The Somali Women
Of one group of visitors, who played a great part on the farm, I cannot write much, for they would not have liked it. Those were Farah’s women.
When Farah married, and brought his wife from Somaliland to the farm, with her came a lively and gentle little flight of dusky doves: her mother, her younger sister, and a young cousin who had been brought up with the family. Farah told me that such was the custom of his country. The marriages of Somaliland are arranged by the elders of the families with consideration as to the birth, wealth and reputation of the young people; in the best families the bride and bridegroom have not seen one another till the wedding-day. But the Somali are a chivalrous nation, and do not leave their maidens unprotected. It is good manners in a new-married husband to take up his abode in his wife’s village for six months after the wedding, during this time she may still hold her own as a hostess and a person of local knowledge and influence. Sometimes he cannot do so, then the bride’s female relations do not hesitate to keep her company a bit into married life, even when this to them means lifting, and wandering into distant countries.
The circle of Somali women in my household was later completed by a little motherless girl of the tribe whom Farah took on, not, I think, without an eye to a likely profit when her time to marry should come, after the pattern of Mordecai and Esther. This little girl was an exceedingly bright and vivacious child, and it was a curious thing to see how, as she grew up, the maidens took her in hand, and scrupulously formed her into a young virgin comme il faut. When she first came to live with us she was eleven years old, and was ever breaking away from the domain of the family to follow me about. She rode my pony and carried my gun, or she would run with the Kikuyu Totos to the fishing pond, tucking up her skirts and galloping barefooted round the rushy bank with a landing-net. The little Somali girls have their hair all shaven off, leaving only a ring of dark curls round the head and one long lock at the top of it; it is a pretty fashion, and it gave the child the air of a very gay and malicious young monk. But with time, and under the influence of the grown-up girls, she was transformed, and was herself fascinated and possessed by the process of her transformation. Exactly as if a heavy weight had been tied on to her legs, she took to walking slowly, slowly; she held her eyes cast down after the best pattern, and made it a point of honour to disappear at the arrival of a stranger. Her hair was cut no more, and when the day came that it was long enough, it was, by the other girls, parted and plaited into a number of little pigtails. The Novice gave herself up gravely and proudly to all the hardships of the rite; it was felt that she would rather die than fall short in her duties towards it.
The old woman, Farah’s mother-in-law, was, Farah told me, in her own country held in high esteem on account of the excellent education which she had given her daughters. They were there the glass of fashion and the mould of maidenly form. Indeed here were three young women of the most exquisite dignity and demureness; I have never known ladies more ladylike. Their maiden modesty was accentuated by the style of their clothes. They wore skirts of imposing amplitude, it took, I know,—for I have often bought silk or calico for them,—ten yards of material to make one of them. Inside these masses of stuff their slim knees moved in an insinuating and mysterious rhythm:
Tes nobles jambes, sous les volants qu’elles chassent
Tourmentent les desirs obscurs et les agacent,
Comme deux sorcieres qui font
Toumer un philtre noir dans un vase profond.
The mother herself was an impressive figure, very stout, with the powerful and benevolent placidity of a female elephant, contented in her strength. I have never seen her angry. Teachers and pedagogues ought to have envied her that great inspiring quality which she had in her; in her hands education was no compulsion, and no drudgery, but a great noble conspiracy into which her pupils were by privilege admitted. The little house, that I had built for them in the woods, was a small High-school of White Magic, and the three young girls, who walked so gently upon the forest-paths round it, were like three young witches who were studying at it as hard as they could, for at the end of their apprenticeship great mightiness would be theirs. They were competing in excellency in a congenial spirit; probably where you are in reality upon the market, and have your price openly discussed, rivalry takes on a frank and honest character. Farah’s wife, who was no longer in suspense as to her price, was holding a special position, like that of the good Pupil who has already obtained a scholarship in witchcraft; she might be observed in confidential talks with the old Head Magician, and such an honour never fell to the maidens.
All the young women had a high idea of their own value. A Mohammedan virgin cannot marry beneath her, such a thing would call down the gravest blame upon her family. A man may marry beneath him,—that is good enough for him,—and young Somalis have been known to take Masai wives. But while a Somali girl may marry into Arabia, an Arab girl cannot marry into Somaliland, for the Arabs are the superior race on account of their nearer relationship with the Prophet, and, amongst the Arabs themselves, a maiden belonging to the Prophet’s family cannot marry a husband outside it. By virtue of their sex, the young females of the race have a claim to an upward social career. They themselves innocently compared the principle to that of a stud-farm of purebreds, for the Somali think very highly of mares.
By the time that we had become well acquainted, the girls asked me if it could be true what they had heard, that some nations in Europe gave away their maidens to their husbands for nothing. They had even been told, but they could not possibly realize the idea, that there was one tribe so depraved as to pay the bridegroom to marry the bride. Fie and shame on such parents, and on girls who gave themselves up to such treatment. Where was their self-respect, where their respect for woman, or for virginity? If they themselves had had the misfortune to be born into that tribe, the girls told me, they would have vowed to go into their grave unmarried.
In our days we have in Europe no opportunity to study the technique of maidenly prudery, and from the old books I had failed to catch the charm of it. Now I understood how my grandfather and great-grandfather were forced to their knees. The Somali system was at once a natural necessity and a fine art, it was both religion, strategy, and ballet, and was practised in all respects with due devotion, discipline and dexterity. The great sweetness of it lay in the play of opposite forces within it. Behind the eternal principle of refutation, there was much generosity; behind the pedantry what risibility, and contempt of death. These daughters of a fighting race went through their ceremonial of primness as through a great graceful war-dance; butter would not melt in their mouth, neither would they rest till they had drunk the heart’s blood of their adversary, they figured like three ferocious young she-wolves in seemly sheep’s clothing. The Somali are wiry people, hardened in deserts and on the sea. Heavy weights of life, strenuous pressure, high waves, and long ages, must have gone to turn their women into such hard, shining amber.
The women made Farah’s house home-like in the manner of a nomadic people, who may have to break their tents at any time, with many rugs and embroidered covers hung on the walls. Incense to them was an important component to a home; many of the Somali incenses are very sweet. In my life at the farm I saw few women, and I got into the habit of sitting, at the end of the day, for a quiet hour with the old woman and the girls in Farah’s house.
They took an interest in everything, and little things pleased them. Small mishaps on the farm, and jokes on our local affairs, set them laughing like a whole chime of jingles in the house. When I was to teach them to knit they laughed over it as over a comical puppet-show.
There was no ignorance in their innocence. They had all assisted at childbirths and death-beds, and discussed the particulars of them coldly with the old mother. Sometimes, to entertain me, they would relate fairy tales in the style of the Arabian Nights, mostly in the comical genre, which treated love with much frankness. It was a trait common to all these tales that the heroine, chaste or not, would get the better of the male characters and come out of the tale triumphant. The mother sat and listened with a little smile on her face.
Within this enclosed women’s world, so to say, behind the walls and fortifications of it, I felt the presence of a great ideal, without which the garrison would not have carried on so gallantly; the idea of a Millennium when women were to reign supreme in the world. The old mother at such times would take on a new shape, and sit enthroned as a massive dark symbol of that mighty female deity who had existed in old ages, before the time of the Prophet’s God. Of her they never lost sight, but they were, before all, practical people with an eye on the needs of the movement and with infinite readiness of resource.
The young women were very inquisitive as to European customs, and listened attentively to descriptions of the manners, education, and clothes of white ladies, as if out to complete their strategic education with the knowledge of how the males of an alien race were conquered and subdued.
Their own clothes played a tremendous part in their lives, which was no wonder, since to them they were all at once material of war, booty of war, and symbols of victory, like conquered banners. Their husband, the Somali, is abstinent by nature, indifferent to food and drink and to personal comfort, hard and spare as the country he comes from: woman is his luxury. For her he is insatiably covetous, she is to him the supreme good of life: horses, camels and stock may come in and be desirable, too, but they can never outweigh the wives. The Somali women encourage their men in both inclinations of their nature. They scorn any softness in a man with much cruelty; and with great personal sacrifices they hold up their own price. These women cannot acquire a pair of slippers in any possible way except through a man, they cannot own themselves but must needs belong to some male, to a father, a brother or a husband, but they are still the one supreme prize of life. It is a surprising thing, and to the honour of both parties, what amounts of silks, gold, amber and coral the Somali women get out of their men. At the end of the long, strenuous trading-Safaris, the hardships, risks, stratagems and endurances were all turned into female apparel. The young girls, who had no men to squeeze, in their little tent-like house were making the most of their pretty hair and looking forward to the time when they should be conquering the conqueror, and extortionating the extortioner. They were all very good at lending one another their finery, and took pleasure in dressing up the young sister, who was the beauty of the lot, in her married sister’s best clothes; even, with laughter, in her cloth-of-gold head-dress, which the virgin could not lawfully wear.
The Somali are given to lawsuits and long feuds, and we were hardly ever without a case that needed Farah’s frequent presence in Nairobi, or meetings of the tribe at the farm. At such times the old woman, when I came to the house, would pump me on the cases in a gentle and intelligent manner. She might have questioned Farah, who would have told her all she wanted to know, for he had a great respect for her. But she took the other course, I believe, from diplomacy. In this way she could still maintain, should it suit her, a woman’s ignorance of men’s affairs, and a womanly incapability to understand a single word of them. If she gave advice it should be uttered in Sibylline fashion, divinely inspired, and nobody should ever hold her to account.
At these big meetings of the Somali at the farm, or at the great religious celebrations, the women had much to do with the arrangement and the food. They were not themselves present at the banquet, and they could not go into the Mosque, but they were ambitious as to the success and splendour of the party, and did not even amongst themselves let out what in their hearts they thought of it all. On these occasions they so strongly reminded me of the ladies of a former generation in my own country, that in my mind I saw them in bustles and long narrow trains. Not otherwise did the Scandinavian women of the days of my Mothers, and Grandmothers,—the civilized slaves of good-natured barbarians,—do the honours at those tremendous sacred masculine festivals: the pheasant-shoots and great battues of the autumn season.
The Somali have been slave-owners for innumerable generations, and their women got on well with the Natives and with them had an unconcerned placid way. To the Native, service with the Somali and the Arab is less difficult than with the white people, for the tempo of life of the coloured races is everywhere the same. Farah’s wife was popular with the Kikuyu of the farm, and Kamante many times told me that she was very clever.
With those of my white friends who frequently came to stay at the farm, like Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton, the young Somali women were friendly, they frequently talked of them and knew a surprising lot about them. They conversed with them, when they met, in a sisterly manner, their hands in the folds of their skirts. But the relations were complicated because both Berkeley and Denys had Somali servants, and those the girls could not, for the life of them, meet. No sooner had Jama or Bilea, turbaned, lean and dark-eyed, shown themselves on the farm, than my young Somali women were gone from the face of it, not a bubble showing where they had sunk. If during these times they wanted to see me, they came sneaking round the corners of the house, drawing one of their skirts together over their faces. The Englishmen said that they were pleased by the confidence shown them, but in their hearts, I believe, a little cold wind blew at the consciousness of being thought so harmless.
I sometimes took the girls out for a drive or a visit; I was careful then to question the mother as to the correctness of it, for I would not begrime names that were as fresh as Dian’s visage. To the one side of the farm lived a young Australian married woman who was for a few years a charming neighbour to me; she would ask the Somali girls over for tea. Those were great occasions. They then dressed up as pretty as a bouquet of flowers, and as we were driving along, the car behind me twittered like an aviary. They took the greatest interest in the house, the clothes, even,—as he was seen riding or ploughing in the distance,—in the husband of my friend. As tea was served, it came out that it was only the married sister and the children who could partake of it, to the young girls it was forbidden as too exciting. They had to content themselves with cakes and did so demurely, with a good grace. There was some discussion about the little girl, who was with us,—could she still drink tea, or had she reached an age to which it would prove too dangerous? The married sister held that she might have it, but the child gave us a deep, dark, proud glance, and rejected the cup.
The cousin was a pensive girl with red-brown eyes, she could read Arabic and knew passages of the Koran by heart. She was of a theological turn of mind, and we had many religious discussions and talks about the wonders of the world. From her I learned the true paraphrase of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. She would admit Jesus Christ to have been born of a virgin, but not as the son of God, for God could have no sons in the flesh. Mariammo, who was the loveliest of maidens, had been walking in the garden, and a great angel, sent by the Lord, with his wingfeather had touched her shoulder, from this she conceived. In the course of our debates I one day showed her a picture postcard of Thorvaldsen’s statue of Christ, in the Cathedral of Copenhagen. Upon that she fell in love, in a gentle and ecstatic way, with the Saviour. She could never hear enough about him, she sighed and changed colour as I narrated. About Judas she was much concerned,—what sort of man was he, how could there be people like that?—she herself would be only too happy to scratch out his eyes. It was a great passion, in the nature of the incense which they burned in their houses, and which, made from dark wood grown upon distant mountains, is sweet and strange to our senses.
I asked the French Fathers, if I might bring my party of young Mohammedan women to the Mission, and when they agreed in their friendly lively manner,—pleased that something was going to happen,—we one afternoon drove over to them, and one by one solemnly entered the cool Church. The young women had never been in such a lofty building, as they looked up they held their hands over their heads to protect themselves should it fall down upon them. There were statues in the Church, and, with the exception of the picture postcard, they had never in their lives seen anything like them. At the French Mission there is a life-size statue of the Virgin, all in white and light blue, with a lily in her hand, and beside her another of St. Joseph with the infant on his arm. The girls were struck dumb in front of them, the beauty of the Virgin made them sigh. Of St. Joseph they knew already, and they thought highly of him, for being such a loyal husband and protector to the Virgin, now they gave him deep thankful glances because he carried the child for his wife as well. Farah’s wife, who was then expecting her child, kept near the Holy Family all the time she stayed in the Church. The Fathers prided themselves much on their Church windows, which were done up in a paper imitation of stained glass, and represented the passion of Christ. The young cousin became all lost and absorbed in these windows, she walked round the Church with her eyes on them, wringing her hands, her own knees bending as under the weight of the cross. On the way home they said very little, they were afraid, I believe, to betray their ignorance by any questions they might make. Only a couple of days later did they ask me if the Fathers could make the Virgin or St. Joseph come down from their plinths.
The young cousin was married from the farm, in a pretty bungalow which was then empty, and which I lent to the Somalis for the occasion. The wedding was a splendid affair and lasted for seven days. I was present at the head ceremony, when a procession of women, all singing, led the bride to meet the singing procession of men who brought the bridegroom to her. She had never seen him till then, and I wondered if she had imagined him in the likeness of Thorvaldsen’s Christ, or if she would have had two ideals, a heavenly and an earthly love, on the model of the romances of chivalry. In the course of the week I drove over there more than once. At whatever hour I arrived I found the house ringing with festive life and fumigated with wedding incense. Sword-dances, and great dances of the women, went with a swing; big deals in cattle were done amongst the old men, guns were fired and mule traps from town were arriving or leaving. At night, in the light of hurricane-lamps on the Verandah, the loveliest dyes of Arabia and Somaliland were going in and out of the carts and the house: carmoisin, prune pure, Sudan brown, rose bengale and Saffranine.
Farah’s son was born on the farm, Ahamed, whom they called Saufe, which means, I believe, a saw. In his heart there was none of the timidity of the Kikuyu children. When he was a tiny infant, swaddled like an acorn, with hardly any body to his dark round head, he sat up erect, and looked you straight in the face: it was like holding a small falcon on your hand, a lioncub on the knee. He had inherited his mother’s gaiety of heart, and, when he could run about, became a big joyful adventurer who held much influence in the young Native world of the farm.