Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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Suddenly we heard voices from the bush, a little
way below us. We were startled, and paused
hesitatingly. Then we saw several dark heads
appearing over the scrub.

"Ana wani ? " (Who are you?) the Msungu

There was a shot fired, and a puff of smoke
veiled the bush.

For one moment we stood as if struck, my
heart throbbing painfully. Then the Msungu
made a movement as if to go down to them, but
I drew him back.

" Come on," I said breathlessly. " Look as
if nothing had happened. Don't walk a bit
quicker in case they think we are frightened."

For once the Msungu did as I told him. We
walked leisurely, keeping our eyes fixed on the
little Mission Station, so slowly growing larger
before us. Several shots rattled behind us, echoed
by the gigantic cliff of rock. We were frightened.
Who is not, when the next moment he may be in
eternity ?

But nothing harmed us. As we reached our
Station we ventured to look back, and saw eight
natives following us down the path. We entered


the courtyard by the back, past the goat house
where the herd boy was housing his flock for the
night. There we met Kasawala.

" What were those men shooting out there ?"
asked the Msungu as coolly as possible.

" O, they are Kambona's relations who have
been firing over his uncle's grave before going
on a big elephant hunt," answered the boy, and
we passed him.

" A scare about nothing," said the Msungu,
giving a forced laugh. " I always told you that
the natives are too cowardly ever to harm a white
man. You know, one of the chiefs, when we first
came here, was afraid to come near our Station
for he had heard that we were going to make a
great village, and to do this properly we must,
he thought, first eat a big chief like himself."

I tried to smile, but though thus reassured, a
cloud no bigger than a man's hand seemed to have
settled above us. I felt cold. I trembled. The
first fear had entered my heart.



I WAS awakened one night by a sound as of the
front door swinging with the wind. I sat up
scarcely believing my ears. Every night it was
locked before going to bed, and the key left inside.
We had seen the girls, as usual, asleep on the floor
under the table before retiring. Was it possible
that they had opened the door again, or had some
one else entered who was perhaps creeping softly
towards our bed at this very moment ?

I grasped my husband's arm. " Wake ! " I
whispered. " I heard the front door swing just

He was ready for action in a minute, and with
lighted candle in my hand I followed him into
the adjoining room. A cold wind blew on our
faces, nearly putting out the light. The front
door stood wide open. With hand surrounding
the flame I shone it under the table. The girls
were gone.


" Just what I thought," said the Msungu.
" They'll be off to one of those abominable dances
after all I have done. I thought we had got quite
a hold of them." And he locked the door again.

He sat down on a chair beside the table with his
head resting on his hand, and thought for a few
minutes. Then he got up. "I must go and
tell Robert Tause," he said. And he went out.

Robert Tause was a Mlanje native, a man who
had been converted by my husband's predecessor
— the Rev. Robert Cleland, who had died of
malaria before the Station had been built. We
believed his convert to be trustworthy, but his
wife was a regular frequenter of immoral dances.
They lived in a hut beside our kitchen.

This man was sent to look for the girls, and
bring them back, if possible. Next morning the
boys confirmed our suspicions by telling us that
Masimani, the Doctor's cook, and Kasawala had
also run away.

By and by Robert came back, but without
any of the culprits, who must have heard of his
approach and hidden themselves. But we did
not despair. Namonde, the chief, was sent for.
He came at once, plausible as ever, and apparently
eager to help us, and a tiresome " magambo '
was begun.

The next day he came again. I found him


sitting in the verandah when I got up. The
Msungu took him over to a summer-house, just
recently made in the garden, in which I could sit
and survey the plain and the great rocky peak
of the mountain. There they talked and talked,
while I went about my work, feeling more tired
than usual, not having my girls to help me, and
missing their cheery, twittering songs.

But a little black child, perfectly naked save a
string of red beads, and a wisp of cloth round
her loins, found its way into our house and toddled
after me everywhere I went with perfect confi-
dence which comforted me in a way. How well
I remember every little incident of that day for
it was the beginning of the end.

In the afternoon, the baby following me, I went
out to feed an infant monkey I had got the week
before. There was something undoubtedly human
about the little creature. The very first day it
came, fresh from the jungle, I gave it a piece of
loaf-sugar as it sat on the verandah. It took it
in its hand, looked at it curiously, and tried to
eat it. Finding it too hard it ran down the steps
and dipped it into a pool of water, then returned
and sucked it solemnly beside us.

At first we let it sleep in a box, which we placed
in a tree that grew close to the verandah steps.
But one night the boys came crying that they


had seen a leopard coming near the house. The
Msungu at once ordered me to light the lantern,
and help him to bring in the monkey.

I did so, and warily followed him outside. I
stood at the foot of the tree, holding up the light
while the Msungu, standing on a chair, tried to
bring down the little animal.

Suddenly I heard a queer grunt behind me.
The " chisui " ! Lord help me ! I ran at break
neck speed into the house, lantern and all.

" Come back ! ' The Msungu's voice was

I went back, still with my lantern, expecting
every minute the leopard to be on me. What a
time he took to bring down that monkey. I was
sure that the " chisui " was hiding at the end of
the verandah, preparing to spring. But the
Msungu would not listen to reason. Really,
sometimes, it is a dreadful thing to have a husband,
or rather I should say, to have a monkey.

But to go back to that day, that day so vivid
in my memory. The monkey fed, I prepared
lunch. That over I lay down and diverted my
mind by reading a story in Tit Bits. I remember
it was The Sign of Four, by Conan Doyle. At
four o'clock the Doctor came to join us in after-
noon tea, and immediately after the Msungu and
I went down to pay another visit to old Kuchilapa


and his wife, the black baby having long ere
this returned to its mother.

The Msungu had had occasion to find fault
with the old man. A certain piece of ground
had been allotted to the Mission by the British
Government. Kuchilapa, in ignorance, had cut
down some of its trees and scrub. My husband,
wishing to preserve the coverts where he got a
few partridges, and probably from other reasons,
ordered the old man to carry the wood, he had cut,
up to our Station, telling him it belonged to us.
Kuchilapa obeyed quite pleasantly which made
us all the more sorry, so we determined to visit
him to show our friendliness.

Though it was the rainy season the day was
lovely. Refreshed by the showers the foliage
showed a variety of colours resembling our
Autumn tints. The grasses and reeds by our
path, spotted by reds and browns, waved high
above us. Little birds with long black tails and
red collars flitted from branch to branch.

Coming in sight of Kuchilapa's hut we
approached quietly lest they should take fright
and run away ; but, notwithstanding our caution,
not a soul was in sight when we arrived. But
evidently the good wife was not far off for there
stood the " lituli " (a slightly hollowed log standing
upright on which the maize is pounded) with a


" chiselo ' (flatfish basket) placed on the top to
keep the fowls from eating the pounded grain.

We sat down on a stone and waited. Soon we
heard the jingling of anklets and through the tall
bananas came Kuchilapa's wife carrying a large
pumpkin with its flowers and leaves. She gave
us a dignified salutation, laid down her armful
on the ground, and went into her hut to return
with an earthen-ware pot and a gourd filled with

Sitting down on a stone, she washed her hands
by pouring on them some water. Then she cut
up the pumpkin and shred its flowers and leaves,
from which she took the hard fibre. With the
exception of the latter she put the whole into the
pot. These were to make the " mboga " (savoury)
for their porridge.

While she worked the Msungu talked pleasantly
about the wood her husband had cut. She said
that he would never be so impertinent again.
Before we left she gave us a basket filled with
ripe juicy " msukas."

When we got home the sun was setting. I went
to see about dinner, while the Msungu brought in
the monkey in case of the leopards. The Doctor
still dined with us and we three sat down as usual,
feeling restful after our day's labours. During the
meal the monkey climbed on the Doctor's back.


He hastily threw it down. Then coffee was
brought in — delicious fragrant coffee, newly
roasted. We were as happy as people can possibly
be in a malarious country. We were joking and
laughing while our boys waited behind us, them-
selves enjoying the bright light and the novel
comfort, when suddenly a knock was heard at the
door and four natives, led by Robert Tause,

The latter delivered a message in Yao, talking
excitedly while gesticulating with his hands. I
did not understand what he said, nor did I pay
much attention, thinking it concerned our boys'
and girls' " magambo." But all at once I was
struck by the words — " ngondo " (war), soldier,
and Chiromo, an African Lakes Company trading
station on the Shire river.

I saw my husband's face turn pale, and the
Doctor, though only partly comprehending, for
he had given all his attention to the Manganja
language, looked disturbed.

When the men were dismissed, with the excep-
tion of Robert, who waited to consult with us,
my husband, after a few minutes' silence, told us
that the message was from Namonde, to warn
us that Matapwira, a very powerful chief, on the
other side of the mountain, had asked another
chief to help him to kill all the white people on


Mlanje. Word had come to the village that the
attack would be made that night, or before dawn
next morning. In proof of this the women in
Mkanda's district were already flying to the hills.

To kill all the white men ! That could only
mean ourselves and two or three planters scattered
at various distances, and Mr. B the Govern-
ment Agent.

Mechanically I poured out the coffee, which
we hastily drank. Then the table was cleared
and the men called in again to discuss the situation.
Robert suggested that they should build a
" masakasa " (grass house) for the Donna in some
hidden part of the mountain ; but we did not
second that motion. Instead, the Msungu at
once sent for men to carry me in my machilla
if we should have to depart suddenly ; also spies
were chosen to report when the enemy should
cross the Lekabula river. Then two of our boys
were dispatched, one to the Irish planter, " Madzi-

ku-samba," and the other to Mr. B with

letters telling them what we had heard.

The boys gone, we gathered all the guns,
revolvers and ammunition we had, and placed
them on the table. Then the Doctor tried to
teach me how to pull the trigger of a Martini
Henry. How I regretted not having gone down
to the brick shed, as he had suggested, and


practised shooting. If I had had any idea of the
difficulty I daresay I would have done it. Now
it was too late I could not help them.

By and by the machilla men came, amongst
them old Kuchilapa, hearty as usual, and eagerly
requesting " soni " (tobacco) which was given
him. After sitting some time in the verandah
they came to the door crouching up their shoulders.
" Mbepo " [cold) they said.

The Msungu told them that a good man called
Kuchilapa had very kindly cut down some fire-
wood for us. They would find it outside the
kitchen if they wanted warmth. The joke pleased
them and they went good-humouredly to the
back courtyard where they lit a fire. It shone
on our back windows, and peering out we could
see their dark faces lit up by the blazing wood.

And we talked and planned while listening to
the crackling logs, and the drawling sound of the
men's voices outside. They seemed quite merry
and unconcerned while we were anxiously wonder-
ing what we should do. Even our little monkey,
as if in sympathy with us, went under the cupboard
and moaned piteously.

After what seemed a long time a letter came
from the Irish planter telling us that all his boys
had run away, and that he had heard nothing
of the proposed attack.


This looked bad. Why had his boys run away ?
Had not Mkanda's women run to the hills ? The
Msungu said it was folly to sit here longer when
a woman had to be protected. The Doctor rather
unwillingly assented. We gathered a few neces-
saries together. We could not carry much. It
seems ridiculous to me now that I packed only a
small jar of Bovril and a bottle of sal volatile. Not
a thought had I for money, clothes or jewellery.

But still we lingered, unwilling to leave our
home. Then my husband put in my hand a
loaded revolver. " If the worst comes to the
worst," he said, " you will put the bullet in your
own head."

Had it all come to this ? All my happy visions
of the future. My thoughts went back to my
cottage home — the little plantation at the back
where we played as children ; the glen with its
hazel bushes, the burn where we waded and fished
for trout ; and the cool, cool spring where we got
our water. I seemed to see my dead mother's
face looking at me with eyes of encouragement,
and I felt calmer knowing that nothing worse
could happen me than being forced to join her.

Then we had prayer together and waited an
hour or two longer. But at midnight my husband
thought it better for my sake to depart. We
would make our way by degrees to Chiromo, some


twenty miles distant. The Doctor yielded, seeing
no other alternative. The machilla men were
called. They shrugged their shoulders and refused
to carry me, but Kuchilapa and one or two men
offered to accompany us.

I threw a Shetland shawl round my shoulders.
The Msungu strapped the revolver to my waist,
and put the lighted lantern in my hand. Then
we three went out. In front of us the night loomed
dark and formless. Silently we went down the
verandah steps, the Doctor casting a wistful look
towards his house. It was then that his reluc-
tance to leave the Station became manifest.
Just as we went through the little gate in the
fence he looked back and said : "I am sorry
to leave that sideboard."

So we started, walking single file through the
jungle. I went in front, carrying the lantern,
the Msungu and the Doctor following with the
natives bringing up the rear. The tall rank
grass walled each side of our path, hiding we
knew not what. We passed Kuchilapa's hut,
then the Banana village, and nothing obstructed
our way till we came to the Linje stream. There
I had to be carried across on Kuchilapa's back ;
so had the Doctor and the Msungu in their turn.

Alighting on the other side I said " Jambone,"
which means " good," and is equivalent to


" thank you," and pegged on my way. But all
at once my feet began to sink in marshy ground.
I screamed involuntarily, but I was soon on
firm land again and ashamed of my timidity.

I know not how far we had gone when a blaze
of flame was waved in front of me. I stood
paralysed, forgetting entirely my loaded revolver.
Then I saw two dark figures appear from the high
grass at the edge of the path. The Msungu called
out to them, and we discovered that they were
our own boys, flourishing a torch of burning grass.
They had been sent ahead to ask the Irish planter
to come down to speak to us.

It appeared that we had reached the foot of
his plantation. There was a " masakasa " (a
rough shed) a short distance from our path. We
went into it, and sitting on the ground awaited his
coming. We spoke little. Dimly we saw each
others' faces. Outside the frogs croaked inces-
santly in the marshes. We could hear the voices
of the men whispering outside. Then I noticed a
large locust coming into the shed. It walked
deliberately forward, never heeding us, as if intent
on something. My eyes followed it as if it were
essential that I should watch it.

After what seemed a long time Madzi-ku-samba
arrived. How tall and handsome he looked
standing there in the moonlight. How strong and


protective. He insisted that we should come up
to his house and rest that night. He would send
out spies to warn us of the approach of the enemy.
We accepted his hospitality. I was so tired that
my only desire was to rest in sleep.

We followed him along the path, and over a
plank across a stream, then up the mountain,
a steep climb, to his house — a long white-washed
erection with a broad verandah. He let me have
his only bed. It was simply a raised board with
a few rugs on the top. The room had no furnish-
ings save a small deal table on which was an empty
tobacco tin. But I was thankful for as good,
and lay down at once. A cup of tea, which seemed
the best I had ever tasted, was brought in to me
by the Msungu, who was to sleep on the floor
beside my bed.

Next morning at early dawn, after a dreamless
sleep, my husband awoke me with the news that
our chief, Namonde, had come all the way to
inform us that it had been a false alarm, caused
by some women in Mkanda's village running to
the hills, owing to a quarrel among themselves.
But was it a false alarm ? What happened
afterwards makes us doubt it. But we believed
him then, and blessed him for his goodwill.

We did not go home that day. Madzi-ku-samba
persuaded us to spend another night with him ;


but the Doctor returned shortly after breakfast
to our Station, and to his beloved sideboard.

That forenoon, being provided with a pencil
and a piece of paper, I made a sketch of the grand
view of the valley from the verandah, making notes
of the light and shade, as the scene was too
vast to take in at one sitting, even if I had had
the proper materials. To the right rose two
gigantic trees, bare and blighted by the storms.
Near their feet was a wooded foreground of every
shade and colour, sloping to the plain. In the
middle distance was the valley flooded with
light, and rising from it one of those queer conical
peaks peculiar to the neighbourhood. Behind,
soft undulating hills melted into the background.
But words cannot describe it, nor artist's brush.

In the afternoon Mr. B , the Government

Agent, called, expecting to hear some account
of us, and we spent a happy hour or two making
light of our past fears.



NEXT morning after breakfast the Msungu and
I set out for our own Station. We had no
fear, believing implicitly Namonde's reassuring
message. I remember nothing of that walk until
we came to the Linje stream. There, having
crossed it at a more shallow part than we had
seen the night before, my husband suddenly
complained of faintness. I had been so long
kept up by his strength and protection that now
being unexpectedly deprived of it, my heart grew

The sun had been glaring down on us all
morning. Now the trees by the water proved a
shelter. He sat down under one of its hollowed
banks unable to go further, and, fearing that it
was a touch of fever or sun-stroke, I hurried
on alone in order to send a machilla to bring
him up. If I had no fear for the terrors of the
jungle it was not from bravery, but through


ignorance. My revolver was buckled to my
waist as it had been the night before, for if I had
not the presence of mind to use it, it might prove
a deterrent to any wicked person.

As I came within sight of our Station the boys,
headed by Mlenga, my head cook, guessing by
some wonderful instinct my approach, came
running to meet me.

Mlenga, his round face bursting with smiles,
with graphic gesticulations and a gush of Yao,
informed me that he had made a steamed custard
in our honour, a thing he had never attempted
before, as it was very difficult explaining to them
the exact time a food had to be cooked. As I
feared, the custard was hard like leather, but
I acted the part of enjoying it immensely.

Meanwhile a machilla had been sent for the
Msungu and soon he arrived feeling much better
for the little rest. But I did not feel so brave
as I did in the morning. In spite of the Doctor's
cheerful talk there was a strange melancholy
about the place. For one thing my little monkey
lay moaning in a corner of the dining room, and
notwithstanding all our attention it died the
following day. We buried it on the slope of
Mount Mlanje, and I mourned as if it had been a

For several nights after our return I slept with


most of my clothes on. On the third night I was
awakened by hearing the sound of guns. This
was nothing so very unusual, it might be a maliro,
or a beer drinking, but my strained nerves kept
me awake listening anxiously. Suddenly an
ominous tap, tap, came to the window and
Mlenga's voice was heard saying in a solemn
tone : " Msungu, do you hear the guns ? "

In a moment we were up, I, shivering with cold,
or was it terror ? We dressed ourselves in the
fitful light of a candle for it was barely four
o'clock and quite dark. My fingers felt powerless
as I fastened my dress. Surely if the boys were
alarmed there was good cause.

Going into the verandah we met the Doctor,
who had been aroused also, growling at being so
soon disturbed, or at the probability of again
leaving his sideboard. For a time we talked and
argued till dawn broke and crept like a grey ghost
around the house. The ground reddened, and
the acacia trees in front held out dark branches
against the vast greyness beyond.

The boys were chattering with awed voices.
They crowded near us. It was a comfort to know
that they had warned us. Still the Doctor was of
opinion that it was only another hoax. Spies
were sent out who soon returned to tell us that
a big beer drinking was going on at a neighbouring


village, hence the firing of guns which had alarmed
us. The mists lifted. The great rocky peak,
like a pyramid, appeared before us. The sun
gleamed yellow through the feathery vapour.

For some time great beer drinkings were held
in the district. Consequently there were many
quarrels, and the natives always came to us to
have their disputes settled. Once the Msungu
had to get up in the middle of the night to assist
the Doctor to plaster the heads of two men.
Another time word came that there had been a
fierce dispute in a village some distance off, and
that two women had been shot.

Providing himself with machillas and a number
of carriers the Doctor at once started for the place,
and before evening returned with his patients —
an old woman and a young one. They were put
in one of his rooms and the next day he began to
extract the bullets ; but it was a difficult opera-
tion, the charge having been composed of sand
and beads.

The Msungu generally assisted him, but
one day the Doctor insisted on my presence,
and I, being unaccustomed to the sight of
blood, went reluctantly.

The young woman lay on a bench, her head
propped up by a pillow and the back of a chair,
with her leg bared for the operation. She looked


round as I entered, and was so much interested
in my appearance (probably I was the first white
woman she had ever seen) that she did not seem
to feel the pain of the Doctor's probing. She
never once winced, which is more than I can say
of myself for, when the blood began to trickle,
I opportunely remembered that I had a sago
pudding on the fire, and ran away to make sure
it was not burning.

Some male relations of the women looked after
them a little, more perhaps from curiosity to see
what was being done than from any regard to their
friends. Yet why be their judge ? Still a tre-

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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 7 of 13)