Chief who wants to get a head steps forward

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The Independent Online
IAN MacKINNON

Over the years Heathrow airport has seen its fair share of grand entrances. It is no stranger to starlets decked in furs. Yet few can have matched the stir caused there by Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka when he shuffled across the arrivals lounge yesterday, adding his own twist to the skin thing.

The South African witch doctor, honorary chief of the Gcaleka people of Transkei, set off his beaded red skirt with a leopard skin draped over his shoulders. The head was still intact and the mouth frozen in a roar.

Yet the outfit was merely the low-key preview to a performance which left fellow travellers in Terminal Two gawping in amazement. For the sometime brewery distributor went on to give an impromptu little dance and a roar of his own, before outlining his presence in his native Xhosa tongue.

His mission, simply, is to locate the head of his great- great-uncle King Hintsa, and return it to be buried with the rest of the remains in an attempt to bring lasting peace to South Africa.

How the head came to disappear in the first place is a matter of conjecture.

That the king was killed in May 1835 during the Six Frontier War between Cape Colony and the Xhosas by George Southey, a military guide of Scots descent, is not in dispute. Officially, the king's body was left intact to be discovered by his people, but the chief and his followers maintain that the head was decapitated and removed as a souvenir.

Guided by spirits, he intends to scour Britain for the missing item, but to narrow the odds he will begin his search today at the Natural History Museum, in west London, where they obligingly have 17,000 body parts to choose from.

If he fails there, the hunt will move to the National Army Museum and Fort George, at Inverness in Scotland, former home to the 72nd and 75th Highland regiments.

Yesterday, invited to elaborate on his chances of success or failure, he would only respond: "Nothing for nothing."

This, it transpired, meant that without some kind of financial inducement he was prepared to say little more about the mission.

Plainly, the spirits had also given him sound advice on the merits of chequebook journalism, particularly useful as his backers have fallen by the wayside.

With that, the chief and his retinue were decanted into the back of a Cadillac stretched limousine, courtesy of the BBC, where the champagne was already on ice.

Headhunting, it seems, can be a taxing business.

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