Bwana Mkuba and the Memsahib
I met my wife on a Union Castle liner, said Jordan, when I was coming back to Africa one year, and we were married in Mombasa Cathedral. Whatever else happened to that marriage we started it well by making her the first white woman to cross Africa. I had always wanted to make this crossing, but I had thought of doing it alone, and I don't know why I suggested it to her except that a four-thousand-mile trek across mountain and jungle seemed an original honeymoon. The alternative was to take her on safari, but East Africa then was full of ladies going on safari with their gentlemen, and Eva was woman enough to want to do something different.
It was a long time ago and the details are hazed, but I see the picture of her now and then, against a background of tall elephant grass, or the dark trees of Ituri, very English, very erect on a white muscat donkey, her wide solar topi with its muslin band, her blouse and khaki skirt; or sitting in a Congo canoe among naked boatmen, as calm as if her carriage were taking her to tea with a bishop.
There were six of us altogether when we set off across the Serengati plain, moving north-westward to Lake Victoria, with supplies for a year, with donkeys, porters, guides, dogs, and with great plans for capturing animals which we would sell to European zoos. There were six Europeans in the beginning, including yet another man who was to take moving pictures, but when we reached the east bank of Victoria the others grew cold at the thought of thousands of miles yet unwalked, and they shook hands with us and said good-bye in that embarrassed but over-hearty way people have when they are ashamed of deserting you, and they left, taking with them half of the three hundred porters I had hired.
That I remember, and remember wondering whether this had weakened Eva's resolve, but she took it calmly, and implied that you don't take your friends on your honeymoon, even in Africa.
And I remember going down with fever, and coming out of it to find my leg with an abscess on it, as if it still resented the bullet, the spear and the mamba bite. But we went on, and the boys carried me across the Tecoti River in a blanket, while the memsahib rode her donkey and played the Bwana Mkuba with some skill.
On the last three days to the Congo frontier we rode through England, the parkland at the foot of Mount Ruwenzori, where it pushes its snowhead from a blanket of thick timber. There the air was clean of fever and dirt and sickness, and the land ran down with its orchard-spaced trees to the silver disc of Lake George. We watched the flamingoes go up, pink and white and leg-dangling, like a roll of applause. We saw buffalo black on the bluffs, and rock formations like Gothic ruins. And these were fine things to show a woman you had just married, and there was nothing at all to walking across Africa, even though at that moment your leg was smouldering and you were being carried in a blanket.
Katse was the last station on the British frontier, and we came down to it soon after dawn one day. Along the crusted rim of the lake two thousand natives were scooping up salt, and the King of Toro's tax-collectors were making sure that His Majesty got his tithe.
We got to Kasindi where it was locked in a dry, yellow, three-sided mountain box, the wind coming in hot, even across the lakes, and now and then a storm ripped up the tents and rolled them away along with the blankets and the kettles and the Memsahib's bath, and left me naked for the rain to fall mercifully on a burning leg.
A doctor came over from Bani, where there was a sleeping-sickness station. He came over with his box of knives and he cut and sliced and let the poison out of me with the best manner in the world. The Belgians asked us where we were going, and we said, the Atlantic, and they said, you will never get over the Rukutu, the mountain tribes are spearing whites.
But we went, for over there was the Semiliki Valley where I had seen the elephants in their thousands, and this I wanted Eva to see too, for I was showing her my Africa as a man has to show his wife his way of living and his delight in living. The Semiliki ran flat through the valley, widening, narrowing, curving and thrusting, and now and then prettily silvered as it lipped over the stones.
The natives, instead of spearing us, lay by the side of the trail with their throats swollen and their brains addled, dying of sleeping-sickness, killed by a tiny, grey-black fly that folds its wings into a quaint swallow-tail when it is at rest on your skin and poisoning your blood. Old men and young men, and women and children lay there, perhaps wondering, if their curdled thoughts could wonder anything, why they were dying and we were living. This was no honeymoon for a bride, but it was Africa.
One night, it could have been any night, I do not remember, but a night when that sleeping death was about us for miles, some of the boys ran away, and I
could not blame them.
* * *
Even the game deserted that saddened world. The grass was empty of buck. The whole land was grieving, and our boys listened each morning for the call of the honey-bird and did not hear it. They listened for Ol Toilo and it sang us no luck with our hunting.
We found a village with food, some sweet potatoes in a shamba that was protected by thick thorn-bushes, and guarded further by a hedge of spearmen, as if they could hold sickness at bay with thorns and spears. They would sell us no food. The headman came out and looked at us coldly. His nakedness was discreetly hidden by a red blanket. He wore a head-strap of leather, ornamented with white beads, and there was a stone ointment pot bound to his right temple. A string of his children rolled in the dust behind him. He would sell us no food.
The Memsahib, who knew the social decencies on occasions like this, offered him tea. He first passed the cup to his chamberlain, and when the man drank and did not die, then the chief drank too. But it did not soften his face, and his spearmen still guarded the shamba.
The Memsahib had the solution. She called for the gramophone, for this was no Livingstone trek, this had all the comforts then known to civilization, and she had insisted on the gramophone.
It was brought to her, and she got down on her knees and wound it, and the children were quiet, and the chief looked uneasy. She played a record. It was one of those laughing songs, sung by Harry Lauder, a song with belly-moving laughter that made you laugh with it. Soon the chief was laughing, and his chamberlain, and his wives and his children, and the spearmen, rolling on the ground, and this was something Harry Lauder could never have thought he would be able to do.
They sold us some potatoes.
The Memsahib queened it for days, so much so that she went out hunting elephant with a very old Snider, and fortunately never got close enough to an elephant
to discover how useless that gun could be.
* * *
We left the sickness behind us and the land came to life. We were delirious with the ease of the shooting where the cool air came down from the mountain snow, and the lions coughed about our camp at night. That I remember well, and I remember the little spearman who came into camp one dawn and said that he had come to arrest one of my porters for stealing salt. This had been a great robbery, for to steal two canoe-loads of salt the man had killed four of his own tribe.
Yet the spearman was so small that I thought my boy, who was a giant, would break his neck in simple disgust at the impertinence. But the spearman was the son of a chief, and my boy surrendered without resentment, and said good-bye to us and went off, to be hanged most probably.
* * *
There were no roads, no roads that men had made. There were the pounded paths of elephant, and then the timber began to fill up the valley, mimosa and thorn-bush, and sausage-trees with their ridiculous pendent fruit.
We camped in the ruins of a Catholic Mission, and there was nothing about it to explain why it had been abandoned, except that perhaps the sleeping-sickness had been there too. The gardens were full of grenadillas and pineapples and pomegranates. The Mission stood on a hill, on an arm of the valley, looking down on the plain where there were native villages, emptied by the sickness too, and the wild timothy grass white here and there with bones.
A white man came into our camp, tall and gaunt, with that soft, inward-searching expression you see on the faces of men who have been alone a long time. His name was Lund, and with two porters he was walking from the Cape to Cairo, which made him something of a pioneer too. There are men who are driven to test the endurance of their bodies and their minds, and the way they may chose to do this is unimportant and often foolhardy, but the real truth of what they do is that they must prove themselves able to do it. It was like this with Lund.
But he was going blind, and he knew that he would never see Cairo, even if his porters took him there and did not desert him. He dined with us and he was polite and spoke little of his coming blindness. It gave him great pleasure to see my wife, and he behaved as if he wanted her to know that it was good to see a woman again before this blindness happened.
Even had he not gone blind he would not have seen Cairo. He got to Lado and there he died, I heard, although what it was that killed him I was not told. It could have been one of many things, for death has a
wide range of instruments in Africa.
* * *
We went up the Mwambi road, where the hunting was good and the forest built a roof above us and turned the sunlight to green water. This was the place where Stanley gave the world a cliche. This was Darkest Africa, and we cut our way through it with pangas.
We were told of a village called Makupees where was buried a great chief in a sarcophagus of ivory. We went through the forest for two hours, and down to a plain where the grass was green and the timber hung on the shoulders of the hills like thickly-knitted shawls. No white men had been to this village before, and the women came out in their modest nudity, round-bellied children peering through their legs—all came out to stare at a white woman riding a white donkey.
There was the great chief's grave, a mound of earth with calabashes of decaying food at its foot, rags of bright cloth on spears, and around it a palisade of tusks going up and bending over as if mourning. I counted forty of them before I stopped counting, and all must have weighed over sixty pounds each, but they were old and saffron-coloured, and termites had eaten away their roots.
So the valley was good for elephants, and I shot four big bulls in one day, and the Memsahib made a great show of indifference when the boys cut through the abdominal walls and let out the flower of the entrails.
We camped on hill-tops and saw dawn before it reached the dark valley bottoms. I saw the forests rolling northward and I wondered what lay in them, and I promised myself that one day I would discover, but it
was a promise I never kept.
* * *
We went down one river in three dug-outs, and here the river travelled quickly in swift waves, swinging away as the palm leaves bent down to snatch at the water. Little, dark men, with wild eyes and curled beards, swung out of the branches and fired arrows at us, and Eva, sitting regally on a chair in the middle of her boatmen, pulled an arrow from the wall of the canoe, and held it up laughing. She asked why it had this sticky glue on the head.
I said that maybe it was poison, and she dropped it calmly in the water.
They buried a chief in the village. We came to it at dusk, landing from the canoes when night joined dark water. There was dancing in the firelight, and a great beating of drums, the braying of horns, as if there were pleasure at the chief's good fortune in slipping from this life.
* * *
The villages from Irumi to Stanleyville had been built by Arab slave-traders a century, two centuries ago, and they were clean and neat behind thick white walls. The doors were of soft, crimson wood, and as beautifully carved as any you could see in Zanzibar. Some of the villages were wholly Arab communities, and there were silken green flags of Islam on the walls. The men carried muskets with swan's neck stocks, bound with silver, and had gold-hilted daggers in their sashes. Their faces were dignified and proud, and they looked so much like warriors that you could be forgiven for not recognizing them as traders.
The old Arab chief came down to greet us, and his slaves came behind him, carrying poultry and eggs and fruit, and rice for our porters. He took tea with us, and smiled out of his wrinkled face at my wife.
I spoke to him in Kiswhalli which made him happy enough to chuckle at every word, and he was pleased that I should wish to talk of the slave trade, for it was on this ranging commerce that his people had built an empire when his grandfather had been a child.
He remembered Tip-o-Tee, he said, and this man had been the greatest Arab slave-raider of all the centuries. His canoes had travelled from the mouth of the Congo to its rise. His caravans had been protected by clouds of cavalry. Tip-o-Tee had been a great man and cunning, for when he realized that the tribes of the Ujiji country were intelligent and adaptable he did not take them as slaves, but organized them under chiefs of his own appointing and made them raiders too. Tip-o-Tee took slaves that were shipped to the Persian Gulf and the Americas.
The people of Ujiji learned well and admired the Arabs, and when slavery was abolished and the Arabs accepted this, the Ujiji people continued raiding on their own, and hired out their slaves as porters.
They raided still, said the old man, and chuckled. He said that sometimes at night, when the forests were quiet, you could hear the guns and the cries in the far distance.
* * *
She shot a lion.
I had wounded him and he went into the scrub, and I told her to go back to camp, but she smiled and waited until I had given her all the reasons why a wounded lion should not be followed by a woman, and then she smiled again and said, shall we go? We put the dogs on leash and went after the lion. We followed the trackers as they picked a grass-blade, a stone, and held them up to show that the blood-spoor was still being made. We found where the lion had rejoined the pride and rested with it in the grass.
Then, half a mile from a stream, the wounded one had turned and left the others, and I knew that it must be badly hit, and all the more dangerous because of it. The trackers went up to thick bush, and came back saying they could smell the scent of lion there.
We released the dogs and they went in, with Ginger leading. The lion roared, and I looked at Eva and saw her mouth tighten, but she need not have been ashamed of this, for I never liked the sound. The dogs teased the lion until it came out. It came out slowly. We could see the head, the black mane, the slap of its paw as it hit a dog.
Then it came out of the bush and saw us and roared. It was very close.
Eva put her sporting -303 to her shoulder, and I said that she was to hold it on the lion's chest and not think of this as a lion. When she fired I fired too, and I do not know which of us hit it, but it went down quickly and met the ground with a thump, and I knew that the bullet had found the heart. The boys ran up and put their fingers in the hole gravely, and said 'Piga, memsahib!' very proud of her.
She was proud too, and she had the right to be. Even
if it was my shot she had still faced a wounded lion.
* * *
She was not well, and we knew that the middle of Africa was no place for a white woman to have a child. We left Avukubi with the boys carrying her in a chair, and they laughed and they sang as they carried her, for they knew. We marched at moonrise, because it was cool at night, pitching tent at four in the morning, with dawn coming out of the rain behind us.
We found a white man on the trail and he was alone, and ill with fever, with his eyes sunk in his head. I dosed him with quinine and we left him some soup, and he said his boys would be coming for him soon. I wondered, I still wonder if they did come, or whether he died there of fever by the trail. I have forgotten his name, or why he was there, or what he was doing, or whether he was English, French or Belgian, just that he lay by the roadside burning with fever, but conscious enough to thank me for the quinine and say that it was all right, his boys would be along soon, like a man refusing a lift in your car because a bus would be along soon.
Then we climbed out of the heat and the wet forest, and the blood came back to her cheeks. The trees lay below us in an immobile green pool. The hills went up to the wind and beyond them lay Stanleyville.
She got out of her chair and said she would walk, because now the boys were too weak to carry her. I had no strength to argue with her because there was pain in my shoulder from the time we had been thrown from the canoe into the Semiliki. The boys marched sullenly now, without singing.
We got down a valley wall to a little mud town called Gorma, and there Eva said, thank you, but did I mind, she could go no further. Then she lay down in the tent and said nothing. I got a boy and I put him on my Arab and told him he could kill the horse if he had to, but he was to bring a doctor from Stanleyville. He did kill the Arab but he brought a doctor.
And the doctor came too late. An old chief's wife from Bufwaboli came over, and she was wise in these things, yet even her wisdom was useless. I helped her, but this was something I knew nothing about, and I let her tell me.
When the doctor arrived the child had been born. It
was born dead. It was a girl, the old woman said.
* * *
I bought a chimpanzee from a Frenchman in Bufwaboli, because I thought it would amuse her as she was carried along in the hammock, but this was the only bad chimpanzee I ever had. There was a devil inside it and it frightened her.
Now the fever hit me again, and we made slow time to Stanleyville. There was a road of sorts, a road which a white man was making to his home thirty miles outside Stanleyville, and hundreds of native road-makers lay by
the side of it, smoking, and sleeping in the rain.
* * *
She grew well at Stanleyville and we did not speak of what had happened at Gorma. I lay ill with fever and prickly heat, and the sisters from the hospital came across the river in their white habits and insisted on taking me back. The Italian doctor looked at me and said he was happy I had come to him, because after one encounter with our chimpanzee he had decided not to come to me again.
Now all we had to do was go down the great river to its mouth, and what pain and struggle there was in crossing Africa was behind us. I was tempted to stay at La Romee, the land was good, and the hunting was good, but Eva wanted to go home to England, and this I could not refuse her.
We went down to Kinchassa on a stern-wheeler, and we listened to the drums talking to the ship all the way down. All day and all night the drums beat, and we lay beneath awnings on the deck and listened to them, and to the rustle of the great wheels. We watched the crew feeding logs to the fires, and the river went past us, green, cream, black and red, day after day. The crocodile slept on islands in the sun, the thick papyrus grass grew out into the water and on to the mudflats and snatched at us. We enjoyed the splendid beauty of the native in the bows, calling the fathoms as he tested the water with a bamboo pole. We listened to the bell in the engine-room. We listened to the sad night-calls of Africa from bank to bank and I was ashamed of myself for travelling across
Africa in this indolent fashion.
* * *
We came back to West Africa, for I had decided to take a concession of 55,000 acres near Thysville, and although I did not know it, my days in Africa as a lonely hunter were over. It was good land, that concession, high, where the air was fresh, and it was part of my contract that I should keep at least a thousand head of cattle. I built a house of wattle and daub for Eva and myself, with a verandah looking down on the open plains and the green patches of forest. I built roads, and bridges, and sawpits. I planted a vegetable garden, and these were strange things for an ivory-poacher to be doing, and when the strangeness of it struck me I went out and hunted elephant. It was in those days that I saw the King Elephant, and perhaps my failure to kill him was symbolic.
Nothing came of my concession, because the Kaiser's war began, and we went home.
We came back to Thysville after the war, but my concession had lapsed. Who could keep a thousand head of cattle and still be away four years in a war ?
You couldn't get a boat direct to the Belgian Congo in those days, and we went to the Cape. I knew our only chance was to go up part of the way by cargo boat and then trek through the interior. I bought horses, wagons, yokes and twenty oxen. We swam our oxen ashore at Loanda, and broke them there to the yoke, and we were laughed at when we began the trek. The country was dry and waterless. My boys deserted. The cattle died with lung sickness, and we abandoned them, the wagons, and the equipment, and went on to Bembe alone on horseback.
I became a planter again, at Luvu between San Salvador and the Congo. I became a planter and I planted cotton, coffee, ginger, pepper and avenues of oranges, lemons and limes. And perhaps I did not realize the change that had come over me. It was more than twenty years since I had come up from Port Elizabeth to prospect for gold, to become a hunter who hated towns, who hated houses, who was content alone in the forest.
I found outcrops of silver and copper, and I found a stream where the bed was strewn with thousands of meteorites that were almost pure nickel. The old excitement passed into me, and passed out of me when I discovered that an American company had the blanket
rights of all minerals in that area.
* * *
Eva became ill again, with some undefined but persistent poisoning. Whatever Africa meant to me, or had meant to me, it was not her country.
I sent her down to the Baptist Mission at San Salvador, sixty miles away, where there was a doctor and a hospital. I sent nearly all my boys with her so that the journey could be done in one day. They had been gone a week, and I was alone in the house with the gale pressing down the forest outside and lifting the roof and banging it down on the piles, when a native came out of the darkness, holding a note wrapped in oilskin, stuck in a cleft stick.
The doctor wrote that Eva was ill with blackwater.
I saddled Baby, my South African mare. I put a rifle in the scabbard and hung a hurricane lamp from the saddle-horn. I had seen storms in Africa when the land seemed to heave upward to meet the lightning, but this was the most terrible I had ever seen. Before me the trees seemed to move and sway, like soft reeds below the surface of running water. We came to rivers where the bridges were down, and I swam Baby across, holding her tail. For miles I led her, pulling her bridle as she shied from the lightning with her hooves up.
It took me twelve hours to reach the Mission, and the storm had gone when I got there, so too had the climax of the fever.
But she could not stay in Africa. She went home, but I stayed.
I stayed a year, two years. I went home and came back. I was older, and when I had been young I took pride in the tusker I could bring down with one shot, not in the thought of groves of orange trees which now gave me happiness. Yet what was happening to me was happening to Africa. The years of the hunters were passing, gone in the war, and this was the land of the settler.
The hunter makes a poor settler. The Portuguese Government raised the hut tax, and my entire labour force deserted me. The forest flowed back over my plantations, choked the life out of my orange groves.
I went hunting in a desperate swansong, and, as if she were angry at my thoughts of leaving her, Africa turned her ugly side to me as a valediction. In something very close to a mood of madness I went after a chimera, a weird, strange animal which the natives said could be found in the forest along the Ponso river. Perhaps I did not believe in this animal, or perhaps I did, or perhaps I wanted to snatch one last secret out of the continent.
We trekked north beneath soft skies, through winds with health in them. The moon at night was luminous and the trees were silver-leafed. But in a day or two days we reached a forest where vines hung from tree to tree and fought the trees for the air and for the sunlight. Great fungi as tall as a man grew sickly white in the darkness, and as each plant grew it crushed beneath it that which had grown earlier, until the air stank with death and decay.
Water, where we found it, was black and green, oily whirlpools sucking it down into the earth. I went no more than a mile into this forest before I knew I could go no further. I went back and sat on its edge and listened to its silence.
There Africa played a last little act of cruelty for me. I was watching a thick, yellow-green vine swaying gently, when a leopard padded softly beneath it, lips back in a snarl, for it had scented me. It paused beneath the vine with paw upraised, and then the vine dropped lazily and held the leopard in a coil, wrapping another about it, and another, until the leopard stopped snarling and clawing and the python had crushed it. I killed the python.
* * *
At Thysville the doctor put away his stethoscope and his thermometer, and smiled at me. The sun came pleasantly through the slats of the windows. The walls were white, and the floor polished.
I was rotten with malaria, he said. If I stayed another year in Africa it would kill me. If the malaria did not kill me, which it would, there was that leg that had taken the bullet, the spear and the bite. There was the shoulder which my Lumbwa had wrenched back into place. There were many other things about me that made him uneasy.
How long did I think a man's heart could stand the strain I had put on mine over twenty years ?
I should go to a cold climate and get the fever out of my system. Oregon, I said, thinking of my grandfather. It would do, he said, but don't come back to Africa.
I sold Baby to the Catholic Mission. I sold my dogs to Government officials. I passed Pete, my Swazi boy, the only one who had not deserted us on the trek up from Loanda, over to the British Consul. I sold all my equipment except a -500 Express, and I was to lose that later in Antwerp. I took nothing into Africa, and I brought nothing out.
I had another bout of malaria, and this I sweated out alone in my room in the Queen's Hotel. When I came out of it I was ready to go home. If home was what I could call a country I had ignored for twenty-five years.