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Among the Wild Ngoni
Chapter VII. Mission Life and Work in the Early Days


ABOUT the time when I was beginning to realise how actual mission work differed from the romantic ideas of it too commonly entertained at home, and overcharged with which many enter the field, a notable missionary—A. M. Mackay—far away in Uganda was writing these words:—“Current ideas at home as to mission work are, I fear, very different; but I have not heard of any part of Africa, east or west, where the native bearing to the Missions is different from what it is in this neighbourhood. It is a system of beggary from beginning to end, and too often of suspicion, and more or less hostility too. Only when these first adverse stages are passed can we expect to do any real good. Disarming suspicion and securing friendship are a slow process, but an absolutely necessary one. They are most wearisome and trying to the faith and temper of those engaged in the task, while they yield no returns to show in mission reports; yet on their success depends the future of our work. Hereabout we are so far from the reaping stage, that we can scarcely be said to besowing. We are merely clearing the ground, and cutting down the natural growth of suspicion and jealousy, and clearing out the hard stones of ignorance and superstition. Only after the ground is thus in some measure prepared and broken up, can we cast in the seed with hope of a harvest in God’s good time.”

These are words of truth and soberness, as every real worker can testify from his own experience. At this time, being unable to move about among the villages with any degree of freedom, we were often compelled to pass the time on the station, and were assailed by overbearing and impudent men and women, clamouring for whatever they saw with us which they coveted. To say we were annoyed is to use a mild term for our experience. From morning till night the house was beset by natives begging. They allowed us no privacy, and our rooms were darkened by a crowd pressing round the windows and flattening their noses against the panes. If one ventured out his steps were dogged by a clamouring mob. Any attempt to divert their attention from begging by showing pictures, explaining the working of apparatus, or manufacture of articles, was treated with indifference. Time was of no value to them, and so for many a long day the vicinity of our house was the meeting-place of all who sought diversion through watching the white man, or begging for the clothes off his back. Men who could have been well clothed appeared in rags, which they took pains to show. Others would come in a nude state, hoping to appeal to us thereby. When they wanted cloth and beads they complained of hunger, which they indicated by drawing themselves in and simulating an empty stomach. If one offered them food they disdainfully rejected it, and explained that their hunger was for calico. Their importunity and arrogance were at times almost maddening, and sometimes the only relief got was by shutting up the house and going away to spend a few hours on Njuyu mountain and leaving them alone. We could not reason them out of their begging habits. They could not entertain our view of the disgraceful and undignified habit. They would say in flattering terms, “We are praising you by begging. Do men beg from people who are poor and mean?”

But while the annoyance was great, their unreasonableness and selfishness made it well-nigh impossible to bring any sort of benefit within their reach. When we began to make bricks for housebuilding, and were thereby able to put some cloth in circulation among them, the work was repeatedly stopped by some head-man or combination of natives, who desired that they only should have the benefit of it. The very people who had been the friends of the Mission at first became our enemies, and did all in their power to compel us to submit to their demands to supply them with whatever they wanted. They had given up the spear and had been coming to our Sunday service, but as we would not enrich them with earthly possessions they turned against us, and reviled us for having cheated them, as they were now poorer than when they followed their own ways. Three brothers, Chisevi, Injomane and Baruke, the heads of the neighbouring villages, became openly hostile and threatened to go to Bandawe with war, because we would not pay them for being at peace with us. Injomane—the murderer of his own mother, cruel and treacherous—set out and attacked a village near Bandawe. On his return the war-party made a demonstration at the station, by engaging in war-dances, and speaking against the Mission and the “news.” The effect of these war-parties going out was that we were left without mails and supplies at times, as the Tonga at Bandawe, on whom we had to depend for carriers, were afraid to venture on the road.

From the native point of view, those members of the Chipatula clan who had befriended the Mission, and had been the means of our gaining an entrance to the country, were right in attributing their position to their friendship for us. They were the sons of a once powerful chief who had lost his kingdom. They hoped that through the Mission they might regain their former position. They had heard and accepted Dr Laws’s statement, that by serving God they would attain to greater riches than by using the spear. They did not apprehend the spiritual aspect of the case and gave expression to the only need they felt. Their expectations had been disappointed and they had, in befriending the Mission, become to a certain extent outcasts from the Ngoni who were all along opposed to the settlement of the Mission. They had not learned to work and now that their spears brought them nothing, they were indeed poorer in all that they valued. It was often a trying situation to meet their attacks and to quiet their feelings, and in it all we saw how not the words of man but the Divine Spirit, can reveal to men their spiritual state and make plain to them the Word of Life. It was peculiarly hard on William Koyi, when alone among them, to hear the Gospel accused in this way, and with a better intention than judgment he made presents to them to keep them quiet. He was discovering that it was an unsafe kind of peace which was thus produced, and when I arrived the whole question was discussed. We resolved that such a practice must be stopped.

As time went on matters did not improve. When our determination not to pay anyone for coming to hear the Word preached, or to give presents in answer to the demand of those who came to beg, became evident to them, they used other methods in trying to coerce us. Our cattle were stolen from the herds when feeding, or from the fold at night, and we were never able to detect the thief. Trees brought in for firewood or housebuilding disappeared; clothing hung out to dry was stolen, and our fields and gardens cleared of produce. As we were living among them on sufferance, there was no healthy sentiment to which w'e could appeal when wrong was done to us. If we could not detain the thief in the very act there was no case. During the rainy season we frequently suffered from cattle-stealing. On a night when rain was falling heavily, the fold would be entered and the best beast taken out and driven far away before morning, the heavy rain obliterating all trace of the route taken. The time of service or prayer-meeting was chosen for entering the corn-field and garden, and stripping them of our food supply. It would have been very easy at any time to produce a rupture between us and the natives by a want of forbearance on our part, and yet there were circumstances at times, in which it was impossible not to defend our property though not by force of arms. On their part they made war demonstrations on the slightest occasion. The cattle-herd may have allowed our cattle to stray into a native’s garden, and he and his friends would come to the station armed and perform a war-dance as a preliminary to opening the case. Nothing was so effectual in overpowering them on such occasions as quietly to allow them to dance till they were satisfied, and then calmly say “Good morning.” When the season for beer-feasts came round we had to live through much that was exceedingly trying to flesh and blood, and could only be endured for the Lord’s sake. The beer, which was brewed from a kind of millet, was considered “ripe” after so many hours’ fermentation, and in order to annoy us it was frequently made so as to mature on Sabbath. Then early in the morning the guns would be fired or a horn blown to inaugurate what would be a day’s debauch, and the people congregated for the orgie. As the hours wore on and the drunken natives began to dance and sing, the sacred day was filled by unhallowed sounds, while towards evening what had begun as friendly song and repartee, ended often in fighting and bloodshed. Our quiet was not only broken by these sounds from the villages, but sometimes a band of drunken youths, or men and women, would come to the service or to our door and assail us wdth foul song and epithet, or engage menacingly in war-dances.

In July 1885 an attempt was made by Injo-mane (before mentioned) to frighten us into resiling from our position on the question of presents, and the issue of which considerably strengthened our hands. A party of Tonga had come up from Bandawe with letters and goods. When they had gone a few miles on their return journey, Injomane and a party of his young men attacked them. They were robbed of all their clothing and their weapons, and some of them wounded. Chisevi, a brother of Injomane, came to the station and informed us of the threatened attack, hinting that while he had a good heart to us himself, he had, for the sake of his position, to appear at times as our enemy, and that we would no doubt see how he esteemed us and reward him for informing us. Before we had time to act for the protection of our Tonga carriers, one of them who had escaped without wound returned to give us information. The others, wounded and robbed, escaped into the bush, not daring to come back through the villages in a nude state. We considered that the case should be taken to the chief, in order that we might see of what value were the words of the chief and councillors in protecting us. Mr Koyi and I thereupon went to Mombera and made complaint, pointing out that protection to us must mean also protection to any in our service. Mombera, with his natural shrewdness, asked us why those who had brought us into the country had now turned against us. We said that they were harassing us because we would not satisfy their demands for cloth and beads. He was very angry and called the Chipatulas “rats,” saying that it was only our presence that preserved them from the attack of his army. He desired to send an army over to punish them, but we proposed that he should send a councillor to make an investigation and call the people together to inform them that we must be protected.

Ng’onomo, his prime minister, being the councillor for the district in which we lived, was sent to hold a court. All the villagers were called up, and although Injomane and Chisevi (who had informed us) denied all knowledge of the affair, after a whole day’s talk, Ng’onomo decided that Injomane had done wrong and that the cloth and spears should be returned. We were asked if the punishment was full enough, and we had opportunity of expressing our regret that the people in whose interests we had come should not admit us to their friendship, and permit us to carry on our work for their good. After warning the people against annoying us, Ng’onomo declared the indaba at an end. An ox was killed, and the judge, prosecutor, and defendants all feasted together in amity. The Chipatulas had feared other treatment, as they had sent away all their herds and goods, so that they had another exhibition of our forbearance and desire to do them good.

If we had been asked by carping critics at this time, “What are the results of your work?” we could not have pointed to a single convert, although the Mission had been already three years in the district. To all appearance it was a failure. From the chief and the councillors we had stolid indifference, and direct veto against educating the children, or moving about to preach the Gospel; and from many of our near neighbours we were receiving marks of base ingratitude and opposition. But was no work being done and no good being accomplished? Of stated work there was not much. We were denied access to every village save two outside the area of Hoho, as the district in which we lived was called. On the station we were meeting daily with men and women, and youths and maidens, who were employed in housebuilding. To these we had opportunity of speaking about spiritual things. There were the boys in the house as servants who were collected for worship and oral instruction every day. A few young men outside began to take an interest in these services and attended. From them grew a stated service on the Sabbath, to which by and by others came, and although open preaching of the Word had been proscribed, we gradually came out more boldly and our service was tolerated, and in turn became an object of interest to others abroad. Only a few of the women came, and the men were fully armed.

The service was often very uproarious. The dogs snarled and fought with each other, and when this took place the “ backers ” of the different dogs whistled and encouraged them. Often audible remarks followed the reading of passages or parts of the address. Sometimes a man would get up and declare that it was all lies, and demand cloth as they had heard enough of the Gospel. Some came out of curiosity; others came having the impression that we gave cloth to all who attended; and sometimes spies were sent by the chief’s councillors to see and report what was done. This was known to us for some time, but we did not think any evil would come of it, until the rumour got abroad that we were inciting the slaves to revolt against their masters. Mr Koyi had the burden of anxiety for he heard all that was being said, and was always either the preacher or interpreter, as I had not then acquired the language. The rumour arose from the Tumbuka slaves having begun to attend the meetings, and afterwards discussing the teaching of the ten commandments in the villages. Their masters began to be suspicious, and for a time we feared that our service would be stopped. “ The common people heard us gladly,” and were realising that in the Gospel there were hopes unfolded for them which found a response in their hearts. We were called to account by the councillors, but were able to satisfy them as to what was said and done, protesting that we had no desire to interfere in their tribal relationships or to upset the authority of the chief.

As young men we were used in exercising an influence on the young men very particularly, and gradually gathered round us a band of half a dozen, who began to speak in defence of our work. They even met together for prayer and singing of hymns, and were in consequence marked out for persecution. They were called “bricks,” in derision, as they worked with us and favoured us. They were often set upon by others, and had many a hard day, while yet but imperfectly taught in the Word. But it was the beginning of fruit, and came to brighten our labours. To show how the changed behaviour of those lads led them into trouble, the following instance is given. The child of one of them was ill. Although the grandfather was a native doctor, the father called me to attend his boy. He was suffering from croup. It being the custom for the father not to appear in the presence of his mother-in-law, he could not enter the hut where she was. After treating the child I went away, but on my next visit I could not find my patient. It had been carried out into a maize field. I saw the poor thing struggling for breath, and soon after it died. The “smelling-out” doctor was called to discover the cause of death. He decided that the spirits were angry, and wanted to punish the father for forsaking the beliefs of the old people and listening to our preaching. He had also been neglecting to offer sacrifices to the ancestral spirits. So strong is their faith in their doctors that all this was believed, and our young disciple had to suffer persecution.

While the direct evangelistic work was circumscribed, there was practically no limit to the medical work which I carried on in the district ruled by Mombera. At first people came in crowds. Those who were sick expected to be healed immediately, and those who were not sick expected medicine to keep them well. Many cases of a very trivial nature were treated, but there was a value in the work apart from the relief given to the individual. For instance, if a slave were sick and unable to work, no care was taken of him. Such were sought out, and often a master had a useful servant restored to his service. He put a value on this, and was favourably impressed with this part of our work. It was easy to get a hearing from such as he on the other aspects of our work afterwards. A poor woman, left to die as an evil-doer if she failed in her “hour of nature’s sorrow,” when saved, together with her infant, by treatment of the proper kind, would thenceforth be well disposed towards us and our work. A wife represented so many cattle, and her husband would appreciate the benefit of our work and be our friend. Little children, relieved from pain and sickness, understood the practical nature of the work, and would always respond to our words. In such ways, up and down the country, the work was quietly and surely influencing the people, and while there was yet nothing to tabulate for reports, the future harvest was being insured.

Many things compelled the people to talk of us and our work, and it was plain that while there was no sign of liberty being given to teach the children and preach throughout the tribe, the feeling among the people that we were not being sufficiently trusted was gaining ground. We took advantage of any opportunity to renew our application to be allowed to open schools. Sometimes that led to their discussing the question, and at other times it led to threats to withdraw all permission to preach. We began to be more respected, as those who had received benefit were bold to declare it, but we did not seem to have made any impression on the chief and councillors. They continued to declare that they would never receive the Word of God, while the common people said that until the heads of the tribe did so they could not. The reason why the head-men would not countenance our work was no doubt because they knew that the result of it would be to overthrow their power over the slaves, and to crush the war spirit in their children ; also, because they were in the hands of the witch-doctors, whom they trusted to the utmost as the only channel of communication with the ancestral spirits. Those witch-doctors were against us as they saw their craft to be in danger.

One of the greatest effects of the medical mission work was that, by it, the empiricism of the native doctors was overthrown, and the common people, ignorant and superstitious, were rescued from the bondage of their shrewd but deceitful incantations. Native doctors fail in diagnosis more than in power to heal. Yet in the presence of the majority of diseases they are helpless, and in that case they fall back on the professed will of the spirits that the patient is to die.

Towards the end of this year (1885), having received encouragement from a sister of the chief who was head of a village called Chinyera, about five miles from the station, we built a round hut there and Mr Williams went to live in it. When this came to the chiefs ears he sent for us, and asked if the country had been given over to us that we had begun to occupy it. We referred him to his sister who had invited us, and we heard no more of it although it led to increased bitterness among the councillors. We had thus actually, without formal liberty, opened our first sub-station and widened the area of our influence. Mr Williams conducted a small service in his hut, and Mr Koyi remained with me at Njuyu doing the same work. But during all those months we were the subject of continual discussion among the people. Sometimes a councillor would spend half a day on the station speaking on things in general and evidently having some errand which he was unwilling to reveal. In going away he would ask, “ How long are you going to stay among us seeing we are refusing your message ? ” What to make of us or what to do with us, was evidently a problem which they could not solve. They were no doubt irritated by hearing of the prosperity of their former slaves, the Tonga, under the Mission at Bandawe. We were considered to be standing in the way of their compelling their return to bondage, and over and over again disquieting news of what they were saying and plotting reached us. It was a common occurrence for a section of the army to be called up for review and to get secret orders. Not only our own position, but the position of our brethren at Bandawe gave us anxiety on such occasions. Sometimes the Chipatulas would suddenly show us great kindness, and inform us that Mombera’s army was to attack them and us. On several occasions the neighbours set watch at night and made preparations against being attacked. Our friends at Bandawe had anxious times too, on our account. Once the letter-carriers coming up were informed of the expected attack at a village on the outskirts of the tribe, and in fear returned to Bandawe without coming near us, and our friends were left in doubt as to our safety.

It was in the end of 1885 that the first expressed evidence was given that the Gospel was winning its way into any heart. At the close of the boys’ meeting on a Sunday evening, Mr Koyi had the joy of hearing from Mawalera, who had been in his employment, that he wanted to pray to God. After he had poured out his heart in broken accents others joined in the exercise, asking that God would teach them to pray, and give them hearts to love and fear Him.

Notwithstanding this new joy and the strength it brought us, we were soon in deep anxiety on account of the persecution which was levelled at the youths who had begun to confess Christ among their fellows. In Matabeleland no sooner did a native confess Christ than the chief ordered his execution, and at that time we were reading about the burning of converts at Uganda. We told our young friends these things and asked them to count the cost. They were not borne up by any unusual emotion, but they expressed themselves prepared to witness for Christ. The occasion was seized by Chisevi, one of the Chipa-tula clan (our neighbours already referred to) as suitable for our overthrow on account of our refusal to enrich them. He went secretly to Mombera and informed him of what had taken place. Mombera showed his aversion to the informer and his great friendship for us, by receiving the report without a word. Afterwards on a visit to the station he referred to it, and the conduct of the boys was defended by Mr Koyi, and beyond the persecution which the boys met with, no evil resulted as we feared might have been the case at the time.

The year had seen our hearts bowed down in sorrow by the death of our brother Sutherland, whose life and work are referred to at length in another chapter. We had now at its close the joy of seeing the ingathering of the first-fruits of the work, in which he was for a time associated with Messrs Koyi, Williams, and myself, before another cloud was cast over us by the death of Mr George Rollo, who had just come from Scotland to begin work at Bandawe. He arrived on Mission duty at Njuyu on December 21st, suffering from fever, which, with one day’s intermission, continued till the 28th when he died. As marking the attitude of the people towards us, when Mombera came to know of his illness he requested us to take him away lest he should die in their country, and when he died we were accused of bringing him to the station to die, in order to involve them in trouble which they ignorantly feared might come to them on account of the death. They proposed that we should take the body away and bury it at Bandawe, but eventually a grave was opened near the station, and the object-lesson of a Christian burial given to the natives, who gathered together at a distance and looked on.


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