We Meet “The Opposition”
Therefore be merry, coz; since sudden sorrow
Serves to say thus—some good thing comes to-morrow
King Henry VI
It was impossible to feel downhearted for long, and my spirits began to rise again. Even the heat did not affect us as much as one might have thought. Of course, we were burnt as mahogany brown as it is possible for a white woman to be, and I think very little marked us out from our Somalis in point of color. Our very fair hair looked quite odd in contrast.
Our hunters reported one morning that in spooring for leopard they had come on the tracks of a large caravan, and overtaking some part of it gathered that the outfit belonged to some English officer on sport bent. Every Englishman is an officer to the Somalis. It is really rather funny. It is quite like the way every American is—to the Englishman—a martial colonel. I was intensely sorry to know we were so near to other hunters. It was very selfish too, for the country was big enough, in all conscience, to hold us all. But I was sorry, and there’s an end of it. Cecily said perhaps it was all a mistake, because how could anyone be hunting in the forbidden ground of the Ogaden unless they were as signally favoured as ourselves? I suggested that they might be, because we did not surely suppose we were the only people with relatives able to pull the strings. We were both a bit “shirty” because we were vexed to know we had not got the Ogaden to ourselves. A nice sporting spirit, wasn’t it?
We were at lunch, battling with an altogether impossible curry Cecily had perpetrated, for she always said you can curry anything, even old boots, at a push, and they would be rendered appetising. Oryx beat her efforts culinary, and she had to admit at last that curry powder and oryx meat should be strangers.
As she had had all the trouble of stirring the concoction over a grilling fire on a grilling day I struggled on as long as I possibly could in order that the amateur chefs feelings should not be hurt, but confessed myself beaten in the end and very hungry, so we fell to opening a tin of meat.
“I fear no beef that’s canned by Armour,” sang Cecily, coming events not having cast any shadows before.
“Salaam, ladies!” said an English voice close at hand.
It was the leader of the opposition shoot. The younger, my kinsman, was quarreling with a syce about the proper way to hold a pony. I don’t know if we were glad to see them or not. Anyway we had to pretend to be, besides making the usual ridiculous remarks about the smallness of the world, and how odd it was we should have come across each other again.
It would have been inhospitable to offer any of the curry, so we begged them to sample the tinned beef. Our butler waited on us, and drenched the four of us in a successful attempt to open a champagne bottle. Oh yes, we gave them champagne, to make up for other deficiencies. I told them if they would wait for dinner they should have a Carlton-like meal. After lunch they would see our skins and heads, so we excavated the skulls, and displayed all we had for admiration. We tried not to feel superior, but it was rather difficult when we heard they had not as yet got a shot even at a rhino. I lay low about the price we paid for ours! We evidently went up a little in their estimation, because they invited us to take part in a big shoot next day, and seemed really anxious we should accept. We said we were about to trek in an opposite direction, but I was rather taken aback when the elder warrior asked me how I knew which direction the proposed shoot was to take? They invited us to go over and see their trophies, but we did not mean to give them one single chance to crow, and instantly on their departure struck camp and moved on towards a large Somali encampment which had recently suffered many grievous losses from the depredations of leopards.
We were anxious to see the spoor for ourselves. A great many of the leopards reported are nothing in the wide world but hyæna in spite of the fact that the leopard, being a cat, does not, in quiescence, show his claws in the pug marks, and the hyæna, being a dog, does; besides, the shape of the pad is entirely different. The hyena has a triangle-shaped back pad, with two large side toes and two smaller center ones, whilst the pug of the leopard is similar to that of lion but proportionately smaller. In spite of these mistakes on the part of some unlettered Somali, almost every black man spoors in a way no white man ever can hope to do. The former can follow tracks of game over ground that tells us nothing. Stony ground, wet ground, loose ground, dry ground, all alike give up secrets to him whereof we cannot hear the faintest whispers. The whole jungle is an open book to the black shikari, and compared to him the cleverest chiel among us is but a tyro.
We camped some two miles from the karia, and barely arrived when the head-man arrived to say “Salaam,” He brought with him all his sisters and his cousins and his aunts. A very plain lot they looked too, although Clarence whispered to me that in Somaliland one of the women was rated as a great beauty. I don’t know how he knew, unless the local M. A. P. said so. After a closer inspection of the lady I came to the conclusion that, for a beauty, she really was not bad looking.
They were very prying though, and really dangerous to have round, as one could not be everywhere at once. They all had advanced kleptomania. My tent was overflowing with them, though I had given orders to keep the place clear, and somebody annexed my sponge, hairbrush, and even a toothbrush vanished from Cecily’s tent, though we never saw anyone penetrate it. I don’t know what use the toothbrush would be. The Somalis do not neglect their teeth, far from it, but they use for cleaning purposes a soft stick, rubbing and polishing away at all sorts of odd moments. The result is of dazzling whiteness.
It was unnecessary also for them to help themselves as we were more than generous, and in response to their unblushing demands for presents, we gave them at least four tobes, a turban or two, and an umbrella without a handle, which the proud proprietor unfurled and at once subsided beneath.
When Cecily in the warmth of her heart began to bestow things we really had need of ourselves I begged her to curb her Santa Claus-like ideas, and let us try and get to the leopard subject. But they were not to be switched off so easily. The head-man yearned for a rifle, and seemed to think we were the very people to satisfy him, and I don’t wonder, when we had been playing universal provider to them for half an hour. There is nothing on earth a black man longs for so earnestly as a rifle of his own. It does not matter if it is a mere piece of gas piping with sights set on it, so that he may call it rifle. A vast amount of rubbish is palmed off by rascally traders, who get the arms through in spite of regulations and precautions. The maker is nothing, the skill of the user nothing, the mere name rifle is everything; and the fact that a native was not—it may still be so, I don’t know—allowed to own such a treasure made the prospect more enchanting than ever. I refused the headman’s request, so trifling as it was too, as firmly and politely as possible, and offered him a pen-knife instead. He took one somewhat superciliously and went off with it with both blades open. We had not once got to the main point, the leopard, whose existence was supposed to be a daily menace to their karia. I bade Clarence go after our guest, and extract particulars.
After a little time, a convoy appeared with return gifts, a couple of goats, and dirty harns without number full of camels’ milk. I thought at one time the extreme uncleanliness of the harns accounted for the unpleasant taste of the milk, but I liked it no better when I sampled it from a can of my own providing.
The leopard, for this time rumor had not lied, had made serious depredations, and carried off nightly goats, sheep, and even a baby camel. It jumped the zareba wall with ease apparently. We decided to have “machan,” or rather a small enclosure, built, and sit up for the thief. I never see much fun in this sitting-up business. It is so often all waiting and no coming. We set some of the men to construct the shelters, and arranged them some six hundred yards away from the Somali encampment on the side where the leopard had most often made an entry. We decided to have a small zareba each, two hundred yards apart, and took up our residence for the night about 6 p.m. Cecily had Clarence with her; I had mine to myself. I was most uncomfortably crowded as it was, but Cecily had a little more space in her prison.
We tied up a goat between us, and settled down to dreary hours of silent watching. Though we kept quiet, the Somalis never gave over singing and shouting for a moment. I wondered at a leopard going near the place at all. But it may have used the din to its own advantage.
The night grew very dark, and for a wonder, as the midnight hours drew near, it got intensely cold. The mosquitoes did not bother me in the least, though they were present in hundreds. I was completely fastened in, and only had a peephole for my rifle which covered the goat.
I heard a lion roar once, and after a little came a strange lowing sound, most weird and eldritch. I had never known it before, but I judged a leopard was hunting. My senses being completely awake, I peered through the darkness at the goat. It was most ridiculous. It was impossible even to see it. The whole place was in inky darkness. I waited, shivering, and next moment I distinctly heard the crunching of bones and the tearing of flesh. The leopard, or hyæna, had come without a sound. I could not fire when I could see absolutely nothing to fire at. Bang! came from Cecily’s zareba, and was followed by a choking gurgle.
“I’ve got him, don’t you think?” called out Cicely from her enclosure.
We dared not venture out and remained there until in the early hours some of our men arrived to let us free. But as it grew light I could see the shadowy form of a great leopard lying prone on his victim. We investigated as soon as possible and found that Cecily had got him through the head. This was, of course, a mere fluke, for she says she only fired after she and Clarence had sighted and just as the darkness seemed to lift in the very slightest. She did not see the arrival of the beast either, though she says from her zareba his form was at times dimly apparent. For myself, I never saw our prize in life at all.
He was a glorious trophy, and with perfectly undamaged skin measured, before skinning, seven feet, and after, seven feet six inches. Then from out of the Somali karia strolled the head-man, not obliged at all, still clamoring for some further souvenir! I bade Clarence endeavor to explain that the boot was on the other leg now, which the shikari literally and faithfully did, as I heard boots and legs, inextricably muddled with Somali cuss words, being heatedly discussed. Then back to camp and breakfast.
Sometimes at night, before turning in we would go and sit around the blazing fires and try to talk to the men. We really wanted to find out more about them, where they came from, what they had done, and what they would like to do, but on our approach the chanting and the chatter ceased almost invariably and all the naturalness would vanish. I do not think they had any sense of humor. They laughed and were happy enough, but situations that would have taxed the risible faculties of a white man left them solemn and unmoved.
Almost every one of our men, if you could extract his real name instead of his nickname, had been christened Mahomed. What a lot of Mahomeds there must be! I suppose it is like the glut of Jameses and Johns with us. They are tremendous aristocrats, these Somalis; immensely proud of their descent and origin, and even the most unlettered, though he cannot read or write, can give you the names of his grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and all the other greats, until you know you must be going back to grope in the mists of centuries.
When we were tracking one morning about this time, on the spoor of a very small-footed lion, we came on a bit of ridge country, and for some hundred yards or so a small thorn fence had been erected, chevaux-de-frise like, the thorn having been cut and brought there. At intervals, tiny gaps were left, and inset, right on the sand of the ridge, stood the most primitive gins to catch—Clarence said—dik-dik. The Midgans set them. It would need to be a very unsophisticated little antelope indeed to run its head into so palpable a noose. They were like the ones you set at home for rabbits, but made of string instead of wire held up in an apology for a circle by plainly-to-be-seen props of thorn twigs. On the sides of the thorn walls forming the passages, bits of uninviting scraps of dik-dik heads and tails were impaled—to attract and allure their kind our shikari said. I should have thought the evidence of what awaited them would have had a deterring effect on any roaming dik-dik, and serve merely to attract jackals and foxes. But Clarence said the small antelope are often caught in this way for the pot.
That night a vast bat visited our tent, flying round the candle lamp and dashing himself against it. We called to Clarence to come and evict it, not meaning him to kill it, but he flew at the creature forthwith, a hangol in his hand, smashing the winged thing in a heap to the ground. The wings hung limply around the mouse body, and myriads of fleas scattered from it. It was larger than our English bats, and the top of the head was raised in a sort of crown-like lump.
As we sat breakfasting, the camel-man in charge of the grazing camels ran into the zareba and did a lot of excited jabbering. Then most of the men made off outside. I called to know what was the matter, and the butler said one of the camels had fallen into a pit and could not get out. Presently we went off to see how affairs stood, and were exceedingly put about to find Zeila, our big brown camel, had somehow or other fallen into a long disused elephant trap which are still to be found in parts of the Ogaden. They were quite deep, and the intention was that an elephant would tumble in at night and find itself unable to get out like our Zeila, whose hump was about level with the top of the hole.
Every order the camel-man gave he countermanded as soon as it was about to be put into execution, and all they had as a means of retrieving our camel was one leather lading rope. We sent back to camp for more, and sat on the edge of the trap and waited. The other camels grazed about us, and Zeila was very quiet indeed, only occasionally breaking into groans. The poor beast was ominously down in the forequarters, and we thought must be kneeling. When the ropes arrived the difficulty was how to pass them around the camel, and if we did get them round how to prevent the leather thongs from cutting into the flesh. A rather sporting hunter volunteered to join Zeila in the trap, a tight fit already, and endeavor to place the ropes. First, we wound grass around the rope up to a certain distance making a pad, and then the hunter climbed down. Had the camel done any lashing about or moving the man would have been awkwardly placed. The ropes were successfully passed around the body, made into nooses, the intrepid hunter, wreathed in smiles at our congratulations, emerged sandy but successful, and we all did a tug of war, heaving poor Zeila to the surface, a struggling mass. Once on terra firma at the top it sank groaning pitifully. The camel man examined it, “Bruk I bruk!” he said, ruefully regarding the right fore-leg.
He evidently was right. The poor creature had broken the leg in the fall. Here was a calamity! The head camel man said it could not be mended, and Zeila was no more use to us. I asked Clarence if he thought so fine a camel would be given a home at the karia of the leopard adventure if I offered to hand it over. He laughed and said a broken-legged camel is no use anywhere, and if I offered the animal the Somalis would accept it gladly and then eat it, and didn’t I think it better our own men should get the benefit of the meat? I had never thought of our turning cannibal and eating each other this wise, but I believe all the men were looking forward to a Zeila chop. With great reluctance I said I supposed the poor camel must be killed, that it must be shot first through the head, and then that “hallal” business could follow immediately. Clarence swore by Allah he would do the killing humanely, a word the Somali does not understand at all. The rest of the day the men spent in gorging.
When we went out late in the afternoon by the place of the catastrophe, where the vultures were feasting on dragged-away bits of camel bones, we caught some exquisite butterflies who sat on the now putrid carcase, gorged into quiescence. It seems an odd juxtaposition, butterflies and bad flesh, but there they were in unison. Cecily is an ardent entomologist and collected. I let her do the securing the specimens because she understands how to kill them neatly, pressing the thorax without damaging the glory of the wings. I never could gain the knowledge. My fingers seemed all thumbs at it.
We purchased two new camels from the neighboring karia, needing a full complement on account of the water-carrying nuisance. I gave the head-man an order on our banker at Berbera with which he was as pleased as though it were cash, but the next trading trip would take him to the coast-town. These jungle Somalis have some delightfully pre-historic traits. Belief is one of them. An Englishman’s bond is as good as his word, and that is something; it isn’t always in civilization.
Chapter XI will follow
- The UNIQUE Case For The International Recognition Of Somaliland
- The World Can Learn From How Somaliland Overcame Militias
- Somaliland: The Little Country That Could By David Shinn
- Somaliland Is A Beacon Of Democracy In An Unstable Region
- Masuuliyiinta Xidh-Xidhan Iyo Dareemada Dhagarta Xambaarsan Ee Laga Soo Werinayo Dhinaca Madaxtooyada
- KOIGI: Acknowledge Somaliland To Cure Festering Wound On Africa