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- IN THE HEART OF AFRICA - 4/42 -


crops would entail upon his family. The bona fide tax is a bagatelle to the amounts squeezed from him by the extortionate soldiery, who are the agents employed by the sheik; these must have their share of the plunder, in excess of the amount to be delivered to their employer; he also must have his plunder before he parts with the bags of dollars to the governor of the province. Thus the unfortunate cultivator is ground down. Should he refuse to pay the necessary "backsheesh" or present to the tax-collectors, some false charge is trumped up against him, and he is thrown into prison. As a green field is an attraction to a flight of locusts in their desolating voyage, so is a luxuriant farm in the Soudan a point for the tax-collectors of Upper Egypt. I have frequently ridden several days' journey through a succession of empty villages, deserted by the inhabitants upon the report of the soldiers' approach. The women and children, goats and cattle, camels and asses, had all been removed into the wilderness for refuge, while their crops of corn had been left standing for the plunderers, who would be too idle to reap and thrash the grain.

Notwithstanding the miserable that fetters the steps of improvement, Nature has bestowed such great capabilities of production in the fertile soil of this country that the yield of a small surface is more than sufficient for the requirements of the population, and actual poverty is unknown. The average price of dhurra is fifteen piastres per "rachel," or about 3s. 2d. for five hundred pounds upon the spot where it is grown. The dhurra (Sorghum andropogon) is the grain most commonly used throughout the Soudan; there are great varieties of this plant, of which the most common are the white and the red. The land is not only favored by Nature by its fertility, but the intense heat of the summer is the laborer's great assistant. As before described, all vegetation entirely disappears in the glaring sun, or becomes so dry that it is swept off by fire; thus the soil is perfectly clean and fit for immediate cultivation upon the arrival of the rains.

The tool generally used is similar to the Dutch hoe. With this simple implement the surface is scratched to the depth of about two inches, and the seeds of the dhurra are dibbled in about three feet apart, in rows from four to five feet in width. Two seeds are dropped into each hole. A few days after the first shower they rise above the ground, and when about six inches high the whole population turn out of their villages at break of day to weed the dhurra fields. Sown in July, it is harvested in February and March. Eight months are thus required for the cultivation of this cereal in the intense heat of Nubia. For the first three months the growth is extremely rapid, and the stem attains a height of six or seven feet. When at perfection in the rich soil of the Taka country, the plant averages a height of ten feet, the circumference of the stem being about four inches. The crown is a feather very similar to that of the sugar-cane; the blossom falls, and the feather becomes a head of dhurra, weighing about two pounds. Each grain is about the size of hemp-seed. I took the trouble of counting the corns contained in an average- sized head, the result being 4,848. The process of harvesting and threshing is remarkably simple, as the heads are simply detached from the straw and beaten out in piles. The dried straw is a substitute for sticks in forming the walls of the village huts; these are plastered with clay and cow-dung, which form the Arab's lath and plaster.

The millers' work is exclusively the province of the women. No man will condescend to grind the corn. There are no circular hand-mills, as among Oriental nations; but the corn is ground upon a simple flat stone, of cithor gneiss or granite, about two feet in length by fourteen inches in width. The face of this is roughened by beating with a sharp-pointed piece of harder stone, such as quartz or hornblende, and the grain is reduced to flour by great labor and repeated grinding or rubbing with a stone rolling-pin. The flour is mixed with water and allowed to ferment; it is then made into thin pancakes upon an earthenware flat portable hearth. This species of leavened bread is known to the Arabs as the kisra. It is not very palatable, but it is extremely well suited to Arab cookery, as it can be rolled up like a pancake and dipped in the general dish of meat and gravy very conveniently, in the absence of spoons and forks.

On the 14th of July I had concluded my arrangements for the start. There had been some difficulty in procuring camels, but the all-powerful firman was a never-failing talisman, and as the Arabs had declined to let their animals for hire, the Governor despatched a number of soldiers and seized the required number, including their owners. I engaged two wild young Arabs of eighteen and twenty years of age, named Bacheet and Wat Gamma. The latter, being interpreted, signifies "Son of the Moon." This in no way suggests lunacy; but the young Arab had happened to enter this world on the day of the new moon, which was considered to be a particularly fortunate and brilliant omen at his birth. Whether the climax of his good fortune had arrived at the moment he entered my service I know not; but, if so, there was a cloud over his happiness in his subjection to Mahomet, the dragoman, who rejoiced in the opportunity of bullying the two inferiors. Wat Gamma was a quiet, steady, well-conducted lad, who bore oppression mildly ; but the younger, Bucheet, was a fiery, wild young Arab, who, although an excellent boy in his peculiar way, was almost incapable of being tamed and domesticated. I at once perceived that Mahomet would have a determined rebel to control, which I confess I did not regret. Wages were not high in this part of the world--the lads were engaged at one and a half dollars per month and their keep.

Mahomet, who was a great man, suffered from the same complaint to which great men are (in those countries) particularly subject. Wherever he went he was attacked with claimants of relationship. He was overwhelmed with professions of friendship from people who claimed to be connections of some of his family. In fact, if all the ramifications of his race were correctly represented by the claimants of relationship, Mahomet's family tree would have shaded the Nubian desert

We all have our foibles. The strongest fort has its feeble point, as the chain snaps at its weakest link. Family pride was Mahomet's weak link. This was his tender point; and Mahomet, the great and the imperious, yielded to the gentle scratching of his ear if a stranger claimed connection with his ancient lineage. Of course he had no family, with the exception of his wife and two children, whom he had left in Cairo. The lady whom he had honored by admission into the domestic circle of the Mahomets was suffering from a broken arm when we started from Egypt, as she had cooked the dinner badly, and the "gaddah," or large wooden bowl, had been thrown at her by the naturally indignant husband, precisely as he had thrown the axe at one man and the basin at another while in our service. These were little contretemps that could hardly disturb the dignity of so great a man.

Mahomet met several relatives at Cassala. One borrowed money of him; another stole his pipe; the third, who declared that nothing should separate them now that "by the blessing of God" they had met, determined to accompany him through all the difficulties of our expedition, provided that Mahomet would only permit him to serve for love, without wages. I gave Mahomet some little advice upon this point, reminding him that, although the clothes of the party were only worth a few piastres, the spoons and forks were silver; therefore I should hold him responsible for the honesty of his friend. This reflection upon the family gave great offence, and he assured me that Achmet, our quondam acquaintance, was so near a relative that he was--I assisted him in the genealogical distinction: "Mother's brother's cousin's sister's mother's son? Eh, Mahomet?"

"Yes, sar, that's it!" "Very well, Mahomet; mind he doesn't steal the spoons, and thrash him if he doesn't do his work!" "Yes, sar", replied Mahomet; "he all same like one brother; he one good man; will do his business quietly; if not, master lick him." The new relative not understanding English, was perfectly satisfied with the success of his introduction, and from that moment he became one of the party.

One more addition, and our arrangements were completed: the Governor of Cassala was determined we should not start without a soldier guide to represent the government. Accordingly he gave us a black corporal, so renowned as a sportsman that he went by the name of "El Baggar" (the cow), because of his having killed several of the oryx antelope, known as "El Baggar et Wabash" (cow of the desert).

After sixteen hours' actual marching from Cassala we arrived at the valley of the Atbara. There was an extraordinary change in the appearance of the river between Gozerajup and this spot. There was no longer the vast sandy desert with the river flowing through its sterile course on a level with the surface of the country; but after traversing an apparently perfect flat of forty-five miles of rich alluvial soil, we had suddenly arrived upon the edge of a deep valley, between five and six miles wide, at the bottom of which, about two hundred feet below the general level of the country, flowed the river Atbara. On the opposite side of the valley the same vast table-lands continued to the western horizon.

We commenced the descent toward the river: the valley was a succession of gullies and ravines, of landslips and watercourses. The entire hollow, of miles in width, had evidently been the work of the river. How many ages had the rains and the stream been at work to scoop out from the flat tableland this deep and broad valley? Here was the giant laborer that had shovelled the rich loam upon the delta of Lower Egypt! Upon these vast flats of fertile soil there can be no drainage except through soakage. The deep valley is therefore the receptacle not only for the water that oozes from its sides, but subterranean channels, bursting as land-springs from all parts of the walls of the valley, wash down the more soluble portions of earth, and continually waste away the soil. Landslips occur daily during the rainy season; streams of rich mud pour down the valley's slopes, and as the river flows beneath in a swollen torrent, the friable banks topple down into the stream and dissolve. The Atbara becomes the thickness of peasoup, as its muddy waters steadily perform the duty they have fulfilled from age to age. Thus was the great river at work upon our arrival on its bank at the bottom of the valley. The Arab name, "Bahr el Aswat" (black river) was well bestowed; it was the black mother of Egypt, still carrying to her offspring the nourishment that had first formed the Delta.

At this point of interest the journey had commenced; the deserts were passed; all was fertility and life. Wherever the sources of the Nile might be, the Atbara was the parent of Egypt! This was my first impression, to be proved hereafter.

A violent thunderstorm, with a deluge of rain, broke upon our camp on the banks of the Atbara, fortunately just after the tents were pitched. We thus had an example of the extraordinary effects of the heavy rain in tearing away the soil of the valley. Trifling watercourses were swollen to torrents. Banks of earth became loosened and fell in, and the rush of mud and water upon all sides swept forward into the river with a rapidity which threatened the destruction of the country, could such a tempest endure for a few days. In a couple of hours all was over.

In the evening we crossed with our baggage and people to the opposite side of the ricer, and pitched our tents at the village of Goorashee. In the morning the camels arrived, and once more we were ready to start. Our factotum, El Baggar, had collected a number of baggage-camels and riding dromedaries, or "hygeens". The latter he had brought for approval, as we bad suffered much from the extreme roughness of our late camels. There is the same difference between a good hygeen, or dromedary, and a baggage-camel, as between the thoroughbred and the cart-horse; and it appears absurd in the eyes of the Arabs that a man of any position should ride a baggage-camel. Apart from all ideas of etiquette, the motion of the latter animal is quite sufficient warning.


IN THE HEART OF AFRICA - 4/42

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