The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
Up to this time, save for a few Masai at the very beginning of our trip, we had seen no natives at all. Only lately, the night of the lion dance, one of the Wanderobo-the forest hunters-had drifted in to tell us of buffalo and to get some meat. He was a simple soul, small and capable, of a beautiful red-brown, with his hair done up in a tight, short queue. He wore three skewers about six inches long thrust through each of his ears, three strings of blue beads on his neck, a bracelet tight around his upper arm, a bangle around his ankle, a pair of rawhide sandals, and about a half yard of cotton cloth which he hung from one shoulder. As weapons he carried a round-headed, heavy club, or runga, and a long-bladed spear. He led us to buffalo, accepted a thirty-three cent blanket, and made fire with two sticks in about thirty seconds. The only other evidences of human life we had come across were a few beehives suspended in the trees. These were logs, bored hollow and stopped at either end. Some of them were very quaintly carved. They hung in the trees like strange fruits.
Now, however, after leaving the Isiola, we were to quit the game country and for days travel among the swarming millions of the jungle.
A few preliminary and entirely random observations may be permitted me by way of clearing the ground for a conception of these people. These observations do not pretend to be ethnological, nor even common logical.
The first thing for an American to realize is that our own negro population came mainly from the West Coast, and differed utterly from these peoples of the highlands in the East. Therefore one must first of all get rid of the mental image of our own negro "dressed up" in savage garb. Many of these tribes are not negro at all-the Somalis, the Nandi, and the Masai, for example-while others belong to the negroid and Nilotic races. Their colour is general cast more on the red-bronze than the black, though the Kavirondos and some others are black enough. The texture of their skin is very satiny and wonderful. This perfection is probably due to the constant anointing of the body with oils of various sorts. As a usual thing they are a fine lot physically. The southern Masai will average between six and seven feet in height, and are almost invariably well built. Of most tribes the physical development is remarkably strong and graceful; and a great many of the women will display a rounded, firm, high-breasted physique in marked contrast to the blacks of the lowlands. Of the different tribes possibly the Kikuyus are apt to count the most weakly and spindly examples: though some of these people, perhaps a majority, are well made.
Furthermore, the native differentiates himself still further in impression from our negro in his carriage and the mental attitude that lies behind it. Our people are trying to pattern themselves on white men, and succeed in giving a more or less shambling imitation thereof. The native has standards, ideas, and ideals that perfectly satisfy him, and that antedated the white man's coming by thousands of years. The consciousness of this reflects itself in his outward bearing. He does not shuffle; he is not either obsequious or impudent. Even when he acknowledges the white man's divinity and pays it appropriate respect, he does not lose the poise of his own well-worked-out attitude toward life and toward himself.
We are fond of calling these people primitive. In the world's standard of measurement they are primitive, very primitive indeed. But ordinarily by that term, we mean also undeveloped, embryonic. In that sense we are wrong. Instead of being at the very dawn of human development, these people are at the end-as far as they themselves are concerned. The original racial impulse that started them down the years toward development has fulfilled its duty and spent its force. They have worked out all their problems, established all their customs, arranged the world and its phenomena in a philosophy to their complete satisfaction. They have lived, ethnologists tell us, for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, just as we find them to-day. From our standpoint that is in a hopeless intellectual darkness, for they know absolutely nothing of the most elementary subjects of knowledge. From their standpoint, however, they have reached the highest desirable pinnacle of human development. Nothing remains to be changed. Their customs, religions, and duties have been worked out and immutably established long ago; and nobody dreams of questioning either their wisdom or their imperative necessity. They are the conservatives of the world.
Nor must we conclude-looking at them with the eyes of our own civilization-that the savage is, from his standpoint, lazy and idle. His life is laid out more rigidly than ours will be for a great many thousands of years. From childhood to old age he performs his every act in accord with prohibitions and requirements. He must remember them all; for ignorance does not divert consequences. He must observe them all; in pain of terrible punishments. For example, never may he cultivate on the site of a grave; and the plants that spring up from it must never be cut.* He must make certain complicated offerings before venturing to harvest a crop. On crossing the first stream of a journey he must touch his lips with the end of his wetted bow, wade across, drop a stone on the far side, and then drink. If he cuts his nails, he must throw the parings into a thicket. If he drink from a stream, and also cross it, he must eject a mouthful of water back into the stream. He must be particularly careful not to look his mother-in-law in the face. Hundreds of omens by the manner of their happening may modify actions, as, on what side of the road a woodpecker calls, or in which direction a hyena or jackal crosses the path, how the ground hornbill flies or alights, and the like. He must notice these things, and change his plans according to their occurrence. If he does not notice them, they exercise their influence just the same. This does not encourage a distrait mental attitude. Also it goes far to explain otherwise unexplainable visitations. Truly, as Hobley says in his unexcelled work on the A-Kamba, "the life of a savage native is a complex matter, and he is hedged round by all sorts of rules and prohibitions, the infringement of which will probably cause his death, if only by the intense belief he has in the rules which guide his life."
*Customs are not universal among the different tribes. I am merely illustrating.
For these rules and customs he never attempts to give a reason. They are; and that is all there is to it. A mere statement: "This is the custom" settles the matter finally. There is no necessity, nor passing thought even, of finding any logical cause. The matter was worked out in the mental evolution of remote ancestors. At that time, perhaps, insurgent and Standpatter, Conservative and Radical fought out the questions of the day, and the Muckrakers swung by their tails and chattered about it. Those days are all long since over. The questions of the world are settled forever. The people have passed through the struggles of their formative period to the ultimate highest perfection of adjustment to material and spiritual environment of which they were capable under the influence of their original racial force.
Parenthetically, it is now a question whether or not an added impulse can be communicated from without. Such an impulse must (a) unsettle all the old beliefs, (b) inspire an era of skepticism, (c) reintroduce the old struggle of ideas between the Insurgent and the Standpatter, and Radical and the Conservative, (d) in the meantime furnish, from the older civilization, materials, both in the thought-world and in the object-world, for building slowly a new set of customs more closely approximating those we are building for ourselves. This is a longer and slower and more complicated affair than teaching the native to wear clothes and sing hymns; or to build houses and drink gin; but it is what must be accomplished step by step before the African peoples are really civilized. I, personally, do not think it can be done.
Now having, a hundred thousand years or so ago, worked out the highest good of the human race, according to them, what must they say to themselves and what must their attitude be when the white man has come and has unrolled his carpet of wonderful tricks? The dilemma is evident. Either we, as black men, must admit that our hundred-thousand-year-old ideas as to what constitutes the highest type of human relation to environment is all wrong, or else we must evolve a new attitude toward this new phenomena. It is human nature to do the latter. Therefore the native has not abandoned his old gods; nor has he adopted a new. He still believes firmly that his way is the best way of doing things, but he acknowledges the Superman.
To the Superman, with all races, anything is possible. Only our Superman is an idea, and ideal. The native has his Superman before him in the actual flesh.
We will suppose that our own Superman has appeared among us, accomplishing things that apparantly contravene all our established tenets of skill, of intellect, of possibility. It will be readily acknowledged that such an individual would at first create some astonishment. He wanders into a crowded hotel lobby, let us say, evidently with the desire of going to the bar. Instead of pushing laboriously through the crowd, he floats just above their heads, gets his drink, and floats out again! That is levitation, and is probably just as simple to him as striking a match is to you and me. After we get thoroughly accustomed to him and his life, we are no longer vastly astonished, though always interested, at the various manifestations of his extraordinary powers. We go right along using the marvellous wireless, aeroplanes, motor cars, constructive machinery, and the like that make us confident-justly, of course-in that we are about the smartest lot of people on earth. And if we see red, white, and blue streamers of light crossing the zenith at noon, we do not manifest any very profound amazement. "There's that confounded Superman again," we mutter, if we happen to be busy. "I wonder what stunt he's going to do now!"
A consideration of the above beautiful fable may go a little way toward explaining the supposed native stolidity in the face of the white man's wonders. A few years ago some misguided person brought a balloon to Nairobi. The balloon interested the white people a lot, but everybody was chiefly occupied wondering what the natives would do when they saw that! The natives did not do anything. They gathered in large numbers, and most interestedly watched it go up, and then went home again. But they were not stricken with wonder to any great extent. So also with locomotives, motor cars, telephones, phonographs-any of our modern ingenuities. The native is pleased and entertained, but not astonished. "Stupid creature, no imagination," say we, because our pride in showing off is a wee bit hurt.
Why should he be astonished? His mental revolution took place when he saw the first match struck. It is manifestly impossible for any one to make fire instantaneously by rubbing one small stick. When for the first time he saw it done, he was indeed vastly astounded. The immutable had been changed. The law had been transcended. The impossible had been accomplished. And then, as logical sequence, his mind completed the syllogism. If the white man can do this impossibility, why not all the rest? To defy the laws of nature by flying in the air or forcing great masses of iron to transport one, is no more wonderful than to defy them by striking a light. Since the white man can provedly do one, what earthly reason exists why he should not do anything else that hits his fancy? There is nothing to get astonished at.
This does not necessarily mean that the native looks on the white man as a god. On the contrary, your African is very shrewd in the reading of character. But indubitably white men possess great magic, uncertain in its extent.
That is as far as I should care to go, without much deeper acquaintance, into the attitude of the native mind toward the whites. A superficial study of it, beyond the general principals I have enunciated, discloses many strange contradictions. The native respects the white man's warlike skill, he respects his physical prowess, he certainly acknowledges tacitly his moral superiority in the right to command. In case of dispute he likes the white man's adjudication; in case of illness the man's medicine; in case of trouble the white man's sustaining hand. Yet he almost never attempts to copy the white man's appearance or ways of doing things. His own savage customs and habits he fulfils with as much pride as ever in their eternal fitness. Once I was badgering Memba Sasa, asking him whether he thought the white skin or the black skin the more ornamental. "You are not white," he retorted at last. "That," pointing to a leaf of my notebook, "is white. You are red. I do not like the looks of red people."
They call our speech the "snake language," because of its hissing sound. Once this is brought to your attention, indeed, you cannot help noticing the superabundance of the sibilants.
A queer melange the pigeonholes of an African's brain must contain-fear and respect, strongly mingled with clear estimate of intrinsic character of individuals and a satisfaction with his own standards.
Nor, I think, do we realize sufficiently the actual fundamental differences between the African and our peoples. Physically they must be in many ways as different from our selves as though they actually belonged to a different species. The Masai are a fine big race, enduring, well developed and efficient. They live exclusively on cow's milk mixed with blood; no meat, no fruit, no vegetables, no grain; just that and nothing more. Obviously they must differ from us most radically, or else all our dietetic theories are wrong. It is a well-known fact that any native requires a triple dose of white man's medicine. Furthermore a native's sensitiveness to pain is very much less than the white man's. This is indubitable. For example, the Wakamba file-or, rather, chip, by means of a small chisel-all their front teeth down to needle points, When these happen to fall out, the warrior substitutes an artificial tooth which he drives down into the socket. If the savage got the same effects from such a performance that a white man's dental system would arouse, even "savage stoicism" would hardly do him much good. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying examples. Every African traveller can recall a thousand.
Incidentally, and by the way, I want to add to the milk-and-blood joke on dietetics another on the physical culturists. We are all familiar with the wails over the loss of our toe nails. You know what I mean; they run somewhat like this: shoes are the curse of civilization; if we wear them much longer we shall not only lose the intended use of our feet, but we shall lose our toe nails as well; the savage man, etc. , etc. , etc. Now I saw a great many of said savage men in Africa, and I got much interested in their toe nails, because I soon found that our own civilized "imprisoned" toe nails were very much better developed. In fact, a large number of the free and untramelled savages have hardly any toe nails at all! Whether this upsets a theory, nullifies a sentimental protest, or merely stands as an exception, I should not dare guess. But the fact is indubitable.