I went to the Kyama followed by Farah. I always had Farah with me in my dealings with the Kikuyu, for while he showed but little sense where his own quarrels were concerned, and like all Somalis would lose his head altogether wherever his tribal feelings and feuds came in, about other people’s differences he had wisdom and discretion. He was, besides, my interpreter, for he spoke Swaheli very well.
I knew before I arrived at the assembly that the chief object of the proceeding would now be to shear Kaninu as close as possible. He would see his sheep driven away to all sides, some to indemnify the families of the dead and wounded children, some to maintain the Kyama. From the beginning this went against me. For Kaninu, I thought, had lost his son just as the other fathers, and the fate of his child seemed to me the most tragic of the lot. Wamai was dead and out of it, and Wanyangerri was in Hospital, where people were looking after him, but Kabero had been abandoned by all, and nobody knew where his bones lay.
Now Kaninu lent himself exceptionally well to his role of the ox, fattened for a feast. He was one of my biggest squatters; on my squatter-list he is down for thirty-five head of cattle, five wives and sixty goats. His village was close to my wood, I therefore saw much of his children and his goats, and continually had to run in his women for cutting down my big trees. The Kikuyu know nothing of luxury, the richest amongst them live as the poor, and if I went into Kaninu’s hut I would find nothing there in the way of furniture except perhaps a small wooden stool to sit on. But there were a number of huts at Kaninu’s village, and a lively swarming of old women, young people and children round them. And a long row of cattle, about milking time at sunset, advanced towards the village across the plains, with their blue shadows walking gently on the grass beside them. All this gave to the old lean man in the leather mantle, with the net of fine wrinkles in his dark shrewd face all filled up with dirt, the orthodox halo of a Nabob of the farm.
I and Kaninu had had many heated arguments, I had indeed been threatening to turn him off the farm, all over a particular traffic of his. Kaninu was on good terms with the neighbouring Masai tribe, and had married four or five of his daughters off to them. The Kikuyu themselves told me how in the old times the Masai had thought it beneath them to intermarry with Kikuyu. But in our days the strange dying nation, to delay its final disappearance has had to come down in its pride, the Masai women have no children and the prolific young Kikuyu girls are in demand with the tribe. All Kaninu’s offspring were good-looking people, and he had brought back a number of sleek romping young heifers across the border of the Reserve in exchange for his young daughters. More than one old Kikuyu pater familias in this period became rich in the same way. The big Chief of the Kikuyu, Kinanjui, had sent, I was told, more than twenty of his daughters to the Masai, and had got over a hundred head of cattle back from them.
But a year ago, the Masai Reserve had been put into quarantine for foot-and-mouth disease, and no stock could be taken out of it. Here was a grave dilemma in the existence of Kaninu. For the Masai are wanderers, and change their abode according to season, rain and grazing, and those cows in their herds which lawfully belonged to Kaninu were dragged all over the land and would at times be a hundred miles away, where nobody knew what was happening to them. The Masai are unscrupulous cattle-dealers with anyone, and more so with the Kikuyu whom they despise. They are fine warriors and are said to be great lovers. In their hands the hearts of Kaninu’s daughters were turning like the hearts of the Sabine women of old, and he could no longer rely on them. Therefore the resourceful old Kikuyu took to having his cattle shifted at night, when the District Commissioner and the Veterinary Department were supposed to be asleep, over the water to my farm. This was real villainous behaviour on his part, for the Quarantine regulations are amongst those which the Natives understand, they think highly of them. Had these cows been found on my land, the farm itself would have been put into quarantine. I therefore set out watchmen down by the river to catch Kaninu’s retainers, and on moonlight nights there had been many great dramatic ambuscades, and swift flights along the silver stream, and the heifers, upon which the whole concern turned, stampeded and ran away in all directions.
Jogona, the father of the child Wamai, who had been killed, was, on the other hand, a poor man. He had but one old wife, and all he owned in the world were three goats. He was not likely to make more, for he was a very simple person. I knew Jogona well. A year before the accident, and the sitting of the Kyama, a terrible murder had taken place on the farm. Two Indians who were leasing a mill from me a little way higher up the river, and were grinding mealie to the Kikuyu, had been killed in the night, their goods had been stolen, and the murderers were never found. The murder scared off all the Indian traders and storekeepers of the district, as if they had been blown away by a storm; I had had to arm Pooran Singh down at my own mill with an old shotgun to make him stay on, and even at that it had taken much persuasion. I myself had thought, the first nights after the murder, that I heard footsteps round the house, so for a week I had kept a night watchman there, and this man was Jogona. He was very gentle, and would have been of no use against murderers, but he was a friendly old man and pleasant to talk with. He had the manners of a gay child, his broad face wore an inspired and keen expression, whenever he looked at me he laughed. He now seemed very pleased to see me at the Kyama.
But the Koran itself, which I was studying in those days says: “Thou shalt not bend the justice of the law for the benefit of the Poor.”
Besides myself, at least one member of the assembly was aware that its purpose was now the flaying of Kaninu: this was Kaninu himself. The other old men sat around, infinitely attentive, and with all their wits collected for the proceedings. Kaninu, on the ground, had drawn his big cloak of goatskin over his head, from time to time he gave out under it a whine or whimper, like that of a dog which is exhausted by howling and is just keeping its misery alive.
The old men wanted to begin with the case of the wounded child Wanyangerri, because it gave them endless opportunity for palaver. What was the indemnification to be if Wanyangerri were dead? If he were disfigured? If he had lost the faculty of speech? Farah, on my behalf, told them that I would not discuss this matter until I had been in Nairobi and had seen the doctor of the hospital. They swallowed their disappointment and got their arguments on the next case ready.
It was up to the Kyama, I told them through Farah, to get this case settled quickly, and they should not sit over it for the rest of their lives. It was clear that it was not a murder-case, but a bad accident.
The Kyama honoured my speech with their attention, but as soon as it was finished they opposed it.
“Msabu, we know nothing,” they said. “But here we see that you do not know enough either, and we understand only a little of what you say to us. It was Kaninu’s son who fired the shot. Otherwise how would he be the only one not hurt by it? If you want to hear more about it Mauge here will tell you. His son was there and had one of his ears shot off.”
Mauge was one of the wealthiest squatters, a sort of rival of the farm to Kaninu. He was a very stately man to look at, and his words had weight, although he spoke very slowly and from time to time had to stop and think. “Msabu,” he said. “My son told me: the boys all held the gun the one after the other and pointed it at Kabero. But he would not explain to them how to shoot with it, no he would not explain it at all. In the end he took the gun back, and at the same moment it shot, it wounded all the children and killed Wamai, Jogona’s son. This is exactly how it happened.”
“I knew all that already,” I said, “and it is what is called bad luck, and an accident. I might have fired the shot from my house, or you, Mauge, from yours.”
This created a great stir in the Kyama. They all looked at Mauge, who became very uneasy. Then they talked for some time amongst themselves, very lowly, as in a whisper. At last they took up the discussion again. “Msabu,” they said, “this time we do not understand one word of what you are saying. We can only believe that you are thinking of a rifle, since you yourself shoot so well with a rifle, but not so well with a shotgun. If it had been a rifle you would have been quite right. But nobody could shoot with a shotgun from your house, or from Mauge’s house, down to the house of Bwana Menanya, and kill people within the house.”
After a short pause I said: “Everybody now knows that it was Kaninu’s son who fired the gun. Kaninu will pay Jogona a number of sheep to make up for the loss. But everybody also knows that Kaninu’s son was not a bad child and did not mean to kill Wamai, and that Kaninu will not pay as many sheep as if that had been the case.”
Here an old man by the name of Awaru spoke. He was in closer contact with civilization than the others, for he had been seven years in jail.
“Msabu,” he said, “you say that Kaninu’s son was not bad and that therefore Kaninu will not pay out very many sheep. But if his son had wanted to kill Wamai and had thus been a very bad child, would that have been a good thing to Kaninu? Would he have been so pleased about that, that he would have paid many more sheep?”
“Awaru,” I said, “you know that Kaninu has lost his son. You go to the school yourself, so you know that this boy was clever at school. If he was as good in all other ways, it is a very bad thing to Kaninu to lose him.”
There was a long pause, not a sound in the ring. At the end of it Kaninu, as if suddenly reminded of a forgotten pain or duty, gave out a long wail.
“Memsahib,” said Farah, “let these Kikuyu now name the figure that they have in their hearts.” He spoke in Swaheli to me, so that the assembly should understand him, and succeeded in making them ill at ease, for a figure is a concrete thing, which no Native likes to give out. Farah let his eyes run all round the circle and in a haughty way suggested: “One hundred.” A hundred sheep was a fantastic number, which nobody would seriously have thought of. A silence fell upon the Kyama. The old men felt themselves at the mercy of Somali mockery, and chose to lie low under it. A very old man whispered “Fifty” but the figure seemed to carry no weight but to be blown aloft in the current of air of Farah’s joke.
After a moment Farah himself briskly said “Forty” in the manner of the experienced cattle-trader, at home with figures and stock. The word set astir the latent ideas of the meeting; they began to talk very lively amongst themselves. They would now need time, and would meditate and cackle much, but all the same a basis for negotiations had been laid. When we were at home again Farah said to me confidently: “I think that these old men will take forty sheep from Kaninu.”
Kaninu at the Kyama had one more ordeal to go through. For old broad-bellied Kathegu, another big squatter of the farm, father and grandfather to an enormous household, here rose and proposed to go through the sheep and goats which Kaninu was to hand over, indicating them individually one by one. This was all contrary to the custom of any Kyama, Jogona could never have invented the scheme, and I could only believe it to be founded upon an agreement between Kathegu and Jogona, for the benefit of Kathegu. I waited a little to see what would come of it.
Kaninu, to begin with, seemed to give himself up to his martyrdom, he ducked his head and puled, as if, for each animal named, a tooth was being drawn out of him. But when at last Kathegu, himself hesitating, designated a big yellow goat without horns, Kaninu’s heart broke and his strength gave out. He came forward, out of his cloak, in one mighty gesture. For one moment he roared like a bull at me, a bellow for help, an awful de profundis, until he saw, in a quick glance, that I was on his side, and that he was not to lose the yellow goat. He then sat down without another sound; only after a while he gave Kathegu a very deep sarcastic glance.
After about a week of sitting and supernumerary sittings of the Kyama, the indemnification was finally fixed at forty sheep, to be paid by Kaninu to Jogona, but no individual sheep were to be indicated in the transfer.
A fortnight later Farah, in the evening while I was dining, gave me fresh news of the case.
Three old Kikuyu from Nyeri, he told me, had arrived at the farm the day before. They had heard of the case in their huts up at Nyeri, and had walked from there to appear on the stage and to plead that Wamai was not the son of Jogona but was their late brother’s son, and that therefore the compensation for his death should lawfully fall to them.
I smiled at the impudence, and remarked to Farah that this was just like the Kikuyu of Nyeri. No, said Farah thoughtfully, he believed that they were right. Jogona had indeed come from Nyeri to the farm six years ago, and from what Farah had gathered, Wamai was not Jogona’s son, “and never had been,” Farah said. It was, he went on, a great stroke of luck to Jogona that he had, two days before, been handed over twenty-five of his forty sheep. Otherwise Kaninu would have let them wander off to Nyeri so as to save himself the pain, Farah said, of meeting them on the farm now that they were no longer his. But Jogona would have to look out still, for the Nyeri Kikuyu were not easy to shake off. They had taken up their abode on the farm and were threatening to bring the case before the D.C.
In this way I was prepared for the appearance, a few days later, before my house, of the Nyeri people, who belonged to a low class of Kikuyu, and had all the look of three dirty and shaggy old Hyenas that had slunk one hundred and fifty miles upon Wamai’s blood-track. With them came Jogona, in a state of great agitation and distress. The difference in the attitude of the parties probably arose from the fact that the Nyeri Kikuyu had nothing to lose, while Jogona had twenty-five sheep. The three strangers sat on the stones with no more manifestation of life than three ticks upon a sheep. I had no sympathy with their cause, for, whatever the circumstances were, they had taken no interest in the dead child while he had lived, and I was now sorry for Jogona, who had behaved well at the Kyama, and had, I believed, grieved over Wamai. Jogona, when I questioned him, trembled and sighed so that it was impossible to understand him, and we got no further on this occasion.
But two days later Jogona came back early in the morning, when I was at my typewriter, and asked me to write down for him the account of his relations to the dead child and its family. He wanted to take the report before the D.C. at Dagoretti. Jogona’s very simple manner was impressive because he felt so strongly about things, and was entirely without self-consciousness. It was evident that he was looking upon his present resolution as upon a great enterprise, which was not without danger; he went to it with awe.
I wrote his statement down for him. It took a long time, for it was a long report of events more than six years old, and in themselves extremely complicated. Jogona, as he was going through it, continually had to break off his tale to think things over or to go back in it and reconstruct it. He was, most of the time, holding his head with both hands, at moments gravely slapping the crown of it as if to shake out the facts. Once he went and leaned his face against the wall, as the Kikuyu women do when they are giving birth to their children.
I took a duplicate of the report. I have still got it.
It was extremely difficult to follow, it gave a lot of complicated circumstances and irrelevant details. It was not surprising to me that Jogona had found it difficult to recollect, it was more surprising that he should be able to recollect the facts at all. It began:
“At the time when Waweru Wamai, of Nyeri, was about to die,—na-taka kufa, wished to die, they have it in Swaheli,—he had two wives. The one wife had three daughters, after Waweru’s death she married another man. The other wife, Waweru had not yet paid for altogether, he still owed her father two goats for her. This wife had overstrained herself when she lifted a load of firewood and had had a miscarriage and nobody knew if she would bear any more children...”
It went on in this way, and dragged the reader into a thick maze of Kikuyu conditions and relations:
“This wife had one small child by the name of Wamai. At that same time he was sick, and the people believed that he had got small-pox. Waweru was very fond of his wife and of her child, and when he was dying he was very much worried because he did not know what would become of her when he himself should be dead. He therefore sent for his friend Jogona Kanyagga, who lived not far away. Jogona Kanyagga owed Waweru, at this time, three shillings for a pair of shoes. Waweru now suggested to him that they should make an agreement....”
The agreement came to this that Jogona should take over his dying friend’s wife and child, and pay to her father the two goats that were still due to him from the sum of her purchase price. From now the report became a list of expenses, which Jogona had brought upon himself through the adoption of the child Wamai. He had, he stated, purchased an extraordinarily good medicine for Wamai just after he had taken him over, when he was sick. At some time he had bought rice from the Indian duca for him, as he did not thrive on maize. Upon one occasion he had had to pay five Rupees to a white farmer of the neighbourhood, who said that Wamai had chased one of his turkeys into a pond. This last amount of hard cash, which he had probably had difficulty in raising, had stamped itself upon the mind of Jogona; he came back to it more than once. From Jogona’s manner it appeared that he had, by this time, forgotten that the child whom he had now lost had not been his own. He was shaken by the arrival and the claim of the three Nyeri people, in many ways. Very simple people seem to have a talent for adopting children, and feeling towards them as if they were their own; the facile hearts of the European peasants do the same without effort.
When Jogona had at last come to the end of his tale, and I had got it all down, I told him that I was now going to read it to him. He turned away from me while I was reading, as if to avoid all distractions.
But as I read out his own name, “And he sent for Jogona Kanyagga, who was his friend and who lived not far away,” he swiftly turned his face to me, and gave me a great fierce flaming glance, so exuberant with laughter that it changed the old man into a boy, into the very symbol of youth. Again as I had finished the document and was reading out his name, where it figured as a verification below his thumbmark, the vital direct glance was repeated, this time deepened and calmed, with a new dignity.
Such a glance did Adam give the Lord when He formed him out of the dust, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. I had created him and shown him himself: Jogona Kanyagga of life everlasting. When I handed him the paper, he took it reverently and greedily, folded it up in a corner of his cloak and kept his hand upon it. He could not afford to lose it, for his soul was in it, and it was the proof of his existence. Here was something which Jogona Kanyagga had performed, and which would preserve his name for ever: the flesh was made word and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
The world of the written word was opened to the Native of Africa at the time when I lived out there. I had then, if I wanted to, an opportunity of catching the past by its tail and of living through a bit of our own history: the period when the large plain population of Europe had in the same way had the letter revealed to them. In Denmark it happened a good hundred years ago, and from what I had been told by people who were very old when I was a child, I believe that the reaction in both cases has been nearly exactly the same. Human beings can but rarely have shown such a humble and ecstatic devotion to the principle of Art for Art’s sake.
These communications from one young Native to another were still generally composed by professional letter writers, for, although some of the old people were carried away by the spirit of the age, and a few very old Kikuyu attended my school and patiently toiled through the ABC, most of the elder generation withheld themselves distrustfully from the phenomenon. Only a few of the Natives could read, and my houseboys, and the squatters and labourers of the farm, therefore brought their letters to me to have them read out. As I opened and studied one letter after another, I wondered at the insignificance of the contents. It was the common mistake of a prejudiced civilized person. You might as well have set to herborize the little olive branch that Noah’s dove brought home. Whatever it looked like, it carried more weight than all the ark with the animals in it; it contained a new green world.
The Natives’ letters were all very much alike, they kept close to a sanctioned and sacred formula, and ran more or less as follows: “My dear friend Kamau Morefu. I will now take the pen in my hand”—in an unliteral sense, for it was the professional scribe who was writing, “to write you a letter, for I have for a long time wished to write a letter to you. I am very well and it is my hope that you are, by the grace of God, very well. My mother is very well. My wife is not very well, but I still have the hope that your wife will be, by the mercy of God, well.”—here would follow a long list of names, with a short report attached to each of them, mostly insignificant, although at times very fantastic. Then the letter was closed. “Now my friend Kamau, I will finish this letter, for I have got too little time to write to you. Your friend Ndwetti Lori.”
To transfer similar messages between young studious Europeans a hundred years ago, Postillions vaulted into the saddle, horses galloped, Post-horns were blown, and paper with ligulate gilt edges was manufactured. The letters were welcomed, cherished, and preserved, I have seen a few of them myself.
Before I learned to speak Swaheli, my relation to this Native world of letters had a curious feature to it: I could read out what they wrote without understanding a word of it. The Swaheli tongue has had no written language until the white people took upon themselves to make up one; with care it was spelled out as it is pronounced, and it has got no antiquated orthography to entrap a reader. I would then sit and read out their writings orthodoxly, word for word, with the receivers of the letters in breathless suspense all around me, and could follow the effect of my reading without in the least knowing what it was all about. Sometimes they would burst into tears at my words, or wring their hands, at other times they cried out with delight; the most common reaction to the lection was laughter, and they were continually doubled up by convulsions of laughter while I read.
When later on I got so far as to understand what I was reading, I learned that the effect of a piece of news was many times magnified when it was imparted in writing. The messages that would have been received with doubt and scorn if they had been given by word of mouth,—for all Natives are great Sceptics,—were now taken as gospel truth. Natives are, in the same way, extremely quick of hearing towards any confounding of a word in speech; such a mistake gives them a great malicious pleasure, and they will never forget it, and may name a white-man for his lifetime after a slip of his tongue; but if a mistake was made in writing, which was often the case, as the Scribes were ignorant people, they would insist on construing it into some sense, they might wonder over it and discuss it, but they would believe the most absurd things rather than find fault with the written word.
In one of the letters that I read out to a boy on the farm, the writer, amongst other news, gave the laconic message: “I have cooked a baboon.” I explained that he must have meant that he had caught a baboon, since also in Swaheli the two words are somewhat alike. But the receiver of the letter would by no means consent to it.
“No, Msabu, no,” he said. “What has he written in my letter? what is written down?”
“He has written,” I said, “that he has cooked a baboon, but how would he cook a baboon? And if he had really done so he would write more to tell you of why and how he did it.”
The young Kikuyu grew very ill at ease at such criticism of the scriptural word, he asked to have his letter back, folded it up carefully and walked away with it.
As to Jogona’s statement which I took down, it proved very useful to him, for when the D.C. had read it, he dismissed the appeal of the Nyeri people, who walked scowling back to their own village, without having got anything off the farm.
The document now became Jogona’s great treasure. I saw it again more than once. Jogona made a little leather bag for it, embroidered with beads, and hung it on a strap round his neck. From time to time, mostly on Sunday mornings, he would suddenly appear in my door, lift the bag off and take out the paper to have it read to him. Once when I had been ill, and was for the first time again out riding, he caught sight of me at a distance, ran after me a long way, and stood by my horse all out of breath, to hand me his document. At each reading his face took on the same impress of deep religious triumph, and after the reading he solicitously smoothed out his paper, folded it up and put it back in the bag. The importance of the account was not lessened but augmented with time, as if to Jogona the greatest wonder about it was that it did not change. The past, that had been so difficult to bring to memory, and that had probably seemed to be changing every time it was thought of, had here been caught, conquered and pinned down before his eyes. It had become History; with it there was now no variableness neither shadow of turning.