Frederick Selous 1888

Frederick Selous had visited our region in 1877 with the aim of reaching Katanga.  Travelling in the rainy season, he had suffered repeatedly from malaria and eventually was forced to return.  Now 11 years later he again decided to try to meet his friend, Frederick Arnot in Katanga.   

Frederick Selous left Pandamatenga and reached Wankie’s Town eight days later.  He crossed over the river with staff and pack donkeys.  There he met Chief Shampondo of the Tonga people who proved difficult in negotiations for food and porters. 

During his first trip Frederick Selous had come across many slave traders living along the Zambezi River, so this trading had been continuing now for another eleven years.  The Tonga people had changed very much in their attitude towards strangers.  Also, David Thomas, a trader, had been murdered by some Tonga.  Thinking that travelling through Tongaland was dangerous, Frederick Selous decided that he would rather chance his luck through Ilaland.  During this time the Ila people were known as Mashukulumbwe because of the way they tied their hair.

The next Tonga chief he meets is Chief Monze who gives him two guides to take him through Ilaland.  Not far from Monze’s village, he enters the land of the Ila.  Interestingly, he meets a band of Ila, with a Lozi as the leader, Sikabenga.  They came to meet him requesting for ammunition for their guns.  Frederick Selous refused and was faced with serious threats to his life.

The attitude of the natives was suspicious, and when Selous refused either to sell them powder or to go with them, they said: ” You will live two days more, but on the third day your head will lie in a different place from your body.”

Selous, however, paid no heed to their threats, and that day proceeded on his journey, telling his guides to proceed east to the Mashukulumbwe villages and intending to camp in the open veldt.

The first Ila chief he meets is Chief Minenga:

At the Magoi-ee Selous found himself in a highly populated district and camped at a village where lived Minenga, the chief of the district. That worthy insisted on Selous camping alongside the village and would take no refusal. Accordingly Selous found himself in the lions’ den, as it were, and felt he must brave it out now if anything went wrong, so he set to work to make a “scherm” of cornstalks and plant -poles to secure the donkeys.

After a while things did not look so bad, as the natives abandoned their spears and came and joined in a dance with the Batonga boys. Then, too, the women and girls came down and ate with Selous’ men, usually a sure sign of peace.

A scherm is usually a semi-circle of branches or, in this case, corn stalks.  In front this semi-circle, fires are lit for light and to keep animals away.

That night all was well, but after a day spent hunting, the following night saw the attack:

” I could not sleep, however, and was lying under my blanket, thinking of many things, and revolving various plans in my head, when about nine o’clock I observed a man come cautiously round the end of our scherm and pass quickly down the line of smouldering fires. As he stopped beside the fire, near the foot of Paul and Charley’s blankets, I saw that he was one of the two men who had accompanied us as guides from Monzi’s. I saw him kneel down and shake Paul by the leg, and then heard him whispering to him hurriedly and excitedly. Then I heard Paul say to Charley, ‘ Tell our master the news; wake him up.’ I at once said, ‘ What is it, Charley? I am awake.’ ‘ The man says, sir, that all the women have left the village, and he thinks that something is wrong,’ he answered. I thought so too, and hastily pulled on my shoes, and then put on my coat and cartridge-belt, in which, however, there were only four cartridges. As I did so, I gave orders to my boys to extinguish all the fires, which they instantly did by throwing sand on the embers, so that an intense darkness at once hid everything within our scherm.

The attack came, mostly from barbed spears.  Frederick Selous managed to reach the tall grass, hiding as he ran for safety.  He was split up from all his companions so was on his own.  He knew that there was nothing he could do except retreat, leaving all his supplies, donkeys and equipment behind. 

Travelling mostly by night, he managed to reach Monze’s village:

His only hope was that Monzi might prove friendly, so, after travelling all night, he reached Monzi’s village. When that old chief heard his story he said, ” You must leave my village immediately. They will follow you up and kill you. Be off! Be off instantly.” Monzi was not so bad as the rest, he filled Selous’ pockets with ground-nuts, and sent three men to take him a short distance, and these men strongly advised him not to trust the Batongas, in whose country he now found himself.

Frederick Selous then heads for the village of the Lozi Chief, Sikabenga (also known as Marancinyan).  Frederick Selous does not know it at the time, but it had been Sikabenga who had ordered the attack on Frederick Selous in order to steal all his property, especially the ammunition.  Sikabenga was awaiting his men to bring all the stolen goods to the village!  However, Sikabenga decides to save Frederick Selous and sends him to a nearby village, where he stays for three days.  Sikabenga finally sends guides to take him on to a friendly Tonga village, headed by Chief Shoma.  I wonder if this is where we get the name of Choma?

Not far from Chief Shoma’s village he meets up with some of his companions who tell him that eight of their number had been killed in the attack but the rest were safe.  Together they travel back to Pandamatenga. 

So that was Frederick Selous’ journey into Ilaland.  We don’t find out much about the Ila people but it does show us how much turmoil was ongoing at the time.  Slave traders, civil unrest and Matabele incursions.  Thinking of Matabele incursions, it was only a year later that a Matabele impi crossed the Zambezi, and raided Sikabenga’s village killing him and his family!

Having rested for a while at Pandamatenga, Frederick Selous decides to visit the Lozi chief, Lewanika, at Lealui.  After crossing the Zambezi River at Kazungula, he walks upriver to Lealui.  Of Lealui he tells us:

When the floods recede, the grass, which has been months under water, is rotten, and then the hot sun beats down upon it more fiercely every day until the following rainy season.  If one walks outside Lialui after sundown the smell from the rotting vegetation is very strong and disagreeable.  …  But Lialui has other drawbacks besides its unhealthiness.  There is no wood within five or six miles, and the people burn a kind of little bush which grows amongst the grass and which it takes a long time to collect.  In the dry season when the floods have receded there is no water to be got within a couple of miles, and it is very bad water when you have got it.  Food of all kinds is very scarce and difficult to obtain.  The people keep neither goats nor fowls; and if you cannot get an odd fish you must go without animal food as a rule. 

Then, about the customs at Chief Lewanika’s village:

I did not see any interesting ceremonies during my stay in the Barotsi country.  One evening there was a dance in honour of the new moon, but it was of no interest whatever.  Every morning and evening the chief sat for two or three hours in his “kotla” or courtyard, and was occupied whilst I was there almost exclusively in distributing the cattle, lately taken from the Mashukulumbwi, amongst his own people.  When strangers came in they saluted the chief most ceremoniously.  First they would kneel down in a row, and after clapping their hands bend their heads forward until their foreheads touched the ground, when the head was moved slowly from side to side; then, raising their heads again, they would look toward the chief, and throwing their arms quickly and wildly into the air would shout twice in unison, and in slow measured tones, the words: “So-yo, so-yo.”  This ceremony would be twice repeated, when after clapping their hands again, they would get up and retire. 

Sometimes, whilst the chief sat in the “kotla”, a man appeared dressed in – or, rather covered with – the skin of a hyena.  He imitated the animal in a most realistic manner, and must often have watched hyenas prowling about on moonlight nights to have obtained so minute a knowledge of their habits.  Lewanika, like the lad in the fairy tale, “has music wherever he goes,” being always accompanied to and from the “kotla” by two drums and another barbarous instrument made of flat pieces of wood laid over the mouths of calabashes.  The drums are beaten the whole night through by relays of drummers so that whenever Lewanika awakes he may hear them, and know that his people are keeping guard. …

Frederick Selous stays at Lealui for a few weeks and then Chief Lewanika lends him canoes for the return journey. 

The day we reached Sinanga I left the canoes about mid-day and accompanied some of my men to the grave of a former Barotse chief named Nonambing, as our headman wished to pray to him for a prosperous journey, and also for success in hunting.  Arrived at the little village where the deceased chief lay buried, he placed about sixpennyworth of calico on the grave and offered up his prayers.  The ceremony was concluded by the headman of the little village – who is the hereditary keeper of the grave – spitting upon all the guns of the party, mine included.  …