ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
A visit to Swaziland.
A week or two after his mother's arrival at his home at Hluti, Lionel had to go to Stegi in the Ubombo Mountalna on business. He travelled in a wagon drawn by donkeys, and his family, his mother, a Mr. Delport and a maid, Siena, who was to do the cooking along the way, accompanied him. Mr. Delport who was an excellent shot joined the party with the object of hunting game, but he could not indulge in this sport until they had crossed the Usutu River, as the country on the south side of it was a game reserve.
They had great difficulty in crossing this broad river with its currents continually churning up the sand. However, they accomplished the passage in safety and on reaching the other side outspanned to rest the oxen awhile. Mrs. Cameron and her daughter-in-law went down to the stream to bathe, but a native woman standing on the bank warned them not to enter the water as it was infested by crocodiles.
Siena, thinking to enjoy a little friendly conversation, enquired of this maid why she was not wearing a setwaba, which, according to Swazi custom, should have formed part of her apparel. She replied that she was unable to make one. Siena scoffed at the idea and remarked that that was utter nonsense as all Swazi women could make a setwaba. At this the woman flung aside the blanket she was wearing and exposing the short stump of her right arm, pointed to it and said, 'This is why I cannot make one." She then proceeded to enlighten Siena as to how she had lost her limb.
She had stooped down at the edge of the river and had been filling her hand with water to slake her thirst when a crocodile seized her by the arm and, dragging her into the water, ducked her. When they came to the surface again she thrust her left hand into the reptile's mouth with the intention of catching hold of its tongue in an endeavour to free herself, but, to her amazement, she found that a crocodile evidently has a very short tongue as she could not get hold of it.
Her assailant ducked her again,and when they rose to the surface this tiuc, although she felt half dazed, she embedded her teeth in the soft point of the reptile's nose. It then let go her arm and she lost no time in scrambling over some rocks to the bank of the river. It tried to follow but was prevented by the rocks.
Then she got back to the kraal, she found that all the other natives had gone to the lands to weed, so she herself out off her badly mutilated right arm near the shoulder with a knife and doctored her wounds, which healed completely in time. Her left arm had also been lacerated by the crocodile's teeth when she had attempted to catch hold of its tongue. She showed Siena the marks just above her wrist.
Mrs. Cameron considers this the finest example of presence of mind and outstanding courage that she has ever heard of during her long life.
She was greatly interested in the way in which the Swazis cross rivers infested by crocodiles. They enter the drifts in groups of from ten to twenty, each native carrying a big, thick stick in the one hand and an assegaai in the other, with the former they keep lashing the water wildly thus causing a great commotion to frighten the creatures away, while the assegaais are held ready in case of an attack.
Some time after having passed over the Usutu the travellers crossed a small tributary of this river. Here they outspanned again.
The natives in the neighbourhood told them that the young of the crocodiles live in this and suchlike streams until they become big and strong enough to hold their own in the large rivers. In the dry season these tributaries change from small flowing rivers into pools separated by stretches of mud. In these pools the baby crocodiles, after having been hatched in the sand, are left by their female parents to fend for themslves, and here they have a far better chance to survive in the struggle for existence than they would have if they had to spend their babyhood in the large streams, where the numerous adults would soon demolish them. Before the dry season sets in the big reptiles desert the tributaries for the main river.
Then Swazis also informed the travellers that a few days previously they had lost two head of cattle at one of the drinking-holes. Evidently one of the adult crocodiles had failed to get away before the rivulet had changed into pools.
Mr. Delport, eager to shoot the reptile and rid the natives of its troublesome presence, went to the edge of the drinking-hole where he noticed distinct tracks made by the cattle-thief in the mud. He lay perfectly still on the bank hoping that his prey would come up out of the pool. When he had watched thus for two solid hours, he suddenly saw what he had taken to be a log of wood slide off the mud into the water. Needless to say, it was the crocodile for which he had been waiting - patiently, and he was so taken by surprise that he failed to fire before the creature had disappeared into the depths of the pool.
Along the way the travellers ran short of bread, so the men dug a small trench and in the centre of one wall of this they hollowed out an oven, in the roof of which they made a hole to serve as a chimney. Exactly opposite the even they dug another short trench at right angles to the first one, and this served for the baker to stand in so that she could get at the even conveniently. The froth from some kaffir-beer was used for yeast. A fire was kindled, and, when it had burned down and the oven had been thoroughly heated, the bread was baked with excellent results.
The party climbed the Ubombo at Stegi, and Mrs. Cameron had never in her life before seen such splendid crops of mealies, kaffir-corn and pumpkins as these grown by the Swazis right on the top of the flat summit of the mountain. She noticed that the natives had quite a number of cattle too, but these were extremely wild and no white person dared venture too close to them.
During the trip she could not help observing what respect the Swazis have for trees. They never chop these down for firewood; they gather only the dry, dead branches for this purpose. The only instance in which they chop down a tree is for house-making, and she thinks that, if the Europeans in South Africa showed this same appreciation, their country would greatly benefit by it.
Anothor praiseworthy thing she noticed with regard to the Swazis was the way in which they work their ground. They cultivate small plots and when these become impoverished, they leave them to recover and cultivate others in the meanwhile.
On the return journey the party visited the Baths which are situated on another part of the Usutu River. They consist of six or seven pools, some of which are extremely hot, some lukewarm and others quite cold. The water is very clear and buoyant and there is a big stream continually flowing out of the pools, which are spring fed, so the water used for bathing purposes is always clean.
The visiters camping out here often send one of the Swazis living in the neighbourhood to Moore's Farm-store, a distance of about twelve miles, for oranges and other supplies. He is given a large basket in which te carry the goods and willingly does the trip on foot for a shilling.
While the travellers were at the Baths, a native girl, who was said to be a chief's daughter and hence was allowed to own a gun, offered to shoot some game for them if they would gupply the cartridges. It seemed so strange that a native girl should be able to shoot that they decided to test her marksmanship. They put up a small object for a target and handed her a cartridge. With her first shot she sent the tiny target flying. They then gave her three cartridges and she set out happily to hunt some game. After a short time had elapsed she returned with a buck and two green pigeons. These birds were so gorgeously coloured that Mrs. Cameron thought it a shame to kill such beautiful creatures, however, they made very good eating. The girl-hunter, who was indeed an excellent shot, was given two cartridges in payment.
While Mrs. Cameron was in Swaziland, a faction fight between two parties of natives took place about three miles away from Lionel's home. She could see the natives, engaged in battle, jumping and rushing about in the dim distance. The fight lasted three days.
About a dozen fully armed Swazis belonging to Chief Pogwaan's party passed within a shirt distance of the house on their way to join in the fight against the followers of Chief Dabuzes. Mrs. Cameron, greatly interested in their doings, called out and asked them where they were going and advised them to return to their own people, as dead men could do nothing. They laughed at this advice, and, saying that they were going to the scene of hostilities as spectators and not as participants, they proceeded on their way.
That evening swarms ef Swazi women and children arrived at the Settlement, Hluti, to seek refuge roundabout the houses ef the white people, whose kitchens, servants' huts and yards were soon filled to overflowing with these refugees.
The next morning, Dabuzes sent a messenger to say that, if the Europeans sheltered any of his followers, he would not hold himself responsible for what might happen, as he feared that houses would be fired and cattle stolen. As a result of this when the poor wretches turned up again in the evening to seek shelter for the night, they were told by the Europeans that they could not allow them to stay, so for ten nights, until they were sure of their safety, these Swazi women and children slept hidden away among the tall tamboekie grass and the thorn trees.
The government sent European and native policemen to stop the fight and to arrest those who had taken part in it. When the combatants saw the armed constables approach, they fled in all directions. During the next fortnight about a hundred of them were captured.
One Swazi woman, anxious to prove to the police that her husband had been killed in the struggle, cut out a portion of the dead man's entrails and carried this ghastly proof to them to convince them that she had told the truth.
The police were still busy searching the country for more of the hostile natives when Mrs. Cameron left Swaziland for Volksrust where she has lived ever since.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron