A Visitor from Asia
The Ngomas were neighbourly and traditionally social functions. In the course of time, it was the younger brothers and sisters and, later on, the sons and daughters of the first dancers known by me, who came to the dancing-ground.
But we had visitors from distant countries as well. The monsoon blows from Bombay: wise and experienced old people travelled in ships, all the way from India, and came to the farm.
There was in Nairobi a big Indian timber merchant by the name of Choleim Hussein, with whom I had done many deals when I was first clearing my land and who was a zealous Mohammedan and a friend of Farah’s. One day he arrived at the house and asked for permission to bring a High Priest from India on a visit. He was coming all over the Sea, Choleim Hussein told me, to inspect his congregations of Mombasa and Nairobi: the congregations on their side were eager to entertain him well, and, working their brains, they could think of nothing better than this visit to the farm. Would I let him come? When I said that he should be welcome, Choleim Hussein went on to explain that the rank and holiness of the old man were such that he could eat nothing which had been cooked in pots ever used by Infidels. But I need not bother about that, he quickly added, the Mohammedan congregation of Nairobi would prepare the meal and send it out in good time; would I only let the High Priest partake of it in my house? As I agreed, Choleim Hussein after a little while took up the matter again, with difficulty. There was one more point, only one. Wherever the High Priest went, etiquette demanded that he should receive a present, in a house like mine it could be no less than one hundred Rupees. But I need not let that worry me, he hurried to explain, the money had been collected amongst the Mohammedans of Nairobi, who only asked me to hand it over to the Priest. But would the Priest, I asked, believe it to be a present from me? Of this I could extract no explanation from Choleim Hussein, there are times when coloured people cannot make themselves clear to save their lives. At first I declined the role intended for me, but looking at the disappointed faces of Choleim Hussein and Farah, which had a moment before been radiant with hope, I gave up my pride and thought that I would let the High Priest think what he liked.
On the day of the visit I had forgotten about it and gone out in the field to try my new tractor. Titi, Kamante’s little brother, was sent out to me there. The tractor made such a noise that I could not hear what he had got to say, and it was so difficult to start that I dared not stop it; Titi ran alongside of it all through the field like a small mad dog, panting and snapping in the deep ground and the long thick trail of dust, until at the end of the field we came to a pause. “The Priests have come,” he roared to me. “What Priests?” I asked back. “All the Priests,” he proudly explained; they had arrived in four carts, six in each. I went with him back to the house, and as I got near I caught sight of a swarm of white-robed figures spread on the lawn, as if a flight of big white birds had settled round my house, or a company of angels swooped on to the farm. It will have been a whole Spiritual Court sent from India to keep up the flame of orthodoxy in Africa. There was, however, no mistaking the dignified figure of the High Priest as he advanced towards me, escorted by two Subordinates, and, at a respectful distance, by Choleim Hussein. He was a very short old man with a delicate, refined face, as if carved in very old ivory. The retinue drew near, to stand guard upon our meeting, and then withdraw; I was expected to entertain my guest alone.
We could not speak a word to one another, for he understood neither English nor Swaheli, and I did not know his language. We had to express our great mutual respect by pantomime. He had already, I saw, been shown the house, all the plate that it possessed was set out on the table, and flowers arranged according to Indian and Somali taste. I went and sat down with him on the stone seat to the West. There, under the breathless attention of the onlookers, I handed him over the hundred Rupees which were wrapped up in a green handkerchief belonging to Choleim Hussein.
I had somehow been prejudiced against the old Priest on account of his preciseness,—on seeing him so very old and small I, for a moment, thought that the situation might be awkward to him. But as we sat together in the afternoon sun, in no way pretending to keep up any conversation, but holding one another company in a friendly spirit, I felt that to him nothing at all could be awkward. He conveyed a strange impression of being in safety, and completely secure. He had a courteous little manner with him, and smiled and nodded, as I pointed out the hills and the tall trees to him, as if he were interested in everything, and incapable of surprise at anything. I wondered if this consistency was produced by an entire ignorance of the evil of the world, or by a deep knowledge and acceptance of it. For whether there be no venomous snakes in the world, or whether you shall have arrived, by injecting ever stronger doses of venom into your blood, at a stage of perfect immunity to it, in the end it must come to the same thing. The look of the old man’s calm face was that of a very young infant, which has not yet learnt to speak, and which is interested in everything, and by the nature of things incapable of surprise. I might have sat, on the stone seat, through an hour of the afternoon, in the company of a very small child, a noble infant, some old Master’s child Jesus,—from time to time touching the rocker of the cradle with a spiritual foot. The faces of very old women of the world, who have seen all of it, and through it, will have that same look. It is not a masculine expression,—it goes with the swaddling-clothes and the woman’s frock, and went well with the beautiful white cashmere robes of my old guest. In a person in male clothes I have seen it only in a clever clown in a Circus.
The old man was tired, and would not get up, while the other Priests were taken by Choleim Hussein down to the river to see the mill. As he was like a bird himself he seemed to take an interest in birds. I had at that time a tame stork by the house, and I kept a flock of geese which were never killed, but were there to make the place look like Denmark. The old Priest showed much interest in them; by pointing to the corners of the world he tried to find out from where they came. My dogs were on the lawn, to make the millennium character of the afternoon perfect. I had thought that Farah and Choleim Hussein would have had them shut up in the kennel, for Choleim Hussein, as a true Mohammedan, was all in a panic about them whenever he came to the farm to do business. But here they were walking about, amongst the white-robed Clergy, indeed the lion by the lamb. Those were the dogs supposed by Ismail to know a Mohammedan by sight.
Before he went away the High Priest gave me, in memory of his visit, a ring with a pearl. I felt then that I, too, wanted to give him something, in addition to the sham gift of the Rupees, and I sent Farah to the store to fetch the skin of a lion which had a short time ago been shot on the farm. The old man took hold of one of the big claws, and with a clear attentive eye tried the sharpness of it on his cheek.
After he had gone away, I wondered whether he had taken into his lean, noble head every single thing within the horizon of the farm, or nothing whatever. Something he had noticed, for three months later I had a letter from India, very wrongly addressed and delayed in the post. In it an Indian prince asked me to sell to him one of my “grey dogs,” of which a High Priest had made mention to him, and to fix my own price.