Interlude With a Tutelary Spirit

MPWAPWA is a pleasant place on the edge of the hills in the Central Province of Tanganyika. Stanley, on his way to find Livingstone, camped under a spreading heavy-foliaged tree in the village. The Germans had one of their fortified administrative posts there (now replaced by a British District Officer’s friendly-looking little office); the road is still here which they made and planted with vegetable barbed wire in the shape of formidably spiked sisal, and on a hill a few miles off is one of their heliograph towers. Here too they plumped down their main veterinary station; the English have taken over the laboratory, and are now moving the headquarters of the whole veterinary department here from the capital, over two hundred miles away. Here the present administration has also built its lymph laboratory, where a quarter of a million vaccination doses are kept in reserve, and whence the whole territory, three times the size of the United Kingdom, is supplied with vaccine for the campaign against smallpox. And they have started a big educational venture at Mpwapwa. Not only are there a local elementary school and a central school where boarders come from all the Central Province, but it is the only centre in the territory for the training of native teachers.

And besides the fields and steadings of the local tribe, there is also a big native village where was once an important station on a main slave-trade route. Slaves from all parts of the territory and from far-off Congoland beyond the Great Lake got left here for one cause or another, so that it is a much-mixed little African cosmopolis, with Indian shops to boot. The main Tanganyika railway passes only twelve miles away, close under the mountains that bound the opposite side of the narrow plain, and a good motor road runs from the railway to the town. There are two excellent tennis courts, and the rudiment of a golf course. Mpwapwa is thus a busy modern place, as much exposed to the disturbing swirl of civilization’s current as any of the smaller townships of Africa.

In the morning I saw over the veterinary laboratory, where vast quantities of anti-rinderpest serum are made and bottled (it looks very much like rather turbid beer) for shipment far and wide, and where the unpleasant trypanosomes are studied that wriggle their way through the blood of cattle and keep cows and horses out of the half of tropical Africa. In the afternoon I had a long conference with the staff of the school over the teaching of science to the African schoolboy and future schoolmaster, and about five, as the sun was softening downwards to the west, the headmaster and I, putting on the regular outdoor kit of white shirt and shorts, went for a walk.

We headed for a little rock pinnacle that rises just beyond where the cultivated plain gives place to the hills and their mantle of scrubby woodland. It was a fine little fifty-foot needle of hard rock, and my climbing instincts were aroused. I found my way to its base through the tangled, thorny copsewood, noticing vaguely that the way was roughly barred by a small tree and a branch or two that had been cut and put in the obvious approach between two big boulders. The little climb was easier than it looked, and I was quickly on top, looking over the brown plain and purple hills, parched and waiting for the short rains.

Suddenly a loud and peculiar hoarse hissing broke out from just below where I was sitting. I thought of giant wasps or tropical hornets — not without some alarm, for descent in a cloud of stings would have been not only unpleasant but dangerous. But my anxious eye fell not on a swarm of insects but on a solitary reptile — a huge monitor lizard, over five feet long, in a crevice of the rock. I had stepped right over the place without noticing its inmate.

There it was, its scales like tiles upon its trunk, and rising up on its neck into bosses like heavy leather-work. It looked up at me with a cold malignant eye, darted its flickering tongue, leaden and forked, out of its hard mouth, and hissed with raucous intensity.

This was the first big lizard I had seen wild, and I became seized with an intense desire to catch it. Having decided that its bite might be dangerous, I made a running noose with my garter and prepared to lasso the beast. But on this he turned, and slowly began to creep into a crack. I seized his tail, and there was a struggle, pull devil, pull baker. Once in a crack, he wedged himself with extraordinary firmness, and it was only after two or three minutes that I got him out.

This was no ordinary monitor. The average specimen, so I am assured by those who know his habits, would have been round and away in a flash. He would have protected himself by vicious and swift snapping, and would have lashed with his tail so intensely that I should never have been able to get him out, or hold him, ignominiously dangling, when I had done so. Doubtless he was an aged creature, who had lived in this rock fortress for decades, scores of years, even a century — we know little of reptilian spans of life. His near forepaw was badly scarred, with several of the clawed toes bitten off.

Then came the problem of descent. Unencumbered I had found the ascent easy, but to get down with only one hand for climbing, while trying to prevent that ugly head from coming within snapping distance of my person, and those powerful fore quarters from wedging themselves in a crevice, was another matter. However, I succeeded. If ever (which is unlikely) I become a candidate for admission to the Alpine Club, I shall record that brief but anxious descent.

My companion came up to inspect my capture. He too noticed the barring of the approach to the rock, and suggested that the place was a holy place, and the beast a holy beast. So we let it go, but not until after an interesting demonstration of the ease with which reptiles can be hypnotized, or put into the catalepsy which is the evolutionary forerunner of the true hypnotic state. While we were talking, the beast was struggling to make off; to put him at a disadvantage I twisted his tail to turn him over on to his back. At once his movements ceased, and I found I could release my hold, and he still lay there, breathing deeply. Put over on to his belly again, he at once woke up; but if rapidly twisted into the supine position, and held still there for a few seconds,he at once became immobilized. Doubtless Aaron’s rod had been tricked into the same physiological state, and I recalled playing the same game with the amusingly ugly horned-toad lizards of the western United States, much to the astonishment of some Wyoming cowboys, whose exclamations of ‘Gee!’ were redoubled as I succeeded in piling three of the lizards into a grotesque edifice of catalepsy-struck reptilian flesh.

Just down across a patch of cultivation was a little tembe, one of the steadings in which the local people, the Wagogo, live. They are square, with buildings all round — or on three sides with a thorn hedge on the fourth. The cattle are driven in at evening into the central space, and the gate barricaded. In the buildings lives a whole patriarchal family, — the grandfather with his wife or wives, the sons with their wives and children, — and there are compartments too for the chickens and the goats.

The patriarch of this tembe was a little man in the forties or fifties, with a curiously Tatar face, low and broad, with highish cheekbones, and a little stringy moustache hanging Chinesefashion round the corners of his mouth. He was a nice little fellow, with humor in every wrinkle of his face, and quick gesticulations of his hands. He was dressed in a low red fez, an old brown golf sweater, and a little cloth kilt. One of his daughters-in-law sat wrapped in a cotton dress; the other, a fine figure of a girl, naked to the waist, with a necklace of English beads, busied herself about the place. As the little man talked, I was reminded of the Italian peasant life I had got to know near Padua during the war. These people were black and pagan; their life was more primitive, their belongings fewer and cruder, their outlook more limited. But there was the same simplicity, the same feeling of a human stock rooted in the soil. There was the same acceptance of life, its drudgeries, pleasures, and vicissitudes, that I had learned to know among the Italians, an acceptance for the most part contented, sometimes tinged with humorous resignation.

He showed us his room — wattle and daub, mud floors, no windows, but clean. There were two beds, with skin mattresses, a nicely carved stool; a stone worn smooth by the grinding of interminable maize, with a skin mat on which the women could kneel while they ground it; a big board for playing bau, the African game which is played over half the great continent. He played bau with his sons in the evenings, he told us, after the work of the day was done.

My companion, after a little general talk, threw out a feeler about the monitor. ‘By the way,’ he said, ‘when we were up at that pinnacle over there we saw a great lizard among the rocks.’

‘Ah, yes,’ said the little Wagogo man. ‘Yes, there is a big lizard up there. He looks after all of us in the neighborhood. We get pretty good crops, thanks to him.’ And he speedily changed the subject.

Afterward I made some inquiries. It seems certain that monitor lizards are rare in the district, and that this particular specimen was of great age. The rocks were striking to look at, and there was nothing else like them for some miles round. They might well have been chosen as phallic symbols; anyhow it appears that striking rocks are not infrequently chosen as places where certain of the initiation ceremonies are gone through. And certainly the obvious approach to the base of the rock had been deliberately barred.

There seems no doubt that it was a sacred place, and the monitor a sacred beast, a tutelary creature to which some divinity attached. I wonder if he is accorded offerings of food. In any case, I hope that his forcible capture and dethronement to the base of the rock will have no evil effects. I left him vainly trying to get the hinder half of his body into a too-narrow crack. May he by now have found his way back to his tabernacle at the summit, there to live long years more. May the people of the neighborhood not fail in their belief in him so long as he lives. May our rule in the territory not cause a collapse of all their simple living, but cause it to evolve into a richer and more stable peasant life.

We went on homeward in the gathering dusk. Across from the next mountain, a couple of miles away, came the rhythm of drums, inviting to foot it, with accompaniment of shrill whistles and occasional bursts of singing. So home, to dine, and play bridge until it was time to catch the night train upcountry. . . . A varied day. My companion’s only regret is that he had no camera to snap me silhouetted against the sky, with the ancient beast dangling in indignity from my hand, on the summit of the sacred rock.