Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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that there would be no way of getting out if he
continued. But then, even Sir Isaac Newton
cut two holes in his door for his cat and kitten.

But to return to the " mbamba." To exter-
minate them was out of the question. They came
in long troops, like an ever flowing stream.
Ultimately, acting on the advice of the more
experienced, we placed the legs of the cupboard
in tins of water. This did as long as we emptied
them frequently, otherwise, they crossed the
water on the drowned bodies of their comrades.

As the days passed trials overcome made life
easier. Still there was great scope for improve-
ment. For one thing we were cramped for room.


As we could not put our girls outside in a dormi-
tory, having no trustworthy person to look after
them, we let them sleep under our dining room
table, on a straw mat laid on the floor. Each
girl wrapped herself in a red blanket, provided
by us, and lay down, her head resting on her elbow,
and, after many whisperings and gigglings, would
fall asleep.

What with our boys and girls and the Doctor's
boys, for he had separate ones to attend him, our
house was rather crowded even by day. I don't
know who proposed it, but it was thought better
for all parties that the Doctor should have a
house for himself.

We were sorry, for we three had been so happy
and agreeable ; but we arranged that he should
have Masamani, our chief cook, and that he should
come to us every afternoon to have tea, and every
Sunday to dinner. He also bargained that we
should dine with him each Thursday. Thus a
little variety was brought into our quiet life.

At once the Doctor, spurred by the prospect
of having a house of his own, started to make a
sideboard. He was very skilful with tools, so a
regular work-shop was made of the wattle and daub
building we used for church and school. Yet it
did not seem such a sacrilege, when we thought
of the Carpenter in the village of Nazareth.


It 'was also an education for the boys for they
were inclined to despise work ; and the sideboard
grew more beautiful every day.

Soon a space was cleared a few yards from our
bungalow ; holes were dug for the posts which were
afterwards wattled with split bamboos and padded
with dried grass. Then the women came to
plaster the whole with mud.

It was then that our girls began to assume
an air of importance. Indeed they looked of a
different race from these poor women who,
stripped nearly naked, mounted the short ladders
to mud the walls of the Doctor's house. Yet
they had been the same but a short time ago.

How proudly they walked past them with heads
erect and an undue quantity of cloth hanging
about their limbs, the under pieces pulled down,
here and there, to show their wealth of garments.

More than once while I was dressing in my
bedroom I would hear eager whisperings outside
my door. I would call " Pitani," and the girls
would come in, always with the same request,
that I would send the women, who were mudding
the house, for water instead of them.

This generally happened when the Msungu was
absent from the Station, and, with my insane idea
of discipline, the request was always refused. They
obeyed without complaint. Meekly they returned


to the dining room. I would hear the rattle of the
pails from the side of the filter, then the soft patter
of feet along the verandah, and they were gone.

Yet they were kind hearted too. A young
married girl, about Mele's age, used to come
frequently to our Station to visit our girls. Then
Mele would get her book and slate and, sitting on
the ground in front of the house, would teach
her all she knew herself. It was interesting to
watch her eager explanations and to see the con-
trast between the two faces, showing what example
and education can do even in a short time : the
dark soulless expression on poor Ndendemele's
face — the bright look of enlightenment on Mele's.

One day some natives brought us a tiny jackal.
The Msungu bought it for me, not being aware
that I hate to see wild animals in captivity. As
he was paying the men round at the store, two
little bits of cloth, one white, the other navy blue,
were left over.

Seeing Ajaula casting longing eyes at the
remnants, the Msungu handed them to her. She
seized them gladly, and immediately came to me
for a needle and a thread. Receiving them she
disappeared from my view and I thought no more
of it.

About eight o'clock every evening we had
prayers and a hymn or two in the dining room.


Our boys and girls took a kneeling posture round
the table on which they rested their elbows.
Several natives from the villages came also and
squatted on the floor near the door which in
the hot season always stood open. The room was
lit by a paraffin lamp, its light barely reaching the
corners where dark eyes flashed and white teeth

The short service over we let them amuse them-
selves. Sometimes they told stories, which greatly
assisted us in learning the language. One night
Mele told us about Brer Rabbit with all his tricks
to deceive the fox. She told it so graphically,
moving her hands and making sounds with her
mouth, that though I could understand but
a few words, I could hear Brer Rabbit laughing
and knew that the fox was running away to its
hole discomfited. And at that time I had never
heard or read of Brer Rabbit.

Occasionally they were allowed to have a dance,
though certain dances were forbidden. Then
the large native drums were brought out to the
back courtyard. An old woman would advance
first and they all would follow, walking in a bent
posture one behind the other, each carrying
something, though it might be only an empty
tin, and go through strange figures to the solemn
beat, beat of the drums.


Had the sound of the drums, or the sight of the
fantastic dancers in the moonlight infected us
with a like festive spirit ? For as soon as the
natives dispersed, the Doctor, Msungu and I,
staid missionaries supposed to be, would run
round the Station in a game of hide and seek.

The evening of the day on which Ajaula received
the little pieces of cloth we assembled as usual
in the dining room for prayers. A hymn was
given out. The whisperings of the natives ceased.
Sweet and hearty rose their voices. That finished,
the Msungu began the lesson. But there was a
restless movement from Ajalua who knelt close
by me. She fumbled suspiciously in the waist
of her garment, while casting proud glances at the
natives near the door. Then she drew up her
hand, holding a handkerchief, the very first she
had ever had, probably the first possessed by a
Mlanje girl. It was unique in design, being
oblong, with a centre of unbleached cotton and a
border of navy blue muslin.

I am afraid I smiled. The Msungu, opposite me,
read solemnly in the stillness —

" Wapali mundu, juamtume kwa Mulungu, Una lyakwe

[There was a man sent from God whose name was John.)

" Poomph, poomph — poomph." Ajaula had
started to blow her nose. The Msungu continued


the lesson. Ajaula continued her blowing, in
soft little crescendos.

I dared not catch the eye of the Doctor who
sat staring impassively at our hapless sideboard
of deal boxes, as if he were drawing hopeless

It was a proud time for Ajaula. No doubt in
her vivid imagination she was picturing the
jealous looks of the other natives, especially the
villagers ; but she was too much engaged to see

The Msungu at last finished the reading. Aj aula
had not finished her nose, but continued those
vain exuding noises through all the prayer that



THE little jackal which the natives brought
us was very timid, being fresh from the
jungle. For the first few days it would fly from
my sight and hide under the nearest available
object ; but at last I tamed it with Swiss milk
which it could not resist. It was a neat little
perky creature with erect ears and a small sharp
nose. One day as I bent to feed it in the verandah,
where it lived under the garden seat, it gave its
first indication of friendliness by licking my face.
It also made a friend of the Doctor's dog, an
animal of half native breed.

One night, after going to bed, we heard the loud
howl of some wild beast in front of the house.
The Msungu, in spite of my protestations, sprang
up, seized his revolver, and ran outside.

I was accustomed to these sudden departures.
Sometimes we would be disturbed by a storm of
angry voices from the vicinity of the boys' dormi-
tory, and I would be left alone. Generally I put


on my dressing-gown, lit a small paraffin stove
which smelt badly, and made some coffee to
drink on his return, in case he would be chilled
by the night air or drenched by the rains which
were now threatening. Then I would sit up on
my bed and listen anxiously, feeling all the worse
that I didn't know what was happening. On
one of these occasions it thundered so terrifically
that I ducked my head under the bed-clothes.

This time he returned soon. He had seen
distinctly in the moon-light, a large wolfish-looking
animal, nose to nose with our little jackal, and
had refrained from firing thinking it might be
its mother.

Shortly after this when I went to feed my pet
it growled and showed its teeth. I suspected at
once that it must have eaten some flesh for I had
kept it on milk diet. True enough, the boys
admitted having given it the entrails of a fowl.
I was not sorry for it gave me an excuse to let it
go. As soon as it was dark we set it free, and it
ran straight towards the bush.

I think the Doctor's dog missed it, and it, poor
thing, had need of comfort for it was badly
bitten by grass ticks. These hard flat insects,
resembling nothing more solid than a blot of ink,
fastened themselves on the skin, till gorged with
blood they looked like large red beads, when


they had to be pulled off by main force. They
stuck on my skirt when I went through the narrow
paths and caused me great discomfort. Invariably
at dinner one would seize me under the knee, and
I dared not cry out in case I would shock the
Doctor. Ultimately I got the girls to pick them
off my dress, immediately I came in from my walk.

About this time the sister of Namonde, the
chief, died. Preparations for a big " maliro "
were begun. An extra drum was borrowed from
the natives of the Banana village near the Linje
stream. For three days and nights the death
festival was held. The drums beat rapidly,
accompanying the yells of the dancers. It
haunted us all day as we went about our tasks.
We heard it in the night watches and were lulled
to sleep again by the weird sounds.

During this time we anxiously watched our
girls lest they should be tempted to join the
death revels. The natives are very secret about
their ceremonies, especially the " Nyago," which
is said to end in an immoral dance. So our
anxiety was the greater knowing that our girls
were not like our innocent children at home.
Mele must have gone through the Nyago when she
changed her name from Soyaga to Mele.

But the maliro seemed not to affect them. They
went about the house trilling their soft little songs,


and crept under the table each night with many
chuckles and whisperings. Possibly the new and
wonderful life in the Mission shadowed for a time
the pleasures in their village. And we were glad,
thinking that already we had got a grip of them,
little dreaming how soon another and a worse
dance would entice them away.

But the troubles of the maliro were not yet over.
One day, shortly after, the chief men from the
Banana village came to the Msungu in great
wrath and excitement. He must be their judge,
they were only children, they said. So they
squatted down in our verandah and told their
story : the drum which they had lent to
Namonde's people had been returned broken.
What were they to do ? Namonde would not
give them a new one.

Day after day the Msungu sat patiently listening
to them, and suggesting this thing and that, while
they waxed warm and talked, and talked, always
the same thing over again. Indeed it seemed a
" Magambo " (lawsuit) that would never end.

Though the price of a drum is only two yards
of cloth, according to native value, yet it is the
most important musical instrument in Central
Africa. There are many shapes and sizes, from
the huge war drum, made from the hollow trunk
of a large tree, to the tiny drum which is held


against the breast and beaten by the fingers.
One particular feature of the African drum is the
manner in which the natives manage to tighten
the skin of the drum-head. This is done by taking
advantage of the peculiar property of rubber
which contracts by heat. On the drum-head a
number of patches of rubber are fixed. Before
using the drum it is held near a fire whereupon
the rubber contracts and makes the skin per-
fectly tight, literally " as tight as a drum."

At last the " Magambo " seemed to have ended.
The men came no longer. All was quiet at the
Station. Indeed it seemed as if the natives
approved of our way of living. About a stone's
throw from the little church stood two mud huts,
side by side, inhabited by two married couples
who had contrived to imitate our home in every
way possible. In front of each was a garden
fenced like ours with latticed railing in which
were planted pumpkins, etc. They had also cut
a neat path up to their doors, an unusual thing,
for the African never thinks of making roads,
but allows them to make themselves.

In our garden grew a mass of " Love-lies-
bleeding " with flowers of enormous size which had
spread through the fence. A spray of these one
of the happy husbands carried home to his wife, a
little attention the native is not at all addicted to.


No wonder that whatever fears we had were
quieted. The natives had certainly been vindic-
tive and vicious in the past, but there had been
no Mission then on Mount Mlanje.

Yet surely it was the lull before the storm.
One morning, just as I was dressing, we heard the
unusual sound of men racing past the house.
I ran to the window, and drawing aside the muslin
screen, saw a number of natives, practically naked,
with bodies bent forward, spears held out in
readiness, running madly in the direction of
Namonde's village.

The Banana villagers were on the warpath.

It was impossible to stop them, though the
Doctor had once prevented a massacre on a small
scale, by giving the would-be fighter a strong
opiate, on the pretence that it was a medicine
that would help him. We could only hope that
Namonde's people had got timely warning for the
women and children to fly to the mountains.

Indeed it proved so. When the enraged enemy
burst into the village only a few fowls flew cackling
in terror. Not a soul was to be seen. The banana
bushes fluttered gently their fringed leaves in
the sunshine. Little birds with red breasts hopped
from twig to twig. A bell bird from afar uttered
its clear note, one tender chime, like a church
bell stirred by a passing breeze.


But alas ! a little tell-tale smoke oozed from
a hut. The Banana villagers rushed in and
speared a sick man, the only one left. Next,
they wreaked their vengeance on the fowls. What
a cackling and fluttering there was ; but they were
soon hushed. Yet their wrath was not appeased.
Wildly they looked round for something more
to destroy. The earthenware pots still stood
as they had been left, some containing " ugali "
(native porridge), others, shredded leaves and
flowers for the " mboga ' (relish). These they
shattered to atoms. Then they sallied back
triumphant along the twining sunny path to the
Banana village ; and we never heard another
whisper about the drum the cause of the trouble.

It was a little matter, hardly worth speaking
about. Our girls and boys showed no signs of
disturbance. Mele and Ajaula went " quenda
jenda " in the afternoon. They found a soft
mound of earth and dug out a little grey mole
which they brought home and placed on the
verandah steps. Then they poked their fun at
it, pushing it here and there, laughing at the poor
creature's efforts to get away till my heart grew
sick, and I tried to stop them, though I did not
see them actually hurt it.

The boys played at " Mpela " (ball) in the back


courtyard making a deafening din when they
thought that the Msungu was out of hearing. And
when later I went to the kitchen to see after the
cooking I found Kasawala, Kambona and Kasas-
wichi making a feast for themselves : eight or
nine field mice skewered on a stick, roasting over
the fire.

But a change was in the wind — for us and for
Namonde's people. Whether it was that their
houses and goods had suffered damage, or that
the proper time for their migration had come,
I don't know ; anyhow, they began to build a
new village at the foot of the mountain near the
Lekabula river.

The natives work their gardens till the ground
is exhausted, then, instead of manuring them and
making them fit for new crops, they cultivate
fresh land a little further away, till gradually
they get too far from their village for convenience.
Then they remove altogether to a new part of
the country.

We, also, were contemplating a " flitting," or
rather the Doctor was. His house was now
finished. The final white- wash had been put on
inside since there was no time to make the
elaborate lining of Iwalli palm as had been done
on ours. But it looked very nice with French
casement windows, which had been carried


complete from the Mandala Store, near Blantyre

So one day the Doctor removed his belongings
and I lost no time in transforming his room into
a little drawing room. I had some pretty art
muslin with a Chinesy blue and red pattern which
I made into window-sash curtains, trimming each
with a narrow frill of Turkey-red cotton. On the
floor we spread native matting with a skin here
and there. A single bed made a nice couch by
day covered with a travelling rug and a large
leopard skin. The Msungu's famous cabinet,
rilled with books and topped by two Chinese
vases, stood opposite the window. One or two
little tables completed the furnishing. As for
pictures, I cut them from magazines, and framed
them, minus glass, with split branches of Illwai
palm, nailed crosswise at the corners.

Meanwhile the Doctor was hard at work finishing
his sideboard. He asked me to help him in
designing the back ; so much pleased I cut out
a shape in brown paper and took it down to his
" work-shop."

What a change it was having another house
near us. We were perfectly childish in this new
interest. The Msungu and I would often pay
the Doctor a ceremonious visit. We would knock
at his door and await his coming, when he would



shake hands as if we had not seen him already
twenty times that day. Then he would ask us
in his politest manner to come in. We would sit
down and discuss the natives, which one always
does in Africa instead of the weather.

Then I would say in a loud whisper to the
Msungu : "I wonder when he is going to offer
us cake and wine ? "

At this remark, with a smile on his lips, the
Doctor would go over to his sideboard and pour
us out some soda-water from his gasogene, and
we would drink his health and be right jolly.

An amusing rivalry arose between the Doctor's
boys and ours. Each day they had a heated
discussion as to which had the best furnishings.
When at last our boys seemed to be getting the
best of it, Kambona, the Doctor's little table-boy,
ran forward shouting : " Pangally bell " (There
is no bell).

It was quite true. They had scored this time ;
and for long afterwards they called derisively to
our boys — " Pangally bell."



ONE day the Msungu and I strolled up the
mountain to a primeval forest, composed
chiefly of huge mahogany trees. I had never
been so far before. With intense interest we
ventured a little way into its gloomy shade and
found traces of a native cemetery. On the mossy
turf lay several small earthenware jars, turned
upside down, each having a hole cut in it to keep
away the witches who, the natives believe, come
in the form of hyaenas or other wild beasts to
eat the bodies.

Though some authorities declare that there are
natives in this part of Africa with that abnormal
appetite, we saw nothing of it ourselves ; but
from certain incidents which happened during
our stay there, we were led to believe that canni-
balism does exist in a few cases.


For instance, it was commonly asserted that
our chief Namonde had eaten his child by a slave
wife. Some of our boys believed us capable of
this abominable practice ourselves. When a very
stout white man, a land surveyor, called by the
natives " Che Chimimba ' (Mr. Big Stomach)
visited our Station and stayed in the Doctor's
house, Kambona, who was then table-boy there,
fled in terror lest he should be eaten by the fat
man. And another time when the Msungu was
smoking a piece of wild boar in a barrel, a boy
believed firmly that the " nyama " (meat) was
one of his comrades.

But these were early days in the mission. A
very few months worked wonders in gaining their

What a strange, awed feeling it gave one
standing beneath those ancient trees, their long
hanging creepers veiling with emerald threads the
blue depths of the forest. What sights had been
enacted beneath them ? And those graves swept
over by the mountain winds, laughed at by the
monkeys playing from branch to branch, and
trodden by the wild beasts in search of prey, how
quiet they seemed, how forgotten.

I would fain have stayed a little longer, but the
Msungu thought it hardly safe, nor dared I remove
one little pot though I wanted to. So we drew


ourselves through the tangled creepers, and leaving
the shadows of forest and tombs, emerged into
the sunlight, as probably all who lay in those
graves had done — dying without the hope of a
resurrection, and awaking to light and life on the
other side.

A sweet perfume came subtly and swiftly past
us, and there, growing by our path, was a bush
laden with a mass of blossoms like creamy
hyacinths, both in form and odour. It was the
only one of the kind we saw during our stay on
the mountain. I was so delighted with every
new plant I found that the Msungu promised to
take me a picnic up the hill, just to explore, the
very first day we were perfectly free.

That opportunity came ere very long. One
afternoon we heard the boys shouting : " Msungu
alimkwisa " (A white man is coming).

It proved to be Mr. John Moir, from Mandala,
a well-known planter in these parts. He had
been along the mountain searching for a site for
a new plantation. The spot he had fixed on was
about ten miles distant. He intended, very
soon, to bring his wife and child to be our neigh-
bours, a glad anticipation for me.

As each traveller in Central Africa carries his
bed — a mattress and blanket rolled in a waterproof


case — we had no occasion to provide one. Our
boys who had heard of Mandala, as they called
our guest, thought him a very big man and were
greatly excited. A few minutes after his arrival,
much to our surprise, they appeared in the dining
room dressed in long white Arab shirts, which
the Msungu had recently given them to wear at
church, or important occasions. Kasawala,
Namonde's son, wore in addition a red Fez cap
which gave him quite a distinguished look, a
proof that dress and a self-consequent manner
can make a very plain face seem almost handsome.
Indeed, I hardly knew them for my own boys.

What a change a few months' teaching and
training had wrought. With quite a business-like
air they laid the table, arranging to advantage my
best china and silver, polishing each tumbler as
they set it down. A rich milk pudding and
preserved pears, accompanied by goats' milk,
and followed by tea and scones made the repast,
a simple enough lunch, yet the boys waited in
stately silence as if it had been a lordly feast, and
they accustomed to the duty all their lives.

Next morning as our visitor had to depart about
five a.m., I got up at half-past four. It was quite

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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 4 of 13)