Transfer to Turkana just to earn Sh4 hardship allowance

Overcrowded commuter bus, 1991. [File, Standard]

It's interesting what a daily allowance of Sh4 can do to a broke clerical officer. Though it may not sound like much today, such an offer motivated a middle level civil servant to beg for a transfer from Voi to the harsh Turkana, more than 1,000 kilometres away.

Today, as the new Cabinet Secretary for Public Service and Gender, Aisha Jumwa mulls on how to increase salaries of civil servants, she may be motivated to make a quick decision by the travails of one clerical officer who once worked near her home county in Kilifi 73 yeas ago.

It all started as a joke between two unmarried clerical officers who discovered that they had ran out cash because they had turned their bachelors' crib to an entertainment den and their salaries could no longer support this.

One of the officers explains in his book, Bwana Karani: The Life and times of Mervyn Maciel how they learned that they could earn more money if they sought to be transferred to the Northern Frontier District.

“We had heard of inducements made to those who served in the NFD. One received a hardship allowance of Sh4 per day in the case of the Asian staff, while the European staff received Sh6," he writes.

At the time of the transfer in 1949, Maciel had been working for three years having been recruited from Goa to take the place of his father who had died in service, with a starting salary of £120 per annum, which translates to about Sh1,300 with the current exchange rate.

Maciel was further motivated by the prospect of being given a three-months salary advance at no interest to be repaid in 12 installments. This loan was supposed to enable the recipient buy essential commodities which included canned food because fresh supplies in the hardship areas were almost impossible to get.

On reaching Lodwar he realised that he had grossly underestimated the tribulations awaiting him as he soon learnt that the entire area was strictly out of bounds for women except the locals.

It was impossible at the time to convince any female to work in NFD and even if one agreed the gender imbalance would have caused some social disorder. The civil service then frowned upon officers who begged for personal effects or food, and that is why those transferred to hardship areas mostly on discipline grounds were expected to procure their own supplies.

Despite the passage of time, if Maciel was to go back to Lodwar to day, he would still be confronted by the challenges he experienced more than 70 years ago; the area is as arid as ever and food is a very rare currency.