Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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dark so I lit the lantern and went out to arouse
the boys. They were all astir. They do not
breakfast early themselves, but generally they


eat potatoes, roasted in the hot ashes, while
preparing a meal.

What a bustle there was ! Tins were opened
and their contents heated. Every bit of food,
left over from yesterday, was utilised in some way
or other. The boys, headed by myself, made
quite a procession carrying in the dishes.

That meal over I packed a " lukalala " (basket)
for the " ulendo " (journey) with a roasted fowl,
some girdle scones spread with jam and a few
lemons which a native had found growing wild
by the Lekabula river.

Our guest gone, a long day lay before us. The
Doctor at once went down to work at his sideboard.
The Msungu looked at me. I looked at the

The morning was glorious. Not a cloud stirred
the sky. Up the Lekabula valley distant water-
falls glistened in the sunshine. The great hills,
warm tinted with pinks and yellows, their ledges
and hollows purple and grey, showed sharp against
the pale blue sky. On a far distant peak three
solitary trees stood distinct against the horizon,
like living figures beckoning to us.

Why should we stay here and work in the heat,
day after day ? A picnic ! Why not ? We
both thought of it at the same moment. But
where ?


Still the trees seemed beckoning towards us as
if pointing to a valley below them. Chentambo's
village. The very place.

"It is the most primitive spot in the world,"
said the Msungu, as he sat, native fashion, on the
verandah, his knees near his chin. " The worst
village here is civilisation compared to it ; and
it is only a step up the hill, just about eight miles

or so."

I smiled. The Msungu did exaggerate at times.
How could any place be more primitive than this ?
But I hurried into my bedroom, and discarding
the warm clothes I had worn in the morning,
donned a pink blouse and a grey gingham skirt.
Then I packed a canteen with all it could hold,
put the rest into a basket, and instructed the
boys, who were to remain at the Station, about
the Doctor's lunch.

In a few minutes we were walking along the side
of the hill, three of our boys, one carrying a gun,
and the girls accompanying us. Then gradually
we ascended the mountain through wooded paths
so narrow that we had to walk single file. We
crossed the beds of many streams bordered by
Iwalli palm trees. They were mostly dry at this
season. Sometimes the girls would run to a tree
and gather msukas, a round fruit with a brown
rough rind filled with sweet juice and four hard


stones, and bring them to us. Soon our path
grew steeper and twisted between gigantic rocks
which shot up from the tall grass. With the
agility of a goat Mele sprang on a boulder, holding
a spear in her hand. For a minute she stood
against the blue of the sky for all the world like
an African Queen.

How hot it was, and everything seemed parched
and hot like ourselves.

At last we came to a stream, like a Scottish
burn, which flowed entirely over rocks. We sat
down on a flat stone. Above us to our right, a
waterfall leaped down to its dark green pool.
Opposite us, at the other side of the stream, was
a large tree fern amid a mass of vegetation —
waving bamboos, creepers and drooping orchids.
Beneath, the Maiden Hair, the Royal, and the
Asparagus ferns grew prolific.

The boys lit a fire and we soon quenched our
thirst with hot tea. After lunch we searched for
gold and precious stones in the bed of the stream ;
but the glittering sand I gathered with rapture
and showed to the Msungu, he declared callously
to be mica. I met the same discouragement when
I found my diamond. It was lying alone on the
earthy path, and was about the size of a hazel
nut, and cut like the stopper of a cruet. Of
course the Msungu damped all my enthusiasm by


calling it a rock crystal. Yet it cut glass beauti-
fully, but as it was lost like everything else, there
is no way to prove it, and my husband still asserts
his opinion.

As we were searching for treasure we noticed
a large crab in a tiny cave of rock. It stoutly
defended itself against every attempt to touch
it. Then a strange sound attracted us — a loud
shrill barking which seemed to come from one
of the high trees above us. We looked up rather
alarmed, but could see nothing to account for it.
The barking continued wildly, making the rocks
echo. Then I noticed in a pool, under the water,
a large frog evidently labouring under intense
excitement, its brown and yellow body panting

Whatever caused the sound I do not know,
but we hastened out of our cool retreat and up
the steep bank to the streak of red path. Up,
up, we went, climbing round sharp corners, dipping
into shady dry water-courses. We seemed beyond
human habitation. Not a creature we met save
a blackish-green beetle about three inches long
and it took no notice of us. Yet we knew that
we were in the haunts of baboons, leopards, jackals
and the " coneys that make their dwelling among
the rocks." Of the latter we had had some
experience. In narrow crevices, impossible for


man to reach, these brown furry creatures,
resembling large rabbits, take up their abode.
The Msungu used sometimes to hunt them, but
oftener than not they disappeared into the cleft
of some large boulder, much to my satisfaction,
for I am no sports-woman.

But alas ! one day he was successful, and we had
one to dinner. The result was unpleasant. I
made no remark but gingerly ate it, till the Msungu
pushed it from him demanding, for any sake, a
tin of meat. So I went into the store off our
bedroom and fetched a tin of salmon, hoping
that this would be a lesson for him in future to
leave the poor conies alone.

But to go on with our excursion ; at last we
saw the first sign of human habitation — a plot of
maize, and further on a grove of bananas, then
the village — a few huts scattered irregularly in
a hollow between two peaks of the mountain.

The head man, as was the custom, approached
us diffidently, and gave us the ordinary salute
of " Moni Atati ; Moni Amao " ; then walked a
few paces away, and with the other villagers stared
at us stupidly. Indeed, the Msungu was right,
they were the most primitive, savage-looking
people I had yet seen. Even our boys and girls
held aloof from them, stationing themselves as
near us as possible, and holding their noses in


the air as if they were beings infinitely superior.

It is surprising the contempt the natives have
for their own race. The greatest insult a boy
could give another was to call him a " Blackie
man." I remember one day, Mele came running
into our dining room and told us that Kambona
had thrown at her this designation. All explana-
tion on our part proved useless. She leant against
the doorway, her pretty head thrown backwards,
her lips pouting, and her bosom heaving with

The Msungu called Kambona in, and told him
to tell Mele that he was sorry. He positively
refused, the first and only time a native directly
disobeyed him. Then the Msungu, smothering
his laughter, made him kneel down and bade
him say : " I myself am a blacky man."

The big tears rolled down his cheeks, but he
kept silent.

While we rested there, under the rude gaze of
this strange people, a young man with a particu-
larly stupid appearance and low cast of counten-
ance, came nearer than the others and, squatting
down, stared and gaped at us. Suddenly a
hungry-looking hen ran past him with a dead
rat hanging from its mouth. He sprang up,
furious with rage, and raced after it. On flew the
hen, not daring to cackle lest she should drop the













rat. The savage followed, like Jack the giant
killer in his spring boots, with great strides and
his body bent forward. An avalanche of stones
rained towards the fowl, but the rat was much
too precious to relinquish. The fellow gave in
with a curse and threw himself lazily on the ground.
Evidently the rat had been a tit-bit reserved for
his dinner.

On our way home I painted a small water-colour
sketch of the plain far beneath us with the hill
Chiradzulo, near Zomba, in the background. To
the right in the foreground rose one of the sharp
rocky peaks of our mountain.

We were very tired as we neared our Station,
but my hand was full of white flowers, like prim-
roses and long sprays of Asparagus ferns. The
Doctor was standing at the door to welcome us
with that quiet hidden smile of his, which perhaps
had more depth than the boisterous gushing



WAS curious to see the Banana village, not
■ only because its people had shown themselves
so revengeful, but because it had been the scene
of a particularly painful case of the Poison Ordeal
— the drinking of the mwai.

When the Msungu first came to Mlanje he
wondered why he saw so few old people. After
he had learned more of the language he found it
was due to the Mwai custom. When any one
dies the natives think it the result of witchcraft.
They believe that wizards and witches charm
people to death so that they may feast on their
bodies after they are laid in the shadow of the
thick trees of their burying place.

WTio are the witches ? Every one is suspect.
The neighbour, the father, the mother, the wife
or child may be the guilty person. This is the
tragedy of native life. Each one lives in fear
and suspicion of every one else.


After a death the relatives send for the witch-
finder, who comes to the village with his bag full
of things absurd and horrible, such as Burns
imagined in Allow ay Kirk. Then he dances until
he appears frenzied, when he rushes to the woods,
where he pretends to find horns which tell him
the name of the wizard or witch.

He usually fixes on an aged, worn-out person,
or some one unpopular with his neighbours. The
people seize their victim, accuse him of witch-
craft, and force him to drink the mwai. As a rule
the unfortunate person is quite willing to do so,
for like all the others he has perfect faith in the
ordeal. If he vomits the poison he lives, and is
pronounced innocent ; if he dies he is said to be

At that time there had been a great deal of
smallpox in the Banana village, and several of the
children died. The people said : " Some one
is bewitching us."

So they performed the usual rites, and fixed on
the headman of the village — Che Chagula, the
oldest man in that part of the country.

Often he had passed through the Mission court-
yard. His grizzled head, his long white beard,
his staff, and the monkey skin bag he always
carried, gave him a picturesque appearance.

The Doctor and the Msungu were seated at


breakfast when they heard of the Banana villagers'
intention. They rose at once, seized their
revolvers, and hurriedly followed the messenger
to the place of the ordeal. After some trouble
they found the spot ; but they were too late. The
people had seen them approaching and had fled,
carrying their victim with them.

The white men followed hard on the trail, missed
it in the middle of some maize gardens, found
it again, and again missed it. The terrible sun
beat down on their heads till, fairly exhausted,
they sank down by the side of the path, unable
to go further.

When they were sufficiently rested, very slowly
and silently they returned home. In the evening
they heard the guns fired from the Banana
village in token of joy that the wizard, poor Che
Chagula, was dead.

No wonder that I was anxious to see the place.
So one afternoon the Msungu and I started out
by a lower path than the one we usually took to
the Linje. The Banana village, a cluster of little
mud huts, half hidden in a grove of banana bushes,
their long leaves fringed by the Mlanje winds,
lay about a quarter of a mile from the stream.
How lovely it was, just a picture of peace and

The villagers were all pleased to see us. The


usual greetings : " Moni Atati, Moni Amao,"
passed, and several came forward with presents
of eggs and sweet potatoes.

The people seemed good-natured and guileless.
It was difficult to believe that, urged by super-
stitious fears, they had actually murdered an old
man, who had for many years been the father
of their village. His own wives, children, and
brothers were among those who had sought his

We did not stay long, nor did we, I think,
accept any of their presents. Lovely as the spot
was, I was not sorry to leave it. For in the
midst of that light-hearted throng, women resting
from the pounding of the corn to eye me curiously,
children playing at " cat's cradle " on their
fingers, and men basking in the sunshine or
plaiting reeds, I fancied I saw the spectre of an
aged bent figure with grizzled hair and a long
white beard, his dim eyes gazing reproachfully
at the careless company.

" Why is that hut all boarded up ? " I asked
the Msungu.

" The body of old Che Chagula is buried inside,"
he answered softly.

We returned slowly up the hill. The great
rocky peak of Mlanje loomed ahead of us,


like a gigantic heathen god gazing stonily on its

A short distance from the Banana village, a
little below the path, stood a solitary hut. In it
dwelt old Kuchilapa, his wife and son. We went
down to see them, and they welcomed us gladly.
Then the good lady, who wore a necklace of
animal's teeth and other queer objects, powerful
charms to keep away witches, bustled into her
house, leaving us sitting on a stone in front.
The son darted across the yard, and hastily
removed several large stones which were propping
up the door of a small hut. We watched him

Suddenly he drew out six or seven little pups,
and gathering them all in his arms, brought them
over for our inspection. They were nice little
pups, and nothing in their appearance suggested
an untimely end. But an evil star seemed to be
over the dogs at this time, as my story will show.
But here Mrs. Kuchilapa comes out of her house
and diverts our attention. She carries a large
earthenware bowl filled with " ugali," (porridge).
She asks us to taste it. We express our pleasure
and she lays on the ground a straw mat on which
she places the " ugali " and a wooden plate con-
taining the " mboga " (relish) which to-day consists
of stewed Zebra flesh, a rare food even with the


natives. Then she holds out a jar in which to
wash our hands before eating.

Out of compliment we taste the " ugali," but
of the Zebra we had already received a piece from
the same hunter who had supplied Kuchilapa.

There are few natives who are hunters in that
part of Africa. Although there was no game
license at that time, and the whole population
longed for fresh meat, only one or two men on
the mountain really hunted. At rare times we
would receive a bit of harte-beeste, klipbok
(wild goat) or eland. Many of the natives possessed
old guns which they had got from traders. The
Msungu would supply them with powder when
we wanted a piece of flesh food. He, himself,
sometimes brought me in a partridge or two,
fine plump ones, for breakfast or dinner.

As I remarked before, we were an exceedingly
sociable family, including our goats, ducks, etc.,
but I did not mention the kindly disposition of
our fowls. Not content with their own quarters,
or possibly because they wanted to be near us,
they would roost nowhere except on our bedroom
window-ledge. It was a window higher from
the ground than those in front of the house, and
situated in the gable end. How pleasant it was
to hear their cluck, cluck, and flutter, as they
passed the time of night to each other, or changed


places, just as we turn on our other side. It was
a home-like sound and helped us to forget how
far we were from civilisation.

One night, about a week after our visit to
Kuchilapa, we were awakened by a loud cackling
and fluttering among our fowls on the window-
ledge. Then we heard the sound as of something
heavy fall on the ground. Twice this occurred
amidst the convulsed cackling and screaming
of the fowls. Then near the house came the
ominous howl of a jackal, which explained matters.

A leopard, undoubtedly, was at the window.

But the doctor's dog had heard the sounds
also. From its warm bed, from its little pups
just two days old, it rushed furious to the rescue,
barking loudly. The jackal howled again, a
weird, impatient call. Then all was silent.

By this time the Msungu was standing at the
high window peering out. He now seized his
gun and ran through the dining room outside,
closing the front door after him. I sat up in
bed listening anxiously, but I only heard the
quick tread of his feet round the house.

He was not long in returning. He had seen
nothing. Everything seemed just as it had been
before, only the friendly fowls had departed. It
was difficult to sleep again, no pleasant cluck,
cluck, cheered up the night watch.


How dark the room was. Then the rats began
to run in the store off our bedroom. There seemed
to be hundreds. Jingle, jingle, went the tins.
Patter, patter, went their feet. Would my heart
not beat slower ? Then I heard from the Msungu's
breathing that he had gone to sleep. I turned
on my other side and lost consciousness also.

Next morning the Doctor's dog was missing.
The natives found the marks of a leopard under
our bedroom window, and eagerly traced them
to the jungle, where alas ! they found the poor
dog's head.

They returned with their story. The Doctor
said very little, but he accompanied the men
back to the bush where he put a large dose of
poison in the dog's head, hoping that the leopard
would return to its prey when it grew hungry.
But it never did, and our friend and companion
was never avenged.

The pups unfortunately remained. What
would we do with them ? Then it was Kambona
had a happy idea. It seemed a providence.
Kuchilapa's puppies had all died. The mother
dog might nurse ours. So the little creatures
were carried in a " lukalala " (creel) down to the
little hut near the Banana village, and they
found a mother who welcomed them as her own
puppies come back.



FOR a couple of days I had not felt very well,
and towards evening the Msungu tried my
temperature. It was ioo°. He at once ordered
me to bed and went to call the Doctor whom he
found in his " workshop."

I was glad to lie down, I felt so tired. The
Doctor came at once, sat down beside my bed,
and taking my hand in both of his, spoke com-
fortingly to me, for I had taken my first fever, a
common attack of malaria.

He ordered me a drink of hot gruel, and a warm
bottle for my feet, while the quilt was pulled well
over me for I shivered with ague. But soon I
grew warm, hot, burning. I turned and tossed,
and thought of my country home, and a clear
cold spring that trickled from a spout into a
stream covered with water-cress. It seemed to
me that I had never taken advantage of it, never

the little horn that danced. 97

drank it often or long enough. O, how I would
drink it now.

Towards morning the perspiration broke out.
What a blessed relief. My garments were soaking,
but my skin felt cool compared with what it had
been. When I had received a dry change I was
able to enjoy breakfast without the worry of
making it. How delightful it was to lie and do
nothing. The Msungu, however, had to take
my place in the kitchen. Bread had to be made
as usual.

W T hat a fuss he made. I could hear him running
out and in, crying to the boys to fetch things.
One might have thought that he was starting
a baker's shop instead of making one loaf.

At intervals he would put his head into my room
with some query or other — " Where is the baking
powder ? " " Do you put paper inside the tin ? "

" We don't use baking powder, it has lost its
strength. Take soda and lemon juice and never
mind paper," I answer.

He turns away in a great flurry.

" See and remember to test it with a knife,"
I venture to call after him.

He puts back his head. Wrath is on his
countenance. " Do you think I don't know how
to make bread after being here so long without
you ? " he retorts.


I shut my mouth, and try to think of the nice
little cakes he made when we were washing. He
disappears for a time. An age it seems.

By and bye he returns. His hands and coat
are smeared with flour. " The wretched flour
was full of weevils " he said. " I had to get
Kasawala to sift it."

" How is the loaf ? " I ask meekly.

" It has been in the oven a whole hour and is
as soft as ever. Do you think it will ever come
right ? "

" You know best," I tell him, and laugh under
the bedclothes.

It was evident that he had made the batter
too thin. It took nearly three hours to fire ;
but it was wonderfully light and good when we
tasted it. The Msungu was as proud as Punch.
He referred to it at every opportunity, and was
always dictating to me afterwards as to what
I should and shouldn't do.

What with the loaf and the preparations for
lunch I had not the chance of a snooze all the
forenoon. Later in the day the Doctor came in
with a cheery smile. He was delighted with my
progress, and that I seemed to take fever so
lightly. In the evening I was allowed up for a
little, and donning my red dressing-gown I lay
down on the basket-couch I had brought from


Madeira, covered with a rug and my crimson
travelling cloak. By my side was a little table
with my books, etc. A large lamp stood lit on
the chest of drawers.

How interested the boys looked when they
came in with my dinner. The door stood open,
giving me a peep of the dining room where, though
I could not see the gentlemen, I could hear them

" There may be some truth in it," said the
Doctor. " No doubt there are cannibals among
them, though more than likely Namonde's brothers
just want him out of the way."

" We will make enquiries to-morrow," said the
Msungu. " If we hear it's true, I'll send word

to B (a Government Agent at one end of the

mountain) and get him to take him away for a
time, till his folk have cooled down a bit. We
can't see him murdered like poor old Che Chagula."

" Ay, they are a queer folk," said the Doctor,
shrugging his shoulders. " Tenga matimati,
Kambona." (Pass the tomatoes.)

" Atole mapotichera " (Pass the tomatoes), said
the Msungu when the Doctor had helped himself.

The Msungu spoke the Yao, and the Doctor
the Manganja language. To explain this : there
were two tribes on the mountain — the Yao and
the Manganja, the former having conquered the


latter some years before. Thus I picked up a
smattering of both languages as each of us at
table had a boy as waiter, not that we required
so many, but we had to find them work.

Kasawala came in to carry away my plate. He
had a proud look though his features were very
plain, his nose being squat and turned up, his
upper lip long above a hard mouth. He looked
longingly at a plate on which some potatoes and
rice had been left.

" Asalasye ? " (Reserve it?) he inquired. This
little question was asked with all the dishes
removed, and it was painful to disappoint them

" Atyosye " (Take away) I said, and he ran out
with the dish as fast as he could, lest I should
change my mind.

Dinner over the Msungu came in. " Come
here, Doctor," he called back, " and tell me if
this luxury looks like Central Africa."

Then the Doctor appeared. " O Donna, Donna,
this will never do at all, at all ; you must remember
we are only poor missionaries," he said smiling.

In a couple of days I was quite better. My
first fever had indeed been slight. After this
I was to have an attack every three or four weeks,
each one of increasing severity. But fortunately
I did not know that then.


Early one morning, shortly after my recovery,
I was surprised to find Namonde, the chief, sitting
on the seat in the verandah. He seemed not
so smart as usual. His face was haggard. His
brown silk parasol and white jacket had been left
at home. A piece of cloth was carelessly twisted
round his shoulders, and the blue muslin hung
scantily from his waist. We shook hands, and

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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 5 of 13)