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Chapter 8

MOMBASA.

A single light shone at the end of the stone quay, and another inside a big indeterminate building at some distance. We stumbled towards this, and found it to be the biggest shed ever constructed out of corrugated iron. A bearded Sikh stood on guard at its open entrance. He let any one and every one enter, with never a flicker of his expressionless black eyes; but allowed no one to go out again without the closest scrutiny for dutiable articles that lacked the blue customs plaster. We entered. The place was vast and barnlike and dim, and very, very hot. A half-dozen East Indians stood behind the counters; another, a babu, sat at a little desk ready to give his clerical attention to what might be required. We saw no European; but next morning found that one passed his daylight hours in this inferno of heat. For the moment we let our main baggage go, and occupied ourselves only with getting through our smaller effects. This accomplished, we stepped out past the Sikh into the grateful night.

We had as guide a slender and wiry individual clad in tarboush and long white robe. In a vague, general way we knew that the town of Mombasa was across the island and about four miles distant. In what direction or how we got there we had not the remotest idea.

The guide set off at a brisk pace with which we tried in vain to keep step. He knew the ground, and we did not; and the night was black dark. Commands to stop were of no avail whatever; nor could we get hold of him to restrain him by force. When we put on speed he put on speed too. His white robe glimmered ahead of us just in sight; and in the darkness other white robes, passing and crossing, glimmered also. At first the ground was rough, so that we stumbled outrageously. Billy and B. soon fell behind, and I heard their voices calling plaintively for us to slow down a bit.

"If I ever lose this nigger, I'll never find him again," I shouted back, "but I can find you. Do the best you can!"

We struck a smoother road that led up a hill on a long slant. Apparently for miles we followed thus, the white-robed individual ahead still deaf to all commands and the blood-curdling threats I had now come to uttering. All our personal baggage had long since mysteriously disappeared, ravished away from us at the customs house by a ragged horde of blacks. It began to look as though we were stranded in Africa without baggage or effects. Billy and B. were all the time growing fainter in the distance, though evidently they too had struck the long, slanting road.

Then we came to a dim, solitary lantern glowing feebly beside a bench at what appeared to be the top of the hill. Here our guide at last came to a halt and turned to me a grinning face.

"Samama hapa," he observed.

There! That was the word I had been frantically searching my memory for! Samama--stop!

The others struggled in. We were very warm. Up to the bench led a tiny car track, the rails not over two feet apart, like the toy railroads children use. This did not look much like grownup transportation, but it and the bench and the dim lantern represented all the visible world.

We sat philosophically on the bench and enjoyed the soft tropical night. The air was tepid, heavy with unknown perfume, black as a band of velvet across the eyes, musical with the subdued undertones of a thousand thousand night insects. At points overhead the soft blind darkness melted imperceptibly into stars.

After a long interval we distinguished a distant faint rattling, that each moment increased in loudness. Shortly came into view along the narrow tracks a most extraordinary vehicle. It was a small square platform on wheels, across which ran a bench seat, and over which spread a canopy. It carried also a dim lantern. This rumbled up to us and stopped. From its stern hopped two black boys. Obeying a smiling invitation, we took our places on the bench. The two boys immediately set to pushing us along the narrow track.

We were off at an astonishing speed through the darkness. The night was deliciously tepid; and, as I have said, absolutely dark. We made out the tops of palms and the dim loom of great spreading trees, and could smell sweet, soft odours. The bare-headed, lightly-clad boys pattered alongside whenever the grade was easy, one hand resting against the rail; or pushed mightily up little hills; or clung alongside like monkeys while we rattled and swooped and plunged down hill into the darkness. Subsequently we learned that a huge flat beam projecting amidships from beneath the seat operated a brake which we above were supposed to manipulate; but being quite ignorant as to the ethics and mechanics of this strange street-car system, we swung and swayed at times quite breathlessly.

After about fifteen minutes we began to pick up lights ahead, then to pass dimly-seen garden walls with trees whose brilliant flowers the lantern revealed fitfully. At last we made out white stucco houses, and shortly drew up with a flourish before the hotel itself.

This was a two-story stucco affair, with deep verandas sunken in at each story. It fronted a wide white street facing a public garden; and this, we subsequently discovered, was about the only clear and open space in all the narrow town. Antelope horns were everywhere hung on the walls; and teakwood easy-chairs, with rests on which comfortably to elevate your feet above your head, stood all about. We entered a bare, brick-floored dining-room, and partook of tropical fruits quite new to us--papayes, mangoes, custard apples, pawpaws, and the small red eating bananas too delicate for export. Overhead the punkahs swung back and forth in lazy hypnotic rhythm. We could see the two blacks at the ends of the punkah cords outside on the veranda, their bodies swaying lithely in alternation as they threw their weight against the light ropes. Other blacks, in the long white robes and exquisitely worked white skull caps of the Swahili, glided noiselessly on bare feet, serving.

After dinner we sat out until midnight in the teakwood chairs of the upper gallery, staring through the arches into the black, mysterious night, for it was very hot, and we rather dreaded the necessary mosquito veils as likely to prove stuffy. The mosquitoes are few in Mombasa, but they are very deadly--very. At midnight the thermometer stood 87 F.

Our premonitions as to stuffiness were well justified. After a restless night we came awake at daylight to the sound of a fine row of some sort going on outside in the streets. Immediately we arose, threw aside the lattices, and hung out over the sill.

The chalk-white road stretched before us. Opposite was a public square, grown with brilliant flowers, and flowering trees. We could not doubt the cause of the trouble. An Indian on a bicycle, hurrying to his office, had knocked down a native child. Said child, quite naked, sat in the middle of the white dust and howled to rend the heavens--whenever he felt himself observed. If, however, the attention of the crowd happened for the moment to be engrossed with the babu, the injured one sat up straight and watched the row with interested, rolling, pickaninny eyes. A native policeman made the centre of a whirling, vociferating group. He was a fine-looking chap, straight and soldierly, dressed in red tarboosh, khaki coat bound close around the waist by yards and yards of broad red webbing, loose, short drawers of khaki, bare knees and feet, and blue puttees between. His manner was inflexible. The babu jabbered excitedly; telling, in all probability, how he was innocent of fault, was late for his work, etc. In vain. He had to go; also the kid, who now, seeing himself again an object of interest, recommenced his howling. Then the babu began frantically to indicate members of the crowd whom he desired to retain as witnesses. Evidently not pleased with the prospect of appearing in court, those indicated promptly ducked and ran. The policeman as promptly pursued and collared them one by one. He was a long-legged policeman, and he ran well. The moment he laid hands on a fugitive, the latter collapsed; whereupon the policeman dropped him and took after another. The joke of it was that the one so abandoned did not try again to make off, but stayed as though he had been tagged at some game. Finally the whole lot, still vociferating, moved off down the white road.

For over an hour we hung from our window sill, thoroughly interested and amused by the varied life that deployed before our eyes. The morning seemed deliciously cool after the hot night, although the thermometer stood high. The sky was very blue, with big piled white clouds down near the horizon. Dazzling sun shone on the white road, the white buildings visible up and down the street, the white walls enclosing their gardens, and the greenery and colours of the trees within them. For from what we could see from our window we immediately voted tropical vegetation quite up to advertisement: whole trees of gaudy red or yellow or bright orange blossoms, flowering vines, flowering shrubs, peered over the walls or through the fences; and behind them rose great mangoes or the slenderer shafts of bananas and cocoanut palms.

Up and down wandered groups of various sorts of natives. A month later we would have been able to identify their different tribes and to know more about them; but now we wondered at them, as strange and picturesque peoples. They impressed us in general as being a fine lot of men, for they were of good physique, carried themselves well, and looked about them with a certain dignity and independence, a fine free pride of carriage and of step. This fact alone differentiated them from our own negroes; but, further, their features were in general much finer, and their skins of a clear mahogany beautiful in its satiny texture. Most--and these were the blackest--wore long white robes and fine openwork skull caps. They were the local race, the Swahili, had we but known it; the original "Zanzibari" who furnished Livingstone, Stanley, Speke, and the other early explorers with their men. Others, however, were much less "civilized." We saw one "Cook's tour from the jungle" consisting of six savages, their hair twisted into innumerable points, their ear lobes stretched to hang fairly to their shoulders, wearing only a rather neglectful blanket, adorned with polished wire, carrying war clubs and bright spears. They followed, with eyes and mouths open, a very sophisticated-looking city cousin in the usual white garments, swinging a jaunty, light bamboo cane. The cane seems to be a distinguishing mark of the leisured class. It not only means that you are not working, but also that you have no earthly desire to work.

About this time one of the hotel boys brought the inevitable chota-hazri--the tea and biscuits of early morning. For this once it was very welcome.

Our hotel proved to be on the direct line of freighting. There are no horses or draught animals in Mombasa; the fly is too deadly. Therefore all hauling is done by hand. The tiny tracks of the unique street car system run everywhere any one would wish to go; branching off even into private grounds and to the very front doors of bungalows situated far out of town. Each resident owns his own street car, just as elsewhere a man has his own carriage. There are, of course, public cars also, each with its pair of boys to push it; and also a number of rather decrepit rickshaws. As a natural corollary to the passenger traffic, the freighting also is handled by the blacks on large flat trucks with short guiding poles. These men are quite naked save for a small loin cloth; are beautifully shaped; and glisten all over with perspiration shining in the sun. So fine is the texture of their skins, the softness of their colour--so rippling the play of muscles--that this shining perspiration is like a beautiful polish. They rush from behind, slowly and steadily, and patiently and unwaveringly, the most tremendous loads of the heaviest stuffs. When the hill becomes too steep for them, they turn their backs against the truck; and by placing one foot behind the other, a few inches at a time, they edge their burden up the slope.

The steering is done by one man at the pole or tongue in front. This individual also sets the key to the song by which in Africa all heavy labour is carried forward. He cries his wavering shrill-voiced chant; the toilers utter antiphony in low gruff tones. At a distance one hears only the wild high syncopated chanting; but as the affair draws slowly nearer, he catches the undertone of the responses. These latter are cast in the regular swing and rhythm of effort; but the steersman throws in his bit at odd and irregular intervals. Thus:

Headman (shrill): "Hay, ah mon!"

Pushers (gruff in rhythm): "Tunk!--tunk!--tunk!--" or:

Headman (and wavering minor chant): "Ah--nah--nee--e-e-e!"

Pushers (undertone): "Umbwa--jo-e! Um-bwa--jo--e!"

These wild and barbaric chantings--in the distance; near at hand; dying into distance again--slow, dogged, toilsome, came to be to us one of the typical features of the place.

After breakfast we put on our sun helmets and went forth curiously to view the town. We found it roughly divided into four quarters--the old Portuguese, the Arabic, the European, and the native. The Portuguese comprises the outer fringe next the water-front of the inner bay. It is very narrow of street, with whitewashed walls, balconies, and wonderful carven and studded doors. The business of the town is done here. The Arabic quarter lies back of it--a maze of narrow alleys winding aimlessly here and there between high white buildings, with occasionally the minarets and towers of a mosque. This district harboured, besides the upper-class Swahilis and Arabs, a large number of East Indians. Still back of this are thousands of the low grass, or mud and wattle huts of the natives, their roofs thatched with straw or palm. These are apparently arranged on little system. The small European population lives atop the sea bluffs beyond the old fort in the most attractive bungalows. This, the most desirable location of all, has remained open to them because heretofore the fierce wars with which Mombasa, "the Island of Blood," has been swept have made the exposed seaward lands impossible.

No idle occupation can be more fascinating than to wander about the mazes of this ancient town. The variety of race and occupation is something astounding. Probably the one human note that, everywhere persisting, draws the whole together is furnished by the water-carriers. Mombasa has no water system whatever. The entire supply is drawn from numberless picturesque wells scattered everywhere in the crowded centre, and distributed mainly in Standard Oil cans suspended at either end of a short pole. By dint of constant daily exercise, hauling water up from a depth and carrying it various distances, these men have developed the most beautifully powerful figures. They proceed at a half trot, the slender poles, with forty pounds at either end, seeming fairly to cut into their naked shoulders, muttering a word of warning to the loiterers at every other breath--semeelay! semeelay! No matter in what part of Mombasa you may happen to be, or at what hour of the day or night, you will meet these industrious little men trotting along under their burdens.

Everywhere also are the women, carrying themselves proudly erect, with a free swing of the hips. They wear invariably a single sheet of cotton cloth printed in blue or black with the most astonishing borders and spotty designs. This is drawn tight just above the breasts, leaving the shoulders and arms bare. Their hair is divided into perhaps a dozen parts running lengthwise of the head from the forehead to the nape of the neck, after the manner of the stripes on a watermelon. Each part then ends in a tiny twisted pigtail not over an inch long. The lobes of their ears have been stretched until they hold thick round disks about three inches in diameter, ornamented by concentric circles of different colours, with a red bull's eye for a centre. The outer edges of the ears are then further decorated with gold clasps set closely together. Many bracelets, necklaces, and armlets complete the get-up. They are big women, with soft velvety skins and a proud and haughty carriage--the counterparts of the men in the white robes and caps.

By the way, it may be a good place here to remark that these garments, and the patterned squares of cloth worn by the women, are invariably most spotlessly clean.

These, we learned, were the Swahilis, the ruling class, the descendants of the slave traders. Beside them are all sorts and conditions. Your true savage pleased his own fancy as to dress and personal adornment. The bushmen generally shaved the edges of their wool to leave a nice close-fitting natural skull cap, wore a single blanket draped from one shoulder, and carried a war club. The ear lobe seemed always to be stretched; sometimes sufficiently to have carried a pint bottle. Indeed, white marmalade jars seemed to be very popular wear. One ingenious person had acquired a dozen of the sort of safety pins used to fasten curtains to their rings. These he had snapped into the lobes, six on a side.

We explored for some time. One of the Swahilis attached himself to us so unobtrusively that before we knew it we had accepted him as guide. In that capacity he realized an ideal, for he never addressed a word to us, nor did he even stay in sight. We wandered along at our sweet will, dawdling as slowly as we pleased. The guide had apparently quite disappeared. Look where we would we could in no manner discover him. At the next corner we would pause, undecided as to what to do; there, in the middle distance, would stand our friend, smiling. When he was sure we had seen him, and were about to take the turn properly, he would disappear again. Convoyed in this pleasant fashion we wound and twisted up and down and round and about through the most appalling maze. We saw the native markets with their vociferating sellers seated cross-legged on tables behind piles of fruit or vegetables, while an equally vociferating crowd surged up and down the aisles. Gray parrots and little monkeys perched everywhere about. Billy gave one of the monkeys a banana. He peeled it exactly as a man would have done, smelt it critically, and threw it back at her in the most insulting fashion. We saw also the rows of Hindu shops open to the street, with their gaudily dressed children of blackened eyelids, their stolid dirty proprietors, and their women marvellous in bright silks and massive bangles. In the thatched native quarter were more of the fine Swahili women sitting cross-legged on the earth under low verandas, engaged in different handicrafts; and chickens; and many amusing naked children. We made friends with many of them, communicating by laughter and by signs, while our guide stood unobtrusively in the middle distance waiting for us to come on. Just at sunset he led us out to a great open space, with a tall palm in the centre of it and the gathering of a multitude of people. A mollah was clambering into a high scaffold built of poles, whence shortly he began to intone a long-drawn-out "Allah! Allah! il Allah!" The cocoanut palms cut the sunset, and the boabab trees--the fat, lazy boababs--looked more monstrous than ever. We called our guide and conferred on him the munificent sum of sixteen and a half cents; with which, apparently much pleased, he departed. Then slowly we wandered back to the hotel.


Stewart Edward White

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