Labusoms Elephant Hunt
I liked to hunt elephant with the Wanderobo, said
They were a fierce little people without fear and without shame. They would attack any animal, any man. I mean the true Wanderobo, the shenzi, the wild men of the forest. All fighting tribes have their wanderobo, their outcasts, men who take to the forest to escape punishment for crimes, and there they live until they are killed.
The true Wanderobo I remember as great hunters, and although they may have begun as did the outcasts of the tribes, when I knew the true Wanderobo they were a people in their own right. They made no villages but wandered along the elephant paths in parties of ten or fifteen, living in holes or caves, or trees, or shelters they made by bending saplings together and covering them with leaves. Yet they were linked loosely together into tribal communities under chiefs, the greatest of whom was Labusoni. They wore capes of gazelle and monkey skins, tied with antelope sinews, and they were naked but for these capes. They were so much like animals that when they drank they would go down on their hands and knees and lap up the water. They did not make a cup of their hands, or throw water into their open mouths, the way you will see a Masai cleanly drinking. They were like animals, and when captured they would foam at the mouth and tear at the bonds with their teeth like a leopard, and curse in a gabbling mixture of Masai and Lumbwa and the chatter of apes.
But they were hunters, and nowhere in Africa was their equal as trackers. They carried six-foot bows that dwarfed them. In their monkeyskin quivers they had arrows smeared with poison. They carried two-edged swords and could drive them through the skin of a charging rhino.
I went among them from the noble Lumbwa, who were warriors and arrogant aristocrats like the Nandi and the Masai. I had been trading cattle among the Lumbwa for sheep, and trading the sheep for rhino horn, and doing good business for a man who preferred to shoot elephants, and because I preferred to shoot elephant I went up among the Wanderobo and I liked them, which you may not find easy to understand. But I lived alone and hunted alone with the Wanderobo, and when they were hungry I was hungry, and I wept with them at the visitation of fire and famine and disease. In such experiences do you discover friends.
Perhaps they are gone now as I knew them. I know they are gone, for there are books that speak of the Wanderobo contemptuously as unreliable and cowardly trackers. I saw my first tractor in Africa in 1912, and I saw the end of the Wanderobo with it. Now they ride on the running-boards of the lorries that take men to shoot elephants, and this is something that would have sickened Labusoni's stomach. I never knew such bravery as I saw in the Wanderobo. I have killed many elephants, but I killed them with a -500 Express, and I do not think I would have had the guts to kill them as the shenzi did.
This is how I came to the Wanderobo:
I had been pursuing a private and bitter war against the crocodile on the Maggori river, and when I had killed enough to satisfy my hatred I went back to Port Florence. And perhaps shooting crocodile from the safety of a river bank had made me ashamed of myself and I told myself that I was going soft. So I rode the train to Lumbwa Station and then trekked for the Loita plains where the Masai lived.
I wanted some Lumbwa elmorani to come with me, but although they are much like the Masai and respect each other, they are jealous of each other too and are not above settling such jealousy with their swords. So the
Lumbwa I asked were full of excuses, and would not come. I got their chief to bully twenty of his warriors into accepting, and when they had finished shrugging their shoulders and thudding the hafts of their spears in the dust, they said they would come, but I must be careful of the Wanderobo who lived in the forest. And I did not tell them that it was the Wanderobo I wanted to meet.
We met them after we had crossed the river and were sitting on its banks in the sunlight and the shadow. We heard a sharp whistle in the forest behind us, and an elmoran shuffled over to me and whispered 'Shenzi, Bwana'. I told the Lumbwa to go out and bring me a Wanderobo, and they looked at me, but they went.
They were out two hours and when they came in they brought a man and boy. The Wanderobo stood there with the tall Lumbwa about them, and the man said he understood both the Lumbwa and Masai tongues and he would talk with me. I told him I had come to shoot meat for his people, and this I thought was the prudent thing to say. But he stared at me with suspicion, and I could not blame him. He had been brought in at the point of a Lumbwa spear, and it was still pricking his spine.
He said that his name was Suburbe and that the boy was his brother and that they were both sons of Labusoni, their chief.
I said, then we will hunt together, Suburbe, and take the meat to your father.
He did not believe.
I told my elmorani to give him back his sword and bow and quiver, and I said that his brother would be safe with my elmorani. He offered to curse me if I were not speaking the truth, and I invited him to do so. He put his sword on the ground and stepped over it solemnly. He said 'Bairinga KipseragetaP, which is May You Be
Killed By A Rhinoceros. He said Mine Mat, which May You Die By Fire.
And I said may these things be so if I broke my wor
We went out and we sighted some hartebeeste. I whispered to me to creep after him until we came with range of his bow. But without moving forward I shot o animal, and brought down two more before they ran o of range, and still I had killed them at three hundre and fifty yards. Suburbe looked at my rifle with respec and he politely asked me for a little meat to take to h family. I said that he should bring them here.
The admiration went out of his face, and I argue with him, and in the end he stepped over his swor again and cursed me ritually and accepted my word.
It was five o'clock in the afternoon when he returned and with him half a hundred of his people. They cam in with their heads up, as suspicious as buffalo, the me with bows bent. I went among them like a curate at church bazaar, distributing my beads and twisted wir and Americani cloth. The women smiled first, as women will do when you give them gifts, whatever your motive, and these were strangely handsome women, light in colouring, with regular features and fine figures.
But the presence of my Lumbwa made them uneasy. Suburbe made this point plain while his people were cutting up the hartebeeste. He stabbed at the air with his hands and he said that the Lumbwa and the Masai were always attacking the Wanderobo, someone got killed every day and it was usually a Wanderobo. If I wished to go further into the forest it would have to be without the Lumbwa.
As we camped together that night I insisted on my Lumbwa becoming blood-brothers of the Wanderobo, and there was much stepping over swords and ritual cursing, and I had to threaten the Lumbwa that I would abandon them to the Wanderobo if they did not agree.
They agreed, but I do not think they took the cursing seriously.
Labusoni must have been in his eighties when I met him. He was not a great chief, not in the greatness that Mataia and Arab Changalla had. He had perhaps two hundred warriors where they had thousands. He lived in a sapling shelter where they lived in huts and had ritual stools to sit on when they held a shauri. But in spirit he was as great. He held his Wanderobo together by the strength of his personality, and he was so good a business man that in one season he traded eight hundred tusks with the Arabs in German territory.
Nothing took him away from the forest. In his old age he would still get up at sunrise and go into the trees with bow and arrow and shoot himself a buck. On the evenings before an elephant hunt he was the embodiment of his tribe.
On such an evening the warriors sent their women away from the fire, for this, what they had to do, was part of the sacred life of the male. Labusoni stood up by the fire, erect and scrawny in his monkey-cape, and he chanted the Elephant Song which was an amalgam of fact, imagination, mythology and mysticism. It told the whole history of the Wanderobo's elephant hunts, of the courage of one warrior and the cowardice of another, the humour and the drama stabbed home in Labusoni's high, old-man's voice. He sang of the craft and the bravery of his people, and he told them that his words went beyond their ears into the forest and were heard by the Big Ones, by the bulls and the cows and by the calves still enveloped in the wombs of the cows. He shrewdly reminded his people of their flat bellies and of the sweet marrow in the Big Ones' bones. He reminded them of the ivory and the beads and the wire and the cloth it could buy. He told them of the great hunts in his youth, and the old men who had shared them with him rocked with the memories, and the young men puffed out their chests and snatched their swords and twirled them in the firelight, until the iron made a ribbon of light.
Labusoni called to them one by one.
'Nyunge! Your father was no coward. In my youth he loved to run under the bellies of the Big Ones, stabbing them. Are you afraid? Are you water? Then stay and tend the children.'
'Coboli! Your father begat none but sons from his women. If you are turned woman then go. Look for honey in the forest. The Big Ones are not for you.'
'Minyatuke! If the thought of the thunder of the Big Ones makes your limbs tremble, go follow the honey-bird.'
'Sibibi! If your finger weakens on the bow strings. If you weaken at the scream of the Big Ones when the arrow strikes, stay fleshing and dressing with the women.'
'Suburbe, my son! For you it is enough to remember that you are the son of Labusoni who has never failed to kill the Big Ones since he was a youth, and who will be killing them until his body is thrown to the hyena.'
When Labusoni had finished his song his young warriors were calling and crying in frenzy, leaping, dancing, slashing the air with their swords, apostrophizing the Big Ones, until they were dragged down and bound, and lay there still kicking and screaming. I heard them long after I had gone to bed.
In the morning they were quiet, but still wild of eye. Their hands were steady after a week's abstinence from honey-beer and women. It had been an enforced abstinence. The women first hid the honey-beer, and then hid themselves if they had to. At dawn two scouts padded out on a reconnaissance and came back to report. It was a good report, they had sighted a great herd, and Labusoni distributed medicine of herbs and roots among the hunters.
An arch of green boughs was erected on the edge of his little village, and he led his warriors through it, their ears strained for the sharp note of Ol Toilo, the good luck bird, and it was important to know the direction from which his call came. If from behind the warriors they knew that all would return safely from the hunt. If it came from ahead, or to the right, or was ilot heard at all, then there would be a good kill but some of the hunters would die too. If Ol Toilo's call came from the left then there would surely be a bad kill and many men would die. In this case the Wanderobo would prudently abandon the hunt.
But on the morning the scouts reported a great herd grazing on the fringes of the Rongana forest we went under the arch and heard Ol Toilo singing blithely ahead of us. And we went to the hunt with strong hearts. We found the herd and looked down at them where they were grouped, their ears flapping, their trunks swinging, and even at this distance of nearly four hundred yards I could hear their stomachs rumbling. It was a fine herd, with great tuskers, young bulls, cows and their calves. They were thick in the grass, and now and then a scimitar pair of tusks would gleam in the sun as they were raised above the hooped spines, and a bull trumpeted gloriously.
Labusoni spent an hour placing his men. The marau, the old men, were sited in a copse of trees. The lione, the uncircumcised boys, were sent to the right of the herd, and the elmorani to the left.
Ten men remained with Labusoni, and because even the Wanderobo will never attack elephant in the tall grass, these ten men were sent forward to give the elephant the scent of them and move the herd toward the trees.
They went forward in the sunlight in the yellow grass, growing smaller against the bulk of the herd, and it was as if they were demonstrating how puny man was compared with an elephant, and therefore how much greater his courage and skill. They went on until the grass swallowed them, and I saw only the sun-pricked points of their spears. They went on until they were on the fringes of the herd, and it was only when they shouted, when they tore off their capes and waved them, when they rattled their spears, it was only then that the great heads of the elephants went up, their ivory clashed and they slewed and stampeded toward the trees.
The earth shook, the dust came up red about the herd, and I saw their black bodies bouncing in it, a dark eddy on the plain as they moved toward the trees. They screamed, a hundred, two hundred, I could not say how many elephants, screaming, and the sound of it was terrible. They hit the forest and I saw the trees going down before them.
I ran down through the grass and climbed a tree to watch. In the wood the Wanderobo were waiting quietly as the herd smashed toward them, six-foot bows bent, three-foot arrows drawn to poison tips, left foot forward, body tense. And then the herd was upon them.
The arrows went in a volley. Just a thin volley with the whistling sound of it lost in the anger of the elephants, but it struck and turned the herd and sent it charging toward the flank, and there another cloud of arrows struck it, and from flank and centre the arrows came in controlled volleys until the herd was wheeling and swirling and screaming, until the warriors moved in and split it into smaller groups, into single elephants isolated for death.
Now each warrior of the Wanderobo fought a duel of his own choosing, and the elephant he chose accepted the challenge and sought him out, charging with trunk up, swinging his head with the sweep of his tusks. The warrior would shoot an arrow into one flank, drop as the tusks swung, dart under the hanging belly, upstab-bing with his sword, plunge out the other side and shoot in another arrow until the elephant began to roll drunkenly.
For an hour it went on as the air darkened with the dust, and the sun dropped slanting bars through the dust, and it was hard to see anything but the heaving movements of the elephant, or hear anything above their agonized trumpeting. Now and then a bull or a cow went down with a scream and rolled over and became a dead elephant with all the majesty gone out of it, all the dignity and futile rage, and was nothing but a great carcass lying on its ivory and blood on its belly.
At last the herd broke through the warriors' ring, and got away into the open country at a gallop, their rumps swinging, tails twitching, until the grass had them. But left behind them nine dead elephants, and I saw the runners streaming away from the kill to call the women.
My reflexes began to work. I went down into the dust where great trees lay broken and the Wanderobo were dancing and singing, and I found Labusoni where he was leaning on his blooded sword. He was so thin I could see his heart moving beneath his ribs. When,. I asked him, would he do something about the wounded elephants that had escaped the ring, that had gone out there in the sun and the grass to die of the poison in them?
He looked at me proudly. He said 'To-day we eat. To-morrow you shall see.'
The women and the children and the old people came and the Wanderobo ate where the elephants lay. They cut their way into the rib-cages with knife and axe and sword and they camped there in the bloody rooms they made, gorging the raw flesh. They staggered from one elephant to another, carrying the red, coarsegrained meat in their arms, their faces greasy, their eyes blood-shot. And the children crawled on their hands and knees through the red doors made by their fathers' slashing swords.
The great, marrowless, porous, fat-exuding leg-bones were cut out, and the Wanderobo sucked them like sugar-canes. They beat their way into the creamy stores of fat behind the central dome of the skull and they scooped it out with their hands. With the piercing of the abdominal wall, high up on an elephant's side, the entrails came out like the blossoming of a great opalescent flower, flowing and growing in pastel tints of appalling beauty, until the whole mass quivered five or six feet above the carcass.
I had seen hyenas and I had seen vultures tearing at carrion, and this I had accepted and even watched. But I could not watch the Wanderobo at their kill for long.
The next day they lay about their fires with stomachs distended and eyes glazed, and I could persuade none of them to join me in pursuit of the wounded elephants. On the following morning they staggered to their feet, took their bows and swords and came.
The herd had beaten an angry road from the forest into the grass, and it was easy to track. We came upon the dead where they lay, with tiny arrows held in their flanks or their bellies, and the flies on the wounds, and the vultures hanging above on the boards of their wings. There were twenty-one elephants lying dead on the plains, and the Wanderobo swung their swords and sang.
Ol Toilo had prophesied well. It had been a great kill. Even Labusoni admitted that in his youth he had not seen such a great kill, and this admission pleased his young men. But, as Ol Toilo had promised, there had been casualties. Two warriors had been trampled to death in the forest battle, and a tusk had ripped another open from groin to chin and he too was dying.
That was my first elephant hunt with Labusoni and the Wanderobo, and when it was over I knew that I would be blamed. Labusoni's warriors had slaughtered thirty, and when the word got around of this great kill the Government would not stop to think that perhaps the Wanderobo would have gone hunting with or without me.
So I went up north of the line and did some hunting quietly, for eland and impala in the brown and bleak
Rift Valley until the slaughter was forgotten.
* * *
Among my friends the Wanderobo was a young warrior who was the greatest hunter and the greatest killer of elephants I have ever known. With only his soft iron sword this Gabilliot, who was so called because of his light skin, could kill two rhino in one morning.
At sunrise he would start at the call of Ol Toilo to do his killing, and one morning he came upon six elephants bathing in a pool held by a saucer of hills. They were there in a natural trap, taking up the red water in their trunks and blowing it at each other, and trumpeting and splashing.
Gabilliot was a little man and stood no higher than the fore-legs of an elephant, and he crawled down in the grass to that pool and watched the elephants. He watched and then he shot his poisoned arrows as quickly as he could string them, until his quiver was empty.
Each of these six elephants had three arrows driven hard into them before they realized that Gabilliot was there. They threshed in the water of the pool, their trunks up, trying to scent him, and Gabilliot lay flat on the ground with the wind in his favour, until an old bull heaved itself out of the water and found him. Then Gabilliot stood up, swinging his sword lightly, and as the elephant charged Gabilliot dodged and slashed and cut through the trunk, severing the end. He danced there, a superb swordsman, slashing until the bull turned in agony and splashed through the water.
Gabilliot waited patiently, and watched the brutes struggling up the hill. The poison was fresh, and one by one they dropped and died before they reached the top of the saucer, and Gabilliot cut off their tails and took them back in triumph to his people.
Of such strength and skill were the Wanderobo, and when the time came for me to leave them Labusoni called his warriors together and he told them and he told me that from that day until our death his warriors were my warriors. This gift I valued as highly as the gift of one thousand elmorani which Mataia of the Lumbwa had made me.
Because I was now his brother Labusoni told me of the matters that troubled him. He said that there was a medicine man called Koydelot, who was not a true Wanderobo but a Masai who had left or been driven from his munyata, and who had come to the forest and seduced a hundred or so of Labusoni's people from their loyalty. Koydelot had formed a colony inside the German border and there he was gathering many sheep by bartering ivory and rhino horns with Arab traders.
I decided to visit this village of Koydelot and I asked Suburbe to come with me, and I had only to ask once.
We went eastward across a beautiful plain that few white men had then seen, and there was much game there on the yellow grass, kudu in black and grey with fine spiral horns, impala and eland and antelope, guinea-fowl drumming in the dongas.
We came upon the tracks of Koydelot's band by a stream that broke the plain, where the trees were spaced out like an orchard in the Cots wolds. There was no wind to move the grass, and the water of the stream was smooth and clear, and the sand on its bed pure. On either bank the boulders were studded with mica that
d in glistened like diamonds in the sun. We camped and
washed the dust from us, and we stayed there for two
rutes days, reluctant to leave it.
ie by On a hunt for meat on the second day I sighted lions.
; top One came out of the grass fifty yards away and curled his
took lip at me. I sat on a rock and watched him, with the
stock of my rifle below my right arm-pit, and the barrel
and forward across my knees. I do not think there could ever
isoni have been a safari in that country, or at least none to
d he this lion's knowledge, for he snarled at me casually and
riors did nothing. As he did so more lions came out of the
5 the scrub until there were twenty of them in a half moon,
the cubs as well.
They lost interest in me, and they lay down in the
ie of sun and yawned and scratched themselves, and I called
vas a my boy to me softly, telling him to go back to the camp
true for my camera. Then, because this is the way things
riven happen, a young black-mane got to his feet and came
and up towards me, his head stretched on his neck and his
their ears back and his throat throbbing in a snarl. A lioness
-man followed him. He came on and I had to shoot him. I had
3 by to shoot the lioness too, as she crouched to spring, and
I had not wanted to shoot either of them,
isked There I was by the rock, alone, with two lions dead,
3nce. and the others getting up out of the grass, smelling death,
t few puzzled by the noise of my gun.
there They stood there, and they switched their tails, and
fine went, back into the grass,
-fowl That night I sat with my boys about the fire, and
listened to them as they boasted of their skill and courage,
by a Suddenly they leaped up, seized their swords and went
iaced off into the darkness silently. I thought they had heard a
wind lion, or a hyena, and had gone off in bravado to prove
was ' their boasting, because of my two lions that day, but
. On they came back with two trembling Wanderobo who
that were part of Koydelot's band.
They were dragged in and my elmorani stripped them of their bows, their swords, their pouches of honey, and pushed them into the firelight. But I had their property returned to them, which was perhaps unwise, for as soon as they had their swords in their hands again they swung them in an arc and jumped for the darkness. Suburbe hit them both on the knee-caps with his club, and they howled and sat down holding their legs. When they saw Suburbe they seemed relieved, and chattered to him in their bastard language.
I left them gossiping and went to bed.
At dawn Suburbe told me that Koydelot's camp was less than two miles along the stream, and that it had two milking cows. We went off toward it with the prisoners, and when we got to the camp the pariah dogs came out in a yapping wave and I had to lay out two of them with my club or we would never have passed through them. Then I had to knock down their owner who was indignantly fitting an arrow to his string.
It was a bad start, but Suburbe talked the man out of murder.
It was a dirty camp. Koydelot came shuffling from his crude hut, hung about with charms, a depraved Masai, looking at me with no pleasure and asking me what I wanted. I said I wanted milk, and I said I would trade some sheep, to which he agreed at three rupees each, which was shameless profiteering, for the Germans had set the price at one rupee. I did not mind that, what worried me was the speed with which the dirty old ruffian made friends with Kosertine, my cook-boy.
Kosertine's dinner that evening was soup and kidneys on toast. The soup was excellent, but I lost my appetite for the kidneys, and I still do not know why. There was an old crone and her daughter sitting beyond my fire, and their ribs were showing and their arms were like canes. I called to them and I gave them the kidneys
which they ate like animals. They got up with grease on their faces, and they walked five yards and fell on their faces.
My elmorani sprang up with their spears. I called them to me and I took my rifle and ran down towards Koydelot's camp. But he had gone; he and his people had gone in a great hurry, for their livestock were still there.
We buried the woman and her daughter and I called for Kosertine, but he had gone too. At dawn we set off after Koydelot. His people tried every trick to cover their spoor, but my trackers were Wanderobo too and could not be tricked. At four o'clock in the afternoon we came upon fresh spoor, and I knew that Koydelot could not be more than a few hundred yards ahead, and that he and his people had grown over-confident.
I sent Suburbe forward and he came back to say that the renegades were sitting in the sun eating wild plum, and sleeping. We surrounded them and came in upon them from all sides.
They sat up with their mouths open until one ran to a tree and climbed it, and sent down an arrow or two into the dust. But one of my Wanderobo strung his bow and shot back and hit this marksman in the neck. He was dead when he struck the ground.
I grabbed Koydelot by the neck and I rubbed his face in the dust until his nose bled. And I shook him and I told him that I would take him back to Labusoni and let the old chief punish him.
But this shows you how unpredictable Africa is. When I went back to the Wanderobo months later Koydelot was living among Labusoni's people and was much honoured there. His medicine must have been very strong for Labusoni respected him, and Koydelot seemed to have forgotten the bloody nose I gave him, for he grinned at me, and every morning shook his stones from his calabash to see how the hunting would go for me that day.