Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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grey boulders strewn everywhere, one in particular
like a primitive castle, its shadows, a transparent
Cobalt blue, lying softly upon it ; down below,
the long, long slope covered with tall rank grass
and scrubby bush ending in the vast plain receding
and melting into the horizon.

" A leopard crossed my path, just here," said
the Msungu. " I had no weapon, but I had to
go on. They seldom come out by day though."

I hoped not, but I hid my fears, as my husband
had told me when I arrived that I must never
speak of being nervous in Africa.

When we reached Namonde's village, which was
only a few huts after all, built irregularly at each





side of the path, I remember feeling that there
were secrets there I dared not penetrate. What
meant those mysterious drawings in white chalk
on the red wall of a certain hut ? They looked
like Egyptian hieroglyphics. They reached from
the eaves to the ground.

The Msungu said that they were probably
symbols of the " Unyago," a ceremony through
which all the boys and girls must pass on reaching
puberty. In it they are instructed in all the
wisdom of the tribe, its knowledge of the universe,
its laws and customs, and the essential facts of
human life. In fact it is their university course,
and though it only lasts about six weeks it is at
least comprehensive in its scope.

I don't know how the Doctor or the Msungu
felt, but I awoke each morning with a sense of
great depression. Of course I was full of malaria.
I had a strange desire for something unusual to
happen, anything in fact to break the monotony
and terrible loneliness.

A few days after my arrival the Doctor had,
very considerately, taken a journey up the moun-
tain for a holiday. Poor man, he thought that
he was doing us a good turn, but how we wearied
for his coming back. Even a honeymoon couple
is better of a little society.


When he returned, he would go one way, we
the other in our walks ; but his dog followed
us, understanding us better. But at nights we
three would sit together in the verandah after
dinner. A yellow glow from the lamp shone
through the open door of the dining room. Out-
side the darkness was dense if the moon had not
risen, but the night was alive with mysterious
sounds — alwavs the incessant click, click, from
the grass and marshes ; sometimes the dull thud,
thud, of the drums and the mournful wails and
shrieks from the dancers at a " maliro " (a death
festival) in the distance.

Then the Doctor would shake his head and say
solemnly : " Everything may look very peaceable
just now, but one day something will happen."

And inwardly I really hoped something would.

I struggled against my depression in the
mornings, and I had much to help me. I could
paint many of the scenes around us, the insects
and flowers that interested me. Every flower and
leaf had to be examined, so new and strange they
were. But I saw few flowers, the sun, the wind
and bush fires seemed to stunt them around our
exposed station. Still a few red gladioli arose
to welcome me, and sweet-scented flowers, like
large mauve crocuses, appeared under the bushes
when the buds were bursting before the rain, nor


must I forget the familiar bracken I found on
the hillside.

Talking of spring buds reminds me that we had
a remarkable experience with them. One evening
the Msungu and I took a walk down the road
to the Linje. All was fresh after the rains. Bright
emerald leaves, clasped in pairs dotted the bushes.
He carelessly plucked a twig, then paused a minute
to examine its beauty — when lo, and behold !
one of the buds, exactly similar to the others,
unfolded wings and flew away.

We saw quite a number of these mimetic insects.
The grass-stalk, or walking-stick insect was fre-
quently in our garden, lying on the red soil, like
a bit of hard withered jointed grass. It was
surprising to see it walking about. On a rock in
the bed of the Linje we saw the flat white-grey
insect, like birds' dropping, that Henry Drummond
discovered. Another day the boys drew our
attention to what seemed a withered purple iris
stuck on the fence. It remained so still that I
sketched it in water-colour ; then it took wing
I know not where. We think it must have been
some large insect just emerged from its chrysalis.

One day the Msungu brought me two native
girls. Both were naked save for their loin cloths.
Their bodies were splashed with mud which showed
light on their dark skin. They had been mudding


houses, a work which is always done there by
women and girls.

The eldest girl, Mele, or Mary as we called her,
was petite and decidedly a beauty. A rosy hue
shone through her dusky cheeks. She had a
laughing mouth with lovely curves, though the
upper lip tilted slightly upward. Her nose, in
which she often wore a " Chipini ' (a nose pin)
was small. Her bare breasts stood out firm and
round. She might have been about sixteen.

The younger girl, Ajaula, was rather plain and
of a square build. Her eyelashes were very long
giving a peculiar look to her narrow eyes. Her
neck was entirely hidden by many plies of a thick
beaded necklace which gave her a deformed
appearance. She might have been about twelve
years old.

The name " Mele " means " on purpose " ;
" Ajaula," " rain is coming."

11 See what you can make of them," said the
Msungu, smiling. " I would suggest that the
first thing they should get is a good bath. Give
them a bit of soap and let them go to the Linje

And he left me looking at them hopelessly.
But a short time afterwards when they were
washed and dressed they looked quite different.
The length of unbleached cotton the Msungu


had given each of them, was wound round the
body from the top of the breast to a little above
the knee, and skilfully tucked in under the arm-
pit. We had removed Aj aula's heavy necklace
and she looked quite pleasant.

Now my work lay before me. Everything was
new to them. " Kusalala " (pretty) they would
say, dwelling tenderly on the word, when they
saw something that they admired. In the fore-
noons I taught them housework ; in the afternoons
reading, writing and sewing. They never had
seen before even the letters of the Alphabet ; and
the sewing was all done by the men in Africa. The
thimble amused them very much at first. Mele
tried it on, then rolled on her back laughing.
They liked their lessons, but they hated housework.
On the whole they were lazy and preferred to bask
in the sunshine, or play. The very first morning,
after their arrival, they came to me to ask if they
might go " quenda-jenda " (a walk).

I am sorry now that I did not let them. I had
an absurd idea that discipline must begin at once.
They obeyed because they had to. No girl or
boy was allowed into our Mission without first
being told that there must be no " Ngingusosa '
(/ don't wish), a favourite expression of the native.

However, every Sunday afternoon they were
allowed home, and when they returned they


always brought me tiny nosegays which they had
culled by the way, each tied neatly with a piece
of dried grass.

One morning I was horrified to see them appear
with their heads clean shaven. They looked so
funny that I determined to stop them doing it
again ; but the Msungu told me that it was a very
necessary custom, especially in the dry season
when insect life is so prolific. I also noticed that
Mele occasionally wore a straw stuck through a
tiny hole in her upper lip, evidently preparatory
to a lip ring, but as long as she did not disfigure
herself I would not interfere.

At first they were very fond of smearing their
faces with castor-oil, but as that was disagreeable
we stopped it. Apart from 'that I never saw
them doing anything objectionable ; indeed as
regards decency they were in some respects superior
to many boys and girls of the lower class at home.
They came to me outwardly dirty, but once given
soap they were always clean and their skin
beautifully polished.



OUR day began early. Before six o'clock in
the morning a boy brought us tea ; that
finished we dressed and went out into the cool
air. Sometimes the mist lay on the plain like a
sea or great lake, causing the nearest conical hills
to look like islands. Then I tried to do as much
as possible before the heat grew oppressive.
Usually I baked a batch of scones on the girdle,
the oven being far from satisfactory. It resembled
a small tunnel built on the floor. It was filled
with brushwood which was allowed to burn away.
When one wanted to cook the burning ash was
scraped out. Such a heat escaped that one day,
before my arrival, the Msungu, engaged in culinary
matters, had his eyelashes clean burnt off.

The baking finished it was time to prepare our
breakfast. Our meat consisted chiefly of small
fowls, but we had a store of tinned foods from
London which we used largely. Rice, yams and
sweet potatoes were our staple vegetables, although


we grew pumpkin also. A coarse banana called
plantain we roasted in hot ashes. On one occasion
we had a piece of zebra which I jokingly declared
tasted of the stripes ; but though we ate it neither
of us liked it. Once the Msungu visited a store
some distance off and brought home two round
Dutch cheeses coloured a deep red. There was a
great dispute among the boys whether they were
grown or made.

Breakfast over, two table boys removed the
dishes to the end of the verandah where they were
washed by two other lads. In this way was the
work divided. Such a clattering and scraping of
plates ensued while left food was greedily con-
sumed, and I bustled with my girls over household
duties. The Doctor had very applicably called
our home the " Crow's Nest," it being a little
mud affair standing on a height, exposed to every
wind that blew ; with little black figures flitting
about twittering songs accompanied by expressive
glances from bright flashing eyes.

The forenoon past, lunch was taken, consisting
of a milk pudding, a tin of fruit and a cup
of tea. That over I was thankful to lie down in
my shady bedroom with a newspaper over my
face to protect me from flies, and the few mos-
quitoes that had come up with my luggage.
But it made me hotter. I would throw it off


my bursting face. Then an ominous sound would
come above me — ping, ping, nearer and nearer.
I would raise my hands in readiness, and just as
the mosquito came in sight, clap them together,
and look expecting to see its mangled corpse,
when lo ! I would see it free and prepared to attack
me with renewed energy.

It was very provoking, especially if it were
washing-day, a day I dreaded. So did Mele.
On that particular morning we would find her
lying on the ground. She was " kulwalla '
(ill) she said. It was a curious fact that when
ever there was any extra work to be done a
peculiar sickness came over her. At all other
times she was " like a young roe skipping upon
the hills."

At first we let her lie, but finding it occur too
often the Msungu laughed her out of it by saying
the day before the washing, " Ah, poor Mele, she
will be ill to-morrow."

What made the work harder was the want of
proper utensils. The large box of ironmongery,
which I had brought the length of the coast, had
been robbed on the plain. The carriers had a
glib story. They had been attacked by another
tribe and most of the goods stolen. Their very
garments had been taken off them. Indeed it
appeared so. They presented a curious spectacle


having plastered or woven the broadest leaves
they could find round their bodies. " What could
they do ?" they said. " They were only children."

They cheerfully received their pay, so many
yards of cloth, then squatted down in front of the
house and began to scrape the sweat from their
breasts with their dirk-like knives.

Fortunately a filter and a few odds and ends

were left, and the teacher, Mr. H , kindly

sent me a kettle, but the large pot for boiling
the clothes was gone. By good luck my dishes
came all safe at another time.

To make things worse, I had no wash-house
and no water nearer than the Linje, as the little
stream which the Msungu had led from it, and
which the natives called " England," was dry
at this season. And worst of all I had no energy
to combat my difficulties.

But a husband is not a bad thing when you are
in trouble. He suggested that we should wash
in a shed which had been used for drying bricks.
He gave me two large empty paraffin tins to boil
the clothes. They had no lids certainly, but
trifles like these we could do without. He also
arranged for three or four native women to assist
my girls as it generally takes five or six natives
to do the work of one white person.

The day before the washing the women and


girls were sent to fetch water from the stream.
They carried it in pails on their heads, ingeniously
placing sprays of leaves across the surface of the
water to prevent it spilling. Many times had
they to go back and forth till enough was procured.

On the washing morning the women came from
the village. Their scanty loin cloths, browned
by the red soil, which dyes everything it touches,
matched their chocolate-coloured skin. Some had
babies tied on their backs. Then we all marched
single file down the narrow path that led to the
Linje, the women and girls carrying everything
necessary to serve our purpose. About a hundred
3'ards distant stood the brick-shed, which was
little more than a grass roof, being open at each
end. A fire was lit at the side of the path where
the long grass had been cut down. The two
paraffin tins filled with water were placed care-
fully on the top of it, supported by stones.

I acted as gaffer, a most unpleasant job. The
women and girls knelt in front of their tubs, rather
the zinc baths I fortunately had. Each baby
hung content on its mother's back. Bigger babies,
two or more years old, played in the bush outside.
There was no likely danger from wild beasts
at that time of day as the leopards and jackals
prowl only at nightfall. The baboons never
came very near us though we could hear them


chattering and laughing just like human beings
far up in the bush. We could not see them though
very likely they saw us.

But now the fire is burning pleasantly. The
steam is rising from the tins. The washing is
fairly begun. But how slowly the women rub
the clothes. They are simply stroking them.
Mele, the imaginative, is imitating a snake with
a bolster-slip she has twisted, making it wriggle
and splash through the frothy water while the
women laugh provokingly.

" Lijoka " (snake), she screams, showing her
white teeth while her eyes flash.

" Msanga " (quick), I cry angrily, but they laugh
the more and continue as they began.

Now a child comes running in to take a suck
from its mother's breast. This does not favour
the work, as the little one is thirsty and the woman
quite willing to nurse it. I understand now why
the old women's breasts hang down like empty
leather bags.

How hot it is. Even in the shelter of the shed
it is sweltering. I sit on a deck-chair near the
entrance and watch with one eye the women at
the tubs, with the other, the tins steaming on the
fire. A tin can only hold one sheet at a time.
I go out frequently to push down with a stick
the swelling, bulging cloth. The sweat is dripping


from my brow in spite of my Terai hat of double

I return to the shed and sit down exhausted.
How foolish those black women must think me,
thus making a burden of my life. Have not they
lived their simple life in mud huts and reared
children healthy and strong, without all this
fussing and striving ? They are perfectly happy
though their garments are meagre and very
dirty. At times I am told they do take them to
a stream and rub them with smooth stones in the
water ; but it cannot be often judging from their

Yet never had a language more words for
washing than the Yao. It has " ku-chapa ' (to
wash clothes) ; " ku-nawa ' (to wash the hands) ;
" ku-sukusula " (to wash the face), and " ku-joga "
(to bathe the body).

But while I am ruminating, something has
attracted the women's attention — a little bit of
lace on a garment — and they must all feel it and
examine it thoroughly. They say it is " kusalala '
(pretty) and I am supposed to be pleased.

When my patience is nearly exhausted the
washing is finished. I sigh with relief, and
gathering our belongings we start homewards.
But when I come to inspect the clothes I find
they are all smeared with a reddish-brown colour


through coming in contact with the women's
dirty garments. There is nothing for it but to
get more water and rinse them again.

That done they are spread out to dry on the
scrubby bushes, for we cannot yet boast of a
clothes' rope and clothes' pins. But a wind is
rising and we must watch them carefully lest
they be blown away.

I venture to rest for a few minutes on the
verandah. I hear the baboons still chuckling in
the jungle above us. I almost envy them. How
happy they are in their simple innocence without
ever a thought of a washing-day.

The day's work done, my brow relaxes once
more. Again I sit in the verandah. The sun is
setting rapidly. The vast plain below is like a
sea of gold. Crushed heaps of clouds have fallen
asleep on the horizon which is broken only by the
sharp pointed hills looking dark against a back-
ground of chrome yellow. I hear the tinkling
of glass from the dining room. Bwanali and
Kasawala are setting the table for dinner.
Although we are in Central Africa there is no
reason that our table should not be home-like.
The napkins will be folded nicely, and the glasses
will all get an extra polish for Bwanali carries a
towel over his arm.


I am very hungry. It is getting nearly time
for me to dish the food. A boy carrying a bugle
(lipenga) passes in front of the verandah and goes
in by the little gate to my left and through the
scrubby bush to the flag-staff. He mounts the
rocks and lowers the flag. Then forth into the
great stillness comes the bugle call.

I rise and go round the house to the kitchen.
I enter and prepare to dish the chicken soup. I
lift the lid. The soup is here right enough, but
the chicken is gone. Kasaswichi, my assistant
cook (Mlenga has gone on a journey) looks very
solemn squatting there on the ground. He is
such a poor looking object, for he has taken off
part of his dress for coolness, that I hesitate to
scold him.

" Where is the chicken ? " I ask in Yao.

" Qualine " (/ don't know), he answers.

" I suppose it has gone ' quenda jenda ' (for
a walk), I say, trying to look stern.

He avoids my eye and looks graver than ever.
What can I do but say like the native " Pangally
kandu " (It does not matter).



WE had quite a farm yard. Our flock of goats
grazed on the hillside, and their " lichinga "
(pen), stood beyond the back courtyard. They
resembled our home goats in appearance, but
not in disposition. When they saw you coming
they rushed to meet you, all striving which would
get nearest, and leaped up on you with their fore-
feet against your breast in the friendliest manner
possible. And if you had what they expected —
some light brown salt from Lake Chirwa, they
would lick it greedily out of your hand.

However, we did not get much milk. Possibly
if we had superintended the milking ourselves
it might have been otherwise. Perhaps the kids
were left too long with their mothers, or the milk
may have been pilfered by the boys. It is against
the native custom for women to drink milk. The
strange thing was that none of us seemed to have
the energy to look into the matter.


A number of very small fowls picked up a living
for themselves about the place. We had recently
added to our stock a few Muscovy ducks. At
present one was sitting on eggs in the big oven
in the kitchen, along with a hen whose own eggs
had been taken away and who insisted on keeping
it company.

They must have been a most sociable lot for
one day while I was with my boys in the kitchen,
who should come waddling in, but the drake to
see his wife.

To please the boys I said : " Ajise Che Mewati "
{Come in, Mr. Duck), and they laughed merrily.
When the ducklings were hatched, both the hen
and the duck came out with the little ones. They
made straight to " England," but as the stream
was nearly dry it did not trouble the hen much.
After two days, however, the duck got tired of
this state of matters, and left her ducklings. Not
so the hen for she proved a devoted mother, staying
with them till they were able to look after them-

Partly owing to the occupancy of the oven,
and also as it was a perfect nightmare to me, the
Msungu, always resourceful, invented a new oven
for my benefit. He had it built in the middle of
the back courtyard. It consisted of a large
earthenware native pot, lying on its side, arched


over with brick with a chimney to carry away
the smoke from the wood fire kindled in the flue
behind. A broken lid from a tin travelling box,
held by a stone, acted as door. The whole thing
resembled the body and funnel of a locomotive.

The Msungu tested it one day when I was
sweltering with my women and girls down at the
brick shed. I heard his footsteps coming along
the path, and the wearing burden of my sole
responsibility lightened. There he appeared in
the entrance, his face beaming with triumphant
success, holding out a plate with a few delightful
little cakes baked in patty tins by his own self.

After that many things were baked in our new
oven, and they were all a success. Never, before
or since, have I found such a good one. True,
I had to go out in the burning sun or in the rain
with an umbrella above my head while watching
the baking ; but what was that compared with
the fiery breath escaping from that huge tunnel
affair in the kitchen.

In every department the work had to be planned
and re-planned. I profitted by my trying ex-
perience down in the brick shed. Henceforth
I called the women from the village, the day before
the washing, and gave them each a piece of soap
to wash themselves and their wearing garments
before coming to work. This plan worked very


well. They were delighted with the soap, and
apart from the lesson in cleanliness, I seldom had
to complain again of my newly washed clothes
getting soiled.

My dish towels also were a source of trouble.
I would find them on the floor of the verandah,
which was covered with red dust, from the badly
fired bricks, or scattered in the courtyard dirty
and smeared with red soil. After much heart-
breaking I eventually cut a large number from a
bale of unbleached cotton, and gave out a fresh
one each time they washed the dishes.

Talk of housework ! If any of our dusting home
folk had their rooms roofed only by wooden rafters
inhabited by boring insects, they might complain.
Those little creatures were hard and lifeless
looking, resembling the dark brown sheath of a
beech leaf. A shower of the finest sawdust would
plump on the first thing handy, or perhaps the
insect itself would drop down the back of a neck
without any warning.

Then the " mbamba " (little ants) would swarm
into my cupboard by hundreds so that a pie, put
in the night before, would be black in the morning.
That cupboard, I ought to have described. It
was the case of my bullock travelling chest-of-
drawers, standing on a four-legged bench. I
painted its doors with birds and flowers and a nice


green border. Our sideboard, too, deserves a
word in passing. The Msungu made it out of a
number of empty provision boxes, nailed fanci-
fully together, and the whole painted green.

By this time I must have given the impression
that the Msungu was an extraordinary man ;
but that is nothing to the other things he did.
He made the most beautiful cabinet bookcase,
also out of boxes, which I sketched for the benefit
of the home folk.

True, when he was going to build up a recess
in the room which had been the Doctor's, he
went inside that recess, and started to nail on laths
of wood in front of himself, till timely reminded

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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 3 of 13)