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 Government official tries to prevent me going into the Kikuyu country—Give the official the slip—My first acquaintance with the Kikuyu—Meet Karuri, the Kikuyu chief—Hospitable reception—Kikuyu village attacked because of my presence in it—I help to beat off the attack—Successful trading—Build a house in the Kikuyu village—Native theory as to the origin of the Kikuyu race—I help defend my Kikuyu friends from hostile raids, and beat off the enemy—Benefit of my conciliatory counsels—Pigasani and blood brotherhood
Having made up my mind to go into the Kikuyu country, I set about preparing my safari, for which I decided to take with me only seven boys, natives who knew the language, to act as porters and carry the goods I was taking with me for trading with the Kikuyu. Having persuaded them that it would be all right, I armed myself with a rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, and set out to explore the unknown.
When the official in charge of the station found that I had really started, he sent out an escort, under Sergeant Miles, to bring me back, and, of course, I had to go. When I got back to Naivasha, he asked me if I was trying to
commit suicide. He said he dare not let me go, as I was certain to get killed, and he would then be held responsible for allowing me to leave his district. I told him that I would give him a written statement that I was going entirely on my own responsibility, and if I got killed it would not matter to him. His reply was that it was incumbent upon him not to allow me to leave his district. When I asked how far his district extended, he said to the Kedong Valley, about twenty miles from Naivasha.
I have before stated that the Government officials were strongly opposed to white men coming into the country, and Captain Gorges, who was in command at Naivasha, was only carrying out the orders of his superiors in trying to stop me. At this time there were only about ten white men who were independent traders and hunters in the whole of what are now the East African and Uganda Protectorates, besides the Government officials and missionaries—practically the whole of the latter class being up in Uganda. We were told plainly that we were not wanted, and were not even allowed to have guns and ammunition with which to protect ourselves; while the Arab and Swahili traders were allowed to overrun the country as they pleased, carrying and purchasing arms and ammunition as freely as they liked. This state of affairs may have been due to there being no organized administration
in the country, off the caravan road; but it is peculiarly consistent with the Downing Street policy which prevails pretty well throughout our African dependencies, and which seems to be based on the principle that, in the eyes of Colonial Office officials, a native is more to be considered than any three white men.
To get beyond the jurisdiction of the official at Naivasha I went off to the Kedong Valley, which forms a portion of the great “rift” or depression which seems to divide the continent of Africa east from west into two portions, and which in those days was the boundary between British East Africa and Uganda. Naturally, I did not advertise my intention, but my determination was, as soon as I got out of his district, to start for the Kikuyu country, and by taking this step I avoided all further opposition and duly set out for my Land of Promise.
It was before the end of the year 1898 that, striking camp one morning, I entered the Kinangop Plain, a favourite grazing-ground of the Masai. The plain is a fine stretch of open country, rising in a gradual slope from the caravan road for about one thousand feet or more to the commencement of the bamboo forest,[5] which is known to the natives by the name of
Menzini, “the place of bamboos.” Owing to the elevation of this plain, rains are more frequent here, and when the lower lands are dry and parched, rich pasturage is to be found on the plain, while the ground is generally moist, and, on account of the lower temperature, its surface is often covered with a white rime in the mornings, and the air is cool and refreshing. The herds of sheep and cattle browsing suggest a country scene, such as is common in the Old Country.
5. The bamboo forests fringe the higher slopes of most of the mountains of East Africa, between the grass line and the windswept heights.
As I was accompanied by two Masai boys, I met with no opposition from the warriors of that tribe camped on the plain to look after the safety of the herds; and during the first day’s march we travelled about thirty miles, camping that night about eight thousand feet up the mountainside, where we found the air very cold. Game was everywhere in abundance, and I also noticed a few elephant tracks; so the next morning we had a look round, and followed the elephant tracks, which we found went through the forest and over the mountain. We had great difficulty in forcing our way through the trackless bamboo forest. The bamboos grow as thick as wheat in a wheatfield, and even where the elephants had forced a way the trees they had broken were lying across their path. Bordering on the forest were steep precipices, the depth of which was so great that objects in the valley below could only be very indistinctly seen. That
night we ascended to a height of between eleven thousand and twelve thousand feet, and passing over the crest of the mountain, began the descent of the other side. Making a long day’s trek, it was almost dark when we again camped for the night, still in the bamboo forest which covers the mountain-side.
So far we had met none of the Kikuyu people, and, continuing our march, we arrived, on the third day, in sight of the first native village. I had heard some one cutting wood in the forest off our road, and the news of our coming had spread. At the first sight of us the natives had started running away, but we soon heard the native war-cry being taken up from hill to hill round about, and could catch occasional glimpses of the natives themselves as they gathered in force towards the village. They were certainly a wild-looking lot, with their bodies smeared all over with grease and red clay, or, in some cases, a kind of whitewash, in which patterns were drawn according to the fancy of each individual, while fastened to the leg was a rattle, with an iron ball inside, which, as they moved about, made a noise very much like a railway train. Many of them wore wonderful head-dresses, made of the skin of the colobus monkey, and all were armed with spears and shields. These details I managed to notice as we were moving towards them.
In a short time quite five hundred warriors, fully armed, were drawn up outside the village, and, getting within speaking distance, I told my Masai interpreter to tell them that I had come to see the chief of the district.
Never having seen a white man before, they regarded me with something like awe, being evidently puzzled at my appearance, and were at a loss how to act. The fact that I had ventured to come there alone was, in itself, quite enough to surprise and astonish them, and, noting the impression I had made, I knew that if I was to succeed with them I must keep up an attitude of fearlessness.
After my interpreter had spoken, a guide came forward to conduct me to the chief, whose name was Karuri. Accompanying the guide to the chief’s kraal, I was met by Karuri, who demanded to know what I wanted.
This important personage, who to-day collects the hut tax for the British Administration, would hardly be recognized as the savage warrior chief who now stepped forward to meet the first white man he had ever seen in his own country (as before explained, others had thought it more prudent to go round the outskirts). It was a strange meeting, and one which was to have great consequences for both of us. As time went on Karuri was to become my friend and right-hand supporter, while I, in turn, was to have an influence
over him and his people which was to raise him to the position of a great chief and myself to supreme power in the country—a virtual King of the Kikuyu.
Through my interpreter, I explained as fully as possible my mission to his country, in answer to his inquiry. I said that I had come to see his country and was anxious to trade with him and to buy food. He then questioned me as to the force I had brought with me; to which I replied that, as my mission was a peaceable one, I had left most of my guns in the forest to avoid trouble, but that if he harmed me, my people would come and make war on him. This pardonable untruth seemed to make the desired impression on him, and he allowed me to give him a present of cloth, which he accepted with every appearance of pleasure. After this his manner became more friendly, and when I signified my intention of making a long stay in his country he readily agreed that his men should build a hut for me.
His people still regarded me suspiciously, but obeyed my orders when I told them to fetch wood, and set about the building of the hut, under my instructions. They also brought me a sheep and some flour and sweet potatoes, and, as I had by this time got a fire going, I had a good meal cooked for myself and my men, the Kikuyu all the time looking on with much interest.
In the meanwhile I had been looking round and taking stock of the neighbourhood, and a wilder scene it would be hard to imagine. The Kikuyu country is a succession of small hills, separated by deep valleys, lined with water-courses fed from the higher country, while the hills are beautifully wooded, except where the trees have been cleared away to get patches of ground for the cultivation of crops.
The village, which was situated on the high ground in a large clearing in the forest, consisted of a cluster of round huts, surrounded by a high thorn fence, or boma, high enough and thick enough to make any attempt at forcing an entrance by a force unprovided with good axes a matter of great difficulty. The entrance through the boma was by means of a narrow tunnel, made of large slabs of wood, sunk deeply in the ground, with the tops interlocking at such an angle that any one wishing to enter had to crawl through it on hands and knees. The walls of the huts were made of huge slabs of wood, fashioned out of large trees by the simple process of cutting portions off the trunk until it was reduced to the required thickness. These slabs were placed upright in the ground, close together, in the form of a circle, and a thatched roof built up over them. By the side of the huts, which were built without any attempt at regularity, were smaller structures, with basket floors and grass
roofs, which I found were used as granaries, or larders, in which to store the food.
The people who gathered round us while the meal was being got ready were a fierce-looking crowd, their bodies being disfigured with paint and hung about with rough ornaments. Every one seemed to be discussing me, and, by the looks cast in my direction, debating whether, after all, they should not kill me. Not knowing what might happen, I kept my rifle near me and my bandolier in readiness in case of a sudden attack. After a time they became more inquisitive, and began to examine my clothes, which were something quite new to them, as they had never seen anything of the sort before. The boots puzzled them the most, as they appeared to think they were actually part of my feet, which they seemed to think very curiously constructed. Some of them pushed their curiosity to the extent of wanting to examine my rifle, but this I refused to let go out of my hand.
My interpreter said that they thought I was very foolish to come among them with only one rifle, so I told him to tell them that this gun was different from any that they had ever seen before and far more effective than those carried by Arab and Swahili traders. This gun, I explained, could kill six men with one shot, and I told them that I would show them what it would do by firing at a tree. It happened to
be the old Martini-Metford, so, putting in a solid cartridge, I chose a tree that I knew the bullet would go through and fired. They immediately rushed in a body to see what damage had been done, and when they found the hole where the bullet had gone in and come out the other side they were both considerably surprised and impressed. I assured them that that was nothing; if they would examine the side of the mountain beyond they would find that the bullet had gone right through that as well! I knew that only sheer bluff could bring me safely out of the position in which I had voluntarily placed myself, and so made the best use of every opportunity that arose of impressing them.
Turning into my hut, I kept awake practically all night, fearing that some treachery might be attempted, but fell asleep at last, to be awakened early in the morning by an awful row of war-horns and men shouting and running about in every direction. By the time I had rubbed the sleep out of my eyes I saw a crowd of very excited natives rushing in a body towards my hut, and fully expected that I was in for a tough fight. However, far from intending to attack me, they had come to implore my help for themselves. It seemed that though Karuri, in his younger days, had been a powerful chief, his influence had waned as he grew older, and the tribe being split up into clans, something like the
Highlanders in the old days, in the absence of a chief sufficiently strong to keep the various sections in order, they were continually indulging in petty wars among themselves. One of the neighbouring clans had heard of my arrival, and, objecting to the presence of any white man in the country, had promptly attacked Karuri’s village, with the object of disposing of me once for all, and a big fight, in which a number of people had already been killed, was then in progress, while, on looking out of my hut, I saw that a portion of the village was in flames.
My duty was clear. These people had brought the trouble on themselves by befriending me, and the least I could do was to give them such help as I could. Besides, I wished to remain in the country, and if these people were worsted—even if I escaped with my life, which was very unlikely—I should have to get out and stay out, for some considerable time, at any rate. It did not take me long to make up my mind, and, seizing my rifle, I made for the scene of the fight, accompanied by a crowd of yelling savages, delighted at my decision. When I arrived the row was at its height and the sight of the hand-to-hand conflict among the warriors, surrounded by the burning huts, was a stirring one. Seeing the reinforcements, headed by myself, coming up, the attackers began to waver, and when I
had fired a few shots with effect, finally turned tail and bolted. After pursuing them for some distance, to make sure that they were completely scattered, the triumphant warriors returned to the village, and made quite a hero of me, being convinced that their victory was entirely due to my help. This incident was of the greatest value to me, as it fully established my reputation as a useful member of the community, and they became very friendly. I learned that they had had a lot of trouble with this particular clan, who had frequently raided them, killing many of their men, and carrying off their cattle, and sometimes their women.
After this Karuri came to ask me if I would stop in his country, and I told him I would think about it. I said that I had other work to do, but that if he would sell me flour and other foodstuffs I would come back to him. I told him that the flour was for friends of mine, who were coming along the caravan road. He said that he did not want any more white people in the country. I could stop as long as I liked myself, and his people would be my friends, but they did not mean to have any strangers. I explained that though my friends were coming along the caravan road they had no intention or desire to enter the country. This explanation seemed to satisfy them, and I told them that I would not decide at once about staying in the
country, but that when I had taken the flour to my friends I would come back and talk matters over with them. They then asked what I had to give in exchange for the flour, and I produced a bottle of iodoform, some of which I had used on their wounds after the fight with good effect. They thought it was a great medicine, and all wanted some, and in exchange for a small quantity, wrapped in paper, would give from ten to twenty pounds of flour.
They looked upon me as a great medicine man, and members of the tribe came to me daily to be cured of various complaints during the fortnight I stayed with them while the food I wanted was being collected and brought in. When it was all in I found that I had about two hundred loads, and the trouble then was to find porters to carry it out of the country; but by dint of persuasion I finally succeeded in impressing a number of the people into my service, and started off with my loads.
On account of my little difference with Captain Gorges I decided not to go to Naivasha, but to carry my loads down towards the Kedong. As the route to the Kedong Valley led through the Masai country, my men would not go right through with it, so I set them to build a hut on the caravan road, where I established a store for the flour, and within a few days I sold the lot to the railway surveyors and caravans for
about thirty rupees a load, which made me highly satisfied with the result of my first venture among the Kikuyu. It was on this journey that I first saw the native method of starting a fire by means of the “fire-stick,” though subsequently I found it very useful on many occasions when, owing to the dampness during the rainy season, my matches would not light satisfactorily. The fire-stick itself is a piece of hard wood, about eighteen inches in length, of the thickness of a lead pencil and pointed, and is carried in the quiver with the arrows. The method of using it differs somewhat from that practised by certain tribes who are accustomed to use a sort of mandril in connexion with it. The Kikuyu always carry, as well as the fire-stick, a piece of wood of a softer kind, about a foot long and two or three inches wide, which, when they wish to make a fire, they place between their feet, holding it in position with their toes. The pointed fire-stick is inserted into a hole in the soft wood and rapidly revolved between the flat of their two hands until the dust worn off the softer wood by the friction begins to glow. This burning dust is then quickly tossed into the middle of a little bundle of dry bark fibre, always carried by the owner of the drill. The little bundle is then taken between the hands and gently blown up until it shows signs of blazing, when it is placed in the middle of a little heap of dried
twigs and leaves which has been prepared in readiness. A little careful manipulation soon produces a blaze.
I was also able to purchase a large quantity of trade goods, beads, cloth, &c., from Arab traders going up to Uganda, and sent to Karuri for more natives to carry my purchases back to Kikuyu, where, on my return, I paid them for their services in cloth, which seemed to make them still more anxious for me to remain among them.
Having finally announced my decision to stay in the Kikuyu country, at any rate for a time, I selected a site for a house, and got them to help me with the building. I found that they had a sort of native axe, somewhat similar to those in use in the South Sea Islands, made with a very small head, which is fixed to the club which forms the haft by a spike projecting from the back, which is driven through the haft and projects for two or three inches at the back—and with these and the swords, with which every man is armed, they cut down trees from the forest, and a house in the European style was built for me.
In connexion with these swords I may mention a peculiar custom which illustrates the treacherous nature of these people. They invariably wear the sword on the right side, as when worn in that position it is much easier to make a treacherous attack on an opponent while
approaching apparently with the friendly intention of shaking hands!
Their method of tree-cutting was a somewhat dangerous one, as they simply cut into the tree near the ground, without any regard to the direction in which it was likely to fall, so that serious injuries during tree-felling operations were by no means uncommon. The Kikuyu never use nails, but by dint of careful explanation, I was able to get the native blacksmiths to make me a very efficient substitute.[6] The natives were very much interested in the building operations, and when the house was finished I used to invite the chief and his headmen to visit me there. The house, which was built in the bungalow style, common to European houses in the tropics, looked very well, and though the windows were, of course, unglazed, I had shutters made, with which I could close them at night.
6. I have read that the use of nails was practically unknown in England until the latter half of the eighteenth century.
In the meanwhile I had been getting better acquainted with the country, and found that the people lived in a constant state of civil war. Every day men came to me to have their wounds dressed, and I heard of many being killed. As I have already said, the country was very mountainous, and each hill had its own chief, who lived in a state of continual warfare with his neighbours. No man was safe in travelling about
the country, except on certain days when a sort of general market was held, during the continuance of which a truce seemed to exist, hostilities being resumed again as soon as it was over. Karuri used to visit me nearly every day, and from him I learned all about the country. Even he seemed afraid to go far from his own village, and, as this state of affairs was very bad for my plans of trading, I determined to do what I could towards reducing the country to something like order.
I gathered, from conversations with Karuri and the older men of the village, that at one time the country was believed to have been covered with a vast forest, inhabited by a race of pigmies, whom they called Maswatch-wanya. These people did not cultivate the land, but lived by hunting, and the legend said that the wife of a Masai, who was very badly treated by her husband, was in the habit of taking refuge in the forest, with her little boy, from his cruelty. At first she used merely to stay in the forest for a time, and then return to her husband again; but at last his treatment of her became so bad that she left him altogether, and took refuge with the pigmies, and it was believed that the Kikuyu race were the descendants of the offspring of this woman. There is certainly a good deal of evidence to support the tradition, as they undoubtedly have Masai blood, use the same kind
of weapons and shield, and in each case worship a god they call Ngai. I have also heard them singing Masai war-songs when going out to fight, and in a very large number of instances the physical resemblance between the two races is very strong.
I stayed some weeks with them this time, and found that there was a good deal of fighting going on, and that many of the friendly natives were being killed through the hostility to me of the neighbouring chiefs and their people. They strongly resented my intrusion into the country, and any of the natives known to be friendly towards me, or wearing any of the cloth I had given them, were immediately marked down for attack.
This sort of thing went on for some time, and they began to think that, because I took no action against their enemies, I was afraid of them. There were threats to kill me every day, and one night, after some of their villages had been burned, and a lot of the people killed, they came to me and asked me to take their part, saying that they had always been friendly towards me, and that was why these people were making war on them and robbing them.
I therefore sent a messenger to the offending chief, to say that if he did not return the stolen property, and pay compensation for the murders he had committed, I should have to go and
compel him to do so. (The law of the country is that for every man killed a payment of one hundred sheep shall be made, and for every woman thirty sheep.) The chief simply returned an insulting message to the effect that we were afraid of him, and the next time he came he would kill me too.
A few days later I had a consultation with Karuri, and we came to the conclusion that the only thing to be done was to go out and fight the matter out with them, though I was strongly averse to getting mixed up in any of their quarrels. However, the matter was settled for us, for while we were still negotiating for a peaceful settlement of the difficulty, our enemies came down in force one day and attacked the village. They numbered altogether about five hundred warriors, while we could only muster about three hundred. They had been successful in previous raids because the people were scattered about in a number of small villages, and could not muster in sufficient force to beat them off, as they could always overwhelm a village and get away before any help could be brought to the spot. On this particular occasion, however, matters were a little different, as we had been expecting trouble, and had made arrangements to give them a warm reception if they should venture to come.
Our spies had been out for some time, and kept us well informed as to what was going on,
and gave us good warning as to when we might expect to be attacked. As soon as the news of the approaching raid reached us, I mustered the fighting men and got ready to receive them. We were soon made aware of their approach by the sound of wild war-cries and savage yells, as well as by the flames of the burning villages, to which they set fire as they came along, and, meeting with no opposition, no doubt they anticipated an easy victory.
By this time I had taught my people to hold themselves in check, and act together, instead of each man fighting for his own hand. Waiting till they had got within easy striking distance, we poured in a volley of spears and arrows and I did service with my rifle. Following up the surprise caused by this unexpected reception, we were soon among them and engaged in a warm hand-to-hand fight, which lasted until we had beaten off the invaders and followed them right back into their own country. The battle, which had started in the early morning, lasted until midday, and, having administered severe punishment, we camped for the night in the enemy’s district.
We had had the good fortune to capture the enemy’s chief, who was brought a prisoner into our camp, and the next morning I consulted with Karuri as to what was to be done with him, and it was at last decided to hold a shauri (pronounced showari), or council, on the matter. I
asked them what they would have done in a case like this if I had not been with them, and they replied that they would either have killed him or made him pay a heavy fine. I pointed out that killing him or making his people pay a heavy fine would only aggravate the enmity of these people, and so cause more trouble later on. I told them that it would be better to make the chief restore everything that had been stolen by him—not in previous years, but in the raids which had taken place during my stay among them, and to this course they finally agreed.
Within a few days all the stolen property was restored to its original owners, causing much rejoicing among them, as they had, of course, never expected to see any of it again. Of course, I took precautions to see that no friction occurred during the process of retransferring the recovered property, and having invited some of the chief men of both districts to my camp, we got on quite friendly terms. Seeing them sitting, eating and drinking together amicably, it was difficult to imagine that they had been cutting one another’s throats only a few days previously, but the Kikuyu, like many other African races, are remarkably changeable, and their temper can never be relied upon. As I learnt during my stay among them, they are both fickle and treacherous, and had it not been for my own people, I should have run great risk of being
killed on several occasions, through trusting them too much.
I was very anxious to strengthen and maintain my friendship with these people and the surrounding clans, and, after some discussion on the matter, found that they had a ceremony, known as Pigasangi, which was supposed to be mutually binding. If it could be arranged for me to undergo this ceremony, there was every prospect of a lasting friendship being formed. This ceremony differs from that of blood brotherhood chiefly in that, while blood brotherhood establishes a friendly relationship with the individual, Pigasangi establishes it with the whole of the tribe or communities represented at the ceremony.
After some days the assembled chiefs consented to take part in the ceremony, and, accompanied by the natives who had always been friendly to me, and about fifteen of the old men of the district, I went to the chief’s village to make the necessary arrangements.
When we arrived at the village the people were already waiting to receive us, and there were signs of great festivity. Word had been sent round to all the villages that the ceremony was to take place, and, as it was looked upon as a great occasion for rejoicing, much dancing and beer-drinking were going on, and we were received with shouts of welcome and every sign
of friendship. A large clearing had been selected for the occasion—the Kikuyu, like many other savage tribes, always choosing an open space for their ceremonies, or discussions of importance, as they were thus enabled to detect any would-be eavesdroppers before they could get near enough to overhear anything or to attempt any treachery. Nearly all native villages, I found, have a large space set apart in the neighbourhood for the holding of their shauris, dances, &c.
After a lot of superfluous oratory, the proceedings began with a black goat being brought in, with its feet tied up, and laid in the centre of the space. The natives then grouped themselves in a circle, with the chiefs and orators in the centre. Everybody taking part in the ceremony had previously disarmed, and, considering that there were over two thousand people present, it was remarkable how orderly and quiet the assembly was, everything being carried out without any hustling or disputing for right of place.
The native never speaks at any meeting of the tribe without a stick in his hand, and on the present occasion each speaker was provided with a number of sticks, having one for each subject of discussion, the sticks being thrown on the ground by each alternately as he went through his speech. First one side and then the other stated the points of the agreement, which, of course, had been
carefully discussed beforehand, so that there should be no chance of argument during the ceremony. The main points were that there were to be no hostilities between the two clans in future, that they were to assist each other, and that neither should molest any white man coming through its country.
When all the sticks had been thrown down, they were collected, and being bound up in a bundle, were placed between the legs of the goat. The chief orator, whose stick was more like a club than the rest, then repeated the different conditions, at the end of each clause dealing the goat a heavy blow with his club whilst repeating a formula to the effect that any one breaking the agreement should die like that goat. By the time he had reached the last clause the animal was almost dead, and a particularly heavy blow dispatched it. After that no one dare touch the goat, which was regarded as sacred, and I learned that this was the opportunity to obtain any confession from a native, any one suspected of wrongdoing being asked to swear by the goat, when he would certainly tell the truth.
The ceremony was followed by more rejoicing and drinking of native beer.
This function considerably enlarged the area of friendly country, which now extended to the banks of one of the rivers which rises in the Aberdare Range, and flows in an easterly direction
until it empties, as I afterwards found, into the River Tana.
On the other hand, the fact of these people making friends with me had the effect of increasing the enmity of the other chiefs, who remained outside the agreement, and feared that the effect of it would be to lead more white men to come into the country.

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