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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 East-African Lake Country
By Henry Drummond (1851–1897)
 
From ‘Tropical Africa’

SOMEWHERE in the Shiré Highlands, in 1859, Livingstone saw a large lake—Lake Shirwa—which is still almost unknown. It lies away to the east, and is bounded by a range of mountains whose lofty summits are visible from the hills round Blantyre. Thinking it might be a useful initiation to African travel if I devoted a short time to its exploration, I set off one morning, accompanied by two members of the Blantyre staff and a small retinue of natives. Steering across country in the direction in which it lay, we found, two days before seeing the actual water, that we were already on the ancient bed of the lake. Though now clothed with forest, the whole district has obviously been under water at a comparatively recent period, and the shores of Lake Shirwa probably reached at one time to within a few miles of Blantyre itself. On reaching the lake a very aged female chief came to see us, and told us how, long, long ago, a white man came to her village and gave her a present of cloth. Of the white man, who must have been Livingstone, she spoke very kindly; and indeed, wherever David Livingstone’s footsteps are crossed in Africa, the fragrance of his memory seems to remain.  1
  The waters of Shirwa are brackish to the taste, and undrinkable; but the saltness must have a peculiar charm for game, for nowhere else in Africa did I see such splendid herds of the larger animals as here. The zebra was especially abundant; and so unaccustomed to be disturbed are these creatures, that with a little care one could watch their movements safely within a very few yards. It may seem unorthodox to say so, but I do not know if among the larger animals there is anything handsomer in creation than the zebra. At close quarters his striped coat is all but as fine as the tiger’s, while the form and movement of his body are in every way nobler. The gait, certainly, is not to be compared for gracefulness with that of the many species of antelope and deer who nibble the grass beside him, and one can never quite forget that scientifically he is an ass; but taking him all in all, this fleet and beautiful animal ought to have a higher place in the regard of man than he has yet received.  2
  We were much surprised, considering that this region is almost uninhabited, to discover near the lake shore a native path so beaten, and so recently beaten, by multitudes of human feet, that it could only represent some trunk route through the continent. Following it for a few miles, we soon discovered its function. It was one of the great slave routes through Africa. Signs of the horrid traffic became visible on every side; and from symmetrical arrangements of small piles of stones and freshly cut twigs, planted semaphore-wise upon the path, our native guides made out that a slave caravan was actually passing at the time. We were in fact between two portions of it, the stones and twigs being telegraphic signals between front and rear. Our natives seemed much alarmed at this discovery, and refused to proceed unless we promised not to interfere—a proceeding which, had we attempted it, would simply have meant murder for ourselves and slavery for them. Next day from a hill-top we saw the slave encampment far below, and the ghastly procession marshaling for its march to the distant coast, which many of the hundreds who composed it would never reach alive.  3
  Talking of native foot-paths leads me to turn aside for a moment, to explain to the uninitiated the true mode of African travel. In spite of all the books that have been lavished upon us by our great explorers, few people seem to have any accurate understanding of this most simple process. Some have the impression that everything is done in bullock wagons; an idea borrowed from the Cape, but hopelessly inapplicable to Central Africa, where a wheel at present would be as great a novelty as a polar bear. Others, at the opposite extreme, suppose that the explorer works along solely by compass, making a bee-line for his destination, and steering his caravan through the trackless wilderness like a ship at sea. Now, it may be a surprise to the unenlightened to learn that probably no explorer in forcing his passage through Africa has ever, for more than a few days at a time, been off some beaten track. Probably no country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, is better supplied with paths than this unmapped continent. Every village is connected with some other village, every tribe with the next tribe, every State with its neighbor, and therefore with all the rest. The explorer’s business is simply to select from this network of tracks, keep a general direction, and hold on his way. Let him begin at Zanzibar, plant his foot on a native foot-path, and set his face towards Tanganyika. In eight months he will be there. He has simply to persevere. From village to village he will be handed on, zig-zagging it may be, sometimes, to avoid the impassable barriers of nature or the rarer perils of hostile tribes; but never taking to the woods, never guided solely by the stars, never in fact leaving a beaten track, till hundreds and hundreds of miles are between him and the sea, and his interminable foot-path ends with a canoe on the shores of Tanganyika. Crossing the lake, landing near some native village, he picks up the thread once more. Again he plods on and on, now on foot, now by canoe, but always keeping his line of villages, until one day suddenly he sniffs the sea-breeze again, and his faithful foot-wide guide lands him on the Atlantic seaboard.  4
  Nor is there any art in finding out these successive villages with their intercommunicating links. He must find them out. A whole army of guides, servants, carriers, soldiers, and camp-followers accompany him in his march, and this nondescript regiment must be fed. Indian corn, cassava, mawere, beans, and bananas—these do not grow wild even in Africa. Every meal has to be bought and paid for in cloth and beads; and scarcely three days can pass without a call having to be made at some village where the necessary supplies can be obtained. A caravan, as a rule, must live from hand to mouth, and its march becomes simply a regulated procession through a chain of markets. Not however that there are any real markets—there are neither bazaars nor stores in native Africa. Thousands of the villages through which the traveler eats his way may never have victualed a caravan before. But with the chief’s consent, which is usually easily purchased for a showy present, the villagers unlock their larders, the women flock to the grinding-stones, and basketfuls of food are swiftly exchanged for unknown equivalents in beads and calico.  5
  The native tracks which I have just described are the same in character all over Africa. They are veritable foot-paths, never over a foot in breadth, beaten as hard as adamant, and rutted beneath the level of the forest bed by centuries of native traffic. As a rule these foot-paths are marvelously direct. Like the roads of the old Romans, they run straight on through everything, ridge and mountain and valley, never shying at obstacles, nor anywhere turning aside to breathe. Yet within this general straightforwardness there is a singular eccentricity and indirectness in detail. Although the African foot-path is on the whole a bee-line, no fifty yards of it are ever straight. And the reason is not far to seek. If a stone is encountered, no native will ever think of removing it. Why should he? It is easier to walk round it. The next man who comes that way will do the same. He knows that a hundred men are following him; he looks at the stone; a moment, and it might be unearthed and tossed aside, but no—he also holds on his way. It is not that he resents the trouble, it is the idea that is wanting. It would no more occur to him that that stone was a displaceable object, and that for the general weal he might displace it, than that its feldspar was of the orthoclase variety. Generations and generations of men have passed that stone, and it still waits for a man with an altruistic idea. But it would be a very stony country indeed—and Africa is far from stony—that would wholly account for the aggravating obliqueness and indecision of the African foot-path. Probably each four miles, on an average path, is spun out, by an infinite series of minor sinuosities, to five or six. Now, these deflections are not meaningless. Each has some history—a history dating back perhaps a thousand years, but to which all clue has centuries ago been lost. The leading cause probably is fallen trees. When a tree falls across a path no man ever removes it. As in the case of the stone, the native goes round it. It is too green to burn in his hut; before it is dry and the white ants have eaten it, the new detour has become part and parcel of the path. The smaller irregularities, on the other hand, represent the trees and stumps of the primeval forest where the track was made at first. But whatever the cause, it is certain that for persistent straightforwardness in the general, and utter vacillation and irresolution in the particular, the African roads are unique in engineering.  6
  Though one of the smaller African lakes, Shirwa is probably larger than all the lakes of Great Britain put together. With the splendid environment of mountains on three of its sides, softened and distanced by perpetual summer haze, it reminds one somewhat of the Great Salt Lake simmering in the July sun. We pitched our tent for a day or two on its western shore, among a harmless and surprised people who had never gazed on the pallid countenances of Englishmen before. Owing to the ravages of the slaver, the people of Shirwa are few, scattered, and poor, and live in abiding terror. The densest population is to be found on the small island, heavily timbered with baobabs, which forms a picturesque feature of the northern end. These Wa-Nyassa, or people of the lake, as they call themselves, have been driven away by fear, and they rarely leave their lake dwelling unless under cover of night. Even then they are liable to capture by any man of a stronger tribe who happens to meet them, and numbers who have been kidnapped in this way are to be found in the villages of neighboring chiefs. This is an amenity of existence in Africa that strikes one as very terrible. It is impossible for those at home to understand how literally savage man is a chattel, and how much his life is spent in the mere safeguarding of his main asset, i.e., himself. There are actually districts in Africa where three natives cannot be sent on a message, in case two should combine and sell the third before they return.  7
 
 
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