The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 31: Mirambo's Country. Hunting Zebras. The Soko.

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A Royal Residence in Untamwezi

Our friends landed without accident near the historical region of Unyamwezi, near the modern-day city of Tambora in Tanzania. The best part of a day was consumed in getting the baggage on shore, setting up the tents, and putting the camp in order. They expected to remain there for several days, as it was not possible to hire at short notice all the guides and porters for the land journey from that point.

The Doctor called the captains and sailors who had aided them on their journey to Unyamwezi, and distributed among them a liberal amount of cloth, beads, wire, and other African commodities, and then directed that they should start immediately for home.

He added the rifle which he had promised to send to M'tesa in case the journey was accomplished within a certain time. Just as the boats were about to leave he presented each of the crews with a supply of provisions, which had not been bargained for, several jars of merissa, and an extra lot of cloth for the crew of the boat which had brought the donkeys. They certainly deserved it, as not a man of them had escaped with less than a dozen kicks. This unexpected liberality threw them all into good humor, and as the men paddled off they chanted songs in praise of the strangers, and hoped they would come again to Africa.

"'All's well that ends well,'" said the Doctor as the last of the boats disappeared around a bend in the bay. "I was very much afraid we should have trouble with the sailors. There was no danger of anything of the kind as long as we were within reach of M'tesa; but they knew well enough that we could not get at him again without returning to Rubaga, which was not at all in our plans."

The delegation started the next morning for the court of the King of Unyamwezi. They carried a letter from Doctor Bronson, written in Arabic, and asking permission to visit his capital, and travel through his country to Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika. It was understood that the party would start as soon as the necessary porters could be engaged, and would be likely to meet the messenger with the king's answer somewhere on the road.

It may be well to explain here that the king they were about to meet was the famous Mirambo, whose character has not been painted in pleasing colors by several African travelers. His capital or residence is at Urambo, about half way between the Victoria and Tanganyika lakes, and he was formerly looked upon as a bloodthirsty warrior, who exacted enormous tribute from every caravan that crossed his country.

The story of the trouble is told by Cameron in the account of his journey across Africa.

There are many Arabs settled in Unyamyembe, about a hundred miles southeast of Mirambo's capital. They trade in ivory and other African products, and for a long time Mirambo was on friendly terms with them. They made frequent exchanges of presents, and he allowed many of the Arabs to settle in his country, and gave them grants of land for their villages and, besides, cattle selected from his own herds.
War Dance of Mirambo's Followers

One of the Arabs took advantage of the monarch's good nature and bought a large quantity of ivory on credit. When the time came for payment he evaded the debt, and as Mirambo pressed his claim the rascal laughed at him.

Even a king may get angry when a debtor scorns him. Mirambo did not show his temper immediately, but asked the Arabs at Unyamyembe to assist him to collect the debt.

They refused to do so, and then the king took the measure into his own hands and seized a caravan belonging to a partner of the man who had defrauded him. This event brought on a war, which lasted for several years, and gave great trouble, not only to the Arabs, but to all the foreigners who attempted to pass that way. Mirambo was an energetic warrior, who kept constantly on the move, and dropped down suddenly where he was least expected. Many villages were burned, and thousands of people were killed on both sides, or captured, and sold into slavery.

At the time of Stanley's second journey in Africa to Lake Tanganyika the war was over, and the king had resumed business relations with his neighbors. He made terms of friendship with Stanley, and told him that hereafter any foreigner or Arab might travel through his territory or come there to trade, and he would be welcome. Stanley and the king exchanged presents, and the latter gave his visitor all the guides and porters he wanted to accompany him on his journey.

The peaceful relations established by Stanley continued at the time Doctor Bronson and his companions arrived at the southern end of Lake Victoria. As soon as Mirambo received the letter informing him of the approach of the strangers, and also the letter of M'tesa introducing the travelers as his friends, he sent two of his officers to meet them and conduct them to the capital.

Our friends started on their journey three days behind the delegation which carried the letter to Mirambo. They had no great difficulty in engaging porters, as the country bordering on the lake is well peopled, and the natives were quite desirous of earning some of the foreigners' cloth and beads. The Doctor's liberality to M'tesa's sailors had been noised about, and the porters were eager to be employed by a man who paid for services when an African tribunal had decided that he need not give anything. They brought various articles for sale, and there was a liberal offering of whatever the country produced. A couple of riding donkeys were obtained by Abdul, and also an ox that had been trained to the saddle. These animals, added to what they had brought from Rubaga, served to mount the entire party, including Abdul and Ali, and left an extra donkey for use in case of accident to any of the others.

There was some delay at starting due to a disagreement among the porters as to which loads to carry. The matter was finally arranged by placing the loads in a row, and then forming the men in line a little distance away and out of sight of the burdens they were to carry. Then they marched forward, and each man picked up the load which chance assigned to him and marched off without a murmur. Frank observed that they were finely-shaped, muscular fellows, with intelligent countenances.
Natives Bringing Provisions For Sale

Fred took note of the clothing worn by the porters and others of the people of Unyamwezi, and remarked that a very little writing was sufficient to describe it. The principal garment was a cloth around the loins. Some of the wealthier had leopard or other skins thrown over their shoulders; and the boys were told that only a chief or man of high authority is allowed to wear the hide of a lion. The capture of a lion was a sufficiently rare occurrence to make the clothing of the chiefs equal the supply of the skin of the king of beasts.

Doctor Bronson and the boys waited at the campground until the last of the porters had left with his load and the whole caravan was under way; then they mounted the donkeys and followed close to the rear, while Abdul hurried to the front. An Arab named Mohammed had been engaged to accompany them to Ujiji, as he knew the language of Unyamwezi, and was familiar with the country between the two lakes. He proved of great assistance in managing the caravan and keeping the men at a good pace while on the road. He said he accompanied Stanley from Unyamyembe to Zanzibar on his first journey; and though he never travelled with Livingstone he had often seen him.

The road was through a rolling country, greatly resembling the region between Patiko and Rubaga. There was the same succession of forests and open ground, and there were level plains that became pestiferous marshes during the rainy season. Villages were numerous, and there were many fields of bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, and that peculiar kind of corn which the Arabs call "sesame."

Many of the villages had herds of cattle grazing in the vicinity, under the care of herdsmen. Most of the villages were surrounded with stockades, and there was at one side of each village a yard with a high fence, where the cattle were driven at night. The herders were provided with huts in the middle of these yards, so that they could be constantly with the animals, for whose safety they were responsible. The fence was considered a sufficient protection against wild animals, while the approach of a human foe was sure to bring all the fighting men from the village to defend their property. Many of these enclosures had hedges of a peculiar kind of thorn bush, that was really more difficult of penetration than a palisade of trunks of trees. The thorns are cruel things, two or three inches long, and many of them curved like fish hooks. Getting loose from one you get caught on another, and perhaps on two or three; and a person who enters one of these bushes unawares will leave behind him the greater part of his clothing, together with many souvenirs from his skin.
A Protected Village

The general direction of the route was toward the southwest, and the guides said it would take five or six days to reach Mirambo's residence. If they wanted to hunt on the way they could do so, as the country abounded in game. Doctor Bronson thought it would not be well to stop for that purpose, as they would be likely to lose time by doing so; and besides, it might not suit the fancy of the king if they went to shooting in his dominions. But there could be no objection to their killing anything which came in their way, and with this understanding they continued the journey.

A messenger came from the front with the information that a herd of zebras was in a valley to the right of the road, and not more than a quarter of a mile away. With the Doctor's permission Frank and Fred went in pursuit of the new game, under the guidance of Mohammed, and accompanied by a couple of natives, who served as gunbearers.

They were fortunate enough to get near the zebras without being "winded," as the slight breeze that blew was directly in the faces of the young hunters. Three zebras were grazing together, close to a small grove, and two or three others were visible among the trees. The youths managed to creep quite close, and each selecting his victim, they fired at the same instant.

One animal fell on the spot; the other sprang high in the air and ran a few yards before the bullet brought him to the ground. The boys rejoined the column, while Mohammed summoned several of the natives who followed the caravan, and persuaded them to carry the meat to camp.

"The zebra looked much like a striped horse," said Fred, when recounting the adventure to the Doctor.
The Zebra at Home

"More like a donkey than a horse," said Frank.

"The zebra is more like the donkey than the horse," replied Doctor Bronson. "It has hairs at the tip of the tail only," he continued, "and his hind legs are without warts. For these reasons, and also for his voice and his powerful kick, he has been classed with the donkey, and you will find him named in the scientific books as the Asinus zebra."

"But can the zebra be tamed, and made to work, like his long-eared cousin?" Fred inquired.

"Yes," responded the Doctor, "he can be domesticated, but not easily. He is occasionally employed as a beast of burden, but is liable to manifest the same peculiarities of waywardness and stubbornness as the mule."

"There is everything in a name," he farther remarked, "as you will find when the game you have killed is brought into camp. The Arabs and all their followers will eat the flesh of the zebra, and think it excellent; but they would not touch a bit of horse or donkey to save their lives."

"Perhaps they are not alone in their prejudice," replied one of the boys. "I am impatient to have a taste of our prizes, but should hesitate for some time to dine off a donkey or a horse."

The Doctor smiled as he nodded approval of the sentiment of the youth, and the conversation changed to some other topic.

The camp was made in a little valley, close to a native village. While they were pitching the tents there was an alarm of "Snake! snake!" and the Doctor seized his shotgun to make an end of the unwelcome visitor. The man who had shouted pointed in the direction of the village, and our friends hastened there as fast as they could go.

It seemed that a large snake had entered one of the huts, and was making himself thoroughly at home. He had seized a chicken, and was leisurely engaged in devouring it. The Doctor was about to shoot his snakeship, when the owner of the hut begged him not to do so. All he desired was to have the creature leave the premises, and he would not consent that he should be harmed.

Mohammed came up while the Doctor was wondering at the native's concern for the welfare of the serpent. He explained that the people regard the snake as a sort of ghost or spirit, and if it should be harmed by them in any way it would be sure to bring about a calamity. "If you had shot the snake," said the Arab, "it would have been necessary to move the village immediately, to evade the vengeance of the ghost."
An African Tembé

Jackals howled around the camp during the night, but their music did not interfere with the sleep of our friends. They were up and off in good time in the morning, and soon entered upon a plain five or six miles wide, with a few calabash trees scattered over the level expanse. On the edge of the plain was a tembé, a building of a kind peculiar to this part of Africa, and only rarely met with in the regions north of the equator. Cameron thus describes the first one he saw:

"The tembé is formed simply of walls running parallel, subdivided by partitions, and having a roof nearly flat, sloping only slightly to the front. It is usually built to form a square, inside which the cattle are penned at night. The huts are shared by the fowls and goats, and swarm with insect life."

The boys entered the tembé only for a few moments, as the caravan was not allowed to halt, and they did not wish to be left in the rear. Besides, there was very little to be seen in the place, and the inhabitants had nothing to sell except a few eggs, which were quickly bought.

Frank discovered a strange-looking skin hanging to one of the inner walls of the tembé, and called the attention of his companions to it. The Doctor regarded it carefully, and then said it was the skin of a soko.

As soon as they were on the road again Fred referred to the soko, and asked if they were in the region inhabited by that animal.

"I think he is occasionally found here," was the reply, "but his proper habitat is on the other side of Lake Tanganyika. At any rate he was seen there frequently by Livingstone, Stanley, and Cameron, and the Arabs say that sokos are sometimes killed in the neighborhood of Lake Victoria."

"Dr. Livingstone has given the fullest account of this denizen of the African forest, and when we get into camp I advise you to look it up in his 'Last Journals.'"

Fred followed the Doctor's advice, and from the book in question he read as follows:

"Four gorillas, or sokos, were killed yesterday. An extensive grass burning forced them out of their usual haunt, and, coming on the plain, they were speared. They often go erect, but place the hand on the head, as if to steady the body.

"His light-yellow face shows off his whiskers and faint apology for a beard: the forehead low, with high ears, is well in the background of the great mouth; the teeth are slightly human, but the canines differ by their large development. The flesh of the feet is yellow. The soko is represented by some to be extremely knowing, successfully stalking men and women at their work, kidnapping children, and running up trees with them. He comes down when tempted by a bunch of bananas, and as he lifts it he drops the child.

"The soko kills the leopard occasionally by seizing both paws and biting them so as to disable them; he then goes up a tree while the leopard dies; at other times both soko and leopard die. The soko eats no flesh; small bananas are his dainties and other fruits. Some of the natives believe their buried dead rise as sokos, and one was killed with holes in his ears, as if he had been a human. He is very strong, and fears guns, but not spears.

Doctor Bronson said it was not positively settled whether the soko was identical with the gorilla, described by Du Chaillu, and found in the western part of Africa. Naturalists are of opinion that it is not the gorilla, but a distinct species of chimpanzee, which Dr. Livingstone was the first to describe. The men who accompanied the eminent missionary were shown the specimen of the gorilla in the British Museum. They said it was not the soko, though closely resembling it, and they believed the two animals were nearly related to each other.

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 31: Mirambo's Country. Hunting Zebras. The Soko.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Jackal: Any of certain wild canids of the genus Canis, native to the tropical Eastern Hemisphere and smaller than a wolf.
Calabash: A tree native to Central and South America, the West Indies, and southern Florida, bearing large, round fruit used to make containers.
Gorilla: The largest of the apes, native to the forests of central Africa, and known for their trait of knuckle-walking.
Chimpanzee: A species of great ape native to Africa, and believed by biologists to be the closest extant relative to humans.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

Examine the following in modern times:

  • Jackal in Tanzania
  • Gorillas
  • Chimpanzees

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the following on the map of Africa:

  • The country of Tanzania
  • Lake Victoria (unlabeled)

Study the map of Tanzania and find or answer the following:

  • Recite aloud the names of the countries bordering Tanzania
  • Find the current capital city (Dodoma) and former capital city (Dar es Salaam)

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.