The Man-Eaters of Tsavo/Chapter 11
Chapter XI: The Swahili and Other Native Tribes
I have always been very keenly interested in the different native races of Africa, and consequently availed myself of every opportunity of studying their manners and customs. I had little scope for this at Tsavo, however, as the district around us was practically uninhabited. Still there was of course a good number of Swahili among my workmen, together with a few Wa Kamba, Wa N'yam Wezi, and others, so I soon became more or less acquainted with the habits of these tribes. The Swahili live principally along the coast of British East Africa and at Zanzibar. They are a mixed race, being the descendants of Arab fathers and negro mothers. Their name is derived from the Arabic word suahil, coast; but it has also been said, by some who have found them scarcely so guileless as might have been expected, to be really a corruption of the words sawa hili, that is, "those who cheat all alike." However that may be, the men are as a rule of splendid physique and well qualified for the calling that the majority of them follow, that of caravan porters. They are a careless, light-hearted, improvident people, and are very fond of all the good things of this world, enjoying them thoroughly whenever they get the chance. Their life is spent in journeying to and from the interior, carrying heavy loads of provisions and trade-goods on the one journey, and returning with similar loads of ivory or other products of the country. They are away for many months at a time on these expeditions, and consequently -- as they cannot spend money on the march -- they have a goodly number of rupees to draw on their return to Mombasa. These generally disappear with wonderful rapidity, and when no more fun can be bought, they join another caravan and begin a new safari to the Great Lakes, or even beyond. Many a time have I watched them trudging along the old caravan road which crossed the Tsavo at a ford about half a mile from the railway station: here a halt was always called, so that they might wash and bathe in the cool waters of the river.
Nothing ever seems to damp the spirits of the Swahili porter. Be his life ever so hard, his load ever so heavy, the moment it is off his back and he has disposed of his posho (food), he straightway forgets all his troubles, and begins to laugh and sing and joke with his fellows as if he were the happiest and luckiest mortal alive. Such was my cook, Mabruki, and his merry laugh was quite infectious. I remember that one day he was opening a tin of biscuits for me, and not being able to pull off the under-lid with his fingers, he seized the flap in his magnificent teeth and tugged at it. I shouted to him to stop, thinking that he might break a tooth; but he misunderstood my solicitude and gravely assured me that he would not spoil the tin!
The Swahili men wear a long white cotton garment, like a night-shirt, called a kanzu; the women -- who are too liberally endowed to be entirely graceful -- go about with bare arms and shoulders, and wear a long brightly-coloured cloth which they wind tightly round their bosoms and then allow to fall to the feet. All are followers of the Prophet, and their social customs are consequently much the same as those of any other Mohammedan race, though with a good admixture of savagedom. They have a happy knack of giving a nickname to every European with whom they have to do, such nickname generally making reference to something peculiar or striking in his habits, temper, or appearance. On the whole, they are a kindly, generous folk, whom one cannot help liking.
Of the many tribes which are to be seen about the railway on the way up from the coast, perhaps the most extraordinary-looking are the Wa Nyika, the people who inhabit the thorny nyika (wilderness) which borders on the Taru Desert. They are exceedingly ugly and of a low type. The men wear nothing in the way of dress but a scanty and very dirty cloth thrown over the shoulders, while the women attire themselves only in a short kilt which is tied round them very low at the waist. Both men and women adorn themselves with brass chains round the neck and coils of copper and iron wire round the arms.
The nearest native inhabitants to Tsavo are the Wa Taita, who dwell in the mountains near N'dii, some thirty miles away. My work often took me to this place, and on one of my visits, finding myself with some spare time on my hands, I set out to pay a long promised visit to the District Officer. A fairly good road ran from N'dii Station to his house at the foot of the mountains, about four miles away, and on my arrival I was not only most hospitably entertained but was also introduced to M'gogo, the Head Chief of the Wa Taita, who had just come in for a shauri (consultation) about some affair of State. The old fellow appeared delighted to meet me, and promptly invited me to his kraal, some way up the hills. I jumped at the prospect of seeing the Wa Taita at home, so presently off we started on our heavy climb, my Indian servant, Bhawal, coming with us. After a couple of hours' steady scramble up a steep and slippery goatpath, we arrived at M'gogo's capital, where I was at once introduced to his wives, who were busily engaged in making pombe (a native fermented drink) in the hollowed-out stump of a tree. I presented one of them with an orange for her child, but she did not understand what it was for on tasting it she made a wry face and would not eat it. Still she did not throw it away, but carefully put it into a bag with her other treasures -- doubtless for future investigation. As soon as the women saw Bhawal, however, he became the centre of attraction, and I was eclipsed. He happened to have on a new puggaree, with lots of gold work on it, and this took their fancy immensely; they examined every line most carefully and went into ecstasies over it -- just as their European sisters would have done over the latest Parisian creation.
We made a short halt for rest and refreshment, and then started again on our journey to the top of the hills. After a stiff climb for another two hours, part of it through a thick black forest, we emerged on the summit, where I found I was well rewarded for my trouble by the magnificent views we obtained on all sides. The great Kilima N'jaro stood out particularly well, and made a very effective background to the fine panorama. I was surprised to find a number of well-fed cattle on the mountain top, but I fancy M'gogo thought I was casting an evil spell over them when he saw me taking photographs of them as they grazed peacefully on the sweet grass which covered the plateau.
Like most other natives of Africa, the Wa Taita are exceedingly superstitious, and this failing is turned to good account by the all-powerful "witch-doctor" or "medicine-man." It is, for instance, an extraordinary sight to see the absolute faith with which a Ki Taita will blow the simba-dawa, or "lion medicine ", to the four points of the compass before lying down to sleep in the open. This dawa -- which is, of course, obtainable only from the witch-doctor -- consists simply of a little black powder, usually carried in a tiny horn stuck through a slit in the ear; but the Ki Taita firmly believes that a few grains of this dust blown round him from the palm of the hand is a complete safeguard against raging lions seeking whom they may devour; and after the blowing ceremony he will lie down to sleep in perfect confidence, even in the midst of a man-eater's district. In the nature of things, moreover, he never loses this touching faith in the efficacy of the witch-doctor's charm; for if he is attacked by a lion, the brute sees to it that he does not live to become an unbeliever, while if he is not attacked, it is of course quite clear that it is to the dawa that he owes his immunity.
For the rest, the Wa Taita are essentially a peace-loving and industrious people; and, indeed, before the arrival of the British in the country, they hardly ever ventured down from their mountain fastnesses, owing to their dread of the warlike Masai. Each man has as many wives as he can afford to pay for in sheep or cattle; he provides each spouse with a separate establishment, but the family huts are clustered together, and as a rule all live in perfect harmony. The most curious custom of the tribe is the filing of the front teeth into sharp points, which gives the whole face a most peculiar and rather diabolical expression. As usual, their ideas of costume are rather primitive; the men sometimes wear a scrap of cloth round the loins, while the women content themselves with the same or with a short kilt. Both sexes adorn themselves with a great quantity of copper or iron wire coiled round their arms and legs, and smear their bodies all over with grease, the men adding red clay to the mixture. Many of the women also wear dozens of rows of beads, while their ears are hung with pieces of chain and other fantastic ornaments. The men always carry bows and poisoned arrows, as well as a seemie (a short, roughly-fashioned sword) hung on a leathern thong round the waist. A three-legged stool is also an important part of their equipment, and is slung on the shoulder when on the march.
The next people met with on the road to the Great Lakes are the Wa Kamba, who inhabit the Ukambani province, and may be seen from M'toto Andei to the Athi River. They are a very large tribe, but have little cohesion, being split up, into many clans under chiefs who govern in a patriarchal kind of way. In appearance and dress -- or the want of it -- they are very like the Wa Taita, and they have the same custom of filing the front teeth. As a rule, too, they are a peace-loving people, though when driven to it by hunger they will commit very cruel and treacherous acts of wholesale murder. While the railway was being constructed, a severe famine occurred in their part of the country, when hundreds of them died of starvation. During this period they several times swooped down on isolated railway maintenance gangs and utterly annihilated them, in order to obtain possession of the food which they knew would be stored in the camps. These attacks were always made by night. Like most other native races in East Africa, their only arms are the bow and poisoned arrow, but in the use of these primitive weapons they are specially expert. The arrow-head remains in the flesh when the shaft is withdrawn, and if the poison is fresh, paralysis and death very quickly follow, the skin round the wound turning yellow and mortifying within an hour or two. This deadly poison is obtained, I believe, by boiling down a particular root, the arrow-heads being dipped in the black, pitchy-looking essence which remains. I am glad to say, however, that owing to the establishment of several Mission Stations amongst them, the Wa Kamba are quickly becoming the most civilised natives in the country; and the missionaries have adopted the sensible course of teaching the people husbandry and the practical arts and crafts of everyday life, in addition to caring for their spiritual needs.