Riding in the Reserve
I rode into the Masai Reserve. I had to cross the river to get there; riding on, I got into the Game Reserve in a quarter of an hour. It had taken me some time, while I had lived on the farm, to find a place where I could get over the river on horseback: the descent was stony, and the slope up the other side very steep, but “once in,—how the delighted spirit pants for joy.”
Here lay before you a hundred miles’ gallop over grass and open undulating land; there was not a fence nor a ditch, and no road. There was no human habitation except the Masai villages, and those were deserted half the year, when the great wanderers took themselves and their herds off to other pastures. There were low thorn trees regularly spread over the plain, and long deep valleys with dry riverbeds of big flat stones, where you had to find a deer-path here and there to take you across. After a little while you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world, into a still country.
A little before the rains, the Masai burn off the old dry grass, and while the plains are thus lying black and waste they are unpleasant to travel on: you will get the black charred dust, which the hoofs of your horse raise, all over you and into your eyes, and the burnt grass-stalks are sharp as glass; your dogs get their feet cut on them. But when the rains come, and the young green grass is fresh on the plains, you feel as if riding upon springs, and the horse gets a little mad with the pleasantness. The various kinds of gazelles come to the green places to graze, and there look like toy animals stood upon a billiard table. You may ride into a herd of Eland; the mighty peaceful beasts will let you get close to them before they start trotting off, their long horns streaming backwards over their raised necks, the large loose flaps of breastskin, that make them look square, swaying as they jog. They seem to have come out of an old Egyptian epitaph, but there they have been ploughing the fields, which gives them a familiar and domesticated air. The Giraffe keep farther away in the Reserve.
At times, in the first month of the rains, a sort of wild white fragrant Pink flowers so richly all over the Reserve that at a distance the plains look patched with snow.
I turned to the animal world from the world of men; my heart was heavy with the tragedy of the night. The old men sitting at my house made me uneasy; in old times people must have had that feeling when they thought it likely that a witch of the neighbourhood had fixed her mind upon them, or was at the very moment carrying a wax-child under her clothes, to be baptized with their own name.
My relations with the Natives in the legal affairs of the farm were altogether of a queer nature. Since, before anything, I wanted peace on the land, I could not keep out of them, for a dispute between the Squatters, which has not been solemnly settled, was like those sores that you get in Africa, and which they there call veldt-sores: they heal on the surface if you let them, and go on festering and running underneath until you dig them up to the bottom and have them cleaned all through. The Natives themselves were aware of this, and if they really wanted a matter settled they would ask me to give judgment.
As I knew nothing of their laws the figure that I cut at these great courts of justice would often be that of a Prima donna who does not remember a word of her part and has to be prompted through it by the rest of the cast. This task my old men took upon themselves with tact and patience. It would also at times be the figure of an affronted Prima donna who is shocked by her role and, refusing to go on with it, walks off the stage. When this happened, my audience took it as a hard blow from the hand of destiny, an act of God outside their understanding; they looked on it in silence and spat.
The ideas of justice of Europe and Africa are not the same and those of the one world are unbearable to the other. To the African there is but one way of counterbalancing the catastrophes of existence, it shall be done by replacement; he does not look for the motive of an action. Whether you lie in wait for your enemy and cut his throat in the dark; or you fell a tree, and a thoughtless stranger passes by and is killed: so far as punishment goes, to the Native mind, it is the same thing. A loss has been brought upon the community and must be made up for, somewhere, by somebody. The Native will not give time or thought to the weighing up of guilt or desert: either he fears that this may lead him too far, or he reasons that such things are no concern of his. But he will devote himself, in endless speculations, to the method by which crime or disaster shall be weighed up in sheep and goats,—time does not count to him; he leads you solemnly into a sacred maze of sophistry. In those days this went against my ideas of justice.
All Africans are the same in these rites. The Somali have a very different mentality from the Kikuyu and a deep contempt for them, but they will sit down in identical manner to weigh up murder, rape, or fraud against their stock at home in Somaliland,—dearly beloved she-camels, and horses, the names and pedigree of which are written in their hearts.
Once the news came to Nairobi of how Farah’s little brother, who was ten years old, in a place called Buramur, had taken up a stone and thrown it at a boy of a different tribe, knocking out two of his teeth. Over this matter representatives of the two tribes met at the farm to sit upon the floor of Farah’s house and talk, night after night. Old lean men came, who had been to Mekka and wore a green turban, arrogant young Somalis who, when they were not attending to really serious matters, were gunbearers to the great European travellers and hunters, and dark-eyed, round-faced boys, who were shyly representing their family and who did not say a word, but were devoutly listening and learning. Farah told me that the matter was considered so grave because the boy’s looks had been ruined, he might find it difficult, when his time came, to get married, and would have to come down in his pretentions as to birth or beauty in his bride. In the end the penance was fixed at fifty camels, which means half waregilt, full waregilt being one hundred camels. Fifty camels were then bought, far away in Somaliland, to be, ten years hence, laid on to the price of a Somali maiden, and to turn her eyes off the two missing teeth of her bridegroom; perhaps the foundation of a tragedy was laid. Farah himself considered that he had got off lightly.
The Natives of the farm never realized my views on their legal systems, and they came to me first of all for their indemnification when any ill-luck befell them.
Once, in the coffee-picking season, a young Kikuyu girl named Wamboi was run over by a bullock cart outside my house and killed. The carts were taking coffee from the field to the mill, and I had forbidden anybody to go riding on them. Otherwise I should have had at every trip a party of gay coffee-picking girls and children taking a slow joyride,—for anybody can walk quicker than a bullock,—all across the farm, and it would be too heavy on my bullocks. The young drivers, however, did not have it in them to send away the dreamy-eyed girls who kept running alongside their carts and begging for this great pleasure; all they could do was to tell them to jump off where the road came into sight of my house. But Wamboi fell as she jumped and the wheel of the cart went over her small dark head and broke the skull; a little blood trailed in the cart-track.
I sent for her old father and mother, who came in from the picking-field and wailed over her. I knew that this would also mean a heavy loss to them, for the girl had been of marriage-age, and would have brought them in her price of sheep and goats and a heifer or two. This they had been looking forward to since her birth. I was considering how much I ought to help them, when they forestalled me by turning upon me, with great energy, their claim for a full indemnification.
No, I said, I would not pay. I had told the girls of the farm that I would not have them riding on the carts, all people were aware of that. The old people nodded, there was nothing here with which they did not agree, but they stuck to their claim immovably. Their argument was that somebody must pay. They could get no contradiction to the principle into their heads, no more than they could have got the theory of relativity in there. And it was not greed or spite which, when I broke off the discussion and went back, made them follow at my heels; it was, as if I had been indeed magnetic, a law of Nature.
They sat down and waited outside my house. They were poor people, small and underfed; they looked like a pair of little badgers on my lawn. They sat there till the sun was down and I could hardly distinguish them against the grass. They were sunk in deep grief; their bereavement and their economic loss melted into one overwhelming distress. Farah was away for the day; in his absence, at the time when the lamps were lighted in my house, I sent them out money to buy a sheep to eat. It was a bad move, they took it as the first sign of exhaustion in a besieged city and sat down for the night. I do not know if they would have had it in them to go away, if it had not been that, late in the evening, they conceived the idea of running in the young cart-driver for their damage. The idea lifted them off the grass and away, suddenly, without a word, and took them early next morning to Dagoretti, where our Assistant District Commissioner lived.
It brought upon the farm a long murder-case and many swaggering young Native Policemen. But all that the A.D.C. offered to do for them was to have the driver hanged for murder, and even that he gave up when he had got the evidence in the case, and the Ancients would not hold a Kyama upon the matter after both he and I had turned it away. So in the end the old people had to sit down under a law of relativity of which they did not understand a word, as other people have had to do.
At times I grew tired of my Ancients of the Kyama and told them what I thought of them.—“You old men,” I said, “are fining the young men in order that it shall be impossible to them to collect any money for themselves. The young men cannot move for you, and then you buy up all the girls yourselves.” The old men listened attentively, the small black eyes in their dry and wrinkled faces glittered, their thin lips moved gently as if they were repeating my words: they were pleased to hear, for once, an excellent principle put into speech.
With all our diversities of views, my position as a judge to the Kikuyu held a profusion of potentialities, and was dear to me. I was young then, and had meditated upon the ideas of justice and injustice, but mostly from the angle of the person who is being judged; in a judge’s seat I had not been. I took great trouble to judge rightly, and for peace on the farm. At times, when the problems became difficult, I had to retire and take time to think them over, covering my head with a mental cloak so that nobody should come and talk to me about them. This was always an effective move with the people of the farm, and I heard them, a long time afterwards, talk with respect of the case that had been so deep that no one could look through it in less than a week. One can always impress a Native by wasting more time over a matter than he does himself, only it is a difficult thing to accomplish.
But that the Natives should want me for a judge, and that they should consider my verdict of value to them, of this the explanation is found in their mythological or theological mentality. The Europeans have lost the faculty for building up myths or dogma, and for what we want of these we are dependent upon the supplies of our past. But the mind of the African moves naturally and easily upon such deep and shadowy paths. This gift of theirs comes out strongly in their relations with white people.
You find it already in the names which they deal out to the Europeans with whom they come in contact, after a very short acquaintance. You have got to know these names if you are to send a runner with letters to a friend, or find the way in a car to his house, for the Native world knows him by no other name. I have had an unsociable neighbour, who would never entertain a guest in his house, who was named Sahane Modja,—One Cover. My Swedish friend Eric Otter was Resase Modja,—One Cartridge,—which meant that he did not need more than one single cartridge to kill, and which was a fine name to be known by. There was a keen automobilist of my acquaintance, who was called “Half man—half car.” When Natives name white men after animals,—the Fish, the Giraffe, the Fat Bull,—their minds run upon the lines of the old fables, and these white men, I believe, in their dark consciousness figure as both men and beasts.
And there is magic in words: a person who has for many years been known to all his surroundings by the name of an animal in the end comes to feel familiar with and related to the animal, he recognises himself in it. When he is back in Europe it is strange to him to feel that no one ever connects him with it.
Once, in the London Zoo, I saw again an old retired Government Official, whom in Africa I had known as Bw^ana Tembu,—Mr. Elephant. He was standing, all by himself, before the Elephant-house, sunk in deep contemplation of the Elephants. Perhaps he would go there often. His Native servants would have thought it in the order of things that he should be there, but probably no one in all London, except I who was there only for a few days, would have quite understood him.
The Native mind works in strange ways, and is related to the mind of bygone people, who naturally imagined that Odin, so as to see through the whole world, gave away one of his eyes; and who figured the God of love as a child, ignorant of love. It is likely that the Kikuyu of the farm saw my greatness as a judge in the fact that I knew nothing whatever of the laws according to which I judged.
Because of their gift for myths, the Natives can also do things to you against which you cannot guard yourself and from which you cannot escape. They can turn you into a symbol. I was well aware of the process, and for my own use I had a word for it,—in my mind I called it that they were brass-serpenting me. Europeans who have lived for a long time with Natives, will understand what I mean, even if the word is not quite correctly used according to the Bible. I believe that in spite of all our activities in the land, of the scientific and mechanical progress there, and of Pax Britannica itself, this is the only practical use that the Natives have ever had out of us.
They could not make use of all white men for the purpose, and not of one man and another equally. They gave us, within their world, precedence of rank according to our utility to them as brass-serpents. Many of my friends,—Denys Finch-Hatton, both Galbraith and Berkeley Cole, Sir Northrup MacMillan,—ranked highly with the Natives in this capacity.
Lord Delamere was a brass-serpent of the first magnitude. I remember that I once travelled in the highlands at the time when the great pest of hoppers came on to the land. The grasshoppers had been there the year before, now their small black offspring appeared, to eat what they had left, and to leave not a leaf of grass where they had passed. To the Natives this was a terrible blow, after what they had gone through it was too much for them to bear. Their hearts broke, they panted, or howled like dying dogs, they ran their heads against a wall in the air before them. I then happened to tell them how I had driven through Delamere’s farm and had seen the hoppers on it, all over the place, in his paddocks and on his grazing land, and I added that Delamere had been in great rage and despair about them. At that same moment the listeners became quiet and almost at ease. They asked me what Delamere had said of his misfortune, and again asked me to repeat it, and then they said no more.
I did not, as a brass-serpent, carry the weight of Lord Delamere, still there were occasions when I came in useful to the Natives.
During the war, when the fate of the Carrier Corps lay upon the whole Native world, the squatters of the farm used to come and sit round my house. They did not speak, not even amongst themselves, they turned their eyes upon me and made me their brass-serpent. I could not very well chase them away, seeing that they did no harm, and besides, if I had done so they would have gone and sat down in some other place. It was a singularly hard thing to bear. I was helped through with it by the fact that my brother’s regiment was at that time sent on to the foremost trenches at Vimy Ridge: I could turn my eyes upon him and make him my brass-serpent.
The Kikuyu made me a chief-mourner, or woman of sorrows, when a great distress befell us on the farm. It was what would happen now over the shooting-accident. Because I grieved for the children, the people of the farm found it in them to lay the matter aside, and let it rest there for the time being. In regard to our misfortunes they looked upon me as the congregation looks upon the priest who empties the cup alone, but on their behalf.
There is this about witchcraft, that when it has once been practised on you, you will never completely rid yourself of it. I thought it a painful, a very painful process to be hung upon the pole, I wished that I could have escaped it. Still, many years after, there will be occasions when you find yourself thinking: “Am I to be treated in such a way?—I, who have been a brass-serpent!”
As I was riding back to the farm, on crossing the river and actually in the water, I met a party of Kaninu’s sons, three young men and a boy. They carried spears and came along quickly. When I stopped them and asked for news of their brother Kabero they stood, the water half way to their knees, with still set faces and downcast eyes; they spoke lowly. Kabero, they said, had not come back, and nothing had been heard of him since he had run away last night. They were now certain that he was dead. He would either have killed himself in his despair—since the idea of suicide comes very natural to all Natives, and even to Native children,—or he had been lost in the bush and the wild animals had eaten him. His brothers had been round looking for him in all directions, they were now on their way out into the Reserve to try to find him there.
When I came up the river-bank on my own land, I turned and looked out over the plain; my land was higher up than the land of the Reserve. There was no sign of life anywhere on the plain, except that a long way out the Zebra were grazing and galloping about. As the party of searchers emerged from the bush on the other side of the river, they went on quickly, walking one by one; their small group looked like a short caterpillar rapidly winding its way along on the grass. At times the sun glinted on their weapons. They seemed fairly confident of their direction, but what would it be? In their search for the lost child, their only guide would be the vultures that are always hanging in the sky above a dead body on the plain, and will give you the exact spot of a lion-kill.
But this would be only a very small body, not much of a feast for the gluttons of the air, there would not be many of them to spot it, nor would they be staying on for a very long time.
All this was sad to think of. I rode home.