Marching Along the Niger
( Originally Published 1934 )
AFTER leaving the First Game Camp, we travelled many hours and miles over rolling hills piling ever higher and higher until they broke through a pass to illimitable plains. These plains were mantled with the dense scrub, looking from a distance and from above like the nap of soft green velvet. Here and there this scrub broke in round or oval patches of grass plain. Great mountain ranges peered over the edge of a horizon. Lesser mountain peaks of fantastic shapes---sheer Yosemite cliffs, single buttes, castles—had ventured singly from behind that same horizon barricade. The course of a river was marked by a meandering line of green jungle.
It took us two days to get to that river. Our intermediate camp was halfway down the pass. We ousted a hundred indignant straw-coloured monkeys and twice as many baboons from the tiny flat above he water hole. They bobbed away cursing over their shoulders at us. Next day we debouched on the plains. They were rolling, densely grown, covered with volcanic stones, swarming with game of various sorts. The men marched well. They were happy, for they had had a week of meat; and each carried a light lunch of sun-dried biltong or jerky. Some mistaken individuals had attempted to bring along some "fresh" meat. We found it advisable to pass to windward of these; but they themselves did not seem to mind.
It became very hot; for we were now descending to the lower elevations. The marching through long grass and over volcanic stones was not easy. Shortly we came out on stumbly hills, mostly rock, very dry, grown with cactus and discouraged desiccated thorn scrub. Here the sun reflected powerfully and the bearers began to flag.
Then suddenly, without warning, we pitched over a little rise to the river.
No more marvellous contrast could have been devised. From the blasted barren scrub country we plunged into the lush jungle. It was not a very wide jungle, but it was sufficient. The trees were large and variegated, reaching to ,a high and spacious upper story above the ground tangle. From the massive limbs hung vines, festooned and looped like great serpents. Through this upper corridor flitted birds of bright hue or striking variegation. We did not know many of them by name, nor did we desire to; but were content with the impression of vivid flashing movement and colour. Various monkeys swung, leaped and galloped slowly away before our advance ; pausing to look back at us curiously, the ruffs of fur standing out all around their little black faces. The lower half of the forest jungle, however, had no spaciousness at all, but a certain breathless intimacy. Great leaved plants as tall as little trees, and trees as small as big plants, bound together by vines, made up the "deep impenetrable jungle" of our childhood imagining. Here were rustlings, sudden scurryings, half-caught glimpses, once or twice a crash as some greater animal made off. Here and there through the thicket wandered well beaten trails, wide, but low, so that to follow them one would have to bend double. These were the paths of rhinoceroses. The air smelt warm and moist and earthy, like the odour of a greenhouse.
We skirted this jungle until it gave way to let the plain down to the river. Then, in an open grove of acacias, and fairly on the river's bank, we pitched our tents.
These acacia trees were very noble big chaps, with many branches and a thick shade. In their season they are wonderfully blossomed with white, with yellow, sometimes even with vivid red flowers. Beneath them was only a small matter of ferns to clear away.
Before us the sodded bank rounded off ten feet to the river itself. At this point far up in its youth it was a friendly river. Its noble width ran over shallows of yellow sand or of small pebbles. Save for unexpected deep holes one could wade across it anywhere. Yet it was very wide, with still reaches of water, with islands "of gigantic papyrus, with sand bars dividing the current, and with always the vista for a greater or lesser distance down through the jungle along its banks. From our canvas chairs we could look through on one side to the arid country, and on the other to this tropical wonderland.
Yes, at this point in its youth it was indeed a friendly river in every sense of the word. There are three reasons, ordinarily, why one cannot bathe in the African rivers. In the first place, they are nearly all disagreeably muddy; in the second place, cold water in a tropical climate causes horrible congestions; in the third place they swarm with crocodiles and hippos. But this river was as yet unpolluted by the alluvial soil of the lower countries; the sun' on its shallows had warmed its waters almost to blood heat; and the beasts found no congenial haunts in these clear shoals. Almost before our tents were up the men were splashing. And always my mental image of that river's beautiful expanse must include round black heads floating like gourds where the water ran smoothest.
Our tents stood all in a row facing the stream, the great trees at their backs. Down in the grove the men had pitched their little white shelters. Happily they settled down to ease. Settling down to ease, in the case of the African porter, consists in discarding as many clothes as possible. While on the march he wears everything he owns; whether from pride or a desire to simplify transportation I am unable to say. He is sup-plied by his employer with a blanket and jersey. As supplementals he can generally produce a half dozen white man's ill-assorted garments: an old shooting coat, a ragged pair of khaki breeches, a kitchen tablecloth for a skirt, or something of the sort. If he can raise an overcoat he is happy, especially if it happen to be a long, thick winter overcoat. The possessor of such a garment will wear it conscientiously throughout the longest journey and during the hottest noons. But when he relaxes in camp, he puts away all these prideful possessions and turns out in the savage simplicity of his red blanket: Draped negligently, sometimes very negligently, in what may be termed semi-toga fashion, he stalks about or squats before his little fire in all the glory of a regained savagery. The contrast of the red with his red bronze or black skin, the freedom and grace of his movements, the upright carriage of his fine figure, and the flickering savagery playing in his eyes are very effective.
Our men occupied their leisure variously and happily, A great deal of time they spent before their tiny fires roasting meat and talking. This talk was almost invariably of specific personal experiences. They bathed frequently and with pleasure. They slept. Between times they fashioned ingenious affairs of ornament or use: bows and arrows, throwing clubs, snuff-boxes of the tips of antelope horns, bound prettily with bright wire, wooden swords beautifully carved in ex-act imitation of the white man's service weapon, and a hundred other such affairs. At this particular time also they were much occupied in making sandals against the thorns. These were flat soles of rawhide, the edges pounded to make them curl up a trifle over the foot, fastened by thongs; very ingenious, and very useful. To their task they brought song. The labour of Africa is done to song; weird minor chanting starting high in the falsetto to trickle unevenly down to the lower registers, or where the matter is one of serious effort, an antiphony of solo and chorus. From all parts of the camp come these softly modulated chantings, low and sweet, occasionally breaking into full voice as the inner occasion swells, then almost immediately falling again to the murmuring undertone of more concentrated attention.
The red blanket was generally worn knotted from one shoulder or bound around the waist Malay fashion. When it turned into a cowl, with a miserable and humpbacked expression, it became the Official Badge of Illness. No matter what was the matter that was the proper thing to do—to throw the blanket over the head and to assume as miserable a demeanour as possible. A sore toe demanded just as much concentrated woe as a case of pneumonia.
Sick call was cried after the day's work was finished. Then M'ganga or one of the askaris lifted up his voice.
"N'gon jwa ! n'gonjwa !" he shouted ; and at the shout the red cowls gathered in front of the tent.
Three things were likely to be the matter: too much meat, fever, or pus infection from slight wounds. To these in the rainy season would be added the various sorts of colds. That meant either Epsom salts, quinine, or a little excursion with the lancet and permanganate. The African traveller gets to be heap big medicine man within these narrow limits.
All the red cowls squatted miserably, oh, very miserably, in a row. The headman stood over them rather fiercely. We surveyed the lot contemplatively, hoping to heaven that nothing complicated was going to turn up. One of the tent boys hovered in the background as dispensing chemist.
"Well," said F. at last, "what's the matter with you?"
The man indicated pointed to his head and the back of his neck and groaned. If he had a slight headache he groaned just as much as though his head was splitting. F. asked a few questions, and took his temperature. The clinical thermometer is in itself considered big medicine, and often does much good.
"Too much meat, my friend," remarked F. in English, and to his boy in Swahili, "bring the cup."
He put in this cup a triple dose of Epsom salts. The African requires three times a white man's dose. This, pathologically, was all that was required : but psychologically the job was just begun. Your African can do wonderful things with his imagination. If he thinks he is going to die, die he will, and very promptly, even though he is ailing of the most trivial complaint. If he thinks he is going to get well, he is very apt to do so in face of extraordinary odds. Therefore the white man desires not only to start his patient's internal economy with Epsom salts, but also to stir his faith. To this end F. added to that triple dose of medicine a spoonful of Chutney, one of Worcestershire sauce, a few grains of quinine, Sparklets water and a crystal or so of permanganate to turn the mixture to a beautiful pink. This assortment the patient drank with gratitude—and the tears running down his cheeks.
"He will carry a load tomorrow," F. told the attentive M'ganga.
The next patient had fever. This one got twenty grains of quinine in water.
"This man carries no load to-morrow," was the direction, "but he must not drop behind."
Two or three surgical cases followed. Then a big Kavirondo rose to his feet.
" Nini ?" demanded F.
"Homa fever," whined the man.
F. clapped his hand on the back of the other's neck.
"I think," he remarked contemplatively in English, "that you're a liar, and want to get out of carrying your load."
The clinical thermometer showed no evidence of temperature.
"I'm pretty surs you're a liar," observed F. in the pleasantest conversational tone and still in English, "but you may be merely a poor diagnostician. Perhaps your poor insides couldn't get away with that rotten meat I saw you lugging around. We'll see."
So he mixed a pint of medicine.
"There's Epsom salts for the real part of your trouble," observed F., still talking to himself, "and here's a few things for the fake."
He then proceeded to concoct a mixture whose recoil was the exact measure of his imagination. The imagination was only limited by the necessity of keeping the mixture harmless. Every hot, biting, nauseous horror in camp went into that pint measure.
"There," concluded F., "if you drink that and come back again to-morrow for treatment, I'll believe you are sick."
Without undue pride I would like to record that I was the first to think of putting in a peculiarly nauseous gun oil, and thereby acquired a reputation of making tremendous medicine.
So implicit is this faith in white man's medicine that at one of the Government posts we were approached by one of the secondary chiefs of the district. He was a very nifty savage, dressed for calling, with his hair done in ropes like a French poodle's, his skin carefully oiled and reddened, his armlets and necklets polished, and with the ceremonial ball of black feathers on the end of his long spear. His gait was the peculiar mincing teeter of savage conventional society. According to custom, he approached unsmiling, spat carefully in his palm, and shook hands. Then he squatted and waited.
"What is it ?" we asked after it became evident he really wanted something besides the pleasure of our company.
"N'dowa—medicine," said he.
"Why do you not go the Government dispensary ?" we demanded.
`The doctor there is an Indian; I want real medicine, white man's medicine," he explained. Immensely flattered, of course, we wanted further to know what ailed him.
"Nothing," said he blandly, "nothing at all; but it seemed an excellent chance to get good medicine."
After the clinic was all attended to, we retired to our tents and the screeching-hot bath so graceful in the tropics. When we emerged, in our mosquito boots and pajamas, the daylight was gone. Scores of little blazes licked and leaped in the velvet blackness round about, casting the undergrowth and the lower branches of the trees into flat planes like the cardboard of a stage setting. Cheerful, squatted figures sat in silhouette or in the relief of chance high light. Long switches of meat roasted before the fires. A hum of talk, bursts of laughter, the crooning of minor chants mingled with the crackling of thorns. Be-fore our tents stood the table set for supper, Beyond it lay the pile of firewood, later to be burned on the altar of our safety against beasts. The moonlight was casting milky shadows over the river and under the trees opposite. In those shadows gleamed many fireflies. Overhead were millions of stars, and a little breeze that wandered through upper branches.
But in Equatorial Africa the simple bands of velvet black against the spangled brightnesses, that make up the visual night world, must give way in interest to the other world of sound. The air hums with an undertone of insects; the plain and hill and jungle are populous with voices furtive or bold. In daytime one sees animals enough, in all conscience, but only at night does he sense the almost oppressive feeling of the teeming life about him. The darkness is peopled. Zebras bark, bucks blow or snort or make the weird noises of their respective species ; hyenas howl ; out of an immense simian silence a group of monkeys suddenly break into chatterings ; ostriches utter their deep hollow boom ; small things scurry and squeak ; a certain weird bird of the curlew or plover sort wails like a lonesome soul. Especially by the river, as here, are the boomings of the weirdest of weird bullfrogs, and the splashings and swishings of crocodile and hippopotamus. One is impressed with the busyness of the world surrounding him ; every bird or beast, the hunter and the hunted, is the centre of many important affairs. The world swarms.
And then, some miles away a lion roars, the earth and air vibrating to the sheer power of the sound. The world falls to a blank dead silence. For a full minute every living creature of the jungle or of the veldt holds its breath. Their lord has spoken.
After dinner we sat in our canvas chairs, smoking. The guard fire in front of our tent had been lit On the other side of it stood one of our askaris leaning on his musket. He and his three companions, turn about, keep the flames bright against the fiercer creatures.
After a time we grew sleepy. I called Saa-sita and entrusted to him my watch. On the crystal of this I had pasted a small piece of surgeon's plaster. When the hour hand reached the surgeon's plaster, he must wake us up. Saa-sita was a very conscientious and careful man. One day I took some time hitching my pedometer properly to his belt: I could not wear it effectively myself because I was on horseback. At the end of the ten-hour march it registered a mile and a fraction. Saa-sita explained that he wished to take especial care of it, so he had wrapped it in a cloth and carried it all day in his hand!
We turned in. As I reached over to extinguish the lantern I issued my last command for the day.
"Watcha kalele, Saa-sita," I told the askari; and at once he lifted up his voice to repeat my words. "Watcha ,kalele!" Immediately from the Responsible all over camp the word came back from gunbearers, from M'ganga, from tent boys—"kalele ! kalele ! kalele !"
Thus commanded, the boisterous fun, the low croon of intimate talk, the gently rising and falling tide of melody fell to complete silence. Only remained the crackling of the fire and the innumerable voices of the tropical night.