Source: Evening Post, March 1949, by Attilio Gatti Phography by Weldon King Reprinted by Wino, PA0ABM
One of the men pictured on these pages stole sixty shillings from Mohammed, the cook. A famous African explorer tells how the culprit was found by resorting to the weird, baffing jungle custom known as "the trial of fire" A THEFT by someone in your household is an ominous thing. This is especially true on African expeditions. An expedition of this sort-I have been on eleven of them-is like a big family. lts members live in the closest contact for months at a time. They have a mutual stock of precious supplies and equipment. There must be no distrust among the people in such a household, and no thievery, for its possessions are spread out over acres of ground, unprotected by doors or walls. This is why I was so gravely concerned when one of the natives reported a theft at the start of my latest African mission, the Gatti-Hallicrafters Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon. This is why, when orthodox methods failed to uncover the thief, I resorted to what the Digo natives of the Swahili coast of British East Africa call the trial of fire. The outcome was something I might not believe if I had not seen it myself. t happened when we were pitching our fir camp near Kwale, Kenya Colony, British East Afca. Our group had been assembled from different parts of the world. There were my wife, myself and five other Americans-two photographers, one newspaperman, two short-wave radio operators. There were two young Britishers I had taken on in Mombasa, one as secretary, the other as camp manager. From Tanga, in Tanganyika, we had brought twelve native boys-four drivers, two cooks, two assistant cooks and tour house boys. In addition, I had hired an extremely good boy by the name of Moyo as my personal askari, or policeman. And upon our arrival in Kwale, the district commissioner had found us twenty Digos as temporary help for the first grueling weeks So we were a family of forty-two people-nine whites, thirteen permanent native boys and twenty temporary ones. Forty-two people busy setting up house, handling and unpacking some 700 cases, distributing their contents among our eight rucks, eight trailers, twelve tents, photographic laboratories, short-wave radio shacks, offices, mess and kitchens. Then along came Mohammed, my wife's cook, proclaiming that he had been robbed. I immediately put aside all my other work and got busy on the theft. The sum involved was trivial- sixty British East African shillings, the equivalent of twelve dollars-but the implications were grave. It had taken $125,000 and two years to design, build and assemble our equipment. At this stage even a small act of dishonesty must be snuffed out as promptly as a spark in an ammunition factory. I had given Mohammed the sixty shillings, in the form of three one-pound bills, the day before as an advance on his pay. According to his story, the money had been in his belt when he went to sleep in the tent he shared with three other boys, Shaffi, Njumbe and Ali. Now the bills were gone. Njumbe and the four native drivers could be eliminated as suspects, I realized, because they had been away on an errand in Mombasa. The Digo laborers also were out, because they went home long before night. This left only Mohammed's tentmates, Ali and Shaffi, and the four other native boys, Issa, Asmani, Idi and Baruku. My personal policeman, Moyo, brought them to me. I talked to them at length in Swahili. "Confess, return the money, and I will not punish you," I concluded. "Otherwise, I will find out all the same. But then there will be serious trouble." Nobody said a word. Sol had Moyo search them one by one, very carefully. He found nothing. Their tents and personal bundles were turned inside out. Again we found nothing. I sent for Sultani Raschid, the Digo chief, and he did the best he could. The Kenya police followed, and stayed around for hours, talking separately to each boy. They got nowhere. That night the district commissioner himself came up. Since he was the district's magistrate and all-powerful authority, I was sure he would find out everything. But he spent the evening questioning the boys, with no effect whatsoever. During the fifteen years I have spent on African soil I have never seen anything so hard to crack as this little theft. Whoever had clone it surely knew how to keep his secrets better than any native I had ever met. Of course, Mohammed might have faked the theft himself, to cover up for having lost the money or used it in some way he didn't want known. I asked him what he had to say to that theory. Mohammed listened respectfully, but when I finished, he looked outraged. "Bwana," he said, "near here there is a mganga, a doctor by the name of Mwadana. Moyo knows about him, and that nobody can fool him. We all are good Mohammedans. Let each of us swear before him our most sacred oath. And let him test each of us by the trial of fire." "By what?" "By the trial of fire," Mohammed repeated." It is quick, it is tree, it never fails. Every suspected man swears he is innocent. Mwadana takes his left hand, the one of the heart, and three times he presses it against a spike of red-hot iron. But over the hand he first spreads a dawa- a medicine of his own making. Because of it, the hand of the innocent man remains unharmed. But the man who has given the oath falsely, his hand is burned. And when all see the great blister that bas been made by the burns, nothing is left to him but to confess his sin." Obviously, it was a sort of ancient jungle version of our modern lie detector. At any rate, it sounded worth trying. "Would you be willing," I asked Mohammed, "to be the first?" "Yes, bwana," he answered, nodding vigorously. "And you?" I asked of the others in turn. Shaffi, my wife's personal boy, agreed with evident enthusiasm. The others followed. Only Ali and Baruku, one of the assistant cooks, seemed hesitant. But they, too, agreed. So I told Moyo to go to Mwadana and make the earliest appointment possible. I have used the word "appointment" intentionally, just as I would if I were talking of making a date with a dentist to have some teeth X-rayed or with a doctor to have a checkup. As it turned out, Mwadana was even more business-like and matter-of-fact than we expected. A number of us were there: my wife, Ellen Morgan Gatti, of Derby Line, Vermont; James Powers, of New York City, INS staff correspondent with the expedition; our camp manager, Norman Wakeford, of Mombasa, Kenya; our two photographers, Weldon King, of Springfield, Missouri, and Errol C. Prince of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They watched every detail of the proceedings. King and Prince took dozens of photos, one taking them in color, the other in black and white. And they all agree completely with me that, closely as we watched every move. There was mot the slightest sign of sham or bunk. All we saw was a man who knew his job and who worked at ist seriously, with complete impartiality and assurance. We met Mwadana the following morning m a clearing near our camp. He was sitting in the hot sun waiting for us-a short, elderly man of slight build, who wore none of the usual witch doctor's trappings, but only the customary white cap of the Digo Moslem, and a length of colored cloth wrapped around his waist. As I approached, followed by my seven boys, I saw that he was no man for elaborate staging. The only spectators were my companions, grouped on one side, and on the other side four or five native women, watching with unsmiling faces from behind a palm tree. A child sat with Mwadana, holding a pair of primitive goatskin bellows. Mwadana got up and we shook hands three times, in the Arabic fashion. I asked the boys to say again if they were willing to undertake the test. As soon as the last one said yes, Mwadana nodded, crouched before a small char-coal fire and, using a roughly made pair of pliers, thrust a No. 9 spike of iron into the hot coals. The child began to work the bellows. Soon Mwadana pulled out the spike, now an opaque, uneven red in color. With another piece of iron he scraped all impurities from the spike. While it was reheating he immersed a piece of cloth in a calabash near him and swabbed the palm of his left hand with a liquid which appeared to be an infusion of herbs of many kinds, chopped very fine. "The dawa of old," he said, looking up at the boys. "It protects innocence. Guilt it reveals unfailingly." Again he extracted the spike from the coals. Now it was a uniform unblemished red. The sun was hidden by a cloud. It made the incandescence of the spike even more brilliant. Mwadana calmly proceeded to press that red-hot metal against his faintly wet left palm-once, twice, three times; each time for the duration of several seconds. Each time he pressed really hard. As I've said, there was nothing, dramatic or theatrical about the man. He quietly replaced the spike in the fire, then rubbed his left palm with his right hand. He gave us a minute or soto examine his left palm. There was not a mark on it. I glanced at the seven boys. Their eyes were wide, staring, scared. And no wonder. "Mohammed," I called. Obediently, the cook went to crouch near the mganga. Mwadana finished scraping the spike, returned it to the fire and took firm hold of Mohammed's left wrist. "The oath," he commanded. When necessary, he prompted the cook, who said, "I Mohammed, son of Achmed Bin Yauri, swear by Allah and by all that is most sacred that I had by all that is most sacred nothing to do with the disappearance of the money. May Allah forbid this glowing iron to Bear my flesh if I speak the truth. May- may it bum deeply if I lie" Mwadana was not one to waste a word. He nodded, spread dawa on Mohammed's hand and reached for the pliers. I am satisfied that the quantity of dawa used, the heating of the spike, the duration and pressure exercised with it were exactly the same as Mwadana's own demonstration test. And so it went with the following six. There Was not one little variation that my companions or I could detect. At times the spike looked a bit more luminous than at others, but that was simply because a cloud was weakening the light of the sun. At such times the coals, too, seemed to he glowing more brightly, although the child at the bellows was working at a uniform tempo as regularly as a machine. As oaths and tests followed each other, the routine once in a while broken by a grunt, I tried to figure out how the trial of fire might work. The only explanation I was able to arrive at then-or since-was that the herbs in the dawa had the property of forming a coating on the skin which temporarily protected it against extreme heat. But with a guilty man, the sweat his fear brought out would dissolve this protective coating. It is quite possible that some Moslem mganga long ago discovered the formula of such a dawa arid that his descendants perfected it, passing it down from father to son. The natives' own pharmacopoeia includes hundreds of items which reveal an astounding knowledge of the properties of herbs, roots and fruits. The sacred Qath seems to me an added feature of essentially psychological value. It makes the innocent feel even more safe because of the divine protection so solemnly invoked and the guilty even more vulnerable-and therefore emitting more "fear sweat " -because of the blasphemy just committed. Be that as it may, the pace of the proeedings stepped up as soon as the last test was ended. Kneeling on the ground, Mwadana ordered the seven left hands shown to him. His voice was still low and unexcited. But now it had a new ring of authority which brought the seven boys to crouch near him in a hurry. Attentively he examined each palm. He pressed one, squeezed another, each time lifting his eyes to search those of the boy. This was a moment of disappointment to me. Every one of the palms showed three light discolorations- nono "the great blister". Mohammed's words had made me expect. Were we back at the same point as before? Had all "this rigmarole been for nothing? And Mwadana, was he just another charlatan? I looked at him; He appeared puzzled-deeply puzzled. He was' still squeezing one hand after the other, and getting nowhere, for all I could see. Then suddenly a smile came to his face. Four hands he slapped away. Their owners he pushed away with a gesture. He concentrated on the remaining hands-those of Asmani, Idi and Shaffi. Shaffi let out a groan. "Wah!" he cried. "You hurt me, you old devil! Yet you know I am innocent!" Mwadana sprang to his feet. "Confess your guilt!" he ordered, his right forefinger pointed at the boy's face. "Say where the money is hidden! Say it! " Asmani and ldi sighed with relief, backing away. "Stay!" Mwadana ordered. You, too, have given a false oath! Look!". We all looked, and understood why Mwadana had been puzzled. There three culprits instead of the one. Each of the three boys looked fearfully at his own hand. During those few minutes quite visible blisters had up from the palms of ldi and Asmani. The hand of Shaffi was disfigured by a much larger blister, as big as a half dollar piece. "You - you stole the money! " Mwadana's forefinger dug into the chest of Shaffi. "Say yes!" Shaffi had resisted everything and everybody. Now, meekly, he said, "Yes." Mwadana swiftly turned around to Idi, grabbed and exhibited the boy's palm with its blister. You have helped him!" Idi, too, broke down."I only helped him hide it." Then it was Asmani's turn. He looked at bis own blister, at the mganga. "I just saw Shaffi pass the money to Idi. But I couldn't tell anyone. They are my friends of old. " Mwadana laughed, but there wasn't anything merry in his laugh. Again he was at Shaffi. "The money!" he said. "Go and get it! At once!" The boy shook his head, opened his mouth as if to talk, closed it. With bent head he went off. We followed him to a big rock near my house trailer. His right hand went down into a crevice, searched awhile, came up again with the three one- pound notes. Without so much as a word he unfolded them and returned them to a smiling Mohammed. The drivers, Njumbe and the laborers were all there, gaping. If I wanted to make sure that this first theft should be also the last of the expedition, this was the moment f or a quick, seriou talk. When I had finished and dismissed the boys, I turned back to Mwadana, thanked him and asked him how much I owed him. He was again his quiet, undramatic self. "My fee," he said, "is one shilling for each man tested. Seven," I had no coins, 80 I pulled out a ten-shilling note. Promptly, Mwadana corrected himself. "Eight," he said, because I used the spike on my hand too. "Encouraged by our laughter, the little old man broke into an almost boyish grin. "And two more", he concluded because you are great Bwana Merikani! The little sorcerer had solved another problem. That made it an even ten shilling, and there was no need for him to give me any change.