The Death of Kinanjui
In that same year the Chief Kinanjui died. One of his sons came to my house late in the eve ning and asked me to go back with him to his father’s village, for he was dying: Nataka kufa,—he wants to die,—the Natives have it.
Kinanjui was now an old man. A great thing had lately happened in his life: the quarantine regulations of the Masai Reserve had been suspended. The old Kikuyu Chief, as soon as he heard of it, set forth in person, with a few retainers, deep down South in the Reserve, to wind up his multifarious accounts with the Masai, and bring back with him the cows that belonged to him, together with the calves that they had produced in their exile. While he was down there he had fallen ill; as far as I could understand he had been butted in the thigh by a cow, which seemed a becoming cause of death to a Kikuyu chief, and the wound had gone gangrenous. Kinanjui had been staying too long with the Masai, or had been too ill to undertake the long journey, when at last he turned his face homewards. Probably he had so set his heart on getting all his stock with him, that he had not had it in him to leave until they were all collected, and it is also possible that he had let himself be nursed by one of his married daughters there, until a slight misgiving had risen in him as to her good will to bring him through his illness. In the end he started, and it seemed that his attendants had done their best for him and had taken great trouble to get him home, carrying the deadly sick old man for long distances on a stretcher. Now he lay dying in his hut, and had sent for me.
Kinanjui’s son had come to my house after dinner, and it was dark when Farah and I and he drove over to his village, but the moon was up and in her first quarter. On the way Farah opened up the subject of who was to succeed Kinanjui as chief of the Kikuyu. The old Chief had many sons, it appeared that there were various influences at work in the Kikuyu world. Two of his sons, Farah told me, were Christians, but one was a Roman Catholic, and the other a convert to the Church of Scotland, and each of the two Missions was sure to take pains to get their pretender proclaimed. The Kikuyus themselves, it seemed, wanted a third, younger, heathen son.
The road for the last mile was nothing more than a cattle-track over the sward. The grass was grey with dew. Just before we got to the village we had to cross a river-bed with a little winding silvery stream in the middle; here we drove through a white mist. Kinanjui’s big manyatta, when we got up to it, was all quiet under the moon, a wide compound of huts, small peaked store-huts, and cattle-bomas. As we were turning into it, in the light of our lamps I caught sight, under a thatched roof, of the car which Kinanjui had bought from the American Consul at the time when he came over to the farm to give judgment in the case of Wanyangerri. She looked completely forlorn, all rusty and dilapidated, and surely now Kinanjui would be giving her no thought, but would have turned back to the ways of his fathers, and demand to see cows and women round him.
The village that looked so dark was not asleep, the people were up and came and surrounded us when they heard the car. But it was changed from what it used to be. Kinanjui’s manyatta was always a lively and noisy place, like a well spouting from the ground and running over on all sides; plans and projects were crossing one another in all directions, and all under the eye of the pompous, benevolent, central figure of Kinanjui. Now the wing of death lay over the manyatta, and, like a strong magnet, it had altered the patterns below, forming new constellations and groups. The welfare of each member of the family and tribe was at stake, and such scenes and intrigues as are always played round a royal death-bed were, you felt, alive here, in the strong smell of cows, and in the dim moonlight. As we got out of the car, a boy with a lamp came along and took us up to Kinanjui’s hut, and a crowd of people went with us and stood outside it.
I had never before been inside Kinanjui’s house. This royal mansion was a good deal bigger than the ordinary Kikuyu hut, but when I entered it I found it to be no more luxuriously furnished. There was a bedstead made out of sticks and reins in it, and a few wooden stools to sit on. Two or three fires burned on the stamped clay floor, the heat in the hut was suffocating, and the smoke was so dense that at first I could not see who was in there, although they had a hurricane lamp standing on the floor. When I had got a little more used to the atmosphere I saw that there were three old bald men in the room with me, uncles or councillors of Kinanjui, a very old woman who hung on a stick and remained close to the bed, a young pretty girl, and a boy of thirteen,—and what new constellation, worked by the magnet, was this, in the Chief’s death-chamber?
Kinanjui lay flat on his bed. He was dying, he was already half-way into death and dissolution, and the stench about him was so stifling that at first I dared not open my mouth to speak for fear that I should be sick. The old man was all naked, he was lying upon a tartan rug that I had once given him, but probably he could not stand any weight at all on his poisoned leg. The leg was terrible to look at, so swollen that you could not distinguish the place of the knee, and in the lamplight I could see that it was streaked all the way from the hip to the foot with black and yellow streaks. Underneath the leg, the rug was dark and wet as if water was all the time running from it.
Kinanjui’s son, who had come to the farm to fetch me, brought in an old European chair, with one leg shorter than the others, and placed it very close to the bed, for me to sit on.
Kinanjui’s head and trunk were so emaciated that all the structure of his big skeleton stood forth, he looked like a huge dark wooden figure roughly cut with a knife. His teeth and his tongue showed between his lips. His eyes were half dimmed, milky in his dark face. But he could still see, and when I came up to the bed he turned his eyes on me and kept them on my face all the time that I was in the hut. Very very slowly he dragged his right hand across his body to touch my hand. He was in terrible pain, but he was still himself and was still carrying great weight, naked upon his bed. From the look of him, I thought that he had come back from his journey triumphant, and had got all his cattle back with him, in spite of his Masai sons-in-law. I remembered, while I sat and looked at him, that he had had one weakness: he had been afraid of thunder, and when a thunderstorm broke, while he was in my house, he adopted a rodent manner and looked round for a burrow. But here now he feared no more the lightning flash, nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone: he had plainly, I thought, done his worldly task, gone home, and taken his wages in every sense. If he were clear enough in his mind to look back at his life, he would find very few instances in which he had not got the better of it. A great vitality and power of enjoyment, a manifold activity were at their end here, where Kinanjui lay still. “Quiet consummation have, Kinanjui,”—I thought.
The old men in the hut stood by, as if they had lost the faculty of speech. It was the boy, who had been in there when I came, and whom I took to be a late-born son of Kinanjui’s, who now came up close to his father’s bed and talked to me, in accordance, I thought, with what had been agreed upon before I arrived.
The doctor from the Mission, he explained, had heard of Kinanjui’s illness and had been to see him. He had told the Kikuyus that he would come back again to fetch the dying chief into the Mission hospital, and they were expecting the lorry from the Mission which was to bring him there, that same night. But Kinanjui did not want to go into hospital. That was why he had sent for me. He wanted me to take him with me to my own house, and he meant me to take him now, before the people from the Mission should return. While the boy spoke, Kinanjui looked at me.
I sat and listened with a heavy heart.
If Kinanjui had lain dying at any time in the past, a year ago or even three months ago, I would have taken him with me to my house on his asking for it. But today it was a different thing. Things had gone badly with me lately and had made me fear that they would go on worse. I had been spending days in the offices of Nairobi, listening to businessmen and lawyers, and at meetings with the creditors of the farm. The house, to which Kinanjui asked me to take him, was no longer my own house.
Kinanjui, I thought, as I sat and looked at him, was going to die, he could not be saved. He would die in my car on the way home, or at the arrival to the house. The Mission people would come and blame me for his death; everybody who heard of it would agree with them.
All this, from my seat on the broken chair in the hut, looked to me as a weight too heavy to take on. I had not got it in me any longer to stand up against the authorities of the world. I did not have it in me now to brave them all, not all of them.
I tried two or three times to make up my mind to take Kinanjui and my courage failed me every time. I thought then that I should have to leave him.
Farah had stood by the door, and had followed the boy’s speech. When he saw me sitting on silent, he came up to me and in a low eager voice began an explanation of how we were best to lift Kinanjui into the car. I got up and went with him to the background of the hut, somewhat away from the eyes and the stench of the old man on the bed. I told Farah then that I was not going to take Kinanjui back with me. Farah was completely unprepared for this turn of things, his eyes and whole face darkened with surprise.
I should have liked to have stayed a little with Kinanjui, but I did not want to see the people from the Mission arrive and take him away.
I went up to Kinanjui’s bed and told him that I could not take him with me back to my house. There was no need to give reasons, so we left it at that. The old men in the hut, when they understood my declination, gathered round me and stirred uneasily, the boy stepped back a little and stood immovable, he had no more to do. Kinanjui himself did not stir or change in any way, he kept his eyes on me as he had done all the time. He looked as if something like this had happened to him before, which very likely it had.
“Kwaheri, Kinanjui,” I said,—Good-bye.
His burning fingers moved a little against my palm. Already before I had got to the door of the hut, when I turned and looked back, the dimness and smoke of the room had swallowed up the big outstretched figure of my Kikuyu Chief.
As I came out again from the hut it was very cold. The moon was now low down at the horizon, it must have been past midnight. Just then in the manyatta one of Kinanjui’s cocks crew twice.
Kinanjui died that same night, in the Mission hospital. Two of his sons came over to my house next afternoon to tell me. They did at the same time ask me to the funeral, which was to take place on the following day, near his village, at Dagoretti.
The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vulture to deal with. The custom had always appealed to me, I thought that it would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly and openly picked and cleansed; to be made one with Nature and become a common component of a landscape. At the time when we had the Spanish flu on the farm, I heard the Hyenas round the shambas all night, and often, after those days, I would find a brown smooth skull in the long grass of the forest, like a nut dropped down under a tree, or on the plain. But the practice does not go with the conditions of civilized life. The government had taken much trouble to make the Kikuyu change their ways, and to teach them to lay their dead in the ground, but they still did not like the idea at all.
Kinanjui, they now told me, was to be buried, and I thought that the Kikuyu would have agreed to make an exception from their habit because the dead had been a Chief. Perhaps they would like to make a great Native show and gathering, of the occasion. I drove over to Dagoretti, on the following afternoon, expecting to find all the old minor Chiefs of the country, and to see a big Kikuyu festivity.
But Kinanjui’s funeral was altogether a European and clerical affair. There were a few Government Representatives present, the District Commissioner and two Officials from Nairobi. But the day and the place belonged to the Clergy; and the plain, in the afternoon sun, was black with them. Both the French Mission and the Missions of the Church of England and Scotland, were richly represented. If they wished to impress the Kikuyu with the feeling that here they had laid their hand on the dead Chief, and that he now belonged to them, they succeeded. They were so obviously in power that one felt it to be out of the question for Kinanjui to get away from them. This is an old trick of the Church’s. Here I saw for the first time, in any number to speak of, the Mission-boys, the converted Natives, half sacerdotally attired, whatever office they might be filling, fat young Kikuyus with spectacles and folded hands, who looked like ungenial Eunuchs. Probably Kinanjui’s two Christian sons were there, laying down their religious disagreements for the day, but I did not know them. Some of the old Chiefs were attending the funeral, Keoy was there, and I talked with him for some time of Kinanjui. But they kept themselves much in the background of the show.
Kinanjui’s grave had been dug under a couple of tall Eucalyptus trees on the plain, and a rope was extended round it. I had come early and therefore stood close to the grave, by the rope, from where I could watch the assemblage grow and settle, like flies, round it.
They brought Kinanjui from the Mission on a lorry, and lifted him down near the grave. I do not think that I have ever in my life been more taken aback and appalled than I was then, at the sight of him. He had been a big man, and I remembered him as I had seen him when he came walking over to the farm amongst his senators, even as he had looked lying on his bed, two nights ago. But the coffin in which they now brought him was a nearly square box, surely no more than five feet long. I did not take it to be a coffin when I first set eyes on it; it must be, I thought, some box of appliances for the funeral. But it was Kinanjui’s coffin. I have never known why it was chosen, perhaps it was a thing that they had had at the Scotch Mission. But how had they got Kinanjui down there and how was he now lying in it? They placed the coffin on the ground, close to where I stood.
The coffin had a large silver plate on it with an inscription, which told, I was afterwards informed, that it had been given by the Mission to the Chief Kinanjui, and with a scriptural text on it.
There was a long funeral service. One after another, the Missionaries stood forth and spoke, and I suppose that they got in much profession and admonition. But I did not hear any of it, I was holding on to the rope round Kinanjui’s grave. Some of the Christian Natives followed them up, and brayed out over the green plain.
In the end Kinanjui was lowered into the ground of his own country, and covered with it.
I had taken my house-boys with me to Dagoretti so that they should see the funeral, and they were staying to talk with their friends and relations there, and coming back on foot, so that Farah and I drove home by ourselves. Farah was as silent as the grave we had left. It had been hard to Farah to swallow the fact that I would not take Kinanjui back to my house with me, for two days he had been like a lost soul, and in the clutch of great doubts and depressions.
Now as we drove up before the door he said: “Never mind, Memsahib.”