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Chapter 16


To the traveller Nairobi is most interesting as the point from which expeditions start and to which they return. Doubtless an extended stay in the country would show him that problems of administration and possibilities of development could be even more absorbing; but such things are very sketchy to him at first.

As a usual thing, when he wants porters he picks them out from the throng hanging around the big outfitters' establishments. Each man is then given a blanket--cotton, but of a most satisfying red--a tin water bottle, a short stout cord, and a navy blue jersey. After that ceremony he is yours.

But on the occasion of one three months' journey into comparatively unknown country we ran up against difficulties. Some two weeks before our contemplated start two or three cases of bubonic plague had been discovered in the bazaar, and as a consequence Nairobi was quarantined. This meant that a rope had been stretched around the infected area, that the shops had been closed, and that no native could--officially--leave Nairobi. The latter provision affected us; for under it we should be unable to get our bearers out.

As a matter of fact, the whole performance--unofficially--was a farce. Natives conversed affably at arm's length across the ropes; hundreds sneaked in and out of town at will; and from the rear of the infected area I personally saw beds, chests, household goods, blankets, and clothes passed to friends outside the ropes. When this latter condition was reported, in my presence, to the medical officers, they replied that this was a matter for police cognizance! But the brave outward show of ropes, disinfectants, gorgeous sentries--in front--and official inspection went solemnly on. Great, even in Africa, is the god of red tape.

Our only possible plan, in the circumstances, was to recruit the men outside the town, to camp them somewhere, march them across country to a way station, and there embark them. Our goods and safari stores we could then ship out to them by train.

Accordingly we rode on bicycles out to the Swahili village.

This is, as I have said, composed of large "beehive" houses thatched conically with straw. The roofs extend to form verandas beneath which sit indolent damsels, their hair divided in innumerable tiny parts running fore and aft like the stripes on a water melon; their figured 'Mericani garments draped gracefully. As befitted the women of plutocrats, they wore much jewellery, some of it set in their noses. Most of them did all of nothing, but some sat half buried in narrow strips of bright-coloured tissue paper. These they were pasting together like rolls of tape, the coloured edges of the paper forming concentric patterns on the resultant discs--an infinite labour. The discs, when completed, were for insertion in the lobes of the ears.

When we arrived the irregular "streets" of the village were nearly empty, save for a few elegant youths, in long kanzuas, or robes of cinnamon colour and spotless white, on their heads fezzes or turbans, in their hands slender rattan canes. They were very busy talking to each other, and of course did not notice the idle beauties beneath the verandas.

Hardly had we appeared, however, when mysteriously came forth the headman--a bearded, solemn, Arab-like person with a phenomenally ugly face but a most pleasing smile. We told him we wanted porters. He clapped his hands. To the four young men who answered this summons he gave a command. From sleepy indolence they sprang into life. To the four cardinal points of the compass they darted away, running up and down the side streets, beating on the doors, screaming at the tops of their lungs the word "Cazi"[10] over and over again.

The village hummed like a wasps' nest. Men poured from the huts in swarms. The streets were filled; the idle sauntering youths were swamped, and sunk from view. Clamour and shouting arose where before had been a droning silence. The mob beat up to where we stood, surrounding us, shouting at us. From somewhere some one brought an old table and two decrepit chairs, battered and rickety in themselves, but symbols of great authority in a community where nobody habitually used either. Two naked boys proudly took charge of our bicycles.

We seated ourselves.

"Fall in!" we yelled.

About half the crowd fell into rough lines. The rest drew slightly to one side. Nobody stopped talking for a single instant.

We arose and tackled our job. The first part of it was to segregate the applicants into their different tribes.

"Monumwezi hapa!" we yelled; and the command was repeated and repeated again by the headman, by his four personal assistants, by a half-dozen lesser headmen. Slowly the Monumwezi drew aside. We impressed on them emphatically they must stay thus, and went after, in turn, the Baganda, the Wakamba, the Swahilis, the Kavirondo, the Kikuyu. When we had them grouped, we went over them individually. We punched their chests, we ran over all their joints, we examined their feet, we felt their muscles. Our victims stood rigidly at inspection, but their numerous friends surrounded us closely, urging the claims of the man to our notice. It was rather confusing, but we tried to go at it as though we were alone in a wilderness. If the man passed muster we motioned him to a rapidly growing group.

When we had finished we had about sixty men segregated. Then we went over this picked lot again. This time we tried not only to get good specimens, but to mix our tribes. At last our count of twenty-nine was made up, and we took a deep breath. But to us came one of them complaining that he was a Monumwezi, and that we had picked only three Monumwezi, and--We cut him short. His contention was quite correct. A porter tent holds five, and it does not do to mix tribes. Reorganization! Cut out two extra Kavirondos, and include two more Monumwezi. "Bass! finished! Now go get your effects. We start immediately."

As quickly as it had filled, the street cleared. The rejected dived back into their huts, the newly enlisted carriers went to collect their baggage. Only remained the headman and his fierce-faced assistants, and the splendid youths idling up and down--none of them had volunteered, you may be sure--and the damsels of leisure beneath the porticos. Also one engaging and peculiar figure hovering near.

This individual had been particularly busy during our recruiting. He had hustled the men into line, he had advised us for or against different candidates, he had loudly sung my praises as a man to work for, although, of course, he knew nothing about me. Now he approached, saluted, smiled. He was a tall, slenderly-built person, with phenomenally long, thin legs, slightly rounded shoulders, a forward thrust, keen face, and remarkably long, slim hands. With these he gesticulated much, in a right-angled fashion, after the manner of Egyptian hieroglyphical figures. He was in no manner shenzi. He wore a fez, a neat khaki coat and shorts, blue puttees and boots. Also a belt with leather pockets, a bunch of keys, a wrist watch, and a seal ring. His air was of great elegance and social ease. We took him with us as C.'s gunbearer. He proved staunch, a good tracker, an excellent hunter, and a most engaging individual. His name was Kongoni, and he was a Wakamba.

But now we were confronted with a new problem: that of getting our twenty-nine chosen ones together again. They had totally disappeared. In all directions we had emissaries beating up the laggards. As each man reappeared carrying his little bundle, we lined him up with his companions. Then when we turned our backs we lost him again; he had thought of another friend with whom to exchange farewells. At the long last, however, we got them all collected. The procession started, the naked boys proudly wheeling our bikes alongside. We saw them fairly clear of everything, then turned them over to Kongoni, while we returned to Nairobi to see after our effects.


[10] Work.

Stewart Edward White

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