Jessie Monteath Currie.

The Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa online

. (page 10 of 13)
Online LibraryJessie Monteath CurrieThe Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa → online text (page 10 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to call them. There they were sitting upon the
steps, like the dogs who wait faithful outside.
They required only one bidding. I was proud of

We got up daily at six o'clock. Breakfast was
half an hour later. Shortly after it there was a
service in church. Lunch was at eleven. About
mid-day there was another service. Tea was


served at two o'clock and dinner at five. In the
evening there was another service. That was the
order of the day if I remember rightly. On Sunday
there were four services.

I could not help wondering if that system were
not a mistake ; if the natives would perhaps
think that God was only in temples made with
hands ; if it tended to make religion a thing of
form, and toil instead of pleasure, and perhaps
caused that laziness and pride that we heard so
much of with regard to mission natives.

Quite a number of people had come to celebrate
the wedding. Besides these there were two ladies
who had lately arrived to do mission work. I had
hoped that one of them would return with us to
Mlanje, but time showed their minds were bent
on more romantic projects. One of them came to
me in great distress. A bottle of dark fluid had
broken in one of her boxes. All her nice white
clothes were stained. Of course my girls rinsed
them to the best of their ability.

Some may say this was an instance of the
" willin' horse getting the burden," and that they
would have rebelled had they had more spirit.
I don't think so. They were always glad to serve
me, and often did so without any request. Besides,
they were sensible enough to realise how much
they got in return. If ever girls appreciated


education, they did. Also it shows that the
Msungu's system of making each boy and girl,
on entering the Mission, promise never to say
" ngingu sosa " (I do not wish) had been a success.

The wedding was in the beautiful little church,
and passed as all weddings pass. An ox had been
killed as a feast for the natives. There was as
much festivity as the place could offer. After
nightfall the Msungu and I took a stroll through
the Station. Passing a hut at the side of the
courtyard I was startled to hear loud moans
inside. The door was open and I saw, by the red
glow of a fire in the centre of the room, a dark
figure sitting on the floor.

" What is it ? " I asked nervously.

" A native is dying in there," answered my
husband solemnly. " That one is watching him.
He was in the war up at the Lake and threw
himself in front of a white officer who was hard
pressed. He is mortally wounded/'

" And he is to die in the dark," I said

" It does not much matter when it comes to
that," said the Msungu, " whether it is dark or
light. For all we know it may be bright to him."

He hurried me into the house, but my happiness
had gone. Unfortunately our bedroom was near
the hut and half the night I lay awake hearing


the heavy groaning of the dying man. In the

early dawn I heard Dr. S striding past our

window, going in the direction of the hut. Then
I became conscious that the groaning had ceased.

The man had died in the early dawn. I did not
see any signs of a funeral. Possibly he was
interred shortly after decease. In the forenoon
I began to shiver. I sat in the dining room
longing for the comforts of my rough house on
Mlanje, where I could roll up the mat and light
a blazing fire on the brick floor. I saw then that
even a floor made of soft brick has its advantages.
Yet the weather was hot again. The rainy season
with its stormy winds had gone. I feared I was
in for a dose of fever.

At last, when I could conceal it no longer, my
hostess brought me a hot bottle in a flannel bag
which she made me hug in my arms for warmth.
I was thankful for it though it seemed to me that
bed would have been better. Perhaps I had been
coddled too much on Mount Mlanje. In Blantyre
there was no time to make a fuss about trifles.
I never saw the Doctor's wife idle for one moment ;
if she was not flying about the house, or rushing
down to church to attend a service, she was sewing
linen or something useful.

Fortunately my fever did not last long. I was


better next day. On that afternoon we walked
to Mandala to lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Moir, our
prospective neighbours. We had a nice homely
meal — a beefsteak and kidney dumpling, which
we enjoyed to perfection. In the afternoon Sir
Harry Johnson, H.M. Commissioner, called, and
had tea with us.

After a week's visit we started homewards,
breaking our journey at the Limbe as we had
promised. Our host and hostess welcomed us
like old friends. Tins of salmon and corned beef
were opened to supplement the dinner of rice
soup, fowls, sweet potatoes and rice. With these
the black cook contrived to send in quite a number
of courses.

Dinner over, the big wooden shutters were put
up outside the unglazed windows, which were filled
in with fine wire netting to prevent birds and
the larger insects from entering. There was a
pretty drawing room to which we retired. How
home-like it looked. Pictures decorated the walls,
which were covered with pink cotton with a frieze
of dark blue muslin. Leopard and other skins
lay on the floor and on a real couch. We almost
forgot that the jungle surrounded us while a

young planter, Mr. S , gave us selections on

his banjo.

Outside, a native watchman stepped on to the



verandah and marched slowly up and down, till
growing weary he leant against the post at the
entrance and fell sound asleep, his chin resting
on the muzzle of his gun. Thus we found him on
coming out for a breath of fresh air. Our host
gently removed the gun, and the man awoke,
much astonished and apologetic.

We went out under the starlight and gazed up
at the Southern Cross. My heart was full. How
far I felt from my native land. It seemed very
doubtful that I would ever see it again. Then
the strains of " Home, Sweet Home " came from
the verandah, and we could not speak for a

We spent a happy week there. On the morning
of our departure there was a great argument among
the machilla men as to who would carry the white
woman ; but my husband soon settled the dis-
pute and I got into my machilla, hugging a large
papia, a fruit like a melon, but with a very soft
orange-coloured pulp. It was so ripe that my
fingers pierced through it.

I was glad. My loneliness seemed coming to

an end. The teacher, Mr. H , who had

travelled with me from England to Chiromo, was
going to leave his post at Blantyre to teach our

boys and girls on Mount Mlanje. Miss W ,

the sister of our hostess of the Limbe, had promised


to pay me a long visit when she could accompany
the Moirs to the mountain.

Our journey was without adventure. We found
Namonde, faithful as ever, waiting to wish us
" Moni " at the Tuchilla river. There I got a
change of carriers so that I got far ahead of the
Msungu. We had hoped to arrive at Mlanje
before night-fall, but darkness came on us before
we were off the Plain. At the Lekabula river
the men slowed as they approached the bank.
Their voices lowered. I caught the words
" Donna ' and " Msungu." The machilla was
dragged through a tangle of bushes. My head was
raised while my body slanted at an angle of 45
to the ground. Then I suddenly levelled. I saw
a glint of light on the water. Splash ! went the
men's feet. My heart beat faster. But steadily
they waded across to the other side.

Some natives passed us who said : " Moni
Msungu," mistaking me for my husband. At the
foot of the mountain my carriers stopped and
asked me to get out of the machilla to wait for
the Msungu. I stood in their midst and waited
as patiently as I could. Around me were some
fifteen or sixteen natives, all powerful men. The
tall coarse grass, like spears, seemed to play
guard at each side. Not a sound could I hear
in the distance to tell me of the approach of the


others ; but the constant click, click, of the little
creatures in the grass never ceased for one moment.
Suddenly Bwanali, our table boy, stepped out
from that group of dark figures. How small and
slight he looked compared with these strong men.
Yet his presence was comforting. He raised his
hand and pointing to the stars addressed the
natives in an eager awed voice. I heard the
word " Mlungu." He was telling them about



WHAT'S in a name ? A rose by any other
name would smell as sweet." That may
be, but the African does not think so. He dearly
loves to change his name. Not in marriage. He
does not change it then as a rule, but whenever
the fancy pleases him. Some important circum-
stance in his life he wishes to commemorate, so
he casts away his old name for one more appro-
priate to the occasion.

It was very provoking, especially as I had so
much trouble remembering his queer designations,
and to make it worse, there was no limit to the
names he might give himself.

One day, shortly after the wedding at Blantyre,
the Msungu travelled some distance to see a chief
in the hope of getting some more boys to educate.
He brought home three. They were very raw,


and appeared at our little service the first evening,
squatting on the floor beside the villagers. After
prayers my husband asked their names. One of
them quite innocently said : " Store." He had
worked at a store at a planter's house and fancying
the name had stuck to it.

But it was not from a similar cause that Ajaula
changed hers. I was told one day that she had
named herself " Aterere." I felt annoyed, not
understanding the reason, and continued calling
her Ajaula.

The Msungu always said : " There is no such
thing as love, as we understand it, among the
natives," and as I took all he said for Gospel then,
I believed him. But a change took place in
Ajaula, a subtle change one can hardly describe.
I noticed it first when along with the other girls
she was ironing in the dining room. A little
smile, without any apparent reason, played round
her lips, like the sun's glints on a woodland pool.

Then she would iron very slowly and dreamily,
catching herself up sometimes with a sudden
frown, when she would work viciously for a minute
or two.

The other girls did not appear to see this
change. Mele, the eldest, and fully developed,
was really more of a child than the others. She
was a natural poet and artist, often seeing in


something some resemblance to another ; telling
stories with graphic illustration ; admiring every-
thing lovely ; and imitating sounds with her soft
laughing voice. "A gu gu gu pa window," she
would say melodiously when some one tapped
on the glass.

Achilandana was staid and matter of fact, yet
sympathetic with an eagerness to be of use.
There was no laziness in her. If I wanted anything
she was the one I could most depend on.

Ajaula I had always placed in a lower scale.
She was quiet, and gave the impression of slyness.
Yet, though she was possibly the most common-
place and self-centred, it was evident now that
something more akin to myself had dawned in
her. I watched her curiously, not at first making
out what was the subtle change. The girls were
busy. A pile of white clothes lay to be ironed.
I was sitting near the open door for coolness,
feeling languid and limp in the heat.

Without the sun burned, a yellow glare. The
red ground glowed. The air seemed to squirm.
Across the road brilliant scarlet geraniums and
orange-coloured capsicums grew in long rows
outside the garden fence. - In spite of the shade
I was very hot, and the girls' faces were shining
with moisture. Mele grumbled. The irons had
not the proper heat. Ajaula and Achilandana,


who were responsible for the fire in the kitchen,
went out for others.

Mele rested against the cupboard with a finger
in her mouth. By and by the younger girls
sauntered in. Mele seized the iron, spat on it,
held it to her cheek in the orthodox way, and
scolded volubly.

I went round to the kitchen to enquire into
matters. The younger girls followed me. I found
the place deserted, and the fire out under the girdle
on which the irons were heated. I tried to scold
the offenders with my very limited vocabulary.
They both laughed. I slapped them lightly on
their bare shoulders. They looked aggrieved.
I sent them for wood and told them to make up
the fire. When this was accomplished I gave
them a sweet each, poor disciplinarian that I was.

By and by the ironing was resumed, Mele
at one side of the table, Ajaula opposite her.
Achilandana was left to attend the fire and irons.

Kasawala, the chief's son, wearing his red
Fez cap, passed the doorway. He glanced in with
a smirk, and in spite of Aj aula's dusky colour
I was sure she blushed. She instantly cast down
her eyes. Her long eyelashes trembled on her
cheeks. She seemed very intent on her work ;
but that curious smile played about her lips again.

I understood her now. She was in love with


Kasawala. Had it been the red Fez cap, or the
white trousers, that he had made in private with
great pains, that had attracted her ? As far as
I knew he had only had courage to wear them
once. I had seen him on that eventful occasion
careering through the back courtyard and into
the dormitory as if almost ashamed of this unusual
piece of clothing. Or was it love, unfathomable
love, that had captured her without any knowledge
of what it was or why it had come ?

Then I noticed that Aj aula's plain face was
transformed. There was a new softness in her
expression, a sparkle in her narrow eyes, more
often hidden now by the long dark lashes. The
new curves on her mouth had shortened to sweet-
ness her long upper lip. Her flat breasts heaved
and rounded with the new emotion.

I told the Msungu, but he laughed at me of
course, and said that I was always romancing,
and I could not be positive for surely he knew more
than I did. Yet it did seem significant that
Ajaula about this time changed her name. Never
again was she to be called Ajaula. Henceforth,
until some other great event in life should seem
to her of more importance, her name would be
" Aterere " — which simply means " Tra-la-la "
— the refrain of a song.



I DID not hear of Kasavvala changing his name.
The dawn of love, which is such an unfor-
getable time to a young woman, is not so to a
youth, probably because his object has been more
easily obtained.

Yet a change did show itself even in him.
Though discarding his white trousers, as far as
our knowledge went, he had other and greater
ambitions. The Msungu, wisely or otherwise,
had refrained from teaching the boys English as
those who knew even a smattering of it were apt
to be taken by planters who were too careless to
acquire the language of the country. Conse-
quently the lads would leave the Mission, and in
many cases only picked up the bad habits of the
men they worked for.

I was therefore very much surprised, one day,
during the Doctor's absence, as I was crossing
the courtyard, to hear Kasawala call out : " Zee


Doctol ees comm-ing . . . bad boy . . .
I am go-ing . . . home to-day."

I wish now that I had laughed then, and given
the boy a look of appreciation, but I pretended
not to hear. Vain regrets. They sting me yet
when I think of my boys whom I shall never see

But the incident did not linger in my thoughts.
When the Doctor arrived I hurried to prepare
some lunch for him. While he was partaking of
it we listened to his news, part of which was rather

While he had been attending his patient, who
was laid down with fever through working in
virgin forest, he had heard that an officer at the
Military Station along the mountain, had been
stabbed by a native. It had been done so
suddenly and unexpectedly that it flabbergasted
everybody. Late in the evening the officer had
gone into his room for something. It was quite
dark. He was groping his way across the floor,
when all at once, three heavy blows fell on his
chest. He was not conscious of any knife. But
he cried out, and when his comrades found him he
was seen to be stabbed in three places.

This piece of news rather unsettled me. The
Msungu had impressed on me so often that a
native would never attack a white man that my


confidence was shaken. For some months now
I had gone about our place without any fear of
the people. How often had I not crossed the
courtyard after dark, carrying my lantern, hardly
afraid even of the " chisui " [leopard) ? How often
had I not left the dining-table to get some jam
from my store off the bedroom ? Then I would
never think of taking a light, but grope my way
through the dark room, and drawing aside the
curtain, enter the store. A scuttling of rats would
take place. Nothing worse. I had no fear of
them. The long row of shelves lay in front of me
crowded with preserves of all kinds. I knew that
my jam lay in little blue tins on the lowest shelf.
It was quite a game to reach forth my hand, feel
for a tin at random, carry it to the lighted room,
and see what fortune had given me. The Msungu
chuckled if it were strawberry ; I, if it proved

But now it was different. When I had occasion
to go outside with the lantern the Msungu accom-
panied me. When I wanted jam to eat with
our pancakes I entered the dark room, dreading
every moment a stab in my breast. My breath
grew short as I reached the store, where I grasped
a tin and rushed back again, my husband never
guessing that I was frightened.

But that scare passed like all the others. We


heard that the officer had not been as seriously
wounded as we had at first supposed. It was
reported to have been a case of jealousy, provoca-
tion at least. I laughed at my fears, and agreed
with the Msungu that we were perfectly safe.

I got a baby likomba, a kind of lemur,
resembling a small monkey. It was a soft grey
furred animal with little hands and feet which it
could use almost like a human being. But how
cold its hands were, and how viciously it bit and

At first it sat on the back of the verandah seat
and stared at us with its large owl-like eyes, not
a bit afraid, but prepared to bite us with its sharp
teeth. It seemed impossible to tame, though
it evidently did not object to our society. I used
to leave a little Swiss milk on my chest of drawers,
go away, and returning find it gone ; but there
was no sign of the likomba. But soon it began
to make its appearance, coming nearer and nearer
each time, till I could take it in my arms and
fondle it as I would a cat.

It preferred to live inside the roof. I know
not what part, but it would suddenly drop into
my arms and hug me like a baby.

It lived principally on fruit, yet it did not
disdain tea. Nearly every morning it appeared
as we were having our early cup in bed. Then it


would try to take the lid off the sugar basin, and
once actually fought for the tin of Swiss milk,
holding it tight with both hands, growling and
spitting like a cat while the Msungu tried to get

But its nocturnal habits rendered it a trouble-
some pet. It would awake me by licking my
cheek with its rough tongue, then make a dive
under the blankets, right over us and out at the
foot. All sleep was over after its appearance.
Ultimately I was forced to seize it by the tail
and imprison it under a " lukalala " (creel) on
the floor.

One night we thought the house was on fire.
In the darkness two red eyes gleamed from the
roof ; another time a dreadful uncanny sound
awoke us. The little likomba had found its
voice for the first time.

After purchasing this pet we were pestered by
natives bringing all manner of creatures to us.
I did not want them. I hate to see a wild animal
in captivity. A pathetic sight, one day, was a
large baboon in a wicker cage hugging its little
one close to its breast. Then I said emphatically
that I would have no more living creatures, and
as it happened the likomba was the last.

All these months I had been regularly teaching
my girls in the afternoons, reading, writing and


sewing. I would rise up from my siesta feeling
more tired than when I lay down, what with the
heat and the flies that gave me no peace. I would
hear my girls chattering and laughing in the
verandah where I gave them their lessons. There
I would sit on the ledge of the open drawing room
window, my pupils at my feet with their books
and slates, very eager to learn. They were quick
to master the letters, but the words at first were
a trouble. For instance, when I wished them to
spell and pronounce the word " mo to " (fire), they
would say — " m . . o mo, t . . o to, tomo,"
putting the last syllable first. But in a month
they got over that.

Often Ndendemele would appear with swaying
gait, her brow dripping with castor oil. How
earnestly she listened, sitting on the ground
beside us, her mouth open, showing her even row
of white teeth, each of which had been deeply
nitched. Poor Ndendemele, all romance, if there
is such a thing in the African's life, was over for
her. Being a married girl she had to pound the
corn for her husband's food, hoe the ground, and
mud the house when they built a new one. In
fact, all the heavy work fell to her.

What a relief it was to the Msungu and me when

Mr. H arrived, for however good a preacher

my husband might be, teaching did not come


natural to him. No longer did I have to curtail
my afternoon's rest by teaching the girls. The
little church as before did duty as school as well
as workshop. It is a thing of the past now. It
was burnt down when the trouble came.

Not only did the teacher relieve me from my
class, and my husband from his, but in a hundred
ways he made life easier. A little corner ward-
robe gradually grew to completion in my bedroom.
A draught-screen was in progress when the event
happened which forced us to leave our little
home on the mountain.

Shortly after his arrival the Moirs, accompanied

by my visitor, Miss W , came to Mlanje. The

former stayed with us one night. Strange, I
have but a dim recollection of that particular day,
though it was of so much importance to me. Never
again was I to be the only white woman on the
great mountain. That position may seem enviable
from some points of view. I was made much of,
petted no doubt. I could boast of being the
first white woman on Mount Mlanje. I had no
one to be jealous of, or jealous of me. But oh,
the loneliness of it. However kind and tender
a man may be he lacks that subtle sympathy and
understanding which a good woman has. He
lacks the patience to listen to the feminine trifles
that interest most of our sex.


Yet I remember that our Station was crowded
for once. What a bustle there was ! One came
upon strange black boys and girls at every corner.
A horse that had escaped the dreaded Tsetse fly
stood in the back courtyard. Our natives sur-
veyed it as we would a prehistoric animal. Many
were their exclamations. The length of its limbs
were expatiated on. They drew comparisons
between it and a zebra. What noise did it make ?
They roared to hear how it would answer.

With difficulty we accommodated our large
company. " Mandala ' slept in the Doctor's

house, where Mr. H had also made his abode

for the present. The Msungu occupied the
drawing room, we ladies my bedroom. Mrs.
Moir's black girls, and a hamper of pups shared
the dining room with Mele, Ajaula and

We had lain down for a quiet night's rest when
suddenly a commotion started in the next room —
a yelping and scratching which made it impossible
to sleep. We heard the Msungu running in. I
followed suit. The pups were liberated. There
were squeals from the girls as the animals rushed
to their bare feet, protruding from the blankets.

How we fell asleep again I don't know. The
girls must have had a night of it. As it was I could
have slept in a worse noise. There was peace



and thankfulness in my heart. These women
were congenial to me. Henceforth, I thought,
we would see each other often. But how little
we know what is before us. The Moirs departed

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13

Online LibraryJessie Monteath CurrieThe Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa → online text (page 10 of 13)