Sunday, 5 December 2010


Taita bag, sketch by James Walsh (1989)
One of the things that fascinates me about public institutions and other large organisations is the way in which otherwise subordinate departments, offices and teams can develop their own collective identity and ways of working that subvert official procedures and create spaces for autonomous (but not necessarily subversive) action. I saw this when studying a local government department in north-west England in 1979, and was especially conscious of it when working as the field manager of a UK-funded project in Tanzania two decades later (more of which, perhaps, in future posts). A nice historical example of this particular kind of institutional resistance-cum-creativity was the practice that developed among British colonial officers of keeping a "goat bag" or hidden fund for use in emergencies and to cover other contingencies that were unlikely to receive official approval. Here's Elspeth Huxley's account of its origin:
  It was in the NFD [Northern Frontier District] that that useful Kenyan institution the goat-bag was born. In the days of its conception, tax was paid in goats instead of money. Most of the goats were fed to KAR [King's African Rifles] askaris. Every one had to be accounted for to the Treasury in Nairobi. But that department's officials overlooked the fact that in any given flock of goats, births as well as deaths will occur. The district officer who started the first goat-bag did not overlook it, and gradually built up a flock that had no official existence, and that could be converted into cash by selling the animals. He also discovered that by drying and marketing the skins, his unofficial fund could be augmented. Every DC [District Commissioner] in the country was continually being confronted by a need for cash to meet unexpected demands unlikely to be sanctioned by the Treasury. The goat-bag proved to be the answer. It was not long before every DC in the country had latched on to the idea. Each commissioner kept a meticulous account of how the money was spent, which he locked away in his confidential safe, so that when the auditors came round on their annual examination of the station's accounts, the secrets of the goat-bag were concealed from their eyes.
   Every DC could give examples of the uses of the goat-bag; here is a single one. On the road between the Tanganyikan border and Nairobi, some unknown person halted his car to fire at a zebra standing on the skyline, missed and drove on. The bullet proceeded on its way until it dropped through the roof of a hut and into the head of a young Maasai girl, killing her stone-dead. Her family, according to custom, demanded blood-money: but who was to pay? In the Maasai view there was no doubt: the Government. The Treasury disclaimed all responsibility. The elders came angrily to the DC at Kajiado, who feared serious trouble should the claim not be met. The Treasury remained adamant. Luckily, the goat-bag at Kajiado was a fat one. The DC handed over twelve head of cattle and the crisis passed. (1985: 166-167)

This last anecdote was given to Huxley by Robin Wainwright (1985: 254, fn. 5), who was Kajiado DC in 1945-46.  Here's another example from the same period, related by L. S. van Aardt in a recent letter to Old Africa magazine:

  After the war I joined the Tanganyika Agricultural Department but was seconded to the Kenya Government to do locust control in the Northern Frontier District. I spent the most blissful time of my life stationed at Garissa. Abundant game covered the area. Since water was scarce, the game lived mostly near the Tana River or around a seasonal water hole at Kolbio on the Somaliland Border. The D.C. and one Policeman ran the boma. The former, Symes Thompson, used to smuggle in Joffes gin from Somaliland, which he sold to the policeman and I for five shillings a bottle. When his request for money to build a swimming pool was refused, he instructed the policeman to arrest some well-known scoundrels and made them dig a suitable hole. He bought materials using money from the "Goat Bag." (van Aardt 2010)

Construction of a sheep and goat dip (FAO)
A quick search of Google Books produces other examples in the literature on colonial East Africa, and even further afield. I don't know whether anyone has ever tried to pull this documentation together, but it would be a great research project, especially if combined with work in the archives and interviews with former colonial officers. This begs the question whether the tradition of the goat bag simply died out with colonialism or survived in some postcolonial contexts. Has it simply morphed into personal corruption? Or been reinvented by contemporary officials with more enlightened interests than the lining of their back pockets? One place to look is surely at the history and ethnography of community fundraising or harambee in independent Kenya, with its well-known propensity for serving both the collective good and the selfish desire of corrupt individuals and groups. The example given by van Aardt suggests that the potential for corruption was always present anyway in colonial practice. And there's another subject for research.

Another place to look is within modern aid programmes and projects, institutions that inherited some of the functions (and personnel) of the colonial technocracy (I can feel another dissertation proposal coming on). In my own work on projects I've never seen a goat bag sensu stricto, but have experienced 'creative accounting', by which I mean the 'bending' of laid-down procedures and rules (e.g. strictures regarding what might or might not be purchased under particular budget headings). When this is done in good faith, for the benefit of the project and its officially-sanctioned goals, we can see the spirit of the old goat bag in action. But when it's done primarily for private gain, the jury of public opinion is likely to be less forgiving -- as Elspeth Huxley was when reporting the suspicion that one former DC had made off with a government-owned lawnmower (1985: 146-147). There are, of course, many shades of grey between official audit and public morality, as the UK parliamentary expenses scandal has so amply illustrated.

The most outrageous case of creative project accounting that I've seen was in the drylands of Tharaka, where the eastern foothills of Mount Kenya slope down to the Tana River, and a British TCO (Technical Cooperation Officer) had evidently dug in the footsteps of Symes Thompson. First, let me quote from a potted history of the project in question:

The Ministry of Livestock Development, supported by the British Government’s Overseas Development Administration (ODA) looked at developing a different type of dual-purpose goat more suitable for arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL). The approach taken at the Marimanti Breeding Station in Tharaka-Nithi District (1983-1989) was to acquire several hundred Galla goats from northern Kenya and select for growth and mothering ability (Skea, 1989). The station was well-funded and as soon as this ended the manager left and the farm quickly fell into disrepair. The goats unfortunately developed beznoites [i.e. besnoitiosis], a disease which is hard to control, forcing many goats to be culled. Eventually all the goats were sold or stolen and the buildings are now used as a district headquarters. (Peacock 2007: 7)

Source: Bill Forse, Where There Is No Vet (Macmillan, 1999)
Marimanti is remote enough to deter all but the most determined auditor from visiting. Fieldworkers are another matter, and I pitched up at the Marimanti station in March 1993 for a meeting with the Kenyan manager of the Goat and Sheep Breeding Project (felicitously abbreviated to GASP). Ernest Njuguna Mbogo proved an excellent host and interviewee, and I came away with detailed notes on agricultural development and livestock production in Tharaka. But the setting of our interview was surreal: we sat by the side of the dilapidated project "goat dip", constructed by a former TCO, ostensibly for the purpose of bathing the doomed hybrid goats in insecticide. At least that's what project accounts submitted to the BDDEA (British Development Division in Eastern Africa) office in Nairobi had declared, or so it was said. Except that this particular goat dip bore a distinct resemblance to an empty swimming pool: its not-so-caprine dimensions, the well-finished tiles, what looked for all the world like a diving-board, and the poolside chairs on which we were lounging...


van Aardt, L. S. 2010. Old Eldoret: early days in East Africa. Letter to Old Africa magazine (published in full on the Editor's blog).

Huxley, Elspeth 1985. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. London: Chatto & Windus.

Peacock, Christie 2007. The Goat Model: a proven approach to reducing poverty among smallholder farmers in Africa by developing profitable goat enterprises and sustainable support services (FARM-Africa Working Paper No. 9). London: FARM-Africa.

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