A Kikuyu Chief
The big Chief Kinanjui lived about nine miles North-East of the farm, in the Kikuyu Reserve near the French Mission, and ruled over more than a hundred thousand Kikuyus. He was a crafty old man, with a fine manner, and much real greatness to him, although he had not been born to be a Chief, but had been made so, many years ago, by the English, when they could no longer get on with the legitimate ruler of the Kikuyus of the district. Kinanjui was a friend of mine, and had been helpful to me on many occasions. His manyatta, to which I had ridden over a few times, was as dirty and as full of flies as those of the other Kikuyus. But it was much bigger than any other I had seen, for in his position of a Chief Kinanjui had given himself over fully to the joys of marriage. The village was alive with wives of his of all ages, from skinny toothless old hags on crutches to slim, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed wenches, their arms and long legs wound up in shining copper wire.
His children were everywhere, in clusters, like the flies. The young men, his sons, erect, with decorated heads, went to and fro, and caused much trouble. Kinanjui had told me once that he had at the moment fifty-five sons who were Morani.
Sometimes the old Chief would come walking over to my farm, in a gorgeous fur-cloak, accompanied by two or three white-haired senators and a few of his warrior-sons, on a friendly visit, or to take a rest from governmental affairs. He would then pass the afternoon in one of the Verandah chairs that had been carried out on the lawn for him, smoking the cigars that I sent him out, with his councillors and his guard squatting on the grass round him. My houseboys and squatters, when they had news of his arrival, came and grouped themselves there, and entertained him with the happenings on the farm, the whole company forming a sort of political Club under the tall trees. Kinanjui in these meetings had a manner of his own: when he thought that the discussions were dragging out too long, he leant back in his chair, and, while still keeping the fire in his cigar alive, he closed his eyes and drew his breath deeply and slowly, in a low regular snore, a sort of official, pro forma sleep, which he may have cultivated for use in his own Council of State. I sometimes had a chair moved out for a talk with him, and on these occasions Kinanjui sent away everybody, to point out that now the world was going to be governed in earnest. He was not, at the time I knew him, the man that he had been, life had taken much out of him. But when he talked freely and openly, for my private ear, he showed much originality of mind, and a rich, daring, imaginative spirit; he had thought the matter of life over and held his own strong views upon it.
A few years earlier a thing had happened which had strengthened the friendship between me and Kinanjui.
He came to my house one day when I was lunching with a friend who was on his way up country; I had no time to give the Kikuyu Chief till my friend had gone. Kinanjui would expect to be offered a drink while he was waiting, and after his long walk in the sun, but I did not have enough of one thing to make up a glassful, so my guest and I filled a tumbler with all the different sorts of strong liquor that I had in the house. I thought that the stronger I made it, the longer it would keep Kinanjui occupied, and I took it out to him myself. But Kinanjui, after having with a little gentle smile just wetted his lips, gave me as deep a glance as I have ever had from a man, laid his head back and emptied the glass to the last drop.
Half an hour later, when my friend had just driven off, my houseboys came in and said: “Kinanjui is dead.” I felt, in one moment, the tragedy and the scandal rise up before me like great grave shadows. I went out to see him.
He was lying on the ground in the shade of the kitchen, with no expression whatever in his face, with blue lips and fingers, dead-cold. It was like having shot an Elephant: by an act of yours a mighty and majestic creature, which has walked the earth, and held his own opinions of everything, is walking it no more. He looked degraded as well, for the Kikuyu had poured water over him, and had taken off him his big cloak of monkey-skin. Naked he was like an animal when you have cut from it the trophy, for the sake of which you have killed it.
I meant to send Farah for a doctor, but we could not get the car started, and Kinanjui’s people kept on begging us to wait a little before we did anything.
An hour later, as I was going out again, with a heavy heart, to talk with them, my boys came in to me once more and said: “Kinanjui has gone home.” It seemed that he had suddenly got up, draped his cloak about him, and his retainers round him, and had walked off, the nine miles to his village, without a word.
After this time, I believe, Kinanjui felt that I had run a risk, even braved a danger,—for you are not allowed to give Natives alcohol,—to make him happy. He had been to the farm since, and had smoked a cigar with us, but he had not mentioned a drink. I would have given it to him had he asked for it, but I knew that he would not ask any more.
I now sent a runner to Kinanjui’s village and explained to him the whole affair of the shooting. I asked him to come over to the farm to finish it. I suggested that we should give Wainaina the cow and calf of which Kaninu had talked, and then let the whole matter finish at that. I was looking forward to Kinanjui’s arrival, for he had the quality, which everyone values in a friend, of being effective.
By this letter of mine, the case, that had for some time been becalmed, fetched wind and ended up dramatically.
One afternoon, as I was riding back to my house, I just caught sight of a car that came along at a terrible speed, rounding the drive upon two wheels. It was a scarlet car with a lot of nickel on it. I knew it, it belonged to the American Consul of Nairobi, and I wondered what urgent business it was which brought the Consul to my house at such a pace. But as I was getting off my horse at the back of the house, Farah came out to tell me that the Chief Kinanjui had arrived. He had come in his own car, which he had the day before bought from the American Consul, and he did not want to get out of it till I had seen him in it.
I found Kinanjui sitting up straight in the car, immovable as an idol. He had on a large cloak of blue monkey-skins, and on his head a skull-cap, of the kind which the Kikuyu make out of sheep’s stomachs. He was always an impressive figure, tall and broad, with no fat on him anywhere; his face too was proud, long and bony, with a slanting forehead like that of a Red Indian. He had a broad nose, so expressive that it looked like the central point of the man, as if the whole stately figure was there only to carry the broad nose about. Like the trunk of an Elephant, it was both boldly inquisitive and extremely sensitive and prudent, intensely on the offensive, and on the defensive as well. And an Elephant, finally, like Kinanjui, would have a head of the very greatest nobility if he did not look so clever.
Kinanjui now did not open his mouth or wince while I paid him my compliments on the car, he stared straight in front of him in order that I should see his face in profile like a head struck upon a medal. As I walked round to the front of the car, he turned his head so as to keep his regal profile towards me, perhaps he really had in his mind the King’s head on the Rupee. One of his young sons was driver to him, and the car was boiling hard. When the ceremony was over, I invited Kinanjui to come out of the car. He collected his big cloak round him in a majestic gesture and descended, and in that one movement he stepped back two thousand years, into Kikuyu justice.
On the Western wall of my house there was a stone seat and in front of it a table made out of a mill-stone. This stone had a tragic history: it was the upper mill-stone of the mill of the two murdered Indians. After the murder nobody dared to take over the mill, it was empty and silent for a long time, and I had the stone brought up to my house to form a table top, to remind me of Denmark. The Indian millers had told me that their mill-stone had come over the Sea from Bombay, as the stones of Africa are not hard enough for the work of grinding. On the top side a pattern was carved, and it had a few large brown spots on it, which my houseboys held to be the blood of the Indians, that would never come off. The mill-stone table in a way constituted the centre of the farm, for I used to sit behind it in all my dealings with the Natives. From the stone seat behind the mill-stone, I and Denys Finch-Hatton had one New Year seen the new moon and the planets of Venus and Jupiter all close together, in a group on the sky; it was such a radiant sight that you could hardly believe it to be real, and I have never seen it again.
I took my seat there now, with Kinanjui on the bench on my left. Farah took up his stand on my right hand, and therefrom kept a watchful eye on the Kikuyus, who had been gathering round the house, and who kept coming in as the news of Kinanjui’s arrival spread on the farm.
Farah’s attitude to the Natives of the country was a picturesque thing. No more than the attire and countenance of the Masai warriors, had it been made yesterday, or the day before; it was the product of many centuries. The forces which had built it up had constructed great buildings in stone as well, but they had crumbled into dust a long time ago.
When you first come to the country, landing at Mombasa, you will see, amongst the old light-grey Baobab-trees,—which look not like any earthly kind of vegetation but like porous fossilizations, gigantic belemnites,—grey stone ruins of houses, minarets and wells. The same sort of ruins are to be found all the way up the coast, at Takaunga, Kalifi and Lamu. They are the remnants of the towns of the ancient Arab traders in ivory and slaves.
The dhows of the traders knew all the African fairways, and trod the blue paths to the central marketplace of Zanzibar. They were familiar with it at the time when Aladdin sent to the Sultan four hundred black slaves loaded with jewels, and when the Sultana feasted with her Negro lover while her husband was hunting, and was put to death for it.
Probably, as these great merchants grew rich, they brought their harems with them to Mombasa and Kalifi, and themselves remained in their villas, by the long white breakers of the Ocean, and the flowering flaming trees, while they sent their expeditions up into the highlands.
For from the wild hard country there, the scorched dry plains, and unknown waterless stretches, from the land of the broad thorn-trees along the rivers, and the diminutive, strong-smelling wild flowers of the black soil, came their wealth. Here, upon the roof of Africa, wandered the heavy, wise, majestic bearer of the ivory. He was deep in his own thoughts and wanted to be left to himself. But he was followed, and shot with poisoned arrows by the little dark Wanderobos, and with long, muzzle-loaded, silver-inlaid guns by the Arabs; he was trapped and thrown into pits all for the sake of his long smooth lightbrown tusks, that they sat and waited for it at Zanzibar.
Here, also, little bits of forest-soil were cleared, burned, and planted with sweet potatoes and maize, by a peace-loving shy nation, which was not much good at fighting, or at inventing anything, but wished to be left to themselves, and which, with the ivory, was in great demand on the market.
The greater and lesser birds of prey gathered up here:
“Tous les tristes oiseaux mangeurs de chair humaine...
S’assemblent. Et les uns laissant un cr^ane chauve,
Les autres aux gibets essuyant leur bec fauve
D’autres, d’un mat rompu quittant les noirs agr`es?”
The cold sensual Arabs came, contemptuous of death, with their minds, out of business times, on astronomy, algebra, and their harems. With them came their young illegitimate half-brothers the Somali,—impetuous, quarrelsome, abstinent and greedy, who made up for their lack of birth by being zealous Mohammedans, and more faithful to the commandments of the prophet than the children got in wedlock. The Swaheli went along with them, slaves themselves and slave-hearted, cruel, obscene, thievish, full of good sense and jests, running to fat with age.
Up country they were met by the Native bird of prey of the highlands. The Masai came, silent, like tall narrow black shadows, with spears and heavy shields, distrustful of strangers, red-handed, to sell their brothers.
The different birds must have sat together up here and talked. Farah told me that in the old time, before the Somali brought their own women down from Somaliland, their young men could marry with the daughters of the Masai only, out of all the tribes of the country. This must have been in many ways a strange alliance. For the Somali are a religious people, and the Masai have no religion whatever, nor the slightest interest in anything above this earth. The Somali are clean, and take much trouble over their ablutions and hygiene, while the Masai are a dirty nation. The Somali, too, attach the greatest importance to the virginity of their brides, but the young Masai girls take their morals very lightly. Farah gave me the explanation at once. The Masai, he said, had never been slaves. They cannot be made slaves, they cannot even be put into prison. They die in prison if they are brought there, within three months, so the English law of the country holds with no penalty of imprisonment for the Masai, they are punished by fines. This stark inability to keep alive under the yoke has given the Masai, alone amongst all the Native tribes, rank with the immigrant aristocracy.
All the birds of prey lived with their burning eyes upon the gentle rodents of the land. The Somali here had their own position. Somalis are not good at being all on their own, they are very excitable, and, wherever they go, if they are left to themselves they will waste much time and blood over their tribal moral system. But they are fine seconds in command, and perhaps the Arab capitalists have often given them charge of daring undertakings and difficult transports while they stayed in Mombasa themselves. Therefore their relation to the Natives was nearly exactly that of the sheepdog to the sheep. They watched them untiringly, their sharp teeth bared. Would they die before the coast was reached? Would they escape? The Somali have a keen sense of money and values, they will have given up food and sleep for the sake of their charges, and must have come back from the expeditions worn to skin and bone.
The habit is in their blood still. When we had the Spanish Flu on the farm, Farah was very ill with it himself, but he followed me about, all shivering with fever, to bring medicine to the Squatters and to force it into them. He had been told that paraffin was very good against the disease, and therefore he bought paraffin for the farm. His little brother Abdullai, who was with us then, was very bad with flu, and Farah was much worried about him. Still, that was only the inclination of the heart, a frivolous matter. Duty, bread and reputation lay with the farm-labour, and the dying sheepdog stuck to his job. Farah also had much insight in what was going on in Native circles, although I do not know from where he had his knowledge, for with the exception of the biggest amongst them, he kept no company with the Kikuyu.
The sheep themselves, the patient nations, with no teeth or claws to them, no power and no earthly protector, got through their destiny, as they get through it now, on their immense gift for resignation. They did not die under the Yoke, like the Masai, or storm against fate, as the Somali do when they believe themselves injured, cheated or slighted. They were friends with God in foreign countries, and in chains. They also kept up a peculiar self-feeling in their relations to those who persecuted them. They were aware that the profit and prestige of their tormentors lay with them themselves: they were the central figures in the chase and the commerce, they were the goods. Upon the long track of blood and tears, the sheep, deep in their dark dumb hearts had made for themselves a bobtailed philosophy, and thought not highly of the shepherds or the dogs. “You have no rest either day or night,” they said, “you run with your hot tongues out, panting, you are kept awake at night so that your dry eyes smart in the daytime, all on our account. You are here on our account. You exist for our sake, not we for your sake.” The Kikuyu of the farm at times had a flippant manner towards Farah, as a lamb may skip in the face of the sheepdog just to make him get up and run.
Farah and Kinanjui met here, the sheepdog and the old ram. Farah stood up erect in his red and blue turban, black embroidered Arab waistcoat and Arab silk robe, thoughtful, as decorous a figure as you would find anywhere in the world. Kinanjui was spreading himself on the stone seat, naked but for the mantle of monkey furs on his shoulders, an old Native, a clod of the soil of the African highlands. They treated each other with respect, although, when they had no direct dealings, in accordance with some ceremonial they pretended not to see one another.
It was easy to imagine the two, a hundred years earlier, or more, holding a converse over a consignment of slaves, undesirable members of the tribe, of whom Kinanjui was ridding himself. Farah would be keeping, all the time, at the back of his mind the idea of swooping upon the old chief himself, a fat morsel, so as to have him included in his parcel. Kinanjui would follow, without fault, every one of Farah’s thoughts, and, through the whole sitting, he would be carrying the weight of the situation, the weight, too, of his own scared and heavy heart. For he was the central figure, he was the goods.
The big meeting which was to settle the case of the shooting accident began in a peaceful spirit. The people of the farm were all pleased to see Kinanjui. The oldest squatters got up and came to exchange a few remarks with him, then walked back and took their seats on the grass. A couple of old women from the periphery of the assembly shrieked a greeting to me: “Jambo Jerie!” Jerie is a Kikuyu name, the old women of the farm addressed me by it, and the very small children made use of it as well, but the young people, or the old men never called me Jerie. Kaninu was present at the meeting, in the midst of his large family, like a scarecrow somehow called to life, with burning, attentive eyes. Wainaina and his mother came along and sat a little away from the others.
I told the people, slowly and in an effective manner, that the matter between Kaninu and Wainaina had been settled and the settlement put down on paper, Kinanjui had come over to certify it. Kaninu was to give Wainaina a cow with a heifer calf at foot, and by that the affair should be ended, since nobody could stand it any longer.
Kaninu and Wainaina had been informed of the decision beforehand, and Kaninu was instructed to have the cow and calf ready. The activities of Wainaina were of an underground nature, in the daylight he was like a mole above the ground, and looked as soft as a mole does there.
When I had read up the agreement I told Kaninu to bring along the cow. Kaninu got up and waved both arms up and down many times to two of his young sons, who were holding the cow behind the boys’ huts. The ring opened while the cow and calf were slowly led into the middle of it.
At the same moment the atmosphere of the meeting changed, as when a thunderstorm comes up in the horizon, and quickly rises to Zenith.
There is nothing in the world which to the Kikuyu holds the interest and importance of a cow with a heifer calf at foot. Bloodshed, witchcraft, sexual love or the wonders of the white men’s world, all evaporate and disappear near the great flaming furnace of their passion for live stock, which smells of the stone-age, like a fire you strike with a flint.
Wainaina’s mother broke into a long wail and shook a dry arm and finger at the cow. Wainaina joined her, all stuttering and breaking in his speech, as if someone else were speaking through him, he raised his voice to heaven. He would not accept the cow, she was the oldest in Kaninu’s herd, and the calf that she had now got with her, that surely was the last which she would ever bear.
The clan of Kaninu cried out and cut him short in a furious staccato inventory of the qualities of the cow, behind which you felt a great bitterness, and contempt of death.
The people of the farm did not have it in them to remain silent where a cow and calf were being discussed. Everyone present gave out his opinion. The old men seized one another by the arm and shook out their last asthmatic breath in praise or condemnation of the cow. The shrill voices of their old women fell in and followed them up, as in a canon. The young men spat out short deadly remarks at one another in deep voices. In two or three minutes the open place by my house was boiling over like a witch’s caldron.
I looked towards Farah and he looked back at me, but like a man in a dream. I saw that he was a sword half way out of the scabbard, which in a moment would be flashing right and left in the strife. For the Somali are themselves stock-owners and cattle traders. Kaninu threw me a glance like a drowning man, who is finally carried away by the current. I took a look at the cow. She was a grey cow with deeply curved horns, and was standing patiently in the very centre of the cyclone that she had raised. When all fingers were being pointed at her she began to lick her calf. I thought that she did have, somehow, the look of an old cow.
At last I turned my eyes back to Kinanjui. I do not know whether he had been looking at the cow at all. While I looked at him he did not even wince. He sat immovable, like some bulk without either intelligence or sympathies just set down by my house. He turned his side to the screaming crowd, and I realized how much the profile is the true face of a king. It is a Native faculty thus to transform yourself, in a single movement, into lifeless matter. I do not think that Kinanjui could have spoken or moved without fanning the flames of passion, as it was he kept sitting on them to quell them. Not everybody could have done it.
Little by little the fury died down, the people stopped shrieking and began to talk in an everyday manner, in the end they became silent one by one. Wainaina’s mother, when she thought that nobody watched her, crawled a few steps on her stick to have a closer look at the cow. Farah turned and came back to civilization, with a little, wry smile.
When everything was quiet we made the parties in the case come round to the mill-stone table, dip their thumb in cart-grease, and press their thumb-mark down upon the document of the agreement. Wainaina did it very reluctantly, whimpering a little when he set his thumb to the paper, as if it was burning him. The agreement ran as follows:
The following agreement has been made at Ngong today, the 26th of September, between Wainaina wa Bemu and Kaninu wa Muture. The Chief Kinanjui is present here and sees it all.
The agreement states that Kaninu shall pay to Wainaina a cow with a heifer calf. This cow and heifer calf shall be given to Wainaina’s son Wanyangerri, who was, on the 19th of December last year, shot by a shotgun which was fired by mistake by Kaninu’s son Kabero. The cow and calf shall be the property of Wanyangerri.
With the payment of this cow and her heifer calf the Shaurie shall be finally settled. Nobody, after this, must speak of it or mention it at all.
Ngong, September, 26th.
I was here and heard the document read.
The mark of the Chief Kinanjui.
The cow and heifer calf were handed over to Wainaina in my presence.