The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
XVIII. In the Jungle (a) The March to Meru
Now, one day we left the Isiola River and cut across on a long upward slant to the left. In a very short time we had left the plains, and were adrift in an ocean of brown grass that concealed all but the bobbing loads atop the safari, and over which we could only see when mounted. It was glorious feed, apparently, but it contained very few animals for all that. An animal could without doubt wax fat and sleek therein: but only to furnish light and salutary meals to beasts of prey. Long grass makes easy stalking. We saw a few ostriches, some giraffe, and three or four singly adventurous oryx. The ripening grasses were softer than a rippling field grain; and even more beautiful in their umber and browns. Although apparently we travelled a level, nevertheless in the extreme distance the plains of our hunting were dropping below, and the far off mountains were slowly rising above the horizon. On the other side were two very green hills, looking nearly straight up and down, and through a cleft the splintered snow-clad summit of Mt. Kenia.
At length this gentle foothill slope broke over into rougher country. Then, in the pass, we came upon many parallel beaten paths, wider and straighter than the game trails-native tracks. That night we camped in a small, round valley under some glorious trees, with green grass around us; a refreshing contrast after the desert brown. In the distance ahead stood a big hill, and at its base we could make out amid the tree-green, the straight slim smoke of many fires and the threads of many roads.
We began our next morning's march early, and we dropped over the hill into a wide, cultivated valley. Fields of grain, mostly rape, were planted irregularly among big scattered trees. The morning air, warming under the sun, was as yet still, and carried sound well. The cooing, chattering and calling of thousands of birds mingled with shouts and the clapping together of pieces of wood. As we came closer we saw that every so often scaffolds had been erected overlooking the grain, and on these scaffolds naked boys danced and yelled and worked clappers to scare the birds from the crops. They seemed to put a great deal of rigour into the job; whether from natural enthusiasm or efficient direful supervision I could not say. Certainly they must have worked in watches, however; no human being could keep up that row continuously for a single day, let alone the whole season of ripening grain. As we passed they fell silent and stared their fill.
On the banks of a boggy little stream that we had to flounder across we came on a gentleman and lady travelling. They were a tall, well formed pair, mahogany in colour, with the open, pleasant expression of most of these jungle peoples. The man wore a string around his waist into which was thrust a small leafy branch; the woman had on a beautiful skirt made by halving a banana leaf, using the stem as belt, and letting the leaf part hang down as a skirt. Shortly after meeting these people we turned sharp to the right on a well beaten road.
For nearly two weeks we were to follow this road, so it may be as well to get an idea of it. Its course was a segment of about a sixth of the circle of Kenia's foothills. With Kenia itself as a centre, this road swung among the lower elevations about the base of that great mountain. Its course was mainly down and up hundreds of the canyons radiating from the main peak, and over the ridges between them. No sooner were we down, than we had to climb up; and no sooner were we up, than once more down we had to plunge. At times, however, we crossed considerable plateaus. Most of this country was dense jungle, so dense that we could not see on either side more than fifteen or twenty feet. Occasionally, atop the ridges, however, we would come upon small open parks. In these jungles live millions of human beings.
At once, as soon as we had turned into the main road, we began to meet people. In the grain fields of the valley we saw only the elevated boys, and a few men engaged in weaving a little house perched on stilts. We came across some of these little houses all completed, with conical roofs. They were evidently used for granaries. As we mounted the slope on the other side, however, the trees closed in, and we found ourselves marching down the narrow aisle of the jungle itself.
It was a dense and beautiful jungle, with very tall trees and the deepest shade; and the impenetrable tangle to the edge of the track. Among the trees were the broad leaves of bananas and palms, the fling of leafy vines. Over the track these leaned, so that we rode through splashing and mottling shade. Nothing could have seemed wilder than this apparently impenetrable and yet we had ridden but a short distance before we realized that we were in fact passing through cultivated land. It was, again, only a difference in terms. Native cultivation in this district rarely consists of clearing land and planting crops in due order, but in leaving the forest proper as it is, and in planting foodstuffs haphazard wherever a tiny space can be made for even three hills of corn or a single banana. Thus they add to rather than subtract from the typical density of the jungle. At first, we found, it took some practice to tell a farm when we saw it.
From the track narrow little paths wound immediately out of sight. Sometimes we saw a wisp of smoke rising above the undergrowth and eddying in the tops of the trees. Long vine ropes swung from point to point, hung at intervals with such matters as feathers, bones, miniature shields, carved sticks, shells and clappers: either as magic or to keep off the birds. From either side the track we were conscious always of bright black eyes watching us. Sometimes we caught a glimpse of their owners crouched in the bush, concealed behind banana leaves, motionless and straight against a tree trunk. When they saw themselves observed they vanished without a sound.
The upper air was musical with birds, and bright with the flutter of their wings. Rarely did we see them long enough to catch a fair idea of their size and shape. They flashed from shade to shade, leaving only an impression of brilliant colour. There were some exceptions: as the widower-bird, dressed all in black, with long trailing wing-plumes of which he seemed very proud; and the various sorts of green pigeons and parrots. There were many flowering shrubs and trees, and the air was laden with perfume. Strange, too, it seemed to see tall trees with leaves three or four feet long and half as many wide.
We were riding a mile or so ahead of the safari. At first we were accompanied only by our gunbearers and syces. Before long, however, we began to accumulate a following.
This consisted at first of a very wonderful young man, probably a chief's son. He carried a long bright spear, wore a short sword thrust through a girdle, had his hair done in three wrapped queues, one over each temple and one behind, and was generally brought to a high state of polish by means of red earth and oil. About his knee he wore a little bell that jingled pleasingly at every step. From one shoulder hung a goat-skin cloak embroidered with steel beads. A small package neatly done up in leaves probably contained his lunch. He teetered along with a mincing up and down step, every movement, and the expression of his face displaying a fatuous self-satisfaction. When we looked back again this youth had magically become two. Then appeared two women and a white goat. All except the goat were dressed for visiting, with long chains of beads, bracelets and anklets, and heavy ornaments in the distended ear lobes. The manner people sprang apparently out of the ground was very disconcerting. It was a good deal like those fairy-story moving pictures where a wave of the wand produces beautiful ladies. By half an hour we had acquired a long retinue-young warriors, old men, women and innumerable children. After we had passed, the new recruits stepped quietly from the shadow of the jungle and fell in. Every one with nothing much to do evidently made up his mind he might as well go to Meru now as any other time.
Also we met a great number of people going in the other direction. Women were bearing loads of yams. Chiefs' sons minced along, their spears poised in their left hands at just the proper angle, their bangles jingling, their right hands carried raised in a most affected manner. Their social ease was remarkable, especially in contrast with the awkwardness of the lower poverty-stricken or menial castes. The latter drew one side to let us pass, and stared. Our chiefs' sons, on the other hand, stepped springingly and beamingly forward; spat carefully in their hands (we did the same); shook hands all down the line: exchanged a long-drawn "moo-o-ga!" with each of us; and departed at the same springing rapid gait. The ordinary warriors greeted us, but did not offer to shake hands, thank goodness! There were a great many of them. Across the valleys and through the open spaces the sun, as it struck down the trail, was always flashing back from distant spears. Twice we met flocks of sheep being moved from one point to another. Three or four herdsmen and innumerable small boys seemed to be in charge. Occasionally we met a real chief or headman of a village, distinguished by the fact that he or a servant carried a small wooden stool. With these dignitaries we always stopped to exchange friendly words.
These comprised the travelling public. The resident public also showed itself quite in evidence. Once our retainers had become sufficiently numerous to inspire confidence, the jungle people no longer hid. On the contrary, they came out to the very edge of the track to exchange greetings. They were very good-natured, exceedingly well-formed, and quite jocular with our boys. Especially did our suave and elegant Simba sparkle. This resident public, called from its daily labours and duties, did not always show as gaudy a make-up as did the dressed-up travelling public. Banana leaves were popular wear, and seemed to us at once pretty and fresh. To be sure some had rather withered away; but even wool will shrink. We saw some grass skirts, like the Sunday-school pictures.
At noon we stopped under a tree by a little stream for lunch. Before long a dozen women were lined up in front of us staring at Billy with all their might. She nodded and smiled at them. Thereupon they sent one of their number away. The messenger returned after a few moments carrying a bunch of the small eating bananas which she laid at our feet. Billy fished some beads out of her saddle bags, and presented them. Friendly relations having been thus fully established, two or three of the women scurried hastily away, to return a few moments later each with her small child. To these infants they carefully and earnestly pointed out Billy and her wonders, talking in a tongue unknown to us. The admonition undoubtedly ran something like this:
"Now, my child, look well at this: for when you get to be a very old person you will be able to look back at the day when with your own eyes you beheld a white woman. See all the strange things she wears-and hasn't she a funny face?"
We offered these bung-eyed and totally naked youngsters various bribes in the way of beads, the tinfoil from chocolate, and even a small piece of the chocolate itself. Most of them howled and hid their faces against their mothers. The mothers looked scandalized, and hypocritically astounded, and mortified.
They made remarks, still in an unknown language, but which much past experience enabled me to translate very readily:
"I don't know what has got into little Willie," was the drift of it. "I have never known him to act this way before. Why, only yesterday I was saying to his father that it really seemed as though that child never cried-"
It made me feel quite friendly and at home.
Now at last came two marvellous and magnificent personages before whom the women and children drew back to a respectful distance. These potentates squatted down and smiled at us engagingly. Evidently this was a really important couple, so we called up Simba, who knew the language, and had a talk.
They were old men, straight, and very tall, with the hawk-faced, high-headed dignity of the true aristocrat. Their robes were voluminous, of some short-haired skins, beautifully embroidered. Around their arms were armlets of polished buffalo horn. They wore most elaborate ear ornaments, and long cased marquise rings extending well beyond the first joints of the fingers. Very fine old gentlemen. They were quite unarmed.
After appropriate greetings, we learned that these were the chief and his prime minister of a nearby village hidden in the jungle. We exchanged polite phrases; then offered tobacco. This was accepted. From the jungle came a youth carrying more bananas. We indicated our pleasure. The old men arose with great dignity and departed, sweeping the women and children before them.
We rode on. Our acquired retinue, which had waited at a respectful distance, went on too. I suppose they must have desired the prestige of being attached to Our Persons. In the depths of the forest Billy succumbed to the temptation to bargain, and made her first trade. Her prize was a long water gourd strapped with leather and decorated with cowry shells. Our boys were completely scandalized at the price she paid for it, so I fear the wily savage got ahead of her.
About the middle of the afternoon we sat down to wait for the safari to catch up. It would never do to cheat our boys out of their anticipated grand entrance to the Government post at Meru. We finally debouched from the forest to the great clearing at the head of a most impressive procession, flags flying, oryx horns blowing, boys chanting and beating the sides of their loads with the safari sticks. As there happened to be gathered, at this time, several thousand of warriors for the purpose of a council, or shauri, with the District Commissioner we had just the audience to delight our barbaric hearts.
The Government post at Meru is situated in a clearing won from the forest on the first gentle slopes of Kenia's ranges. The clearing is a very large one, and on it the grass grows green and short, like a lawn. It resembles, as much as anything else, the rolling, beautiful downs of a first-class country club, and the illusion is enhanced by the Commissioner's house among some trees atop a hill. Well-kept roadways railed with rustic fences lead from the house to the native quarters lying in the hollow and to the Government offices atop another hill. Then also there are the quarters of the Nubian troops; round low houses with conical grass roofs.
These, and the presence everywhere of savages, rather take away from the first country-club effect. A corral seemed full of a seething mob of natives; we found later that this was the market, a place of exchange. Groups wandered idly here and there across the greensward; and other groups sat in circles under the shade of trees, each man's spear stuck in the ground behind him. At stated points were the Nubians, fine, tall, black, soldierly men, with red fez, khaki shirt, and short breeches, bare knees and feet, spiral puttees, and a broad red sash of webbing. One of these soldiers assigned us a place to camp. We directed our safari there, and then immediately rode over to pay our respects to the Commissioner.
The latter, Horne by name, greeted us with the utmost cordiality, and offered us cool drinks. Then we accompanied him to a grand shauri or council of chiefs.
Horne was a little chap, dressed in flannels and a big slouch hat, carrying only a light rawhide whip, with very little of the dignity and "side" usually considered necessary in dealing with wild natives. The post at Meru had been established only two years, among a people that had always been very difficult, and had only recently ceased open hostilities. Nevertheless in that length of time Horne's personal influence had won them over to positive friendliness. He had, moreover, done the entire construction work of the post itself; and this we now saw to be even more elaborate than we had at first realized. Irrigating ditches ran in all directions brimming with clear mountain water; the roads and paths were rounded, graded and gravelled; the houses were substantial, well built and well kept; fences, except of course the rustic, were whitewashed; the native quarters and "barracks" were well ranged and in perfect order. The place looked ten years old instead of only two.
We followed Horne to an enclosure, outside the gate of which were stacked a great number of spears. Inside we found the owners of those spears squatted before the open side of a small, three-walled building containing a table and a chair. Horne placed himself in the chair, lounged back, and hit the table smartly with his rawhide whip. From the centre of the throng an old man got up and made quite a long speech. When he had finished another did likewise. All was carried out with the greatest decorum. After four or five had thus spoken, Horne, without altering his lounging attitude, spoke twenty or thirty words, rapped again on the table with his rawhide whip, and immediately came over to us.
"Now," said he cheerfully, "we'll have a game of golf."
That was amusing, but not astonishing. Most of us have at one time or another laid out a scratch hole or so somewhere in the vacant lot. We returned to the house, Horne produced a sufficiency of clubs, and we sallied forth. Then came the surprise of our life! We played eighteen holes-eighteen, mind you-over an excellently laid-out and kept-up course! The fair greens were cropped short and smooth by a well-managed small herd of sheep; the putting greens were rolled, and in perfect order; bunkers had been located at the correct distances; there were water hazards in the proper spots. In short, it was a genuine, scientific, well-kept golf course. Over it played Horne, solitary except on the rare occasions when he and his assistant happened to be at the post at the same time. The nearest white man was six days' journey; the nearest small civilization 196 miles.* The whole affair was most astounding.
*Which was, in turn, over three hundred miles from the next.
Our caddies were grinning youngsters a good deal like the Gold Dust Twins. They wore nothing but our golf bags. Afield were other supernumerary caddies: one in case we sliced, one in case we pulled, and one in case we drove straight ahead. Horne explained that unlimited caddies were easier to get than unlimited golf balls. I can well believe it.
F. joined forces with Horne against B. and me for a grand international match. I regret to state that America was defeated by two holes.
We returned to find our camp crowded with savages. In a short time we had established trade relations and were doing a brisk business. Two years before we should have had to barter exclusively; but now, thanks to Horne's attempt to collect an annual hut tax, money was some good. We had, however, very good luck with bright blankets and cotton cloth. Our beads did not happen here to be in fashion. Probably three months earlier or later we might have done better with them. The feminine mind here differs in no basic essential from that of civilization. Fashions change as rapidly, as often and as completely in the jungle as in Paris. The trader who brings blue beads when blue beads have "gone out" might just as well have stayed at home. We bought a number of the pretty "marquise" rings for four cents apiece (our money), some war clubs or rungas for the same, several spears, armlets, stools and the like. Billy thought one of the short, soft skin cloaks embroidered with steel beads might be nice to hang on the wall. We offered a youth two rupees for one. This must have been a high price, for every man in hearing of the words snatched off his cloak and rushed forward holding it out. As that reduced his costume to a few knick-knacks, Billy retired from the busy mart until we could arrange matters.
We dined with Horne. His official residence was most interesting. The main room was very high to beams and a grass-thatched roof, with a well-brushed earth floor covered with mats. It contained comfortable furniture, a small library, a good phonograph, tables, lamps and the like. When the mountain chill descended, Horne lit a fire in a coal-oil can with a perforated bottom. What little smoke was produced by the clean burning wood lost itself far aloft. Leopard skins and other trophies hung on the wall. We dined in another room at a well-appointed table. After dinner we sat up until the unheard of hour of ten o'clock discussing at length many matters that interested us. Horne told us of his personal bodyguard consisting of one son from each chief of his wide district. These youths were encouraged to make as good an appearance as possible, and as a consequence turned out in the extreme of savage gorgeousness. Horne spoke of them carelessly as a "matter of policy in keeping the different tribes well disposed," but I thought he was at heart a little proud of them. Certainly, later and from other sources, we heard great tales of their endurance, devotion and efficiency. Also we heard that Horne had cut in half his six months' leave (earned by three years' continuous service in the jungle) to hurry back from England because he could not bear the thought of being absent from the first collection of the hut tax! He is a good man.
We said good-night to him and stepped from the lighted house into the vast tropical night. The little rays of our lantern showed us the inequalities of the ground, and where to step across the bubbling, little irrigation streams. But thousands of stars insisted on a simplification. The broad, rolling meadows of the clearing lay half guessed in the dim light; and about its edge was the velvet band of the forest, dark and mysterious, stretching away for leagues into the jungle. From it near at hand, far away, came the rhythmic beating of solemn great drums, and the rising and falling chants of the savage peoples.
(C) THE CHIEFS
We left Meru well observed by a very large audience, much to the delight of our safari boys, who love to show off. We had acquired fourteen more small boys, or totos, ranging in age from eight to twelve years. These had been fitted out by their masters to alleviate their original shenzi appearance of savagery. Some had ragged blankets, which they had already learned to twist turban wise around their heads; others had ragged old jerseys reaching to their knees, or the wrecks of full-grown undershirts; one or two even sported baggy breeches a dozen sizes too large. Each carried his little load, proudly, atop his head like a real porter, sufurias or cooking pots, the small bags of potio, and the like. Inside a mile they had gravitated together and with the small boy's relish for imitation and for playing a game, had completed a miniature safari organization of their own. Thenceforth they marched in a compact little company, under orders of their "headman." They marched very well, too, straight and proud and tireless. Of course we inspected their loads to see that they were not required to carry too much for their strength; but, I am bound to say, we never discovered an attempt at overloading. In fact, the toto brigade was treated very well indeed. M'ganga especially took great interest in their education and welfare. One of my most vivid camp recollections is that of M'ganga, very benign and didactic, seated on a chop box and holding forth to a semicircle of totos squatted on the ground before him. On reaching camp totos had several clearly defined duties: they must pick out good places for their masters' individual camps, they must procure cooking stones, they must collect kindling wood and start fires, they must fill the sufurias with water and set them over to boil. In the meantime, their masters were attending to the pitching of the bwana's camp. The rest of the time the toto played about quite happily, and did light odd jobs, or watched most attentively while his master showed him small details of a safari-boy's duty, or taught him simple handicraft. Our boys seemed to take great pains with their totos and to try hard to teach them.
Also at Meru we had acquired two cocks and four hens of the ridiculously small native breed. These rode atop the loads: their feet were tied to the cords and there they swayed and teetered and balanced all day long, apparently quite happy and interested. At each new camp site they were released and went scratching and clucking around among the tents. They lent our temporary quarters quite a settled air of domesticity. We named the cocks Gaston and Alphonse and somehow it was rather fine, in the blackness before dawn, to hear these little birds crowing stout-heartedly against the great African wilderness. Neither Gaston, Alphonse nor any of their harem were killed and eaten by their owners; but seemed rather to fulfil the function of household pets.
Along the jungle track we met swarms of people coming in to the post. One large native safari composed exclusively of women were transporting loads of trade goods for the Indian trader. They carried their burdens on their backs by means of a strap passing over the top of the head; our own "tump line" method. The labour seemed in no way to have dashed their spirits, for they grinned at us, and joked merrily with our boys. Along the way, every once in a while, we came upon people squatted down behind small stocks of sugarcane, yams, bananas, and the like. With these our boys did a brisk trade. Little paths led mysteriously into the jungle. Down them came more savages to greet us. Everybody was most friendly and cheerful, thanks to Horne's personal influence. Two years before this same lot had been hostile. From every hidden village came the headmen or chiefs. They all wanted to shake hands-the ordinary citizen never dreamed of aspiring to that honour-and they all spat carefully into their palms before they did so. This all had to be done in passing; for ordinary village headmen it was beneath Our Dignity to draw rein. Once only we broke over this rule. That was in the case of an old fellow with white hair who managed to get so tangled up in the shrubbery that he could not get to us. He was so frantic with disappointment that we made an exception and waited.
About three miles out, we lost one of our newly acquired totos. Reason: an exasperated parent who had followed from Meru for the purpose of reclaiming his runaway offspring. The latter was dragged off howling. Evidently he, like some of his civilized cousins, had "run away to join the circus." As nearly as we could get at it, the rest of the totos, as well as the nine additional we picked up before we quitted the jungle, had all come with their parents' consent. In fact, we soon discovered that we could buy any amount of good sound totos, not house broke however, for an average of half a rupee (16-1/2 cents) apiece.
The road was very much up and down hill over the numerous ridges that star-fish out from Mt. Kenia. We would climb down steep trails from 200 to 800 feet (measured by aneroid), cross an excellent mountain stream of crystalline dashing water, and climb out again. The trails of course had no notion of easy grades. It was very hard work, especially for men with loads; and it would have been impossible on account of the heat were it not for the numerous streams. On the slopes and in the bottoms were patches of magnificent forest; on the crests was the jungle, and occasionally an outlook over extended views. The birds and the strange tropical big-leaved trees were a constant delight-exotic and strange. Billy was in a heaven of joy, for her specialty in Africa was plants, seeds and bulbs, for her California garden. She had syces, gunbearers and tent boys all climbing, shaking branches, and generally pawing about.
This idiosyncracy of Billy's puzzled our boys hugely. At first they tried telling her that everything was poisonous; but when that did not work, they resigned themselves to their fate. In fact, some of the most enterprising like Memba Sasa, Kitaru, and, later, Kongoni used of their own accord to hunt up and bring in seeds and blossoms. They did not in the least understand what it was for; and it used to puzzle them hugely until out of sheer pity for their uneasiness, I implied that the Memsahib collected "medicine." That was rational, so the wrinkled brow of care was smoothed. From this botanical trait, Billy got her native name of "Beebee Kooletta"-"The Lady Who Says: Go Get That." For in Africa every white man has a name by which he is known among the native people. If you would get news of your friends, you must know their local cognomens-their own white man names will not do at all. For example, I was called either Bwana Machumwani or Bwana N'goma. The former means merely Master Four-eyes, referring to my glasses. The precise meaning of the latter is a matter much disputed between myself and Billy. An N'goma is a native dance, consisting of drum poundings, chantings, and hoppings around. Therefore I translate myself (most appropriately) as the Master who Makes Merry. On the other hand, Billy, with true feminine indirectness, insists that it means "The Master who Shouts and Howls." I leave it to any fairminded reader.
About the middle of the morning we met a Government runner, a proud youth, young, lithe, with many ornaments and bangles; his red skin glistening; the long blade of his spear, bound around with a red strip to signify his office, slanting across his shoulder; his buffalo hide shield slung from it over his back; the letter he was bearing stuck in a cleft stick and carried proudly before him as a priest carries a cross to the heathen-in the pictures. He was swinging along at a brisk pace, but on seeing us drew up and gave us a smart military salute.
At one point where the path went level and straight for some distance, we were riding in an absolute solitude. Suddenly from the jungle on either side and about fifty yards ahead of us leaped a dozen women. They were dressed in grass skirts, and carried long narrow wooden shields painted white and brown. These they clashed together, shrieked shrilly, and charged down on us at full speed. When within a few yards of our horses noses they came to a sudden halt, once more clashed their shields, shrieked, turned and scuttled away as fast as their legs could carry them. At a hundred yards they repeated the performance; and charged back at us again. Thus advancing and retreating, shrieking high, hitting the wooden shields with resounding crash, they preceded our slow advance for a half mile or so. Then at some signal unperceived by us they vanished abruptly into the jungle. Once more we rode forward in silence and in solitude. Why they did it I could not say.
Of this tissue were our days made. At noon our boys plucked us each two or three banana leaves which they spread down for us to lie on. Then we dozed through the hot hours in great comfort, occasionally waking to blue sky through green trees, or to peer idly into the tangled jungle. At two o'clock or a little later we would arouse ourselves reluctantly and move on. The safari we had dimly heard passing us an hour before. In this country of the direct track we did not attempt to accompany our men.
The end of the day's march found us in a little clearing where we could pitch camp. Generally this was atop a ridge, so that the boys had some distance to carry water; but that disadvantage was outweighed by the cleared space. Sometimes we found ourselves hemmed in by a wall of jungle. Again we enjoyed a broad outlook. One such in especial took in the magnificent, splintered, snow-capped peak of Kenia on the right, a tremendous gorge and rolling forested mountains straight ahead, and a great drop to a plain with other and distant mountains to the left. It was as fine a panoramic view as one could imagine.
Our tents pitched, and ourselves washed and refreshed, we gave audience to the resident chief, who had probably been waiting. With this potentate we conversed affably, after the usual expectoratorial ceremonies. Billy, being a mere woman, did not always come in for this; but nevertheless she maintained what she called her "quarantine gloves," and kept them very handy. We had standing orders with our boys for basins of hot water to be waiting always behind our tents. After the usual polite exchanges we informed the chief of our needs-firewood, perhaps, milk, a sheep or the like. These he furnished. When we left we made him a present of a few beads, a knife, a blanket or such according to the value of his contribution.
To me these encounters were some of the most interesting of our many experiences, for each man differed radically from every other in his conceptions of ceremony, in his ideas, and in his methods. Our coming was a good deal of an event, always, and each chief, according to his temperament and training, tried to do things up properly. And in that attempt certain basic traits of human nature showed in the very strongest relief. Thus there are three points of view to take in running any spectacle: that of the star performer, the stage manager, or the truly artistic. We encountered well-marked specimens of each. I will tell you about them.
The star performer knew his stagecraft thoroughly; and in the exposition of his knowledge he showed incidentally how truly basic are the principles of stagecraft anywhere.
We were seated under a tree near the banks of a stream eating our lunch. Before us appeared two tall and slender youths, wreathed in smiles, engaging, and most attentive to the small niceties of courtesy. We returned their greeting from our recumbent positions, whereupon they made preparation to squat down beside us.
"Are you sultans?" we demanded sternly, "that you attempt to sit in Our Presence," and we lazily kicked the nearest.
Not at all abashed, but favourably impressed with our transcendent importance-as we intended-they leaned gracefully on their spears and entered into conversation. After a few trifles of airy persiflage they got down to business.
"This," said they, indicating the tiny flat, "is the most beautiful place to camp in all the mountains."
We doubted it.
"Here is excellent water."
We agreed to that.
"And there is no more water for a journey."
"You are liars," we observed politely.
"And near is the village of our chief, who is a great warrior, and will bring you many presents; the greatest man in these parts."
"Now you're getting to it," we observed in English; "you want trade." Then in Swahili, "We shall march two hours longer."
After a few polite phrases they went away. We finished lunch, remounted, and rode up the trail. At the edge of the canyon we came to a wide clearing, at the farther side of which was evidently the village in question. But the merry villagers, down to the last toro, were drawn up at the edge of the track in a double line through which we rode. They were very wealthy savages, and wore it all. Bright neck, arm, and leg ornaments, yards and yards of cowry shells in strings, blue beads of all sizes (blue beads were evidently "in"), odd scraps and shapes of embroidered skins, clean shaves and a beautiful polish characterized this holiday gathering. We made our royal progress between the serried ranks. About eight or ten seconds after we had passed the last villager-just the proper dramatic pause, you observe-the bushes parted and a splendid, straight, springy young man came into view and stepped smilingly across the space that separated us. And about eight or ten seconds after his emergence-again just the right dramatic pause-the bushes parted again to give entrance to four of the quaintest little dolls of wives. These advanced all abreast, parted, and took up positions two either side the smiling chief. This youth was evidently in the height of fashion, his hair braided in a tight queue bound with skin, his ears dangling with ornaments, heavy necklaces around his neck, and armlets etc., ad lib. His robe was of fine monkey skin embroidered with rosettes of beads, and his spear was very long, bright and keen. He was tall and finely built carried himself with a free, lithe swing. As the quintette came to halt, the villagers fell silent and our shauri began.
We drew up and dismounted. We all expectorated as gentlemen.
"These," said he proudly, "are my beebees."
We replied that they seemed like excellent beebees and politely inquired the price of wives thereabout, and also the market for totos. He gave us to understand that such superior wives as these brought three cows and twenty sheep apiece, but that you could get a pretty good toto for half a rupee.
"When we look upon our women," he concluded grandly, "we find them good; but when we look upon the white women they are as nothing!" He completely obliterated the poor little beebees with a magnificent gesture. They looked very humble and abashed. I was, however, a bit uncertain as to whether this was intended as a genuine tribute to Billy, or was meant to console us for having only one to his four.
Now observe the stagecraft of all this: entrance of diplomats, preliminary conversation introducing the idea of the greatness of N'Zahgi (for that was his name), chorus of villagers, and, as climax, dramatic entrance of the hero and heroines. It was pretty well done.
Again we stopped about the middle of the afternoon in an opening on the rounded top of a hill. While waiting for the safari to come up, Billy wandered away fifty or sixty yards to sit under a big tree. She did not stay long. Immediately she was settled, a dozen women and young girls surrounded her. They were almost uproariously good-natured, but Billy was probably the first white woman they had ever seen, and they intended to make the most of her. Every item of her clothes and equipment they examined minutely, handled and discussed. When she told them with great dignity to go away, they laughed consumedly, fairly tumbling into each other's arms with excess of joy. Billy tried to gather her effects for a masterly retreat, but found the press of numbers too great. At last she had to signal for help. One of us wandered over with a kiboko with which lightly he flicked the legs of such damsels as he could reach. They scattered like quail, laughing hilariously. Billy was escorted back to safety.
Shortly after the Chief and his Prime Minister came in. He was a little old gray-haired gentleman, as spry as a cricket, quite nervous, and very chatty. We indicated our wants to him, and he retired after enunciating many words. The safari came in, made camp. We had tea and a bath. The darkness fell; and still no Chief, no milk, no firewood, no promises fulfilled. There were plenty of natives around camp, but when we suggested that they get out and rustle on our behalf, they merely laughed good-naturedly. We seriously contemplated turning the whole lot out of camp.
Finally we gave it up, and sat down to our dinner. It was now quite dark. The askaris had built a little campfire out in front.
Then, far in the distance of the jungle's depths, we heard a faint measured chanting as of many people coming nearer. From another direction this was repeated. The two processions approached each other; their paths converged; the double chanting became a chorus that grew moment by moment. We heard beneath the wild weird minors the rhythmic stamping of feet, and the tapping of sticks. The procession debouched from the jungle's edge into the circle of the firelight. Our old chief led, accompanied by a bodyguard in all the panoply of war: ostrich feather circlets enclosing the head and face, shields of bright heraldry, long glittering spears. These were followed by a dozen of the quaintest solemn dolls of beebees dressed in all the white cowry shells, beads and brass the royal treasury afforded, very earnest, very much on inspection, every little head uplifted, singing away just as hard as ever they could. Each carried a gourd of milk, a bunch of bananas, some sugarcane, yams or the like. Straight to the fire marched the pageant. Then the warriors dividing right and left, drew up facing each other in two lines, struck their spears upright in the ground, and stood at attention. The quaint brown little women lined up to close the end of this hollow square, of which our group was, roughly speaking, the fourth side. Then all came to attention. The song now rose to a wild and ecstatic minor chanting. The beebees, still singing, one by one cast their burdens between the files and at our feet in the middle of the hollow square. Then they continued their chant, singing away at the tops of their little lungs, their eyes and teeth showing, their pretty bodies held rigidly upright. The warriors, very erect and military, stared straight ahead.
And the chief? Was he the centre of the show, the important leading man, to the contemplation of whom all these glories led? Not at all! This particular chief did not have the soul of a leading man, but rather the soul of a stage manager. Quite forgetful of himself and his part in the spectacle, his brow furrowed with anxiety, he was flittering from one to another of the performers. He listened carefully to each singer in turn, holding his hand behind his ear to catch the individual note, striking one on the shoulder in admonition, nodding approval at another. He darted unexpectedly across to scrutinize a warrior, in the chance of catching a flicker of the eyelid even. Nary a flicker! They did their stage manager credit, and stood like magnificent bronzes. He even ran across to peer into our own faces to see how we liked it.
With a sudden crescendo the music stopped. Involuntarily we broke into handclapping. The old boy looked a bit startled at this, but we explained to him, and he seemed very pleased. We then accepted formally the heap of presents, by touching them-and in turn passed over a blanket, a box of matches, and two needles, together with beads for the beebees. Then F., on an inspiration, produced his flashlight. This made a tremendous sensation. The women tittered and giggled and blinked as its beams were thrown directly into their eyes; the chief's sons grinned and guffawed; the chief himself laughed like a pleased schoolboy, and seemed never to weary of the sudden shutting on and off of the switch. But the trusty Spartan warriors, standing still in their formation behind their planted spears, were not to be shaken. They glared straight in front of them, even when we held the light within a few inches of their eyes, and not a muscle quivered!
"It is wonderful! wonderful!" the old man repeated. "Many Government men have come here, but none have had anything like that! The bwanas must be very great sultans!"
After the departure of our friends, we went rather grandly to bed. We always did after any one had called us sultans.
But our prize chief was an individual named M'booley.* Our camp here also was on a fine cleared hilltop between two streams. After we had traded for a while with very friendly and prosperous people M'booley came in. He was young, tall, straight, with a beautiful smooth lithe form, and his face was hawklike and cleverly intelligent. He carried himself with the greatest dignity and simplicity, meeting us on an easy plane of familiarity. I do not know how I can better describe his manner toward us than to compare it to the manner the member of an exclusive golf club would use to one who is a stranger, but evidently a guest. He took our quality for granted; and supposed we must do the same by him, neither acting as though he considered us "great white men," nor yet standing aloof and too respectful. And as the distinguishing feature of all, he was absolutely without personal ornament.
*Pronounce each o separately.
Pause for a moment to consider what a real advance in esthetic taste that one little fact stands for. All M'booley's attendants were the giddiest and gaudiest savages we had yet seen, with more colobus fur, sleighbells, polished metal, ostrich plumes, and red paint than would have fitted out any two other royal courts of the jungle. The women too were wealthy and opulent without limit. It takes considerable perception among our civilized people to realize that severe simplicity amid ultra magnificence makes the most effective distinguishing of an individual. If you do not believe it, drop in at the next ball to which you are invited. M'booley had fathomed this, and what was more he had the strength of mind to act on it. Any savage loves finery for its own sake. His hair was cut short, and shaved away at the edges to leave what looked like an ordinary close-fitting skull cap. He wore one pair of plain armlets on his left upper arm and small simple ear-rings. His robe was black. He had no trace of either oil or paint, nor did he even carry a spear.
He greeted us with good-humoured ease, and inquired conversationally if we wanted anything. We suggested wood and milk, whereupon still smiling, he uttered a few casual words in his own language to no one in particular. There was no earthly doubt that he was chief. Three of the most gorgeous and haughty warriors ran out of camp. Shortly long files of women came in bringing loads of firewood; and others carrying bananas, yams, sugarcane and a sheep. Truly M'booley did things on a princely scale. We thanked him. He accepted the thanks with a casual smile, waved his hand and went on to talk of something else. In due order our M'ganga brought up one of our best trade blankets, to which we added a half dozen boxes of matches and a razor.
Now into camp filed a small procession: four women, four children, and two young men. These advanced to where M'booley was standing smoking with great satisfaction one of B's tailor-made cigarettes. M'booley advanced ten feet to meet them, and brought them up to introduce them one by one in the most formal fashion. These were of course his family, and we had to confess that they "saw" N'Zahgi's outfit of ornaments and "raised" him beyond the ceiling. We gave them each in turn the handshake of ceremony, first with the palms as we do it, and then each grasping the other's upright thumb. The "little chiefs" were proud, aristocratic little fellows, holding themselves very straight and solemn. I think one would have known them for royalty anywhere.
It was quite a social occasion. None of our guests was in the least ill at ease; in fact, the young ladies were quite coy and flirtatious. We had a great many jokes. Each of the little ladies received a handful of prevailing beads. M'booley smiled benignly at these delightful femininities. After a time he led us to the edge of the hill and showed us his houses across the cation, perched on a flat about halfway up the wall. They were of the usual grass-thatched construction, but rather larger and neater than most. Examining them through the glasses we saw that a little stream had been diverted to flow through the front yard. M'booley waved his hand abroad and gave us to understand that he considered the outlook worth looking at. It was; but an appreciation of that fact is foreign to the average native. Next morning, when we rode by very early, we found the little flat most attractively cleared and arranged. M'booley was out to shake us by the hand in farewell, shivering in the cold of dawn. The flirtatious and spoiled little beauties were not in evidence.
One day after two very deep canyons we emerged from the forest jungle into an up and down country of high jungle bush-brush. From the top of a ridge it looked a good deal like a northern cut-over pine country grown up very heavily to blackberry vines; although, of course, when we came nearer, the "blackberry vines" proved to be ten or twenty feet high. This was a district of which Horne had warned us. The natives herein were reported restless and semi-hostile; and in fact had never been friendly. They probably needed the demonstration most native tribes seem to require before they are content to settle down and be happy. At any rate safaris were not permitted in their district; and we ourselves were allowed to go through merely because we were a large party, did not intend to linger, and had a good reputation with natives.
It is very curious how abruptly, in Central Africa, one passes from one condition to another, from one tribe or race to the next. Sometimes, as in the present case, it is the traversing of a deep cation; at others the simple crossing of a tiny brook is enough. Moreover the line of demarcation is clearly defined, as boundaries elsewhere are never defined save in wartime.
Thus we smiled our good-bye to a friendly numerous people, descended a hill, and ascended another into a deserted track. After a half mile we came unexpectedly on to two men carrying each a load of reeds. These they abandoned and fled up the hillside through the jungle, in spite of our shouted assurances. A moment later they reappeared at some distance above us, each with a spear he had snatched from somewhere; they were unarmed when we first caught sight of them. Examined through the glasses they proved to be sullen looking men, copper coloured, but broad across the cheekbones, broad in the forehead, more decidedly of the negro type than our late hosts.
Aside from these two men we travelled through an apparently deserted jungle. I suspect, however, that we were probably well watched; for when we stopped for noon we heard the gunbearers beyond the screen of leaves talking to some one. On learning from our boys that these were some of the shenzis, we told them to bring the savages in for a shauri; but in this our men failed, nor could they themselves get nearer than fifty yards or so to the wild people. So until evening our impression remained that of two distant men, and the indistinct sound of voices behind a leafy screen.
We made camp comparatively early in a wide open space surrounded by low forest. Almost immediately then the savages commenced to drift in, very haughty and arrogant. They were fully armed. Besides the spear and decorated shield, some of them carried the curious small grass spears. These are used to stab upward from below, the wielder lying flat in the grass. Some of these men were fantastically painted with a groundwork ochre, on which had been drawn intricate wavy designs on the legs, like stockings, and varied stripes across the face. One particularly ingenious individual, stark naked, had outlined a roughly entire skeleton! He was a gruesome object! They stalked here and there through the camp, looking at our men and their activities with a lofty and silent contempt.
You may be sure we had our arrangements, though they did not appear on the surface. The askaris, or native soldiers, were posted here and there with their muskets; the gunbearers also kept our spare weapons by them. The askaris could not hit a barn, but they could make a noise. The gunbearers were fair shots.
Of course the chief and his prime minister came in. They were evil-looking savages. To them we paid not the slightest attention, but went about our usual business as though they did not exist. At the end of an hour they of their own initiative greeted us. We did not hear them. Half an hour later they disappeared, to return after an interval, followed by a string of young men bearing firewood. Evidently our bearing had impressed them, as we had intended. We then unbent far enough to recognize them, carried on a formal conversation for a few moments, gave them adequate presents and dismissed them. Then we ordered the askaris to clear camp and to keep it clear. No women had appeared. Even the gifts of firewood had been carried by men, a most unusual proceeding.
As soon as dark fell the drums began roaring in the forest all about our clearing, and the chanting to rise. We instructed our men to shoot first and inquire afterward, if a shenzi so much as showed himself in the clearing. This was not as bad as it sounded; the shenzi stood in no immediate danger. Then we turned in to a sleep rather light and broken by uncertainty. I do not think we were in any immediate danger of a considered attack, for these people were not openly hostile; but there was always a chance that the savages might by their drum pounding and dancing work themselves into a frenzy. Then we might have to do a little rapid shooting. Not for one instant the whole night long did those misguided savages cease their howling and dancing. At any rate we cost them a night's sleep.
Next morning we took up our march through the deserted tracks once more. Not a sign of human life did we encounter. About ten o'clock we climbed down a tremendous gash of a box canyon with precipitous cliffs. From below we looked back to see, perched high against the skyline, the motionless figures of many savages watching us from the crags. So we had had company after all, and we had not known it. This canyon proved to be the boundary line. With the same abruptness we passed again into friendly country.
(d) OUT THE OTHER SIDE
We left the jungle finally when we turned on a long angle away from Kenia. At first the open country of the foothills was closely cultivated with fields of rape and maize. We saw some of the people breaking new soil by means of long pointed sticks. The plowmen quite simply inserted the pointed end in the ground and pried. It was very slow hard work. In other fields the grain stood high and good. From among the stalks, as from a miniature jungle, the little naked totos stared out, and the good-natured women smiled at us. The magnificent peak of Kenia had now shaken itself free of the forests. On its snow the sunrises and sunsets kindled their fires. The flames of grass fires, too, could plainly be made out, incredible distances away, and at daytime, through the reek, were fascinating suggestions of distant rivers, plains, jungles, and hills. You see, we were still practically on the wide slope of Kenia's base, though the peak was many days away, and so could look out over wide country.
The last half day of this we wandered literally in a rape field. The stalks were quite above our heads, and we could see but a few yards in any direction. In addition the track had become a footpath not over two feet wide. We could occasionally look back to catch glimpses of a pack or so bobbing along on a porter's head. From our own path hundreds of other paths branched; we were continually taking the wrong fork and moving back to set the safari right before it could do likewise. This we did by drawing a deep double line in the earth across the wrong trail. Then we hustled on ahead to pioneer the way a little farther; our difficulties were further complicated by the fact that we had sent our horses back to Nairobi for fear of the tsetse fly, so we could not see out above the corn. All we knew was that we ought to go down hill.
At the ends of some of our false trails we came upon fascinating little settlements: groups of houses inside brush enclosures, with low wooden gateways beneath which we had to stoop to enter. Within were groups of beehive houses with small naked children and perhaps an old woman or old man seated cross-legged under a sort of veranda. From them we obtained new-and confusing- directions.
After three o'clock we came finally out on the edge of a cliff fifty or sixty feet high, below which lay uncultivated bottom lands like a great meadow and a little meandering stream. We descended the cliff, and camped by the meandering stream.
By this time we were fairly tired from long walking in the heat, and so were content to sit down under our tent-fly before our little table, and let Mahomet bring us sparklets and lime juice. Before us was the flat of a meadow below the cliffs and the cliffs themselves. Just below the rise lay a single patch of standing rape not over two acres in extent, the only sign of human life. It was as though this little bit had overflowed from the countless millions on the plateau above. Beyond it arose a thin signal of smoke.
We sipped our lime juice and rested. Soon our attention was attracted by the peculiar actions of a big flock of very white birds. They rose suddenly from one side of the tiny rape field, wheeled and swirled like leaves in the wind, and dropped down suddenly on the other side the patch. After a few moments they repeated the performance. The sun caught the dazzling white of their plumage. At first we speculated on what they might be, then on what they were doing, to behave in so peculiar a manner. The lime juice and the armchair began to get in their recuperative work. Somehow the distance across that flat did not seem quite as tremendous as at first. Finally I picked up the shotgun and sauntered across to investigate. The cause of action I soon determined. The owner of that rape field turned out to be an emaciated, gray-haired but spry old savage. He was armed with a spear; and at the moment his chief business in life seemed to be chasing a large flock of white birds off his grain. Since he had no assistance, and since the birds held his spear in justifiable contempt as a fowling piece, he was getting much exercise and few results. The birds gave way before his direct charge, flopped over to the other side, and continued their meal. They had already occasioned considerable damage; the rape heads were bent and destroyed for a space of perhaps ten feet from the outer edge of the field. As this grain probably constituted the old man's food supply for a season, I did not wonder at the vehemence with which he shook his spear at his enemies, nor the apparent flavour of his language, though I did marvel at his physical endurance. As for the birds, they had become cynical and impudent; they barely fluttered out of the way.
I halted the old gentleman and hastened to explain that I was neither a pirate, a robber, nor an oppressor of the poor. This as counter-check to his tendency to flee, leaving me in sole charge. He understood a little Swahili, and talked a few words of something he intended for that language. By means of our mutual accomplishment in that tongue, and through a more efficient sign language, I got him to understand the plan of campaign. It was very simple. I squatted down inside the rape, while he went around the other side to scare them up.
The white birds uttered their peculiarly derisive cackle at the old man and flapped over to my side. Then they were certainly an astonished lot of birds. I gave them both barrels and dropped a pair; got two more shots as they swung over me and dropped another pair, and brought down a straggling single as a grand finale. The flock, with shrill, derogatory remarks, flew in an airline straight away. They never deviated, as far as I could follow them with the eye. Even after they had apparently disappeared, I could catch an occasional flash of white in the sun.
Now the old gentleman came whooping around with long, undignified bounds to fall on his face and seize my foot in an excess of gratitude. He rose and capered about, he rushed out and gathered in the slain one by one and laid them in a pile at my feet. Then he danced a jig-step around them and reviled them, and fell on his face once more, repeating the word "Bwana! bwana! bwana!" over and over-"Master! master! master!" We returned to camp together, the old gentleman carrying the birds, and capering about like a small boy, pouring forth a flood of his sort of Swahili, of which I could understand only a word here and there. Memba Sasa, very dignified and scornful of such performances, met us halfway and took my gun. He seemed to be able to understand the old fellow's brand of Swahili, and said it over again in a brand I could understand. From it I gathered that I was called a marvellously great sultan, a protector of the poor, and other Arabian Nights titles.
The birds proved to be white egrets. Now at home I am strongly against the killing of these creatures, and have so expressed myself on many occasions. But, looking from the beautiful white plumage of these villainous mauraders, to the wrinkled countenance of the grateful weary old savage, I could not fan a spark of regret. And from the straight line of their retreating flight I like to think that the rest of the flock never came back, but took their toll from the wider fields of the plateau above.
Next day we reentered the game-haunted wilderness, nor did we see any more native villages until many weeks later we came into the country of the Wakamba.