Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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the way, had been cut down, leaving awkward
sharp stumps in the middle of the track. I could
have cried out with pain when I was bumped
against them. Then the men would look behind
with pretended sympathy, and walk slowly round
the next stump, the natives in front looking back
for my approval. But soon they would forget,
and I was in constant dread of another knock.

When we had gone a considerable distance we
met two natives running wildly. The machillas
were stopped and the strangers told in one breath
what had frightened them. I did not understand,
but I had no time to question. Our men started
at a gallop. Such a noise they made, enough to
frighten all the beasts in the jungle.


At last they slackened their speed. The
sweat was streaming from their brows, causing a
strange odour. Then I heard the one word
— " Lisimba."

" What is ' lisimba ' ?" I asked my husband,
who was about a yard behind me.

" A lion," he answered ; then he told me that
the scared men had seen a lioness with her cubs
by the path, but that now we were past the
dangerous spot.

It was well I had not known, but so many new
objects took up my attention I gave it no more
thought. Turning a corner of the path I saw
the most lovely creeper clinging to a bush. It
was covered with golden velvety pods, hanging
in graceful confusion. I called to the Msungu
(master or white man) : " O, stop a minute till
I gather some of that lovely plant/'

My husband laughed. " No," he said
mysteriously, "it is the likwanya. If you touch
it once, you'll never do so again."

Then the natives, doubtless guessing our con-
versation, began to sing : —

" Likwanya likunyanya pa chiko,
(The likwanya stings at the ford,
be silent).

The velvety pile of the likwanya pods is composed


of the tinest poisonous thorns which, on touching,
cause severe pain and irritation. So we wisely
left it behind us.

That night we decided to camp at Midima, a
native village on a small hill in the centre of the
Great Tuchilla Plain. As we began the ascent
what a rugged little path it was. Great jagged
rocks shot up at each side. The bushes slapped
our faces. The stumps of trees bumped us un-
mercifully. But the men had started their song

again : —

" country of women without any men,
We are tlie men, we are the men."

We were coming near the village at last. There
was a fierce barking of dogs, and a number of
wolfish-looking creatures stretched their necks
over a rock, as if they were guarding some fortress ;
but on our nearer approach they slunk away.

The village lies in a saucer-like hollow. Here
all its people are gathered to greet us. A child
in arms screams at our white faces, some run
away, but peer curiously round the corner of a
hut. The headman, thin and lanky, with breast
tattoed, wearing a scanty piece of cloth and a
cock's feather stuck erect in his matted hair, comes
forward to greet us.

" Moni, atate " (morning, father) he says politely,
and the women crowding behind him to get their

first glimpse of a white woman, wish me " Moni,


What a wild place it is. Great boulders are
scattered here and there. It is a scene for witches
and uncanny spirits. No wonder the people are
superstitious. On the trees and bushes hang
horns and queer objects, charms to frighten away
the evil spirits and thieves from their little plots
of pumpkins and sweet potatoes.

But now, two skinny old women have come over
to us with presents of eggs and a diminutive fowl,
which cackles shrilly. I can almost believe that
they are veritable witches. Their meagre cloth,
brown with the soil, hangs ragged round their
naked limbs. Inserted in their upper lips are
large bone rings which cause them to protrude
hideously. Their shrivelled breasts hang down
beyond the waist like empty leather bags.

But see, how they smile. How soft and child-
like are their voices as they present their gifts.
We accept them gratefully and give them some
beads and cloth in return.

My husband started at once to fix our tent.

A fire was lit. Our black boy prepared our

supper. The sun sank rapidly —

" Like a magician extended his golden wand o'er the landscape,
Twinkling vapours arose, and sky, and water and forest
Seemed all on fire at the touch and melted and
mingled together."


Then darkness fell, and in a moment the great
silence of Nature was broken by thousands of
little voices — click, click, incessantly from every
side. The tiny creatures in the grass were having
their concert, each of them trying to sing its

We sit in the red glow of the fire. Dark figures
are grouped around us. There are flashings of
eyes and glints of white teeth. That queer odour,
peculiar to the native, from warm naked bodies,
is strong. We nevertheless enjoy our supper.
Tea tastes so good in the wilderness. We soon
withdraw into our tent, where our travelling
mattresses are spread out. The Msungu places
his loaded revolver near his hand, and I try to
sleep. But no. There is something weird about
this place. The last flickering lights from the
fire, which have consolingly played through the
slits of the canvas, have gone. The vexed howling
of an hyena rings through the night.

I must have fallen asleep, for I awake. A dim
bluish light fills the tent. I hear a cock crow.
Am I at home ? Alas, no ! I see the grey folds
of the tent and hear an unknown tongue outside.
We rise and go out into the chill air, but I return
for a blanket to wrap round me, while I gratefully
drink hot cocoa and eat a cabin biscuit.

A little girl, almost naked, came over to us and


stared wonderingly. My husband gave her a
bright piece of cloth. Then a tall man appeared,
evidently her father. " We will keep her care-
fully for you, Msungu," he said in his own

We thought little of the incident ; but my
husband discovered afterwards that the giving
of a piece of cloth to a girl signifies a

We started early that morning. About noon
the men in front, carrying the loads, suddenly
stopped, and earnestly examined something on
the ground. We alighted and saw the footmarks
of some large animal. " Lisimba ! " the men
cried excitedly.

It gave one a queer feeling to think that a lion
might be, at that very moment, watching us from
the thicket. Then a native exclaimed : —

" Alole, Msungu, nyumba ako." {Look, Msungu
there is a house.)

We looked, but could see nothing save bush
over bush, and the distant peaks of Mlanje.

"Ako, ako ! " (There, there !) The word " ako "
was prolonged and increased in sound, as if it
would carry us to the exact part. I observed
later that the African has a language in tone
as well as in words.

Then, true enough, we saw a little blue smoke


rising against a clump of trees. We hastily got
into our machillas and in a few minutes had
reached a white man's tent.

Have you any idea of tent life in the wilderness ?
You get up at sunrise when your boy has lit a fire.
Perhaps you are shivering with cold, being full
of malaria, so you exert yourself to prepare
breakfast. You look over your box of provisions,
all the way from London, and probably you fix
upon a tin of sausages which you open after
searching everywhere for the tin-opener. Then
you wait impatiently till some sweet potatoes
are roasted, all the time guarding jealously with
the tail of your eye the tin of meat. If you
should suddenly be called away to some other
duty, you carry your tin with you, otherwise
you might not find it on your return. Your boys
could easily explain everything. The likoswe
(rat) ate it, or a monkey sprang from a tree and
carried it away. All the same the natives lick
their lips when your back is turned.

At evening you will retire to your tent where
your mattress, if you have one, lies on the ground.
Your cupboard, in the shape of a box or two,
stands near your bed. Every day is practically
the same, the same pleasures, the same worries,
the same loneliness all around you. When the
time comes for your departure, if you are still


alive, you can " fold your tent like the Arab, and
as silently steal away."

As we approached the tent, a white man, minus
a coat and badly wanting a shave, came out to
meet us. He invited us in and made us sit down
on his best cabin box. He shouted a mixture of
Yao and English to his black servants and started
to set some enamelled cups and saucers on another
box. Then he produced some grey substance
which he called bread, and a tin of butter which
had turned to oil. Fortunately we had our own
hamper so we produced our good things and he
did enjoy them.

Then he told us how a lion had come to his
tent through the night and stolen a piece of goat's

We left him. Early in the afternoon we reached
the Tuchilla river. The natives waded across
with the loads. The water laved their limbs
above their knees. I was sure if I consented to
be carried that the man would drop me, and the
machilla was out of the question as it would
drag in the water.

A tree has fallen half-way over the river, a
boulder lies a short distance from it, then another
short breadth of water before the bank. We
decide on this way. One of the men will walk
by my side while I cross on the tree's trunk.


" So steady, Kumbokola." I rest my hand on
his shoulder, and proceed very timidly. I feel
badly balanced. I fain would clutch him round
the neck ; but the Msungu is coming fast behind
me. I go forward desperately, and at last reach
the end of the log. Then, with a helping hand
from the other side, I leap, and reach the boulder
in safety. Such a fine solid stone it is, overgrown
with home-like grey lichen. My legs are firm
again, not the wobbly things they were a minute
ago. " Hurry up ! " the Msungu is crying. I
must make room for him. A huge baobab tree,
hanging its many ropes considerately over the
water, grows on the opposite bank. I seize hold
of one of the ropes, leap, and alight safe on the
other side.

We pulled ourselves up the steep bank with the
help of the baobab tree. Now our carriers required
a rest more frequently and the reserve men took
their turn. At last we reached the Lekabula
river that flows at the foot of Mount Mlanje. We
crossed easily at the ford and ascending the bank
went through an archway of Iwalli palms, framing
the most curious sight I ever saw.

"It is Namonde, the chief," whispered the
Msungu, and I looked with interest as I had heard
that he was a wizard.

There he sat, awaiting our coming, on a


knoll by the side of the path — a little old man
with a short black beard, holding above his bare
head an old brown silk parasol. He wore some
dark blue muslin thrown over one shoulder, and
a strip of dirty calico twisted round his limbs.
Behind him sat his wives, some six or eight of
them, from mere girls to oldish women. The
chief wife, a woman up in years, sat near him,
smoking a twist of tobacco.

At our approach Namonde rose, and with a
look of great importance, waddled forward. He
shook hands with us, while all his wives trooped
down to a clearing in the centre of the path, and,
forming themselves into a circle, performed a
strange wild dance with much singing and hand-

Thus was I welcomed on coming to Mount
Mlanje. There the great mountain stood gloomy
in front of us, an immense barracade across the
plain. On our left rose an enormous peak of
solid rock with mysterious hollows. White
cascades gushed from steep slopes into deep
ravines. Cliff towered above cliff. Terrific grey
boulders, thrown up by some tremendous up-
heaval, were scattered everywhere.

And there lay the home of the wizard.

I hardly noticed the strange dance. I gave
poor attention to the weird music. I did not


perceive the wizard chief watching me curiously
with evil cunning eyes. That grand mountain
absorbed me, held me, and drew me to it. And,
as I wondered in which of those lonely hollows
lay my future home, a feeling of great awe fell
upon me.



AFTER leaving Namonde, the chief, we resumed
our journey and were soon struggling up
the foot of Mount Mlanje. Rugged as the road
had been up to Midima it w r as nothing to this.
Mlanje does everything on a grand scale. Its
height is nearly 10,000 feet. The narrow path,
like a great red scar between giant grasses, rose
almost perpendicular, save where the immense
rocks made it twist and bend. We had to walk
part of the way to prevent us falling out of the
machillas, and to spare the men.

As we neared our destination the mission boys,
one after another, barefooted and dressed in long
white shirts, their Sunday garb, ran down to meet
us, all anxious to shake hands with the Donna.
I was surprised at their look of intelligence,
knowing that a few months before they had been
almost savages.


At last we reached the plateau on which our
house stood. As my machilla turned I had a
view of the scene beneath. If the sight of the
mountain had inspired me with awe, the picture
from here made me tremble. How can I describe
it ? Across the vast plain, that melted into a
hazy blue, was a wall of purple-peaked hills, jutting
into a golden background, where could be seen
more distant peaks flooded in sunshine. In the
middle distance, the centre of the plain, rose a
rugged hillock, like the point of a rusty spear.
Over all was an intangible something that made
me feel in the presence of God.

Like one in a dream, I turned from it, and saw,
a few yards off, my future home, a small thatched
bungalow. The Doctor, the only other member
of our staff, had erected a white flag, in honour
of the first white woman on Mount Mlanje, by
sticking its pole between two boulders of rock.
He came out to meet us, and we alighted from our
machillas. How pale he looked. Probably I was
beginning to feel what struck me more later on,
when the natives looked no longer black, but
we, ourselves seemed ghastly white.

The Msungu, always fond of a joke, had led me
to believe that there were no tables or chairs in
my African home, but that large empty boxes
served the purpose quite as well. I was therefore


surprised to find in the centre room several chairs
and a long deal table with actually a tablecloth
which a native had made by sewing together
long strips of unbleached cotton. It was the
first tablecloth on Mount Mlanje.

I daresay my hair was somewhat untidy from
lying so long in the machilla, but I did not expect
any one to remark it, far less one who had not
seen a white woman for many months. But
I was mistaken.

" You can go into my bedroom and tidy your
hair with my comb and brush," said the Doctor
kindly. " Although we are in Central Africa,
you know, it does not do to be careless with one's
appearance. I find that. We have enough to
do to keep ourselves up."

A very good advice which I followed to the
letter ; but why I could not as readily go into
my husband's room, which also opened off the
dining room, was a puzzle. Later I discovered
that the climate accounted for most mysteries.

Our house which was composed of wattle and
daub consisted of three rooms — a dining room
with a bedroom on each side. The walls were
very artistic. The Msungu, in view of my coming,
had with great pains nailed on a lining of split
branches of Iwalli palm, the rounded side out-
wards. Before, they had been so rough that


sometimes a rat would be seen in a cranny,
munching a stolen piece of sugar.

The floors were made of badly fired brick. The
rooms had no ceilings, only the rafters and thatch ;
and no fireplaces. But the disadvantages of these
arrangements were to be discovered later. Mean-
while our trouble was to keep cool.

A verandah with a pretty latticed railing
surrounded the house. Across the road in front
was the garden, long-shaped, with two great
boulders at one end. There was little in it save
tomato plants, capsicums, a few flowers and a
bunch of thyme. Pineapples and Cape goose-
berries had been planted, but as yet did not
promise success.

A few mud huts, comprising a kitchen, a store
and the boys' dormitory, framed a courtyard at
the back of the house. Behind these, separated
only a short distance by scrubby bush and primeval
forest, rose a high precipitous cliff of bare solid
rock over which a waterfall dropped 3,000 feet.
This formed the Linje stream where we got nearly
all our water.

Several paths for convenience had been cut
along the mountain, one leading to our little
church, a plain mud building, a few yards from
our garden, and to Namonde's village. The
Mission was barely two years old. Its staff, as


I hinted before, consisted of an ordained and a
medical missionary. The natives had to be
taught, the bush cut down, bricks made and
temporary houses built. While these two men
were using up all their strength with manual
labour, undoing and re-doing work unfamiliar to
them, there were people at home wondering why
they did not hear of more conversions, schools
and churches.

For the first few days I was overwhelmed with
visitors, dark-skinned women in scanty garments
with bare breasts and lips disfigured with bone
rings, all anxious to get their first sight of a white
woman. The Msungu would call me out
repeatedly to show myself. " Moni, Donna,"
they said as we shook hands.

Each brought me a present of eggs, some in
chiselas {fiat baskets) others in pumpkin-like gourds.
In return I gave them red beads used for com-
mercial purposes. Soon I had more eggs than
I could conveniently use.

Among my visitors was Namonde, the chief,
with all his wives. He had the air of a king in
spite of his battered felt hat, old white jacket,
bare legs and tattooed breast. True, a little
blue muslin attempted to hide his limbs, and of
course he carried his tattered brown parasol.


A special chair was brought out for him. His
chief wife sat on a bench against the wall, while
her companions, slaves included, squatted on the


I could not offer them afternoon tea. They
might have thought it medicine. Instead I gave
the chief wife a peppermint sweet. Peppermints
were very precious in those days, as goods from
home took an age in coming.

A-Kusieto (chief wife) at once put the sweet in
her mouth, sucked it complacently, evidently
appreciating its flavour, then handed it to her
next neighbour who took a suck and passed it
on. Thus it went round the whole company
excepting the chief.

But the novelty of my presence soon wore away,
then it was only when the natives had visitors
who must be entertained, that I would be required
to make my appearance. Next to myself my
travelling rug interested them. They called it
" Ngua kulandana chisui " [cloth like a leopard).

The first thing I had to learn was the native
language — (Yao) — or rather sentences which would
enable me to guide my household. Two of
these were — " Akawilanje " (call such and such a
person to me) ; and " Lina liakwe " (What do you
call this ?) a very necessary sentence by which
I could learn any word.


After much trouble I thought I had mastered
them. One day, wishing to call the Msungu
I said to Kambona, the doctor's little table boy,

" Lina liakwe, Msungu ? "

Immediately his hand went to his mouth to
conceal a laugh ; then he disappeared round the
house where he gave vent to a great giggle. A
clamour of voices arose, and I knew he was telling
the boys what I had said. And what had I said ?
Simply this : " What name do you give the
Msungu ? "

Ah yes, that was their secret. They delighted
in nicknames, but hardly by stratagem or coaxing
could one find out his own. Yet by chance we
discovered the Msungu's — " A-Kala-kala " (the
man of many years) probably because his name
was Adam.

On another occasion I had gone to the kitchen,
in the back courtyard, to cook the breakfast. I
had brought with me a tin of sausages to fry,
but I had forgotten the lard.

Here was a dilemma. I was surrounded by
black boys, big and little, all anxious to watch
the cooking operations. If I went back to my
store and left the sausages and other accompani-
ments, the chances were that I should not find
them intact on my return. Should I carry them
with me ? Even then I feared to hurt the boys'


feelings. But what was I to do ? Among all
the Yao words I had learned the word fat had
been omitted.

I gave an enquiring look at the boys, pointed
to the frying-pan, then at the house, and made
an action as of putting the sausages into the pan.
Every lad beamed with intelligence, and all ran
to the house with one accord.

I remain, hugging my tin, while I breathe a sigh
of relief. Who said that it would be difficult to
make the native understand ? There, in my
very first month, not only one, but all comprehend

Yes, there they come. How quick they have
been. But, dear me ! what are they bringing ?
One carries a tray, another a brush, another a plate,
but not a boy has the fat.

I deplore their ignorance, shaking my head
dolefully, then quite regardless of their feelings,
I seize my precious tins and sail tragically to my
store from whence I return with a tin of lard added
to my collection. Holding it out towards the
boys I say, after torturing my poor brain — " Lina
liakwe ? "

" Mauta," they shout together, and I have
learned one word more.

Each word added to my vocabulary gave me
more confidence, but soon I found that it was


absolutely necessary for my peace of mind to
learn, before all culinary knowledge, one word
or sentence which would convey to the natives
that I did not want their presence.

For my lack of privacy grew intolerable. In
my bedroom I was not so bad as they seldom
came without my permission. In the centre, or
dining room, it was different, for a door stood
open at each end for coolness. Somehow these
doors seemed to attract the natives, for all the
boys and outside workers, both men and women,
would gallop madly in at one door and out at the
other, disappearing round the house, and appearing
next minute with wild yells to run through the
room again, repeating the game till I felt like
Noah's dove without one restful spot.

I told the Msungu, and he said it was the
simplest thing in the world to stop that : when
the disturbance came I must say " Chokani,"
and immediately I would be left severely alone.

Foolishly I did not ask the nature of this magic
word. It seemed sufficient that I should acquire
the power of dismissing the noisy intruders. I had
not to wait long to try its efficacy, the very next
day the game began again.

With beating heart I stood nervously hesitating
against the wall while the turbulent throng rushed
past me. How pale and feeble I must have


appeared to them. But I had the magic word.
I drew myself together, and though it was
unnatural to me, tried to look commanding.

" Chokani," I said, as firmly as my nerves
would permit.

Suddenly the mad procession halts, stares at
me in surprise, and bursts into peals of laughter,
then takes to its heels and rushes from the house.
But it does not come in again. Still, I wonder
why the merriment continues in the back courtyard.

Truly it was a magic word. I asked the Msungu,
later in the day, what it meant, and why the
creatures laughed.

" How did you say it ? " asked my instructor.

I repeated the word in an ordinary voice.

The Msungu laughed immoderately. Had I
made a mistake, or had he been making fun of
me ? I demanded to know.

" • Chokani ' means ' Get out of this,' " he said
soothingly : " and you know if you say it in a
gentle way it sounds funny. You should have
said it peremptorily with a sound of thunder in
your voice."

" But they obeyed me. That was the important
thing," I said smiling, " but I'll remember next

But there was no next time. It had been a
magic word after all.



ABOUT half a mile from our bungalow lay
the village of Namonde, the chief. We
walked there shortly after my arrival. In fancy
I see the path curving along the mountain, the

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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 2 of 13)