Obituary : Ted Nightingale

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The Independent Online
Ted Nightingale was blessed with two characteristics that never failed to impress anyone meeting him for the first time - a deep love for life in Africa, first in Sudan and then in Kenya, and a fierce determination to make the best of every circumstance. He played polo until he was 85, retiring only when his horse grew too old. And at 90 he forced himself to do something that often flummoxes men half his age: he learnt to use a computer to write his first book, which will be published next year.

It is unfashionable to find anything good to say about the British in Africa, but Nightingale was the best sort of colonial officer. Modest, humorous, unfailingly kind, he was concerned above all with the well-being of those who came within his charge and always enthusiastic about any new venture they might propose.

The only son, after six daughters, of a Devon vicar, Nightingale went to Rugby and then to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where a chance meeting with another Emmanuel graduate, on leave from the Sudan, fired up his enthusiasm. He sailed for Port Sudan in 1926, armed with a half a dozen white lawn shirts with detachable collars from Hawkes in Savile Row - which would never be worn - and ready for a life that depended more on nous than on social niceties.

All new recruits to the Sudan political service were put on two years' probation, until they passed exams in Arabic and law. For all that, they often found themselves in sole charge of a vast area from the very beginning. Nightingale served in Darfur, Gezira, Nyala and Khartoum, as well as in the Bahr al-Ghazal district in southern Sudan, among the Dinka tribesmen whom he came to respect and admire. Trekking on camelback - sometimes for as much as 10 hours a day - he acted as a magistrate, assessed taxes on crops, settled grazing disputes between warring tribes, and filled in some blank spots on the map for the survey department.

Although Nightingale was ordered by the administration to stay at his post throughout the Second World War, not all his work was drudgery. The cattle-loving Baggara Arabs of southern Darfur often called him out to shoot the lion and leopard that attacked their herds. Nightingale became a crack shot, once bagging five lion before breakfast. He also learnt to play polo, which became a lifelong passion, and kept an array of pets, including two cheetah named Swan and Edgar.

He retired from the service just before Sudan gained independence in 1954 after serving as governor of Equatoria province, again in the south, where he became active in the growing controversy between northern and southern Sudan.

Determined not to leave Africa, Nightingale and his Kenyan-born wife, Billie Ray, whom he had married in 1944, moved to be close to her parents in Kenya. At the height of the Mau Mau, they bought a farm on the Kinangop. Nine years later they were forced to leave it when Kenya gained independence in 1963, but chose to buy another farm at Naivasha rather than quit the country altogether as many other British settlers did. There Nightingale set about developing the biggest turkey farm in Africa. Starting out with 250 day-old poults, the enterprise swelled until today it produces 30,000 birds a year.

He and Billie had a marriage of unusual closeness and their farm was a draw for all kinds of visitors in search of company, advice, or just a glass of whisky. At a party to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 1994, Billie surprised their eight grandchildren by donning her wedding dress and dancing till the small hours.

He died, after a brief illness, while on leave in England. The former British high commissioner "Johnny" Johnson gave the address at the funeral. But the last word was given to Simon Kuyeso, a groom whom Nightingale had taught to play polo as a boy. Standing at the graveside after the family funeral near Cheltenham, Kuyeso grabbed a clump of earth in his hand and said to another mourner in Kiswahili, "Kweli, hii ne kwaheri ya kweli" ("Truly this is the last goodbye"). Nightingale was such a fixture in Kenyan life, his farm workers, when they hear the tape of the funeral, will find it hard to believe he is gone.

Edward Humphrey Nightingale, colonial administrator and farmer: born 19 August 1904; Governor, Equatoria Province, Sudan 1952-54; CMG 1955; married 1944 Billie Ray (three sons, one daughter); died Cheltenham 14 June 1996.

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