British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Henry Harris
How Not to Learn Swahili
Dust Devil
The idea was you picked it up on the ship going out. This was the 1930's and there was bound to be an old hand on board who would teach you in return for the odd pink gin. This did not work too well for me ... those pretty girls and all that sight-seeing... I landed at Dar es Salaam with a few words for food and drink and for things to eat and drink with.

My first assignment was to go down to the Lupa Goldfield to survey the rough and tumble and introduce improved methods and new ideas for recovery of gold. I was accompanied by the then Chief Inspector of Mines (C.I.M.) and we travelled in the standard 30cwt Bedford truck with the famously uncomfortable PWD body and a Swahili driver.

As we toiled up the Iringa escarpment I looked down into the plain below and saw with great interest a school of dust-devils, three of them, starting up and moving in a tall and stately fashion along with us.

"What is that?" I asked

"Dust devils" said the C.I.M.

"How do you say that in Swahili?" I queried. But although the C.I.M. was considerably experienced he said he did not know. We could not ask the driver because he was concentrating on the tricky bends and, anyway, we had not long before we had to stop to deal with a blocked carburettor and a swarm of wild bees - but that is another story.

How Not to Learn Swahili
After three days we arrived in Chunya. I pitched my camp in the Inspector of Mines' "shamba" and was invited to dinner, where I was welcomed as a new boy and asked how I was getting along with Swahili.

"Fine" I said "and, by the way, what is the Swahili for dust-devil?" My host did not know either; so he called his head-boy and asked him, in Swahili, what to call the wind that went round and round and up and up and carried all the sand with it. There followed an extraordinary performance. The young man stood on one leg, then on the other. He turned pale grey and finally stuttered a story to the effect that he dare not say the real name of that evil wind which could damage and destroy. The Chief of his village could deflect them with his little finger and would only call them nyoka (snake).

"Ha" I thought. "The first in my future collection of African superstitions."

My activities on the goldfield progressed and I worked my way, mine by mine, across to the western end where, in one of the larger of the small mines, I was quartered in a comfortably furnished rondavel of mud-brick with a tall, heavily thatched roof and invited to dine with the staff. Talk turned on my experiences as a newcomer and I related how impressed I had been by the beautiful location of the mine, overlooking Lake Rukwa and the distant isolated mountain which resembled nothing so much as a woman lying on a bier, from her upturned feet at one end to her fine head of hair at the other, tumbling precipitously to the valley. That head, I was told, was indeed a precipice down which had been thrown the unfortunates who displeased a chieftain of old. Furthermore, the mountain was thereafter cursed. If climbed, next year's crops would fail. In fact, a few years since, the mountain had been climbed to be mapped by a geologist, and the next year the crops failed.

"Ha" I thought again ... "this is the second..." and was prompted to ask "Do you know the one about the dust-devils?". Nobody in the crew knew the Swahili for dust-devil. So the manager called in his head-boy and asked the question and the Chunya performance was repeated. The man stood first on one leg, then on the other, turned a pale grey and proffered the story of the forbidden name, the little finger of the chief and the substitute nyoka.

Two days later I had to drive back to Chunya for supplies. When I returned, after dark, the manager met me with a hurricane lamp and showed me to my rondavel. That day a dust-devil had cruised through the camp, taken a small corner off the kitchen, settled above my rondavel, lifted off the entire roof and dropped it back on my bed.

I asked no more questions.

Map of South-Western Tanganyika, 1949
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 78: October 1999


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