Project Canterbury

Memories of Mashonaland

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Sometime Bishop of Mashonaland

London and New York: Edward Arnold, 1895.

Chapter I. Mashonaland of the Past.

'You should write a book about it,' was said to an old friend of mine who had made a long journey in Africa; and his answer was: 'I would sooner do the journey over again.' I have had some such feeling when I have been asked to write a book on my life in Africa, so I have no intention of doing so; but if they will come into my head when I want them, and kind people will accept them 'in the rough,' I will try and put together sundry notes and recollections that may be of some little value to the cause I had in hand, and may also interest a few people. I do not say for a moment that all my views or facts are correct, [1/2] but they are, I believe, as correct as I am able to make them.

I wish to touch on a totally different aspect of Mashonaland to that which has recently come before English readers; but my friends in Africa know that it is Africa wild, rather than Africa civilized, that attracted me. And, though they may think my view very strange, they will forgive my saying something about it. The other view has many exponents.

The Mashonaland that I remember seven years ago was a very different place to the Mashonaland of to-day. For me its great charm vanished with the coming of the white men. When I first was there I heard of but two other white men in the country, and they only during the winter. But now, of course, the vast untouched wilds and the stillness have, to a great extent, vanished. There are many large tracts of land untouched yet, but they are out of the track of the waggon and the post-cart; and as we can no longer live in the old way, we have to live in the new way; and the new way means living more t or less among camps, and stores, and dust, and noise.

The whole face of the country seems different. The old order has changed, and [2/3] the romance is gone; but perhaps it is some comfort to feel that, rightly or wrongly, the change must have come sooner or later in Mashonaland. We as a nation went through it, and the Mashona are going through it; and we must accept facts as they are, and be thankful that the powers that be in Mashonaland are as good friends as they are to us and our work.

The ordinary traveller of to-day sees the uglier side of Mashonaland; indeed, it is hard to realize that such a place as Fort Salisbury or Fort Victoria is Mashonaland at all. He sees the uglier side, because the main roads of the country keep as nearly as possible to the centre of the watershed, so as to avoid rivers, while the beauty lies far away among the valleys and their streams. The road for two hundred miles to the south of Fort Salisbury might be described as an uninteresting plain, but about a hundred and twenty miles to the east of that road there is a dream of beauty. Taking Mashonaland as a whole, it is the only part of Africa that I know of to which can be applied Bishop Heber's lines:

'Where Afric's sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sands.'

[4] There was many a valley there which was a vision of delight. Down the middle ran the little river with water so exquisitely pure that one grudged leaving any of it behind; either side seemed intended by nature for gigantic gardens, which ran up to the foot of the valley walls, that rose into almost impassable crags standing out against an azure sky. And then the colour of the trees when seen in the mass?--for they are not individually striking--was gorgeous. The leaves of one kind alone had r every shade from the deepest yellow to the brightest crimson. But I am afraid I missed k many a lovely scene, as I wandered with my Mashona from one native chief to another, when I was too tired to care whether the road was beautiful or not. I only knew that it was steep, and rough, and long. But, as Canon Kingsley said of some place he went to see, I wouldn't not have been there. But these were not the places for Europeans to stay in long, for where the country is most beautiful in its luxurious vegetation, there fever seems to live, and the drier, less attractive spots are usually the best for a home.

Then the people, too, within the trader's travelling distance are changing every day. I [4/5] can remember the women of a tribe coming to stare at me as though I were a new animal, and the black children who were playing in the woods round the village, when they first caught sight of me, giving one look of speechless terror, and, unlike white children, who would have stood still and screamed, gliding without a sound, like young partridges, into the thickest covert, and taking advantage of every bush to get back home without being seen. Those were the days when one idea seemed to reign--terror of the Gaza raids here in the east of Mashonaland, as terror of the Matabele raids reigned in the west. In the woods they would make a labyrinth to prevent their being attacked unawares, so that when one found one's way to the huts in the middle, there were the huts, and pots, and baskets, but no people. They had escaped on the first approach of a stranger. But they preferred the open. One old chief lived with his followers on the top of a wind-driven hill, with no wood and no water; but it had the overwhelming advantage of having no covert near it, so no enemy could attack without being seen.

But sometimes it was ourselves, and not the [5/6] natives, who played painfully active parts. Once I had travelled far to see an old chief, and we were met by his son, saying that the Gaza envoys were collecting the annual tribute of cattle, and we must hide till they had gone. So we were carried behind some rocks, and there we encamped and listened to the singing and shouting and beating of the tom-toms (much prolonged through one of the beasts having broken its leg, which made it necessary for it to be eaten) till our water-hole under the rock ran dry; and, though I did not believe much of our host's assertion that if the Gaza people found us they would take everything we had, yet we were glad to see them go, watching them, as one of my black servants, Isaac, said, like rock-rabbits watching the dogs. That man is now an admirable catechist in Basutoland; and, if this is ever read to him, how delighted he will be to think I've remembered what he said.

Those days are gone; but there is plenty of romance of a wild, rough kind many a mile away to the north, past what is usually called Mashonaland, along the banks of the Zambesi. Mr. Selous found it among the Mashukulumbwè, and, what is more remarkable, got away again [6/7] to tell the tale. I have never seen the Mashukulumbwè; but on the north bank of the Zambesi, some sixty miles north-east of the Victoria Falls, I found the marks made by their neighbours, who had just been battering Zumbo, and had then crossed and battered the stockaded town on the other side, though it was said to have a large number of fighting men. So it was not surprising to find the ruins of a stone building and an old bell not far off, and to be told that missionaries had lived there once, but that they had all been killed many years ago.

I am inclined to think that the romance of the inland Zambesi will last for years to come. The difficulty of getting there, the difficulty of living there, the difficulty of doing anything when you are there, will keep for it its heritage of isolation. The place where I struck it nearly seven years ago was directly south of where Dr. Livingstone died; and the shade, or rather the halo, of Dr. Livingstone seemed quite near. It was very fascinating to be gliding down the very river he went down, and past the very villages that he went past; and one felt what the attraction was that calls men back and back to Africa. When no tribal [7/8] war was going on the atmosphere was one of perfect peace; the villages were few and far between, and there was scarcely a sound besides the blowing of a hippopotamus as he sank under the water, or the splash of a crocodile as he dropped off the bank when the boat came too near. In the frequented parts of the Zambesi, where he has been hunted, the hippopotamus is a dangerous companion in a deep reach; but in those parts he only stared; and when we have been stuck on a sandbank an old male has stood and watched us a hundred yards off, apparently taking the greatest interest in the struggles of the boatmen to float us again.

The boatmen never rowed except they sung; and the Zambesi boat-songs seem to belong to the Zambesi, and can only be associated with the flat-bottomed boat, the reed awning, and the man standing in the bows with his boat-hook to avoid the shallows; with the steersman standing in the stern, holding the tiller with his toes, and the chorus in time with the dip of the paddles (it is sounding in my ears as plainly now as the day I first heard it), with the sun, and beauty of the ever-changing view, as the boat turned one corner after another, [8/9] surrounded by the never-changing quiet and peace.

My interest then lay chiefly with the people, but I fear that I learnt little. A never-ending succession of different tribes with different variations of languages--of which I knew practically nothing--each tribal language shading off into the next, made a series of links, unless I am much mistaken, between the Seshona (i.e., the language of the Mashona) and the Yao language, as spoken near Lake Nyassa.

The native customs were strange. Among others, some tribes they told me of to the north of the Zambesi eat dogs as their greatest luxury, and these 'dressed' in the nastiest possible way. But, to look at, nothing can be more repulsive than the custom of wearing the lip-ring by the women of one tribe--the Basenga. No picture that I have seen conveys any idea of its hideousness; for the picture in Dr. Livingstone's book, for instance, represents an ordinary face with the top lip stretched out at right angles, while the faces that I saw had rings in both lips, and were dragged so entirely out of shape by them that they were more like little pigs' faces. This painful end is gained by a small round piece of metal being put flat [9/10] into the lip when the woman is young, and by its being enlarged as she grows. I am afraid they were conscious that I thought them odd, for, though I tried to look at them without their seeing me, they kept their heads turned away as much as possible.

But they were industrious people along the banks of the Zambesi. They built square houses and made tiles for them, and had sugar manufactories on a small scale, and drove a trade in ivory on a large one, and were carriers between Zumbo and the sea. Where they have picked up Portuguese customs their boats were built of planks; but their own custom was to hollow out the straightest section of a gigantic tree, and I have seen some dug-out canoes about thirty-three feet long, and how old no living man, I think, could say. I gathered that they were made out of the trees that grow along the Ruangoa river, that runs into the Zambesi near Zumbo. I am quite aware that Dr. Livingstone calls it the Loangoa river, and he is in all probability right, and I am wrong; but in the curious sound composed of l and r, that a native only can pronounce, the r seemed so prominent when the river was mentioned that I write it down as I thought I heard it. [10/11] The Ruangoa river was said by the natives to come from Lake Bangweolo; or, rather, if this be so, it would come from the 'sponges' that Dr. Livingstone speaks of near the place where he died.

The natives along the banks are much better mannered than the Mashona. They clap their hands for salutation and for thanks; and the northern Mashona have adopted this in parts. The women in some cases wear a modified lip-ring, and on meeting a man on the road turn to one side, and in some cases curtsy. Scarcely any skins are worn by the people, calico being obtained from the Portuguese.

One town that I slept in was palisaded round. In the centre was the chief's house, with those of his attendants in a square, forming a kind of inner fortress which would have resisted a strong force without cannon. They have a curious gun that has to be 'worked' by two men, as it is too long and heavy for the one who fires it to hold it steady without support; so another man takes the muzzle on his shoulder and acts as a rest.

Was there slavery along the upper part of the Zambesi? I cannot tell. I found six women chained together at a native town, but [11/12] I was assured that they were being punished for stealing. Again, a boy, who said he was a slave-boy belonging to a native chief, was given to my servants when I was away, and, before I discovered his existence, carried too far to be sent back; and nothing would induce him to leave us, though I explained that he was free. However, he solved all difficulties by dying, the cold nights of high Mashonaland in winter, after the tropical heat of the Zambesi valley, bringing on some kind of disease. I certainly paid the Portuguese a lump sum for men and a boat to take me down the Zambesi; but the crew seemed to be ordinary servants, and they demanded more money at the end of the journey in a most unslave-like way. The authority of the Portuguese seemed to be exercised in the native towns through a headman, who, in the cases that I saw, was either a half-caste or one of a superior tribe to the people he ruled. One of these--a young chief on the south bank--said he belonged to the Ba-Nyungwè, i.e., people of Nyungwè or Tete, and that he had been educated at Tete, and that the people owed all the civilization they had to the Portuguese. He told me that the late King of Portugal had forbidden all slavery. [12/13] I remember that he had a very gentle little black wife, and was very proud of knowing that Queen Victoria was reigning in England.

The natives over whom these headmen bear viceregal authority seemed to belong to distinct tribes, and in the people's minds the distinction was clearly kept. It was the Valenghi tribe, under a chief called Buruma, leading his allies, which had lately attacked Zumbo. It was the Chacunda that lived on the south of the river opposite Zumbo. It was the Mutandi and Banyai tribes that lived to the east of these, between them and the Umsengaisi river. Opposite them again, on the north bank, lived the Vapendi; above them again, the Basenga, where the women wore the huge lip-ring. To the east of the Umsengaisi live the Atavara. And so on. And the people are quite clear and decided in their distinctions both as to tribes and localities. For instance, all maps (till the Geographical Society published mine) had, I believe, put the Shidima country to the west of the Umsengaisi river. The people on the Umsengaisi wouldn't have this at all. The Shidima country, so they insisted, is away to the east of the river. The Basenga must be distinguished from the Basungu. The [13/14] Basenga are the truest of natives. Basungu is the native name for white men, and it is the name usually given to the Portuguese, and I think also to half-castes.

Directly one gets a few miles away from the Zambesi the traces of civilization drop off. No doubt the greater fertility of the ground there has much to do with it, and the river, being a waterway, makes progress easier. Portuguese influence seems to extend a comparatively short way to the south. One of their headmen, a half-caste, or else one of the Ba-Nyungwè, lived for a time some little way from the river, but we were told the lions made him break up the settlement and go back to the river. One hears of Portuguese half-castes wandering inland to the south, and it is some time before the last traces of their travels die out; they can be traced by the people wearing calico instead of skins. About twenty-five miles to the south of the Zambesi there was a peculiarly neat form of enclosure shutting in the chief's huts. The huts were, as usual, made of piles put in the ground and plastered with mud, and had the usual roof of reeds; but a fence of great neatness and regularity ran round, and the general cleanness and order seemed to be above the [14/15] unaided native mind of these parts. I think it was traceable to the Portuguese.

But all this is separated from Mashonaland proper by a low-lying plain, where the air seems always sultry, even in winter, and the vegetation grows in wild luxuriance--the native grain will grow some twenty feet high--and the tsetse fly abounds. [There is some strange property in the sting of the tsetse fly, to which attention does not seem to have been generally called, that makes it apparently as harmless to the thinnest-skinned antelope as it is to a buffalo; that makes it fatal, if only enough tsetse fly sting it, to any domesticated animal: but on man, the most domesticated of all living things on earth, it seems to have hardly any effect.] It is so thinly populated that nature is practically untouched, and the weird silence through miles of travel leaves a strange mark on the memory. But I have wandered away from Mashonaland, and I must go back to it again.

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