Little Birds and Elephants

An Appreciation - By Antonio Rita-Ferreira

Both my grandfathers, one with a wife and baby, had disembarked in Delagoa Bay (now Maputo), by the time David Macpherson was born in distant India in 1900. My grandmother died within 15 days from pernicious subtertien malaria, leaving her husband alone with their infant daughter, my mother. David faced those same plagues that I was afflicted by during my childhood: flies, mosquitoes, termites, cockroaches, rats and even bats. Terrified, I also saw from sunrise to sunset, the passing of a gigantic cloud of flying locusts. Unlike British colonies, in my schools I always had multi-racial classmates. Throughout my thirty six year’s work as a Civil Servant in Mozambique, I was commissioned to perform many duties all around the country dealing mainly with what were called “Native Affairs”. I began to dedicate my spare time to study and write, both in Portuguese and English, about African traditional life, ethnohistory and adaptation to modern conditions. I kept in touch with neighbouring English speaking territories and gradually made contacts with researchers of different nationalities. With regard to the Barwe and Makanga lands travelled over by David Macpherson it is worth emphasising that in 1942, I was directed to make the Barwe population census during six hard months, going from chiefdom to chiefdom, in remote country devoid of roads. My companion was an African male nurse carrying out a general vaccination against smallpox. While there I saw two more overwhelming flying locust clouds. I accomplished my task weakened by malaria, bilharzia and amoebic dysentery. Ten years later, as Makanga District Commissioner, I encountered more bush hardships while collecting the bulk of the material for my monography on the Chewa (1966). Again and again hordes of insects brought their pain, danger and discomfort. I felt the bite of lice, fleas, wasps and tsetse flies and on the roof of my government house the bees made a beehive and were put to flight by smoke.

Having said something of my own life, let me now state that: during my long life in Mozambique, I never met a man comparable to David Macpherson. With academic and military qualifications, learned in classical languages who for reasons of his own, left the army to settle in former Nyasaland and become a farmer, big game hunter and a student of African ornithology. Later on he decided to organise a hunting expedition into the Mozambican Tete Province. From 22nd September, 1928 – 13th October, 1929 he was careful to maintain a diary recording in detail his thoughts, hardships, hunting successes and failures, minute descriptions of bird life and accurate observation of the human and natural environment.

I will mention only a few aspects which personally left deep impressions.

Thanks to his fluency in Chi-Nyanja Macpherson could make himself understood and converse with the Chewa, Nyungwe, Barwe, Chikunda and Tonga people. So indirectly, he confirmed the pioneering language classification and dialect differentiation proposed by Prof. Clement Doke (1945), part of whose fieldwork was done near Tete, in 1929. Macpherson succeeded in inspiring the confidence of his servants, trackers and porters. Willingly they told him of their customs in ancestral worship and magic rituals. They repeated to him folk tales and other oral tradition. He was undoubtedly admired by them for his knowledge of their languages, his stern but considerate behaviour, his payments in sound silver coins, his care in supplying them with fresh game meat, his courage and endurance (he once made a day’s march of fifty miles), his spartan and sometimes dangerous diet of meat, honey, dubious looking wild mushrooms, maize flour and even milk of cow game.

I was specially touched by the Chewa tale based on the imagined quarrel between bees and honeyguides. Supposedly it caused the latter’s preference for the former’s grubs. Here, the character of African folklore comes through; imaginative but soundly based on bush science. Macpherson’s literary style had the stamp of a born writer.

Besides this Chewa tale two other short stories caught my attention. The action of both took place in the Tanganyika hinterland: “My First Elephant” and “Fatuma and Mkatakhuni”, the names given by Hassani the head tracker, to two of the rifles. Macpherson was already fluent in Ki-Swahili and empirically followed the rules of modern anthropological research: winning the trust of local leaders thereby gaining acceptance by the community under scrutiny, a high level of observation and interpretation. The fact that each tracker invented an intentional and highly personal pattern of hunting-magic demonstrated remarkable creative capacity. It is obvious that from the beginning Hassani was intimately aware of the range, habits and reactions of the hunted animal and followed a sophisticated and well thought out sequence of rituals. He also gave instant solutions to new problems raised by the defensive tactics of the aged and prudent pachyderm recognized as a symbol of power, strength and danger. Hassani maintained a dignified distance during the orgiastic disemboweling of the elephant, the magic use of chosen parts of a vulture shot on request and finally, the triumphant and joyous return to the village. His different behaviour gives profound insights into the mind and values of the tribal hierarchy. During my frequent contacts with elephant hunters I have never heard anything similar to that which Macpherson witnessed. Nor can be found any notice of such impressing practices in the memoirs of two veteran Big Game Hunters, owners of internationally renowned safari resorts in Mozambique, both with books published recently in U.S.A.: W. Alvensleben (1986) and A. Serras Pires (2001).

Macpherson didn’t fail to detect the very old influence the Indian traders have had in putting Mozambique onto the common road of market economies. Spontaneously he produced another warm and sensitive short story centralised on Ali Mohammed Omar, an Indian Muslim trader settled in Tete whom he defined as “my sporting little friend”. With the natural generosity of his character he carefully cleaned the filthy barrel of the rifle Ali brought for his inspection. In Mozambican literature, Indians, either from British or Portuguese colonial origin, have been rather misrepresented. One recent example was given by the well-known novelist Mia Couto (2002) in a grotesque and even absurd short story “...Perpetuo Socorro”.Macpherson’s approach was quite different: a gracious sense of humour, clear perception of alien cultural values and understanding of strange reactions to unforeseen events. Indeed, reality can be more fascinating than fantasy.

Tete was in fact a derelict small village. The whole province was in a miserable condition. The Zambezia Company (1892 – 1930) paid little attention to the unprofitable activities for which it had undertaken responsibility until its rights and concessions were formally repealed by the State. The incident mentioned by Macpherson is revealing: “the bloke in charge of the Furancungo office not only robbed the total amount of the collected taxes but also absconded after putting ablaze the whole compound”. In his history of Mozambique, Prof. Malyn Newitt (1995) pointed out as always with infallible integrity, the real causes of the shameful situation Macpherson faced and described. I had the chance to clarify those and many other events (like the 1917 Zumbo rebellion) during the 1986/8 microfilming of the vast Zambezia Company central archives in Lisbon, just before its illegal, unexpected, total and brutal destruction.

It is worth mentioning the enthusiastic praise Macpherson made of the Chikunda men engaged in Tete: “The first decent minded natives I have met since leaving Tanganyika” ... “they are willing and faithful” ... “I have been more at peace with the world this last month or so than at any time during the last three years.” These Chikunda were certainly descendants from the professional soldiers who had formed the private armies maintained by powerful owners of the vast lands given by the Portuguese Crown after the seventeenth century. Had they the intuition that they were obeying a former British professional officer? I would like to read the opinion of Prof. Allan Issacman (1972) on this matter as he is the outstanding authority on the Chikunda.

As far as I know David Macpherson is the only eye witness reporter of two local figures who enjoyed immense prestige in the old Tete Province: Bivar Pinto Lopes and José Fernandes Junior. He was a guest and a protégé of the Bivars and undoubtedly the whole of this family deserves the attention of a biographer. For instance, a resourceful Gustavo Bivar found a quick way to crush the “1917 Zumbo rebellion”; the Maseko Ngoni King was requested by him to order the traditional regiments into action. Concerning José Fernandes, we already have a good biography. Born c.1870 he started school in Tete at the age of ten where he remained until 1886. The arrival of two Jesuits in 1883 (French born Victor Joseph Courtois and Austrian born Johannes Hiller) whose ambition was to found a new mission, changed little Fernandes’ life. The first chose him as a protégé and appointed him sexton to the church where he served during mass. José served also in the founding of the new Mission, the Boroma Mission on the banks of the Zambezi River. Father Courtois and José worked and studied in Quelimane until 1888. Then they sailed to Mozambique Island where Father Courtois tried, over a period of several months, to obtain the Governor General’s permission to print his well-known dictionaries; Portuguese-Chi-Nyungwe and vice-versa. His guardian’s transfer to Inhambane in 1891/92 forced Fernandes to start a new way of living as an elephant hunter in Chipetaland, south of Lilongwe, Nyasaland. Five years later he returned to hunt elephant along the Luangwa valley. He witnessed the defeat of Mpezeni, the Ngoni King and the execution of the heir prince. He found employment with the Northern Chartered Company which explains the English dictionary seen by Macpherson. From 1900 to 1924 Fernandes was employed either by the Bivar family or by the Zambezia Company. Finally he settled down in the homestead which he had put up in Chiuta. Later he obtained a formal concession of land. In the core of a matriarchal society with ownership and subsistence crops reserved to wives, Fernandes made a serious effort to organise a small but dynamic farmstead, cultivating well chosen highly nutritive exotic food plants. Knowing how to maintain soil fertility he made an intensive, settled type of food production for cash, completely different from the nomadic, subsistence type of food cultivation used by the natives at that time. He also bred a herd of pigs fed on corncobs. Macpherson emphasised that Chipazi had for sale all kinds of foodstuffs at quite reasonable prices and bought from him rice, beans, guavas, oranges, bananas, sweet potatoes, onions, wheat and maize flour. He classified the oranges as the best he had eaten in Africa (p.200). He had never seen women working so hard; among them was Fernandes’ old mother (p.161).

There is confusion as regards the nick-name given to Fernandes: Chipazi (not Chimpazi nor Chiphazi): Big Foot. The meaning given sixty years afterwards by Liesegang as “the one who walked much”. But Macpherson, better informed and contemporary wrote the real meaning: “the one who walked about in hobnailed boots and left tracks all around the district”. In 1953 I invited Chipazi to comment on my monography on the Chewa. He was black, lean, with caucasian features, sharp eyes and quick reactions. He was a most impressive figure, dressed in a clean white suit and wearing a tie. I found him to be a fountain of knowledge with a phenomenol memory who gave me valuable corrections and suggestions. Three years later he was decorated by the visiting President of Portugal. This honour had a positive effect; he was pressed by friends, admirers and authorities to produce detailed historical memoirs. With these and other documents, Gerhard Liesegang (1991) published a long and overdue biography. A firm believer in the efficacy of African remedies, Chipazi lived to be almost a centenarian. He chose to die and be buried on his small farmstead in Chiuta in October 1965.

I finish this note with a verse of Camoeas, the epic Portuguese poet discussed with the Bivars. David Macpherson can surely be placed among: “those who by intrepid achievements free themselves from the Law of Death”. Among those achievements, his scientific dedication to African ornithology ought to be emphasised. His beloved daughter, Isabel, deserves our gratitude for planning and editing this remarkable book, enriched with photos, maps, drawings and watercolours.

David Macphersn died in 1982 at home on Kanongo Estate, Malawi. His wife Frances followed him in 1991. In the very year of his death, another white African also faded away, alone, in Maputo, Mozambique: my 86 year old mother Amelia. She fiercely resisted all our attempts to bring her back to Portugal. She explained clearly: “I wish to die here, in my home, to be buried near my husband’s tomb.”

Both their gravestones with inscriptions were recently visited by a grandson and were properly cleaned. My nephew, surprised, noticed next to his grandfather’s gravestone a young nkanye fruit tree. The drink used by the Tsonga to pay homage to their ancestors is made out of nkanye fruits.

Antonio Rita-Ferreira - December, 2005