The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
IV. The First Camp
Our very first start into the new country was made when we piled out from the little train standing patiently awaiting the good pleasure of our descent. That feature strikes me with ever new wonder-the accommodating way trains of the Uganda Railway have of waiting for you. One day, at a little wayside station, C. and I were idly exchanging remarks with the only white man in sight, killing time until the engine should whistle to a resumption of the journey. The guard lingered about just out of earshot. At the end of five minutes C. happened to catch his eye, whereupon he ventured to approach.
"When you have finished your conversation," said he politely, "we are all ready to go on."
On the morning in question there were a lot of us to disembark-one hundred and twenty-two, to be exact-of which four were white. We were not yet acquainted with our men, nor yet with our stores, nor with the methods of our travel. The train went off and left us in the middle of a high plateau, with low ridges running across it, and mountains in the distance. Men were squabbling earnestly for the most convenient loads to carry, and as fast as they had gained undisputed possession, they marked the loads with some private sign of their own. M'ganga, the headman, tall, fierce, big-framed and bony, clad in fez, a long black overcoat, blue puttees and boots, stood stiff as a ramrod, extended a rigid right arm and rattled off orders in a high dynamic voice. In his left hand he clasped a bulgy umbrella, the badge of his dignity and the symbol of his authority. The four askaris, big men too, with masterful high-cheekboned countenances, rushed here and there seeing that the orders were carried out. Expostulations, laughter, the sound of quarrelling rose and fell. Never could the combined volume of it all override the firecracker stream of M'ganga's eloquence.
We had nothing to do with it all, but stood a little dazed, staring at the novel scene. Our men were of many tribes, each with its own cast of features, its own notions of what befitted man's performance of his duties here below. They stuck together each in its clan. A fine free individualism of personal adornment characterized them. Every man dressed for his own satisfaction solely. They hung all sorts of things in the distended lobes of their ears. One had succeeded in inserting a fine big glittering tobacco tin. Others had invented elaborate topiary designs in their hair, shaving their heads so as to leave strange tufts, patches, crescents on the most unexpected places. Of the intricacy of these designs they seemed absurdly proud. Various sorts of treasure trove hung from them-a bunch of keys to which there were no locks, discarded hunting knives, tips of antelope horns, discharged brass cartridges, a hundred and one valueless trifles plucked proudly from the rubbish heap. They were all clothed. We had supplied each with a red blanket, a blue jersey, and a water bottle. The blankets they were twisting most ingeniously into turbans. Beside these they sported a great variety of garments. Shooting coats that had seen better days, a dozen shabby overcoats-worn proudly through the hottest noons-raggety breeches and trousers made by some London tailor, queer baggy homemades of the same persuasion, or quite simply the square of cotton cloth arranged somewhat like a short tight skirt, or nothing at all as the man's taste ran. They were many of them amusing enough; but somehow they did not look entirely farcical and ridiculous, like our negroes putting on airs. All these things were worn with a simplicity of quiet confidence in their entire fitness. And beneath the red blanket turbans the half-wild savage faces peered out.
Now Mahomet approached. Mahomet was my personal boy. He was a Somali from the Northwest coast, dusky brown, with the regular clear-cut features of a Greek marble god. His dress was of neat khaki, and he looked down on savages; but, also, as with all the dark-skinned races, up to his white master. Mahomet was with me during all my African stay, and tested out nobly. As yet, of course, I did not know him.
"Chakula taiari," said he.
That is Swahili. It means literally "food is ready." After one has hunted in Africa for a few months, it means also "paradise is opened," "grief is at an end," "joy and thanksgiving are now in order," and similar affairs. Those two words are never forgotten, and the veriest beginner in Swahili can recognize them without the slightest effort.
We followed Mahomet. Somehow, without orders, in all this confusion, the personal staff had been quietly and efficiently busy. Drawn a little to one side stood a table with four chairs. The table was covered with a white cloth, and was set with a beautiful white enamel service. We took our places. Behind each chair straight as a ramrod stood a neat khaki-clad boy. They brought us food, and presented it properly on the left side, waiting like well-trained butlers. We might have been in a London restaurant. As three of us were Americans, we felt a trifle dazed. The porters, having finished the distribution of their loads, squatted on their heels and watched us respectfully.
And then, not two hundred yards away, four ostriches paced slowly across the track, paying not the slightest attention to us-our first real wild ostriches, scornful of oranges, careless of tourists, and rightful guardians of their own snowy plumes. The passage of these four solemn birds seemed somehow to lend this strange open-air meal an exotic flavour. We were indeed in Africa; and the ostriches helped us to realize it.
We finished breakfast and arose from our chairs. Instantly a half dozen men sprang forward. Before our amazed eyes the table service, the chairs and the table itself disappeared into neat packages. M'ganga arose to his feet.
"Bandika!" he cried.
The askaris rushed here and there actively.
"Bandika! bandika! bandika!" they cried repeatedly.
The men sprang into activity. A struggle heaved the varicoloured multitude-and, lo! each man stood upright, his load balanced on his head. At the same moment the syces led up our horses, mounted and headed across the little plain whence had come the four ostriches. Our African journey had definitely begun.
Behind us, all abreast marched the four gunbearers; then the four syces; then the safari single file, an askari at the head bearing proudly his ancient musket and our banner, other askaris flanking, M'ganga bringing up the rear with his mighty umbrella and an unsuspected rhinoceros-hide whip. The tent boys and the cook scattered along the flank anywhere, as befitted the free and independent who had nothing to do with the serious business of marching. A measured sound of drumming followed the beating of loads with a hundred sticks; a wild, weird chanting burst from the ranks and died down again as one or another individual or group felt moved to song. One lot had a formal chant and response. Their leader, in a high falsetto, said something like
"Kuna koma kuno,"
and all his tribesmen would follow with a single word in a deep gruff tone
All of which undoubtedly helped immensely.
The country was a bully country, but somehow it did not look like Africa. That is to say, it looked altogether too much like any amount of country at home. There was nothing strange and exotic about it. We crossed a little plain, and up over a small hill, down into a shallow canyon that seemed to be wooded with live oaks, across a grass valley or so, and around a grass hill. Then we went into camp at the edge of another grass valley, by a stream across which rose some ordinary low cliffs.
That is the disconcerting thing about a whole lot of this country-it is so much like home. Of course, there are many wide districts exotic enough in all conscience-the jungle beds of the rivers, the bamboo forests, the great tangled forests themselves, the banana groves down the aisles of which dance savages with shields-but so very much of it is familiar. One needs only church spires and a red-roofed village or so to imagine one's self in Surrey. There is any amount of country like Arizona, and more like the uplands of Wyoming, and a lot of it resembling the smaller landscapes of New England. The prospects of the whole world are there, so that somewhere every wanderer can find the countryside of his own home repeated. And, by the same token, that is exactly what makes a good deal of it so startling. When a man sees a file of spear-armed savages, or a pair of snorty old rhinos, step out into what has seemed practically his own back yard home, he is even more startled than if he had encountered them in quite strange surroundings.
We rode into the grass meadow and picked camp site. The men trailed in and dumped down their loads in a row.
At a signal they set to work. A dozen to each tent got them up in a jiffy. A long file brought firewood from the stream bed. Others carried water, stones for the cook, a dozen other matters. The tent boys rescued our boxes; they put together the cots and made the beds, even before the tents were raised from the ground. Within an incredibly short space of time the three green tents were up and arranged, each with its bed made, its mosquito bar hung, its personal box open, its folding washstand ready with towels and soap, the table and chairs unlimbered. At a discreet distance flickered the cook campfire, and at a still discreeter distance the little tents of the men gleamed pure white against the green of the high grass.