Curious Abyssinian Order Tribe. Illustrated with the author’s own photographs.
HE beginning of October 1903, found our caravan hustling along the Abyssinian boundary towards Jiffa Medir, where my companion and I were to meet an akil, or native chief, detailed by the Consul at Zeila to guide us through the Gadabrusi country.
This lies on the Anglo-Abyssinian border, and is partly under the nominal rule of Abyssinia. It was with somewhat mixed feelings that we heard the Sultan or King of this wild country was going to accord us a reception, for on a previous occasion his welcome to a European expedition had been too warm for the health of the party, and resulted in several casualties.
We had been warned that he did net love the Feringi (white man), and therefore thought it better to send a messenger ahead to interview His Majesty and return with a confidential report on the situation, for we did not consider our small armament lighted for us to visit his country.
To show Ins sincerity he sent his own cousin to act as our guide. This man, as well as a native soldier of the camel corps sent from Zeila to meet us, accompanied the messenger to our camp.
Jiffa Medir, a hill of great granite boulders, marks the boundary between bushes, above which the rounded tops of the houses showed like the backs of so many turtles. Adjacent to the villages were large herds of camels, in charge of fine-looking men, and immense flocks of sheep and goats, watched over by weather-beaten women. On the morning of our second day on the prairie, we entered the thorn bushes, which cover the gentler slopes at the foot of Jiffa Medir. On approaching the selected camping ground, winding our way among the trees, we Abyssinian and British territory. A huge, tooth-shaped pinnacle of rock surmounts it nearly two hundred feet high, from which the mountain takes its name.
Our first view of Jiffa Medir was in crossing the Marar prairie. Far away beyond a sea of waving yellow grass, the jagged outline of the hill reared itself on the horizon in a pink and purple mass, grotesquely changing shape in the ever-present mirage. Great herds of gazelle, hartebeeste, and oryx were encountered in the open, affording excellent sport. This is probably one of the best spots in the world for game, but it is so easily obtained that I am afraid the place will not long remain such a paradise for sportsmen as it is now.
By this time, we were in the Gadabrusi country, and several of their villages were passed. All were surrounded by circular zarebas of thorn A GROUT OF GADABRlSl WARRIORS. From a Photo. could catch occasional glimpses through the foliage of stalwart, swarthy natives hurrying in the direction of our rendezvous. They were all dressed in spotless white garments, evidently donned for the occasion, and each carried a shield and three or four ugly-looking spears. Some shooting having taken me out of the regular track, I found our camels already unloaded when I arrived in camp, and the ” boys ” energetically at work, under the direction of Jama Said, our worthy headman, making a strong zareba and pitching the tents.
Under each tree, within a radius of half a mile, was a group of natives sitting or lying down, sheltering themselves from the heat and glare of the noon sun. Scarcely had the camp been completed when Jama came to announce the arrival of the akfi. He was dressed in the height of fashion. His tobe, the outer and often the only garment worn hy the natives, was of a large red checkered pattern, called ” heili “—evidently a corruption of the English word ” highland.” This garment was wound round the body and thrown gracefully over the left “shoulder. Thrust through the sash or waistband was a richly decorated sword of Turkish pattern, having a heavy embossed silver hilt.
The Government, to be worn as a badge of office, presented this sword to him. On his feet, he wore the ordinary sandals of the country, very thick and curved upwards in front to protect the toes. His head was unprotected and closely shaved, in the manner of pious Mohammedans who have taken unto themselves one or more wives. Behind the akil came numerous followers, mostly young men with fuzzy-wuzzy hair, carefully parted in the middle. Many had their hair bleached to a tow colour by numerous applications of white clay found in the country. The black skin and blonde hair formed a striking combination. The warriors composing this retinue were all armed with shields and spears —s o m e short throwing spears, and others long with broad, deep blades for handthrusting.
Our men were hastily paraded and the armed sentries cautioned to keep out this warlike throng, allowing no one but the akif to enter the zareba. Jama Said, the headman, led up the akif to the tent. He shook hands with my companion and me by simply grasping the hand and suddenly releasing it, saying at the same time, ” Salaam.” Our interview with him did not last long. Through the interpreter he said that he had orders from the Consul at Zeila to conduct us through the country if his fellow-tribesmen were not in a turbulent state, but to warn us in case such a trip were dangerous. He said the people of the country were glad to see us, and Vol. xiv.—46. that we need anticipate no trouble. The King himself was coming to us and would arrive that afternoon.
We replied that we were pleased to see him, and asked the meaning of the great gathering of warriors, to which he responded by saying the King had ordered a great ” tomasho ” (fete) in our honour, which he hoped we would condescend to witness. The akif was then taken in charge by our natives, who fed him, at the same time eliciting all the news and local gossip, so dear to the heart of these people. Shortly after the midday meal, while seated in the tent sketching in the day’s march, we were startled to see numbers of armed men among the bushes, and, on further investigation, to find that a multitude had assembled and was giving vent to prolonged shouts. Going out we discovered the natives hurriedly forming into two long lines leading from the entrance of our zareba far across the open space, or natural parade-ground, adjoining the camp. Quickly mustering our followers, we continued this formation inside the zareba, the men standing with their arms at the “shoulder.” Issuing from the bushes at the far end of the line some horsemen could be seen mounted on gaily bedecked ponies. Down the living avenue of spearmen, they came slowly. Riding ahead was an old man on a very quiet nag. Behind him came a lightly clad troop of warriors, whose ponies pranced and shied at the loud shouts of welcome accorded the Royal personage by his dusky subjects. This old man was Ugaz Nur. King or Sultan of the Gadabrusi. He had several other names, which I do not remember now. When the King dismounted and came through the entrance, our ” soldiers” (as they were pleased to call themselves), taking the word of command from the headman, fired an extremely irregular feu de joie over the old man’s head, much to the consternation of the usually impassive natives, as well as somewhat to our own surprise.
As our men used ball ammunition it is a wonder there were not a few casualties in the crowd. The dignified old man, however, did not wink an eye, but came forward smilingly to greet us. Ugaz Nur was a man about seventy-five years old. Although somewhat stiffened by age, he was tall, straight, and well built. Even the weight of his many years could not alter the chief’s graceful figure. The aquiline features distinctly showed Arab descent, and the negroid characteristics so frequent among these people were, save his very dark skin, noticeably absent. His face indicated intelligence and a pleasant, affable nature ; but at the same time one felt conscious of underlying subtlety and cunning— almost invariable attributes of uncivilized races.
His dress was simple and lacked the usual Oriental splendour. Many of his subjects were attired much more gaily, but none looked more distinguished. He wore a crinkly white tobe, with the end of which he covered his head, forming a hood. Over this he wore a cloak of black cloth lined with crimson silk, probably a present from the Emperor of Abyssinia. In his hand, he carried a simple staff instead of the regulation shield and spear. His fighting days were over, and he now relied upon his stalwart sons to protect him on his journeys. As he shook hands with us he smiled pleasantly. His manner was composed and dignified, evidently inherited from his ancestors, who were rulers in the country for many generations. Motioning him to a chair placed between us we endeavoured, with Jama acting as interpreter, to conduct a general conversation.
This consisted chiefly of flattering remarks. When we had about exhausted our vocabulary of complimentary adjectives, I suggested that His Majesty was tired and hungry after his long ride. This was a happy thought, for his eyes brightened and an expansive smile spread across his face as he rose immediately to be conducted to our headman’s tent. That worthy provided him with a good cup of tea, rice, dates, mutton, and bread, winding up the repast with a cigarette. The Gadabrusi people smoke, but generally speaking the Eastern and Southern tribes abstain both from tobacco and spirits. All are too good Mohammedans to touch a drop of alcoholic liquor. After the King had finished his meal he begged leave to introduce his sons and nephews.
One of the former was a great lion and elephant hunter. They all seemed nice, frank boys, with charming manners. Instead of proceeding on our way next morn ing, the King requested us to spend another day at Jiffa Medir and witness the grand ” tomasho ” which he anticipated giving in our honour. That night our mess tent was given up for the accommodation of the Royalties and akifs. How they all managed to crowd into the limited space was a mystery. I looked in before going to bed to present a box of cigarettes, and found them all squatting on the ground with scarcely room to move their elbows. A lantern was swinging from the ridge pole, but its light was rendered somewhat obscure by the dense blue fumes of tobacco smoke which filled the tent, and almost choked me when I put my head inside the flap.
It was a funny sight, the shaved heads of the older men looking like a lot of black ebony balls shining in the dim light. The King was there in the middle of the bunch, being ” pumped ” by Jama Said, our diplomatic headman, who had been delegated to ascertain what His Majesty expected in the way of presents from us, and to bring his ambitions in that line down to a reasonable basis. Next morning, immediately after breakfast, preparations were made for the ” tomasho.” Camp chairs were placed under some shady trees just outside the zareba, commanding a good view of the open ground. Many more natives had collected during the night, for the place seemed packed with warriors and fairly bristling with spears.
The parade – ground was soon cleared for action, after which we marched out to our appointed seats. The King, as usual, sat between us. On either flank stood our riflemen, with loaded arms, while one was specially delegated to stand directly behind the King, to show the people that if any sign of treachery were manifest ;d on their part their ruler would be the first to suffer by having his head blown off. From general appearances everything looked safe enough, and our personal estimate of the character of these people would not have justified such precautions, yet these measures were taken by our followers entirely upon their own initiative, and we deemed it best to accept their judgment on the situation and not to interfere. The first part of the ” tomasho ” consisted of a display of horsemanship.
The Somalis are good horsemen, having excellent balance, and ride with the same abandon as do the Indians of the North American plains. Unlike their forebears, the Arabs, they treat their shamefully, ha consideration the poor little beast’s mouth every time pressure is brought to bear on the reins. Like all exhibitions by mounted tribes in this region, this display was of the usual brutal character. Lining up several hundred yards away, the horsemen would come galloping towards us at full speed, lashing the small ponies furiously. As they came tearing along straight for us, and just at the moment when it seemed certain we would be dashed into, the rider would suddenly throw his weight upon the reins and the vicious bit would get in its work, forcing the pony back upon its haunches, and bringing the* poor animal to a dead stop in a great cloud of dust at our very feet.
They came creatures’ feelings. I do not think it is wanton cruelty, but simply an absolute indifference to the sufferings of animals. The natives generally ride barefooted, and thrust the great toe of each foot through a narrow, light stirrup-iron. The Gadabrusi pony is a shapely little animal, not so clean-limbed as the Arab, but much better-looking and far more handy than its shaggy neighbour the Abyssinian. The accoutrements it has to carry consist of alight, narrow saddle, similar to, but smaller and lighter than, the stock saddle of the West. It has the same high pommel and cantle, between which the natives squeeze themselves, for there is not room to sit comfortably. The bridle is generally a light fancy affair, gaily decked with red tassels. To it is attached a cruel bit, something after the Mexican pattern, which cuts into the roof of so close on some occasions that we were spattered with blood and foam from the horses’ mouths.
As this was what they considered the best part of the show, displeasure could not be shown without creating a very hostile feeling, but such cruelty was certainly repugnant. Three times the band of horsemen charged down, quite regardless of the dust and sand with which their antics covered us. Every time they halted the poet laureate of the tribe, or his Gadabrusi equivalent, who was seated upon a big white pony, would chant a long song of welcome. Of course, there was considerable repetition, but summing it all up the substance of his lay was as follows. First he recited the brave doings of the Gadabrusi, intimating without undue modesty that they were the finest people on earth. Then he told how upon former occasions, when not so wise as they were now, they considered all Europeans intruders and foolishly killed them.
A certain English captain had been sent to show them they made a mistake, which he did by killing their people and helping himself to their camels and sheep. He was a great man, and they now forgave him. We were great men also, and we would be forgiven for coming into their country. They knew we did not want to steal camels and sheep. In fact, they were glad to see us, as they knew we were rich and would give them presents. The more presents we gave them the greater men we would be. Those of the Gadabrusi who were British subjects liked the Government, because when one of their number had been killed by another tribe it was no longer necessary to fight for or steal the requisite number of camels to be paid by tones. The weird sound of this, the Gadabrusi war-song, gives one an uneasy feeling and is calculated to strongly impress a waiting enemy.
A cloud of dust above the trees indicated the whereabouts of this large body of men, and soon through the scattered thorn trees, a long line of warriors was visible coming out into the open space. It was a scene to be remembered. Across the glaring plain, with its background of green trees, moved this body of men, spears held on high, and the steel points shining and glittering in the sunlight. The costumes worn were mostly white, but served only to accentuate the robes of bright red, blue, and green which showed at intervals in this formidable the slayers in compensation for the loss of their man. The Government made their enemies do all that without further bloodshed, and they were much obliged.
After each speech all would shout ” Mot! Mot ! ” several times, which is the native form of welcome, at the same time wheeling about their horses and dashing off to the starting-point for a fresh charge. After the third time they rode off and dismounted. In the meantime, the great crowd on foot had vanished. Where they had gone we could not guess until away in the distance the sound of many voices raised in a melodious chant was heard. Nearer and nearer it approached, and one could distinguish a single voice, pitched higher than the rest, taking the solo while the remainder joined in the response or chorus with deep, hoarse, but withal musical array.
Above all was the deep-blue tropical sky. In advance were several individuals whose antics and contortions at once attracted attention. They were the leaders of the dance and principal actors. The whole line moved slowly towards us, keeping time and emphasizing the music by much stamping of feet, which raised a cloud of dust about them. As they came closer, the actors redoubled their efforts, working themselves into a perfect frenzy. They would jump from side to side and bound into the air with wild yells, threatening each other and sometimes us with their murderous-looking weapons. They would shake their heads until their mat-like hair fell over their faces, their eyes glaring with excitement through the tangled masses. Then a pair would go through a fighting scene, one drawing his sword and making as if to kill the other by chopping off his head. To me it was a wonder an execution did not actually take place, so earnest was the way they went about it.
Finally, one man, fiercer in appearance than the others and wearing an ostrich feather conspicuously in his hair to signify that he had killed an enemy in single combat, rushed up to me and, halting suddenly, lunged at me with his long, glittering spear, uttering at the same time unearthly groans, which are supposed to terrify the victim. It was time for heroic action on my part, so, adorning my face with a fixed smile (it was by no means genuine), I carefully adjusted my eyeglass and looked him squarely in the face. This strategy on my part had the desired effect. The eyeglass was a fetich he had never seen before. His ferocious glare vanished, his eyelids quivered, he looked down and then away from me. The raised arm lowered and the wicked spear-blade fell harmlessly to the ground. It was amusing to hear his fierce groans get so feeble.
I did not have to force a happy look, for by that time I was laughing heartily at his discomfiture. Routed by the magic of a monocle, the savage beat a hasty retreat towards the main body, forgetting in his flurried condition that it was his duty to shake hands and congratulate me on my courage after he had sufficiently put it to the test. Wedding and other dances followed, in which the spears are discarded and the time of the song marked in typical African fashion by clapping the hands. After the performance was over, they all collected around us in a huge semicircle to hear us express our appreciation of their efforts. This we did through an interpreter, saying how pleased we were with the exhibition and what fine people they all were, ending up by wishing that Allah would make them extremely wealthy and fearfully fat—the Gadabrusi idea of happiness. Judging by the broad smiles that greeted our remarks we had pleased our audience immensely.
In the afternoon the presents were distributed —a task we entrusted to Jama. Tobes, tobacco, and rice were given to the men, while headdresses, sashes, and beads were to be taken to the wives and daughters. None of the latter was present; in fact, the absence of women from the affair was a noticeable feature. In connection with the distribution of presents, the following incident serves to show the cleverness of the old King. He wanted a present of tea, and on being told that we had none to give away and barely enough for our own immediate use, he asked for a very small quantity. Jama thought he could put him off by saying he felt ashamed to come to us and ask for another present in the name of the King after all we had given him, and in any case, it would be undignified for such a great man to ask for such a small present.
The old man smiled and scratched his head thoughtfully for a minute. Then he said: “Tell them that my request is but one of the eccentricities of a very old man, and that one who has reached my years is privileged to ask little favours without loss of dignity.” Jama was beaten, and acknowledged defeat by taking the King to his tent and giving him what he asked for from his own private store. Before leaving next morning the King came into the tent while I was dressing and presented me with a spear as a souvenir of our meeting. Our caravan was soon afterwards on the march, and before many hours were past we were once more over the boundary and camping in British territory.