Wilfred, part deux
26 December 2012 § Leave a comment
5 August (yet just now posting it)
I have read more of Thesiger’s diary . . .
February 17th. Hamdo Ouga went down to the Issa territory with some friends. When we met him he had just returned with four trophies; no one any longer questioned his right to be chief. He now sported a wooden comb in his hair, which was dressed with ghee, and five leather thongs hung from the sheath of his dagger. He struck me as the Danakil equivalent of a nice, rather self-conscious Etonian who had just won his school colours for cricket.
Hamdo Ouga gave me seven sheep and a large quantity of milk. He also tried to sell me an old and half-blind pony for fifteen dollars. . . . The Danakil have a peculiar method of shaking hands. They touch the palms of each other’s hands with a stroking movement, sometimes only using one hand, but more often both. After shaking hands with their chief they raise his hand to their lips. After a Danakil has kissed his chief’s hand, the chief in turn raises his man’s hand to his lips. They kiss the knee of a great man and the foot of a king.
They think that if a man eats meat and drinks milk the same day he will poison himself. They were astonished to see Abdullahi doing so and said he was like a hyena. No Danakil will mix the milk of two cows, or two goats, or two camels if he can help it. Their favourite drink is curdled milk with some ghee and barberi in it. They prefer camel’s milk to cow’s milk. Occasionally they get a load of durra from Aussa or Afdam, but they live otherwise entirely on meat and milk.
[Ghee is clarified butter; barberi is pepper; durra is Indian millet. The leather that hangs from the belt indicates the number of men a person has killed.]
February 21st. Bought two baby ostriches about nine inches high in the evening. They make a fairly loud trilling noise at frequent intervals.
February 22nd. The ostriches, who travelled on top of a camel in a dog box, are flourishing. Gave them the run of the camp.
February 24th. Marched along the edge of the Asdar chain of hills. These hills are a most extraordinary sight, being streaked with every colour: mauve, orange, brick-red, yellow, and white. They are broken by numerous valleys.
February 25th. About two hours after we camped, the camelman found a camel was missing. Ali and several Danakil said they would find it, but came back to camp after pottering around for a bit and said it was gone. Left a few rifles in camp and organized the rest into proper search parties. It seemed obvious that the thieves would keep along the forest and cross the river as soon as possible. Bedi and some other camelmen recaptured the camel about two miles upstream. Two Danakil, probably Adoimara, driving it off. They bolted when a long way off, so the camelmen unfortunately did not get a chance of shooting at them.
This is a lawless strip of country and there is no balabat here. As far as I can make out, this is where Nesbitt’s syce Bayenna was murdered. The man who killed him has crossed to this side of the river two days ago, according to Ali. I also hear that Hamdo Ouga was yesterday killed in a fight with the Adoimara just up the river. I was distressed to hear of his death. He had spent a lot of time in our camp and been popular with everyone. They say he was the only Asaimara killed, and that nine Adoimara were killed. They were recovering some cattle which had been raided. It made me realise how precarious were the lives of these Danakil. Yet they were a cheerful, happy people despite the incessant killing, and certainly not affected by the boredom which weighs so heavily today on our own young urban civilisation.
[A syce is a groom.]
February 28th. The baby ostriches flourish. They are indefatigable, and run round gobbling up everything. Feed them on meat, but they have also swallowed two bird carcases. They will soon be rather a problem.
[I forgot to mention that this post is graphic.]
March 1st. Soon after we got into camp two camels got bogged in the mud at the edge of the river while drinking. It took our combined efforts to get them out.
March 2nd. It is strange that where the river is overgrown and there are few people about the crocodiles are very wary, even the very small ones of one foot long.
March 4th. Camped by the river. The sheer escarpment of the highlands visible across the river, and seemingly quite close. The summit looks white, probably due to dried grass.
A nice shady camp, but thick bushes all round. However, we made an impenetrable zariba all round camp, and fortified it with boxes and sacks round the tents.
Bathed in the afternoon. Delightful and I was cool for the first time. Some sand-grouse came down to drink at sunset. I don’t think this is usual. A black-and-white kingfisher here. The river is more open—I have never seen them away from the water.
March 5th. Went out after birds this morning—got several I had not got before. Shot a greater bustard with the 12-bore at about forty yards. It weighed fifteen and a half pounds. Tried to eat it, but it was incredibly tough.
March 6th. A precocious young Danakil of about eight years old came to camp. Delighted Umar by reciting endless passages from the Koran.
Very few of these Danakil have ever seen a white person before, yet they never show the least sign of curiosity. It is true that I am burnt so dark a brown that I am not conspicuously white.
March 9th. We started at 3.15 . . . At sunrise I got a wonderful view out towards Aussa. Numerous mountains shown up by the sun, which was just lifting above the horizon. The vast distances reminded me of sunrise at sea. A caravan of about thirty camels carrying salt from Aussa passed us here. Most of the camels seem absurdly young. They carry the salt in cylinders of matting about two feet long and four inches across, sealed at both ends with salt earth.
March 10th. An Asaimara man wishing to marry will come with about eight friends to ask the girl’s father for his daughter in marriage. They all go out from the father’s house. The bride’s girl friends stand about two hundred or three hundred yards off. The bridegroom’s friends stand halfway between them and the house. A man specially chosen by the bridegroom then races the bride. She tries to get to her girl friends without being caught by the man racing her, or without being intercepted by the men halfway. . . . If she gets through to her friends the man must wait a year; if she is caught she is carried to her father’s home and thrown roughly on the ground before it.
An Adoimara man wishing to marry pays three dollars to the girl’s father. The father then tells the man that his daughter is grazing goats in such and such a place, and gives him leave to go and take her. The girl, realising what is happening, begs her girl friends to come and help her. They collect sticks and stones, and keep a good look out climbing to the top of some hill or ridge. When the future husband comes with a few friends to take his bride, she and her friends defend themselves throwing stones and fighting with sticks. The husband frequently gets seriously hurt, and has even occasionally been killed, they say. He often uses a shield to defend himself.
[There are several pages about marriage, all of a similar absurdity. The principal lesson is to run fast away from boys.]
March 11th. A jackal tried to catch a tota monkey, but it got up a tree just in time chattering wildly. . . . Saw a Danakil reed pipe. It is about two feet long and has two holes.
March 12th. Bought a rather ornate waterskin from a Danakil. They chop up the bark from a mimosa tree and soak it in these skins for a day or two. Afterwards water carried in this skin is said to have a good taste and to be cool.
March 16th. We reached the hot springs at 4.30. They are called Teho. They are in the valley about half a mile from the hills on the left. There are two small patches of tall rushes but no trees. The water, which is boiling hot, bubbles up from the ground in numerous places and is beautifully clear and often deep. There is a small area of the bog which the Danakil said was dangerous.
March 18th. [The Sultan] is very suspicious of my reasons for coming to his country, and particularly of my desire to follow the river. He wanted to know why I had not come the direct way from Ayelu. He then told Ali I might come into his country, and he would give me men to show me direct to the French frontier. Ali said I should never agree to go this way and that I was determined to follow the river. He says that the Sultan at last agreed to this, but I expect to hear a lot more about it when we get to Aussa. The Sultan sent me a curt letter of greeting.
March 19th. I saw an extremely realistic mirage. A small lake with a few small trees at its edge, which appeared to be reflected in the water. So realistic was it that most of the men thought it really was water and looked forward eagerly to reaching it.
March 21st. Before we left, Bedi went down to the edge of the river to pray. The river came down and he all but drowned, being soaked to the skin. I was very nearly caught by the Mullu river in 1930 and know how these rivers come down in a solid wall of water.
March 22nd. Camped at a place called Gerateaditu among some mimosa and doour trees which gave us some welcome shade. This place was like an oasis in a desert. The only patch of green in the surrounding desolation. There were even some arak bushes for the camels and a little grass. The camels will eat the doour when hungry, but don’t care for it. The river bank was everywhere a thirty-foot drop, but a dry water-course gave us an approach of sorts, and we watered the camels and mules in the bath. A chain of men passed up the buckets while they sang the song of the camel. The Somali always sing this when watering the camels, chanting the refrain in turns.
March 23rd. We entered a vast plain of sand and powdered earth, with occasional patches of grass and a few thorn bushes. It is almost dead level and extends out of sight to the north. The Majenta range stands up across the river to the south, and there are the vague outline of some mountains to the eastward. Blowing sand and heat haze make it impossible to see far across this plain. Continuous mirages.
March 25th. This is I think the pleasantest camp we have had so far. We are camped among doour trees on the river’s bank. I have cut a clearing through them so as to give me a window overlooking the river from my tent. Through it I can watch the totas romping by the water. They are very intrigued by my tent and come and peer into it whenever I am still. The grass here is delightfully green and fresh. Today seemed to be the hottest day we have had to face. I stopped the men bathing as the crocodiles are said to be bad here, taking many animals and occasional people. I shot three in the evening.
March 26th. [After a lengthy description of who shall let him go where . . . ] If I follow the Awash I shall pass through the very heart of Aussa, which is what he has never allowed any European to do.
March 27th. Went out after crocodiles in the evening accompanied by a party of boys. I shot five. One of them a very large one. He was in a deep pool, and had eaten many people and animals when they came down to water. There was absolutely no sign of him when we tied a kid up to the bank, but after the kid had bleated for a short while, the head of the crocodile appeared swimming towards it. I then shot it. The kid was so tied that it was not easily visible, but the crocodile can scarcely have heard it bleating while under water, and I saw it as soon as it broke surface. The death of this crocodile delighted the Danakil. I got back to camp just as the sun set.
[This makes me think of St George and the dragon.]
It is quite a common practice among both the Asaimara and Adoimara to file their front teeth into points.
March 28th. Left camp at 1 o’clock. While we were loading the smoke from a grass fire near by shrouded everything in a yellow pall. This and the thunder of a storm over Kulzikuma created a very eerie effect.
March 29th. Camped at Gurumudli in a bend of the river under some tall mimosa. Thick jungle all round, and the clearings covered with a bean-like clover with a heavy smell.
[He meets the Sultan after this, but it is a long passage.]
March 30th. They say that a little lower down the river and especially where it disappears, the country is alive with snakes. Poor Umar is terrified of them and says that he will never dare go to sleep. Strangely enough, they don’t give me the creeps as a large spider will do. The river rose considerably today, and was even dirtier than usual. I cannot tell from the colour which kettle has tea and which has water in it.
April 1st. The jungle here is impenetrably thick, between the river and a ridge of black rock half a mile from the river and parallel with it. Found the fresh tracks of a leopard. . . . Four large skins of milk arrived on a camel from the Sultan. My Somalis and then all the Abyssinians danced after dinner.