My farm was a little too high up for gr owing coffee. it happened in the cold months that we would get frost on the lower land and in the morning the shoots of the coffee-trees, and the young coffee-berries on them, would be all brown and withered. The wind blew in from the plains, and even in good years we never got the same yield of coffee to the acre as the people in the lower districts of Thika and Kiambu, on four thousand feet.
We were short of rain, as well, in the Ngong country, and three times we had a year of real drought, which brought us very low down. In a year in which we had fifty inches of rain, we picked eighty tons of coffee, and in a year of fifty-five inches, nearly ninety tons; but there were two bad years in which we had only twenty-five and twenty inches of rain, and picked only sixteen and fifteen tons of coffee, and those years were disastrous to the farm.
At the same time coffee-prices fell: where we had got a hundred pounds a ton we now got sixty or seventy. Times grew hard on the farm. We could not pay our debts, and we had no money for the running of the plantation. My people at home, who had shares in the farm, wrote out to me and told me that I would have to sell.
I thought out many devices for the salvation of the farm. One year I tried to grow flax on our spare land. Flax-growing is a lovely job, but it needs much skill and experience. I had a Belgian refugee to give me advice on it, and when he asked me how much land I meant to plant, and I told him three hundred acres, he immediately exclaimed: “Ca, madame, c’est impossible.” I might grow five acres or even ten with success, he said, but no more. But ten acres would take us nowhere, and I put in a hundred and fifty acres. A sky-blue flowering flax-field is a marvellously pretty sight,—like a piece of Heaven on earth and there can be no more gratifying kind of goods to be turning out than the flax fibre, tough and glossy, and slightly greasy to the touch. You follow it in your thoughts as it is sent away, and imagine it made into sheets and nightgowns. But the Kikuyu could not, in the turn of a hand and without constant supervision, be taught to be accurate enough in the pulling and retting and scutching of it; and so my flax-growing was no success.
Most of the farmers in the country were, in those years, trying their hand at some such scheme, and to a few of them in the end an inspiration came. Things turned out well for Ingrid Lindstrom of Njoro: at the time when I had left the country, and after she had slaved for twelve years at her market-gardening, pigs, turkeys, castor-oil bushes, and soya-beans, had seen them all fail, and wept over them, she saved her farm for her family and herself by planting pyrethrum, which is sent to France and is there used in making perfumes. But I myself had no luck with my experiments, and when the dry weather and the wind from the Athi plains set in, the coffee-trees drooped and the leaves turned yellow; on parts of the farm we got bad coffee-diseases like thrips and antestia.
To bring the coffee on we tried to manure the fields. It had always, as I had been brought up with European ideas on farming, gone against me to take the crops out of the land, without manuring. When the squatters of the farm heard of the project they came forward to help me, and brought out, from their cattle and goat bomas, the manure of decades. It was delicate peaty stuff that was easy to handle. We ploughed up a furrow between the rows of coffee-trees, with the small new ploughs with a single ox to them that we had bought in Nairobi, and, since we could not get a cart into the fields, the women of the farm carried the manure in sacks on their backs, and spread it in the furrow, a sack to the tree, so that we could lead back the oxen and ploughs, and cover it up. It was pleasant work to watch, and I expected great things from it, but as it came to happen, no one ever saw the effects of the manuring.
One real trouble was that we were short of capital, for it had all been spent in the old days before I took over the running of the farm. We could not carry through any radical improvements, but had to live from hand to mouth,—and this, in the last years, became our normal mode of living on the farm.
If I had had the capital, I thought, I would have given up coffee, have cut down the coffee-trees, and have planted forest-trees on my land. Trees grow up so quickly in Africa, in ten years’ time you walk comfortably under tall blue gum trees, and wattle trees, which you have yourself, in the rain, carried in boxes from the nurseries, twelve trees in a box. I would have had then, I reflected, a good market for both timber and firewood in Nairobi. It is a noble occupation to plant trees, you think of it many years after with content. There had been big stretches of Native forest on the farm in the old days, but it had been sold to the Indians for cutting down, before I took over the farm; it was a sad thing. I myself in the hard years had had to cut down the wood on my land round the factory for the steam-engine, and this forest, with the tall stems and the live green shadows in it had haunted me, I have not felt more sorry for anything I have done in my life, than for cutting it down. From time to time, when I could afford it, I planted up bits of land with Eucalyptus trees, but it did not come to much. It would be, in this way, fifty years before I had got the many hundred acres planted up, and had changed the farm into a singing wood, scientifically run, with a saw-mill by the river. The Squatters of the farm, though, whose ideas of time were different from those of the white people, kept on looking forward hopefully to the time when everybody would have abundance of firewood,—such as the people had had in the old days,—from the forest that I was now soon going to plant.
I had also plans of keeping cattle and running a dairy, on the farm. We were situated in an unclean area, which means that you have got East Coast fever on the land, and that if you will keep Grade stock you have got to dip your cattle. It makes it harder to compete with the cattle-people up-country in the clean areas, but then I had Nairobi so close that I could send in milk there by car in the morning. We once owned a herd of Grade cows, and then we built a fine cattle-dip on the plain. But we had to sell out, and the cattle-dip, overgrown with grass, afterwards stood like a sunk and overturned ruin of a castle in the air. Later on, when in the evening, at milking-time, I walked down to Mauge’s or Kaninu’s boma, and smelled the sweet scent of the cows, I felt again a pang of longing for cow-stables and a dairy of my own. When I rode on the plain, in my mind I saw it dotted, as with flowers, with brindled cows.
But these plans grew very distant in the course of the years, and in the end they could hardly be distinguished. I did not mind either, if I could only make the coffee pay, and keep the farm going.
It is a heavy burden to carry a farm on you. My Natives, and my white people even, left me to dread and worry on their behalf, and it sometimes seemed to me that the farm-oxen and the coffee-trees themselves, were doing the same. It appeared to be agreed upon, then, by the speaking creatures and the dumb, that it was my fault that the rains were late and the nights so cold. And in the evening it did not seem right that I should sit down quietly to read; I was driven out of my house by the fear of losing it. Farah knew of all my sorrows, and he did not approve of my walks at night. He talked about the leopards that had been seen close to the house when the sun was down; and he used to stand on the Verandah, a white-robed figure just visible in the dark, until I came in again. But I was too sad to get any idea of leopards into my mind, I knew that I did no good whatever by going round on the roads of the farm in the night, and still I went, like a ghost that is just said to walk, without any definition as to why or where to.
Two years before I left Africa I was in Europe on a visit. I travelled back in the coffee-picking season, so that I could not get news of the harvest before I came to Mombasa. All the time on the boat I was weighing the problem in my mind: when I was well and life was looking friendly, I reckoned that we would have got seventy-five tons, but when I was unwell or nervous I thought: We are bound to get sixty tons in any case.
Farah came to meet me in Mombasa, and I dared not ask him about the coffee-crop straight away; for some time we talked of other news of the farm. But in the evening as I was going to bed, I could not put it off any longer and I asked him how many tons of coffee they had picked on the farm in all. The Somalis are generally pleased to announce a disaster. But here Farah was not happy, he was extremely grave himself, standing up by the door, and he half closed his eyes and laid back his head, swallowing his sorrow, when he said: “Forty tons, Memsahib.” At that I knew that we could not carry on. All colour and life faded out of the world round me, the bleak and stifling Mombasa hotel-room, with the cemented floor, old iron bedstead and worn mosquito-net, took on a tremendous significance as the symbol of the world, without any single ornament or article of embellishment of human life in it. I did not say anything more to Farah, and he did not speak again, but went away, the last friendly object in the world.
Still the human mind has great powers of self-renewal, and in the middle of the night I thought, with Old Knudsen, that forty tons was something, but that pessimism,—pessimism was a fatal vice. And in any case I was going home now, I would be turning up the drive once more. My people were there, and my friends would come out to visit me. In ten hours I was to see, from the railway, to the South-West, the blue silhouette against the sky of the Ngong Hills.
The same year the grasshoppers came on the land. It was said that they came from Abyssinia; after two years of drought up there, they travelled South and ate up all vegetation on their way. Before we ever saw them, there were strange tales circulating in the country of the devastation that they had left behind them,—up North, maize and wheat and fruit-farms were all one vast desert where they had passed. The settlers sent runners to their neighbours to the South to announce the coming of the grasshoppers. Still you could not do much against them even if you were warned. On all the farms people had tall piles of firewood and maize-stalks ready and set fire to them when the grasshoppers came, and they sent out all the farm-labourers with empty tins and cans, and told them to shout and yell and beat the tins to frighten them from landing. But it was a short respite only, for however much the farmers would frighten them the grasshoppers could not keep up in the air for ever, the only thing that each farmer could hope for was to drive them off to the next farm to the South, and the more farms they were scared away from, the hungrier and more desperate were they, when in the end they settled. I myself had the great plains of the Masai Reserve to the South, so that I might hope to keep the grasshoppers on the wing and send them over the river to the Masai.
I had had three or four runners announcing the arrival of the grasshoppers, from neighbourly settlers of the district, already, but nothing more had happened, and I began to believe that it was all a false alarm. One afternoon I rode over to our dhuka, a farm-shop of all goods, kept for the farm-labourers and the squatters by Farah’s small brother Abdullai. It was on the highroad, and an Indian in a mule-trap outside the dhuka rose in his trap and beckoned to me as I passed, since he could not drive up to me on the plain.
“The grasshoppers are coming, Madam, please, on to your land,” said he when I rode up to him.
“I have been told that many times,” I said, “but I have seen nothing of them. Perhaps it is not so bad as people tell.”
“Turn round kindly, Madam,” said the Indian.
I turned round and saw, along the Northern horizon, a shadow on the sky, like a long stretch of smoke, a town burning, “a million-peopled city vomiting smoke in the bright air,” I thought, or like a thin cloud rising.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Grasshoppers,” said the Indian.
I saw a few grasshoppers, perhaps twenty in all, on the path across the plain as I rode back. I passed my manager’s house and instructed him to have everything ready for receiving the grasshoppers. As together we looked North the black smoke on the sky had grown up a little higher. From time to time while we were watching it, a grasshopper swished past us in the air, or dropped on the ground and crawled on.
The next morning as I opened my door and looked out, the whole landscape outside was the colour of pale dull terra cotta. The trees, the lawn, the drive, all that I could see, was covered with the dye, as if in the night a thick layer of terra cotta coloured snow had fallen on the land. The grasshoppers were sitting there. While I stood and looked at it, all the scenery began to quiver and break, the grasshoppers moved and lifted, after a few minutes the atmosphere fluttered with wings, they were going off.
That time they did not do much damage to the farm, they had been staying with us over the night only. We had seen what they were like, about an inch and a half long, brownish grey and pink, sticky to touch. They had broken a couple of big trees in my drive simply by sitting on them, and when you looked at the trees and remembered that each of the grasshoppers could only weigh a tenth of an ounce, you began to conceive the number of them.
The grasshoppers came again; for two or three months we had continued attacks of them on the farm. We soon gave up trying to frighten them off, it was a hopeless and tragicomical undertaking. At times a small swarm would come along, a free-corps which had detached itself from the main force, and would just pass in a rush. But at other times the grasshoppers came in big flights, which took days to pass over the farm, twelve hours’ incessant hurling advance in the air. When the flight was at its highest it was like a blizzard at home, whistling and shrieking like a strong wind, little hard furious wings to all sides of you and over your head, shining like thin blades of steel in the sun, but themselves darkening the sun. The grasshoppers keep in a belt, from the ground up to the top of the trees, beyond that the air is clear. They whir against your face, they get into your collar and your sleeves and shoes. The rush round you makes you giddy and fills you with a particular sickening rage and despair, the horror of the mass. The individual amongst it does not count; kill them and it makes no difference to anybody. After the grasshoppers have passed and have gone towards the horizon like a long streak of thinning smoke, the feeling of disgust at your own face and hands, which have been crawled upon by grasshoppers, stays with you for a long time.
A great flight of birds followed the advance of the grasshoppers, circled above them and came down and walked in the fields when they settled, living high on the horde: storks and cranes,—pompous profiteers.
At times the grasshoppers settled on the farm. They did not do much harm to the coffee-plantation, the leaves of the coffee-trees, similar to laurel-leaves, are too hard for them to chew. They could only break a tree here and there in the field.
But the maize-fields were a sad sight when they had been on them and had left, there was nothing there now but a few laps of dry leaves hanging from the broken stalks. My garden by the river, that had been irrigated and kept green, was now like a dust-heap,—flowers, vegetables and herbs had all gone. The shambas of the squatters were like stretches of cleared and burnt land, rolled even by the crawling insects, with a dead grasshopper in the dust here and there as the sole fruit of the soil. The squatters stood and looked at them. The old women who had dug and planted the shambas, standing on their heads, shook their fists at the last faint black disappearing shadow in the sky.
A lot of dead grasshoppers were left behind the army everywhere. On the high-road, where they had sat, and where the waggons and carts had passed, and had driven over them, now, after the swarm had gone, the wheel-tracks were marked, like rails of a railway, as long as you could see them, with little bodies of dead grasshoppers.
The grasshoppers had laid their eggs in the soil. Next year, after the long rains, the little black-brown hoppers appeared,—grasshoppers in the first stage of life, that cannot fly, but which crawl along and eat up everything upon their march.
When I had no more money, and could not make things pay, I had to sell the farm. A big Company in Nairobi bought it. They thought that the place was too high up for coffee, and they were not going in for farming. But they meant to take up all the coffee-trees, to divide up the land and lay out roads, and in time, when Nairobi should be growing out to the West, they meant to sell the land for building-plots. That was towards the end of the year.
Even as it was then, I do not think that I should have found it in me to give up the farm if it had not been for one thing. The coffee-crop that was still unripe upon the trees belonged to the old owners of the farm, or to the Bank which was holding a first mortgage in it. This coffee would not be picked, handled in the factory and sent off, till May or later. For such a period I was to remain on the farm, in charge of it, and things were to go on, unaltered to the view. And during this time, I thought, something would happen to change it all back, since the world, after all, was not a regular or calculable place.
In this way began for me a strange era in my existence on the farm. The truth, that was underlying everything, was that it was no longer mine, but such as it was, this truth could be ignored by the people incapable of realizing it, and it made no difference to things from day to day. It was then, from hour to hour, a lesson in the art of living in the moment, or, it might be said, in eternity, wherein the actual happenings of the moment make but little difference.
It was a curious thing that I myself did not, during this time, ever believe that I would have to give up the farm or to leave Africa. I was told that I must do so by the people round me, all of them reasonable men; I had letters from home by each mail to prove it, and all the facts of my daily life pointed to it. All the same nothing was farther from my thoughts, and I kept on believing that I should come to lay my bones in Africa. For this firm faith I had no other foundation, or no other reason, than my complex incompetency of imagining anything else.
During these months, I formed in my own mind a programme, or system of strategy, against destiny, and against the people in my surrounding who were her confederates. I shall give in, I thought, from this time forward, in all minor matters, to save myself unnecessary trouble. I shall let my adversaries have their way from day to day in these affairs, in talk and writing. For in the end I shall still come out triumphant and shall keep my farm and the people on it. Lose them, I thought, I cannot: it cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?
In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going. When I look back upon my last months in Africa, it seems to me that the lifeless things were aware of my departure a long time before I was so myself. The hills, the forests, plains and rivers, the wind, all knew that we were to part. When I first began to make terms with fate, and the negotiations about the sale of the farm were taken up, the attitude of the landscape towards me changed. Till then I had been part of it, and the drought had been to me like a fever, and the flowering of the plain like a new frock. Now the country disengaged itself from me, and stood back a little, in order that I should see it clearly and as a whole.
The hills can do the same thing in the week before the rains. On an evening as you look at them, they suddenly make a great movement and uncover, they become as manifest, as distinct and vivid in form and colour, as if they meant to yield themselves to you, with all that they contain, as if you could walk from where you sit, on to the green slope. You think: if a bushbuck now walked out in the open, I might see its eyes as it turned its head, its ears moving; if a little bird settled on a twig of a bush, I should hear it sing. In the hills, in March, this gesture of abandon means that the rains are near, but here, to me, it meant parting.
I have before seen other countries, in the same manner, give themselves to you when you are about to leave them, but I had forgotten what it meant. I only thought that I had never seen the country so lovely, as if the contemplation of it would in itself be enough to make you happy all your life. Light and shade shared the landscape between them; rainbows stood in the sky.
When I was with other white people, lawyers and business-men of Nairobi, or with my friends who gave me advice about my journey, my isolation from them felt very strange, and sometimes like a physical thing,—a kind of suffocation. I looked upon myself as the one reasonable person amongst them all; but once or twice it happened to me to reflect that if I had been mad, amongst sane people, I should have felt just the same.
The Natives of the farm, in the stark realism of their souls, were conscious of the situation and of my state of mind, as fully as if I had been lecturing to them upon it, or had written it down for them in a book. All the same, they looked to me for help and support, and did not, in a single case, attempt to arrange their future for themselves. They tried their very best to make me stay on, and for this purpose invented many schemes which they confided to me. At the time when the sale of the farm was through, they came and sat round my house from the early morning till night, not so much in order to talk with me as just to follow all my movements. There is a paradoxical moment in the relation between the leader and the followers: that they should see every weakness and failing in him so clearly, and be capable of judging him with such unbiased accuracy, and yet should still inevitably turn to him, as if in life there were, physically, no way round him. A flock of sheep may be feeling the same towards the herd-boy, they will have infinitely better knowledge of the country and the weather than he, and still will be walking after him, if needs be, straight into the abyss. The Kikuyu took the situation better than I did, on account of their superior inside knowledge of God and the Devil, but they sat round my house and waited for my orders; very likely all the time between themselves expatiating freely upon my ignorance and my unique incapacity.
You would have thought that their constant presence by my house, when I knew that I could not help them, and when their fate weighed heavily on my mind, would have been hard to bear. But it was not so. We felt, I believe, up to the very last, a strange comfort and relief in each other’s company. The understanding between us lay deeper than all reason. I thought in these months much of Napoleon on the retreat from Moscow. It is generally thought that he went through agonies in seeing his grand army suffering and dying round him, but it is also possible that he would have dropped down dead on the spot if he had not had them. In the night, I counted the hours till the time when the Kikuyus should turn up again by the house.