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Chapter no 6 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌Mdisho of the Mwanumwezi‌

Going Solo

By the time we had seen the Germans safely into the prison camp and I had made my report, it was nearly midnight. I went off home to get a shower and some sleep. I was tired and dirty and I was feeling very unhappy about the killing of the bald-headed German. The Captain at the barracks had congratulated me and said it was exactly the right thing to do, but that didn’t help.

When I got home, I went straight upstairs and took off my clothes. I took a long shower, then I put on a pair of pyjamas and went downstairs again for a badly needed whisky and soda.

In the living-room I lay back in my armchair sipping the whisky and ruminating upon the strange events of the last thirty-six hours. The whisky felt good and I was slowly beginning to relax as the alcohol got into the blood-stream. Through the wide-open french windows I could hear the Indian Ocean pounding the cliffs below the house and as always when I sat in that chair, I turned my head a little in order to allow my eyes to rest upon my beautiful silver Arab sword that hung on the wall over the door. I nearly

dropped my whisky. The sword was gone. The scabbard was still there but the sword itself was not in it.

I had bought my sword about a year before from the Captain of an Arab dhow in Dar es Salaam harbour. This Captain had sailed his old dhow clear across from Muscat to Africa on the north-east monsoon and the journey had taken him thirty-four days. I happened to be down in the harbour when she came sailing in and I gladly accepted the invitation of the Customs Officer to accompany him on board. That is where I found the sword and fell in love with it at first sight and bought it from the Captain on the spot for 500 shillings.

The sword was long and curved and the silver scabbard was wonderfully chased with an intricate design showing various phases in the life of the Prophet. The curved blade was over three feet in length and was as sharp as a well-honed chisel. My friends in Dar es Salaam who knew about such things

told me it was almost certainly from the middle of the eighteenth century and should properly be in a museum.

I had carried my treasure back to the house and had handed it to Mdisho. ‘I want you to hang it on the wall over the door,’ I told him. ‘And I shall hold you responsible for seeing that the silver scabbard is always polished and the blade is wiped with an oily rag once a week to prevent it from rusting.’

Mdisho took the sword from me and examined it with reverence. Then he drew the blade from the scabbard and tested the edge with his thumb. ‘Ayee!’ he cried out. ‘What a weapon! I could win a war with this in my hand!’

And now I sat in my armchair in the living-room with my whisky, staring appalled at the empty scabbard.

‘Mdisho!’ I shouted. ‘Come here! Where is my sword?’ There was no answer. He was probably in bed. I got up and went out to the back of the house where the native quarters were. There was a half-moon in the sky and plenty of stars and I could see Piggy the cook squatting outside his hut with one of his wives.

‘Piggy,’ I said, ‘where is Mdisho?’

Piggy was old and wrinkled, and he was very good at making baked potato with crabmeat inside. He stood up when he saw me and his woman disappeared into the shadows.

‘Where is Mdisho?’ I said.

‘Mdisho went away early in the evening, bwana.’ ‘Where to?’

‘I do not know. But he said he was coming back. Perhaps he has gone to see his father. You were away in the jungle and I expect he thought you would not mind if he went off to pay a call on his father.’

‘Where is my sword, Piggy?’

‘Your sword, bwana? Is it not hanging over the door?’

‘It’s gone,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid someone may have stolen it. The big french windows into the sitting-room were wide open when I came in. That is not right.’

‘No bwana, that is not right. I don’t understand it at all.’ ‘Nor do I,’ I said. ‘Go to bed.’

I went back into the house and flopped down again into the armchair. I felt too tired to move any more. It was a very hot night. I reached up and switched off the reading light, then I closed my eyes and dozed off.

I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up it was still night and Mdisho was standing just inside the french windows with the light of the half- moon shining down on him from behind. He was breathing fast and there was a wild ecstatic look on his face and he was naked except for a small pair of

black cotton shorts. His superb black body was literally dripping with sweat. In his right hand he held the sword.

I sat up abruptly.

‘Mdisho, where have you been?’ Little flashes of moonlight were glinting on the sword and I noticed that the middle of the blade was darkened with something that looked to me very much like dried blood.

‘Mdisho!’ I cried. ‘For heaven’s sake what have you done?’

‘Bwana,’ he said, ‘oh bwana, I have had a most tremendous victory. I think you will be very pleased about it when I tell you.’

‘Tell me,’ I said. I was getting nervous.

I had never seen Mdisho like this before. The wild look on his face and the heavy breathing and the sweat all over his body made me more nervous than ever. ‘Tell me at once,’ I said again. ‘Explain to me what you have been doing.’

When he started to speak, the words came rushing out in a cascade of crazy excited sentences, and he didn’t stop until he had finished his story. I didn’t interrupt him, and I will try to give you a fairly literal translation from the Swahili of what he said as he stood there looking so splendid in the open doorway with the half-moon shining on him from behind.

‘Bwana,’ he said, ‘bwana, yesterday down in the market I heard that we had started to fight the Germani and I remembered all that you had said about how they would try to kill us. As soon as I heard the news, I started to run back to the house, and as I ran I shouted to everyone I saw in the streets. I shouted, “We are fighting the Germani! We are fighting the Germani!”

‘In my country, as soon as we hear that someone is coming to fight us, the whole tribe must know about it as soon as possible. So I ran home shouting the news to the people as I went, and I was also thinking of what I, Mdisho, could do to help. Suddenly, I remembered the rich Germani that lives over the hills, the sisal planter whom we visited in your car not long ago.

‘Then I ran even faster towards home, and when I arrived I ran through the kitchen and shouted at Piggy the cook, “We are fighting the Germani!” I ran into this room and took hold of the sword, this wonderful sword which I have been polishing for you every day.

‘Bwana, I was very excited to be at war. You were already out with the askari on the roads, and I knew that I should do something too.

‘So I pulled the sword out of its glove and ran outside with it. I ran towards the house of the rich sisal-owning Germani over the hills.

‘I did not go by the road because the askaris might have stopped me when they saw me running with the sword in my hand. I ran straight through the forest and when I got to the top of the hills, I looked down the other side and

saw the great plantation of sisal belonging to the rich Germani. Away beyond it I could see his house, the big white house we visited together, and I set off again down the other side of the hill into the sisal.

‘By then it was getting dark and it was not easy dodging around the tall prickly sisal plants, but I went on running.

‘Then I saw the white house in front of me in the moonlight and I ran straight up to the front door and pushed it open. I ran into the first room I saw and it was empty. There was a table with some food on it but the room was empty. Then I ran towards the back of the house and pushed open a door at the end of the passage. That was empty too, but suddenly through the window I saw the big Germani standing in the back garden and he had a fire going and he was throwing pieces of paper on to the fire. He had many sheets of paper on the ground beside him and he kept picking up more and more and throwing them on to the fire. And bwana, there was a huge elephant gun lying on the ground by his feet.

‘I pushed open the back door and I ran out and the Germani heard me and jumped round and started to reach for the gun but I gave him no time. I had the sword raised in both my hands and I swung it at his neck as he bent down to pick up the gun.

‘Bwana, it is a beautiful sword. With one blow it cut through his neck so deeply that his whole head fell forward and dangled down on to his chest, and as he started to topple over I gave the neck one more quick chop and the head came right away from the body and fell to the ground like a coconut.

‘I felt good then, bwana, I really felt awfully good, and I remember wishing I had had you with me to see it all happening. But you were far away on the coast road with your askaris doing the same sort of thing to lots of other Germani, so I hurried home. I came home by the road because it was faster and I didn’t care any more about the askaris seeing me. I ran all the way and the sword was in my hand and sometimes I waved it above my head as I ran, but I never stopped. Twice people shouted at me and once two men ran after me, but I was flying like a bird and I was bringing good news back home.

‘It is a long distance, bwana, and it took four hours each way. That is why I am so late. I am sorry to be so late.’

Mdisho stopped. He had finished his story. I knew it was true. The German sisal-owner was called Fritz Kleiber and he was a wealthy and extremely unpleasant bachelor. It was rumoured that he treated his workers badly and had been known to beat them with a sjambok, which is a murderous whip made of rhinoceros hide. I wondered why he hadn’t been rounded up by our people before Mdisho got to him. They were probably on the way out there now. They were in for a shock.

‘And you, bwana!’ Mdisho cried out. ‘How many did you get today?’ ‘How many what?’ I said.

‘Germani, bwana, Germani! How many did you get with that fine machine- gun you had out on the road?’

I looked at him and smiled. I refused to blame him for what he had done.

He was a wild Mwanumwezi tribesman who had been moulded by us Europeans into the shape of a domestic servant, and now he had broken the mould.

‘Have you told anyone else what you have done?’ ‘Not yet, bwana, I came to you first.’

‘Now listen carefully,’ I said. ‘You must tell nobody about this, not your father, not your wives, not your best friend and not Piggy the cook. Do you understand me?’

‘But I must tell them!’ he cried. ‘You cannot take that pleasure away from me, bwana!’

‘You must not tell them, Mdisho,’ I said.

‘But why not?’ he cried. ‘Have I done something wrong?’ ‘Quite the opposite,’ I lied.

‘Then why must I not tell my people?’ he asked again.

I tried to explain to him how the authorities would react if they found him out. It simply wasn’t done to go round chopping heads off civilians, even in wartime. It could mean prison, I told him, or even worse than that.

He couldn’t believe me. He was absolutely shattered.

‘I myself am tremendously proud of you,’ I said, trying to make him feel better. ‘To me you are a great hero.’

‘But only to you, bwana?’

‘No, Mdisho. I think you would be a hero to most of the British people here if they knew what you had done. But that doesn’t help. It is the police who would go after you.’

‘The police!’ he cried in horror. If there was one thing in Dar es Salaam that every local was terrified of, it was the police. The police constables were all blacks, acting under a couple of white officers at the top, and they were not famous for being gentle with prisoners.

 

 

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘the police.’ I felt pretty sure they would charge Mdisho with murder if they caught him.

‘If it is the police, then I will keep quiet, bwana,’ he said, and all of a sudden he looked so downcast and disillusioned and defeated that I couldn’t bear it. I got up from the chair and crossed the room and took the scabbard of the sword down from the wall. ‘I shall be leaving you very soon,’ I said. ‘I have decided to join the war as a flier of aeroplanes.’ The only word for aeroplane in the Swahili language is ndegi, which means bird, and it always sounded good and descriptive in a sentence. ‘I am going to fly birds,’ I said. ‘I shall fly English birds against the birds of the Germani.’

‘Wonderful!’ Mdisho cried, brightening again suddenly at the mention of war. ‘I will come with you, bwana.’

‘Sadly, that will be impossible,’ I said. ‘In the beginning I shall be nothing but a very humble bird-soldier of the lowest rank, like your most junior askaris here, and I shall be living in barracks. There would be no question of me being allowed to have somebody to help me. I shall have to do everything for myself, including the washing and ironing of my shirts.’

‘That would be absolutely impossible, bwana,’ Mdisho said. He was genuinely shocked.

‘I shall manage quite well,’ I told him.

‘But do you know how to iron a shirt, bwana?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘You must teach me that secret before I go.’

‘Will it be very dangerous, bwana, where you are going, and do those Germani birds have many guns?’

‘It might be dangerous,’ I said, ‘but the first six months will be nothing but fun. It takes six months for them to teach you how to fly a bird.’

‘Where will you go?’ he asked.

‘First to Nairobi,’ I answered. ‘They will start us on very small birds in Nairobi, and then we will go somewhere else to fly the big ones. We shall be travelling a great deal with very little luggage. That is why I shall have to leave this sword behind. It would be impossible to carry a great big thing like this with me wherever I go. So I am giving it to you.’

‘To me!’ he cried. ‘Oh no, bwana, you mustn’t do that! You will need it where you are going!’

‘Not in a bird,’ I said. ‘There is no room to swing a sword when you are sitting in one of those.’ I handed him the beautiful curved silver scabbard. ‘You have earned it,’ I said. ‘Now go away and wash the blade very well indeed. Make sure there is no trace of blood left on it anywhere. Then wipe it with oil and return it to its glove. Tomorrow I shall hand you a chit saying that I have given it to you. The chit is important.’

He stood there holding the sword in one hand and the scabbard in the other, staring at them with eyes as bright as two stars.

But one thing you might do – let me know by telegram if you change your address – that is if it isn’t too expensive – and mind you do change your address pretty soon. It’s absolute madness to stay anywhere in the East of England now. You’ll have parachute troops landing on the lawn if you don’t look out.

‘I am presenting it to you for bravery,’ I said. ‘But you must not tell that to anybody. Tell them simply that I gave it to you as a going-away present.’

‘Yes, bwana,’ he said. ‘That is what I shall tell them.’ He paused for a moment and looked me straight in the eye. ‘Tell me truthfully, bwana,’ he said, ‘are you really and truly glad that I killed the big Germani sisal-grower?’

We killed one today as well,’ I said.

‘You did?’ Mdisho cried. ‘You killed one, too?’

‘We had to do it or he would probably have killed me.’

‘Then we are equal, bwana,’ he said, smiling with his wonderful white teeth. ‘That makes us exactly equal, you and me.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose it does.’

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