Jessie Monteath Currie.

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

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places, making the vast purple wall streaked with



164 A WANDERING MINSTREL.

white. Then was heard " the voice of many
waters."

And the wind swept round the mountain with
a fearsome sound. Mists shrouded the rocks in
the mornings and through the day there would be
gales and bursts of sunshine alternately. We wore
our warmest clothing, for we felt the cold keenly
with the malaria in our blood, and coming as it
did so quickly after the heat. Yet the tempera-
ture was never lower than 75 ° by day, and 65 °
at night.

The natives undoubtedly feel the cold also,
though not to the same extent as we do. Yet
they are the most inconsistent people imaginable.
One cold morning, getting up before dawn,
wrapped in my travelling cloak, I met Luwiya,
one of the dish-washers, coming into the dining
room, stark naked save for a little string of loin
cloth. Yet his shoulders were raised and his arms
pressed tightly round his breast for warmth.

" Ngua ali kwapi, Luwiya ? " (Where is your
cloth?) I asked.

" Asalasye" (It is reserved) he replied pleasantly,
perhaps expecting that I would applaud his
extreme economy.

Another day, a Saturday it was, the girls went
to the Linje as usual to wash their Sunday clothes.
But why they took it into their heads to wash the



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 165

garments they had on is a problem. They came
back, dripping and shivering in their wet clothes.
I made them remove their soaking garments,
and wrapped Mele and Ajaula in their red
blankets while their wet things were drying. To
Achilandana I gave a pink flannel night-dress
I had discarded, which she wore with her red
sash. She was so delighted that she asked if she
might wear it next day to church.

At this season we had often to light a fire. The
mats were rolled up, and the logs kindled on the
brick floor. True, the smoke nipped our eyes,
but much escaped through the opening under
the eaves. But we did not suffer alone. Our
goats had kids, and we found two of the little
creatures half dead with cold. We carried them
into the house and tethered them in the drawing
room where we had a fire made on the floor ; but
we foolishly did not bring in their mothers. Of
course we found them both dead in the morning.

Sometimes the girls would lie close to the
smouldering wood in the dining room, instead of
under the table, when they went to bed. Growing
anxious one night after we retired, lest they
should be burnt, we returned to the room, where
we found them so close to the fire that one of
Mele's tiny feet was pressed against a burning
log.



166 A WANDERING MINSTREL.

In this way many natives get burnt. Their
huts generally consist of two small apartments,
the inner one for sleeping, and the door so low
that one has to stoop to enter. In cold weather
a fire is lit in the outer room. It is left smouldering
all night, and the wonder is that there are so few
accidents.

But though the storms raged outside we had
peace among ourselves. The natives had been
very quiet for some time, no beer drinking,
nothing to disturb us. We heard of fighting on
the Upper River. The gun-boats were up at
Lake Nyassa, but it did not affect us. Besides,
a new military station had been started at the
far end of the mountain to stop the slave trade
on the Arab route between Lake Nyassa and the
coast. I had not been aware of it, so one morning
I got quite a surprise. Looking out of my window,
while I was dressing, I saw a number of tall
powerful-looking men, wearing large white turbans
of twisted calico, and all fully armed, coming
round the corner of our little church. I took
them for Europeans as they were so much lighter
than our natives. But they were the famous
Indian Sikhs on their way to the Fort.

Indeed the natives seemed more friendly than
usual. Even Chipoka (Mr. Great Pride) a big
chief of the Manganja tribe, came to see us, dressed



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 167

in a soldier's old red coat, with the usual cloth
wound round his limbs. He brought us a hamper
filled with oranges, large green ones, very juicy,
with a delicious flavour the yellowed fruit never
has. Perhaps I should not have mentioned it for
we heard that the British Consul — Sir Harry
Johnson — about this time ordered all the fruit on
the mountain to be sent to the Consulate ; but
surely he would not have grudged us a little. We
had sore need of fruit as we had hardly ever a green
vegetable. I used to cut up for my soup, in lieu
of them, the yellow pods of the chili, and gather
thyme from the garden. Lemons we generally
had, brought from a tree growing wild by the
Lekabula river. There were none as far as we
knew on the mountain ; but I planted a row of
seeds, which may now be bearing fruit for the
comfort of the Mission.

Namonde also still kept friendly with us, and
visited us oftener than we desired, at least than
I did. In fancy I see myself, one afternoon, in
the long strip of garden in front of the house.
I am plucking tomatoes from the first crop since
my arrival, red luscious fruit about the size of
large gooseberries, and eating them greedily.
Behind them gigantic blooms of " Love-lies-
bleeding " crimson the background. Overhead
an acacia tree spreads out its glossy green layers



168 A WANDERING MINSTREL.

of foliage. Red, blue and green lizards dart like
lightning over the great boulders at the end of
the garden. My attention is diverted by a
walking-stick insect, striding awkwardly over the
rough earth. It is a little time of respite from my
work when I try to relax my worried brow and
throw off the malarious depression which like
some fiend tries to hold me. It is a blink of
sunshine between the storms in more senses than
one.

The tomatoes have refreshed me ; the beauty
around has lifted me up. The feeling that my
work is done for the day perhaps is the chief
benefactor.

But like the serpent that came into Eden,
Namonde, the chief, appears coming round the
corner of the fence. He walks erectly with a
proud air to-day. For why ? He is wearing his
white jacket just recently washed, and he is sure
that the dark blue drapery round his limbs reveals
his fine proportions, while his brown silk parasol
is held up elegantly over one shoulder.

" He will pass/' I say to myself. " He will
not notice a mean creature like me."

But no, he pauses at the little gate. There is
a traitorous smile on his face. I fain would
shrink behind the glorious mass of " Love-lies-
bleeding," but it is too late. He has seen me,



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 169

and he is in an unusually affable mood. I believe
for the moment he thinks he is white.

I come forward as the bird comes to the hawk.
He condescends to shake hands, and wish me
" Moni." But our conversation is necessarily
limited for I can only speak of household matters,
and these will hardly suit a chief.

But our important visitors were not only chiefs
and white men. A very remarkable native, a
wandering minstrel, came to our Station one day.
He wore a circlet of feathers, standing erect, round
his head ; a scarf wound round his well developed
chest ; and, dangling from his waist, a multitude
of skins and tails of beasts, kept tight at the top
by a band of red cotton. Near his ankles hung
a number of small brown gourds, filled with tiny
pebbles. He carried a native banjo.

His approach was heralded by our boys and
girls. They rushed to us in great excitement to
tell us of his coming. We ran out to the verandah,
just in time to see his feathered head appearing
over the brow of the hill at the end of the garden.
Close behind him followed a little old woman,
wearing a very scanty cloth, leading a band of
village children whom he had taught to sing his
choruses and responses.

The minstrel smiled and nodded as he took his
position before us, in front of the house, and the



i 7 o A WANDERING MINSTREIy.

children all squatted in a long line behind him.

Strum, strum ! A wild melody came forth from
the banjo. He began to dance, slowly and
thoughtfully. The little old woman paced after
him, imitating his movements, while she cast
grimacing glances towards the children, who
responded at intervals to the music and clapped
their hands.

He then drawled a sort of chant. The old
woman mumbled slowly, looking behind her slyly
while she footed the dance. The children
responded solemnly, then rose and followed the
old woman in a long line, imitating her motions.
Crescendo went the music. Faster they danced.
The skins round the minstrel's waist rose up and
floated around him. The gourds rattled. The old
woman tucked up her scanty skirt and clapped
her hands with the children.

Wilder grew the dance. His body writhed like
a serpent. The skins spread out and whirled like a
cloud in the air. The little old woman contorted
herself stiffly, looking over her shoulder mockingly
at the children, who raised their voices in the
chant, and clapped tremendously.

The dance ended. The minstrel came over to
us, wreathed in smiles, holding out his hand.
The Msungu gave him a rupee which he dropped
into a hole in the banjo.



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 171

This happened on one of the days when the sun
shone. But there came a cold snap in the month
of May just when we were hoping for fine weather.
One Sunday morning we all began to shiver. The
Msungu suggested that we should take a walk to
warm us while a fire was lit on the drawing room
floor. When we returned we had native service
in the dining room instead of the comfortless
little building outside.

I doubt if our room was much better. The
wind blew through the insecure door and through
the narrow windows at each side of it. My feet
were benumbed. I tried to tuck them under my
skirts beneath the table. I saw from the Msungu's
face that he was suffering also. Only the Doctor,
in his usual place opposite him, looked calm and
placid as became the occasion.

After lunch we cowered over the drawing room
fire that was now blazing cheerily, but it seemed
only to warm the surface of our skin. At last the
Msungu threw himself on the couch. There was
a flush on his cheek. At intervals he trembled.
I covered him with rugs and blankets and ran
for the Doctor, whom I found dispensing medicine
out of his end window to a group of natives. He
came without any delay, but we knew that it was
the usual fever.

After a hot bottle was applied and a hot drink



M



172 A WANDERING MINSTREL.

partaken of the Msungu felt comfortable. Indeed
his face changed to a serene content, or rather an
exalted expression took the place of the look of
suffering and discomfort. He seemed asleep ;
but he told us afterwards that he had imagined
himself composing poetry of the highest quality.
Yet he was quite sensible and made a mental note
of the splendid lines so that he could write them
down next day. He even wondered how he should
have blossomed into such a poet all in a moment.
He thought that the day of humble work was
past for ever, that henceforth men would sing his
praises. How different I felt when I had fever.
I tossed and suffered till the perspiration broke
out.

But we knew nothing of his thoughts ; had we
done so perhaps we would have given him less
sympathy. The public may say it was a pity and
probably a loss to the world that he did not repeat
them to us. Let the Msungu speak for himself.
He did remember them when he came out of his
fever, but he now says they were " awful rot."

The Doctor and I sat patiently beside his couch
all that day, our weary watch being only disturbed
by the boy coming in with fresh fire-wood, and a
brief adjournment for dinner. That meal over we
assisted the Msungu to his proper bedroom. A
powder was prescribed for him at a certain time



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 173

during the night. The Doctor departed shortly
to his own house, and shivering with cold I was
glad to lie down also, hoping to awake at the right
moment. But I need not have been anxious on
that score. I could not sleep. My head ached
dreadfully. I tossed and turned, and burned and
shivered.

At two o'clock, the time arranged, I crawled
out of bed, trying to collect my wandering senses.
I struck a light, mixed the powder, awoke my
husband and gave him the medicine.

Back to bed again, shivering with ague,
I gathered the blankets close around me and tried
to get warm. Then I burned with a dry skin that
seemed like bursting. I doubt if I slept any that
night. I knew I had fever, but dared not succumb
till my husband was better. How often had I
been ill with the Msungu faithfully attending me.
This was the first fever he had had since I came
to the mountain.

As the morning dawned a gale of wind stormed
outside ; the rain poured. I felt cold drops
falling on my face. I struggled up and dressed
myself, after tea had been brought in by the boy.
I wrapped a shawl and my travelling cloak round
me. As I feared, the pillows were wet. I put on
fresh slips, and with the aid of Bwanali drew out
the bed from the wall.



174 A WANDERING MINSTREL.

Drip, drip ! The rain still came down, preferring
the bed to any other quarter. I got an umbrella
and put it over the Msungu's head. He com-
plained of a draught. I made a screen by covering
chairs with a sheet and arranged it in the proper
place. Then I got the fire lit in the middle of
the floor.

The Doctor came in before breakfast with the
news that he had just received a note calling him
to see a white man along the hill who was bad
with fever. In half an hour I was left in sole
charge of my patient and the Mission Station.

I don't remember how I got through the fore-
noon. The Msungu was too exhausted to see my
distress ; but in the afternoon he noticed me
shivering over the smoky fire, wrapped in all the
garments I could carry. He asked me to hand
him his thermometer, then tried my temperature.
It was 102°.

Perhaps I would have been wiser had I tried
his temperature at that moment. Then possibly
we might have conscientiously exchanged places.
As it was I stuck to my post.

Dinner time came. We knew that the soup
and fowl would be ready. The Msungu had no
appetite and a cold drink was all I craved for.
Yet we must eat. t

" Tell the boy to cut up the fowl in small pieces



A WANDERING MINSTREL. 175

and put them in the soup." said my husband.
" We can take it easier that way."

I rose obediently, but turned back at the door.
" What do you say for ' cut it small ' ? " I asked.

" Akate panandipe," answered the Msungu.

I faced the wind and the rain, repeating and
repeating the words as I went to the kitchen.
The boys understood me for a wonder, and soon
our dinner was served in the bedroom.

The meat soup certainly strengthened us. I
believe that many a fever proves unnecessarily
fatal owing to the patient's unwillingness to eat ;
and where there is no proper attendant this often
happens. Besides nourishment, what an amount
of quinine we took ! On one occasion, I remember,
I had forty grains in one day.

Next morning I was the patient. The Msungu
was better though weak. He got up after break-
fast, and with what relief I turned round in bed
and closed my eyes. The Doctor returned in the
forenoon. For days I was troubled with a low
recurring fever. When at last I was pronounced
cured I was weak and spiritless.



CHAPTER XIX



MY GIRLS EXCEL

THE Doctor was kept very busy. There was
generally a number of natives in front of
the window from which he dispensed his medicine.
Even the goats had their turn. One broke its leg,
which had to be put in splints. And outside the
Mission there were frequently men who required
his services.

After the Doctor had set up house he said to
me one day : " There's no doubt about it, Donna,
that running a house is the hardest work on earth.
Truly women get the worst end of the stick all
through."

Yet he had the best cook, but like all good
servants he had his faults. He dearly loved taking
holidays and going to dances, and probably he
was the most to blame that night when the girls
disappeared. Yet it was difficult to be angry
with him. He had such a genial, jolly expression,
perhaps because he was in love with Mele ; but
we did not know that then. We had yet to learn



MY GIRLS EXCEL. 177

that love is much the same all the world over.
On one occasion when Masamani was recruiting
himself, and the Doctor experiencing all the woes
of house-keeping, I received a letter from the
latter. It was hardly expected, as I had seen
him already several times that day. Naturally
I opened it with some curiosity and read the
following : —

" Dear Donna,

" Will you kindly give me a piece of bread.

" Yours truly,

"G. R. "

Fortunately I was well supplied as I baked
almost every day, but my scones were not
equal to Masamani's. If my cook, Mlenga, was
inclined to make them sometimes the shape of
feet, or by way of variety like half-moons, the
Doctor's cook never varied from a fat round little
scone, yellowed with eggs and puffed like a sponge.
All our bread, as I have previously indicated, was
raised by soda and lemon juice when we could
procure the fruit, failing the latter we used baking
powder, but that quickly deteriorated in that
climate.

One day, anxious for a change, the Msungu
procured some native beer, a white milky liquid,
to use as yeast. He said that he would make the
bread entirely himself. After many failures, at



178 MY GIRIvS EXCEI,.

last he succeeded in producing a small loaf. Of
course I had to praise it, but my conscience was
clear as it was a lovely golden brown with a
creamy white crack on the top. Nothing would
satisfy him, however, but that I should sketch it.
So I produced my block and water-colours, and,
after expelling the family of baby cockroaches
that unaccountably crowded within my box,
I began my study.

There is interest even in painting a loaf. The
subtle yellow grey shadows, the tender lights, and
the russet browns of the crust were more agree-
able to me than the other studies the Msungu
brought me. He had a weakness for shooting
birds. Yes, I will call it a weakness, for I think
the birds that decorate the landscape and fill the
air with sweet sounds should be allowed to live
their little life. It was all very well to shoot
the partridges ; they strengthened us for our
work. But he did not discriminate. He would
bring me one at a time and arrange it on the
floor of the verandah, then call me out to paint
it. There was the raven, or the " Parson," as it
was called by the white man, with its broad
white collar and greeny-black coat ; and the
Chitotolo, a grey hawk, which, excepting its bill,
resembled very much the cuckoo.

When I sat down to paint the Chitotolo I was



MY GIRLS EXCEL. 179

horrified to see that it still breathed. I hastily
called the Msungu, who immediately put it out
of pain.

" How could you shoot it ? " I said, almost
sobbing. " Just think of it soaring o'er those
wonderful valleys, so full of the joy of living —
and your gun brings it down, and ends its existence
for ever."

" When you put it that way it does seem cruel,"
said my husband, " but I only thought of it as a
model for your painting."

From that day he never brought me any more
birds.

But baking and shooting were not the only
pastimes the Msungu enjoyed. One day our
native hunter brought us a piece of wild boar.
My husband was in his element, for he had
developed quite a mania for ham and egg, a dish
he had never tasted since leaving the steamer.
All that forenoon he was punching and kneading
with salt and spice a large piece of the pork on
the table in the verandah. A group of boys stood
round him watching eagerly the operation. It
was a day or two later when the meat was being
smoked in a barrel, that Kambona imagined
Luwiya was the victim inside.

But the Msungu was forced to relinquish his
task for the time being. A native appeared with



180 MY GIRLS EXCEL.

a letter. It proved to be an invitation to a
wedding at Blantyre Mission. But it did not
excite me pleasurably as one might have expected.
I dreaded society, and felt that it would be an
effort even to speak. I had wearied to see a
white woman. I did not now. I was as lonely
as ever, but my life was fuller, and but for the
malaria and the want of my relations, I would have
desired no change.

Still, I would not have it said that I held aloof.
It was decided that we should go. My girls would
accompany me, and perhaps for the short time
they might attend the school at Blantyre.

It certainly excited me. I had not been from
home since our mid-night trip to Madza-ku-
samba's, and that could hardly be called a holiday.
For the intervening weeks my mind was full of
the trip. What should I wear ? The feminine
vanity was not yet smothered. What would
my girls think of the fine houses and the beautiful
church, and the refined civilization ? Mount
Mlanje and the Plain comprised all their world
at present. Our little three-roomed mud-house,
in comparison with their tiny huts, seemed a
mansion.

The morning before our journey I rose early.
Going over to a small window in a recess in my
bedroom I called Mlenga, the cook, and told him



MY GIRLS EXCEL. 181

to kill three fowls, as I purposed making a pie
for the " ulendo " (journey).

Immediately there was a racing through the
courtyard and a sound of cackling hens, then
silence and a leisurely tread to the cook-house.
I finished my dressing, then went out to see how
the work was proceeding. The boys were seated
inside the kitchen, not plucking fowls as I expected,
but lazily enjoying themselves. Then I saw to
my horror that the three fowls were already
simmering in a pot on the fire. I dared not ask
any questions. I returned to the house feeling
rather sick.

Next morning shortly after dawn we started on
our journey. Namonde, the chief, was down on
the Plain to wish us " Moni."

We carried ample provisions, including the
chicken pie, but for the first time on a journey
I could not eat with any relish. Our way was
comparatively easy, for since my arrival at Mlanje
the British Government had extended the road,
which my husband had cut, as far as the Tuchilla
river. Consequently the men ran along without
interruption of branches, rocks and stumps of
trees. Owing to the straightness of the way
we were also saved the climb over the little hill,
Medima, where we had pitched our tent on my
first journey across the Plain. As we wished to



i82 MY GIRLS EXCEL/.

reach Blantyre that night we rested no longer
than was necessary. We saw again our hospitable
friends at the Limbe where we had been so kindly
entertained. There, we only got away by
promising to spend a few days with them on our
return journey.

We arrived at our destination before sunset.
We stayed with the Doctor and his wife. It was
a treat to see a well furnished house again. I
gazed round my bedroom with rapture. Except
for a large " mtungwi " (a native travelling basket)
everything else was English make. There was
not even one tin box to stand in lieu of a table or
chair. There was no brick floor which you could
sweep off by degrees, filling your lungs with red
dust, but a smooth flat carpet which felt luxurious
to your feet. There was also a ceiling, a real
white ceiling.

The drawing room seemed perfectly dazzling.
I sat down shy in the corner and envied the other
ladies, who had come in to spend the evening,
with their flow of talk. I was not in it. Mount
Mlanje had struck me dumb.

Suddenly a sharp knock came to the room door.
I turned round and saw our cook Mlenga's round,
red face protruding through the narrow opening.
He, with some other boys and our girls, had
accompanied us.



MY GIRLS EXCEL. 183

" Sala ! " (hunger) he said. His eyes looked
large and full of astonishment.

The Msungu at once left the room to arrange
about food for our natives. I was left pretty
much to myself the whole evening till one of the
older ladies came over and spoke to me for a little.
I was stiff, horribly stiff. Mlanje, my new parent,
though she had deprived me of speech, had still
left me a good share of pride.

I blame myself. Nobody wished to treat me
badly. My hostess could not have been kinder.
She had much to do. Indeed I thought that she
must have abnormal strength to do what she did.

To add to her trials, next morning her black girls
refused to work. She came to me in desperation.
She had to give the wedding luncheon next day.
" I have asked them to shake a carpet and they
won't do it," she said.

" Perhaps my girls can help you," I said, glad
to be of use ; and, rising I went out to the verandah


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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 9 of 13)