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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Country and its People
By Henry Drummond (1851–1897)
 
From ‘Tropical Africa’

NOTHING could more wildly misrepresent the reality than the idea of one’s school days that the heart of Africa is a desert. Africa rises from its three environing oceans in three great tiers, and the general physical geography of these has been already sketched:—first, a coast line, low and deadly; farther in, a plateau the height of the Scottish Grampians; farther in still, a higher plateau, covering the country for thousands of miles with mountain and valley. Now fill in this sketch, and you have Africa before you. Cover the coast belt with rank yellow grass; dot here and there a palm; scatter through it a few demoralized villages; and stock it with the leopard, the hyena, the crocodile, and the hippopotamus. Clothe the mountainous plateaux next, both of them, with endless forests; not grand umbrageous forest like the forests of South America, nor matted jungle like the forests of India, but with thin, rather weak forest,—with forest of low trees, whose half-grown trunks and scanty leaves offer no shade from the tropical sun. Nor is there anything in these trees to the casual eye to remind you that you are in the tropics. Here and there one comes upon a borassus or fan-palm, a candelabra-like euphorbia, a mimosa aflame with color, or a sepulchral baobab. A close inspection also will discover curious creepers and climbers; and among the branches strange orchids hide their eccentric flowers. But the outward type of tree is the same as we have at home—trees resembling the ash, the beech, and the elm, only seldom so large except by the streams, and never so beautiful. Day after day you may wander through these forests, with nothing except the climate to remind you where you are. The beasts to be sure are different, but unless you watch for them you will seldom see any; the birds are different, but you rarely hear them; and as for the rocks, they are our own familiar gneisses and granites, with honest basalt dikes boring through them, and leopard-skin lichens staining their weathered sides. Thousands and thousands of miles, then, of vast thin forest, shadeless, trackless, voiceless,—forest in mountain and forest in plain,—this is East Central Africa.  1
  The indiscriminate praise, formerly lavished on tropical vegetation, has received many shocks from recent travelers. In Kaffir-land, South Africa, I have seen one or two forests fine enough to justify the enthusiasm of arm-chair word-painters of the tropics; but so far as the central plateau is concerned, the careful judgment of Mr. Alfred Russell Wallace respecting the equatorial belt in general (a judgment which has at once sobered all modern descriptions of tropical lands and made imaginative people more content to stay at home) applies almost to this whole area. The fairy labyrinth of ferns and palms, the festoons of climbing plants blocking the paths and scenting the forests with their resplendent flowers, the gorgeous clouds of insects, the gayly plumaged birds, the paroquets, the monkey swinging from his trapeze in the shaded bowers—these are unknown to Africa. Once a week you will see a palm; once in three months the monkey will cross your path; the flowers on the whole are few; the trees are poor; and to be honest, though the endless forest-clad mountains have a sublimity of their own, and though there are tropical bits along some of the mountain streams of exquisite beauty, nowhere is there anything in grace and sweetness and strength to compare with a Highland glen. For the most part of the year these forests are jaded and sun-stricken, carpeted with no moss or alchemylla or scented woodruff, the bare trunks frescoed with few lichens, their motionless and unrefreshed leaves drooping sullenly from their sapless boughs. Flowers there are, small and great, in endless variety; but there is no display of flowers, no gorgeous show of blossom in the mass, as when the blazing gorse and heather bloom at home. The dazzling glare of the sun in the torrid zone has perhaps something to do with this want of color effect in tropical nature; for there is always about ten minutes just after sunset when the whole tone of the landscape changes like magic, and a singular beauty steals over the scene. This is the sweetest moment of the African day, and night hides only too swiftly the homelike softness and repose so strangely grateful to the over-stimulated eye.  2
  Hidden away in these endless forests, like birds’ nests in a wood, in terror of one another and of their common foe the slaver, are small native villages; and here in his virgin simplicity dwells primeval man, without clothes, without civilization, without learning, without religion—the genuine child of nature, thoughtless, careless, and contented. This man is apparently quite happy; he has practically no wants. One stick, pointed, makes him a spear; two sticks rubbed together make him a fire; fifty sticks tied together make him a house. The bark he peels from them makes his clothes; the fruits which hang on them form his food. It is perfectly astonishing, when one thinks of it, what nature can do for the animal man, to see with what small capital after all a human being can get through the world. I once saw an African buried. According to the custom of his tribe, his entire earthly possessions—and he was an average commoner—were buried with him. Into the grave, after the body, was lowered the dead man’s pipe, then a rough knife, then a mud bowl, and last his bow and arrows—the bowstring cut through the middle, a touching symbol that its work was done. This was all. Four items, as an auctioneer would say, were the whole belongings for half a century of this human being. No man knows what a man is till he has seen what a man can be without, and be withal a man. That is to say, no man knows how great man is till he has seen how small he has been once.  3
  The African is often blamed for being lazy, but it is a misuse of words. He does not need to work; with so bountiful a Nature round him it would be gratuitous to work. And his indolence, therefore, as it is called, is just as much a part of himself as his flat nose, and as little blameworthy as slowness in a tortoise. The fact is, Africa is a nation of the unemployed.  4
 
 
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