"Welcome to Zuru" the notice said, a mile before the town. But that was only later,
after months of tiresome experience had shown the need for something of the sort. For
Zuru was on the road to nowhere. Seventy miles north of Kontagora, and on a very
rough track which was only motorable in the dry season, it was seldom enough visited
by government officers, and certainly by nobody else, in those days immediately after
the second world war when government officers were so few on the ground and there
was so much else to claim their attention. Sometimes they came, but when they did
they were generally tired and tetchy, impatient and seemingly too busy to listen.
"Really this is the most backward place" they would say, and "No, I have no time to
show you now. I must be getting back to Kontagora."
And so I put up that notice, and immediately the mood of our visitors changed.
Somehow it made them feel that they were the guests of Zuru now, and now they were
prepared to listen and even perhaps to stay the night and to learn a little about Zuru.
For Zuru was different; like so many places in Africa it was different from the places all
around it. For this was the home of the Dakakari (Dakarkari) and, sheltered in their rocky hills, the
Dakakari people of Zuru and Dabai and the other villages had been able to hold out
against all their enemies for many centuries, and to preserve intact their very
distinctive social customs and way of life.
Nevertheless it had been a close run thing, with Kontagora on one side of them and
Gwandu on the other constantly raiding them for slaves. In particular the terrible
Nagwamache, the Destroyer, the Emir of Kontagora, had almost overcome them.
When he was finally brought to book by the British early in the new century, and was
offered his throne back if he promised to behave himself and to give up slaving,
Nagwamache had replied "Give up slaving? Can a cat, then, give up mousing? When I
die it will be with a slave in my mouth."
In 1900 the Dakakari were at their last gasp when news began to be heard of the
arrival of a strange new tribe at Yelwa on the river Niger, fifty miles away. A tribe of
men with white skins, it was said (really what extraordinary tales some people would
believe), but with some powerful magic too it seemed, and great big war canoes on the
river which belched out fire and smoke in the most alarming manner.
However, any port in a storm, and so it was decided to send ambassadors down to
this new tribe to see if they could enlist their help against Kontagora. The three bravest
warriors of the Dakakari were chosen for the job, and they were provided with the gifts
best calculated to please these strange people, three of the finest bulls the depleted
herds of Zuru could provide and a bevy of the most beautiful maidens; bulls and belles
it might be said.
So the embassy went down, and in due course it returned; and nearly fifty years later
I was to hear their story from the mouth of one of them. "We returned to Dabai," he
told me, "our principal village, and entered in to the presence of the Chief and fell flat
on our faces before him, as was the custom in those days. After the usual greetings had
been exchanged, "Well" he asked us, "and what did these people have to say to you?"
"They received us in peace," I answered. Then, taking out from my girdle a little box, a
box which measured no more than an inch or two across, I held it up to him. "This
box," I said, "they gave us". And while the Chief and his attendants gazed curiously
upon the box I took out from it one of the little white sticks it contained and struck it
sharply upon the side of the box so that it immediately caught fire. Then, as the flame
blazed up in front of them, I went on "and just as easily as this, they say, will they burn
And so indeed it came to pass only a few months later, and thanks to the two small
guns with the British column it was an almost bloodless victory. The British column
approached the town from the north, and found Nagwamache, the redoubtable Emir
of Kontagora, and all his army formed up outside the north gate awaiting their
approach. So the column halted to allow the guns to come in to action and to find the
range. But the first ranging round, as it happened, went a long way over and fell on the
Southgate of the town instead. Its effect was immediate, for with a cry of "Treachery"
the Emir and his army turned around and galloped hard for the south gate where they
imagined the real attack was coming after all; the gate was open and they galloped
straight through it and out and into the empty countryside beyond, leaving the British
free to occupy the town in peace.
For a while it seems that the Dakakari were properly grateful for the arrival of the
Pax Britannica and their deliverance from the menace of Kontagora, but after a few
years they became rather bored with the new order of things. There was a British
district officer in Zuru now who was forever telling them what to do, and more
annoyingly perhaps, what not to do, and so in 1908 they arose and drove him out. The
consequences of this rash action were to be long remembered. "I was up this tree here
with my bow and arrow", old Bagudu told me, "when the soldiers advanced along the
ridge down there towards us; and we were very brave that morning. Oh we were very
brave, until the bullets began to sing around our ears, that is. And then we ran; oh how
we ran! I did not stop myself until I reached Isgogo nearly ten miles away." But then he
had sat down to think and the outcome of his thoughts had been simply, "If you cannot
beat them, join them." So Bagudu had gone off and joined the army, and now he was
sergeant-major Bagudu, with a chest full of medals, a person of consequence in the
land, and the District Officer's trusted messenger and general factotum.
The District Officer, or rather the Assistant District Officer, the ADO was me.
With only two months experience in Nigeria, and speaking hardly a word of the
language, I had been sent to take charge of Zuru only for want of somebody better. But
here I was now, with Bagudu to show me the ropes and to keep me out of trouble with
the Zuru Native Authority, a federation of five small chiefdoms, to look after. My first
task, I had been told, must be to get on and implement that new town plan for Zuru.
For Zuru had grown up over the years at the foot of the hills with no sort of planning
whatsoever. It was now an unsightly and insanitary huddle of huts which was fast
becoming an African slum, and something would have to be done about it. So the
services of the Town Planning Officer had been called upon. Of course the Town
Planning Officer was too distant and too busy a man to visit Zuru himself, but a sketch
map of the place had been sent to him, and working from this he had produced a new
Town Plan for Zuru. It was in front of me now and very fine it looked, with special
areas set aside for public buildings, for schools and playing fields, for a new market
area and a lorry park, and with wide avenues sweeping boldly up in this direction and
But the more I studied it the more my hesitations grew. For a start it seemed a pity
that the finest feature of the present town would have to be destroyed. This was an
avenue of noble silk cotton trees through which the approach road ran; but the new
road would cut across it at an angle of thirty degrees. And then there was this borrow
pit, an enormous great pit from which the earth had been dug to build the present
town; but this had not been shown on the sketch map sent to the Town Planner, and
the road to the market would now have to plunge down into it and up the other side
again. Nor had our new wells been shown on the sketch map, and these now appeared
in the most inconvenient places, in the middle of a playing field for instance, or in a
And then, as I studied the plan further, the final nonsense appeared; the scale had
been wrongly shown on the original sketch map, and so the Town Planner's roads were
twice as wide as he had intended and his compounds were four times the size.
I was new to Nigeria and I now made the mistake of reporting these difficulties and
asking what I should do. I might have saved myself the trouble, for I was abruptly told
simply to make whatever adjustments were necessary and get on with it. So I said
goodbye to the Town Planner's plan and made my own. With a hand held compass
and a chain I surveyed the area afresh (a little fudging was necessary, but it looked all
right in the end), and then I drew my own town plan upon it.
Now we were back where we had started and I had to implement the thing. And here
I struck the next difficulty, for it appeared that only 100 pounds had been provided in the
Native Authority's estimates for the work to be done and, even at the prices ruling in
those days, this was altogether insufficient. But the five chiefs of Zuru were not at all
put out. "Oh, but we don't need to pay for it", they said, "we can call in the gwolmo
youths to do the work for us free of charge and then we can spend the money on
drummers for them and free beer. The gwolmo youths are under contract to work for
their fathers-in-law anyway, and it will make no difference if they work for us instead."
It seemed to me that it would make all the difference in the world. This sounded
altogether too much like forced labour, and forced labour in Africa was a very hot
potato in those days. However, I could see no other way of getting the work done so,
after checking up to see that no important visitors who might object were expected to
come to Zuru in the next few weeks, I gave my approval.
And so Xhe gwolmo youths came in from the district around, hundreds of them at a
time and set about the work with a will. After all, they thought, what could be more fun
than knocking down the whole of Zuru town, and with free beer and drummers too.
For three weeks the noise, the dust and the confusion were indescribable; but in a
surprisingly short time a brand new town arose upon the ashes of the old, and
everybody seemed pleased. Indeed I found that those who had been loudest in the
'Hands off our lovely town' campaign before the work started, were now the first to
exclaim how beautiful the new town looked.
But all this needs explaining. Who were the gwolmo youths? Well, the gwolmo
youths were a feature of the peculiar social system of the Dakakari, a system which
ensured that the young men were kept under firm control and were usefully employed
until the age of 25 or so, when they were free to marry and settle down.
At the age of 13 a Dakakari boy would join his village wrestling club. Wrestling was
to Zuru what football is in England; it was the national sport and a consuming passion,
before which all other interests would fade away. The victories of champion wrestlers
were celebrated in song and verse and every young man aspired to be a champion
So now for the next five years the growing lad would be a wrestler and one of a very
select club, the pampered hopefuls of this village; he was fed like a fighting cock, no
farm work was expected of him but, with the other members of the club, he would
spend his time travelling around the Zuru area and wrestling there in every village in
In the evenings, after the active business of the market had finished in town or
village, a circle would be formed, a circle of loudly enthusiastic and knowledgeable
spectators. The boys would seat themselves around the circle, each village in a little
group by itself. Then a boy from here would go across and challenge a boy of similar
size and weight from another village; and soon there would be four or five pairs
wrestling simultaneously in the circle. The dust and the noise would be indescribable
as the crowd roared on their favourites; and self-appointed stewards would be holding
the ring and keeping the spectators back with whips and curses. After each throw the
victor would run across and kneel in front of the principal spectator, one of the chiefs
perhaps or the ADO, to be rewarded with a kola nut or a penny pressed upon his
This would be the boy's life for five years, but then the word would be given that the
class of 1945 had now passed out and he would enter upon the next phase of his life
cycle. By this time he had travelled widely throughout the land of Zuru, visiting and
wrestling in every village in turn, and by this time he had seen, and had been seen, and
admired by every girl there was. By now he had chosen his bride and now he would
have to work for her. As Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, so he would work seven
years for his beloved.
But this would not be a simple one-to-one contract between him and his father-in-law
to be; rather he would now become a member of his gwolmo club, a club
comprising of all the young men doing their gwolmo service for their fathers-in-law in
a given area. Early every morning now in the farming season the club would parade,
and the members would be allotted by the sergeant majors to the farms on which they
were to work today. "Dan Baro needs three men; you three, off you go. Audu has
asked for five; you four from here, and yes, Musa, you can go with them today." And
there would be a purpose to this, for Musa was a bumptious young man who needed to
be taken down a peg or two, and today he would have to work alongside four men all
older and stronger than himself. From the moment they arrived on the farm in
mid-morning until the sun went down that evening they would be hard at work
without a break. Dressed only in a leather loin cloth, alongside each other in line
abreast, they would be hoeing between the lines of guinea corn at a furious, a frenetic
pace, and woe betide the man who could not keep up. Musa would be worked today
until, literally, he dropped from fatigue, and everybody would hear of it and would
have a good laugh at his expense.
Some years earlier this system had nearly caused the downfall of Leslie Goble, a
predecessor of mine in Zuru. I do not know what word is used in Dakakari to describe
the working of a man like this until he drops, but it is commonly translated into Hausa
by the word kashe, to kill; "We killed him", it would be said, and one day in Goble's
time a man did actually die under this treatment. Goble came to hear of it, heard that
the man had been killed, and naturally treated it as a case of homicide. It was not until
the case had come to trial in the High Court, I think, that the truth emerged, and Goble
was made to look very foolish. But such were the snares and pitfalls in a District
The Zuru Native Authority was a federation of five minor chiefdoms, as I have
already said. There was Dabai and Donko, Fakai and Wasagu and Sakaba. Until
recently, albeit a little reluctantly, the other four had all been persuaded to recognise the
grand old man of Dabai, Sami Daudu, as the primus inter pares and the permanent
chairman of their Council. His strong character dominated the others, and Dabai was,
after all, the central district of the five and heartland of the Dakakari. But on the death
of Sami Daudu in 1945 the other four would not agree to accord the same pre-eminence
to his successor, whom I have described elsewhere as Little Adamu. Little Adamu was
now in his middle forties, a pleasant and well meaning man, but he lacked the character
of Sami Daudu. Nor could any of the other four aspire to his position. However, Donko
was deeply respected, but he was old and clearly failing now and his district was very
small. Wasagu was a man of character, a great big bull of a man, but Wasagu district was
far away, forty miles away across the plains to the east. And Fakai and Sakaba were
clearly out of the running.
So faute de mieux we were having to make do with an unsatisfactory arrangement by
which all five chiefs were reckoned to be of equal status, and would meet in Zuru once a
month to conduct their business under a different chairman each month. In between these
meetings Little Adamu, living on the spot in Zuru, would answer from day to day; but
naturally, whatever he did, he stood to be criticised for it by the other four at the month's
end. The system did not work smoothly, and it was not without good reason that when
the government doctor visited Zuru about this time they all sent down to ask him if he
could give them an injection for wisdom.
After some years I believe that Little Adamu (but let us call him Dabai from now on)
did succeed to a large extent in filling the place left vacant by the death of Sami Daudu,
but first he had to be steered across some slippery patches. Take the matter of the
missing Jangali money for instance. Jangali was the cattle tax, a tax of 2/6d on every
head of cattle throughout the country. But the cattle were owned by the nomadic Fulani
people, and of course it is one thing to declare a tax on nomadic cattle and quite another
to collect it, and the annual collection of the Jangali was a hard ridden contest, a game of
hide and seek on horseback played out in the remotest areas of the bush; and now it
seemed that with the season coming to an end we were still well down on our collection.
So Dabai sent for the Ardo, the local Fulani headman, and asked him where had all the
cattle gone. "Cattle?" said the Ardo in a puzzled tone, "what are they? Oh you mean
those large animals with horns on top; oh yes I've seen one or two of those occasionally
in the bush, but I don't own any. Good heavens no, I am just a poor man with three
wives to support."
Faced with this attitude Dabai lost his patience and flung the Ardo into prison. Of
course he had no right to do anything of the sort, and he knew that if I came to hear of it
he would be in trouble, but he hoped that I would not. But come to hear of it, of course, I
did, and heard what was more that the Ardo had gone on hunger strike. This made things
much more difficult, because now I could not simply order his release without Dabai
suffering a serious loss of face So I kept quiet for three days, and then arranged that the Ardo's wives should be allowed to slip quietly into the prison one night to see him. It
worked. The Ardo's wives had no wish to be the Ardo's widows, and when they saw the
state he was in they told him to stop being an obstinate old man and tell us where the
cattle were. In fact they told us themselves. Had we looked along the border between
Wasagu and Sakaba districts, they asked. We had not, but we did so now and were able
to finish our Jangali collection satisfactorily.
Donko was a really delightful old boy and whenever I went up to his small but
attractive district in the north he received me like a favourite son. But he was getting
very old and doddery now, and Dick Greswell and I agreed that he ought to be retired to
make way for a younger man. Dick was the D.O. Kontagora, and so my immediate
senior officer, but as we were both of the same age and had both just come from
commanding batteries of field artillery in the Burma war we were very good friends.
So now Dick came up to Zuru and we asked Donko to come round to the house for
tea. The old man must have heard what was in the air, for he arrived looking ten years
younger. He refused our help to climb the steps up to the house, and for an hour he kept
his end of the conversation up superbly before staggering down the steps again and
collapsing into the arms of his servants outside. After such a performance we agreed that
there was nothing more to be done.
The only other government officer in Zuru at this time was Kwakwara. Kwakwara
was our well digger and his real name was George McClymont. In the wider world
outside, his lack of inches would ensure that he would never be known as anything but
Wee Mac, but here in Zuru he was Kwakwara, for had not the first well digger in Zuru
been a Mr Corcoran? Wee Mac hailed from one of the poorer districts of Glasgow and
he had a heart as big as his inches were short. He had spent the war years working on
some great big concrete things on the Clyde. Neither he nor his workmates knew what
they were for, and they were not encouraged to ask, but when the Normandy landings
took place they realised that they had been building the concrete caissons to form the
artificial Mulberry harbour.
With the war over, and well into his forties now. Wee Mac decided it was time to see
some more of the world, and so here he was in the Public Works Department, and our
well digger in Zuru.
He had arrived in the middle of the rains some months before me and had found
himself set down in a leaking rest house in Dabai with only half the equipment they
needed and no transport to carry it. Dabai could be a really spooky place in the rains,
almost empty of people, for everybody would be out on their farms many miles away on
the plains to the east. There were just hundreds of empty and shabby grey huts scattered
among a jumble of granite rocks and enormous grey and leafless baobab trees. After two
weeks there, all alone and with nothing to do. Wee Mac told me, he had nearly thrown
his hand in. Then he had pulled himself together. He was not going to be beaten so
easily, he decided. If the proper equipment was not available then he would improvise,
and if transport was not available to carry it he would use donkeys.
So he had set to work, and in no time at all he became a legend in Zuru. He learned a
few words of the Dakakari language, enough it seemed to serve him for all purposes.
His labourers, he soon saw, were ready to take advantage of him, so he sent down to
Lagos for two pairs of boxing gloves, and now whenever a man gave trouble one pair
would be thrown to him and he would find that he had to take on Wee Mac in person;
and despite his lack of inches Wee Mac knew how to box, and this would not be a joyful
In Zuru, Wee Mac had found his personal crusade; he was going to provide good
water for the Dakakari. And there was nothing they needed more, for so many of the
diseases of Africa are water-borne and the Dakakari had their full share of them. River
blindness had not been identified then, I think, but perhaps an even greater scourge was
the guinea worm. Wherever you went in Zuru in those days you would see men and
women hobbling along, their legs twisted and deformed by the guinea worm. This pest
came from the water and laid its eggs inside the leg. In due course a horrid white worm
would make its appearance and try to get out. If it could be drawn out whole, without
breaking, by being twisted around a thin sliver of wood, all would be well. But if it
broke off, it would fester and rot inside the leg and the man might be lame for life.
The life cycle of the worm depended on its getting back into the water. As the
women drew the water from the ordinary well, and it dripped down their legs from their
leaking leather buckets, it would become infected and would find its way back into the
well. But Wee Mac's job was to dig deep concrete lined wells with a concrete apron
round the top which would prevent the water getting back. How many he dug in Zuru I
do not know, but he spent twelve years in Nigeria and did more good than most of us
Some years later when I was Private Secretary to the Governor I heard that Wee Mac
was passing through Lagos on his way on leave and sought him out, "Come on, Mac" I
said, "put on a tie, you are coming with me," and I took him along to Government
House. The Governor was Sir John Macpherson, a man of Edinburgh through and
through; and that evening his other guests were quite neglected as Edinburgh and
Glasgow went at it hammer and tongs. It did a rather tired Governor all the good in the
world, he told me.
Perhaps it was just as well that both Dick and I were so recently out of the army.
Zuru had always provided more recruits for the army than any comparable area in
Nigeria, and many hundreds of recently demobilised ex-servicemen were now back in
Zuru who might have caused us serious trouble. It was easy to see that they had plenty
to grumble about. They had enjoyed their time in the army, they had been well fed and
well looked after, and had had easy access to their British officers whenever they had a
problem. They had travelled far afield, to East Africa and to India and Burma. They had
met men and seen sights which were inconceivable to their friends at home; and they
had fought a war and returned victorious. In many respects then, though they were
without any formal education, their eyes had been opened and they had a far wider
understanding of the world than before. But now they had returned home to find that life
in their villages was very little different from what it had been before they left.
Ignorance and disease were all around them, and their village and district Heads were
illiterate old men who knew nothing of their exploits in the Army and were uninterested
in hearing about them.
Elsewhere in the country the ex-servicemen had sometimes caused trouble, and
indeed here in Zuru, when the Governor had come up the year before, they had broken
ranks and surged around him with their questions and complaints. The Governor (it was
Sir Arthur Richards then) was well able to handle this sort of situation, but it had left a
nasty taste in the mouth and many doubts about the soundness of the ex-servicemen of
Zuru. So when Dick and I announced that we were going to hold a parade on Armistice
day, and all the ex-servicemen would be asked to come in to attend it, the people
thought that we were crazy. This was madness, they said, it was just asking for trouble.
However, we persisted; but we made our arrangements very carefully. Warrant Officers
and Sergeants were to come into Zuru the day before the parade, we said, and would
report to their respective Chiefs; those below the rank of Sergeant would not arrive
before the following morning and would report to their respective Warrant Officers or
Sergeants. We left the arrangements for the parade itself in the capable hands of one of
our two Regimental Sergeant Majors.
As he drove up to Zuru on the morning of the parade, Dick overtook a well dressed
and important looking gentleman on horseback with an attendant running along behind
him. On seeing Dick this gentleman leapt off his horse and drew himself up with the
smartest of smartest salutes. "No. 762148 Lance Corporal Audu Dabai reporting for
parade. Sir" he announced himself.
When we came on parade we found the men drawn up on three sides of a hollow
square and facing a dais on which the five chiefs were seated. On the left were the men
of 81st West African Division, on the right those of 82nd Division, and in the centre the
veterans of the First World War. Amongst these was one old man who had had himself
carried in on a stretcher and who told us proudly that he had taken part in the operations
which followed the Satiru rising of 1905. Dick inspected the parade and then the men marched past. Every man appeared to have kept his boots and at least some part of his
uniform, and they held themselves like guardsmen as they marched past the dais and
saluted the chiefs. All this was a strange and bewildering ceremony for the latter who
had never seen anything of the sort before. But they quickly understood the significance
of this public demonstration of loyalty, and the suspicions which had existed between
the two sides hitherto were dispelled from that moment.
From now on the ex-servicemen were to become a valuable factor in the social life of
Zuru. Widely respected and looked up to, they had seen so much more of the world than
the stay-at-homes, and they stood broadly for progress. Not for social unrest, even less
for revolution; nothing was further from their minds than that for first and foremost they
were a law abiding lot; but during their service they had seen that sometimes there were
other and better ways of doing things, and they were prepared to give it a try where the
older men were not. Take farming now for instance. Traditionally in Zuru farming
meant growing guinea com and nothing else. That was proper farming, that was, I
would be told, and then a man and his family need never go hungry. "But some of the
young men now are growing ground nuts and even cotton. Cotton indeed, what is the
use of cotton in a year of famine? But then the young men nowadays are soft." So spake
the older men who looked with scorn upon these new ideas. But the new ideas were
gaining ground nevertheless, and not before time, for Zuru was still very backward
But if Zum had been little affected by the 20th century there was another area nearby
which was totally untouched. 1 knew that Father Connolly of the White Fathers Mission
near Kontagora had been many years in this part of Nigeria and I had been told that if he
dropped a hint it was generally worth following up. So when Father Connolly dropped
in one day and happened to mention over dinner that he did not think that anyone had
been down to see the Acifawa recently I took note of it, and next morning in the office I
asked the chief scribe "What is the Acifawa?" "The Acifawa" he replied, "oh they are a
small tribe who keep themselves very much to themselves on their mountain down in
the south of Sakaba district. No, certainly nobody has been down to see them recently,
why should they? Nobody speaks their language. They pay their tax and they cause us
no trouble so why worry about them? Anyway Mr. Cater went down to see them in
1928 and he was satisfied."
Mr Cater had been the DO in 1928 and the inference was clear that what had been
good enough for Mr Cater in 1928 ought to be good enough for me now. And I was not
surprised, for Mr Cater had been a much respected man. Leading up to the DO's house
in Zum was a fine avenue of mango trees, and when the fruit were ripe all the children
of the town would come and feast themselves off the windfalls. But after a while I
noticed that they would never touch the mangoes from one particular tree, and they were
specially good mangoes on that tree too. I asked why, and was told "Oh that is a very
special tree of a new type which was brought here from Kaduna by Mr Cater, and he
said that we were not to touch it." And so, twenty years later, Mr Cater's word was still
the law in Zum.
The District Head of Sakaba was an old man, and quite illiterate, who had been
appointed only a few months before and only for want of somebody better qualified
when his predecessor had been dismissed for cormption. He had never wanted the job,
but being in it he was anxious to do his best, and most certainly, he said, he would come
down with me to see the Acifawa, it should be interesting.
As we rode across the plains of southern Sakaba a mountain began to appear before
us, a great rounded hump of bare granite it seemed, standing out above the grasslands of
the plain. Slowly, as we drew nearer, we saw that its slopes were alive with a multitude
of excited, chattering people. A great crowd of them met us at the foot of the hill, most
of them young and most of them stark naked. Then one man wearing a leather girdle
called for silence and came forward. In rather shaky Hausa he introduced himself. He
was the representative of their King and Godhead, he said, who lived up on the very top
of the mountain above, and who hoped that I would climb up to visit him. As we
climbed we were surrounded by crowds of these friendly chattering people, anxious to
show me this and show me that. Here was their sacred pool, they said. A dragon lived in
it and had to be appeased three times a year with sacrifices of dogs. And here was the
secret valley in the heart of the mountain where their village was and where they grew
their crops, secure from all prying eyes and strangers. And now they must leave me, for
I was to climb on up to see their king, and this was something they were not allowed to
Led by the man in the leather girdle we were now a party of four. Behind me were
just the District Head and old Bagudu my messenger. Steps had been cut in the bare
granite here, and as we traversed steeply across the face of the hill, watched in anxious
silence by the villagers below, the scene was like something out of King Solomon's
Mines; or was it perhaps a tale from the Boys' Own Paper! But finally, with rather a lot
of panting and puffing from the District Head, we reached the top, and on a level space
just behind the final boulder we found a group of four or five simple round huts.
Here our guide stopped us and explained that now he would take me in to see the
king; but there was a rule, he said, that nobody wearing any cotton cloth was allowed
into the presence. Of course an exception would be made in my case, but the District
Head and Bagudu must stay outside.
Inside the hut I found a gentle little man sitting quietly on a plain round stool. Aged
about 35 perhaps, he was bare-headed and dressed only in a very simple white cotton
gown. There was nothing else whatsoever in that hut, no furniture, no decoration,
nothing; and I was struck by the simple quiet dignity of this delicate looking little man,
with his refined features and slender hands, living out his life, apparently all alone here
like a hermit on his hill top.
I was welcome, I was welcome, he assured me again and again. He hoped that I was
not too tired by the climb and had not been embarrassed by his people. His people, ah,
what a noise they had made, he had heard them even from up here all this far away; but
I should excuse them, for they were excited, naturally excited, for it was many years
since a white man had come here. So long he could not well remember himself.
What, the District Head and Bagudu were outside? Then they should come in; of
course the rules would be waived, they were welcome.
He hoped that the tax money he had sent this year had been sufficient (this to the
District Head); if any more were needed it would be sent. No, thank you, there was
nothing he needed from us. His people's needs were few and all they wanted was to live
their lives in peace and to worship him, their king. Medical help? No, they had wise
women in the tribe, and what they could not cure, why, that was the will of the
Almighty. No, their mountain provided everything his people needed; everything that is
except salt, that they had always had to purchase. And now perhaps iron; there was a
source of ironstone round the other side of the mountain it was true, but the hoes they
could make from it were never very good and now the young men were demanding something better. But fortunately there was a flat area at the foot of the mountain over
there to the south where a stream issued, and here they could grow a little rice. He
understood that it had a scarcity value, and once a year the Hausa traders would come
from Rijau to buy it. The money would be brought to him; he would set aside what was
needed for the tax payment and the remainder would be available to buy salt and iron.
This would be entrusted to this man here, the man in the leather girdle; he was a great
business man this, and a great traveller too; why, he had once been even as far afield as
No, they knew little of their history, but they had come from the east many, many
generations ago, longer than anyone could count, and had been settled on this their
mountain ever since. These matters were not important; all that was important was that
his people should live quietly in peace with one another and do their duty by their God.
And now if I, and I alone, would like to see the kayan sarauta, the royal regalia, the
symbols of the tribe's identity, I should go out by this other door and climb those few
steps to that other hut on the topmost pinnacle of all. I went, and there I found laid out
on an altar as it were, and bound together with strips of rawhide, a collection of spears
and arrows of shapes and patterns unknown today. I lingered there and duly admired and
wondered before going back down and expressing my gratitude for the privilege to this
gentle little man. And so we took our leave.
Were these the happy unspoiled children of nature so romanticised by the writers of
the 18th century? Were they really as carefree and as happy as they seemed that day and
as they welcomed us back amongst them on our return? Had we seen, they asked, and
had we duly admired, and would we not stay longer so that they could show us more of
this and of that? I wonder. Their lives were certainly short, and very circumscribed, and
I do not doubt that there were hidden currents of superstition and fear not far below the
surface; and they were at the mercy of every natural disaster which struck, and of every
disease. And how are they living now I wonder? Have they encountered what we call
civilisation and are they the happier for it? It would be interesting to learn.