First footsteps in East Africa, by Richard Burton

Chapter 6

From the Zayla Hills to the Marar Prairie.

I have now, dear L., quitted the maritime plain or first zone, to enter the Ghauts, that threshold of the Ethiopian highlands which, beginning at Tajurrah, sweeps in semicircle round the bay of Zayla, and falls about Berberah into the range of mountains which fringes the bold Somali coast. This chain has been inhabited, within History’s memory, by three distinct races — the Gallas, the ancient Moslems of Adel, and by the modern Somal. As usual, however, in the East, it has no general vernacular name. 1

The aspect of these Ghauts is picturesque. The primitive base consists of micaceous granite, with veins of porphyry and dykes of the purest white quartz: above lie strata of sandstone and lime, here dun, there yellow, or of a dull grey, often curiously contorted and washed clear of vegetable soil by the heavy monsoon. On these heights, which are mostly conoid with rounded tops, joined by ridges and saddlebacks, various kinds of Acacia cast a pallid and sickly green, like the olive tree upon the hills of Provence. They are barren in the cold season, and the Nomads migrate to the plains: when the monsoon covers them with rich pastures, the people revisit their deserted kraals. The Kloofs or ravines are the most remarkable features of this country: in some places the sides rise perpendicularly, like gigantic walls, the breadth varying from one hundred yards to half a mile; in others cliffs and scaurs, sapped at their foundations, encumber the bed, and not unfrequently a broad band of white sand stretches between two fringes of emerald green, delightful to look upon after the bare and ghastly basalt of Southern Arabia. The Jujube grows to a height already betraying signs of African luxuriance: through its foliage flit birds, gaudy-coloured as kingfishers, of vivid red, yellow, and changing-green. I remarked a long-tailed jay called Gobiyan or Fat 2, russet-hued ringdoves, the modest honey-bird, corn quails, canary-coloured finches, sparrows gay as those of Surinam, humming-birds with a plume of metallic lustre, and especially a white-eyed kind of maina, called by the Somal, Shimbir Load or the cow-bird. The Armo-creeper3, with large fleshy leaves, pale green, red, or crimson, and clusters of bright berries like purple grapes, forms a conspicuous ornament in the valleys. There is a great variety of the Cactus tribe, some growing to the height of thirty and thirty-five feet: of these one was particularly pointed out to me. The vulgar Somal call it Guraato, the more learned Shajarat el Zakkum: it is the mandrake of these regions, and the round excrescences upon the summits of its fleshy arms are supposed to resemble men’s heads and faces. On Tuesday the 5th December we arose at 6 A.M., after a night so dewy that our clothes were drenched, and we began to ascend the Wady Darkaynlay, which winds from east to south. After an hour’s march appeared a small cairn of rough stones, called Siyaro, or Mazar4, to which each person, in token of honor, added his quotum. The Abban opined that Auliya or holy men had sat there, but the End of Time more sagaciously conjectured that it was the site of some Galla idol or superstitious rite. Presently we came upon the hills of the White Ant5, a characteristic feature in this part of Africa. Here the land has the appearance of a Turkish cemetery on a grand scale: there it seems like a city in ruins: in some places the pillars are truncated into a resemblance to bee-hives, in others they cluster together, suggesting the idea of a portico; whilst many of them, veiled by trees, and overrun with gay creepers, look like the remains of sylvan altars. Generally the hills are conical, and vary in height from four to twelve feet: they are counted by hundreds, and the Somal account for the number by declaring that the insects abandon their home when dry, and commence building another. The older erections are worn away, by wind and rain, to a thin tapering spire, and are frequently hollowed and arched beneath by rats and ground squirrels. The substance, fine yellow mud, glued by the secretions of the ant, is hard to break: it is pierced, sieve-like, by a network of tiny shafts. I saw these hills for the first time in the Wady Darkaynlay: in the interior they are larger and longer than near the maritime regions.

We travelled up the Fiumara in a southerly direction till 8 A.M., when the guides led us away from the bed. They anticipated meeting Gudabirsis: pallid with fear, they also trembled with cold and hunger. Anxious consultations were held. One man, Ali — surnamed “Doso,” because he did nothing but eat, drink, and stand over the fire — determined to leave us: as, however, he had received a Tobe for pay, we put a veto upon that proceeding. After a march of two hours, over ground so winding that we had not covered more than three miles, our guides halted under a tree, near a deserted kraal, at a place called El Armo, the “Armo-creeper water,” or more facetiously Dabadalashay: from Damal it bore S. W. 190°. One of our Bedouins, mounting a mule, rode forward to gather intelligence, and bring back a skin full of water. I asked the End of Time what they expected to hear: he replied with the proverb “News liveth!” The Somali Bedouins have a passion for knowing how the world wags. In some of the more desert regions the whole population of a village will follow the wanderer. No traveller ever passes a kraal without planting spear in the ground, and demanding answers to a lengthened string of queries: rather than miss intelligence he will inquire of a woman. Thus it is that news flies through the country. Among the wild Gudabirsi the Russian war was a topic of interest, and at Harar I heard of a violent storm, which had damaged the shipping in Bombay Harbour, but a few weeks after the event.

The Bedouin returned with an empty skin but a full budget. I will offer you, dear L., a specimen of the “palaver” 6 which is supposed to prove the aphorism that all barbarians are orators. Demosthenes leisurely dismounts, advances, stands for a moment cross-legged — the favourite posture in this region — supporting each hand with a spear planted in the ground: thence he slips to squat, looks around, ejects saliva, shifts his quid to behind his ear, places his weapons before him, takes up a bit of stick, and traces lines which he carefully smooths away — it being ill-omened to mark the earth. The listeners sit gravely in a semicircle upon their heels, with their spears, from whose bright heads flashes a ring of troubled light, planted upright, and look stedfastly on his countenance over the upper edges of their shields with eyes apparently planted, like those of the Blemmyes, in their breasts. When the moment for delivery is come, the head man inquires, “What is the news?” The informant would communicate the important fact that he has been to the well: he proceeds as follows, noting emphasis by raising his voice, at times about six notes, and often violently striking at the ground in front.

“It is good news, if Allah please!”

“Wa Sidda!”— Even so! respond the listeners, intoning or rather groaning the response.

“I mounted mule this morning:”

“Even so!”

“I departed from ye riding.”

“Even so!”

There“ (with a scream and pointing out the direction with a stick).

“Even so!”

There I went.”

“Even so!”

“I threaded the wood.”

“Even so!”

“I traversed the sands.”

“Even so!”

“I feared nothing.”

“Even so!”

“At last I came upon cattle tracks.”

“Hoo! hoo!! hoo!!!” (an ominous pause follows this exclamation of astonishment.)

“They were fresh.”

“Even so!”

“So were the earths.”

“Even so!”

“I distinguished the feet of women.”

“Even so!”

“But there were no camels.”

“Even so!”

“At last I saw sticks”—

“Even so!”

“Stones”—

“Even so!”

“Water”—

“Even so!”

“A well!!!”

Then follows the palaver, wherein, as occasionally happens further West, he distinguishes himself who can rivet the attention of the audience for at least an hour without saying anything in particular. The advantage of their circumlocution, however, is that by considering a subject in every possible light and phase as regards its cause and effect, antecedents, actualities, and consequences, they are prepared for any emergency which, without the palaver, might come upon them unawares.

Although the thermometer showed summer heat, the air was cloudy and raw blasts poured down from the mountains. At half past 3 P.M. our camels were lazily loaded, and we followed the course of the Fiumara, which runs to the W. and S. W. After half an hour’s progress, we arrived at the gully in which are the wells, and the guides halted because they descried half-a-dozen youths and boys bathing and washing their Tobes. All, cattle as well as men, were sadly thirsty: many of us had been chewing pebbles during the morning, yet, afraid of demands for tobacco, the Bedouins would have pursued the march without water had I not forced them to halt. We found three holes in the sand; one was dry, a second foul, and the third contained a scanty supply of the pure element from twenty to twenty-five feet below the surface. A youth stood in the water and filled a wicker-pail, which he tossed to a companion perched against the side half way up: the latter in his turn hove it to a third, who catching it at the brink, threw the contents, by this time half wasted, into the skin cattle trough. We halted about half an hour to refresh man and beast, and then resumed our way up the Wady, quitting it where a short cut avoids the frequent windings of the bed. This operation saved but little time; the ground was stony, the rough ascents fatigued the camels, and our legs and feet were lacerated by the spear-like thorns. Here, the ground was overgrown with aloes7, sometimes six feet high with pink and “pale Pomona green” leaves, bending in the line of beauty towards the ground, graceful in form as the capitals of Corinthian columns, and crowned with gay-coloured bells, but barbarously supplied with woody thorns and strong serrated edges. There the Hig, an aloetic plant with a point so hard and sharp that horses cannot cross ground where it grows, stood in bunches like the largest and stiffest of rushes. 8 Senna sprang spontaneously on the banks, and the gigantic Ushr or Asclepias shed its bloom upon the stones and pebbles of the bed. My attendants occupied themselves with gathering the edible pod of an Acacia called Kura9, whilst I observed the view. Frequent ant-hills gave an appearance of habitation to a desert still covered with the mosques and tombs of old Adel; and the shape of the country had gradually changed, basins and broad slopes now replacing the thickly crowded conoid peaks of the lower regions.

As the sun sank towards the west, Long Guled complained bitterly of the raw breeze from the hills. We passed many villages, distinguished by the barking of dogs and the bleating of flocks, on their way to the field: the unhappy Raghe, however, who had now become our protege, would neither venture into a settlement, nor bivouac amongst the lions. He hurried us forwards till we arrived at a hollow called Gud, “the Hole,” which supplied us with the protection of a deserted kraal, where our camels, half-starved and knocked-up by an eight miles’ march, were speedily unloaded. Whilst pitching the tent, we were visited by some Gudabirsi, who attempted to seize our Abban, alleging that he owed them a cow. We replied doughtily, that he was under our sandals: as they continued to speak in a high tone, a pistol was discharged over their heads, after which they cringed like dogs. A blazing fire, a warm supper, dry beds, broad jests, and funny stories, soon restored the flagging spirits of our party. Towards night the moon dispersed the thick mists which, gathering into clouds, threatened rain, and the cold sensibly diminished: there was little dew, and we should have slept comfortably had not our hungry mules, hobbled as they were, hopped about the kraal and fought till dawn.

On the 6th December, we arose late to avoid the cold morning air, and at 7 A.M. set out over rough ground, hoping to ascend the Ghauts that day. After creeping about two miles, the camels, unable to proceed, threw themselves upon the earth, and we unwillingly called a halt at Jiyaf, a basin below the Dobo10 fiumara. Here, white flocks dotting the hills, and the scavengers of the air warned us that we were in the vicinity of villages. Our wigwam was soon full of fair-faced Gudabirsi, mostly Loajira11 or cow-herd boys, who, according to the custom of their class, wore their Tobes bound scarf-like round their necks. They begged us to visit their village, and offered a heifer for each lion shot on Mount Libahlay: unhappily we could not afford time. These youths were followed by men and women bringing milk, sheep, and goats, for which, grass being rare, they asked exorbitant prices — eighteen cubits of Cutch canvass for a lamb, and two of blue cotton for a bottle of ghee. Amongst them was the first really pretty face seen by me in the Somali country. The head was well formed, and gracefully placed upon a long thin neck and narrow shoulders; the hair, brow, and nose were unexceptionable, there was an arch look in the eyes of jet and pearl, and a suspicion of African protuberance about the lips, which gave the countenance an exceeding naivete. Her skin was a warm, rich nut-brown, an especial charm in these regions, and her movements had that grace which suggests perfect symmetry of limb. The poor girl’s costume, a coif for the back hair, a cloth imperfectly covering the bosom, and a petticoat of hides, made no great mystery of forms: equally rude were her ornaments; an armlet and pewter earrings, the work of some blacksmith, a necklace of white porcelain beads, and sundry talismans in cases of tarnished and blackened leather. As a tribute to her prettiness I gave her some cloth, tobacco, and a bit of salt, which was rapidly becoming valuable; her husband stood by, and, although the preference was marked, he displayed neither anger nor jealousy. She showed her gratitude by bringing us milk, and by assisting us to start next morning. In the evening we hired three fresh camels 12 to carry our goods up the ascent, and killed some antelopes which, in a stew, were not contemptible. The End of Time insisted upon firing a gun to frighten away the lions, who make night hideous with their growls, but never put in an appearance.

The morning cold greatly increased, and we did not start till 8 A.M. After half an hour’s march up the bed of a fiumara, leading apparently to a cul de sac of lofty rocks in the hills, we quitted it for a rude zig-zag winding along its left side, amongst bushes, thorn trees, and huge rocks. The walls of the opposite bank were strikingly perpendicular; in some places stratified, in others solid and polished by the course of stream and cascade. The principal material was a granite, so coarse, that the composing mica, quartz, and felspar separated into detached pieces as large as a man’s thumb; micaceous grit, which glittered in the sunbeams, and various sandstones, abounded. The road caused us some trouble; the camels’ loads were always slipping from their mats; I found it necessary to dismount from my mule, and, sitting down, we were stung by the large black ants which infest these hills.13

About half way up, we passed two cairns, and added to them our mite like good Somal. After two hours of hard work the summit of this primitive pass was attained, and sixty minutes more saw us on the plateau above the hills — the second zone of East Africa. Behind us lay the plains, of which we vainly sought a view: the broken ground at the foot of the mountains is broad, and mists veiled the reeking expanse of the low country.14 The plateau in front of us was a wide extent of rolling ground, rising slightly towards the west; its colour was brown with a threadbare coat of verdure, and at the bottom of each rugged slope ran a stony water-course trending from south-west to north-east. The mass of tangled aloes, ragged thorn, and prim-looking poison trees,15 must once have been populous; tombs and houses of the early Moslems covered with ruins the hills and ridges.

About noon, we arrived at a spot called the Kafir’s Grave. It is a square enceinte of rude stones about one hundred yards each side; and legends say that one Misr, a Galla chief, when dying, ordered the place to be filled seven times with she-camels destined for his Ahan or funeral feast. This is the fourth stage upon the direct road from Zayla to Harar: we had wasted ten days, and the want of grass and water made us anxious about our animals. The camels could scarcely walk, and my mule’s spine rose high beneath the Arab pad:— such are the effects of Jilal 16, the worst of travelling seasons in Eastern Africa.

At 1 P.M. we unloaded under a sycamore tree, called, after a Galla chieftain17, “Halimalah,” and giving its name to the surrounding valley. This ancient of the forest is more than half decayed, several huge limbs lie stretched upon the ground, whence, for reverence, no one removes them: upon the trunk, or rather trunks, for its bifurcates, are marks deeply cut by a former race, and Time has hollowed in the larger stem an arbour capable of containing half-a-dozen men. This holy tree was, according to the Somal, a place of prayer for the infidel, and its ancient honors are not departed. Here, probably to commemorate the westward progress of the tribe, the Gudabirsi Ugaz or chief has the white canvass turban bound about his brows, and hence rides forth to witness the equestrian games in the Harawwah Valley. As everyone who passes by, visits the Halimalah tree, foraging parties of the Northern Eesa and the Jibril Abokr (a clan of the Habr Awal) frequently meet, and the traveller wends his way in fear and trembling.

The thermometer showed an altitude of 3,350 feet: under the tree’s cool shade, the climate reminded me of Southern Italy in winter. I found a butter-cup, and heard a wood-pecker 18 tapping on the hollow trunk, a reminiscence of English glades. The Abban and his men urged an advance in the afternoon. But my health had suffered from the bad water of the coast, and the camels were faint with fatigue: we therefore dismissed the hired beasts, carried our property into a deserted kraal, and, lighting a fire, prepared to “make all snug” for the night. The Bedouins, chattering with cold, stood closer to the comfortable blaze than ever did pater familias in England: they smoked their faces, toasted their hands, broiled their backs with intense enjoyment, and waved their legs to and fro through the flame to singe away the pile, which at this season grows long. The End of Time, who was surly, compared them to demons, and quoted the Arab’s saying:—“Allah never bless smooth man, or hairy woman!” On the 8th of December, at 8 A.M., we travelled slowly up the Halimalah Valley, whose clayey surface glistened with mica and quartz pebbles from the hills. All the trees are thorny except the Sycamore and the Asclepias. The Gub, or Jujube, grows luxuriantly in thickets: its dried wood is used by women to fumigate their hair19: the Kedi, a tree like the porcupine — all spikes — supplies the Bedouins with hatchet-handles. I was shown the Abol with its edible gum, and a kind of Acacia, here called Galol. Its bark dyes cloth a dull red, and the thorn issues from a bulb which, when young and soft, is eaten by the Somal, when old it becomes woody, and hard as a nut. At 9 A.M. we crossed the Lesser Abbaso, a Fiumara with high banks of stiff clay and filled with large rolled stones: issuing from it, we traversed a thorny path over ascending ground between higher hills, and covered with large boulders and step-like layers of grit. Here appeared several Gudabirsi tombs, heaps of stones or pebbles, surrounded by a fence of thorns, or an enceinte of loose blocks: in the latter, slabs are used to make such houses as children would build in play, to denote the number of establishments left by the deceased. The new grave is known by the conical milk-pails surmounting the stick at the head of the corpse, upon the neighbouring tree is thrown the mat which bore the dead man to his last home, and hard by are the blackened stones upon which his funeral feast was cooked. At 11 A.M. we reached the Greater Abbaso, a Fiumara about 100 yards wide, fringed with lovely verdure and full of the antelope called Gurnuk: its watershed was, as usual in this region, from west and south-west to east and north-east. About noon we halted, having travelled eight miles from the Holy Tree.

At half past three reloading we followed the course of the Abbaso Valley, the most beautiful spot we had yet seen. The presence of mankind, however, was denoted by the cut branches of thorn encumbering the bed: we remarked too, the tracks of lions pursued by hunters, and the frequent streaks of serpents, sometimes five inches in diameter. Towards evening, our party closed up in fear, thinking that they saw spears glancing through the trees: I treated their alarm lightly, but the next day proved that it was not wholly imaginary. At sunset we met a shepherd who swore upon the stone20 to bring us milk in exchange for tobacco, and presently, after a five miles’ march, we halted in a deserted kraal on the left bank of a Fiumara. Clouds gathered black upon the hill tops, and a comfortless blast, threatening rain, warned us not to delay pitching the Gurgi. A large fire was lighted, and several guns were discharged to frighten away the lions that infest this place. Twice during the night our camels started up and rushed round their thorn ring in alarm.


Late in the morning of Saturday, the 9th December, I set out, accompanied by Rirash and the End of Time, to visit some ruins a little way distant from the direct road. After an hour’s ride we turned away from the Abbaso Fiumara and entered a basin among the hills distant about sixteen miles from the Holy Tree. This is the site of Darbiyah Kola — Kola’s Fort — so called from its Galla queen. It is said that this city and its neighbour Aububah fought like certain cats in Kilkenny till both were “eaten up:” the Gudabirsi fix the event at the period when their forefathers still inhabited Bulhar on the coast — about 300 years ago. If the date be correct, the substantial ruins have fought a stern fight with time. Remnants of houses cumber the soil, and the carefully built wells are filled with rubbish: the palace was pointed out to me with its walls of stone and clay intersected by layers of woodwork. The mosque is a large roofless building containing twelve square pillars of rude masonry, and the Mihrab, or prayer niche, is denoted by a circular arch of tolerable construction. But the voice of the Muezzin is hushed for ever, and creepers now twine around the ruined fane. The scene was still and dreary as the grave; for a mile and a half in length all was ruins — ruins — ruins.

Leaving this dead city, we rode towards the south-west between two rugged hills of which the loftiest summit is called Wanauli. As usual they are rich in thorns: the tall “Wadi” affords a gum useful to cloth-dyers, and the leaves of the lofty Wumba are considered, after the Daum-palm, the best material for mats. On the ground appeared the blue flowers of the “Man” or “Himbah,” a shrub resembling a potatoe: it bears a gay yellow apple full of brown seeds which is not eaten by the Somal. My companions made me taste some of the Karir berries, which in color and flavor resemble red currants: the leaves are used as a dressing to ulcers. Topping the ridge we stood for a few minutes to observe the view before us. Beneath our feet lay a long grassy plain-the sight must have gladdened the hearts of our starving mules! — and for the first time in Africa horses appeared grazing free amongst the bushes. A little further off lay the Aylonda valley studded with graves, and dark with verdure. Beyond it stretched the Wady Harawwah, a long gloomy hollow in the general level. The background was a bold sweep of blue hill, the second gradient of the Harar line, and on its summit closing the western horizon lay a golden streak — the Marar Prairie. Already I felt at the end of my journey. About noon, reaching a kraal, whence but that morning our Gudabirsi Abbans had driven off their kine, we sat under a tree and with a pistol reported arrival. Presently the elders came out and welcomed their old acquaintance the End of Time as a distinguished guest. He eagerly inquired about the reported quarrel between the Abbans and their brother-in-law the Gerad Adan. When, assured that it was the offspring of Somali imagination, he rolled his head, and with dignity remarked, “What man shutteth to us, that Allah openeth!” We complimented each other gravely upon the purity of our intentions — amongst Moslems a condition of success — and not despising second causes, lost no time in sending a horseman for the Abbans. Presently some warriors came out and inquired if we were of the Caravan that was travelling last evening up a valley with laden camels. On our answering in the affirmative, they laughingly declared that a commando of twelve horsemen had followed us with the intention of a sham-attack. This is favourite sport with the Bedouin. When however the traveller shows fright, the feint is apt to turn out a fact. On one occasion a party of Arab merchants, not understanding the “fun of the thing,” shot two Somal: the tribe had the justice to acquit the strangers, mulcting them, however, a few yards of cloth for the families of the deceased. In reply I fired a pistol unexpectedly over the heads of my new hosts, and improved the occasion of their terror by deprecating any practical facetiousness in future.

We passed the day under a tree: the camels escorted by my two attendants, and the women, did not arrive till sunset, having occupied about eight hours in marching as many miles. Fearing lions, we pitched inside the kraal, despite crying children, scolding wives, cattle rushing about, barking dogs, flies and ticks, filth and confinement.

I will now attempt a description of a village in Eastern Africa.

The Rer or Kraal21 is a line of scattered huts on plains where thorns are rare, beast of prey scarce, and raids not expected. In the hills it is surrounded by a strong fence to prevent cattle straying: this, where danger induces caution, is doubled and trebled. Yet the lion will sometimes break through it, and the leopard clears it, prey in mouth with a bound. The abattis has usually four entrances which are choked up with heaps of bushes at night. The interior space is partitioned off by dwarf hedges into rings, which contain and separate the different species of cattle. Sometimes there is an outer compartment adjoining the exterior fence, set apart for the camels; usually they are placed in the centre of the kraal. Horses being most valuable are side-lined and tethered close to the owner’s hut, and rude bowers of brush and fire wood protect the weaklings of the flocks from the heat of the sun and the inclement night breeze.

At intervals around and inside the outer abattis are built the Gurgi or wigwams — hemispheric huts like old bee-hives about five feet high by six in diameter: they are even smaller in the warm regions, but they increase in size as the elevation of the country renders climate less genial. The material is a framework of “Digo,” or sticks bent and hardened in the fire: to build the hut, these are planted in the ground, tied together with cords, and covered with mats of two different kinds: the Aus composed of small bundles of grass neatly joined, is hard and smooth; the Kibid has a long pile and is used as couch as well as roof. The single entrance in front is provided with one of these articles which serves as a curtain; hides are spread upon the top during the monsoon, and little heaps of earth are sometimes raised outside to keep out wind and rain.

The furniture is simple as the building. Three stones and a hole form the fireplace, near which sleep the children, kids, and lambs: there being no chimney, the interior is black with soot. The cow-skin couches are suspended during the day, like arms and other articles which suffer from rats and white ants, by loops of cord to the sides. The principal ornaments are basket-work bottles, gaily adorned with beads, cowris, and stained leather. Pottery being here unknown, the Bedouins twist the fibres of a root into various shapes, and make them water-tight with the powdered bark of another tree.22 The Han is a large wicker-work bucket, mounted in a framework of sticks, and used to contain water on journeys. The Guraf (a word derived from the Arabic “Ghurfah”) is a conical-shaped vessel, used to bale out the contents of a well. The Del, or milk pail, is shaped like two cones joined at the base by lateral thongs, the upper and smaller half acting as cup and cover. And finally the Wesi, or water bottle, contains the traveller’s store for drinking and religious ablution.

When the kraal is to be removed, the huts and furniture are placed upon the camels, and the hedges and earth are sometimes set on fire, to purify the place and deceive enemies, Throughout the country black circles of cinders or thorn diversify the hill sides, and show an extensive population. Travellers always seek deserted kraals for security of encampment. As they swarm with vermin by night and flies by day23, I frequently made strong objections to these favourite localities: the utmost conceded to me was a fresh enclosure added by a smaller hedge to the outside abattis of the more populous cow-kraals.

On the 10th December we halted: the bad water, the noon-day sun of 107°, and the cold mornings — 51° being the average — had seriously affected my health. All the population flocked to see me, darkening the hut with nodding wigs and staring faces: and — the Gudabirsi are polite knaves — apologised for the intrusion. Men, women, and children appeared in crowds, bringing milk and ghee, meat and water, several of the elders remembered having seen me at Berberah24, and the blear-eyed maidens, who were in no wise shy, insisted upon admiring the white stranger.

Feeling somewhat restored by repose, I started the next day, “with a tail on” to inspect the ruins of Aububah. After a rough ride over stony ground we arrived at a grassy hollow, near a line of hills, and dismounted to visit the Shaykh Aububah’s remains. He rests under a little conical dome of brick, clay and wood, similar in construction to that of Zayla: it is falling to pieces, and the adjoining mosque, long roofless, is overgrown with trees, that rustle melancholy sounds in the light joyous breeze. Creeping in by a dwarf door or rather hole, my Gudabirsi guides showed me a bright object forming the key of the arch: as it shone they suspected silver, and the End of Time whispered a sacrilegious plan for purloining it. Inside the vault were three graves apparently empty, and upon the dark sunken floor lay several rounded stones, resembling cannon balls, and used as weights by the more civilised Somal. Thence we proceeded to the battle-field, a broad sheet of sandstone, apparently dinted by the hoofs of mules and horses: on this ground, which, according to my guides, was in olden days soft and yielding, took place the great action between Aububah and Darbiyah Kola. A second mosque was found with walls in tolerable repair, but, like the rest of the place, roofless. Long Guled ascended the broken staircase of a small square minaret, and delivered a most ignorant and Bedouin-like Azan or call to prayer. Passing by the shells of houses, we concluded our morning’s work with a visit to the large graveyard. Apparently it did not contain the bones of Moslems: long lines of stones pointed westward, and one tomb was covered with a coating of hard mortar, in whose sculptured edge my benighted friends detected magical inscriptions. I heard of another city called Ahammed in the neighbouring hills, but did not visit it. These are all remains of Galla settlements, which the ignorance and exaggeration of the Somal fill with “writings” and splendid edifices.

Returning home we found that our Gudabirsi Bedouins had at length obeyed the summons. The six sons of a noted chief, Ali Addah or White Ali, by three different mothers, Beuh, Igah, Khayri, Nur, Ismail and Yunis, all advanced towards me as I dismounted, gave the hand of friendship, and welcomed me to their homes. With the exception of the first-named, a hard-featured man at least forty years old, the brothers were good-looking youths, with clear brown skins, regular features, and graceful figures. They entered the Gurgi when invited, but refused to eat, saying, that they came for honor not for food. The Hajj Sharmarkay’s introductory letter was read aloud to their extreme delight, and at their solicitation, I perused it a second and a third time; then having dismissed with sundry small presents, the two Abbans Raghe and Rirash, I wrote a flattering account of them to the Hajj, and entrusted it to certain citizens who were returning in caravan Zayla-wards, after a commercial tour in the interior.

Before they departed, there was a feast after the Homeric fashion. A sheep was “cut,” disembowelled, dismembered, tossed into one of our huge caldrons, and devoured within the hour: the almost live food25 was washed down with huge draughts of milk. The feasters resembled Wordsworth’s cows, “forty feeding like one:” in the left hand they held the meat to their teeth, and cut off the slice in possession with long daggers perilously close, were their noses longer and their mouths less obtrusive. During the dinner I escaped from the place of flies, and retired to a favourite tree. Here the End of Time, seeing me still in pain, insisted upon trying a Somali medicine. He cut two pieces of dry wood, scooped a hole in the shorter, and sharpened the longer, applied point to socket, which he sprinkled with a little sand, placed his foot upon the “female stick,” and rubbed the other between his palms till smoke and char appeared. He then cauterized my stomach vigorously in six different places, quoting a tradition, “the End of Physic is Fire.”

On Tuesday the 12th December, I vainly requested the two sons of White Ali, who had constituted themselves our guides, to mount their horses: they feared to fatigue the valuable animals at a season when grass is rare and dry. I was disappointed by seeing the boasted “Faras”26 of the Somal, in the shape of ponies hardly thirteen hands high. The head is pretty, the eyes are well opened, and the ears are small; the form also is good, but the original Arab breed has degenerated in the new climate. They are soft, docile, and — like all other animals in this part of the world — timid: the habit of climbing rocks makes them sure-footed, and they show the remains of blood when forced to fatigue. The Gudabirsi will seldom sell these horses, the great safeguard against their conterminous tribes, the Eesa and Girhi, who are all infantry: a village seldom contains more than six or eight, and the lowest value would be ten cows or twenty Tobes.27 Careful of his beast when at rest, the Somali Bedouin in the saddle is rough and cruel: whatever beauty the animal may possess in youth, completely disappears before the fifth year, and few are without spavin, or sprained back-sinews. In some parts of the country28, “to ride violently to your hut two or three times before finally dismounting, is considered a great compliment, and the same ceremony is observed on leaving. Springing into the saddle (if he has one), with the aid of his spear, the Somali cavalier first endeavours to infuse a little spirit into his half-starved hack, by persuading him to accomplish a few plunges and capers: then, his heels raining a hurricane of blows against the animal’s ribs, and occasionally using his spear-point as a spur, away he gallops, and after a short circuit, in which he endeavours to show himself to the best advantage, returns to his starting point at full speed, when the heavy Arab bit brings up the blown horse with a shock that half breaks his jaw and fills his mouth with blood. The affection of the true Arab for his horse is proverbial: the cruelty of the Somal to his, may, I think, be considered equally so.” The Bedouins practise horse-racing, and run for bets, which are contested with ardor: on solemn occasions, they have rude equestrian games, in which they display themselves and their animals. The Gudabirsi, and indeed most of the Somal, sit loosely upon their horses. Their saddle is a demi-pique, a high-backed wooden frame, like the Egyptian fellah’s: two light splinters leave a clear space for the spine, and the tree is tightly bound with wet thongs: a sheepskin shabracque is loosely spread over it, and the dwarf iron stirrup admits only the big toe, as these people fear a stirrup which, if the horse fall, would entangle the foot. Their bits are cruelly severe; a solid iron ring, as in the Arab bridle, embracing the lower jaw, takes the place of a curb chain. Some of the head-stalls, made at Berberah, are prettily made of cut leather and bright steel ornaments like diminutive quoits. The whip is a hard hide handle, plated with zinc, and armed with a single short broad thong.

With the two sons of White Ali and the End of Time, at 8 A.M., on the 12th December, I rode forward, leaving the jaded camels in charge of my companions and the women. We crossed the plain in a south-westerly direction, and after traversing rolling ground, we came to a ridge, which commanded an extensive view. Behind lay the Wanauli Hills, already purple in the distance. On our left was a mass of cones, each dignified by its own name; no one, it is said, can ascend them, which probably means that it would be a fatiguing walk. Here are the visitation-places of three celebrated saints, Amud, Sau and Shaykh Sharlagamadi, or the “Hidden from Evil,” To the north-west I was shown some blue peaks tenanted by the Eesa Somal. In front, backed by the dark hills of Harar, lay the Harawwah valley. The breadth is about fifteen miles: it runs from south-west to north-east, between the Highlands of the Girhi and the rolling ground of the Gudabirsi Somal, as far, it is said, as the Dankali country. Of old this luxuriant waste belonged to the former tribe; about twelve years ago it was taken from them by the Gudabirsi, who carried off at the same time thirty cows, forty camels, and between three and four hundred sheep and goats.

Large herds tended by spearmen and grazing about the bush, warned us that we were approaching the kraal in which the sons of White Ali were camped; at half-past 10 A.M., after riding eight miles, we reached the place which occupies the lower slope of the Northern Hills that enclose the Harawwah valley. We spread our hides under a tree, and were soon surrounded by Bedouins, who brought milk, sun-dried beef, ghee and honey in one of the painted wooden bowls exported from Cutch. After breakfast, at which the End of Time distinguished himself by dipping his meat into honey, we went out gun in hand towards the bush. It swarmed with sand-antelope and Gurnuk: the ground-squirrels haunted every ant-hill, hoopoos and spur-fowls paced among the thickets, in the trees we heard the frequent cry of the Gobiyan and the bird facetiously termed from its cry “Dobo-dogon-guswen,” and the bright-coloured hawk, the Abodi or Bakiyyah29, lay on wing high in the cloudless air.

When tired of killing we returned to our cow-hides, and sat in conversation with the Bedouins. They boasted of the skill with which they used the shield, and seemed not to understand the efficiency of a sword-parry: to illustrate the novel idea I gave a stick to the best man, provided myself in the same way, and allowed him to cut at me. After repeated failures he received a sounding blow upon the least bony portion of his person: the crowd laughed long and loud, and the pretending “knight-at-arms” retired in confusion.

Darkness fell, but no caravan appeared: it had been delayed by a runaway mule — perhaps by the desire to restrain my vagrant propensities — and did not arrive till midnight. My hosts cleared a Gurgi for our reception, brought us milk, and extended their hospitality to the full limits of even savage complaisance.

Expecting to march on the 13th December soon after dawn, I summoned Beuh and his brethren to the hut, reminding him that the Hajj had promised me an escort without delay to the village of the Gerad Adan. To my instances they replied that, although they were most anxious to oblige, the arrival of Mudeh the eldest son rendered a consultation necessary; and retiring to the woods, sat in palaver from 8 A.M. to past noon. At last they came to a resolution which could not be shaken. They would not trust one of their number in the Gerad’s country; a horseman, however, should carry a letter inviting the Girhi chief to visit his brothers-in-law. I was assured that Adan would not drink water before mounting to meet us: but, fear is reciprocal, there was evidently bad blood between them, and already a knowledge of Somali customs caused me to suspect the result of our mission. However, a letter was written reminding the Gerad of “the word spoken under the tree,” and containing, in case of recusance, a threat to cut off the salt well at which his cows are periodically driven to drink. Then came the bargain for safe conduct. After much haggling, especially on the part of the handsome Igah, they agreed to receive twenty Tobes, three bundles of tobacco, and fourteen cubits of indigo-dyed cotton. In addition to this I offered as a bribe one of my handsome Abyssinian shirts with a fine silk fringe made at Aden, to be received by the man Beuh on the day of entering the Gerad’s village.

I arose early in the next morning, having been promised by the Abbans grand sport in the Harawwah Valley. The Somal had already divided the elephants’ spoils: they were to claim the hero’s feather, I was to receive two thirds of the ivory — nothing remained to be done but the killing. After sundry pretences and prayers for delay, Beuh saddled his hack, the Hammal mounted one mule, a stout-hearted Bedouin called Fahi took a second, and we started to find the herds. The End of Time lagged in the rear: the reflection that a mule cannot outrun an elephant, made him look so ineffably miserable, that I sent him back to the kraal. “Dost thou believe me to be a coward, 0 Pilgrim?” thereupon exclaimed the Mullah, waxing bold in the very joy of his heart. “Of a truth I do!” was my reply. Nothing abashed, he hammered his mule with heel, and departed ejaculating, “What hath man but a single life? and he who throweth it away, what is he but a fool?” Then we advanced with cocked guns, Beuh singing, Boanerges-like, the Song of the Elephant.

In the Somali country, as amongst the Kafirs, after murdering a man or boy, the death of an elephant is considered the act of heroism: most tribes wear for it the hair-feather and the ivory bracelet. Some hunters, like the Bushmen of the Cape30, kill the Titan of the forests with barbed darts carrying Waba-poison. The general way of hunting resembles that of the Abyssinian Agageers described by Bruce. One man mounts a white pony, and galloping before the elephant, induces him, as he readily does, — firearms being unknown — to charge and “chivy.” The rider directs his course along, and close to, some bush, where a comrade is concealed; and the latter, as the animal passes at speed, cuts the back sinew of the hind leg, where in the human subject the tendon Achilles would be, with a sharp, broad and heavy knife.31 This wound at first occasions little inconvenience: presently the elephant, fancying, it is supposed, that a thorn has stuck in his foot, stamps violently, and rubs the scratch till the sinew is fairly divided. The animal, thus disabled, is left to perish wretchedly of hunger and thirst: the tail, as amongst the Kafirs, is cut off to serve as trophy, and the ivories are removed when loosened by decomposition. In this part of Africa the elephant is never tamed.32

For six hours we rode the breadth of the Harawwah Valley: it was covered with wild vegetation, and surface-drains, that carry off the surplus of the hills enclosing it. In some places the torrent beds had cut twenty feet into the soil. The banks were fringed with milk-bush and Asclepias, the Armo-creeper, a variety of thorns, and especially the yellow-berried Jujube: here numberless birds followed bright-winged butterflies, and the “Shaykhs of the Blind,” as the people call the black fly, settled in swarms upon our hands and faces as we rode by. The higher ground was overgrown with a kind of cactus, which here becomes a tree, forming shady avenues. Its quadrangular fleshy branches of emerald green, sometimes forty feet high, support upon their summits large round bunches of a bright crimson berry: when the plantation is close, domes of extreme beauty appear scattered over the surface of the country. This “Hassadin” abounds in burning milk, and the Somal look downwards when passing under its branches: the elephant is said to love it, and in many places the trees were torn to pieces by hungry trunks. The nearest approaches to game were the last year’s earths; likely places, however, shady trees and green thorns near water, were by no means uncommon. When we reached the valley’s southern wall, Beuh informed us that we might ride all day, if we pleased, with the same result. At Zayla I had been informed that elephants are “thick as sand” in Harawwah: even the Gudabirsi, when at a distance, declared that they fed there like sheep, and, after our failure, swore that they killed thirty but last year. The animals were probably in the high Harirah Valley, and would be driven downwards by the cold at a later period: some future Gordon Cumming may therefore succeed where the Hajj Abdullah notably failed.

On the 15th December I persuaded the valiant Beuh, with his two brothers and his bluff cousin Fahi, to cross the valley with us, After recovering a mule which had strayed five miles back to the well, and composing sundry quarrels between Shehrazade, whose swains had detained her from camel-loading, and the Kalendar whose one eye flashed with indignation at her conduct, we set out in a southerly direction. An hour’s march brought us to an open space surrounded by thin thorn forest: in the centre is an ancient grave, about which are performed the equestrian games when the turban of the Ugaz has been bound under the Holy Tree. Shepherds issued from the bush to stare at us as we passed, and stretched forth the hand for “Bori:” the maidens tripped forwards exclaiming, “Come, girls, let us look at this prodigy!” and they never withheld an answer if civilly addressed. Many of them were grown up, and not a few were old maids, the result of the tribe’s isolation; for here, as in Somaliland generally, the union of cousins is abhorred. The ground of the valley is a stiff clay, sprinkled with pebbles of primitive formation: the hills are mere rocks, and the torrent banks with strata of small stones, showed a watermark varying from ten to fifteen feet in height: in these Fiumaras we saw frequent traces of the Edler-game, deer and hog. At 1 P.M. our camels and mules were watered at wells in a broad wady called Jannah-Gaban or the Little Garden; its course, I was told, lies northwards through the Harawwah Valley to the Odla and Waruf, two depressions in the Wayma country near Tajurrah. About half an hour afterwards we arrived at a deserted sheepfold distant six miles from our last station. After unloading we repaired to a neighbouring well, and found the water so hard that it raised lumps like nettle stings in the bather’s skin. The only remedy for the evil is an unguent of oil or butter, a precaution which should never be neglected by the African traveller. At first the sensation of grease annoys, after a few days it is forgotten, and at last the “pat of butter” is expected as pleasantly as the pipe or the cup of coffee. It prevents the skin from chaps and sores, obviates the evil effects of heat, cold, and wet, and neutralises the Proteus-like malaria poison. The Somal never fail to anoint themselves when they can afford ghee, and the Bedouin is at the summit of his bliss, when sitting in the blazing sun, or — heat acts upon these people as upon serpents — with his back opposite a roaring fire, he is being smeared, rubbed, and kneaded by a companion.

My guides, fearing lions and hyenas, would pass the night inside a foul sheepfold: I was not without difficulty persuaded to join them. At eight next morning we set out through an uninteresting thorn-bush towards one of those Tetes or isolated hills which form admirable bench-marks in the Somali country. “Koralay,” a terra corresponding with our Saddle-back, exactly describes its shape: pommel and crupper, in the shape of two huge granite boulders, were all complete, and between them was a depression for a seat. As day advanced the temperature changed from 50° to a maximum of 121°. After marching about five miles, we halted in a broad watercourse called Gallajab, the “Plentiful Water”: there we bathed, and dined on an excellent camel which had broken its leg by falling from a bank.

Resuming our march at 5 P.M., we travelled over ascending ground which must be most fertile after rain: formerly it belonged to the Girhi, and the Gudabirsi boasted loudly of their conquest. After an hour’s march we reached the base of Koralay, upon whose lower slopes appeared a pair of the antelopes called Alakud33: they are tame, easily shot, and eagerly eaten by the Bedouins. Another hour of slow travelling brought us to a broad Fiumara with high banks of stiff clay thickly wooded and showing a water-mark eighteen feet above the sand. The guides named these wells Agjogsi, probably a generic term signifying that water is standing close by. Crossing the Fiumara we ascended a hill, and found upon the summit a large kraal alive with heads of kine. The inhabitants flocked out to stare at us and the women uttered cries of wonder. I advanced towards the prettiest, and fired my rifle by way of salute over her head. The people delighted, exclaimed, Mod! Mod! —“Honor to thee!”— and we replied with shouts of Kulliban —“May Heaven aid ye!” 34 At 5 P.M., after five miles’ march, the camels were unloaded in a deserted kraal whose high fence denoted danger of wild beasts. The cowherds bade us beware of lions: but a day before a girl had been dragged out of her hut, and Moslem burial could be given to only one of her legs. A Bedouin named Uddao, whom we hired as mule-keeper, was ordered to spend the night singing, and, as is customary with Somali watchmen, to address and answer himself dialogue-wise with a different voice, in order to persuade thieves that several men are on the alert. He was a spectacle of wildness as he sat before the blazing fire — his joy by day, his companion and protector in the shades, the only step made by him in advance of his brethren the Cynocephali.

We were detained four days at Agjogsi by the nonappearance of the Gerad Adan: this delay gave me an opportunity of ascending to the summit of Koralay the Saddleback, which lay about a mile north of our encampment. As we threaded the rocks and hollows of the side we came upon dens strewed with cows’ bones, and proving by a fresh taint that the tenants had lately quitted them. In this country the lion is seldom seen unless surprised asleep in his lair of thicket: during my journey, although at times the roaring was heard all night, I saw but one. The people have a superstition that the king of beasts will not attack a single traveller, because such a person, they say, slew the mother of all the lions: except in darkness or during violent storms, which excite the fiercer carnivors, he is a timid animal, much less feared by the people than the angry and agile leopard. Unable to run with rapidity when pressed by hunger, he pursues a party of travellers stealthily as a cat, and, arrived within distance, springs, strikes down the hindermost, and carries him away to the bush.

From the summit of Koralay, we had a fair view of the surrounding country. At least forty kraals, many of them deserted, lay within the range of sight. On all sides except the north-west and south-east was a mass of sombre rock and granite hill: the course of the valleys between the several ranges was denoted by a lively green, and the plains scattered in patches over the landscape shone with dull yellow, the effect of clay and stubble, whilst a light mist encased the prospect in a circlet of blue and silver. Here the End of Time conceived the jocose idea of crowning me king of the country. With loud cries of Buh! Buh! Buh! he showered leaves of a gum tree and a little water from a prayer bottle over my head, and then with all solemnity bound on the turban.35 It is perhaps fortunate that this facetiousness was not witnessed: a crowd of Bedouins assembled below the hill, suspecting as usual some magical practices, and, had they known the truth, our journey might have ended abruptly. Descending, I found porcupines’ quills in abundance 36, and shot a rock pigeon called Elal-jog — the “Dweller at wells.” At the foot a “Baune” or Hyrax Abyssinicus, resembling the Coney of Palestine37, was observed at its favourite pastime of sunning itself upon the rocks.

On the evening of the 20th December the mounted messenger returned, after a six hours’ hard ride, bringing back unopened the letter addressed by me to the Gerad, and a private message from their sister to the sons of White Ali, advising them not to advance. Ensued terrible palavers. It appeared that the Gerad was upon the point of mounting horse, when his subjects swore him to remain and settle a dispute with the Amir of Harar. Our Abbans, however, withdrew their hired camels, positively refuse to accompany us, and Beuh privily informed the End of Time that I had acquired through the land the evil reputation of killing everything, from an elephant to a bird in the air. One of the younger brethren, indeed, declared that we were forerunners of good, and that if the Gerad harmed a hair of our heads, he would slaughter every Girhi under the sun. We had, however, learned properly to appreciate such vaunts, and the End of Time drily answered that their sayings were honey but their doings myrrh. Being a low-caste and a shameless tribe, they did not reply to our reproaches. At last, a manoeuvre was successful: Beuh and his brethren, who squatted like sulky children in different places, were dismissed with thanks — we proposed placing ourselves under the safeguard of Gerad Hirsi, the Berteri chief. This would have thrown the protection-price, originally intended for their brother-in-law, into the hands of a rival, and had the effect of altering their resolve. Presently we were visited by two Widad or hedge-priests, Ao Samattar and Ao Nur38, both half-witted fellows, but active and kindhearted. The former wore a dirty turban, the latter a Zebid cap, a wicker-work calotte, composed of the palm leaf’s mid-rib: they carried dressed goatskins, as prayer carpets, over their right shoulders dangled huge wooden ink bottles with Lauh or wooden tablets for writing talismans39, and from the left hung a greasy bag, containing a tattered copy of the Koran and a small MS. of prayers. They read tolerably, but did not understand Arabic, and I presented them with cheap Bombay lithographs of the Holy Book. The number of these idlers increased as we approached Harar, the Alma Mater of Somali land:— the people seldom listen to their advice, but on this occasion Ao Samattar succeeded in persuading the valiant Beuh that the danger was visionary. Soon afterwards rode up to our kraal three cavaliers, who proved to be sons of Adam, the future Ugaz of the Gudabirsi tribe: this chief had fully recognized the benefits of reopening to commerce a highway closed by their petty feuds, and sent to say that, in consequence of his esteem for the Hajj Sharmarkay, if the sons of White Ali feared to escort us, he in person would do the deed. Thereupon Beuh became a “Gesi” or hero, as the End of Time ironically called him: he sent back his brethren with their horses and camels, and valorously prepared to act as our escort. I tauntingly asked him what he now thought of the danger. For all reply he repeated the words, with which the Bedouins — who, like the Arabs, have a holy horror of towns — had been dinning daily into my ears, “They will spoil that white skin of thine at Harar!”

At 3 P.M., on the 21st December, we started in a westerly direction through a gap in the hills, and presently turned to the south-west, over rapidly rising ground, thickly inhabited, and covered with flocks and herds. About 5 P.M., after marching two miles, we raised our wigwam outside a populous kraal, a sheep was provided by the hospitality of Ao Samattar, and we sat deep into the night enjoying a genial blaze.

Early the next morning we had hoped to advance: water, however, was wanting, and a small caravan was slowly gathering; — these details delayed us till 4 P.M. Our line lay westward, over rising ground, towards a conspicuous conical hill called Konti. Nothing could be worse for camels than the rough ridges at the foot of the mountain, full of thickets, cut by deep Fiumaras, and abounding in dangerous watercourses: the burdens slipped now backwards then forwards, sometimes the load was almost dragged off by thorns, and at last we were obliged to leave one animal to follow slowly in the rear. After creeping on two miles, we bivouacked in a deserted cow-kraal — sub dio, as it was warm under the hills. That evening our party was increased by a Gudabirsi maiden in search of a husband: she was surlily received by Shehrazade and Deenarzade, but we insisted upon her being fed, and superintended the operation. Her style of eating was peculiar; she licked up the rice from the hollow of her hand. Next morning she was carried away in our absence, greatly against her will, by some kinsmen who had followed her.

And now, bidding adieu to the Gudabirsi, I will briefly sketch the tribe.

The Gudabirsi, or Gudabursi, derive themselves from Dir and Aydur, thus claiming affinity with the Eesa: others declare their tribe to be an offshoot from the Bahgoba clan of the Habr Awal, originally settled near Jebel Almis, and Bulhar, on the sea-shore. The Somal unhesitatingly stigmatize them as a bastard and ignoble race: a noted genealogist once informed me, that they were little better than Midgans or serviles. Their ancestors’ mother, it is said, could not name the father of her child: some proposed to slay it, others advocated its preservation, saying, “Perhaps we shall increase by it!” Hence the name of the tribe. 40

The Gudabirsi are such inveterate liars that I could fix for them no number between 3000 and 10,000. They own the rough and rolling ground diversified with thorny hill and grassy vale, above the first or seaward range of mountains; and they have extended their lands by conquest towards Harar, being now bounded in that direction by the Marar Prairie. As usual, they are subdivided into a multitude of clans.41

In appearance the Gudabirsi are decidedly superior to their limitrophes the Eesa. I have seen handsome faces amongst the men as well as the women. Some approach closely to the Caucasian type: one old man, with olive-coloured skin, bald brow, and white hair curling round his temples, and occiput, exactly resembled an Anglo-Indian veteran. Generally, however, the prognathous mouth betrays an African origin, and chewing tobacco mixed with ashes stains the teeth, blackens the gums, and mottles the lips. The complexion is the Abyssinian cafe au lait, contrasting strongly with the sooty skins of the coast; and the hair, plentifully anointed with rancid butter, hangs from the head in lank corkscrews the colour of a Russian pointer’s coat. The figure is rather squat, but broad and well set.

The Gudabirsi are as turbulent and unmanageable, though not so bloodthirsty, as the Eesa. Their late chief, Ugaz Roblay of the Bait Samattar sept, left children who could not hold their own: the turban was at once claimed by a rival branch, the Rer Abdillah, and a civil war ensued. The lovers of legitimacy will rejoice to hear that when I left the country, Galla, son of the former Prince Rainy, was likely to come to his own again.

The stranger’s life is comparatively safe amongst this tribe: as long as he feeds and fees them, he may even walk about unarmed. They are, however, liars even amongst the Somal, Bobadils amongst boasters, inveterate thieves, and importunate beggars. The smooth-spoken fellows seldom betray emotion except when cloth or tobacco is concerned; “dissimulation is as natural to them as breathing,” and I have called one of their chiefs “dog” without exciting his indignation.

The commerce of these wild regions is at present in a depressed state: were the road safe, traffic with the coast would be considerable. The profit on hides, for instance, at Aden, would be at least cent. per cent.: the way, however, is dangerous, and detention is frequent, consequently the gain will not remunerate for risk and loss of time. No operation can be undertaken in a hurry, consequently demand cannot readily be supplied. What Laing applies to Western, may be repeated of Eastern Africa: “the endeavour to accelerate an undertaking is almost certain to occasion its failure.” Nowhere is patience more wanted, in order to perform perfect work. The wealth of the Gudabirsi consists principally in cattle, peltries, hides, gums, and ghee. The asses are dun-coloured, small, and weak; the camels large, loose, and lazy; the cows are pretty animals, with small humps, long horns, resembling the Damara cattle, and in the grazing season with plump, well-rounded limbs; there is also a bigger breed, not unlike that of Tuscany. The standard is the Tobe of coarse canvass; worth about three shillings at Aden, here it doubles in value. The price of a good camel varies from six to eight cloths; one Tobe buys a two-year-old heifer, three, a cow between three and four years old. A ewe costs half a cloth: the goat, although the flesh is according to the Somal nutritive, whilst “mutton is disease,” is a little cheaper than the sheep. Hides and peltries are usually collected at and exported from Harar; on the coast they are rubbed over with salt, and in this state carried to Aden. Cows’ skins fetch a quarter of a dollar, or about one shilling in cloth, and two dollars are the extreme price for the Kurjah or score of goats’ skins. The people of the interior have a rude way of tanning42; they macerate the hide, dress, and stain it of a deep calf-skin colour with the bark of a tree called Jirmah, and lastly the leather is softened with the hand. The principal gum is the Adad, or Acacia Arabica: foreign merchants purchase it for about half a dollar per Farasilah of twenty pounds: cow’s and sheep’s butter may fetch a dollar’s worth of cloth for the measure of thirty-two pounds. This great article of commerce is good and pure in the country, whereas at Berberah, the Habr Awal adulterate it, previous to exportation, with melted sheep’s tails.

The principal wants of the country which we have traversed are coarse cotton cloth, Surat tobacco, beads, and indigo-dyed stuffs for women’s coifs. The people would also be grateful for any improvement in their breed of horses, and when at Aden I thought of taking with me some old Arab stallions as presents to chiefs. Fortunately the project fell to the ground: a strange horse of unusual size or beauty, in these regions, would be stolen at the end of the first march.

1 Every hill and peak, ravine and valley, will be known by some striking epithet: as Borad, the White Hill; Libahlay, the Lions’ Mountain; and so forth.

2 The Arabs call it Kakatua, and consider it a species of parrot. The name Cacatoes, is given by the Cape Boers, according to Delegorgue, to the Coliphymus Concolor. The Gobiyan resembles in shape and flight our magpie, it has a crest and a brown coat with patches of white, and a noisy note like a frog. It is very cunning and seldom affords a second shot.

3 The berries of the Armo are eaten by children, and its leaves, which never dry up, by the people in times of famine; they must be boiled or the acrid juice would excoriate the mouth.

4 Siyaro is the Somali corruption of the Arabic Ziyarat, which, synonymous with Mazar, means a place of pious visitation.

5 The Somal call the insect Abor, and its hill Dundumo.

6 The corrupted Portuguese word used by African travellers; in the Western regions it is called Kelder, and the Arabs term it “Kalam.”

7 Three species of the Dar or Aloe grow everywhere in the higher regions of the Somali country. The first is called Dar Main, the inside of its peeled leaf is chewed when water cannot be procured. The Dar Murodi or Elephant’s aloe is larger and useless: the Dar Digwen or Long-eared resembles that of Socotra.

8 The Hig is called “Salab” by the Arabs, who use its long tough fibre for ropes. Patches of this plant situated on moist ground at the foot of hills, are favourite places with sand antelope, spur-fowl and other game.

9 The Darnel or pod has a sweetish taste, not unlike that of a withered pea; pounded and mixed with milk or ghee, it is relished by the Bedouins when vegetable food is scarce.

10 Dobo in the Somali tongue signifies mud or clay.

11 The Loajira (from “Loh,” a cow) is a neatherd; the “Geljira” is the man who drives camels.

12 For these we paid twenty-four oubits of canvass, and two of blue cotton; equivalent to about three shillings.

13 The natives call them Jana; they are about three-fourths of an inch long, and armed with stings that prick like thorns and burn violently for a few minutes.

14 Near Berberah, where the descents are more rapid, such panoramas are common.

15 This is the celebrated Waba, which produces the Somali Wabayo, a poison applied to darts and arrows. It is a round stiff evergreen, not unlike a bay, seldom taller than twenty feet, affecting hill sides and torrent banks, growing in clumps that look black by the side of the Acacias; thornless, with a laurel-coloured leaf, which cattle will not touch, unless forced by famine, pretty bunches of pinkish white flowers, and edible berries black and ripening to red. The bark is thin, the wood yellow, compact, exceedingly tough and hard, the root somewhat like liquorice; the latter is prepared by trituration and other processes, and the produce is a poison in substance and colour resembling pitch.

Travellers have erroneously supposed the arrow poison of Eastern Africa to be the sap of a Euphorbium. The following “observations accompanying a substance procured near Aden, and used by the Somalis to poison their arrows,” by F. S. Arnott, Esq., M.D., will be read with interest.

“In February 1853, Dr. Arnott had forwarded to him a watery extract prepared from the root of a tree, described as ‘Wabie,’ a toxicodendron from the Somali country on the Habr Gerhajis range of the Goolies mountains. The tree grows to the height of twenty feet. The poison is obtained by boiling the root in water, until it attains the consistency of an inspissated juice. When cool the barb of the arrow is anointed with the juice, which, is regarded as a virulent poison, and it renders a wound tainted therewith incurable. Dr. Arnott was informed that death usually took place within an hour; that the hairs and nails dropped off after death, and it was believed that the application of heat assisted its poisonous qualities. He could not, however ascertain the quantity made use of by the Somalis, and doubted if the point of an arrow would convey a sufficient quantity to produce such immediate effects. He had tested its powers in some other experiments, besides the ones detailed, and although it failed in several instances, yet he was led to the conclusion that it was a very powerful narcotic irritant poison. He had not, however, observed the local effect said to be produced upon the point of insertion.”

“The following trials were described:—

“1. A little was inserted into the inside of the ear of a sickly sheep, and death occurred in two hours.

“2. A little was inserted into, the inside of the ear of a healthy sheep, and death occurred in two hours, preceded by convulsions.

“3. Five grains were given to a dog; vomiting took place after an hour, and death in three or four hours.

“4. One grain was swallowed by a fowl, but no effect produced.

“5. Three grains were given to a sheep, but without producing any effect.

“6. A small quantity was inserted into the ear and shoulder of a dog, but no effect was produced.

“7. Upon the same dog two days after, the same quantity was inserted into the thigh; death occurred in less than two hours.

“8. Seven grains were given to a sheep without any effect whatever.

“9. To a dog five grains were administered, but it was rejected by vomiting; this was again repeated on the following day, with the same result. On the same day four grains were inserted into a wound upon the same dog; it produced violent effects in ten, and death in thirty-five, minutes.

“10. To a sheep two grains in solution were given without any effect being produced. The post-mortem appearances observed were, absence of all traces of inflammation, collapse of the lungs, and distension of the cavities of the heart.”

Further experiments of the Somali arrow poison by B. Haines, M. B., assistant surgeon (from Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of Bombay. No. 2. new series 1853-1854.)

“Having while at Ahmednuggur received from the secretary a small quantity of Somali arrow poison, alluded to by Mr. Vaughan in his notes on articles of the Materia Medica, and published in the last volume of the Society’s Transactions, and called ‘Wabie,’ the following experiments were made with it:—

“September 17th. 1. A small healthy rabbit was taken, and the skin over the hip being divided, a piece of the poisonous extract about the size of a corn of wheat was inserted into the cellular tissue beneath: thirty minutes afterwards, seems disinclined to move, breathing quicker, passed * *: one hour, again passed * * * followed by * * *; has eaten a little: one hour and a half, appears quite to have recovered from his uneasiness, and has become as lively as before. (This rabbit was made use of three days afterwards for the third experiment.)

“2. A full-grown rabbit. Some of the poison being dissolved in water a portion of the solution corresponding to about fifteen grains was injected into an opening in the peritoneum, so large a quantity being used, in consequence of the apparent absence of effect in the former case: five minutes, he appears to be in pain, squeaking occasionally; slight convulsive retractions of the head and neck begin to take place, passed a small quantity of * *: ten minutes, the spasms are becoming more frequent, but are neither violent nor prolonged, respiration scarcely perceptible; he now fell on his side: twelve minutes, several severe general convulsions came on, and at the end of another minute he was quite dead, the pulsation being for the last minute quite imperceptible. The chest was instantly opened, but there was no movement of the heart whatever.

“September 20th. 3. The rabbit used for the first experiment was taken and an attempt was made to inject a little filtered solution into the jugular rein, which failed from the large size of the nozzle of the syringe; a good deal of blood was lost. A portion of the solution corresponding to about two grains and a half of the poison was then injected into a small opening made in the pleura. Nine minutes afterwards: symptoms precisely resembling those in number two began to appear. Fourteen minutes: convulsions more violent; fell on his side. Sixteen minutes, died.

“4. A portion of the poison, as much as could be applied, was smeared over the square iron head of an arrow, and allowed to dry. The arrow was then shot into the buttock of a goat with sufficient force to carry the head out of sight; twenty minutes afterwards, no effect whatever having followed, the arrow was extracted. The poison had become softened and was wiped completely off two of the sides, and partly off the two other sides. The animal appeared to suffer very little pain from the wound; he was kept for a fortnight, and then died, but not apparently from any cause connected with the wound. In fact he was previously diseased. Unfortunately the seat of the wound was not then examined, but a few days previously it appeared to have healed of itself. In the rabbit of the former experiment, three days after the insertion of the poison in the wound, the latter was closed with a dry coagulum and presented no marks of inflammation around it.

“5. Two good-sized village dogs being secured, to each after several hours’ fasting, were given about five grains enveloped in meat. The smaller one chewed it a long time, and frothed much at the mouth. He appeared to swallow very little of it, but the larger one ate the whole up without difficulty. After more than two hours no effect whatever being perceptible in either animal, they were shot to get rid of them. These experiments, though not altogether complete, certainly establish the fact that it is a poison of no very great activity. The quantity made use of in the second experiment was too great to allow a fair deduction to be made as to its properties. When a fourth to a sixth of the quantity was employed in the third experiment the same effects followed, but with rather less rapidity; death resulting in the one case in ten, in the other in sixteen minutes, although the death in the latter case was perhaps hastened by the loss of blood. The symptoms more resemble those produced by nux vomica than by any other agent. No apparent drowsiness, spasms, slight at first, beginning in the neck, increasing in intensity, extending over the whole body, and finally stopping respiration and with it the action of the heart. Experiments first and fourth show that a moderate quantity, such as may be introduced on the point of an arrow, produced no sensible effect either on a goat or a rabbit, and it could scarcely be supposed that it would have more on a man than on the latter animal; and the fifth experiment proves that a full dose taken into the stomach produces no result within a reasonable time.

“The extract appeared to have been very carelessly prepared. It contained much earthy matter, and even small stones, and a large proportion of what seemed to be oxidized extractive matter also was left undisturbed when it was treated with water: probably it was not a good specimen. It seems, however, to keep well, and shows no disposition to become mouldy.”

16 The Somal divide their year into four seasons:—

1. Gugi (monsoon, from “Gug,” rain) begins in April, is violent for forty-four days and subsides in August. Many roads may be traversed at this season, which are death in times of drought; the country becomes “Barwako “(in Arabic Rakha, a place of plenty,) forage and water abound, the air is temperate, and the light showers enliven the traveller.

2. Haga is the hot season after the monsoon, and corresponding with our autumn: the country suffers from the Fora, a violent dusty Simum, which is allayed by a fall of rain called Karan.

3. Dair, the beginning of the cold season, opens the sea to shipping. The rain which then falls is called Dairti or Hais: it comes with a west-south-west wind from the hills of Harar.

4. Jilal is the dry season from December to April. The country then becomes Abar (in Arabic Jahr,) a place of famine: the Nomads migrate to the low plains, where pasture is procurable. Some reckon as a fifth season Kalil, or the heats between Jilal and the monsoon.

17 According to Bruce this tree flourishes everywhere on the low hot plains between, the Red Sea and the Abyssinian hills. The Gallas revere it and plant it over sacerdotal graves. It suggests the Fetiss trees of Western Africa, and the Hiero-Sykaminon of Egypt.

18 There are two species of this bird, both called by the Somal, “Daudaulay” from their tapping.

19 The limbs are perfumed with the “Hedi,” and “Karanli,” products of the Ugadayn or southern country.

20 This great oath suggests the litholatry of the Arabs, derived from the Abyssinian and Galla Sabaeans; it is regarded by the Eesa and Gudabirsi Bedouins as even more binding than the popular religious adjurations. When a suspected person denies his guilt, the judge places a stone before him, saying “Tabo!” (feel!); the liar will seldom dare to touch it. Sometimes a Somali will take up a stone and say “Dagaha,” (it is a stone,) he may then generally be believed.

21 Kariyah is the Arabic word.

22 In the northern country the water-proofing matter is, according to travellers, the juice of the Quolquol, a species of Euphorbium.

23 The flies are always most troublesome where cows have been; kraals of goats and camels are comparatively free from the nuisance.

24 Some years ago a French lady landed at Berberah: her white face, according to the End of Time, made every man hate his wife and every wife hate herself. I know not who the fair dame was: her charms and black silk dress, however, have made a lasting impression upon the Somali heart; from the coast to Harar she is still remembered with rapture.

25 The Abyssinian Brindo of omophagean fame is not eaten by the Somal, who always boil, broil, or sun-dry their flesh. They have, however, no idea of keeping it, whereas the more civilised citizens of Harar hang their meat till tender.

26 Whilst other animals have indigenous names, the horse throughout the Somali country retains the Arab appellation “Faras.” This proves that the Somal, like their progenitors the Gallas, originally had no cavalry. The Gudabirsi tribe has but lately mounted itself by making purchases of the Habr Gerhajis and the Habr Awal herds.

27 The milch cow is here worth two Tobes, or about six shillings.

28 Particularly amongst the windward tribes visited by Lieut. Cruttenden, from whom I borrow this description.

29 This beautiful bird, with a black and crimson plume, and wings lined with silver, soars high and seldom descends except at night: its shyness prevented my shooting a specimen. The Abodi devours small deer and birds: the female lays a single egg in a large loose nest on the summit of a tall tree, and she abandons her home when the hand of man has violated it. The Somal have many superstitions connected with this hawk: if it touch a child the latter dies, unless protected by the talismanic virtues of the “Hajar Abodi,” a stone found in the bird’s body. As it frequently swoops upon children carrying meat, the belief has doubtlessly frequently fulfilled itself.

30 The Bushman creeps close to the beast and wounds it in the leg or stomach with a diminutive dart covered with a couch of black poison: if a drop of blood appear, death results from the almost unfelt wound.

31 So the Veddahs of Ceylon are said to have destroyed the elephant by shooting a tiny arrow into the sole of the foot. The Kafirs attack it in bodies armed with sharp and broad-head “Omkondo” or assegais: at last, one finds the opportunity of cutting deep into the hind back sinew, and so disables the animal.

32 The traveller Delegorgue asserts that the Boers induce the young elephant to accompany them, by rubbing upon its trunk the hand wetted with the perspiration of the huntsman’s brow, and that the calf, deceived by the similarity of smell, believes that it is with its dam. The fact is, that the orphan elephant, like the bison, follows man because it fears to be left alone.

33 An antelope, about five hands high with small horns, which inhabits the high ranges of the mountains, generally in couples, resembles the musk deer, and is by no means shy, seldom flying till close pressed; when running it hops awkwardly upon the toes and never goes far.

34 These are solemn words used in the equestrian games of the Somal.

35 Sometimes milk is poured over the head, as gold and silver in the Nuzzeranah of India. These ceremonies are usually performed by low-caste men; the free-born object to act in them.

36 The Somal call it Hiddik or Anukub; the quills are used as head scratchers, and are exported to Aden for sale.

37 I It appears to be the Ashkoko of the Amharas, identified by Bruce with the Saphan of the Hebrews. This coney lives in chinks and holes of rocks: it was never seen by me on the plains. The Arabs eat it, the Somal generally do not.

38 The prefix appears to be a kind of title appropriated by saints and divines.

39 These charms are washed off and drunk by the people: an economical proceeding where paper is scarce.

40 “Birsan” in Somali, meaning to increase.

41 The Ayyal Yunis, the principal clan, contains four septs viz.:—

1. Jibril Yunis. 3. Ali Yunis.
2. Nur Yunis. 4. Adan Yunis.

The other chief clans are —

1. Mikahil Dera. 7. Basannah.
2. Rer Ugaz. 8. Bahabr Hasan.
3. Jibrain. 9. Abdillah Mikahil.
4. Rer Mohammed Asa. 10. Hasan Mikahil.
5. Musa Fin. 11. Eyah Mikahil
6. Rer Abokr. 12. Hasan Waraba.

42 The best prayer-skins are made at Ogadayn; there they cost about half-a-dollar each.

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