The Foreign Mission Secretary Arrives
Travelling either in groups, by motor cycle or on foot with a companion had its perils and upsets, often in strange ways. The Rev Frank Ashcroft, Secretary of the Foreign Mission Committee, Edinburgh, visited the various mission stations in Central Africa. I was requested to go to the Rukuru river to meet the Secretary and escort him to Livingstonia. The river was two days' travelling distance away. Mr Alexander Burnett from Blantyre mission was also in Mr Ashcroft's party, his duty being to take a 16 mm film, the first of its kind, of the various Livingstonia mission stations.
After I had welcomed the visitors we sat around at a table lent to me by a neighbouring chief, under a huge tree. My cook had prepared a meal of antelope steaks, sweet potatoes, fresh maize and a fruit salad of eight fresh fruits, followed by coffee, biscuits and cheese. The meal over, Mr Burnett set up his tripod cameras to film Mr Ashcroft and me at the table. No sooner had Mr Burnett said, 'Now,' than a large green snake wriggled over the Secretary's boots. What a commotion! He jumped up, rushed in the direction of the camera, knocked it over and ruined the film. The snake was very much afraid, tried to escape, but I stamped on its head with the heel of my boot, so ended the careering snake. It was about two feet long, beautifully marked and according to one of my senior students, quite harmless. The excitement was over in less than a minute, only to restart when a hawk swooped down between us and in a split second carried off the dead snake. It was amusing to see Mr Ashcroft's face. He was really afraid.
'Get us back to the main road, Caseby. This place is most unhealthy,' he commanded.
On my way to the river I requested a number of people to round up zebra or other game and report to me in the late afternoon when I would return with my guests. In the language of the Africans, 'They were moving too fast with their bodies, their hearts were trailing behind.'
At a prearranged point we halted to rest. At that point a dozen animals thundered across the path, about twenty yards from us. Mr Ashcroft was white with fear, but he was also glad to see wild animals in the bush land. Some miles on, a snorting warthog crossed our path in a clearing, a unique sight, as warthogs usually come out at night.
We reached our rest house in the late afternoon. I had arranged with local chiefs and headmen to come with their people to meet 'The big Chief from Scotland'. Between two and three hundred Africans turned up.
At a central spot Mr Burnett set up his camera. Again I arranged my herdsmen to drive cattle, sheep and goats near to the camera and among the Africans. Mr Ashcroft was delighted and the film was a great success.
After we had washed and changed our clothing we sat down to dinner, after which we moved outside around a huge log fire and watched a team of Africans dance. It was an excellent sight with colourful dancers, men in war paint, shields and spears, women in ritual costumes, folk singers and children singing songs. The final item was a warrior dancing around and at times through the bonfire. All the dancers and singers received gifts and a meal.
I had been on my feet, walking, talking, arranging programmes for eighteen hours. My last instructions were to my carriers, to be ready to move off next morning at five o'clock.
Poor Mr Ashcroft; he just could not understand why he had to get up at four o'clock. He had difficulty in finding his clothes with the aid of a hurricane lamp. He got tangled up in his mosquito net, then a lizard was in his boot. He shouted, 'A snake, Caseby,' as he hopped around in one boot.
We had to abandon the thought of breakfast, as Mr Secretary saw ants running across the table. We had some fruit, then at five o'clock sharp we set out once again. Baboons and lesser monkeys chattered and scurried from tree to tree, to the delight of a now wide awake Mr Ashcroft. Scores of pretty and not so pretty birds fluttered overhead. A common sight to early morning travellers. When I was not near my guest I had interpreters with him to explain exactly what was going on.
Earlier, when we were having a meal, William, my gun boy, informed me that lions and leopards were in the area, so I told him to keep close to me and to arrange one or two spearmen to be around the Secretary's bush car.
We were not far on our way when a leopard was spotted on a hillock, near which were a dozen carriers that William, the gun boy and I had to pass. As previously arranged, I had rerouted Mr Ashcroft and Mr Burnett, escorted by a crowd of singing and chanting Africans from a close-at-hand village. Without any warning the leopard bounded between the carriers. I took the gun and as the brute made a left turn to head back to the hillock I fired only one round which hit the frenzied creature in the hip. It rolled over and over. William took the gun, with two extra cartridges, stalked the leopard and shot it dead at close range. When the animal was first sighted William could not shoot, as the carriers were crouching, so I had to try my luck. It was the only time I used a gun in Africa. It was discovered my shot had shattered the leopard's hip joint.
About ten minutes later, when we joined Mr Ashcroft and Mr Burnett, they were unaware of what had happened, but all the Africans knew. After the first shout, 'Leopard', they sang loud and clapped their hands.
As it was nearing midday and very hot, I ordered a halt at the Rumpi river, a well-known and well-shaded stopping place. My cook had a delicious fruit salad ready, which we all enjoyed. We also gave oranges and lemons to the carriers. In all my travels I always saw to the carriers' needs.
Mr Burnett unpacked all the camera equipment, setting up his camera on the flimsy bridge, against my suggestion. He wanted Mr Ashcroft and all the Africans to file past, as he wanted long range and close up pictures. We followed instructions - I was in front with William, the gun boy, a bedecked chief, Mr Ashcroft in his bush car, with sturdy spearmen on either side. To me it was farcical, so unreal on a clearance area and by a swift flowing river. The cameraman kept turning the wheel, very excited that at last he was getting a picture worthy of a great occasion: 'The Big White Chief from 121 George Street, Edinburgh, risking his life in Darkest Africa.'
It was too good to be true, something happened. The camera on the tripod lifted and in a flash Mr Burnett and his camera were in the cool waters of the Rumpi river. Willing hands soon had Mr Burnett out of the water and the tripod and camera salvaged, but the damage was done, the film was ruined.
As Mr Burnett changed his clothing and looked cold, we sat under a shade and drank tea. We were about to move on our last lap to Livingstonia when he heard the sound of a motor cycle. It was Mr Tom Gordon with his B.S.A. motor cycle and sidecar. He soon reached us and amid loud cheering Mr Ashcroft got into the sidecar. Mr Gordon was a first class driver, but the mountain roads were just dirt tracks, so the Secretary had the roughest ride of his life.
Later in the year Mr Ashcroft wrote to me saying, 'I hope I am never called upon to go through another two days like the one from Rukuru to the Rumpi river. They were more frightening than exciting.'
In my reply I said, 'No man was ever so well protected as you were. All white people, missionaries, planters and government officials faced greater hazards every day. It was just part of a day's work.'
Mr Burnett did get his precious camera cleaned and on the following day, on a bush path near the Overtoun Institution, he filmed me with a crowd of my workers, with hoes, axes and spears and this was how the scene opened in the completed files of Livingstonia. All the exciting early shots were ruined.
Mr Frank Ashcroft spent a few days at the station viewing every aspect of the work, admiring the fine buildings, the extensive variety of projects over a vast area and perhaps greatest of all, delighted to see the industrious Africans and their zeal for education and at all levels embracing Christianity and finding enduring peace.
This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993. All rights reserved. Used here by express permission.