda in the early 16th century displacing or absorbing the resident Bantu speakers. They then spread south around Lake Victoria.
Not so well-known or documented are the early arrival and settlement by people from India and Pakistan. Immigrants from Gujarat and Kutch in southwest Indian began settling in the coastal Afro-Arab trading towns as early as the 10th-12th centuries, although there is no evidence that they mixed with the local population as the Arabs did. However, most of Kenya's present-day Asian community arrived in the late 1800s as workmen on the British railway.
Kenya also has some 40,000 inhabitants of European descent, most of whom arrived in the late 19th or early 20th century from Britain, South Africa, Italy, Greece and elsewhere.



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Kaiser Wilhelm II



Incidentally there was, during WW1, a ship also called the Agamemnon - she was formerly owned by Germany and called the Kaiser Wilhelm II.
USS Agamemnon 1917-1919 Formerly SS Kaiser Wilhelm II

(German Passenger Steamship, 1903)

Kaiser Wilhelm II, a 19,361 gross ton passenger steamer built at Stettin, Germany, was completed in the spring of 1903. Designed for high speed trans-Atlantic service, she won the Blue Ribband for the fastest crossing in 1906.


In the years before the outbreak of World War I, she made regular trips between Germany and New York, carrying passengers both prestigeous (in first class) and profitable (in the much more austere steerage). Kaiser Wilhelm II was west-bound when the great conflict began on 3 August 1914 and, after evading patrolling British cruisers, arrived at New York three days later.

For more than two and a half years, as armies exhausted themselves in the European trenches, Kaiser Wilhelm II remained inactive. She was seized by the United States Government when it declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917, and work soon began to repair her machinery, sabotaged earlier by a German caretaker crew, and otherwise prepare the ship for use as a transport. While this work progressed, she was employed as a barracks ship at the New York Navy Yard.

The U.S. Navy placed the ship in commission as USS Kaiser Wilhelm II (ID # 3004) in late August 1917. Her name was changed to Agamemnon at the beginning of September and active war work commenced at the end of October, when she left for her first troopship voyage to France.



While at sea on 9 November 1917, she was damaged in a collision with another big ex-German transporter, USS Von Steuben, but delivered her vital passengers to the war zone a few days later.


Following return to the United Stated in December and subsequent repair work, Agamemnon again steamed to France in mid-January 1918 and thereafter regularly crossed the Atlantic as part of the massive effort to establish a major American military presence on the Western Front. The routine was occasionally punctuated by encounters with real or suspected enemy submarines and, during the autumn of 1918, with outbreaks of influenza on board.

In mid-December 1918, just over a month after the Armistice ended the fighting, Agamemnon began to bring Americans home from France. She made nine voyages between then and August 1919, carrying nearly 42,000 service personnel, some four thousand more than she had transported overseas during wartime.


USS Agamemnon was decommissioned in late August and turned over to the War Department for further use as a U.S. Army Transport. Laid up after the middle 1920s, she was renamed Monticello in 1927 but had no further active service.


Too elderly for use in the Second World War, the ship was sold for scrapping in 1940.







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