Two sides

I was quite intrigued reading Arthur Loveridge‘s Many Happy Days I’ve Squandered, an autobiography (1951) covering his early years and service in East Africa during World War 1. It comes with a huge warning today – its content may not be to everyone’s liking using today’s standards of passing judgment.

Arthur was one of the early curators of the Kenyan Natural History Museum meaning he would go out and kill specimens for display. It took a little getting used to his talk of ‘killing bottles’ – these were items with chloroform or other gas which he used to kill and preserve insects etc for later display. Similarly, mammals and other creatures would be shot for skinning and display purposes too. Although he didn’t go into great detail, I’m intrigued as to the porters and others who likely had to carry these items between bases and how they were eventually got to Nairobi. He does talk of exceeding his allotted weight and an attempt to smuggle excess baggage onto a boat via a truck.  Also intriguing is the support he got from senior officers in his quest whilst other lower ranking officers forbade him collecting.

Arthur also takes a little while to introduce us to his local staff, that is give us their names and once he does, he is full of praise for Salimu bin Asmani who was his trusted assistant for 10 years. Whilst his actions and accounts of his experiences may not be to everyone’s taste today, he does provide an insightful look at village life and human as well as animal behaviour. One of his official tasks as a game keeper was to protect locals from lions and other scavengers, and he’s a well-known snake collector. Aside from his exploits in killing various specimens, he also rescues and studies animals adding to our scientific understanding.

But the comment which really caught my attention concerned lions and their hunting method. After a fifth lioness had been killed in a gun trap where the lions had been attacking cattle at Igulwe station, ‘a convenient base from which to supply the troops’, he recalled on p184:

an old crone mumbled in the vernacular: “Lions are just like men, they send the lionesses into the traps first and so they never get caught themselves.” There was a general laugh among the assembled Africans, but an alternative interpretation of the incident occurred to me. Perhaps the lionesses were greedy and pushed forward while the lions, politely stepping aside, reaped virtue’s own reward.

This resonates – often whilst walking in rural Africa, I’ve been taken to task for not walking behind my husband, I’m invariably found in front leading the way. But this little tale got me thinking again – how often do we look at things from our perspective, without considering there might be another quite valid interpretation. This is one of the traits of my biography on Kitchener – the man we’ve come to understand is not the man I discovered and one of the challenges we face with most texts dealing with Africa in World War 1, we still have very little of Africa’s perspective to work with but slowly, in the way we eat an elephant – one mouthful at a time, African views are starting to come to the fore.