Fiction

“WHEN DO WE KILL?”

Sabati was the only man who could help them and Sabati could not make them understand. In the Mau Mau councils the pangas waved and the chant rose higher...

LARRY FINN November 15 1953
Fiction

“WHEN DO WE KILL?”

Sabati was the only man who could help them and Sabati could not make them understand. In the Mau Mau councils the pangas waved and the chant rose higher...

LARRY FINN November 15 1953

“WHEN DO WE KILL?”

Fiction

Sabati was the only man who could help them and Sabati could not make them understand. In the Mau Mau councils the pangas waved and the chant rose higher...

LARRY FINN

SABATI had thought that, since he was an educated man and a schoolteacher, the Bradshaws might have overlooked on this occasion the fact that he was black, a Kikuyu, and tried to have put him at ease. At least they might have asked him to sit down instead of keeping him standing in the middle of the room like a servant who is being asked to explain a stupid lie. But they did not, and he sighed when he thought how difficult it was going to be to help them. If only they would try and realize that he, Aro Sabati, now held their fate in the pink palms of his graceful hands, then perhaps it would make matters easier to explain. If only they could ignore his color for a moment and freat him, not exactly as an equal, but as someone a cut above the average African, then perhaps too he might tell them all he knew. But as things were going, Sabati was thinking, he’d be lucky if he left the room without having made enemies of them.

“No, I’m afraid I can’t see it myself,” Bradshaw said finally, glancing at his wife. “I mean, what makes you think Mau Mau is spreading up here?” He was a tall, lean man in corduroys and khaki shirt; tight-lipped, dark-eyed and swarthy. An ex-officer who had always been able to handle natives, he was very much aware that he was handling one now.

“It is true, sir,” Sabati said, with a note of protestation in his voice. “I have heard it whispered here and there. And the children, sir. They hear things from their parents and talk. I think there is definitely something in the wind.” He chose his words carefully, preferring to be vague rather than admit how serious it really was, or how deeply he himself was implicated. A shrewd man, Sabati knew what to say and what to omit when dealing with a bwana who mistrusted all Africans, because that kind would never believe that one could take the Mau Mau oath and still want no part of it.

Anyway, I don’t think it would amount to

much,” Bradshaw said, leaning against the mantelpiece and putting his hands in his pockets. “We’re very isolated here, too far away from the centre of Mau Mau activities, and your people would gain nothing by it. I tell you, Sabati,” he said coldly, “that your people would be fools to get mixed up in that sort of thing. They’re poor enough as it is.”

“Yes, sir.” Sabati lowered his eyes, knowing how true that was. But what the white man did not seem to understand was that poverty was the root of the whole problem; that Mau Mau offered his people more than they had, or were ever likely to get, from just cultivating their tiny sham has. More land, which meant more food, was the burning idea that appealed to them, for they were too primitive to care much for the promised self-government that went with it; they did not care who governed them provided their stomachs were full. Didn’t the hwana know this?

“Well, if I were you,” Bradshaw told him in a more friendly manner, “I’d warn them about the dangers of this Mau Mau business. Tell ’em to keep their noses clean, Sabati, and then we’ll have peace in at least one corner of the damn colony. You should be able to do that, surely? I mean, an educated man like you who is a power among the people.”

“I am just a humble schoolteacher, sir,” Sabati reminded him. He was impressively solemn, his eyes wide and unwavering. “I work for the children. Mine may not necessarily be the will of the people.”

“Oh, don’t talk such bloody rot, man!” Bradshaw smiled with affected good humor. “You can bully ’em a bit, if necessary, can’t you?”

“I don’t think so, sir,” Sabati said unhappily, remem bering what had happened in the village the night before.

There had been a shauri, an important meeting of tribesmen and elders, and they had rowdily de-

cided to swoop down in force and kill the Brae, shaws while everybody was in the mood, one and all swearing that they must have blood. Fortunately, however, the combined effects of Sabati’s oratory and a surfeit of home-brewed beer had finally prevented them from carrying out their plan, hut it had been a near thing. Another such shauri, and Sabati could not guarantee holding them hack. He had in fact, to stave off disaster, committed himself by telling the villagers that he personally would get rid of the white people, though he had no idea at the time of how to go about it. And so here he was in the Bradshaw home, trying to frighten them, trying to get them to leave without actually saying so. But his hints, his own expressions of fear, were wasted on the white man who did not frighten easily.

Sabati was baffled and disconsolate. He had no warm regard for the Bradshaws—or any white people for that matter —but their presence here was strong provocation to the tribesmen, and it was his ardent wish that they should never clash. Mau Mau meant nothing to him personally; because it fed on blood and hate it was evil, and there was no room for it in the village of Njong. It was as simple as that. But if anything went wrong it was the people who would suffer in the end, because the police would come and take them all away, and their huts would fall to ruin, and where would be the consolation then?

“It’s quite obvious,” Bradshaw was saying in a hard voice, “that the villagers have heard what’s going on around Nyeri and the Aberdares, and are blabbing their heads off. Just because a few white men have been done in and their houses burned, our people here seem to think there’s a bloody war on which they must join. Well, now’s the time to talk sense to them before it’s too late. And it’s your responsibility, Sabati, so see to it.” He looked sternly at the black man for a moment, and then seemed to relax. “Look,” he said softly, “what are we talking about anyway? It’s quite simple really. If you find definite proof that Mau Mau agents are coming into the district, Sabati, all you have to do is tell me. I’ll do the rest. After all, there’s no sense in panicking over idle gossip.”

“Hut I’ve told you . . .” Sabati began despairingly, and stopped.

“Merely talk, Sabati, now isn’t it? What I want is proof."

Sabati blinked. What was the use? The Mau Mau emissaries had already come and gone, and this bwana still talked of idle gossip.

“Tell me now,” Bradshaw said, pointing a finger. “Can you name me a Mau Mau agent among your people?”

Sabati stood there silently, a muscle in his jaw twitching. Naturally, he could not answer this question. They were all Mau Mau, and for weeks had been organized as such by key men from Nairobi—and all this had happened while the bwana slept peacefully in his bed, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

“There! What did I tell you?” Bradshaw was triumphant. He had known all along it was just gossip — perhaps even wishful thinking. But the Kikuyu of Njong were definitely not the fighting kind, not by a long cbalk. They were likely to spend their time just talking.

“There might be something in what he says, dear,” Mrs. Bradshaw said, speaking for the first time. “And I think we should take precautions.” She had listened all along, half-preoccupied with her own thoughts, but she felt sorry for Sabati, and she know how overbearing her husband could be at times.

“It stands to reason, darling,” Bradshaw explained to her, confidentially, as though Sabati were not present, “that we should have had some kind of warning. I mean, there would have been some kind of trouble, don’t you think? Or maybe a note from the police post, warning us. The police are supposed to know what’s going on, aren’t they? That’s what they get paid for. And then there’s our own boys. I’ve noticed nothing fishy about them lately, have you? Why, they’d be the first to tell us, now wouldn’t they?”

Mrs. Bradshaw shrugged. “I don’t think they love you as much as you think they do, dear,” she said with a wry smile.

Bradshaw grimaced and turned back to Sabati. “One thing is certain. Nobody’s going to frighten us away from here. You can let that be known around the village.” He mean! it, too. His farm was his all; it meant everything to him. He pulsed with warm pride whenever he thought of it the living he had wrested from a jungle, and with his own bare hands, too. Not all the Kaffirs in Africa were going to take it away from him.

“1 came to help you, sir,” Sabati said simply.

“1 realize that,” Bradshaw said, nodding his head. “Don’t think I don’t appreciate it.”

“Yes, it was very good of you to come, Mr. Sabati. We really do appreciate it.” Mrs. Bradshaw had got up from her chair and stood beside her husband.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Sabati bowed respectfully, profoundly grateful for being addressed as “mister.” And yet the words hinted of dismissal.

“I must leave you now,” he said, “and I thank you for listening to me.”

He edged back toward the door, a pathetic figure in an ill-fitting cream suit. 1 n one hand he tensely gripped a soiled panama, and on his round moist face there was a look of infinite sadness and disappointment. “I have failed,” he told himself. “I might as well not have come.”

As they escorted him to the veranda steps, Bradshaw said:

“Don’t look so worried, Sabati. You’re just imagining things, I’m sure. Find out what you can, by all means, but don’t confuse gossip with fact, eh?” And on that friendly note he said good-by.

Sabati put on his hat, raised it again to the lady, and nearly fell over as he tried to negotiate the second step with dignity. He felt terrible as he hurried down the gravel path, for now they were probably smiling at him as well.

Leaving the clearing, he entered the bush and followed the trail to the vil-

lage, head bent and shoulders hunched in concentration. Now and again he removed his hat and swatted absently at the flies which droned around him, but it was mostly a gesture of impatience rather than a definite attempt to keep off pests. His mind dwelt solely on his problems.

There had always been peace in Njong: even in the Nandi and Kipsigi wars of years ago it had remained isolated and untouched, and that had been a good thing. But now the Mau Mau had come and they, unless something was done about it, would eventually ruin Njong. It was up to him, Aro Sabati, schoolteacher and man of peace, to see that disaster was averted. And yet how? How to get rid of the Bradshaws? How to keep control of his simple but dangerous fellow tribesmen? And then there was Lunjani, who was a problem in himself. It was Lunjani, that fanatical elder, he would have to meet next, and it was not a pleasant prospect.

There was another meeting already in progress when Sabati reached the village and, tired and hungry though he was, he quietly took his place among the assembled Kikuyu. His European clothes contrasted sharply with that drab mass of skin clothes and dirty loincloths, but he managed to squat down on his haunches with as much speed and grace as any of them. Although one of the elders was still addressing them, many of those nearest Sabati turned and greeted him with Jambos! of varying degrees of warmth, depending on what they read on his almost inscrutable face. They had expected much from him, but he did not look like a man who had brought them good news. Not that it mattered very much, since the topic under discussion was the Bradshaws, and how and when they were to be killed.

Sabati listened to the speaker, an old man who was merely wasting his time recalling the old days when the Wakikuyu were great warriors and men (“not old women who kill themselves talking”) and who had driven all before them, taking what they wanted. The audience was bored; the old man had spoken for too long, he had repeated himself too often, and not once had he squarely faced the issue and mentioned the Bradshaws by name. For all his dull talk about war, it was clear that his heart was not in it: he longed for compromise, for any solution that would not result in cutting short what few years he had left to him. He was no great threat, not like Lunjani who had now raised his hand as a signal that it was his turn to speak.

Sabati braced himself.

When the old man had shakily squatted down again amid a chorus of long drawn-out “A-a-ah’s”—rounds that could have meant anything— Lunjani jumped to his feet and began to harangue the crowd with fierce talk and violent spear waving. “We have taken the oath!” he screamed. “When do we kill? When do we slaughter the cattle that will feed our children? When do we take the land that was once ours?” He broke into a chant, slamping his feet on the sun-baked earth with the rhythm of a drum-beat, lit was taken up by others, and soon most of the gathering were working themselves into a state of frenzy and making dangerous stabs with their spears and pangas. One thing was evident: if Sabati was going to speak at all, now was the time. Soon they would aLl be beyond the power of a human voice.

Sabati rose to his feet, holding out his arms in appeal. “Listen, my people! Listen, you who call me Baba Father!” His voice was drowned in the commotion, but he strode fearlessly among them, calling to them, appealing to them. And when he finally stopped them, he mocked them.

“Go now,” he told them, walking among them, “and kill. Go! Yes, you will wet your spears. And perhaps you will find some guns, and fine clothes and other things. But what then?”

“We hear you, Aro Sabati!” an elder shouted, while the rest sweated and glared, and this amounted to an order. Reluctantly, everyone squatted down, mumbling and complaining.

“1 will tell you what will happen,” Sabati said in a clear voice, “because it is happening now all over the country. You kill the Bradshaws, and the police will come. They will come in great numbers and with many guns, and they will take your leaders and hang them. If you run away, they will hunt you until they find you. There is no escape. Women and children will be homeless, for the village will be burnt and our shambas ploughed over. There will be no peace, no rest, no lives for us to live ...” He paused to let his words sink in, watching them, ready to pile on the arguments at the first sign of bravado or arrogance. But his words had sobered them.

Lunjani, realizing this, jumped up again. “O Sabati,” he taunted, “who are you to speak thus? Are you not one of us? Or are you a lover of the Waingereza the English?”

“Yes, I am one of you,” Sabati replied. “I am not a lover of the Waingereza. But neither am 1 an ass braying at a shauri. Listen to me, all of you! There may be a time to kill, but it is not now. We have little food, and our crops may not flourish. We of Njong are unprepared for war. Need 1 tell you?”

It was the chilling truth, apart from suiting Sabati’s particular purpose, and there was no one who dared deny it.

“Have you a plan?” a voice asked from the crowd.

“Yes, I have a plan. The fear of death is worse than death itself.”

“You speak in riddles, Sabati. What does this mean?”

“Then listen closely, my people.” Sabati spread his arms as though to embrace them all, and began to explain

how they would rid themselves of the Bradshaws without having to resort to murder. The plan, he knew himself, had weaknesses, but he was playing for time, and he really believed only good could come from it. If he could only hold off the Kikuyu until such time as the district became policed or guarded by troops, then he would be satisfied. All he wanted, all he had ever wanted, was to save Njong, and he did not care by what methods.

“And if the whites do not go?” Lunjani asked, scowling.

“They will go,” Sabati said fervently,

wiping the perspiration from his streaming face. “On my head be it,” he told them.

It seemed to Sabati during the next few days that he had never known any life other than this; a daily routine of plotting and intrigue, a constant sifting of the information brought to him by many hirelings, and a growing reminder of the power that was in his hands. His orders had been faithfully carried out. Bradshaw’s cattle were being stolen at the rate of two a day, and the meat conveyed to the hungry villagers. His workers were absenting themselves in

great numbers, and those that remained were becoming maddeningly lazy. So many had been sacked that, as the houseboy told Sabati, the bwana was always in a white heat of temper and even quarrelled with the memsahib. At nights, stealthy figures crept around the bungalow, and windows had been broken, and now the bwana always carried a gun. Everything had changed, said the houseboy. The Bradshaw home was no longer t he same place.

After two weeks of such reports, Sabati still felt he was not progressing enough. The Bradshaws were still there, and Lunjani was becoming impatient. Sabati had had Lunjani watched ever since the last shauri, and what he had heard filled him with misgiving. It was clear that the wily elder was leading a faction which would not hesitate to strike as soon as there was general criticism of the schoolteacher’s methods, and it was this thought that gave Sabati sleepless nights. Either he must try more drastic means to get rid of the Bradshaws, or ... !

Sabati hesitated. Was there, he wondered, some way to arrange an accident? If, say, Lunjani were killed by the bwana, would it not solve most of the problem? With the elder out of the way, he might yet lead his people back to reason by simply outwitting them; by the force of his character and the power of his words. He wondered, in fact, why he had not thought of it before, because he was by no means conscience-stricken at the idea; one life meant nothing when the lives of the majority were at stake. If the truth were known, Lunjani would not miss the opportunity to dispose of the schoolteacher should it ever arise, though he dare not attempt it against the will of the people. The only trouble was that Sabati had no idea how he stood at the moment; the Kikuyu were secretive and there was no telling how many had been won over to Lunjani and were willing to overthrow Sabati’s rule of restraint. In any case, time was running out fast and something had to be done at once. The best thing was to get rid of Lunjani.

Sabati had burnt a candle or two late into the night before any sort of plan formed in his mind. But after tiring his brains over the details he came to the conclusion that he must see Bradshaw first and confide in him. There was no other way; he must see him soon and tell all, and only then could he expect some co-operation. He must convince him of the necessity of killing Lunjani. It would take plenty of nerve to discuss such matters with the white man, but by now the man should be in no state to raise objections; there should be a lot less of the big white bwana about him after what he had been through. And if all went well, there would be peace again in Njong, and Sabati could go back to teaching the young.

Two very important events happened the day he decided to visit the Bradshaws, and it was as though all the gods of the Kikuyu had nodded

approval and were clearing obstacles from his path. The first was a letter, and the second a visit.

Sabati had just left the schoolhouse which he had been sweeping, and the first thing that caught his eye when he entered his hut was a note on the table. Bradshaw’s houseboy must have put it there, but even before he tore open the envelope he guessed what its contents were. He read:

“Could you call on me, please. 1 need your help.

H. Bradshaw.” Sabati could have rubbed his hands in satisfaction; it was the best news he had ever got. Apart from anything else, it meant that a white man needed him, and the emotions it aroused were almost overpowering. To think that a white man had actually said “please,” and asked for help!

“Hodi! May I come in?” Startled at the voice, Sabati hastily stuffed the note in his pocket and turned to the door.

“Will you not sit and eat,” he replied, in the traditional form, but he could not hide his surprise as he motioned the man to come in. It was Lunjani.

The elder, refusing to be seated, stood gravely and stared about the hut that he had never before entered. It was as if he was appraising it for his own future use. Finally he said: “The people are unhappy, Sabati. They are dissatisfied. There must be another shauri, and we will discuss other plans. Do you not agree?”

“No, I do not. You must give me a little more time. The end is near. The people must be patient a little longer.” “I do not believe you.” Lunjani curled his lip, sneering. “You can blind the others with words, Sabati, but not me. And I am tired of waiting.” “Is that what you have come to tell me, that you are tired of waiting?” “No,” said Lunjani. “I came to tell you that we are all tired of waiting. Do you understand?”

Sabati licked his dry lips, his brain working furiously. And then quickly he pulled the note out of his pocket and held it in front of him. “The Bradshaws are leaving,” he said hoarsely. “It says so here. I am going to see them, and I shall tell them, ‘yes, it is better you go, for these are troubled times . . .’ ”

The elder smiled sardonically and turned to go. “At the time of the new moon, there will be another shauri. You have until then.” He left abruptly, without uttering another word.

The new moon, Sabati thought; just three days. Could he do it? He must; it was imperative. Lunjani could not be left alive a minute longer than necessary, if what he had said was true, if it was a fact that he now had the support of everyone. But it would depend on Bradshaw, and how he helped shape the scheme. Everything would have to depend on Bradshaw from now on because he was a white man and had a superior intelligence, and he could improve on anything that an African had to offer. Sabati fervently hoped so as he changed into a clean suit and prepared to visit him.

Glowing with pleasant anticipation Sabati tapped softly on the Bradshaws’ screen door, standing back and removing his hat when he saw the white man appear. It was all going to be so different this time, he was thinking. So different.

“Come in, come in,” Bradshaw said, pushing the door aside. “I’m certainly glad you came.” He was gaunt and tight-lipped, but his eyes were shining and he seemed actually pleased to see the schoolteacher.

There was no one else in the room and Sabati, now a little shy and tonguetied, stood waiting awkwardly while the white man shut the door.

“Take a seat, Sabati,” he heard Bradshaw say behind him, and the poor man almost collapsed with pleasure. “Thank you, sir.”

He chose a simple high-backed chair rather than a low soft one, because that was what he was accustomed to, and really he did not wish to impose too much. He lowered himself gingerly into it, placed his hands on his knees and looked up rather sheepishly. And he was just going to say something when he suddenly stiffened in his seat, his eyes widening in amazement. He had found himself staring into the blunt muzzle of the white man’s gun.

“Sir!” he blurted out nervously, for the want of something better to say.

“I was afraid you might not come,” Bradshaw said smoothly, standing over him.

“I ... 1 don’t understand, sir. What does this mean, please?”

Bradshaw gave a dry chuckle. “You slipped up this time, didn’t you, Sabati? This was something you didn’t foresee, eh?”

“You must be joking,” Sabati said foolishly.

“Joking?” Bradshaw bared his teeth in anger, and seemed about to strike the shivering teacher. “I’ll show you whether I’m joking, you Mau Mau scum.”

“It is a mistake. A terrible mistake!

I can explain . . .”

“There’s nothing to explain,” Bradshaw said brutally. “What do you think 1 am, a fool? Do you deny you’re Mau Mau? Answer me, or I’ll put a bullet in you now.”

“Well, sir ... I mean ... It is like this . . .” Terribly frightened, Sabati strove to avoid the admission that would put him entirely at the other’s mercy. He wanted to explain that, yes, he was Mau Mau, and yet lie was not, if the bwana understood what he meant. But the words would not come. The sight of that gun paralyzed him.

“Come on, admit it!” Bradshaw thundered, his face working furiously. “Admit you’re the leader, the brains behind it all. You can’t tell me anything else. Why,” he shouted, waving toward the window, “there aren’t ten men in your village with brains the weight of a maggot’s. You’re the only one, the obvious one.”

“But you are wrong, sir.” Sabati moved forward a little, pleadingly, trying to explain, but the gun jerked up and came level with his eyes. He

squinted at it, fascinated. It made his brain freeze.

“I’ve a good mind to kill you now,” Bradshaw told him, tensely, “after what you’ve done to my wife. You nearly drove her mad with your devilish tricks, you swine,” he shrieked, his voice breaking.

“Please!” Sabati wailed. “Please let me explain, sir.”

“Oh, shut up.” Still keeping the gun aimed, Bradshaw moved back toward a chair and sat down. Turning his head slightly, but not his eves, he called loudly to his wife who must have been in her bedroom. When she appeared, standing nervously in the doorway, he quietly asked her to send in the houseboy.

“Don’t do anything silly, dear,” she begged him, glancing at the stiff figure of Sabati whose back was to her.

“Please tell the boy,” he said firmly.

Knowing the woman was present for a moment, Sabati decided to risk a question. “What are you going to do, sir?”

“You’ll see.”

Sabati began to perspire, waiting in an agony of suspense. He had no idea of what was happening, but he became all alert when he heard the padding of bare feet as the boy came in. Bradshaw got to his feet and motioned the boy nearer to Sabati.

“You know who this is, don’t you, Jumo?”

“Yes, bwana.”

“And you’re not afraid, are you?”

“No, bwana.” This came a little hoarsely.

“Well,” said Bradshaw, “I want you to take a message to the village. I want you to tell them that Sabati is a prisoner in my house, and that unless this Mau Mau business ceases at once, I’ll kill him. Do you understand, Jumo? Tell them I’ll kill their leader unless they promise to obey. All right, you can go.” He waved the boy off.

“Stop him before it is too late,” Sabati panted. “You don’t understand, sir.”

“Keep still,” Bradshaw warned him, raising the gun, “and quiet. I know what I’m doing. They won’t refuse. They know they won’t get anywhere without you.” He took his place in the same chair again, confident that the wait would be worth it.

“There is a man called Lunjani,” Sabati said, stonily, “and he is the real leader. He hates me as well as you, and desires the opportunity to be rid of me. Mr. Bradshaw,” he turned and faced the white man, “you have played into his hands. He wants to kill all of us, and he has us under one roof.”

“Shut up,” Bradshaw said. “I’m sick of your lies.”

Nobody spoke again for a while, until the grim atmosphere was broken by the reassuring sound of tea cups. Although he could not see her, Sabati knew that Mrs. Bradshaw had brought in a tray and was arranging a table. Bradshaw got up and said, “I’m still watching you, Sabati. Don’t forget it.”

Sabati could hear them talking quietly as they sipped their tea. They did not realize at all the coming danger. It was as though nothing mattered at the moment except their ritual of tea drinking. He was shocked, and not caring any more, said:

“They will come and kill us, when you least expect it. 1 did my.best, but you would not listen to me.”

There was no reply, just the tinkle of delicate china.

Sabati shook his head sadly and stared through the window opposite him, watching the shadows lengthen as the sun went down. He watched with growing fear, because he knew that for him and the other people in the room, it was going down for the last time.