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Chapter 15


Considered as a class rather than as individuals, the dark-skinned population is easily the more interesting. Considered as individuals, the converse is true. Men like Sir Percy Girouard, Hobley, Jackson, Lord Delamere, McMillan, Cunninghame, Allan Black, Leslie Tarleton, Vanderweyer, the Hill cousins, Horne, and a dozen others are nowhere else to be met in so small a community. But the whites have developed nothing in their relations one to another essentially different. The artisan and shopkeeping class dwell on the flats; the Government people and those of military connections live on the heights on one side of the little stream; the civil service and bigger business men among the hills on the other. Between them all is a little jealousy, and contempt, and condescension; just as there is jealousy, and contempt, and condescension elsewhere. They are pleasant people, and hospitable, and some of them very distinguished in position or achievement; and I am glad to say I have good friends among them.

But the native is the joy, and the never-ceasing delight. For his benefit is the wide, glittering, colourful, insanitary bazaar, with its dozens of little open-air veranda shops, its "hotels" where he can sit in a real chair and drink real tea, its cafes, and the dark mysteries of its more doubtful amusements. The bazaar is right in the middle of town, just where it ought not to be, and it is constantly being quarantined, and threatened with removal. It houses a large population mysteriously, for it is of slight extent. Then on the borders of town are the two great native villages--one belonging to the Somalis, and the other hospitably accommodating the swarms of caravan porters and their families. For, just as in old days Mombasa and Zanzibar used to be the points from which caravans into the interior would set forth, now Nairobi outfits the majority of expeditions. Probably ten thousand picked natives of various tribes are engaged in the profession. Of course but a small proportion of this number is ever at home at any one time; but the village is a large one. Both these villages are built in the native style, of plaster and thatch; have their own headman government--under supervision--and are kept pretty well swept out and tidy. Besides these three main gathering places are many camps and "shambas"[8] scattered everywhere; and the back country counts millions of raw jungle savages, only too glad to drift in occasionally for a look at the metropolis.

At first the newcomer is absolutely bewildered by the variety of these peoples; but after a little he learns to differentiate. The Somalis are perhaps the first recognizable, with their finely chiselled, intelligent, delicate brown features, their slender forms, and their strikingly picturesque costumes of turbans, flowing robes, and embroidered sleeveless jackets. Then he learns to distinguish the savage from the sophisticated dweller of the town. Later comes the identification of the numerous tribes.

The savage comes in just as he has been for, ethnologists alone can guess, how many thousands of years. He is too old an institution to have been affected as yet by this tiny spot of modernity in the middle of the wilderness. As a consequence he startles the newcomer even more than the sight of giraffes on the sky-line.

When the shenzi--wild man--comes to town he gathers in two or three of his companions, and presents himself as follows: His hair has been grown quite long, then gathered in three tight pigtails wound with leather, one of which hangs over his forehead, and the other two over his ears. The entire head he has then anointed with a mixture of castor oil and a bright red colouring earth. This is wiped away evenly all around the face, about two inches below the hair, to leave a broad, bandlike glistening effect around the entire head. The ears are most marvellous. From early youth the lobes have been stretched, until at last they have become like two long elastic loops, hanging down upon the shoulder, and capable of accommodating anything up to and including a tomato can. When in fatigue uniform these loops are caught up over the tops of the ears, but on dress parade they accommodate almost anything considered ornamental. I have seen a row of safety pins clasped in them or a number of curtain rings; or a marmalade jar, or the glittering cover of a tobacco tin. The edges of the ears, all around to the top, are then pierced. Then the insertion of a row of long white wooden skewers gives one a peculiarly porcupinish look; or a row of little brass danglers hints of wealth. Having thus finished off his head, your savage clasps around his neck various strings of beads; or collars of iron or copper wire, polished to the point of glitter; puts on a half-dozen armlets and leglets of the same; ties on a narrow bead belt, in which is thrust a short sword; anoints himself all over with reddened castor oil until he glistens and shines in the sun; rubs his legs with white clay and traces patterns therein; seizes his long-bladed spear, and is ready for the city. Oh, no! I forgot--and he probably came near doing so--his strip of 'Mericani.[9] This was originally white, but constant wear over castor oil has turned it a uniform and beautiful brown.

The purpose of this is ornament, and it is so worn. There has been an attempt, I understand, to force these innocent children to some sort of conventional decency while actually in the streets of Nairobi. It was too large an order. Some bring in clothes, to be sure, because the white man asks it; but why no sensible man could say. They are hung from one shoulder, flap merrily in the breeze, and are always quite frankly tucked up about the neck or under the arms when the wearer happens to be in haste. As a matter of fact these savages are so beautifully and smoothly formed; their red-brown or chocolate-brown skin is so fine in texture, and their complete unconsciousness so genuine that in an hour the newcomer is quite accustomed to their nakedness.

These proud youths wander mincingly down the street with an expression of the most fatuous and good-natured satisfaction with themselves. To their minds they have evidently done every last thing that human ingenuity or convention could encompass.

These young men are the dandies, the proud young aristocracy of wealth and importance; and of course they may differ individually or tribally from the sample I have offered. Also there are many other social grades. Those who care less for dress or have less to get it with can rub along very cheaply. The only real essentials are (a) something for the ear--a tomato can will do; (b) a trifle for clothing--and for that a scrap of gunny sacking will be quite enough.

The women to be seen in the streets of Nairobi are mostly of the Kikuyu tribe. They are pretty much of a pattern. Their heads are shaven, either completely or to leave only ornamental tufts; and are generally bound with a fine wire fillet so tightly that the strands seem to sink into the flesh. A piece of cotton cloth, dyed dark umber red, is belted around the waist, and sometimes, but not always, another is thrown about the shoulder. They go in for more hardware than do the men. The entire arms and the calves of the legs are encased in a sort of armour made of quarter-inch wire wound closely, and a collar of the same material stands out like a ruff eight or ten inches around the neck. This is wound on for good; and must be worn day and night and all the time, a cumbersome and tremendously heavy burden. A dozen large loops of coloured beads strung through the ears, and various strings and necklaces of beads, cowrie shells, and the like finish them out in all their gorgeousness. They would sink like plummets. Their job in life, besides lugging all this stuff about, is to carry in firewood and forage. At any time of the day long files of them can be seen bending forward under their burdens. These they carry on their backs by means of a strap across the tops of their heads; after the fashion of the Canadian tump line.

The next cut above the shenzi, or wild man, is the individual who has been on safari as carrier, or has otherwise been much employed around white men. From this experience he has acquired articles of apparel and points of view. He is given to ragged khaki, or cast-off garments of all sorts, but never to shoes. This hint of the conventional only serves to accent the little self-satisfied excursions he makes into barbarism. The shirt is always worn outside, the ear ornaments are as varied as ever, the head is shaved in strange patterns, a tiny tight tuft on the crown is useful as fastening for feathers or little streamers or anything else that will wave or glitter. One of these individuals wore a red label he had, with patience and difficulty, removed from one of our trunks. He had pasted it on his forehead; and it read "Baggage Room. Not Wanted." These people are, after all, but modified shenzis. The modification is nearly always in the direction of the comic.

Now we step up to a class that would resent being called shenzis as it would resent an insult. This is the personal servant class. The members are of all tribes, with possibly a slight preponderance of Swahilis and Somalis. They are a very clean, well-groomed, self-respecting class, with a great deal of dignity, and a great deal of pride in their bwanas. Also they are exceedingly likely to degenerate unless ruled with a firm hand and a wise head. Very rarely are they dishonest as respects the possessions of their own masters. They understand their work perfectly, and the best of them get the equivalent of from eight to ten dollars a month. Every white individual has one or more of them; even the tiny children with their ridiculous little sun helmets are followed everywhere by a tall, solemn, white-robed black. Their powers of divination approach the uncanny. About the time you begin to think of wanting something, and are making a first helpless survey of a boyless landscape, your own servant suddenly, mysteriously, and unobtrusively appears from nowhere. Where he keeps himself, where he feeds himself, where he sleeps you do not know. These beautifully clean, trim, dignified people are always a pleasant feature in the varied picture.

The Somalis are a clan by themselves. A few of them condescend to domestic service, but the most prefer the free life of traders, horse dealers, gunbearers, camel drivers, labour go-betweens, and similar guerrilla occupations. They are handsome, dashing, proud, treacherous, courageous, likeable, untrustworthy. They career around on their high, short-stirruped saddles; they saunter indolently in small groups; they hang about the hotel hoping for a dicker of some kind. There is nothing of the savage about them, but much of the true barbarism, with the barbarian's pride, treachery, and love of colour.


[8] Native farmlets, generally temporary.

[9] White cotton cloth.

Stewart Edward White

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