Afternoon at Moroto
On his visit to a remote tribe in East Africa last summer, JOHN P. MARQUAND was witness to some contrasts in that rapidly evolving territory which come powerfully alive in the pages that follow.
BY JOHN P. MARQUAND
KARAMOJO lies in northeast Uganda and stretches northward to the saline waters of Lake Rudolf and thence to the border of Abyssinia. Here is a vestige of what an old settler will tell you is one of the last authentic glimpses of old Africa, but more interesting is the recent eleemosynary invasion of Western ideas. In Karamojo there is a pilot plant of good deeds and intentions frustrated by a remoteness from spiritual and physical sources of supply. This huge segment of mountainous, semiarid land, larger than many of our states, is inhabited by the Karamojo, a warlike nomadic tribe of handsome, scantily clad people who live principally on milk and blood from their mouse-colored herds of cattle. They, both man and beast, are constantly on the move because of sparse grazing. The level country of Karamojo is punctuated by the ubiquitous thorn tree and cactus and cut by river beds and gullies, mostly dry except in the rainy season. The mountains — those that I saw from a distance, and there are many of them — are heavily wooded and have usually a forbidding bluish-green color that contrasts dramatically with the reddish dust of the plains. When you raise your eyes to these hills in Karamojo. they give you the wordless message that you are a long way from anywhere and could be still further off if you trekked through their dark valleys and over the lower ridges. Karamojo, after rather thorough exploration, appears deficient in mineral resources, but still you have a feeling that King Solomon’s mines are not far off, if you could only get there.
Fortunately, so far, for the inhabitants of this wild and distant place, there has not been much in Karamojo that any European has ever seriously wanted except ivory, but the elephant herds were: decimated some time ago by an enterprising gentleman known as Karamojo Bell. Now that ivory is scarce, there is little left to arouse an entrepreneur’s cupidity. The roads in Karamojo are mainly trails. The country is administered by the British colonial office, an efficient organization with frequent Kiplingesque tendencies. No outsider may enter this encapsulated Eden without permission from the district commissioner, and no outsider would wish to, except a big-game hunter, a scientist, or a traveler in search of the unusual. In the years since the war, the colonial office has established its bureaus and bungalows in a community known as Moroto, which until quite recently was only an open field except for thorn trees and acacias.
Porters are no longer required to carry supplies upon their heads because a motor road has been constructed, suitable in dry weather for trucks and touring cars. Instead of a handful of officials, there are now, including wives and children, about a hundred and thirty white people residing in Moroto. Typewriters are busy making out forms in quintuplicate, the bugle blows for parade, sundowners are served at a Moroto club, electric lights burn till midnight, the Hindu shopkeepers have come, making a short commercial street of one-room dukans, the Indian shops that dispense tobacco, kitchen utensils, calicoes, Pepsi and Coca Cola. In Africa the Indians, whose ancestors were imported as coolie labor to build the railroads, like the sparrow have followed the British flag. They control most of Africa’s shopkeeping, and let us not forget that they also produced Mahatma Gandhi. They and the British Civil Service have made Moroto a microcosm of older East African communities. Yet the only reason for all these industrious and often selfless people’s being in Moroto at all is to help the Karamojo tribe. I don’t know whether they are succeeding in helping it or not, but if they fail, it is not for want of trying.
WE LEFT the delightful highland town of Kitale in Kenya at about nine thirty in the morning and arrived at Moroto shortly after four that afternoon. But even this short trip led into the middle of nowhere, making it advisable to take two cars, because in the event of a breakdown it might be necessary to wait for hours or maybe for a day before intelligent help arrived. One car was a Peugeot station wagon. The other was a Land Rover, that could go through anything. It was driven by an amiable African chauffeur named Musimi, who came from a tribe whose name I never could pronounce and have now forgotten. During our trip Musimi lived in more of a social vacuum than I did. Due to his tribal origin, he was a stranger to most of the natives he encountered; tolerated, but not welcomed into any social circle.
As far as Musimi and I were concerned, there was no means of communication except by sign language. If this isolation bothered him, he never showed it. Although he slept in the Land Rover and was usually immersed in red dust, since he drove to the rear of the Peugeot, his blue uniform was invariably pressed and spotless.
My traveling companion, who had been district commissioner of Karamojo forty years before, commented sadly on the bareness of the landscape. When he was a young man‚ he said, these vacant plains had been filled with herds of wildebeest, giraffe, and zebra beyond capacity to count. They were gone now, driven out by settlers, and the place was not the same without them. Turning from the vanished game, he discussed the good old days. When he was a young man and D. C. (D. C. means district commissioner, and the British love initials even more than we) of Karamojo, he said, you had to walk in all the way and keep constantly on the alert because of predatory animals. There was no place to stop at nightfall once you started walking. Your camping equipment was carried on the heads of native porters. There was no road, only a trail. I tried adjusting myself to what he was saying, with no great success. We were not walking now. We had no bearers. There were no lions. I listened, I am afraid, showing the patient incredulity that I have seen on the faces of my children when I have told them of the horse-and-buggy, plumbingless days of my childhood. That is the trouble with the good old days. You can never pass them on to anyone else who has not lived them with you.
In spite of the road and the benefits of the internal combustion engine, there is a distinct impression that the pavement has ended once you have passed the barrier. There was a wilderness of thornbushes on either side of the road that closely resembled our Western mesquite, sheltering occasional tufts of dried grass. It was poor grazing country for wild or domestic animals, and there were few signs of life. Although the thornbushes were thick with the fragile nests of a species of tailorbird, the birds all seemed to be elsewhere. There were also anthills constructed out of the red soil by the termite, a familiar sight in most equatorial countries, but these were not the solid concrete citadels that remind travelers in places like Cambodia of tree stumps. Instead, they had the nonobjective quality of phallic symbols in a museum of modern art.
Personally, I was glad to see Moroto, because the country through which we had traveled was beginning to make me believe subconsciously that there could never be a change. Moroto gave the illusion at the end of that dusty trip of being much more of a place than it was in reality. The best thing about it was its familiar look. It had the unmistakable attributes of other outposts of the empire upon whose flag the sun once never set — and maybe does not even now.
I could guess what we would encounter in Moroto, if only from my early reading of Plain Tales from the Hills. There was the military camp of native troops from the King’s African Rifles. The troops, well drilled, from what I saw of them, were sheltered in cylindrical huts at a reasonable distance from Moroto’s more substantial buildings. Then there was military headquarters, a rambling but efficient structure with a veranda.
A subaltern, very handsome, in shorts and Sam Browne belt, pointed the way to the district commissioner’s office. In spite of his mustache, he looked younger to me and much handsomer than most American college freshmen, and the shorts accentuated his youth as they did the juvenile aspect of nearly all the officials in the district. The pattern of empire was printed firm on Moroto. The administrative buildings, the bungalows of the administrators, the rest house, the club, and the beginnings of a nine-hole golf course were all authentic. Nevertheless, from my first minutes there to my last, a question hovered over it. Why was the installation there at all? Later I was interested to find that several residents of Moroto had considered this same problem. Beyond the soccer field came the wrong side of the tracks, or, more correctly, the native section, with stores, shade trees, a few thatched dwellings near a road that rapidly dwindled to a footpath, but even here the inhabitants were imports from other districts. It was too late that day to look for Karamojo natives. Actually the Karamojo never did appear to be attracted to Moroto.
I WAS surprised at first that our arrival in Moroto was acknowledged politely but with no enthusiasm. Instead of being interested in strangers, as people are fictionally supposed to be at civilization’s outposts, official Moroto treats its transients more as a necessary burden than as a means of relieving its boredom. The district commissioner was away settling a border quarrel. His assistant, who was very busy, confirmed our reservations at the rest house. He was in charge of everything, but he looked as young as, if more harassed than, the subaltern. There was going to be a track meet the next afternoon on the playing field, he said. Some Karamojo might be among the spectators, and the day after, he believed, the Karamojo were putting on a sacrificial rain ceremony because of the dry weather. It might be possible for us to see it.
It was a relief to learn by indirection that Moroto was not a tourist center. It was self-sufficient and enthusiastically absorbed with its own problems and activities. Everyone I saw in Moroto was hard-working and intensely interested in what he did. Official Moroto consisted of a devoted band of brothers and sisters, but their means of communication was limited. They could all speak Swahili, the lingua franca that unifies thought in East Africa, but few of them, except priests and missionaries, could speak more than a lew words or phrases of the Karamojo dialect. In the colonial office, their tour of duty was limited to four years, scarcely time to pick up a language not too well understood even by scholars. Yet, in spite of this handicap, their general knowledge of every corner of the district and its customs astonished me. When it came to Karamojo, these young men, if not their wives and children, were specialists; and, incidentally, an unusually large number of them put in for a second four-year tour there. There was a charm about Karamojo that even I could sense after a stay of forty-eight hours.
In the last forty years, because border warfare and homicide are discouraged and medical officers are in the district, the population of the Karamojo has doubled, and, unfortunately, their cattle herds have increased so that there are five head to every man, woman, and child. The district is overgrazed, and erosion has set in, but no Karamojo can be shown why his herds should be cut down any more than he can be made to understand why wild animals should not be trapped. I can see why such problems of imbalance and education might fascinate administrators, but I could not sec the reason for a track meet. There was no reason, as far as the Karamojo were concerned. But it was a gesture of togetherness designed to create good feeling among the soldiers, the police, the bureaucrats, and the servants, nearly all of whom had come from outside of Karamojo.
The rest house is a British institution, created by necessity. A rest house, as has been pointed out to me on several occasions, is not a hotel, and, I am sorry to say, the assistant district commissioner felt obliged to tell me during my stay in Moroto that he was not a hotelkeeper. A rest house is a place where travelers might spend the night while wandering through wild Africa on useful errands. Tourists are not encouraged and are given beds only when there is a shortage of officials. If an official should appear suddenly, I am led to believe that a tourist would be outranked and bumped out of bed and plumbing and placed outdoors under canvas. There were four bedrooms, a dining room with two tables, some easy chairs, and a veranda attended by barefoot servants in white robes, sashes, and tarbooshes.
No one spoke to anyone else that evening, but the next day a British major, who carried a bag of golf clubs to breakfast, was kind to me, and we had a few moments of constrained conversation. He always took his clubs with him in case he might have a chance to play the Moroto golf course. It was the first I had heard of a golf course. It was only nine holes, he said; not bad, considering, and would improve, given time. Then he was silent for a second, and we may have both been thinking the same thing. How much time would there be in Moroto for the improvement of a golf course, now that all the clocks in Africa were striking twelve? There was still good hunting up the valley, he said, bushbuck and so on. There was never a dull moment in Moroto.
I saw the golf course later. The greens were packed sand. The fairways, grazed by cattle, stretched between the hills across gullies toward the mountains. Its appearance there was tremendously pathetic. It was, like the track meet, a tidal mark of a culture, the only golf course in Karamojo and as unstable as the land’s future, the symbol of a waning influence that could still defy the currents of nationalism. Would there be a golf course in Moroto a decade from now? For that matter, would there be any Moroto at all?
I SAW my first grade-A Karamojo next afternoon. The assistant district commissioner had been right. A few of the people had been sufficiently interested in the track meet to walk some miles to see it, and by that time I was becoming adjusted to Moroto in much the same way as a passenger accepts his environment on shipboard after a day at sea. But I never did grow adjusted, and I do not believe I ever would have, to the anthropological mixture of race and creed and culture that gathered about the playing field to see the events of the track meet. I should guess that there were perhaps two hundred people, and, in spite of their variations, they were a good-natured group. The field had been roped off, and a few khaki-clad askaris, or police, were there to keep enthusiasts, mostly children, from crawling beneath the ropes and interfering with the foot races. A handful of Hindu women had come from the shopping center about seventy-five yards distant. Their rainbowhued saris looked more decorative and comfortable than the cotton frocks of a dozen European wives who were supervising the arrangement of a tea table for the judges. The main part of the crowd was plain East Africa, the men and boys who had come to work in Moroto as mechanics, gardeners, house servants, or ordinary laborers. They wore Africa’s conventional civilian garments, shorts and sport shirts. They were all barefooted and bareheaded. Their women were draped in brightcolored prints imported from Manchester.
What was as impressive as the golf course, and at the same time touching, was the pattern of sportsmanship and really-not-patronizing-at-all good fellowship that ruled that whole company and was implicitly accepted. Except for eccentricities of dress and for degrees of pigmentation, I might have been witnessing a scene from Trollope. The meet was a party for the tenantry, with jovial games on the village green, which people from the Great House, including the curate, graced as a social obligation. There was actually a curate, or a most adequate substitute, in the shape of a Catholic priest wearing a tropical cassock of his order, and the wives of Protestant missionaries, who were living some twenty miles down the road. Everyone cheered the winner of the hundred-yard dash and shrieked with delight at the bicycle races. The familiar pattern of these conventions was neat and reassuring. It may have represented only reflex action, the twitching of the snake’s tail until sundown, but, then, the union jack was flying.
There was only one ethnic segment which did not appear to comprehend the reason for this meeting. This was a group of Karamojo, most of whom stood together, bewildered, on the outer edge of the spectators, with expressions that reminded me of the story of the Chinese ambassador who, when asked at a party in Washington if he cared to dance, asked in turn why he should do so when he could pay someone to do it for him. They did not know which end was up at the track meet at Moroto. They were lightly clad. Except for enormous hoops of beaded-wire necklaces, which I am told they never removed once they were set in place, the women were nude down to the waist but covered from the middle down to below the knee by skirts made of strips of cowhide. They were squat and rather ugly, as contrasted with their men, but obviously capable of great feats of endurance. They chatted together in high voices in a dialect with more tonal variations than Swahili.
Four unpretentious Karamojo men sat on a log near them, chewing what I imagine was tobacco from the store. They had passed their middle thirties, which I should judge was elderly. They had reached an age, at any rate, that did not care for the vanity of adornment. They carried long staffs. Their hair was neatly mixed with mud. Each wore a bit of cloth over his shoulders, but otherwise they were in their birthday suits, naked and unashamed. A delightful detail of this social picture was its tolerance. There was no thought of indecent exposure. Karamojo did not have to wear trousers when they came to town unless they so desired, and, from my brief study, few had the inclination.
Then, a little further off, I saw a sight that I shall never forget. Standing near a Ford car, and none the worse off for the contrast, was a welldressed Karamojo man, proud and straight, a good six feet in his leather sandals, his posture relaxed but his muscles those of a well-trained athlete. He had the Nubian blackness of his people, a color which reproduces badly on chromatic film. His features were not Negroid, because the Karamojo are of Hamitic stock, like the ancient Egyptian or the modern Berber, and his features could easily have come from an Egyptian bas-relief—straight nose, high forehead, thinnish lips. There were but slight differences. He had a neatly curled mustache and a light growth of carefully combed beard. His hair, done in small braids, was put up in a sort of bun, reinforced with mud; and above it, on a clip, were two splendid white ostrich plumes. To add to his beauty, his lower lip was cut to permit the insertion of a white object, either a sea shell or a piece of china, but this did not damage the proud symmetry of his features. His cape, a drab piece of cotton material, was draped over his left shoulder in such meticulous folds that he might have been a model in a Fifth Avenue shop window. He grasped a long spear shaft in his right hand. It was against regulations for Karamojo to come armed into a settlement. In the same hand, together with his spear shaft, he held a small wooden stool that could be used either as a seat or as a pillow. His right shoulder was left bare to display a dotted tattoo that stretched down the arm toward the elbow and also made a path across his chest. This tattoo, which was his combat medal, indicated, according to his British guardians, that he had killed a man, an act that placed him in the warrior class.
Aside from his upper drapery and his sandals, essential in the rough, thorny country, he wore nothing else, and in my opinion he needed no more. A breechcloth would have marred him, as the Spartans felt it marred their appearance in the Olympic games. He stood there, watching the track meet with patient condescension, as far removed from that docile crowd in thought, compulsion, and culture as someone descending from a flying saucer. After a glance at him, I thought the runners looked ungainly. The same thought may have flitted through his mind, since it is said that a Karamojo can run as fast as a gazelle and over rough terrain. He would not have been so effective if there had been a dozen others like him. His solitary splendor was what made him dramatic.
He had traveled down a different ethnic path from the Nordic inhabitants of Moroto. His ancestors had dealt with their own survival problems, which were very different from mine, but still, he filled me with a sentimentality that would have met the approval of Rousseau. I hoped to heaven that nothing would harm or degenerate this son of nature. Of course, I could see that this hope was very slender. All the spectators around the running track had arrived there with the purpose of changing him, spiritually and physically, so that he could be a more useful entity in a modern world. And I saw a visual proof that the contagion was working already. A friend, another Karamojo, stood near this perfect, uncontaminated specimen. He, too, wore an excellent ostrich plume, but a light drab sweater instead of a shoulder cloth. This garment reached slightly below his navel, and it was secured around his waist by a European belt. Thus the distinguishing marks of his masculinity were exposed as his friend’s to the gentle breeze of that clear Moroto afternoon, but the sweater completely removed him from any Rousseau category and from nobility to the ludicrous. Without his knowing it, he had become a figure of fun, an after-dinner anecdote — but nobody else in Moroto, as far as I could see, was aware of this touch of comedy.
TEA and soda pop and spice cakes were being served at the judges’ table, a wholly desegregated collation, and the Catholic padre, a cordial, energetic Italian, the closest thing there was to a public relations officer, had singled me out. It was his hope that I would have time to see his mission school. The Karamojo were averse to sending their children there. Most of the Karamojo children attending had been obliged to run away from home. I learned from other sources that the number of young Karamojo in the school was negligible, and it was necessary to paper the house by importing children from Kenya. I am sorry that my time in Moroto was so fleeting that I did not see more of the padre. He understood the Karamojo dialect and, I suspect, had considerable knowledge regarding his customers’ domestic and religious habits.
The wife of a Church of England missionary and a nurse from the mission were also at tea. Like many unregenerate travelers, I have never cared for missionaries as a class, but the padre and the two young ladies were humorous, tolerant, and intelligent, and they liked the Karamojo. The missionary’s wife said that they were encountering theological difficulties that arose from a logical question asked by the Karamojo. If the Church of England and the Catholics believed in the same God, they wanted to know, what was the religious difference? Then the trained nurse told a story of treating a Karamojo baby with burns about his head. She was horrified during her examination to discover that she had pulled off what she believed was the infant’s scalp. It took her some time to find that it was a goat’s membrane that had been applied as a poultice by the baby’s mother.
By this time, the great event of the afternoon was due to start, a tug of war between the civil servants and the African police. It struck me that this was a racial contest that might arouse antipathies among the crowd, but here I was quite wrong. Muscular bureaucrats appeared, toughened and inured to hardship in the bush. They lined up on one side of the rope, digging their boot heels into the Karamojo turf, hardly fair, since most of the heavier askaris had only the heels that God had given them. In the midst of shouting in Swahili and other languages, the white men once again succeeded in carrying their burden by pulling their black fellow workers over the line two times out of three.
I had a glimpse of the two plumed Karamojo watching this last contest. They looked, as they turned away and drifted toward the row of Hindu shops, as if they could see no purpose in it, and I followed them and the rest of the Karamojo to the Hindu dukans. They chatted among themselves, lively and well disposed, not caring whether I was there or not. It was momentarily hard to see, after the bright sun outdoors, inside the windowless dukans lighted only by open doorways, but once accustomed to the gloom, I was looking at a print by a modern Hogarth. There were shelves of merchandise, mostly bolts of cotton gingham, staples like salt and tobacco, and an assortment of wire and beads that might interest both ladies and gentlemen. On one side of the counter was the sallow, saturnine Hindu shopkeeper in somber European clothes. On the other were nudist Karamojo, with their staffs and bracelets, chaffering for tobacco or Coca Cola, a beverage that evidently gave them pleasure. I never did find out what they used for money, or, if they had coins, where they put them.
The shadows were growing long in Moroto, and there would be a party at the club that night, a farewell for some members of the community who had been transferred to other posts. As I walked along the dusty road toward the rest house, I might as well have been on the other side of the looking glass of Lewis Carroll. I was very keenly aware of being a stranger in a strange country, but, then, everyone else was a stranger in Moroto. They were all there to help the Karamojo. They were representing the compulsion of our age to assist the underprivileged in far places. And although the Karamojo were still ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed, it could be that they preferred it that way.
NO GROUP in England could have been as traditionally British as the company at the Moroto club. It is an instinct, of course, for all people to cling with avidity to the manners and customs of home when they are in unfamiliar surroundings. There were two boys behind the small bar to serve drinks, which were paid for by coupons. There was a simple but carefully prepared buffet. The club was small, with a room suitable for dancing and an alcove pantry that also contained a bookcase with a jumble of unsorted literature left by departing guests.
The club was so far up the slope above Moroto that electricity had not been installed, and its light was derived from candles and pressure lanterns. It was surrounded eccentrically by irrigation ditches that made me wonder why members did not fall into them and suffer from contusions. One reason may lie in the high cost and low proof of spirituous liquors available in East Africa, all of which are dispensed in one-ounce jiggers, and so abstemiousness has been forced upon most of East Africa, particularly on young people on civil servants’ salaries. Thus, there was none of the hubbub of raised voices that one associates with an American cocktail party, only the quiet conversation of pretty English girls and young men, all of whom that night might have been models for a pen-and-ink drawing in a pre-war edition of Punch. They were shy, with the exaggerated shyness of people who have been thrown together for a long while. It was an effort for them to have asked me and one which I appreciated. They were gossiping among themselves about friends and domestic doings, speaking a social language as unknown to me as the Karamojo tongue, but not until set speeches had been made — the humorous, contrived addresses that one may hear at any farewell party. At the end of each speech, someone would say, “Three cheers — hip, hip, hurrah!” The cheers rang out bravely but thinly against the monumental silence of the Karamojo night. Then, after the cheering, came the ritualistic song For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, or For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow, whichever the case might be.
If my description of this social effort sounds either condescending or disparaging, this was not at all my feeling. The memory of that dimly lighted club (the pressure lamps continually needed pumping) is one of the most poignant that I have brought back with me from that journey, fitting with my reaction to the golf course in Moroto and the judges’ tea at the track meet. The people there were all endowed with a gallantry and a loyalty to a standard that were the more impressive because they were a part of every day. As I stepped out onto the dark porch, pleased that I had remembered a flashlight and pleased also that I had a fifth of Scotch in my luggage at the rest house, a young official asked me how I liked Moroto. I told him I was enjoying my time there, and I asked him how he liked it.
“It’s well enough here,” he said, or words to this effect. “This is a congenial lot, and the morale is good, but I like it better when I am making trips upcountry. I cannot tell you why exactly, except that the country and the people grow on one. There’s nothing much like it anywhere else.”
That is what everyone kept saying. There was nothing much like it. I would not have appreciated what they meant or have understood the wistfulness in their voices if I had not been one of three white people present next day at a great ceremonial meeting of a portion of the Karamojo. There must have been five hundred of them, in full regalia, and twice that number of cattle. The rumor had been true. The delegations were coming from the thatched villages, with witch doctors, to perform a sacrifice and ceremonial dance in order to bring rain.
The difficulty was that no one knew exactly where this gathering would take place, only that it would be comparatively near Moroto. We left the rest house at nine o’clock in the morning to try to find the meeting under the guidance of an askari, who was barefoot, dressed in khaki shorts and tunic, a red tarboosh, and a finely polished leather belt, all badges of his office, but with no weapon. As things turned out, if there had been trouble where we went, as there could have been because of mass hysteria, a gun would have done no good against the Karamojo spears and the enthusiasts who knew exactly how to handle them. Musimi drove us in the Land Rover, the only vehicle, I think, with the exception of a safari truck or a tractor, that could have made the trip. The meeting place for this formal ceremony was an open grazing area ten miles from Moroto. It took us an hour and a half to get there in the Land Rover, which indicates the rough going.
I have never known a community that could be erased so rapidly by the surrounding country as Moroto. We were not more than a half mile from its environs when Moroto ceased to exist for all practical purposes. The road disappeared into a path that wound into rocky gullies and ugly eroded washes that made the Land Rover jolt and lurch and frequently brought it to a stop. The withering fields of maize bounded by rows of yellow sisal were ephemeral and uninviting. Women carrying burdens upon their heads and naked children emerged from the brush-protected yards and waved at the Land Rover.
We knew finally that we were on the right track when we saw a Karamojo man in his very best clothes. His ostrich-plume headdress was a magnificent creation. He not only had a lip ornament but a nose ornament of flat oval metal, conceivably the top of a tin can, that I have heard is worn only by individuals prepared for war. He carried a spear and a cattle-hide shield. Instead of a cloth drape on his shoulders, he wore a leopard skin, and also feathery anklets with bells on them. When the askari called, he ran up to the Land Rover with a delightful jingling of bells, but he was not so attractive at close view because, besides exuding a very pungent, unwashed odor, his face, streaked with sweat, was covered by a mat of African flies, which he did not bother to brush away. In a voice that twanged like the call of a bullfrog, he gave directions, pointing with his spear toward a distant settlement.
It was the largest Karamojo village that I had seen, no doubt in every feature like a similar village of a thousand years before — the same thatched huts, the same small entrances through the heaps of thorn bushes that formed the village wall. We were reading a half-deciphered page of historical anthropology. In fact, for most of that day, except for the Land Rover and some other minor details, the time clock was turned back for eight or nine centuries. Outside the village, herdboys with long sticks were driving groups of cattle toward an open area about half a mile away. Some Karamojo women, bending nearly double to get through the entrances of the wall, came out to look at us, and then a few men, but my curiosity to examine the social structure more closely evaporated when I smelled the place and definitely knew that the Karamojo were not dependent upon soap and water or on any enlightened form of sanitation. The askari called to the women, who pointed to the cattle. We were nearly at the rain sacrifice.
The Land Rover stopped at the edge of a parched piece of land, and without our being particularly aware of it, we saw we were being gradually encircled by Karamojo cattle. They were being herded there to form the background of the ceremony, but except for some women in necklaces who came to stare at us and to giggle hysterically‚ I could see no Karamojo. Then, far beyond the cattle wall came the sound of bells and the blowing of bass horns, and we began to see bands of Karamojo bent double and running, converging behind the ring of cattle. Their spears glittered in the sunlight. Their ostrich plumes were only half concealed by the thornbushes while they crouched at the edge of the cattle circle, all in full regalia, waiting for some signal that would start the show.
It was plain that the rituals were about to start when some Karamojo who appeared to be spectators appeared, including two enormous men in European dress, who spoke to the askari and then shook hands with us. They were Karamojo chiefs. Each wore a felt hat with an ostrich plume, a white shin and tie, and blue serge trousers. The tie of die more jovial of the pair was a painted one showing a nude girl in a cocktail glass with “Good Health!” inscribed above her. He was delighted when I displayed enthusiastic interest in the tie; but, still, those European costumes were a jarring note, and I was further disturbed when I was introduced to a smaller man, bright-eyed, with a black spade beard, wearing an antiquated pith helmet, a neat tweed coat, and tweed shorts. He turned out to be the chief of all the Karamojo, and he expressed pleasure that we were there. I should have realized, of course, that the greater chiefs of African tribes have been prone, ever since white men first reached Africa, to wear European clothes, generally silk hats and frock coats on formal occasions, as a mark of sophistication, social status, and leadership. The chief of all the Karamojo invited us to stand with the noblesse under a small tree in the center of the field.
It was thoughtful of the chief and a most useful invitation, for shortly afterwards we were Trader Horns who might easily have got in the way of everyone. We were not under the tree long when a war party of plumed spearmen emerged from a nearby thorn thicket, appearing with a dreamlike suddenness. They made no sound, except for the gentle tinkling of their ankle bells, until someone blew a soft note on a long wooden bass horn, identical with the lowing of the cattle in the background. Their regalia must have had a symbolic significance, but this was beyond my grasp, and unfortunately none of the Karamojo leaders spoke English. I could only gaze in an uneducated way at the barbarous patchwork of color that had appeared. My main impression was that the spearmen were as indigenous as the thornbushes, a logical spiritual emanation. Their black and oily bodies had a purplish hue that blended deceptively with the shadows of the bush behind them. Their plumed headdresses each had a religious meaning as they tossed and waved above leopardand lion-skin cloaks. Their faces were fiercely grave, some smeared with designs in wood ash or ocher.
There was no doubt that their leader, huge and proud as Lucifer, was an important member of the religious hierarchy that would help with rain production. When he gave a command in a low growling voice, the front rank of spearmen knelt or crouched and the shields of the whole band went forward and the spears came down to the ready. A horn had sounded at the opposite side of the clearing, and another band of warriors dashed out to meet the first, making menacing sounds, with their spears poised for throwing. They sprang forward but stopped in good order before they reached the crouching band in front of them. There was a deep-voiced murmur of an incantation, and then the groups broke up and moved away. It was exasperating not to know what it had all been about. One could only know that the moment had been grave and solemn, and the illusion of solemnity had been created only with that faint background of sound. There had been no beating of drums, which one automatically associates with Hollywood Africa, for the Karamojo, I understand, are not drummers.
Then another war party ran across the plain, straight at the tree where the chiefs stood, both spearmen and archers, grunting, stamping, halting, and moving forward in a mimic warfare, their faces writhing with fury. They charged toward us at a loping run which was more coordinated than anything I had seen at the Moroto track meet. It could have been that they were attacking the forces of evil preventing rainfall, but whatever they were doing, they made me nervous. Just before reaching us they veered away, and I saw that they were followed by their women, who gave a series of bloodthirsty yapping shrieks. It may have been a group competition, since a succession of war bands, with their shrieking wives and sweethearts, followed the first. The field now was assuming the appearance of a De Mille extravaganza and gave the same impression of directed order.
Finally, there must have been five hundred Karamojo around us, eccentrically decorated. Whatever they were doing religiously, they were also beginning to have a delightful time of it. A sort of euphoria was setting in that struck me as a prelude to mass hysteria. The women were gathering in their own group, all in their best aprons, bracelets, and earrings. Some were painted in leopard spots, some wore strips of calico. They broke into a screaming chant, and as they chanted they jumped up and down without any particular pattern or timing. In the meantime the religious men had built what looked like an altar of thornbushes. I was moved by the contagion of the scene, which offered so many of the extrovert aspects that psychologists now believe are emotionally desirable. My necktie chief pointed at the jumping women, laughing heartily when I signified delight and approval. We were becoming a little band of brothers beneath the scanty shade tree, and I could see why civil servants enjoyed being with the Karamojo; but time was marching on.
The party was becoming interminable. I kept thinking they would sacrifice a bull at any moment, but nothing happened, and the singing, dancing women began to look like a pan of black bean soup coming to a boil. The truth was, it was time for us to go. We did not belong there, and now that the wave of elation increased around us, we might have outstayed our welcome if we had waited much longer. Besides, museum fatigue was setting in. That is one trouble with travel. You can see only so much, and if you endeavor to absorb more, everything becomes lost. I was reaching my personal saturation point, and I was relieved that the rest of our party also began believing that it was time to leave. The women were still dancing when we drove through the circle of lowing Karamojo cattle. We were going back to our own tribe and our own Anglo-Saxon customs, back for one more night to the dogma of Moroto.
“It’s the last of old Africa,” my friend the veteran district commissioner said, and then he added an afterthought. “There may not be another sight like that anywhere a few years from now.” He had seen the disappearance of the game in Kenya. He had seen the building of the towns and farms and the slow education of the Kenya tribes. Certainly I was in no position to dispute him when he intimated that change was coming over Karamojo.
I had seen a great deal in those few days. I believed I had seen the whole fabric of changing Africa, and the answers to its future were implicit in these sights, if I could only guess those answers. I have not been able to guess them yet, but it still delights me to ponder over the significance of the things I saw in Karamojo. My main impression was unintelligently sentimental. I wished, I hoped that something might occur, as it may, to cause civilization to leave the Karamojo alone. The rain sacrifice seemed to me more genuine for the setting than the Moroto track meet, and more durable. There is a fear in administrative circles that if the administration of East Africa is turned over to native Africans, not much will be done for the Karamojo. Personally, this possibility did not worry me. The Karamojo had looked out for themselves for a long while, and they might be glad to continue. At any rate, after weeks of drought, it poured torrents that afternoon.