Saturday, March 12, 2011



  • Saturday, March 12, 2011
  • Samuel Albert
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  • Below is an account of the experiences of one of the early Livingstonia Missionaries which helps to shed light on some few aspects of life in Ngoniland  after they accepted christianity.

    PUBLISHED IN 1919.

    No man is entitled to be called an experienced traveller who has not had experience of travelling by machila. The recipe for a machila is as follows : a stout bamboo pole, with a hammock slung below it, and a team of a dozen high-stepping, quick-trotting natives to shoulder the pole, two at a time. It is true that the Portuguese down on the coast use four carriers at a time, who jiggle along with short, mincing, irregular steps, in the most ridiculous and effeminate way. But this is a refinement of luxury not to be looked for in the interior, any more than the quiet amble of a lady's pony is to be expected of a broncho. The raw native, who sees the Portuguese jelly-fish trot for the first time, is convulsed with inextinguishable laughter, and, on his return home,will entertain his village to a daily pantomime.

    No vehicle is more deceptive in appearance than the machila. It looks positively inviting, not to say luxurious,
    as it waits at the door. You survey it from the veranda with the most pleasing anticipations, not unmingled with shame, while friendly hands are putting into it a couple of cushions, an umbrella, camera, water-bottle, half a dozen oranges, and, with a fine touch of irony, a book to read by the way. With discreet smiles they invite you to enter.

    Here is the beginning of trouble, for you are not sure which end goes in first. After one or two preliminary attempts you suddenly and ignominiously roll in, to find that the camera, water-bottle, oranges, and the rest, yielding to the law of gravitation, are embedded in the most uncomfortable and inaccessible places. Before you can bestow the cargo the two carriers give a grunt and start off at a sharp trot.

    It may be they are fresh, and wish to show their paces, but the result is an extraordinary heaving and jolting, with a side swing of the most sickening sort. After five minutes one feels as if every bone were shaken out of joint, the whole inner man an indistinguishable jelly, and the end imminent. Nor is this all. Every now and then the carriers change, heaving the passenger from one to another like a sack of flour. They plough into the long grass, and if there is dew on it the canvas gets soaked and tightens till one's nose is flat against the pole. Vicious grass ticks and other insects are sprinkled plentifully about. If the path winds through the forest the carriers are none too careful of one's elbows, and at last there comes an agonising moment when one fairly runs aground on the stump of a tree and feels as if split asunder. As the ship strikes square on the end of her keel, otherwise called the spine, that horrible shudder, often read about but now most acutely felt, runs through all hertimbers. It is one of the greatest proofs of the adaptability of human nature that man is able, in time, to grow used to a machila.

    It was on a trip to Ngoniland that I had my first and last experience of machila travelling. Finding there was a week to wait for the meeting of the Mission Council at Bandawe, I hastily arranged the journey, as I was likely to have no other opportunity of seeing the ancient enemies of the Atonga in their native wilds. Of the Atonga boys who were my companions on this ulendo, I have the pleasantest memory. First, I recall with real gratitude my faithful Jumari, who not only went with me on this trip but followed me in all my wanderings as cook and capitao. He knew less than a dozen words of English, and I knew as little of Chitonga, but we got on wonderfully well, and a more loyal attendant no one could hope to meet. He traversed 800 miles of forest and mountain, every step of the way on foot, and carried a paraffin lamp in his hand which he brought
    in at the end of the journey with the glass still unbroken.

    Then one thinks of Hanok, always in front with the provision basket on his head, a strange figure, clad in tatters that had once been a jacket, and having the general appearance of a tramp rag and china merchant. One thinks, too, of Simon and John, a decent pair who carried my box between them on a pole, and of big, good-humoured Farudi, one of the machila team who trotted along singing an endless refrain of "Wamama, wamama ". How irresistibly funny it seemed to hear a man of the build of a coal heaver calling in that childish way on his mother. Then there was Matekenya, an Ethiopian in faith though not in race, with Marco and the rest, willing, cheery fellows all. I had no fault to find with them, and am glad to remember that at the end of the journey they reported me, "a man of comfort ".

    The country between the lake and Ngoniland may be divided roughly into four belts: first, the -shore-of" hot sand and coarse, long grass ; then a wide flat covered with dense forest and dambo (swamp), and crossed by deep streams swollen at the close of the rainy season ; next, the ascent of the hills, steep and wooded, and crowned by the bare summit of the Vipya, a place of Scotch mists and abrupt ravines; last, the Ngani_plateau, an open cattle country ringed round with jagged peaks?

    Leaving Bandawe we pushed across the flat, crossingwith difficulty some of the deeper swamps, and late in the afternoon reached Vizara, a rubber plantation of the African Lakes Corporation. Early next morning, all unconscious of what awaited us on the Vipya, I strolled leisurely round the plantation and viewed with interest the process of rubber collecting. A herring-bone cut is made in the bark of the tree, down which the milky juice trickles into a metal cup. Each worker goes round a certain number of trees daily to empty and reset the cups, and at the same time to take a thin paring off the side of the cut to make it bleed afresh. At night he brings in a pailful of juice, which, having begun to coagulate, has exactly the appearance of curds and whey. The white curd is lifted out, weighed, rolled into sheets and dried.

    Somewhat late in the morning we took the road and turned our faces to the hills. We pressed forward through dense growth and soon began to climb. Here the machila was useless, owing to the steepness of the ascent. On and up we went, our path the dry channel of a stream full of stones and tripping roots. About two o'clock we stopped for lunch at a pool which appeared to consist of strong soapsuds, several cupfuls of which I was fain to drink under the name of tea. We resumed our climbing, on and up, a veritable Hill of Difficulty. At last a rocky eminence was reached, where a break in the trees revealed, beneath and behind us, a world of wooded hills and valleys with the blue lake in the far distance.

    Liwonatonga, the spot is called, which means the place whence you see the land of the Atonga. Thither in the old days the Ngoni came to spy out and plan their bloody raids. Now, here was I, an unarmed stranger, travelling pleasantly to Ngoniland with a handful of Atonga carriers, who in their boyhood had fled the Ngoni terror, but had now no cause to fear. It was an index of the change that has passed upon the land. We took barely a breathing space on the watchtower rock. The terrible Vipya still rose in front of us, and must be crossed before night, for on that exposed upland natives have been known to perish of cold. Emerging from the trees we saw the bare, rolling summit scored with ravines. The sun had sunk behind it and the mist began to roll in threateningly. We hurried on, Hanok in front, as usual, making the pace in great style, and the team tailing away behind. Before the light was quite gone we had crossed the bare summit and entered the forest again.

    Our camping-ground for the night was to have been a certain Mafutas, a place it was never our fortune to see, though we sought it long and earnestly. Our trouble came at a fork in the path where, after a lively debate, we took what must have been the wrong turn. After that it was hide-and-seek through forest, streams and swamps. Fortunately there was a good moon, and late at night we struck a miserable hut, where a voice from within gave information which appeared to satisfy the carriers that it was useless to go farther.

    By the time we had settled this, and the weary men had indicated by signs that Mafutas was somewhere beyond the moon, a cheery voice at my elbow suddenly said, Moni, bwana (Good morning, sir). It was the owner of the hut, who, of course, had his first sleep well over. "Good morning," I replied, and burst out laughing at the absurdity of the salutation. "It is easy for you, old man, to say Good morning, but we have not been in bed yet." Nobody, of course, understood, but the laugh went round none the less heartily. In a wonderfully short time Jumari had a fire kindled, and a decent supper well in hand. The tent, which we had not seen since afternoon, arrived, after much coo-eeing, from the opposite direction from which we had come, and things looked promising for the night. As I opened my box in the moonlight, John and Simon hunkered down at each end, curious to see its contents. I picked out a flashlight and presented it towards Simon. He, thinking it something very different, opened his mouth to its widest, and when the flash struck him, lighting up the great expectant cavern of his throat, he rolled over on his back. John laughed immoderately at his fellow-apostle, a laugh in which Simon, to do him justice, joined heartily as soon as he recovered.

    It was a memorable night. Months after, in a far distant part of the interior, the night before we reached Livingstone's grave, we had a similar long weary trek after sunset, looking for a village that seemed infinitely remote. Suddenly, as I followed Jumari in the path, he turned, and, with a grin that showed his white teeth gleaming in the moonlight, he said, Ku Mafutas. He too, it would seem, the memory of it

    Next morning we had a pleasant run through woods heavily festooned with grey lichen, four to six feet long, which gave the trees a singularly hoary appearance. Reaching the edge of the forest we looked across a wide, treeless flat, dotted with enormous ant-hills and occasional rocky eminences, and encircled to the north and west by rugged mountain-chains.

    Near the middle of the plain Mt. Bwabwa reared its bold and striking form. It is a solid rock, with grey, scored sides, so bare as to appear unscalable. Connected with this mountain is an African legend of the Tower of Babel. In the beginning of the world, they say, men came up from the lake, seeking heaven among the hills. Finding heaven was higher than the hills, they climbed Mt. Bwabwa, but found that Mt. Bwabwa was not heaven. Then they set to work to build a lofty wooden tower. The tower rose so high that the builders were compelled to take their wives and their food up with them, and still they built on. But, as they built, the white ants gnawed the wood below, and the tower collapsed and destroyed them all.
    "And," it is added in confirmation, "their bones are there to this day."

    One could not gaze on the whole scene without the deepest interest. Here was the home of the renowned Ngoni, once the terror of the country, the Huns of Nyasaland, but now the sweet singers of Central Africa. The very war song they sang, when they sent round the fiery cross to call the tribesmen to their bloody raids, is now wedded to Gospel words that summon sons and brothers to the banner of Christ. We had already passed groups of Ngoni in the forest, the men armed with their formidable spears, for the lions had been troublesome of late and had killed a dozen of the people. Yet as one encountered these brawny warriors, one had no thought of danger. They stood aside in the path when we met, and to our greeting
    of Timwonani (We see you), they answered with a cheery Yewo (Here we are).

    From the rim of the forest the roofs of the Mission station at Ekwendeni were visible in the distance, and one
    eagerly anticipated meeting there with Dr. Elmslie. The apostle of the Ngoni, that truly great missionary, has done more than any other man to tame these wild raiders by his upright Christian character, his medical skill, and, not least, his irresistible humour. For the veteran, inspite of his grizzled locks and long years of service, retains a spirit of delicious gaiety that sparkles like sunbeams on a sword blade.

    Having crossed the flat, the machila team put on a final spurt, and dashed up to the door in a style calculated to impress the Doctor if he had been there. Unfortunately, however, he away was from home. He had left that morning to visit a remote part of his vast parish, intending afterwards to make for the Council at Bandawe by another route. In this awkward fix, with no interpreter at hand, I inquired for msambizgi (the teacher), and was conducted to the school.

    The msambizgi, honest fellow, had a very limited English vocabulary, but he indicated that there was a Mandala man in the neighbourhood, and led the way to the store. Suddenly he halted, and, with painful pauses, jerked out,"Sir, I have remember he not here he bitten by buggies and seriously ill ". It sounded absurd, but it proved to be the sober fact. The Mandala man had been the victim of the house tick, which causes a serious, recurrent fever, and he was just recovering after several relapses. This, however, did not prevent him from entertaining me with the greatest kindness. Dr. Elmslie having left an open house, I took possession without ceremony, and slept in the comfortable assurance that locked doors are no longer a necessity in Ngoniland.

    In the morning the carriers came limping to the door with various degrees of lameness, headache, and internal
    pains. I had intimated overnight my intention of making for Loudon, two days to the south, and the prospect of this big extension of the trip had produced these alarming symptoms. On my announcing that I had abandoned the idea, and would return straight to Bandawe, there was an instant change of countenance, and everybody began to feel better.

    In a short time, with a rousing machila song, the team started off like willing horses, with their heads turned home. Ere night we were over the Vipya and well down through the hills to Tongaland. We passed the night at the village of Jamus Mutambo. Jamus appeared a decent, garrulous old man, and when he had paid his respects he fell into talk with the men. One of the machila men, evidently a born comic, presuming on my ignorance of the language, commenced a highly dramatic narrative in whichhe was plainly taking me off. Old Jamus and the villagers, after certain nervous glances in my direction, assured themselves it was quite safe, and began hugely to enjoy the fun. In my limited vocabulary, however, I chanced to possess a most useful word, chitamani, the imperative of the verb to shut up, and this imperative I now threw over my shoulder at the comic. No bubble was ever more suddenly pricked, no schoolboy was ever more completely caught. As for poor old Jamus, he was utterly scandalised at his own breach of good manners, and to hide his confusion he turned on the unhappy comic with a torrent of indignant chitamanis and bundled him off the ground.

    Next morning Jamus was early at my tent door trying earnestly to explain something. The only words intelligible to me were "Yesu Christu," frequently repeated. Presently it appeared that the old man had gathered his people into the little mud-walled school, in order that we might have morning worship together ere I went on my way. I confess it was not without deep emotion that I prayed over those simple folks in words that were unintelligible to them, but not, I trust, unheard by our common Father. Thereafter I was able to pronounce a benediction in their own tongue, and we parted feeling that in spite of diversity of race we were in spirit near akin through our common faith in Christ.

    We pushed on across the flat, boring through great dambos where the gigantic reeds and grass, meeting high
    overhead, made us look diminutive like crawling insects. By noon we reached the Luweya, flowing deep and red after the rains. We crossed one by one in a crazy canoe, and for his twenty voyages the ferryman was amply paid with a couple of handfuls of salt. Soon the blue lake appeared in front, shimmering gloriously in the sun. The machila men quickened their pace and broke into a song.

    On reaching the shore they made signs that they were dying for a plunge, and, on permission being given, they dashed in and wallowed with delight. A fine run down the lake shore brought us to Bandawe, where we arrived on Saturday night as the boarder boys were singing their evening hymn. There we parted, and, with the exception of Jumari, I never saw one of these Atonga carriers again, but I hold them in grateful remembrance. These men had travelled 140 miles in five days, crossing and recrossing twice a range of mountains 6,000 feet in height. For this they received the magnificent sum of 2s. 4d. each, including 6d. for food money. It seems a rare commentary on the parrot cry about the greed and incurable laziness of the African.

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