Name ID 2439
Ondaatje, Christopher Journey to the Source of the Nile
Page Number: 118
Extract Date: 1996
At Kilosa — quite a big town — there was a definite Arab influence. In this area, Burton reports seeing a ruined village — possibly Kilosa — from which Arab slavers had kidnapped most of the inhabitants and laid waste to their homes. The experience deeply disturbed Burton: "A pitiable scene here presented itself. The huts were torn and half-burnt, and the ground was strewed with nets and drums, pestels, mortars, cots and fragments of rude furniture…. Two of the wretched villagers were seen lurking in the jungle, not daring to revisit the wreck of their homes."
When we realized that there was no road from Kilosa through the Rubeho Mountains to Dodoma, we backtracked to Miyombo to pick up the Miyombo-Dodoma road. I was now convinced that Burton and Speke had to have taken this route. A twisting, red-earth track took us westward into the Rubeho foothills, through occasional banana plantations in the valleys, sisal, tall elephant grass, and dry scrub. It was a hot trip on a rough road, undulating and full of potholes. Occasional villages with thatch-roofed mud houses broke the monotony of the journey.
At noon, after a quick lunch of rice pancakes, and local "cheddar" cheese, tomatoes, and samosa (a triangular patty with a meat or vegetable filling), we continued through torturous, rock-strewn terrain. I was deeply thankful we had four-wheel drive. The going was very slow. We made sure we were always within sight of a river tributary — something all the early explorers seemed to do. As the afternoon wore on, we made our way over the foothills and down to Rumuma, grateful to guzzle some pomoni, locally brewed from cornflour. After some questioning we learned that the river running through Rumuma is a tributary of the Mkondoa. We moved on, through an avenue of cassia trees (whose bark is harvested for a rough kind of cinnamon), next to a Catholic mission, then headed north. Here on the leeward side of the foothills and mountains the climate is dry and perfect for the Baobab trees we saw everywhere. By 5:00 p.m., still some distance from the Dodoma road, we decided to give up for the day and camp on a bluff overlooking the plains.
We set up camp under a Baobab tree, first unloading the Land Rovers, unpacking the cooking utensils, making the fire, and constructing a lean-to under which we put the provisions and a rudimentary table in case of rain. So we had the three tents around a sort of bivouac in the middle. We tried to lay the supper out with a little bit of style. We got our plates from Ali, and squatted down on a stone or a log to eat. Ali always worked his magic. We only got sick once, when he bought some ghastly-looking meat from the side of the road. That experience reminded me of a complaint Burton had about the kind of food he bought at the side of the road: "the milk falls like water off the finger, the honey is in the red stage of fermentation, of the eggs there are few without the rude beginnings of a chicken, and the ghee [clarified butter], from long keeping, is sweet above and bitter below."
By the time we sat down to supper each night, we were usually ravenous. The evening meal was the substantial one. We would have a small breakfast, a small lunch, and keep our energy up between meals by snacking on ugali, a mash made out of millet — like a solid piece of soft dough or porridge. It is very filling, eaten instead of bread. You can have it hot or cold, and I invented lots of things with it. I ate ugali for breakfast with scrambled eggs, with tinned sardines or salmon for lunch, with chicken stew or wildebeest curry for dinner. Sometimes I would slice off a piece of cold ugali and put it on a plate and pour some golden syrup on it — and that was ugali for pudding as well. We always had ugali. No one ever went hungry, because, if worse came to worst, you could have some ugali and gravy, or ugali and meat, or ugali and fish, or ugali and jam. Burton's remark applied as strongly to us as to the peoples he met: "Their food is mostly ugali, the thick porridge of boiled millet or maize flour, which represents the 'staff of life' in East Africa."
At this campsite, a cool wind blew all night. Nothing else disturbed the silence except the occasional call of a nightjar. The next morning we woke to see the full moon setting as the sun rose. The dawn was windy and cool; it had been a pleasant sleep and we were ready to get on with the crossing of the Rubeho Mountains. In this area, Burton's experiences were quite like ours, as he had camped in the Rubeho foothills near where we camped.
Unlike us, however, he seemed compelled to make an impression on the natives in the area: "We left Márengá Mk'hali at 1 p.m. on the 3rd of September, and in order to impressionize a large and well-armed band of the country people that had gathered to stare at, to criticize, and to deride us, we indulged in a little harmless sword-play, with a vast show of ferocity and readiness for fight."