At that time, it came to pass that the old men of the neighbourhood resolved to hold a Ngoma for me.
The se Ngomas of the ancients had been great functions in the past, but now they were rarely danced, and during all my time in Africa I have never seen one of them. I should have liked to have done so, for the Kikuyu themselves thought highly of them. It was considered an honour to the farm that the old men’s dance was to be performed there, my people talked of it a long time before it was to take place.
Even Farah, who generally looked down on the Native Ngomas, was this time impressed by the resolution of the old men. “These people are very old, Memsahib,” he said, “very very old.”
It was curious to hear the young Kikuyu lions speak with reverence and awe of the coming performance of the old dancers.
There was one thing about these Ngomas of which I did not know,—namely that they had been prohibited by the Government. The reason for the prohibition I do not know.
The Kikuyu must have been aware of the interdiction, but they chose to overlook it, either they reasoned that in these great troubled times, things might be done that in ordinary times could not be done, or else they really forgot about it in the midst of the strong emotions set going by the dance. They did not even have it in them to keep silent about the Ngoma.
The old dancers when they arrived were a rare, sublime sight. There were about a hundred of them, and they all arrived at the same time, and must have collected somewhere at a distance from the house. The old Native men are chilly people, and generally wrap and muffle themselves up well in furs and blankets, but here they were naked, as if solemnly stating the formidable truth. Their finery and war-paint were discreetly put on, but a few of them wore, on their old bald skulls, the big head-dresses of black eagle’s feathers that you see on the heads of the young dancers. They did not need any ornaments either, they were impressive in themselves. They did not, like the old beauties of the European ball-room, strive to obtain a youthful appearance, the whole point and weight of the dance, to them themselves, and to the onlookers, lay in the old age of the performers. They had a queer sort of markings on them, the like of which I had never seen, chalked stripes running along their crooked limbs as if they were, in their stark truthfulness, emphasizing the stiff and brittle bones underneath the skin. Their movements, as they advanced in a slow prelusive march were so strange that I wondered what sort of dance I was now to be shown.
As I stood and looked at them a fancy came back to me that had taken hold of me before: It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa, but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide. The procession that was passing here,—it was in reality my strong pulpy young dancers of yesterday and the day before yesterday, who were withering before my eyes, who were passing away for ever. They were going in their own style, gently, in a dance, the people were with me, and I with the people, well content.
The old men did not speak, not even to one another, they were saving their strength for the coming efforts.
Just as the dancers had ranged themselves for the dance, an Askari from Nairobi arrived at the house with a letter for me, that the Ngoma must not take place.
I did not understand it, for it was to me a quite unlooked-for thing, and I had to read the paper through twice or three times. The Askari who had brought it, was himself so impressed with the importance of the show he had upset, that he did not open his mouth to the old people or to my houseboys, nor strut or swagger in the usual manner of Askaris, who are pleased to show off their plenitude of power to other Natives.
During all my life in Africa I have not lived through another moment of such bitterness. I had not before known my heart to heave up in such a storm against the things happening to me. It did not even occur to me to speak; the nothingness of speech by now was manifest to me.
The old Kikuyu themselves stood like a herd of old sheep, all their eyes under the wrinkled lids fixed upon my face. They could not, in a second, give up the thing on which their hearts had been set, some of them made little convulsive movements with their legs; they had come to dance and dance they must. In the end I told them that our Ngoma was off.
The piece of news, I knew, would in their minds take on a different aspect, but what I could not tell. Perhaps they realized at once how completely the Ngoma was off, for the reason that there was no longer anybody to dance to, since I no longer existed. Perhaps they thought that it had, in reality, already been held, a matchless Ngoma, of such force that it made naught of everything else, and that, when it was over, everything was over.
A small Native dog on the lawn profited by the stillness to yap out loudly, and the echo ran through my mind:
“?the little dogs and all,
Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart, see, they bark at me.”
Kamante, who had been put in charge of the tobacco that was to have been dealt out to the Ancients after the dance, in his habitual silent resourcefulness here thought the moment convenient for bringing it, and stepped forward with a big calabash filled with snuff. Farah waved him back, but Kamante was a Kikuyu, in understanding with the old dancers, and he had his way. The snuff was a reality. We now distributed it amongst the old men. After a little while they all walked away.
The people of the farm who grieved most at my departure were I think the old women. The old Kikuyu women have had a hard life, and have themselves become flint-hard under it, like old mules which will bite you if they can come to it. They were more difficult for any disease to kill off than their men, as I learned in my practice as a doctor, and they were wilder than the men, and, even more thoroughly than they, devoid of the faculty of admiration. They had borne a number of children and had seen many of them die; they were afraid of nothing. They carried loads of firewood,—with a rein round their foreheads to steady them,—of three hundred pounds, tottering below them, but unsubdued; they worked in the hard ground of their shambas, standing on their heads from the early morning till late in the evening. “From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off. Her heart is as firm as a stone, yea as hard as a piece of the nether millstone. She mocketh at fear. What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorns the horse and his rider. Will she make many supplications unto thee? Will she speak soft words unto thee?” And they had a stock of energy in them still; they radiated vitality. The old women took a keen interest in everything that was going on on the farm, and would walk ten miles to look at an Ngoma of the young people; a joke, or a cup of tembu, would make their wrinkled toothless faces dissolve in laughter. This strength, and love of life in them, to me seemed not only highly respectable, but glorious and bewitching.
The old women of the farm and I had always been friends. They were the people who called me Jerie; the men and the children—except the very young—never used the name for me. Jerie is a Kikuyu female name, but it has some special quality,—whenever a girl is born to a Kikuyu family a long time after her brothers and sisters, she is named Jerie, and I suppose that the name has a note of affection in it.
Now the old women were sorry that I was leaving them. From this last time, I keep the picture of a Kikuyu woman, nameless to me, for I did not know her well, she belonged, I think, to Kathegu’s village, and was the wife or widow of one of his many sons. She came towards me on a path on the plain, carrying on her back a load of the long thin poles which the Kikuyu use for constructing the roofs of their huts,—with them this is women’s work. These poles may be fifteen feet long; when the women carry them they tie them together at the ends, and the tall conical burdens give to the people underneath them, as you see them travelling over the land, the silhouette of a prehistoric animal, or a Giraffe. The sticks which this woman was carrying were all black and charred, sooted by the smoke of the hut during many years; that meant that she had been pulling down her house and was trailing her building materials, such as they were, to new grounds. When we met she stood dead still, barring the path to me, staring at me in the exact manner of a Giraffe in a herd, that you will meet on the open plain, and which lives and feels and thinks in a manner unknowable to us. After a moment she broke out weeping, tears streaming over her face, like a cow that makes water on the plain before you. Not a word did she or I myself speak, and, after a few minutes, she ceded the way to me, and we parted, and walked on in opposite directions. I thought that after all she had some materials with which to begin her new house, and I imagined how she would set to work, and tie her sticks together, and make herself a roof.
The little herd-boys on the farm, who had never in their lives known of a time when I had not been living in the house, on the other hand had a great deal of excitement and tension of suspense out of the idea that I was going away. It may have been to them difficult, and daring, to imagine the world without me in it, as if Providence had been known to be abdicating. They rose to the surface of the long grass when I was passing and cried out to me: “When are you going away, Msabu? Msabu, in how many days are you going away?”
When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them. Circumstances can have a motive force by which they bring about events without aid of human imagination or apprehension. On such occasions you yourself keep in touch with what is going on by attentively following it from moment to moment, like a blind person who is being led, and who places one foot in front of the other cautiously but unwittingly. Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them, and no key to the cause or meaning of them. The performing wild animals in a circus go through their programme, I believe, in that same way. Those who have been through such events can, in a way, say that they have been through death,—a passage outside the range of imagination, but within the range of experience.
Gustav Mohr came out in his car in the early morning to go in to the railway station with me. It was a cool morning with but little colour in the air or the landscape. He himself looked pale, and blinked, and I remembered what an old Norwegian captain of a whaler down in Durban had explained to me, that the Norwegians are undismayed in any storm, but their nervous system cannot stand a calm. We had tea together on the millstone table, as we had had many times before. Here, to the West, the Hills before us, with a little floating grey mist in the creeks, lived gravely through another moment of their many thousand years. I was very cold as if I had been up there.
My house-boys were still in the empty house, but they had, so to say, already moved their existence to other quarters, their families and their belongings had been sent off. Farah’s women, and Saufe, had gone to the Somali village of Nairobi in a lorry the day before. Farah himself was going with me as far as Mombasa, and so was Juma’s young son Tumbo, because he wanted to do so more than anything else in the world, and when, as parting gift, he had been given the choice between a cow and the journey to Mombasa, he had chosen the journey.
I said good-bye to each of my house-boys, and, as I went out, they, who had been carefully instructed to close the doors, left the door wide open behind me. This was a typical Native gesture, as if they meant that I was to come back again, or else they did so to emphasize that there was now nothing more to close the doors of the house on, and they might as well be open to all the winds. Farah was driving me, slowly, at the pace of a riding-camel I suppose, round by the drive and out of sight of the house.
As we came to the pond, I asked Mohr if we would not have time to stop for a moment, and we got out, and smoked a cigarette by the bank. We saw some fish in the water, which were now to be caught and eaten by people who had not known old Knudsen, and were not aware of the importance of the fish themselves. Here Sirunga, my squatter Kaninu’s small grandson, who was an epileptic, appeared to say a last good-bye to me, for he had been round by the house to do so, incessantly, for the last days. When we got into the cars again and went off, he started to run after the cars as fast as he could, as if whirled on in the dust by the wind, for he was so small,—like the final little spark from my fire. He ran all the way to where the farm-road joined the highroad, and I was afraid that he might come with us on to the highroad as well; it would have been then as if now all the farm were scattered and blown about in husks. But he stopped up at the corner, after all he did still belong to the farm. He stood there and stared after us, as long as I could see the turning of the farm-road.
On the way in to Nairobi, we saw a number of grasshoppers in the grass and on the road itself, a few whirred into the car, it looked as if they were coming back upon the country once more.
Many of my friends had come down to the station to see me off. Hugh Martin was there, heavy and nonchalant, and as he came and said good-bye to me, I saw my Doctor Pangloss of the farm as a very lonely figure, a heroic figure, who had bought his loneliness with everything he had, and somehow an African symbol. We took a friendly leave: we had had much fun together, and many wise talks. Lord Delamere was a little older, a little whiter, and with his hair cut shorter than when I had had tea with him in the Masai Reserve, when I came down there with my ox-transport, at the beginning of the war, but as exceedingly and concernedly courteous and polite now as then. Most of the Somalis of Nairobi were on the platform. The old cattle-trader Abdallah came up and gave me a silver ring with a turquoise in it, to bring me luck. Bilea, Denys’s servant gravely asked me to give his respects to his master’s brother in England, in whose house he had stayed in the old days. The Somali women, Farah told me on the way down in the train, had been at the station in rickshas, but when they had seen so many Somali men collected there, they had lost heart and had just driven back.
Gustav Mohr and I shook hands when I was already in the train. Now that the train was going to move, was already moving, he had got back his balance of mind. He wished so strongly to impart courage to me that he blushed deeply; his face was flaming and his light eyes shining at me.
At the Samburu station on the line, I got out of the train while the engine was taking in water, and walked with Farah on the platform.
From there, to the South-West, I saw the Ngong Hills. The noble wave of the mountain rose above the surrounding flat land, all air-blue. But it was so far away that the four peaks looked trifling, hardly distinguishable, and different from the way they looked from the farm. The outline of the mountain was slowly smoothed and levelled out by the hand of distance.