The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XIII. On the Managing of a Safari
We made our way slowly down the river. As the elevation dropped, the temperature rose. It was very hot indeed during the day, and in the evening the air was tepid and caressing, and musical with the hum of insects. We sat about quite comfortably in our pajamas, and took our fifteen grains of quinine per week against the fever.
The character of the jungle along the river changed imperceptibly, the dhum palms crowding out the other trees; until, at our last camp, were nothing but palms. The wind in them sounded variously like the patter or the gathering onrush of rain. On either side the country remained unchanged, however. The volcanic hills rolled away to the distant ranges. Everywhere grew sparsely the low thornbrush, opening sometimes into clear plains, closing sometimes into dense thickets. One morning we awoke to find that many supposedly sober-minded trees had burst into blossom fairly over night. They were red, and yellow and white that before were green, a truly gorgeous sight.
Then we turned sharp to the right and began to ascend a little tributary brook coming down the wide flats from a cleft in the hills. This was prettily named the Isiola, and, after the first mile or so, was not big enough to afford the luxury of a jungle of its own. Its banks were generally grassy and steep, its thickets few, and its little trees isolated in parklike spaces. To either side of it, and almost at its level, stretched plains, but plains grown with scattered brush and shrubs so that at a mile or two one's vista was closed. But for all its scant ten feet of width the Isiola stood upon its dignity as a stream. We discovered that when we tried to cross. The men floundered waist-deep on uncertain bottom; the syces received much unsympathetic comment for their handling of the animals, and we had to get Billy over by a melodramatic "bridge of life" with B., F., myself, and Memba Sasa in the title roles.
Then we pitched camp in the open on the other side, sent the horses back from the stream until after dark, in fear of the deadly tsetse fly, and prepared to enjoy a good exploration of the neighbourhood. Whereupon M'ganga rose up to his gaunt and terrific height of authority, stretched forth his bony arm at right angles, and uttered between eight and nine thousand commands in a high dynamic monotone without a single pause for breath. These, supplemented by about as many more, resulted in (a) a bridge across the stream, and (b) a banda.
A banda is a delightful African institution. It springs from nothing in about two hours, but it takes twenty boys with a vitriolic M'ganga back of them to bring it about. Some of them carry huge backloads of grass, or papyrus, or cat-tail rushes, as the case may be; others lug in poles of various lengths from where their comrades are cutting them by means of their panga. A panga, parenthetically, is the safari man's substitute for axe, shovel, pick, knife, sickle, lawn-mower, hammer, gatling gun, world's library of classics, higher mathematics, grand opera, and toothpicks. It looks rather like a machete with a very broad end and a slight curved back. A good man can do extraordinary things with it. Indeed, at this moment, two boys are with this apparently clumsy implement delicately peeling some of the small thorn trees, from the bared trunks of which they are stripping long bands of tough inner bark.
With these three raw materials-poles, withes, and grass-M'ganga and his men set to work. They planted their corner and end poles, they laid their rafters, they completed their framework, binding all with the tough withes; then deftly they thatched it with the grass. Almost before we had settled our own affairs, M'ganga was standing before us smiling. Gone now was his mien of high indignation and swirling energy.
"Banda naquisha," he informed us.
And we moved in our table and our canvas chairs; hung up our water bottles; Billy got out her fancy work. Nothing could be pleasanter nor more appropriate to the climate than this wide low arbour, open at either end to the breezes, thatched so thickly that the fierce sun could nowhere strike through.
The men had now settled down to a knowledge of what we were like; and things were going smoothly. At first the African porter will try it on to see just how easy you are likely to prove. If he makes up his mind that you really are easy, then you are in for infinite petty annoyance, and possibly open mutiny. Therefore, for a little while, it is necessary to be extremely vigilant, to insist on minute performance in all circumstances where later you might condone an omission. For the same reason punishment must be more frequent and more severe at the outset. It is all a matter of watching the temper of the men. If they are cheerful and willing, you are not nearly as particular as you would be were their spirit becoming sullen. Then the infraction is not so important in itself as an excuse for the punishment. For when your men get sulky, you watch vigilantly for the first and faintest excuse to inflict punishment.
This game always seemed to me very fascinating, when played right. It is often played wrong. People do not look far enough. Because they see that punishment has a most salutary effect on morale, and is sometimes efficacious in getting things done that otherwise would lag, they jump to the conclusion that the only effective way to handle a safari is by penalties. By this I do not at all mean that they act savagely, or punish to brutal excess. Merely they hold rigidly to the letter of the work and the day's discipline. Because it is sometimes necessary to punish severely slight infractions when the men's tempers need sweetening, they always punish slight infractions severely.
And in ordinary circumstances this method undoubtedly results in a very efficient safari. Things are done smartly, on time, with a snap. The day's march begins without delay; there is a minimum of straggling; on arrival the tents are immediately got up and the wood and water fetched. But in a tight place, men so handled by invariable rule are very apt to sit down apathetically, and put the whole thing up to the white man. When it comes time to help out they are not there. The contrast with a well-disposed safari cannot be appreciated by one who has not seen both.
The safari-man loves a master. He does not for a moment understand any well-meant but misplaced efforts on your part to lighten his work below the requirements of custom. Always he will beg you to ease up on him, to accord him favour; and always he will despise you if you yield. The relations of man to man, of man to work, are all long since established by immemorial distauri-custom-and it is not for you or him to change them lightly. If you know what he should or can do, and hold him rigidly to it, he will respect and follow you.
But in order to keep him up to the mark, it is not always advisable to light into him with a whip, necessary as the whip often is. If he is sullen, or inclined to make mischief, then that is the crying requirement. But if he is merely careless, or a little slow, or tired, you can handle him in other ways. Ridicule before his comrades is very effective: a sort of good-natured guying, I mean. "Ah! very tired!" uttered in the right tone of voice has brought many a loiterer to his feet as effectively as the kick some men feel must always be bestowed, and quite without anger, mind you! For days at a time we have kept our men travelling at good speed by commenting, as though by the way, after we had arrived in camp, on which tribe happened to come in at the head.
"Ah! Kavirondos came in first to-night," we would remark. "Last night the Monumwezis were ahead."
And once, actually, by this method we succeeded in working up such a feeling of rivalry that the Kikuyus, the unambitious, weak and despised Kikuyus, led the van!
But the first hint of insubordination, of intended insolence, of willful shirking must be met by instant authority. Occasionally, when the situation is of the quick and sharp variety, the white man may have to mix in the row himself. He must never hesitate an instant; for the only reason he alone can control so many is that he has always controlled them. F. had a very effective blow, or shove, which I found well worth adopting. It is delivered with the heel of the palm to the man's chin, and is more of a lifting, heaving shove than an actual blow. Its effect is immediately upsetting. Impertinence is best dealt with in this manner on the spot. Evidently intended slowness in coming when called is also best treated by a flick of the whip-and forgetfulness. And so with a half dozen others. But any more serious matter should be decided from the throne of the canvas chair, witness should be heard, judgment formally pronounced, and execution intrusted to the askaris or gunbearers.
It is, as I have said, a most interesting game. It demands three sorts of knowledge: first what a safari man is capable of doing; second, what he customarily should or should not do; third, an ability to read the actual intention or motive back of his actions. When you are able to punish or hold your hand on these principles, and not merely because things have or have not gone smoothly or right, then you are a good safari manager. There are mighty few of them.
As for punishment, that is quite simply the whip. The average writer on the country speaks of this with hushed voice and averted face as a necessity but as something to be deprecated and passed over as quickly as possible. He does this because he thinks he ought to. As a matter of fact, such an attitude is all poppycock. In the flogging of a white man, or a black who suffers from such a punishment in his soul as well as his body, this is all very well. But the safari man expects it, it doesn't hurt his feelings in the least, it is ancient custom. As well sentimentalize over necessary schoolboy punishment, or over father paddy-whacking little Willie when little Willie has been a bad boy. The chances are your porter will leap to his feet, crack his heels together and depart with a whoop of joy, grinning from ear to ear. Or he may draw himself up and salute you, military fashion, again with a grin. In any case his "soul" is not "scared" a little bit, and there is no sense in yourself feeling about it as though it were.
At another slant the justice you will dispense to your men differs from our own. Again this is because of the teaching long tradition has made part of their mental make-up. Our own belief is that it is better to let two guilty men go than to punish one innocent. With natives it is the other way about. If a crime is committed the guilty must be punished. Preferably he alone is to be dealt with; but in case it is impossible to identify him, then all the members of the first inclusive unit must be brought to account. This is the native way of doing things; is the only way the native understands; and is the only way that in his mind true justice is answered. Thus if a sheep is stolen, the thief must be caught and punished. Suppose, however it is known to what family the thief belongs, but the family refuses to disclose which of its members committed the theft: then each member must be punished for sheep stealing; or, if not the family, then the tribe must make restitution. But punishment must be inflicted.
There is an essential justice to recommend this, outside the fact that it has with the native all the solidity of accepted ethics, and it certainly helps to run the real criminal to earth. The innocent sometimes suffers innocently, but not very often; and our own records show that in that respect with us it is the same. This is not the place to argue the right or wrong of the matter from our own standpoint but to recognize the fact that it is right from theirs, and to act accordingly. Thus in cast of theft of meat, or something that cannot be traced, it is well to call up the witnesses, to prove the alibis, and then to place the issue squarely up to those that remain. There may be but two, or there may be a dozen.
"I know you did not all steal the meat," you must say, "but I know that one of you did. Unless I know which one that is by to-morrow morning, I will kiboko all of you. Bass!"
Perhaps occasionally you may have to kiboko the lot, in the full knowledge that most are innocent. That seems hard; and your heart will misgive you. Harden it. The "innocent" probably know perfectly well who the guilty man is. And the incident builds for the future.
I had intended nowhere to comment on the politics or policies of the country. Nothing is more silly than the casual visitor's snap judgments on how a country is run. Nevertheless, I may perhaps be pardoned for suggesting that the Government would strengthen its hand, and aid its few straggling settlers by adopting this native view of retributions. For instance, at present it is absolutely impossible to identify individual sheep and cattle stealers. They operate stealthily and at night. If the Government cannot identify the actual thief, it gives the matter up. As a consequence a great hardship is inflicted on the settler and an evil increases. If, however, the Government would hold the village, the district, or the tribe responsible, and exact just compensation from such units in every case, the evil would very suddenly come to an end. And the native's respect for the white man would climb in the scale.
Once the safari man gets confidence in his master, that confidence is complete. The white man's duties are in his mind clearly defined. His job is to see that the black man is fed, is watered, is taken care of in every way. The ordinary porter considers himself quite devoid of responsibility. He is also an improvident creature, for he drinks all his water when he gets thirsty, no matter how long and hot the journey before him; he eats his rations all up when he happens to get hungry, two days before next distribution time; he straggles outrageously at times and has to be rounded up; he works three months and, on a whim, deserts two days before the end of his journey, thus forfeiting all his wages. Once two porters came to us for money.
"What for?" asked C.
"To buy a sheep," said they.
For two months we had been shooting them all the game meat they could eat, but on this occasion two days had intervened since the last kill. If they had been on trading safari they would have had no meat at all. A sheep cost six rupees in that country, and they were getting but ten rupees a month as wages. In view of the circumstances, and for their own good, we refused. Another man once insisted on purchasing a cake of violet-scented soap for a rupee. Their chief idea of a wild time in Nairobi, after return from a long safari, is to sit in a chair and drink tea. For this they pay exorbitantly at the Somali so-called "hotels." It is a strange sight. But then, I have seen cowboys off the range or lumberjacks from the river do equally extravagant and foolish things.
On the other hand they carry their loads well, they march tremendously, they know their camp duties and they do them. Under adverse circumstances they are good-natured. I remember C. and I, being belated and lost in a driving rain. We wandered until nearly midnight. The four or five men with us were loaded heavily with the meat and trophy of a roan. Certainly they must have been very tired; for only occasionally could we permit them to lay down their loads. Most of the time we were actually groping, over boulders, volcanic rocks, fallen trees and all sorts of tribulation. The men took it as a huge joke, and at every pause laughed consumedly.
In making up a safari one tries to mix in four or five tribes. This prevents concerted action in case of trouble, for no one tribe will help another. They vary both in tribal and individual characteristics, of course. For example, the Kikuyus are docile but mediocre porters; the Kavirondos strong carriers but turbulent and difficult to handle. You are very lucky if you happen on a camp jester, one of the sort that sings, shouts, or jokes while on the march. He is probably not much as a porter, but he is worth his wages nevertheless. He may or may not aspire to his giddy eminence. We had one droll-faced little Kavirondo whose very expression made one laugh, and whose rueful remarks on the harshness of his lot finally ended by being funny. His name got to be a catchword in camp.
"Mualo! Mualo!" the men would cry, as they heaved their burdens to their heads; and all day long their war cry would ring out, "Mualo!" followed by shrieks of laughter.
Of the other type was Sulimani, a big, one-eyed Monumwezi, who had a really keen wit coupled with an earnest, solemn manner. This man was no buffoon, however; and he was a good porter, always at or near the head of the procession. In the great jungle south of Kenia we came upon Cuninghame. When the head of our safari reached the spot Sulimani left the ranks and, his load still aloft danced solemnly in front of Cuninghame, chanting something in a loud tone of voice. Then with a final deep "Jambo!" to his old master he rejoined the safari. When the day had stretched to weariness and the men had fallen to a sullen plodding, Sulimani's vigorous song could always set the safari sticks tapping the sides of the chop boxes.
He carried part of the tent, and the next best men were entrusted with the cook outfit and our personal effects. It was a point of honour with these men to be the first in camp. The rear, the very extreme and straggling rear, was brought up by worthless porters with loads of cornmeal-and the weary askaris whose duty it was to keep astern and herd the lot in.