Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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early next morning and I never saw them again.



nISS W proved a most kind and sympa-
thetic companion. It was in expectation
of her visit that the Msungu had built up the
little recess in the drawing room, adding it to the
store to be used as a dressing room, in which, but
for my timely intervention, I jokingly tell him,
he might be still.

Every morning my girls were requisitioned to
assist our guest in lifting mats, sweeping and
dusting, and as she was very particular, they
fretted a little. Perhaps the reason of it was that
her black boy Koopy lolled lazily outside mean-
while. He was small and fat with apparently
not much intelligence, and I am afraid not bene-
fitted by his mistress's indulgence.

" Now Koopy," she would cry in English,
*' Come in at once and put on your hat, or you'll
get a headache in that hot sun."

And Koopy would grin as if he quite understood,


although it must have been an unintelligible
sound to him. Indeed it was quite common for
Europeans, who did not know the native language,
to address the boys in English. If they introduced
one solitary Yao, or Manganja word it was thought
quite sufficient. The planters were the worst in
this respect. Hurrying to get his dinner, one
day, Madza-ku-samba called :

" Lumguje, bring in the ' mbalis ' (dishes)."
And though the plural of a native word is not
formed by adding an s they invariably under-
stood what was wanted.

Another cause of jealousy the girls had. Koopy
possessed a hat, an article of dress that a native
has no need of. Even with their shaven heads
the girls could sit out in the hottest sun.

With my girls being occupied in Miss W 's

room in the morning, I had much more to do,
and my dining room was not so simple as formerly.
Aiming at refinement I had placed a number of
native mats on the soft brick floor, as now it was
the hot season there would be no need of a fire.
But they were stiff and clumsy, being made of
reeds, and had an awkward way of sticking up
at each end, and creaking when we walked. Also
I discovered painfully that the fleas highly
approved of them. It was common for six or
seven of them to jump on my hand simultaneously.


So I discarded the mats and would gladly have
sunk into the primitive life again had not the men,
stimulated by the presence of another woman,
begun to think of their personal appearance.
They rummaged their boxes and brought out
white collars for me to wash and iron.

And such scorching weather it was. My spirit
would have failed me altogether had not Miss

W expressed her willingness to help me.

When at last I handed the collars to their respec-
tive owners I stipulated that they must wear only
one a week.

Had the Doctor heard me ? He there and then
produced a fine white shirt, and said : " It is
quite clean, only needs to be starched and ironed.
When I go into Blantyre, you see, I would like
to cut quite a dash."

I must own that I was disagreeable, but blame
the climate, please. I carried the shirt into my
house as one would carry a rat by the tail. I

found the Msungu and Miss W seated in the

drawing room.

" However can I do it," I said, helplessly. " I
never dressed a shirt in my life. The collars were
bad enough, but this — "

Miss W said that it would be quite simple

if we had only a breast-board.

" But I have not got one," I remarked.


Then the Msungu, as usual, was equal to the
occasion. " Tell the Doctor," he said, " that
you will do his shirt when he makes you a breast-
board." And he dismissed the subject.

So in as pleasant a manner as possible I told
the Doctor. He smiled good-naturedly, and when
I asked him how soon it would be ready, he said
" Kaya " (/ don't know). Like the Yao word
" kwalini," " kaya " is said with a raising of the
brows and a lifting of the shoulders, a gesture
which makes you inclined to shake one.

I laid the shirt, neatly folded, away in one of
my boxes. Days passed. No board was forth-
coming. Miss W , of greater soul than I,

grew lenient, and begged me to give her the
shirt and she would dress it without a board.
But I was stubborn. No, the shirt would remain
where it was till the board was made.

It did, and, as far as I am concerned, it is there
still, for the box and its contents passed from my
keeping in the trouble that now was creeping so

But the Doctor was as serene as ever. I think
nothing would have disturbed his tranquility but
the losing of his precious sideboard. He contented
himself with his one collar a week, and seemed to
have forgotten that he had ever had another


Yet we ladies were not without our vanity.
The Doctor's dinner on the Thursday was, as I
said before, the event of the week. Then I began

to follow Miss W 's example by dressing myself

carefully, and sticking a bunch of acacia blossom
in my hair as it looked so pretty in hers. I think
I see us rustling along to the Doctor's house, the
evening breeze stirring the acacia trees above us,
the great hills darkening beyond the Station, and
the Plain melting into the after-glow beneath us.
Past the garden we went, where the large yellow
pumpkins lay sleeping on their green leaves, into
the Doctor's bright room, with its superior brick
floor, its cool white-washed walls, and the magnifi-
cent sideboard.

What a dinner it was. Kambona and Mbosange
waited splendidly in their long white robes, the
former with great dark eyes gleaming ; the latter
tall, and bending with obsequious attention.
Masamani had produced food fit for the gods.
There were several courses. Delicacies we knew
not of would appear mysteriously — a piece of
mutton and msungu " mbatata "'.(English potatoes)
Chicken formed always one course. But what

chicken ! Miss W and I puzzled often and

long as to how it was done. I thought it larded
with ground-nuts, cut in slices, for it gave way
in the mouth with a delicious nutty flavour. If


we expressed ourselves anxious to learn its com-
position the Doctor was most evasive. He would
pretend not to observe that it was anything out
of the common. There was no use approaching
Masamani. We seldom saw him except at the
evening service, and then it would hardly have
been a fitting subject. He did borrow sometimes
from me, but he was too big a man to come him-
self. Maganga, his assistant, would be sent.

In honour of our visitor a picnic was planned
to the Lekabula river. We would all go for once.
Robert Tause would remain in charge. I eagerly
packed several baskets. Weight was no considera-
tion as our girls and several of our boys would
accompany us. .

Contrary to our former picnic, our way was all
down hill in the direction of Mkanda, the chief's
country. In front of us, beyond the Plain, rose
the faint blue peaks of Mount Zomba, the seat
of H.M. Commissioner — Sir Harry Johnson. Down
the narrow path, brushing against the long coarse
grass, heedless of grass-ticks, we went single file,
I, feeling particularly light of heart, never
imagining that anything wrong could be happening
at home.

Arriving at our destination we perceived that
the river here has a double bed, the first per-
fectly dry at this season and each bordered thickly

by high trees and dense vegetation. We sat down
on a large flat rock in the dry bed. Near us
great empty cauldrons had been drilled in the
stone where once on a day red pools must have
whirled. Above us a chitotolo hawk spread its
grey wings and passed over the variegated woods.
A smell of wood smoke whiffed past us, and a fire
blazed merrily. Tea was soon made. What
appetites we had, at least I had. Cold vermicelli
pudding, scones and jam were consumed and I
was still hungry.

At the fire the girls and boys were feasting on
sweet potatoes roasted in the hot ashes. These
roots are long-shaped and delightful cooked that
way. I secured one of them, and after peeling
off its black burnt skin ate it with great relish.

Finished, Achilandana seized the empty pudding
dish and running to the river returned with water
to wash my hands and mouth. I was surprised
and pleased to see the child so thoughtful. One
got so faithless and heartless sometimes.

Our meal over, I went to the edge of the river
and began a water-colour sketch looking up the
deep valley. But how impossible it was. My
brain could not take it in. Hill above hill rose
at each side of the watercourse, the nearer ones
having every shade of colour, greens melting into
purples, purples into cobalt blue, ending with a


stretch of golden cliff high above, like a distant
vision of the walls of the New Jerusalem.

I could have shed tears. I gave up my sketch
in despair. My head ached. My eyes were

Mr. H appeared with a handful of immense

seed-pods which he had found growing by the
river. How much happier he, who had filled his
heart with objects within his reach. Yet though
I regretted then what I thought had been waste
of time and energy, I am glad now that I have the
sketch, though it is but a faint shadow of the real.

As we turned homewards the girls came up to
us strongly smelling of musk. In vain the Msungu
asked them the secret of the odour. They would
only giggle and confusedly look at each other.

When we got home everything seemed as we had
left it, but next day on opening a large tin box,
I missed a pair of blankets and some underclothing.
My heart sank. I turned over all the contents
again. They were gone without a doubt. Who
had done it ? Each boy looked more innocent
than the other.



IT was a case for the chief. Namonde was sent
for. He came at once full of astonishment
and talk. He sat in the verandah opposite the
Msungu, very grave, and apparently eager to
discover the culprits. He was perfectly certain
that none of the boys were guilty. They loved
their " atate " {father) far too much to wrong him
willingly, and valued their education above all
things. Besides, how should they require to steal
blankets and clothes when the generous Msungu
supplied them so plentifully ? No, some of those
cur-like people from the Banana village must have
entered the house in our absence. He would make
a search and endeavour to get our goods again.
Meanwhile I wandered through the dining room,
nervous and distrustful, hearing their voices out-
side, but understanding only an occasional word.
I knew that the Msungu had a loaded revolver
concealed in his pocket. Once in a similar


situation he had called to me not to be alarmed
if he fired it. "I may only do it to frighten him/'
he had said.

No wonder that my heart beat faster. In spite
of my husband's sanguine assurances I had a
suspicion that he, as well as the Doctor, distrusted
the natives, especially the chiefs.

But each day the " magambo " passed quite
peaceably, yet without the case getting any
clearer. We began to blame ourselves for putting
temptation in the natives' way. We had expected
too much. The Msungu said that I had no
business bringing out so many things. He had
not room to move with all these boxes. Could
not one have sufficed me ? How could I possibly
require so many dresses when two suits were
ample for him ?

In vain I told him that I had made provision
for five years. " Five years ! " he scoffed, " a
quantity like that should last a life-time." His
ideal was the simple life. He did not mind a bit
how he looked. (I quite believed it when he
would sit on the edge of the verandah with his
knees up to his chin.) " Did I think," he con-
cluded, " that I had come out to teach the heathen
the Paris fashions ? "

There was some truth in his remarks. I began
almost to believe that I was really the chief


culprit. If they had only stolen his things now
I might have lifted up my head.

One day the Msungu asked Mele what the
natives did to a person suspected of stealing.
She was all animation. Her eyes flashed. She
raised her bare arm, then dropping it swiftly,
and pointing to a part above the elbow, said in
Yao : " They make them plunge their arm, up
this length, in boiling water."

One morning a native arrived with a wicker
cage filled with fowls. The Msungu bought them
and told him to go round to the store, where he
would pay him.

This store was attached to the boys' dormitory.
It was a mud building raised a couple of steps
from the ground, having a thatched roof and
narrow verandah, but no windows. In it he kept
bales of cotton, coloured blankets, jackets and
shirts for the boys.

Remembering the theft, the Msungu entered
the store, and locked the door carefully behind
him. He perceived a " malaja " (jacket) lying on
the table. He wondered how it had got there.
Possibly it might have fallen from the shelf. He
lifted down a bale of unbleached cotton and
returned to the verandah, again locking the door.

He measured out a length of cloth, from one
stretched arm to the other, six times, the price


of the chickens. Then he returned to the store
to replace the bale. There he stood amazed. In
that short interval of five minutes the jacket had
vanished from the table.

It seemed magic. There was certainly no one
else in the store, as there were no dark corners for
any one to hide. The room was bare except for
the table and the rows of shelves covered with
goods. He examined the latter attentively.
Blankets and various other things seemed to have
decreased in number.

He came out, locking the door heartlessly
behind him, and returned to the house. Lunch
was on the table. We sat down and he told us
this new trouble. We feared greatly that one or
more of our boys was the guilty party. It was
not difficult to guess which of them we trusted
least — Kasawala, Namonde's son. Still a preju-
dice was no proof. Besides the Msungu was
almost sure that he had seen him standing with
the other boys when he came out of the store.
How one could have entered with the door locked
was a problem, an impossibility in fact.

Immediately my thoughts flew to the queer
story about Namonde and his little magic horn.
Could it be true then that this horn, with the
hairy tail, had the wonderful power ascribed to
it ? Could it actually dance and tell him things ?


Could it give him power to make any one steal
or kill without being found out ?

Of course it was ridiculous, viewing it from a
calm standpoint. But here we were, lonely,
depressed by a malarious climate, surrounded by
awe-inspiring scenery ; the very sounds — drums
beating weirdly, the wailing in the still air, the
chuckling of the baboons, and the everlasting
click, click, at nightfall, were nerve wracking.

But the Msungu, matter of fact, determined to
find a rational explanation. At last after a hard
search he discovered a small opening under the
thatch at the eaves in the store, where a small
boy might enter.

Mpojola, Kasawala's little brother who played
about the Station almost naked ! Poor child with
the chubby face, had they made him do it ?

But all this was supposition on our part. It
might still prove to be one of the outside natives,
untaught and ignorant, of whom we had no reason
to expect gratitude. We were fain to hope so.

Sitting at breakfast next morning, puzzling
what we would do, I suggested that some broken
glass might be put in the hole under the thatch.
If any of the boys were guilty we would see cuts
on their hands or persons.

It seemed cruel, but nobody could be hurt
except the thief, and a little smart would be good


for him. The Msungu, for a wonder, quite
approved of my plan. Some bottles were broken
privately and placed in the secret opening. All
day we waited. There was no sign. Next
morning we lay awake expecting our morning cup
of tea to be brought in. The likomba ran
impatiently over the bed. At last I got up to
inquire the reason of the delay. In the dining
room I met the girls carrying the steaming tea-pot.
They had made the tea for the first time.

" Where are the boys ? " I asked, for I knew the
language better now.

" They ran away very early in the morning,"
was the answer.



DON'T know how it was arranged. I dare
* not speak of it to my husband now. The
word " Africa " is a dangerous subject. Whether
it disturbs his nervous system, or that it causes
regret that his heart's work was never accom-
plished, I cannot say. Thus I cannot explain
why a band of Indian soldiers, the famous Sikhs,
came to our Station about this time. They
pitched their tents beyond the Doctor's house.
They made no signs of war, but seemed to settle
down to a homely visit. A great turbaned fellow
would saunter along to us of a morning, and in a
small gentle voice, quite out of keeping with his
wild, bearded appearance, ask for a few capsicums.
They grew abundantly, large red and yellow ones,
beside the strip of geraniums opposite the front


Mj ss w W as as much at home with them as

she was with Koopy, and spoke to them in the
same manner, although I never heard them say
one word of English. Bending over the verandah
railing she would accost one coming on an errand :
" A lovely morning. How do you like this
country ? Don't you find those big turbans
very hot and heavy ? "

And the Indian would smile and nod, and
jabber something quite unintelligible to me, but
my friend would answer him as if she quite under-
stood. I am sure there is a language to a gifted
few, not in words, but in sounds and expression.

Mi ss w W as never at a loss for what to say,

nor did she ever trouble herself to learn a foreign
language. Dear kind friend, she is gone now.
The malaria cut her off a few years after.

We also supplied the Sikhs with fowls, or rather
we allowed them to help themselves. We would
see one running, knife in hand, after a puny hen,
for it is against their religion to eat anything
strangled. One day we paid them a visit and got
a taste of a chupatti — a large thin unleavened
scone, something like the Scotch hot-water ones.

Then before we realised it they had gone.
Like the Arabs, they had folded their tents and
silently stolen away. There were only the round
patches of crushed grass where their tents had


stood, and some feathers and litter to confirm us
that they had actually been here.

And Namonde, the chief, the instigator of the
theft, and Kasawala his son, had been taken
with them.

Little Mpojola had been simply the tool they
used. He was sent home for the meantime.
Our other boys returned of their own accord.
I daresay they had known what was going on,
but were afraid to tell. I had a bad attack of
neuralgia over the head of it, and lay moaning
for most of a day, but the Doctor at last cured
me, almost instantaneously, with Tincture of

Miss W had intended to stay a fortnight

with me before going to the Moirs, but as a
message came from the Fort telling the Msungu
to attend the trial of the thieves, she prolonged
her stay by a few days. It was the first time
that I had been left alone for more than a day,
and I felt the responsibility very much.

How lonely we two women felt. We consoled
ourselves with the thought that the Doctor and
teacher were not far away, but when alone in my
bedroom for the night, how insecure the house
felt with its shaky casements and thatched roof.
Every sound outside had a new meaning, but I
went to sleep nevertheless from sheer fatigue.


I could not have been long unconscious when a
noise outside made me start up. Someone un-
doubtedly was approaching the house with quick
heavy strides. The door rattled and the Doctor's
cheery voice called : " Are you awake, Donna ?
Here's the Mail from home."

The Post ! I was up in an instant, and throwing
on my dressing gown opened the front door. The
Doctor came in and emptied the sack of letters,
papers and magazines on the table, while the
girls stretched their necks from below to see what
was the disturbance.

The coming of the Mail was always a great event.
Letters in those days were at the least two months
on the way, and we generally got a number from
our friends of different dates. How gladly I
locked the door behind the Doctor, after the
correspondence had been divided, and hurried
into the bedroom with my treasures. There I
placed the candle in a convenient position, and
sat up in bed, my feet tucked beneath the blankets,
and read my letters. Soon my surroundings were
forgotten. The jackal might howl wildly outside,
the drums beat their loudest in the distance, I
heard them not. I was again at home in the
little house with the white clematis round the
porch ; the cool health-giving air was on my
face, and my friends were with me. About


midnight they mingled in my dreams and I did
not awake till morning.

Next day the boys took full advantage of the
Msungu's absence. They roared, and rushed
wildly through the back courtyard in the game
of " Mpele ' (it is played with a ball). Growing
angry at last, and not feeling equal to saying
" Chokani," as I had done on a memorable occa-
sion, I went to the Doctor and asked him to stop
them. I might have saved myself the trouble,
however, the provoking man only shrugged his
shoulders and told me to let them be. Returning
I met my girls with their favourite request that
I might send the women, who were mudding the
teacher's house, for water in their stead so that
they might go " quenda-jenda."

Next day a strange native came up to the
verandah and looked through the railing at me.
He carried on a stick a huge bunch of bananas,
the ripest and largest I ever saw. It was my
first experience of marketing there.

" What do you want ? " I asked in my best

" Singano " (needles), he answered.

" How many ? "

" Sitatu " (three), he replied firmly, and I ran
to my room to get the needles lest he should
change his mind. When I returned, and had


taken possession of the bananas he asked me
diffidently for an empty bottle, which I gave him,
and he went away delighted.

After an absence of three days the Msungu came
back. I remember I wore a pink dress in honour
of the occasion. It seemed an age since he left.
People may talk of the happiness of a honeymoon,
but there are times in one's life, even though one
be old and faded, that far outweigh those over-
rated weeks or days. Now that he was safely back
I forgot how anxious I had been about his dan-
gerous journey.

It is too painful to dwell on the trial at the
Fort. Sufficient to know that Namonde was
sentenced to one year's imprisonment ; Kasawala
to two months. We would much rather not have
punished them, but if we had to live in comfort
at all an example had to be made. Not only
ourselves had to be considered, but every white
man on the mountain.

To Kasawala it was only another adventure in
his life — the native has no idea of disgrace — he
would see more and learn more. He came back
to the Mission, though we were not there to see
him, and in course of time actually married
Ajaula, alias " Aterere." Before this event Mele
had been wedded to Masamani, the Doctor's cook.
As for Namonde, he was spared to return to his


village, but during his absence the heir to the
chiefdom had had full sway. There was another
case of the " Mwai " drinking, and the " wizard "

The day after the Msungu's return Miss W-

left us to visit the Moirs along the mountain, and
our old life began again. While my husband
had been away I lost the likomba. I was not
surprised, for being perfectly free, it might have
returned to the bush. I did not search for it,
but three days after, I remembered about the
bananas, which I had quite forgotten. I went
into the dark store off my bedroom where I had
hung them, and, reaching out my hand, felt
something soft and furry clinging to the bunch.
It was my pet which had been lost and was found.



WE had watched Miss W 's machilla
disappear down the path towards the
Banana village. We now turned with a loneliness
in our hearts to begin the old routine. But my
energy seemed to have gone. The weather was
extremely hot, hotter it seemed than last season,

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Online LibraryJessie Monteath CurrieThe Hill of goodbye; the story of a solitary white woman's life in Central Africa → online text (page 11 of 13)