Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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I informed the Msungu of his presence.

He stayed a long time. When he had gone
the Msungu told me that Namonde had been
accused of witchcraft and his people were going
to give him the " mwai." The chief had come
up purposely to tell the Msungu, his friend, as he
always called him.

Somehow I never had trusted him. Yet I had
not thought him much worse than his neighbours ;
but now hearing his story more fully I understood
my prejudice.

He had certainly an evil reputation. The
natives said he had a magic horn. It had a little
tail made of buffalo hair fastened to its point.
They said it could dance in a wonderful manner.
Away inside the semi-darkness of his hut he would
take it from its hiding place, and say to it in his
own language —

" Little horn, little horn, dance, dance, and
make me able to give power to anybody I choose,


to cheat, rob and kill without being found out."
And the little horn, so they said, as soon as he
laid it down on the mud floor, would dance on
its tapered end, all round the hut many times,
looking black and weird in the fitful light of the
small wood fire. And old Namonde, the wizard,
would sit back against the reddish wall, pulling
his short black beard, and point with his ringer
in every direction the horn took. And then, when
nobody else heard, the horn would tell him things.
Meanwhile the village people would be sitting
in awed groups outside the hut. Perhaps one
more venturesome than the others would peep
through a chink in the door, then slip fearfully
back on bare tip-toe, and with scared face whisper
rapidly all that he had seen. And the old women
would nudge the younger ones with their skinny
elbows, and shake their heads till their large
lip-rings wagged uncomfortably.

"He is a wizard," they said ; "let him drink
the mwai for he ate the child of Mati-mati."
She was the slave wife of Namonde.

Whether the story was true or not the
missionaries could not let him die like poor old
Che Chagula. After talking it over the Msungu
and the Doctor determined to go down to
Namonde's village at the foot of the hill now,


and invite the chief to stay at the Mission Station
for a time at least.

Looking over my correspondence at that time
it seems wonderful how events fitted in. There
happened to come to our Station, a day or two
before Namonde's visit, a young man, an artisan
missionary. It was arranged that he should
keep me company and take charge of the Station
while the Doctor and the Msungu were absent.

Their minds made up they started early next
morning. Fearing no danger, they carried no
weapon, but I, fearful and cumbered about many
things, was very anxious until their return.

The day was very sultry. Great masses of
ominous grey clouds hung round the extensive
horizon of the plain beneath. Crossing a path
beside the Station I was alarmed to feel a hot
stifling air rising from the ground below me.
I thought of volcanic eruptions, such as must
have scattered those boulders, so grim and dark,
o'er the face of the mountain. I hastily passed
the spot, and tried to forget it.

I had much to do, and a good thing it was. A
visitor was always a spur to make extra nice dishes,
so I went early into my kitchen in the afternoon.
There I saw a strange sight. Ndendemele, the
companion of our girls, was dancing before our
assistant cook, Kasaswichi. Inside the doorway


she advanced and retired in a squatting position
while undoing and closing repeatedly a scarf
wrapped round her breasts. Flap, flap, it went,
revealing and hiding her beauties. Back she
danced with affected modesty ; forward again
with ravishing smiles while little Kasaswichi,
a plain-looking lad with face pitted by smallpox,
sat entranced on the ground beside the fireplace.

As my shadow fell on the doorway there was
a sudden change of scene. Ndendemele sprang
up, looking very much ashamed, and Kasaswichi
assumed his gravest expression.

I could not be angry, though I suspected that
it was' an immodest dance, as the wearing of a
scarf round the breasts signifies pregnancy. That
was one trouble I had with my girls. Occasionally
I would find one using her red sash in this manner,
and as they were unmarried I always checked
them. But after all perhaps it was no worse
than playing with dolls.

In the afternoon the clouds burst. A thunder-
storm fought overhead. Then rain poured down,
and a red stream rushed along the courtyard,
while everyone ran with pails or vessels to hold
the water. It was then that Masimani, the
Doctor's cook, came running in. He made signs
to me, raising his closed hands together till above
his head, and then spreading them over his body.


I could not mistake him. The Msungu must be
sheltering somewhere and wanted an umbrella
and a waterproof.

It proved to be the case. Masimani beamed
when I produced them, and with them galloped
down the mountain. In due time the Msungu
and Doctor returned, but without Namonde.
They had found the chief calmly hoeing his little
garden. He came forward to meet them, and they
told him the cause of their visit. But he would
not hear of leaving his village. " If I run away,"
he said, " they will say that I am guilty. I am
not afraid. I will not die for I am innocent."

They left him reluctantly, and I was thankful
to see them safely back. It was a time of great
anxiety. One felt so powerless. Every evening
we expected to hear the guns telling of the death
of another wizard. But at last the Msungu heard
definitely that Namonde was to drink the " mwai '
next day, which was Sunday.

As a last resort my husband wrote to Mr. B

of the Administration, telling him of the intended
murder. The messenger was sent post haste
that afternoon. There certainly was little time,
but he could do nothing more.

Before retiring to rest that night I placed the
Msungu's dressing-gown and boots beside the bed,
as we fully expected a reply of some kind before


morning. Sure enough about two o'clock, in
the pitch darkness, we were awakened by the sound
of voices and a general disturbance outside. We

hastily got up. It proved to be Mr. B and

another white man with a force of Zanzibaries.
They meant to capture the village that night and
take as prisoners the chief instigators of the crime.
But it was after sunrise when they got down.
The villagers were all up and on the alert, so
they could only take Namonde.

Finding himself a prisoner, he at once sent a
pathetic message to his friend, the Msungu,
begging him to help him. At once the Msungu
called Kasawala, the chief's son, and bade him go
and tell his father that the white men were only
going to protect him, and that he need have no fear.

Consequently Namonde was taken to Mr.

B 's Station at the Linje side of the mountain,

and we heard that he was going about quite happy
and at peace there. In a few weeks he was allowed
back to his home and people. His villagers' and
relations, whether it was from fear or not, seemed
to have given up their evil intention. But alas !
it was only smouldering, like a hidden fire, ready
to break out into sudden flame on a future occasion
when Namonde's friend, the Msungu, was too far
away to render any help, and the " mwai '
would add another victim to its account.



aFTER a fortnight's visit, our guest, the
artisan missionary, took his departure. I
must say I was not sorry for he had given so much
trouble handing me on his arrival a pile of clothes,
including a white jacket, to be washed and ironed,
and every day giving his boots to be blackened,
evidently forgetting that he had come to a newly
established Mission in the jungle with nothing
but raw, untrained natives.

All extra work to them but added to my burden,
as I had to stand over them to the bitter end.
The girls took good-naturedly the washing and the
ironing, but the boot brushing they simply hated,
having never done it before, as we were content
to wear our brown boots and canvas shoes.

But I struggled through though the perspira-
tion dripped from my forehead. The work was


done, and accepted as a matter of course. Little
he guessed what pain it cost me.

Very occasionally we had had other visitors,
men accidentally passing on some work or other.
They were content to rough it like ourselves, and
always treated me with the greatest respect and
consideration ; yet they were men, most of them,
who made up for their solitude and the lack of
white woman's society in a way highly disapproved
of by the missionaries.

But the arrival of a white man was always rare
enough to cause quite an excitement in our quiet
lives. " Msungu, Msungu !"we would hear the boys
shouting, for all white men are msungus to them.

Then we would run out, and sure enough there
was a white man in a machilla coming up the
road with his train of carriers appearing gradually
as they reached our plateau.

One day two white men came to see us. One
was a coffee planter called by the natives " Madzi-
ku-samba " {water to wash), probably because
these were the only Manganja words he knew at
the time. He lived five miles beyond the Linje

stream. The other gentleman was Mr. B ,

the Government Agent, whose Station was some
twelve miles further on the same side. They
came all spick and span with the intention, as they
said, to see a young billy goat which we had, but


in reality, as the Doctor informed me, to pay
their respects to the " Donna." If that were the
case she fully appreciated the compliment, knowing
the trouble it must have been to secure a clean

It was almost like old times. Excitedly I ran
to the back of the house and called Mlenga, the
cook. He appeared sleepily from the dormitory
and shouted " Moto, moto ! " {fire, fire !) and
immediately his two little assistants came running
with firewood.

Having given instructions for the kettle to be
boiled for tea, I returned to the house to arrange
the table. Congratulating myself that I had
some little cakes, baked some days previously,
I filled my cake-basket. I had also some scones,
which Mlenga had made that morning. What
though some of them were the shape of feet, they
were none the less good, and were certainly more

Bwanali, my table boy, was now assisting me,
and we arranged them on a small afternoon table
I had brought from home. It had low shelves
exactly suited for my purpose. Then I returned
to the verandah to enjoy the conversation of our

In a few minutes Bwanali appeared, carrying
the steaming tea-pot, and entered the drawing


room by the French window. I leisurely followed
him, and found to my surprise that there were
only two scones left on the plate.

" Bwanali ! " I said reproachfully, " Mikato ali
kwapi ? " (Where are the scones ?)

He cast his head proudly back. "Kwaline,"
he answered shortly.

The Yao word "Kwaline" is one of the most
provoking words in that language. It literally
means " I don't know," but it is generally said in
a " don't care " tone with a shrug of the shoulders
that riles the questioner. But in my case, I was
vexed and bitterly disappointed. Bwanali was
our favourite boy. I would have trusted him
anywhere. There was something noble in his
face, a face with rather refined features.

Yet no one but himself had been in the room.
Still, I would not accuse him, but never again
would I have faith in any native.

I was turning away when suddenly I noticed a
scone lying on the floor near the wall. In amaze-
ment I looked at Bwanali and saw that he had
just discovered one under the table ; and looking
round we found several others.
"Makoswe !" (Rats !) said Bwanali triumphantly.

In my joy I put out my hand to pat the boy's
shoulder, but he shrank from my touch. This
rather damped my ardour. I meekly put out


fresh scones while Bwanali gathered up the frag-
ments. Then I called my visitors, the Doctor
and the Msungu in.

" What a treat," I thought, " these cakes will
be to those lonely bachelors." And I might have
lived in this delusion had I not discovered when
my visitors had gone that the cakes were moulded.
Thus I learned the lesson that in this climate
I must bake oftener and in smaller quantities.

Hearing about the rats and the scones, Mr.

B on leaving promised to send me a cat. We

sorely needed one. The rats were awful. Once
we awoke thinking that thieves were plundering
us, there was so much noise in the store. The
Msungu got up, lit the candle, seized his revolver
and went to see what was the matter. There
was a rattling and falling of tins, and the sight
of several tails disappearing. Rats certainly !

He returned to bed ; then I had a strange
experience. The candle had been blown out.
All was dark. Suddenly I felt that something, or
some one, was holding me by the throat. I tried
to cry out, but could not. At last I must have
screamed for the Msungu asked me what was
the matter. I told him, and he got up and
searched the house again. They said it was a
night-mare ; but it seemed real enough to me.


The next day the rats were singing in the wall.
They had quite a concert. We determined to get
rid of them. In a corner of the dining room stood
a large wooden box filled with native rice which
was gradually disappearing. The Msungu had
it emptied and rilled with water, thinking that
the rats would go in to feed as usual and be
drowned. But they were too sly for that. Then
he set native traps, somewhat similar to the
wooden traps used by mole-catchers at home ;
but he only caught five.

Not only did they eat the food, but the feet
of the natives were often badly bitten in their
sleep. I, myself, was awakened one night by
something biting my toes.

The Msungu once asked a boy why he did not
awake when the rats bit him. " O, the rats are
very ' kalamuka ' {cunning) " he said. " They
take a very little bite and blow on the place, then
another and blow again on the place, so you don't
feel the pain."

Two days after our visitors had gone I received
a present of some large tomatoes from " Madzi-
ku-samba." I placed them in my store off our
bedroom. Next morning they were all partly
eaten by the rats. A fortnight after a box

arrived containing a grey kitten from Mr. B

with the following note : —


Dear Mrs. C-

" Please accept this kitten with my best respects.
It is none of your wild untameable native cats, but a fine
perfect English Puss.

" Yours sincerely,

" B "

It was a dear, little furry thing, quite justifying

its character as far as appearance went, but it

was the wildest, untame creature imaginable.

I had recently got a black native cat, lanky and

hungry, that had adapted itself to its surroundings

and comforts of home, sleeping on my bed every

afternoon, and hunting the green lizards along

the verandah, making them drop their tails which

wriggled away by themselves under the mat in

the dining room. It scared the rats, and purred

most delightfully.

It did its best to educate this fine " English
Puss," and succeeded in getting it to share its
siesta after lunch ; but if I appeared the naughty
puss would run off in terror.

One day the black cat was not to be found. I
expect a leopard must have ended its existence
the night before. The " English Puss " was quite
disconsolate. I found it curled up on my bed in
the afternoon. Instead of running away, as was
its habit, it looked up at me with a wistful expres-
sion on its face, and allowed me to stroke it for
the first time, while it actually purred.


I thought I had won it, but from that day
I never saw it again. Possibly its camaraderie
was greater than we imagined, and it had gone
to join its companion in the " happy hunting



IT was drawing near the end of the year. The
weather was still very hot and sultry. Occa-
sionally there had been a heavy shower of rain
of short duration, generally accompanied by a
gale of wind when all our baths and basins were
placed under the edge of the thatched roofs, to
catch as much water as possible, for " England '
was still very dry.

I did not make any preparations for Christmas.
For one thing I had not enough energy, and I had
no other woman to plan with ; besides ceremony
of every kind seemed to have grown such a small

I did not realise then that the celebration of any
happy event, be its manner ever so useless, does
much to break the monotony of life, and helps us
to live through the normal days with greater


Surveying the majesty of the mighty landscape
before us, the petty formalities at home seemed
but an insanity, although I have heard missionary
women in Africa discussing whether it would be
good form or not to call on a certain person, a
newcomer to the country ; the dilemma having
arisen by the husband of the lady in question,
being somewhat free with native women. But
these formalists were not alone, as I was, as far
as white women were concerned, nor were they
influenced by the grand Mlanje range.

Yet when Christmas Day dawned I had still
a little sentiment left. I stuck sprigs of artificial
holly, which I had brought frcm home, round the
walls and in the vases, and we wished each other
a merry Christmas, and thought more, if possible,
of our absent friends.

The day being Sunday we went to church. A
number of young native men came in, who insisted
in sitting with their faces to the wall, much to my
amusement. In the evening we dined together
on the inevitable fowl.

" I tell you," said the Doctor, " the very first
thing I am going to have when I get home, is a
good bit of roast beef."

For some time the Doctor continued having his
meals with us, as Masamani, his cook now, had






taken a holida}^. Often he would say to me at
breakfast : "I think, Donna, you should come
down to the brick shed with me and learn shooting.
One never knows when it might come in useful."

I laughed at first, thinking that he was joking,
but at last, seeing he was in earnest, I said I might
go some day. But foolishly I let the time slip past
and did not remind him for I hated shooting, and
could not bear the sound of a gun. Besides, I
thought, what use could it possibly be to me ?
I did not want to shoot baboons like the Doctor,
or partridges like the Msungu.

Still I might have been afraid for the wild chiefs
with their war-like tendencies. The year my
husband came out the great chief Chikumbu had
made war on the mountain. And there was
Mkanda who had sent a message to the Msungu,
soon after he arrived on Mlanje, telling him that
he was coming some fine day to cut his throat.
I remember the exact spot where he told me the
story. We had returned from a walk to
Namonde's village, and were looking back just
where the Doctor's house was built. In the near
distance rose the great rocky peak of Mlanje,
bare and awful in its grandeur ; beneath it to the
left the sloping undulating country, covered with
scrubby bush where Mkanda lived.

" When I got that message," said the Msungu,


" I determined to visit him. I asked Namonde
to accompany me, and we started one morning,
the chief leading the way, carrying a long staff
and his silk parasol in one hand, and in the other
a small bag of squirrel skin containing tobacco,
and the little clay jar of lime which he chews with

" I came next, carrying a light spear with my
revolver slung over my shoulder. Behind me
followed two of my boys and four men, carrying
my belongings — a tent, bed, a box with a change
of clothes, and a basket with pots, plates, etc.

" It was a delightful day, and our march along
the mountain side brought us each minute to some
new beauty. We passed through several pretty
villages almost hidden in groves of bananas. But
we did not stop, except to rest for a minute beside
a stream, till we got to the village of Chiligogogo,
a head-man of Mkanda's.

" Here we sat down in the open space in front
of the huts. Very soon Chiligogogo came to see
us and with him a man carrying a mat on which
he and Namonde seated themselves.

" I was invited to the mat, but I preferred to
sit on the root of a large tree. A present of
sugar-cane was brought to us, and we talked and
sucked the cane, and sucked the cane and talked
for about an hour.


" From this place we sent a messenger to
Mkanda to tell of our coming. Before long he
returned to say that Mkanda would be pleased to
see us.

" After a stiff climb we reached Mkanda's
village where we found the chief, a very fat old
man, seated on a mat smoking. Around him in
a circle sat his head-men.

" The chief stared at me, but kept on smoking,
nor did he say a single word. This looked bad
for the native is usually very polite. I saw
I must brave it out, so I seated myself on a stone
opposite him, took out my burning-glass, which
I always carry with me, and, holding it up to
the sun, soon lit my pipe.

" Immediately Mkanda's expression changed.
He smiled all over and rose to welcome me with
the usual ' Moni Atati.'

" I asked a place to pitch my tent, and he
pointed to an open space in front of his own
house. In a few minutes the canvas was erected.
My cook lit a fire and made my tea.

" In the afternoon I had a long chat with
Mkanda, and we exchanged presents, and he
promised to send a few of his children to stay
with us. But I don't know what would have
happened if I had not produced my burning-glass.
Probably he thought that a man who could


bring down fire from Heaven to light his pipe
might as easily get some more to annihilate himself
and his whole tribe."

The Msungu laughed when he had finished
his story, and I foolishly thought that the danger
was past, and yet I might have known that
Mkanda was only one of a number of wild chiefs
on Mount Mlanje. For instance, there was
Matapwiri, on the other side of the mountain,
famous for his fierce raids. Little I dreamt that
Mkanda's threat was but the shadow of the event
which would end our stay on the Hill of Good-bye.

I know now that the Msungu made light of many
things not to alarm me, although he never dreaded
the worst. I think the Doctor had a keener
presentiment, as he said in after years : " We
were just as safe out there as if we had been
sitting on a powder barrel."

So I neglected that valuable lesson down at
the brick shed, and went about by day, and lay
down on my bed at night with an easy mind, in
spite of the big beer drinkings, and the " maliros "
that disturbed our quiet.

Our favourite walk was to the Linje stream.
Often the Msungu and I strolled there about five
o'clock after I had given my final instructions
in the kitchen.


The whole way was interesting. First of all,
our goats came running down to meet us, and
releasing ourselves at last from their attentions,
we proceeded past the brick shed where the
desolate jungle faced us. Then continuing along
the twining red path, sometimes crossing over a
moving stream of ants, we gained a slight ascent
and passed between two large boulders where
the baboons frequently came to get a view of our
Station. A little way further brought us in sight
of the deep ravines of the Linje ; the first, dry
and hidden by trees ; the second, holding the
dashing mountain torrent, where rustic steps
had been cut down the bank for easy access to the

On the top of a flatfish rock, by the side of the
path, we would sit watching the sun setting behind
the long wall of purple hills beyond the plain.
How still everything was. Not the sound of a
bird or a creature moving. Beneath us miles and
miles of wooded valleys. But my eye always
wandered to the calm faint moon right above the
dark gorge of the Linje, as one seeks a " kent '
face in a crowd, and I thought of the home folk,
perhaps even then looking at it also.

One night we sat there as usual. The sun was
giving its last look o'er the plain. The hills had
darkened, sharply outlined against the flooding


gold. A rich warm glow was over everything.
We rose to go home, clambered down the rock,
and retraced our steps, dreading nothing.

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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 6 of 13)