Rifle illustration

In the north west of Nzega district there is a village called Igusule where, sometime in May ’91, I found myself in the process of organlslng a village seminar. I would be meeting with my friend, the village Extension Officer, at the cattle crush which can be found in the forest along Igusule’s southern edge.

When I found Gordons he was busy vaccinating cattle; there were only some thirty or forty head, but since this is Tanzania, where nothing is simple, it turned out to be tremendously hard work. The cattle crush was in an extremely sad state of repair, so much so, that rather than aiding Gordons with his work it was in fact inhibiting him.

Let me explain by using a small metaphor; the water funnel; the mob of cattle enter at the wide mouth of the funnel and, as they progress inwards they are eventually reduced to a single file procession; at this point, as they pass Gordons one by one, he vaccinates them.

That, anyhow, is the theory. In practice it worked out like this … so many cattle had passed through the crush that by the time they had come to a single file they had worn a deep trench into the ground. By now the trench was so deep that the cattle could no longer keep their heads and horns above the latticed steel bars that formed the crush’s frame. As soon as a cow would enter the single file area its horns would become entangled in the steel frame and it would panic, thrashing its head from side to side and sometimes bucking and kicking, so that its compatriots behind would decide unanimously to retreat.

Unfortunately, that sensible option was no longer available to them, for not only had the funnel mouth been long since closed, but also, there was the presence of several enthusiastic youths armed with long flexible sticks. These drivers had their own goal and that was to force the cattle down the funnel so that Gordons could do his work. By rushing about wildly, gesticulating and yelling, the boys encouraged the miserable cattle to congregate in the narrow end of the funnel. This was bad enough but, occasionally, a lone and foolish cow, panic stricken by the confusion in the front ranks of its fellows, would break through the cordon of youths thereby provoking them into terrifying action. I stared amazed as another cow broke free from the bovine melee and attempted to rush the stockade frame. Two youths left the cordon and neatly out-manoeuvred the hapless escapee who then received several lightning quick blows with the sticks right between the eyes. Such alarming treatment was enough to persuade the cow that the unknown dangers of the narrow path were preferable to those presented by these horrendous demons with the awful sticks. The cow would dive back into the safety of its own kind thus further encouraging the general forwards motion.

All these cattle were the property of one man who stood to the side quietly leaning on his long staff. I asked him how many cattle he owned and he answered by indicating the scene in front of us, replying, “Only thirty to forty”. In fact he was currently the owner of around eight hundred head, and that wasn’t including the many goats and sheep he undoubtedly had as well. He had not always been a rancher; only two years ago he’d been a successful businessmen in Shinyanga owning two buses and a few other smaller vehicles. One day he had sold them – all bar one – and moved back to the village to keep cattle.

By now the youths had valiantly forced the cattle past Gordons’ vaccinating gun, but for the beasts the ordeal was still far from over. Once out of the first single file passage the cattle would emerge into another stockade with another funnel, this time followed by the need to leap into the dipping pit. But the passage, having suffered the passing of countless thousands of hooves, had had a deep trench worn into its bottom. The boys were now covered from head to foot with wet green cow manure and were using the sticks so often that the weapons would fragment and shatter until all they had left was not much more than they were grasping in their hands. In the end it was worth the effort; the cattle had been dipped and vaccinated so were now fit for transportation and to be sold.

The cattle owner, who went by the name of Mzee Balole, invited Gordons and I back to his house to eat, which, I might add, I refused. His house was typical of Igusule and other villages of his district in that it was surrounded by his cattle corrals and therefore, as far as I was concerned anyway, was plagued by the millions of insect followers that African cattle inevitably attract. Besides, when I’d arrived in the morning I’d expected to have more of Gordons’ time and so I was already lacking in patience. We did go to Mzee Balole’s house. We stayed and drank some sour milk. But lunch was going to be a long time coming and eventually my patience plus my inability to deal with the flies forced me to drag Gordons away from a free meal. Nobody else noticed the flies, not even Gordons who is from Mount Kilimanjaro where this kind of cattle culture doesn’t exist. Should one or more of the insects happen to investigate a particularly sensitive orifice or organ, it was calmly wafted away like the useless and poor excuse for an irritation it was.

When I had left the homestead I knew I had committed an unforgivable social faux-pas and I became depressed, so Gordons tried to cheer me up by telling me a few tales of the bush. Like myself, Gordons had a passionate interest in all things to do with the wild and, having lived in Tabora region for some years, he was capable of telling the most incredible stories. To begin with he tells me that some of the villagers here still manage to hunt in the forests that lie to the south. Unfortunately for the wildlife, Igusule is a large village and so most of the bigger game have been forced deeper into the woods; the last lions here were poisoned as far back as 1971. The one notable exception though was the magnificent and secretive Greater Kudu whose meat is regarded as especially sweet by many Tanzanians; an adult bull male may weigh in at over three hundred kilogrammes and has, mounted into his skull, two spectacular spiralling horns. However, though its exceptionally shy nature means that even a large adult male would rather run whenever threatened it must still be quite a handful to kill, so I remarked on that to Gordons. “No” he replied, “if you have a torch and you hunt at night it is really very easy. Many people have rifles in this village”.

This was definitely news to me and I said so. “Yes” said Gordons, “we use this local rifle, the one where you load the ammunition and the gunpowder in the muzzle” and he offered to show me one when we got back to his house.

When I saw it I was taken aback. In its dark wooden stock there were inlays of bright metal, and perhaps ivory too, fashioned into subtle Arabic shapes and signs; it had a long barrel braced its entire length with the wood of the stock and slung below was the ramrod that confirmed for my disbelieving eyes that it was indeed a muzzle loader. I took it from Gordons to examine it. I was sure that it could be ancient so I asked Gordons if he knew its age, “Oh yes I think maybe, fifteen years” he replied.

Gordons really knew how to surprise me and having so gained my attention he began to tell me more about the rifle. Some eighty or a hundred miles south east of here there is an extremely large and wild tract of bush where lives a secret society of rifle makers. So secret are they that, should an unwelcome stranger happen to stumble upon them, they might well murder him in order to protect the secret.

The raw material used in the manufacture of the rifle barrel is the steering rod of a car which, I believe, is somehow either cold or slow drilled through its entire length to form the business end of the muzzle loading musket. Should you wish for something more up market, you could go for one of their .404 hunting rifles, “the one they use to kill the elephants” Gordons tells me. Even the gunpowder for the musket is made by these experts. The shot on the other hand, is readily available in most big towns and comes in the form of standard sized solid, round steel bars known as ‘Nondo’; these are sawn up into suitably sized plugs of maybe one centimetre thickness that fit surprisingly well down the barrel of the musket. I couldn’t say what calibre the muskets were but the muzzle looked very wide. My imagination began to run amuck as I thought about the packing of the barrel with powder and then plugging it with that formidable steel shot. Pulling the trigger must have produced the most sensational results.

Gordons went out again and a short while later came back. This time he had some local ‘baruti’, or gunpowder, with him. “Watch” he said. “It works very well”. He poured a measure onto the floor, and then he touched a match to it and with a brief violent orange flash it flared explosively and died. My retinas were left with the impression of its brilliant signature. But I remained in doubt as to whether these locally produced items were really capable of performing their intended task. “Even shot like this kills elephants very nicely” Gordons solemnly assured me, rather unnecessarily I thought. I couldn’t imagine that it would be very accurate, but firing it must have been somewhat akin to loosing off an old siege cannon, and woe betide any being luckless enough to interrupt the passage of that formidable plug of steel.

By the time we had conducted our business of the day I had toured much of Igusule, meeting and talking with some of the farmers. Gordons had also taken me to the market to meet a few of the stall holders. Igusule was going to be a boom town. The railway from Dar es Salaam came right through as did the fabled African trams-continental highway. In the future they were going to build at Igusule a new railway cargo terminus, with a new line going north to Bukoba starting right there. Blessed of all, the Tarmac part of the highway, beginning in Kigali, Rwanda, would be extended all the way to Igusule. Change was coming and Igusule was going to be a different place.

Michael Ball

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