The Giraffes Go to Hamburg
I was staying in Mombasa in the house of Sheik Ali bin Salim, the Lewali of the coast, a hospitable, chivalrous old Arab gentleman.
Mombasa has all the look of a picture of Paradise painted by a small child. The deep Sea-arm round the island forms an ideal harbour; the land is made out of whitish coral-cliff grown with broad green mango trees and fantastic bald grey Baobab trees. The Sea at Mombasa is as blue as a cornflower, and, outside the inlet to the harbour, the long breakers of the Indian Ocean draw a thin crooked white line, and give out a low thunder even in the calmest weather. The narrow-streeted town of Mombasa is all built from coral-rock, in pretty shades of buff, rose and ochre, and above the town rises the massive old Fortress, with walls and embrasure, where three hundred years ago the Portuguese and the Arabs held out against one another; it displays stronger colours than the town, as if it had, in the course of the ages, from its high site drunk in more than one stormy sunset.
The flamboyant red Acacia flowers in the gardens of Mombasa, unbelievably intense of colour and delicate of leaf. The sun burns and scorches Mombasa; the air is salt here, the breeze brings in every day fresh supplies of brine from the East, and the soil itself is salted so that very little grass grows, and the ground is bare like a dancing-floor. But the ancient mango trees have a dense dark-green foliage and give benignant shade; they create a circular pool of black coolness underneath them. More than any other tree that I know of, they suggest a place to meet in, a centre for human intercourse; they are as sociable as the village-wells. Big markets are held under the mango trees, and the ground round their trunks is covered with hen-coops, and piled up watermelons. Ali bin Salim had a pleasant white house on the mainland, at the curve of the Sea-arm, with a long row of stone steps down to the Sea. There were guests’ houses alongside it, and in the big room of the principal building, behind the Verandah, there were collected many fine Arab and English things: old ivory and brass, china from Lamu, velvet armchairs, photographs, and a large gramophone. Amongst these, inside a satin-lined casket, were the remnants of a full tea-set in dainty English china of the ‘forties, which had been the wedding-present of the young Queen of England and her Consort, when the Sultan of Zanzibar’s son married the Shah of Persia’s daughter. The Queen and the Prince had wished the married couple such happiness as they were themselves enjoying.
“And were they as happy?” I asked Sheik Ali when he took out the little cups, one by one, and placed them on the table to show them to me.
“Alas no,” said he, “the bride would not give up riding. She had brought her horses with her, on the dhow that carried her trousseau. But the people of Zanzibar did not approve of ladies riding. There was much trouble about it, and, as the Princess would sooner give up her husband than her horses, in the end the marriage was dissolved and the Shah’s daughter went back to Persia.”
In the harbour of Mombasa lay a rusty German cargo-steamer, homeward bound. I passed her in Ali bin Salim’s rowing boat with his Swaheli rowers, on my way to the island and back. Upon the deck there stood a tall wooden case, and above the edge of the case rose the heads of two Giraffes. They were, Farah, who had been on board the boat, told me, coming from Portuguese East Africa, and were going to Hamburg, to a travelling Menagerie.
The Giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the Sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.
They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening.
Crowds, in dark smelly clothes, will be coming in from the wind and sleet of the streets to gaze on the Giraffes, and to realize man’s superiority over the dumb world. They will point and laugh at the long slim necks when the graceful, patient, smoky-eyed heads are raised over the railings of the menagerie; they look much too long in there. The children will be frightened at the sight and cry, or they will fall in love with the Giraffes, and hand them bread. Then the fathers and mothers will think the Giraffes nice beasts, and believe that they are giving them a good time.
In the long years before them, will the Giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they gone to, the grass and the thorn-trees, the rivers and water-holes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other Giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.
In the night where is the full moon?
The Giraffes stir, and wake up in the caravan of the Menagerie, in their narrow box that smells of rotten straw and beer.
Good-bye, good-bye, I wish for you that you may die on the journey, both of you, so that not one of the little noble heads, that are now raised, surprised, over the edge of the case, against the blue sky of Mombasa, shall be left to turn from one side to the other, all alone, in Hamburg, where no one knows of Africa.
As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.