By John Alfred Jordan
As Told To John Prebble
The Little Brown Honey-Bird
My africa is gone, said Jordan. If I knew it like a book it is now an old book, and the index is faulty. I have seen a thousand elephants herded in the Semiliki Valley in the noon sun. Their trunks hanging idle, only their ears moving against the flies. I have killed forty crocodile in one day on Victoria Nyanza. I killed crocodile because I hated them, not just for the three rupees a head that the Germans were paying. Nothing else I killed like that.
I expected to die in Africa. When I was young this expectation did not worry me, perhaps there was a consolation in it, for I did not think of myself as an exile and I had no longing to return to England. I always believed that I would die in Africa, maybe that day or the next, and several times I should have died. I had malaria many times. I had blackwater fever. I was bitten by a green mamba and I was speared by the Kisi. It all happened fifty years ago and I am still alive.
When I first went to Nairobi I was twenty-one and I saw lions in the streets at night. They were old grey-manes, too old to pull down a zebra any more, and they had turned to eating men. There was little in Nairobi in those days but the old Stanley Hotel and Tommy Woods' store, before the settlers took up land in the Kikuyu country. There were not more than one hundred Europeans in the town, but you could see Sikhs, Parsees, Somalis and Goanese, Hindu women in rainbow saris, Arabs carrying flintlocks that were inlaid with silver, Kikuyu dandies with the lobes of their ears split and distended to hold porcelain ointment jars, Wakamba in red blankets with their teeth filed to remind you that they had been and perhaps still were cannibals. You could see old John Boyes, who was a great man among the Kikuyu, riding a small Abyssinian mule, and there were over a million acres of good land waiting for the plough.
I am the last of my Africa, I think, the last of the hunters who made my Africa, that is. The others are still there, in the graveyard at Nairobi, and perhaps you can no longer read what brought them there—Killed by a lion—Killed by a buffalo—Killed by the Nandi. . . .
They were all nationalities, and hard, the men you would find on any frontier, and many of them had seen all the frontiers that were left fifty years ago. They were Englishmen, Greeks, Australasians, Scots, Irish, Americans and Canadians, and they created little legends that nobody every recorded. When Pearson was mauled by a lion he wrestled with it, punching it until his friend Tarleton could shoot it. There was Banks, one of the few men I knew who were tossed by a buffalo and lived. There was Boyes who went alone among the Kikuyu. There was Will Judd who was a great hunter, and there was Selous who was the greatest hunter there has ever been.
There was at one time a native republic between Uganda and the Belgian Congo where the askaris never patrolled. It was made up of outcasts from the tribes, army deserters, petty criminals. It was a good country to hunt in, but the natives did not welcome you. But a Scots hunter called Gordon went up there, and they caught him. They stripped him and spreadeagled him between two posts, and they flayed his back with rhino whips. Then they were frightened by what they had done and they let him go. They should not have let him go, for he came back to Nairobi and hired some Somalis and armed them with old Sniders, and he went back to that republic and killed everyone he could find and burnt their villages. The Belgians and the British put a price on his head. The askaris found his camp, and he was shot as he ran for the bush.
You might think your nationality would not matter on a frontier, but you could have your ribs kicked in just for being a Greek or an Australian or an Englishman. There was always somebody who wanted to fight. They made their own laws. There was a man, an Englishman I think, who shot and killed a Somali walking across his land. It was murder, of course, but the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty because, they said in the bar afterwards, they did not trust the judge to let him go.
If I remember those things I remember others. In the Lumbwa highlands there were clear, musical waters like English trout streams. I have come upon them suddenly, and seen the pale-green moss, the orchids, the filigree ferns, and I have sat down and watched the butterflies and sworn that there was where I would stay. But I have always moved on. I have waited a week just to see the mist lift from the lovely granite Mountains of the Moon, and I have moved on.
On the plains below Kilimanjaro, where that mountain once cut a notch into British territory, I have ridden down and roped giraffe like a western cowboy. The snow-leopard is more common up there by the crest of Kilimanjaro than Mr. Hemingway would have you believe, and it was on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that was found the biggest elephant tusk in the world, weighing nearly 220 pounds I believe, and I always wanted to find one greater.
There was so much fish in Lake Barango that the crocodile had no taste for human flesh, and I have sat on the banks and watched the endito, the beautiful young women of the Enjemps Masai, their skins like wet chocolate as they swam in the lake among the crocodile.
On the plains the dry, yellow canes of the elephant grass grow to fifteen feet, and the only way you can pass through them is to follow the tracks of the tuskers or the tunnels the rhino make. Yet there are meadows on the
Loita plains where the grass is short and like wild timothy, slashed by the dark green of reeds. The mimosa trees have white thorns like sabres, and the fish-hooks of the thorn-bushes have to be cut out of your flesh with a skinning-knife. The beauty of Africa is a kernel within a cruel shell. The eczema never healed on my leg, the leg that took a Boer bullet, a mamba bite and a Kisi spear. Sometimes the pain of it was so bad that I would hold the leg in the fire, or scrape it with my knife.
There are things I cannot explain about Africa, and do not want explained to me. One day at dusk I wounded a lion, and the sun went down before I could find it and kill it. That night the lions came up to the camp and sat around it, roaring. There was an old man of the Wanderobo among my trackers, and he came to me and said 'I will get rid of them, Bwana'. I said, all right, go ahead.
He took some dust from a pouch at his waist and sprinkled it on the palm of his left hand. Then he stood in the centre of our camp and solemnly puffed the dust toward the darkness, and one by one the lions were silent.
Old Koydelot, a witch-doctor of the Wanderobo, would squat before me in the morning, rattling his stones in a calabash, and spilling them in the dust before his knees. From the way they fell he would read the luck we would have in our shooting that day, and he was always right.
There is the little brown honey-bird. Anybody who has been in Africa, anyone, that is, who steps outside Nairobi or Mombasa, will tell you about the little brown honey-bird. He is like a sparrow and as friendly. He'll come to your camp and call to you, or he'll call to you when you are on trek, and you leave it to your boys for they know what to do. As they step toward him he will fly up and lead them to a hive, and wait while they gather grass and smoke out the bees. But some of the honey must be left for him, for if you take it all then the next time he calls to you he will lead you into an ambush, to a waiting leopard perhaps. This I believe, for I know it to be true. And the invitation of the honey-bird was Africa's welcome to me, and the honey he invited me to share with him was the richness I found there.
There were one hundred thousand square miles of the Ituri forest in my day, cedar, acacia, juniper, mahogany trees like the pillars in a cathedral nave, and it was beautiful and ugly, and peaceful and menacing. In parts of it the pygmies lived, and there you had to be content with making not more than four miles a day through the trees, for the pygmies planted their traps cunningly and instead of the elephant it could be you who fell into their cone pits, or were transfixed by a weighted spear.
There were cannibals in the Ituri. The first story a newcomer to Nairobi was told was of the missionary whom the Manjama of the Ujiji district kept pegged out in a stream for two days after they speared him, until his flesh was ready to eat. But I never knew whether this story was true, and there are always men who enjoy the irreligious irony of missionaries being eaten before they have time to open their Bibles. I did not like cannibals any more than I liked the crocodile. They did not eat the old people of their own tribe, but went into the catering business, selling them to other tribes. An old man, a dead man, means nothing to the natives anyway, and perhaps they are right for the body is meaningless once the spirit is gone. Most tribes throw their dead into the bush for the hyena, and this is not a good practice for it also gives an old grey lion a taste for man.
I remember the plains, the yellow grass and the red earth, and the blue sky, and the trees that seemed more black than green, punched down by the wind. It was fine to see a young Masai elmoran going out alone into this loneliness with his spear and his bow and his sword and his buffalo shield, to make himself a man by killing a lion. I have seen such an elmoran, his long hair fastidiously dressed with red clay and castor oil, shouting and jeering at a black mane lion, and I have seen the lion lope away like a dog. Nine times out of ten you can face a lion down, even drive it away from its kill, and that I have seen the Lumbwa do as well as the Masai. But it is worth thinking of the tenth time.
I was never lonely. I would be away in the forest for two years, and when I returned to Kericho or Nairobi I found it hard to put my tongue to English. The Lumbwa called me Mongaso, which means The Man Who Is Always Moving. That is how a man should be when he is young, for when he is old his bones and his heart will see to it that he cannot move, perhaps not even out of his chair as is the way with me now, sometimes.
The Lumbwa who called me Mongaso were my friends. Mataia and Arab Changalla, chiefs of the Manga and the Setick Lumbwa, were my brothers and they made me overlord of two thousand of their young elmorani.
I had the reputation of being the worst ivory poacher in East Africa. In one season along the upper Maggori I traded ivory for much cattle to Greek traders in German territory, and this was against the law which allowed you no more than two elephants on one licence, and the Germans would have shot me had they caught me. I could not see who owned the elephant. One day he would be in German East, a week later he would be grazing in Kisi province, and no one had put a label on him to say that this was a German elephant or a British elephant.
There is much killing in my story, but I slaughtered nothing except crocodile. I would follow an elephant herd for months to get the tusks I wanted, and I never killed a cow elephant unless she made me. The killing of cows was for men with no pride, the men who put down donkey-bait and shot lion from a tree. There were men who would shoot a cow elephant even after the game laws said that they might kill no more than two elephants, and surely when a man's choice is thus limited he should be satisfied with the best only.
I killed many elephants and many other animals, and because I was a professional hunter I brought no trophies out of Africa, and there is no tangible thing I can show to prove that I am speaking the truth when I say I have done this or that, and where I am wrong, as I surely must be wrong here and there, it is because my memory, like my body, has grown old.