From ‘The Drum’
In Unto Dust
by Herman Charles Bosman
Old Mosigo was the last of the drum-men left at Gabarones – Oom Schalk Lourens said – when they brought the telegraph wires on long poles to this part of the country. But there was a time when the voice of the drum travelled right across Africa.
The peculiar thing about this was that, even when a message originated from a tribe with a completely alien language, the drum-man of the tribe receiving the message could still interpret it. In the old days there were two drum-men in each village. They were instructed in the code of the drum from boyhood, and then – in their turn – they taught the art of sending and receiving drum messages to those who came after them.
No white man has ever been able to learn the language of the drum. The only one who ever had any idea at all – and even his knowledge was of the slightest – was Gerhardus van Tonder, who regularly travelled deep into Africa with his brother, Rooi Willem.
Gerhardus van Tonder told me that he had asked the drum-men of several tribes to teach him the meaning of the sounds they beat out on their tom-toms. ‘But I could never understand what the drum-men tried, over and over again, to explain to me,’ Gerhardus van Tonder said to me. ‘Even when a drum-man repeated the same thing up to ten times, I still couldn’t grasp it. So thick-skulled are they.’
Nevertheless, Gerhardus said that, because he had heard the same message so often, he was able, later on, to understand whenever the drums broadcast the message that his brother, Rooi Willem, had shot an elephant dead. But one day an elephant trampled Rooi Willem to death. Gerhardus had listened to the message the drums had sent out after that. It was exactly the same as all the earlier messages, Gerhardus said. Only, it was the other way round.
Even in those days, the prestige of the drum-man had fallen considerably – because a mission station had been started at Gabarones, and the missionaries had brought with them their own message which came into conflict with the more heathen news from Central Africa.
But when the telegraph wires were brought up from Cape Town, taken past the Groot Marico, and erected in the Protectorate, everyone knew that – so to speak – the days of the drum-man were numbered.
Yet on one occasion, when I spoke to Mosigo about the telegraph, what he had to say was this: ‘The drum-man is better than the copper wire that you white men bring on poles across the world. I don’t need copper wire for my drum’s messages. Or long poles with rows of little white medicine bottles on them, either.’
But whatever Mosigo thought, the authorities had brought the copper wires as far as Nietverdiend. A little post office had then been built on Jurie Bekker’s farm, and a young telegraph operator from Pretoria had been appointed to serve as postmaster. This young man had arranged for a colleague in Pretoria to telegraph to him, from time to time, items from the newspapers. By means of these telegrams, which were pinned up on a noticeboard in the post office, we who lived in this part of the Bushveld kept in touch with the outside world.
The telegrams were all very short. In one of them, we read about President Kruger’s visit to Johannesburg and what he said, at a public meeting, about the Uitlanders.
‘If that’s all that the President could say about the Uitlanders,’ Hans Grobler said, ‘namely, “that they are a pest stop and that they should be more heavily taxed stop and that a miner’s procession threw bottles stop”, then I think I’ll vote for General Joubert at the next elections. And why do these telegrams always repeat the word “stop” so monotonously?’
Those of us who were in the post office at the time agreed with Hans Grobler. We said, moreover, that not only did we need a better president, we also needed a better telegraph operator. And we agreed that extending the telegraph service to Nietverdiend had been a waste of hundreds of miles of copper wire, not to speak, even, of all those long poles.
When we mentioned this to the telegraph operator, he looked from one to the other of us, thoughtfully, for a few moments. Then he said: ‘Yes. Yes, I think it has been a waste.’
‘But look at this telegram,’ Hans Grobler interjected. ‘About “the fanatic who fired at the King of Spain stop and missed him by less than two feet stop”. What use is a message like that to us Bushveld Boers? And what sort of a thing is a fanatic, anyway?’
As a result of these conversations at the post office, I decided to look up old Mosigo, the last of the drum-men at Gabarones.
I found him sitting in front of his hut. The wrinkles on his face were countless. They made me think of the footpaths that go twisting across the length and breadth of Africa, and that you can follow for mile after mile and day after day, and that never come to an end. And I thought of how the messages that Mosigo received through his drum came from somewhere along those farthest paths across Africa.
He was busy thumping his old drum. It sounded almost like a voice to me. Now and again it seemed as if there floated on the wind a sound from very far away, which was either an answer to Mosigo’s message, or the echo of his drum. But it wasn’t like in the old days, when you could clearly hear how the message of one drum was taken up and spread over koppies and vlaktes by other drums. Anyone could see that there were not so many drum-men left in the Bushveld. And the reduction in their numbers wasn’t because the chiefs had thrown them to the vultures for bringing bad news.
More likely, it was due to competition from the white man’s telegraph wires.
Looking at Mosigo’s wrinkles, I thought that he must have more understanding of things than that young upstart of a telegraph operator, who had only been out of school for three or four years at the most, and who always put the word ‘stop’ in the middle of a message – a clear sign of his general uncertainty.
So I told Mosigo that the telegraph was still quite a new thing, and that it might improve with time. Perhaps it would improve considerably, I said, if – for a start – they sacked that young telegraph operator at Nietverdiend.
That young telegraph operator was too impertinent, I said.
Mosigo agreed that it would help. It was a very important thing, he said, that for such work you should have the right sort of person. It was no good, he explained, having news told to you by a man who was not suited to that kind of work.
‘Another thing that is important is having the right person to tell the news to,’ Mosigo went on. ‘And you must also consider well concerning whom the news is about. Take that King, now, of whom you have told me, that you heard of at Nietverdiend through the telegraph. He is a great chief, that King, is he not?’
I said to Mosigo that I should imagine that he must be a great chief, the King of Spain. I couldn’t know for sure, of course; you never really can, with foreigners.
‘Has he many herds of cattle and many wives hoeing in the bean-fields?’ Mosigo asked. ‘Do you know him well, this great chief?’
I told Mosigo that I did not know the King of Spain to speak to, since I had never met him. But if I did meet him – I was going to explain, when Mosigo said that that was exactly what he meant. ‘What’s the use of hearing about a man,’ he asked, ‘unless you know who that man is? When the telegraph operator told you about that big chief, he told it to the wrong man.’
And he fell to beating his drum again.
From then on I went regularly to visit Mosigo, in order to find out what was happening in the world. We still read what was on the noticeboard in the post office, for instance about what had happened in Russia – where a fanatic had opened fire on the Emperor ‘and missed him by one foot stop’. We began to infer from the telegrams that a fanatic was someone who couldn’t aim very well. But to get news that really meant something, I always had to go – afterwards – and visit Mosigo.
Thus it happened that one afternoon, when I visited old Mosigo on my way back from the post office, I again found him sitting in front of his hut, before his drum. He told me that there would be no more news coming over his drum, because of a message about the death of a drum-man that he had just received.
It was a message from a great distance, he said.
Still, the following week, I again rode over to Gaberones. It was after I had read a telegram on the noticeboard in the post office which said that a fanatic had missed the French President ‘by more than twenty feet stop’.
And when I rode away from Gaberones – where, this time, I had not seen Mosigo but had seen instead his drum, on which the skin stretched across the wooden frame had been cut, in accordance with the ritual carried out on the death of a drum-man – I wondered to myself, on my way home.
I wondered whether that last message received by old Mosigo had come from a really great distance: farther even than Spain or France or Russia. Stop