The Land of Footprints by Stewart Edward White
V. Memba Sasa
I wish I could plunge you at once into the excitements of big game in Africa, but I cannot truthfully do so. To be sure, we went hunting that afternoon, up over the low cliffs, and we saw several of a very lively little animal known as the Chandler's reedbuck. This was not supposed to be a game country, and that was all we did see. At these we shot several times-disgracefully. In fact, for several days we could not shoot at all, at any range, nor at anything. It was very sad, and very aggravating. Afterward we found that this is an invariable experience to the newcomer. The light is new, the air is different, the sizes of the game are deceiving. Nobody can at first hit anything. At the end of five days we suddenly began to shoot our normal gait. Why, I do not know.
But in this afternoon tramp around the low cliffs after the elusive reedbuck, I for the first time became acquainted with a man who developed into a real friend.
His name is Memba Sasa. Memba Sasa are two Swahili words meaning "now a crocodile." Subsequently, after I had learned to talk Swahili, I tried to find out what he was formerly, before he was a crocodile, but did not succeed.
He was of the tribe of the Monumwezi, of medium height, compactly and sturdily built, carried himself very erect, and moved with a concentrated and vigorous purposefulness. His countenance might be described as pleasing but not handsome, of a dark chocolate brown, with the broad nose of the negro, but with a firm mouth, high cheekbones, and a frowning intentness of brow that was very fine. When you talked to him he looked you straight in the eye. His own eyes were shaded by long, soft, curling lashes behind which they looked steadily and gravely-sometimes fiercely-on the world. He rarely smiled-never merely in understanding or for politeness' sake-and never laughed unless there was something really amusing. Then he chuckled from deep in his chest, the most contagious laughter you can imagine. Often we, at the other end of the camp, have laughed in sympathy, just at the sound of that deep and hearty ho! ho! ho! of Memba Sasa. Even at something genuinely amusing he never laughed much, nor without a very definite restraint. In fact, about him was no slackness, no sprawling abandon of the native in relaxation; but always a taut efficiency and a never-failing self-respect.
Naturally, behind such a fixed moral fibre must always be some moral idea. When a man lives up to a real, not a pompous, dignity some ideal must inform it. Memba Sasa's ideal was that of the Hunter.
He was a gunbearer; and he considered that a good gunbearer stood quite a few notches above any other human being, save always the white man, of course. And even among the latter Memba Sasa made great differences. These differences he kept to himself, and treated all with equal respect. Nevertheless, they existed, and Memba Sasa very well knew that fact. In the white world were two classes of masters: those who hunted well, and those who were considered by them as their friends and equals. Why they should be so considered Memba Sasa did not know, but he trusted the Hunter's judgment. These were the bwanas, or masters. All the rest were merely mazungos, or, "white men." To their faces he called them bwana, but in his heart he considered them not.
Observe, I say those who hunted well. Memba Sasa, in his profession as gunbearer, had to accompany those who hunted badly. In them he took no pride; from them he held aloof in spirit; but for them he did his conscientious best, upheld by the dignity of his profession.
For to Mamba Sasa that profession was the proudest to which a black man could aspire. He prided himself on mastering its every detail, in accomplishing its every duty minutely and exactly. The major virtues of a gunbearer are not to be despised by anybody; for they comprise great physical courage, endurance, and loyalty: the accomplishments of a gunbearer are worthy of a man's best faculties, for they include the ability to see and track game, to take and prepare properly any sort of a trophy, field taxidermy, butchering game meat, wood and plainscraft, the knowledge of how properly to care for firearms in all sorts of circumstances, and a half hundred other like minutiae. Memba Sasa knew these things, and he performed them with the artist's love for details; and his keen eyes were always spying for new ways.
At a certain time I shot an egret, and prepared to take the skin. Memba Sasa asked if he might watch me do it. Two months later, having killed a really gaudy peacocklike member of the guinea fowl tribe, I handed it over to him with instructions to take off the breast feathers before giving it to the cook. In a half hour he brought me the complete skin, I examined it carefully, and found it to be well done in every respect. Now in skinning a bird there are a number of delicate and unusual operations, such as stripping the primary quills from the bone, cutting the ear cover, and the like. I had explained none of them; and yet Memba Sasa, unassisted, had grasped their method from a single demonstration and had remembered them all two months later! C. had a trick in making the second skin incision of a trophy head that had the effect of giving a better purchase to the knife. Its exact description would be out of place here, but it actually consisted merely in inserting the point of the knife two inches away from the place it is ordinarily inserted. One day we noticed that Memba Sasa was making his incisions in that manner. I went to Africa fully determined to care for my own rifle. The modern high-velocity gun needs rather especial treatment; mere wiping out will not do. I found that Memba Sasa already knew all about boiling water, and the necessity for having it really boiling, about subsequent metal sweating, and all the rest. After watching him at work I concluded, rightly, that he would do a lot better job than I.
To the new employer Memba Sasa maintained an attitude of strict professional loyalty. His personal respect was upheld by the necessity of every man to do his job in the world. Memba Sasa did his. He cleaned the rifles; he saw that everything was in order for the day's march; he was at my elbow all ways with more cartridges and the spare rifle; he trailed and looked conscientiously. In his attitude was the stolidity of the wooden Indian. No action of mine, no joke on the part of his companions, no circumstance in the varying fortunes of the field gained from him the faintest flicker of either approval, disapproval, or interest. When we returned to camp he deposited my water bottle and camera, seized the cleaning implements, and departed to his own campfire. In the field he pointed out game that I did not see, and waited imperturbably the result of my shot.
As I before stated, the result of that shot for the first five days was very apt to be nil. This, at the time, puzzled and grieved me a lot. Occasionally I looked at Memba Sasa to catch some sign of sympathy, disgust, contempt, or-rarely-triumph at a lucky shot. Nothing. He gently but firmly took away my rifle, reloaded it, and handed it back; then waited respectfully for my next move. He knew no English, and I no Swahili.
But as time went on this attitude changed. I was armed with the new Springfield rifle, a weapon with 2,700 feet velocity, and with a marvellously flat trajectory. This commanding advantage, combined with a very long familiarity with firearms, enabled me to do some fairish shooting, after the strangeness of these new conditions had been mastered. Memba Sasa began to take a dawning interest in me as a possible source of pride. We began to develop between us a means of communication. I set myself deliberately to learn his language, and after he had cautiously determined that I really meant it, he took the greatest pains-always gravely-to teach me. A more human feeling sprang up between us.
But we had still the final test to undergo-that of danger and the tight corner.
In close quarters the gunbearer has the hardest job in the world. I have the most profound respect for his absolute courage. Even to a man armed and privileged to shoot and defend himself, a charging lion is an awesome thing, requiring a certain amount of coolness and resolution to face effectively. Think of the gunbearer at his elbow, depending not on himself but on the courage and coolness of another. He cannot do one solitary thing to defend himself. To bolt for the safety of a tree is to beg the question completely, to brand himself as a shenzi forever; to fire a gun in any circumstances is to beg the question also, for the white man must be able to depend absolutely on his second gun in an emergency. Those things are outside consideration, even, of any respectable gunbearer. In addition, he must keep cool. He must see clearly in the thickest excitement; must be ready unobtrusively to pass up the second gun in the position most convenient for immediate use, to seize the other and to perform the finicky task of reloading correctly while some rampageous beast is raising particular thunder a few yards away. All this in absolute dependence on the ability of his bwana to deal with the situation. I can confess very truly that once or twice that little unobtrusive touch of Memba Sasa crouched close to my elbow steadied me with the thought of how little right I-with a rifle in my hand-had to be scared. And the best compliment I ever received I overheard by chance. I had wounded a lion when out by myself, and had returned to camp for a heavier rifle and for Memba Sasa to do the trailing. From my tent I overheard the following conversation between Memba Sasa and the cook:
"The grass is high," said the cook. "Are you not afraid to go after a wounded lion with only one white man?"
"My one white man is enough," replied Memba Sasa.
It is a quality of courage that I must confess would be quite beyond me-to depend entirely on the other fellow, and not at all on myself. This courage is always remarkable to me, even in the case of the gunbearer who knows all about the man whose heels he follows. But consider that of the gunbearer's first experience with a stranger. The former has no idea of how the white man will act; whether he will get nervous, get actually panicky, lose his shooting ability, and generally mess things up. Nevertheless, he follows his master in, and he stands by. If the hunter fails, the gunbearer will probably die. To me it is rather fine: for he does it, not from the personal affection and loyalty which will carry men far, but from a sheer sense of duty and pride of caste. The quiet pride of the really good men, like Memba Sasa, is easy to understand.
And the records are full of stories of the white man who has not made good: of the coward who bolts, leaving his black man to take the brunt of it, or who sticks but loses his head. Each new employer must be very closely and interestedly scrutinized. In the light of subsequent experience, I can no longer wonder at Memba Sasa's first detached and impersonal attitude.
As time went on, however, and we grew to know each other better, this attitude entirely changed. At first the change consisted merely in dropping the disinterested pose as respects game. For it was a pose. Memba Sasa was most keenly interested in game whenever it was an object of pursuit. It did not matter how common the particular species might be: if we wanted it, Memba Sasa would look upon it with eager ferocity; and if we did not want it, he paid no attention to it at all. When we started in the morning, or in the relaxation of our return at night, I would mention casually a few of the things that might prove acceptable.
"To-morrow we want kongoni for boys' meat, or zebra; and some meat for masters-Tommy, impala, oribi," and Memba Sasa knew as well as I did what we needed to fill out our trophy collection. When he caught sight of one of these animals his whole countenance changed. The lines of his face set, his lips drew back from his teeth, his eyes fairly darted fire in the fixity of their gaze. He was like a fine pointer dog on birds, or like the splendid savage he was at heart.
"M'palla!" he hissed; and then after a second, in a restrained fierce voice, "Na-ona? Do you see?"
If I did not see he pointed cautiously. His own eyes never left the beast. Rarely he stayed put while I made the stalk. More often he glided like a snake at my heels. If the bullet hit, Memba Sasa always exhaled a grunt of satisfaction-"hah!"-in which triumph and satisfaction mingled with a faint derision at the unfortunate beast. In case of a trophy he squatted anxiously at the animal's head while I took my measurements, assisting very intelligently with the tape line. When I had finished, he always looked up at me with wrinkled brow.
"Footie n'gapi?" he inquired. This means literally, "How many feet?", footie being his euphemistic invention of a word for the tape. I would tell him how many "footie" and how many "inchie" the measurement proved to be. From the depths of his wonderful memory he would dig up the measurements of another beast of the same sort I had killed months back, but which he had remembered accurately from a single hearing.
The shooting of a beast he always detailed to his few cronies in camp: the other gunbearers, and one or two from his own tribe. He always used the first person plural, "we" did so and so; and took an inordinate pride in making out his bwana as being an altogether superior person to any of the other gunbearer's bwanas. Over a miss he always looked sad; but with a dignified sadness as though we had met with undeserved misfortune sent by malignant gods. If there were any possible alleviating explanation, Memba Sasa made the most of it, provided our fiasco was witnessed. If we were alone in our disgrace, he buried the incident fathoms deep. He took an inordinate pride in our using the minimum number of cartridges, and would explain to me in a loud tone of voice that we had cartridges enough in the belt. When we had not cartridges enough, he would sneak around after dark to get some more. At times he would even surreptitiously "lift" a few from B.'s gunbearer!
When in camp, with his "cazi" finished, Memba Sasa did fancy work! The picture of this powerful half-savage, his fierce brows bent over a tiny piece of linen, his strong fingers fussing with little stitches, will always appeal to my sense of the incongruous. Through a piece of linen he punched holes with a porcupine quill. Then he "buttonhole" stitched the holes, and embroidered patterns between them with fine white thread. The result was an openwork pattern heavily encrusted with beautiful fine embroidery. It was most astounding stuff, such as you would expect from a French convent, perhaps, but never from an African savage. He did a circular piece and a long narrow piece. They took him three months to finish, and then he sewed them together to form a skull cap. Billy, entranced with the lacelike delicacy of the work, promptly captured it; whereupon Memba Sasa philosophically started another.
By this time he had identified himself with my fortunes. We had become a firm whose business it was to carry out the affairs of a single personality-me. Memba Sasa, among other things, undertook the dignity. When I walked through a crowd, Memba Sasa zealously kicked everybody out of my royal path. When I started to issue a command, Memba Sasa finished it and amplified it and put a snapper on it. When I came into camp, Memba Sasa saw to it personally that my tent went up promptly and properly, although that was really not part of his "cazi" at all. And when somewhere beyond my ken some miserable boy had committed a crime, I never remained long in ignorance of that fact.
Perhaps I happened to be sitting in my folding chair idly smoking a pipe and reading a book. Across the open places of the camp would stride Memba Sasa, very erect, very rigid, moving in short indignant jerks, his eye flashing fire. Behind him would sneak a very hang-dog boy. Memba Sasa marched straight up to me, faced right, and drew one side, his silence sparkling with honest indignation.
"Just look at that!" his attitude seemed to say, "Could you believe such human depravity possible? And against our authority?"
He always stood, quite rigid, waiting for me to speak.
"Well, Memba Sasa?" I would inquire, after I had enjoyed the show a little.
In a few restrained words he put the case before me, always briefly, always with a scornful dignity. This shenzi has done so-and-so.
We will suppose the case fairly serious. I listened to the man's story, if necessary called a few witnesses, delivered judgment. All the while Memba Sasa stood at rigid attention, fairly bristling virtue, like the good dog standing by at the punishment of the bad dogs. And in his attitude was a subtle triumph, as one would say: "You see! Fool with my bwana, will you! Just let anybody try to get funny with us!" Judgment pronounced-we have supposed the case serious, you remember-Memba Sasa himself applied the lash. I think he really enjoyed that; but it was a restrained joy. The whip descended deliberately, without excitement.
The man's devotion in unusual circumstances was beyond praise. Danger or excitement incite a sort of loyalty in any good man; but humdrum, disagreeable difficulty is a different matter.
One day we marched over a country of thorn-scrub desert. Since two days we had been cut loose from water, and had been depending on a small amount carried in zinc drums. Now our only reasons for faring were a conical hill, over the horizon, and the knowledge of a river somewhere beyond. How far beyond, or in what direction, we did not know. We had thirty men with us, a more or less ragtag lot, picked up anyhow in the bazaars. They were soft, ill-disciplined and uncertain. For five or six hours they marched well enough. Then the sun began to get very hot, and some of them began to straggle. They had, of course, no intention of deserting, for their only hope of surviving lay in staying with us; but their loads had become heavy, and they took too many rests. We put a good man behind, but without much avail. In open country a safari can be permitted to straggle over miles, for always it can keep in touch by sight; but in this thorn-scrub desert, that looks all alike, a man fifty yards out of sight is fifty yards lost. We would march fifteen or twenty minutes, then sit down to wait until the rearmost men had straggled in, perhaps a half hour later. And we did not dare move on until the tale of our thirty was complete. At this rate progress was very slow, and as the fierce equatorial sun increased in strength, became always slower still. The situation became alarming. We were quite out of water, and we had no idea where water was to be found. To complicate matters, the thornbrush thickened to a jungle.
My single companion and I consulted. It was agreed that I was to push on as rapidly as possible to locate the water, while he was to try to hold the caravan together. Accordingly, Memba Sasa and I marched ahead. We tried to leave a trail to follow; and we hoped fervently that our guess as to the stream's course would prove to be a good one. At the end of two hours and a half we found the water-a beautiful jungle-shaded stream-and filled ourselves up therewith. Our duty was accomplished, for we had left a trail to be followed. Nevertheless, I felt I should like to take back our full canteens to relieve the worst cases. Memba Sasa would not hear of it, and even while I was talking to him seized the canteens and disappeared.
At the end of two hours more camp was made, after a fashion; but still four men had failed to come in. We built a smudge in the hope of guiding them; and gave them up. If they had followed our trail, they should have been in long ago; if they had missed that trail, heaven knows where they were, or where we should go to find them. Dusk was falling, and, to tell the truth, we were both very much done up by a long day at 115 degrees in the shade under an equatorial sun. The missing men would climb trees away from the beasts, and we would organize a search next day. As we debated these things, to us came Memba Sasa.
"I want to take 'Winchi,'" said he. "Winchi" is his name for my Winchester 405.
"Why?" we asked.
"If I can take Winchi, I will find the men," said he.
This was entirely voluntary on his part. He, as well as we, had had a hard day, and he had made a double journey for part of it. We gave him Winchi and he departed. Sometime after midnight he returned with the missing men.
Perhaps a dozen times all told he volunteered for these special services; once in particular, after a fourteen-hour day, he set off at nine o'clock at night in a soaking rainstorm, wandered until two o'clock, and returned unsuccessful, to rouse me and report gravely that he could not find them. For these services he neither received nor expected special reward. And catch him doing anything outside his strict "cazi" except for us.
We were always very ceremonious and dignified in our relations on such occasions. Memba Sasa would suddenly appear, deposit the rifle in its place, and stand at attention.
"Well, Memba Sasa?" I would inquire.
"I have found the men; they are in camp."
Then I would give him his reward. It was either the word "assanti," or the two words "assanti sana," according to the difficulty and importance of the task accomplished. They mean simply "thank you" and "thank you very much."
Once or twice, after a particularly long and difficult month or so, when Memba Sasa has been almost literally my alter ego, I have called him up for special praise. "I am very pleased with you, Memba Sasa," said I. "You have done your cazi well. You are a good man."
He accepted this with dignity, without deprecation, and without the idiocy of spoken gratitude. He agreed perfectly with everything I said! "Yes" was his only comment. I liked it.
On our ultimate success in a difficult enterprise Memba Sasa set great store; and his delight in ultimate success was apparently quite apart from personal considerations. We had been hunting greater kudu for five weeks before we finally landed one. The greater kudu is, with the bongo, easily the prize beast in East Africa, and very few are shot. By a piece of bad luck, for him, I had sent Memba Sasa out in a different direction to look for signs the afternoon we finally got one. The kill was made just at dusk. C. and I, with Mavrouki, built a fire and stayed, while Kongoni went to camp after men. There he broke the news to Memba Sasa that the great prize had been captured, and he absent. Memba Sasa was hugely delighted, nor did he in any way show what must have been a great disappointment to him. After repeating the news triumphantly to every one in camp, he came out to where we were waiting, arrived quite out of breath, and grabbed me by the hand in heartiest congratulation.
Memba Sasa went in not at all for personal ornamentation, any more than he allowed his dignity to be broken by anything resembling emotionalism. No tattoo marks, no ear ornaments, no rings nor bracelets. He never even picked up an ostrich feather for his head. On the latter he sometimes wore an old felt hat; sometimes, more picturesquely, an orange-coloured fillet. Khaki shirt, khaki "shorts," blue puttees, besides his knife and my own accoutrements: that was all. In town he was all white clad, a long fine linen robe reaching to his feet; and one of the lacelike skull caps he was so very skilful at making.
That will do for a preliminary sketch. If you follow these pages, you will hear more of him; he is worth it.