British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Ted Wilmot
First Foot Ulendo
Ulendo Porters
Shortly after I had arrived at Chiromo upon my first posting, my predecessor left on holiday and I saw him off on the train. As it had not been practicable to organise a walking ulendo while he was still around, it was agreed that the ADC for Port Herald would let me come with him on a joint ulendo to the Chief Mlolo whose area included Chiromo but whose headquarters was about 15 miles north of it at the foot of the escarpment. Carriers were required for tents and loads, and I was advised to request them from a large village, Jiwaki, about one mile from Chikonje, where I was housed. These duly arrived, and under the supervision of my messenger who knew the drill, we all moved to Mlolo's headquarters. I am not sure whether the ADC used his car and gave me a lift, or whether he had come up on the train with a bicycle, and we both cycled. In any case he introduced me to the Chief, the camp was set up, and a meeting held. I remember particularly that the "gifts" of the Chief included two fat chambo on a plate. The ADC did his bit, which was to give a short exhortatory talk, listen to any comments or complaints, and then look into the Court books and the record of tax payers, including the granting of waivers to the old and infirm. Then I was turned on. At that stage although I had a smattering of the language from my studies in England, I was in no position to make a comprehensive address to the polite village elders! The technical policy which I was supposed to impart was "Ridging for Soil Conservation". The local Agricultural Instructor was an old timer, but did not speak English. So I had either to go through the ADC or use signs. That first day he helped. The following morning he announced that much as he would have liked to continue the ulendo, he had been recalled urgently to Port Herald, and that I was to carry on for the next 7 days. He gave me a list of the villages to which I was expected to go, and explained that they had been warned, got on his bicycle (or was it car) and was off.

At that point it came to me that here I was for the next seven days, entirely dependent on my rudimentary knowledge of the language, expected to communicate with those around me, and also to try and get technical ideas across to the local population, while at the same time making my mark as an individual presence in the district and with my staff. (I learnt subsequently that this was an established technique for getting new officers to get to grips with the language quickly.) Also, for this was very important, I had to learn as soon as possible the pattern of agriculture and life in the areas where I was assigned. I had been briefed earlier that I should not try and advise the locals on the growing of food crops, as they knew infinitely more about it than I did. I was there to observe, and to facilitate economic production. It was only by travelling around, seeing the villagers in their gardens and discussing with them that I would be able to understand their way of life, what were their needs and what could be used to influence them. I had already reached an understanding with the messenger and the houseboy over the more domestic items, but I had to learn the technical terms. I had some inklings as I had tried to read the vernacular monthly reports of the staff for the previous month. I fell back on rehearsal. During the mornings as we travelled, we would accost some villager. Taking a hoe, I would endeavour to show a sample of what we were talking about, then I would get the Instructor to repeat the spiel, but with the proper Chinyanja explanations. I could then see if he did not get it quite as I wanted it, and could get him to correct it. After three or four of these performances, the Instructor had got pretty well what I wanted to demonstrate. So at the afternoon meeting, where I was introduced, I would say a few words in bad Chinyanja that I was glad to be there, to thank the chief and people for coming to the meeting, and then saying that I would ask the Instructor, Jailosi, to explain the message as he would do it much better than I could.

First Foot Ulendo
Elephant Marsh
This area lay between the escarpment and the River Shire, and in fact included much of the Elephant (Ndindi) marsh. On the upper side the gardens could be quite hilly, and here rudimentary soil conservation could be valuable. However, below the line of the main villages there were extensive alluvial flats (madimba) where, even to my inexperienced eye, I could not detect any great signs of erosion! In one of these the department had a small rice variety trial, which I found I was supposed to supervise. One of the villages we camped in I remember because it was known as "Cimbuzi" which is the word used locally for "latrine". It was so called on account of the quality of its well water, which was in fact exceptionally saline. This was awful to drink or in tea, but made quite passable coffee. In fact the word "cimbuzi" (literally "the goat-thing") was correctly the term for the little tuft on the top of a thatched roof, where the thatch was fastened together. Its application to "latrines" was a transfer carried out by the early settlers, as latrines were an unknown matter before the settlers came. We finished up on the last day, in the village where the carriers had come from, so on the final morning it was an easy descent to the office and to open the cash chest to pay the carriers, extracting the requisite thumb prints!

I might add as a corollary, that as a result of this shock treatment (which at the time I regarded as inhumane) I was able to pass my Lower Chinyanja examination within my first year.

Colonial Map
Southern tip of Nyasland Map
Colony Profiles
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 88: October 2004