“Tell me, Baba Sidi, I’ve never understood, what exactly did you do on that journey?”

“Good question.”

“You didn’t carry…”


“You didn’t fight…”


“You didn’t cook…”


“You didn’t wash clothes…”

“There were others to do that.”

“So what did you do?”

“I guided them.”

“Say that again, my brother.”

“I guided the expedition.”

“You? But you had never been to the lake they were looking for.”


“And you guided them there?”

“If no one knows the way, anyone can be a guide.”

“I didn’t know the way, it’s true, but it wasn’t hard finding it. There was only one route through that country: the route of the slave caravans. You mustn’t think that just because you don’t know something, no one else does. There were Arabs who had traveled that route as often as our merchants go to Pemba. There were porters who supported themselves and their families by taking bales from the coast to the interior, fifty or a hundred days march there and back. The route people take every day doesn’t need signposts, don’t forget. I had plenty of things to do, more than my fair share: I had to act as go-between, I had to scout ahead, I was Bwana Speke’s right hand man, I was Bwana Burton’s binoculars…”

“What’s that?”

“An instrument that brings what’s far away near.”

“Like time?”

“Can you put time to your eye?”

“Imagine Bwana Speke reaching with his right hand for Bwana Burton’s binoculars and, oh oh oh, there’s our lump, Sidi…”

“Couldn’t you be the target of your gibes for once?”

“How can I? You know the razor cannot shave itself.”

“Ah yes. I had another very important job; I had to translate, because Bwana Burton and Bwana Speke couldn’t make themselves understood by the porters. We only had one language in common, the language of the banyans, and I was the only person in Zanzibar who could speak it…”

“Why did the wazungu know the language of the banyans, Grandfather?”

“They both lived in the city where I…”

“The city that has the same name as you.”

“Yes, my heart, you have been keeping up very well, the city whose name I bear. Bwana Burton spoke like a banyan, quickly and well, he could twist his tongue the way the madmen who run around the country of the banyans naked can twist their bodies. Bwana Speke was like a tottery old man, he groped for his words the way you grope for a coin that’s been lost in a trunk, and when he found them, he didn’t know how to string them together. You can imagine how slow and painstaking conversations were between Bwana Speke and me—at least at first, until he made progress and I did, too, and we had a richer stew of words to share. He was difficult to understand; his Hindustani was even worse than mine. I translated what I thought I had understood him to say into Kiswahili, and then, in the interior, we had to find someone who could speak Kiswahili and could translate Bwana Speke’s questions into the local language. Often it was someone who showed goodwill but didn’t necessarily understand everything. So he would leave out whatever he didn’t understand, or make guesses, and so the answers we got after a long wait were sometimes only distantly related to the questions. On and on it went, and a person who lacked patience wouldn’t have been able to stand those slow, cautious conversations. It was a lonely expedition for Bwana Speke: he could only talk his language to one person, Bwana Burton, and when a quarrel drove them apart, they didn’t speak for months. Then he was silent, Bwana Speke, and let his rifle talk.”

“Did he shoot people?”

“How many?”

“He shot animals, just animals, little one. Vast numbers of animals. If there’s a kingdom of the dead for animals, it is now as full as the mosque at Ramadan.”

“Perhaps it was because there was no one for him to talk to that he had to kill so many of them.”

“If that were the case, Baba Adam, the dumb would be the worst murderers.”

“He was often lonely, it is true, and he got lonelier, the longer our journey went on. Bwana Burton found a common language with almost everybody: with the slave traders he spoke Arabic; with the soldiers, the Baluchis, he spoke Sindhi; it was only with his friend, Bwana Speke, that he didn’t have one. He even learnt Kiswahili, but only in small steps because he didn’t like our language.”

“What fault did he find in it? It is the most beautiful of all languages.”

“That’s always what people say when they don’t know any other language.”

“The most beautiful of all languages is Arabic.”

“Kiswahili is like a world composed entirely of beautiful landscapes.”

“What do you mean by that, Baba Ilias? That the rivers are from the Persian, say, the mountains from the Arabic, the forests from the Ulguru…”

“More or less. You’re starting to get the hang of it.”

“And the sands from Zanzibar.”

“And the sky?”

“The sky isn’t part of the landscape.”

“Wouldn’t it look naked without the sky?”

“It’s like a kanga draped round the earth’s hips.”

“At sunset.”

“What did I say? Haven’t your ears heard how beautiful Kiswahili can sound, even in the mouths of chatterers like you, Baba Sidi?”

“We’re talking about his taste, not yours. He didn’t like putting things in front of words; it was like a muzzle, he said, which stopped words being what they were at the beginning. But even so he learnt it; he learnt a fair amount, and by the time we got back he spoke as much Kiswahili as he needed.”

“And the other one?”

“Not a word. Not even ‘quick’ or ‘stop.’”

“Two very different men.”

“Completely different. How can one understand two such different people setting off together on a journey that would force them to put their lives in each other’s hands? They even looked different, one powerfully built and dark, the other slim and lithe and pale, like the belly of a fish.”

“Some fish.”

“Their natures were different: one was loud, outspoken, stormy, the other quiet, reticent, cagey. They behaved differently: one was insulting but quick to forgive, the other self-controlled but prone to bear grudges. One was hungry and lusted after everything, and always yielded to his lust and hunger, the other had desires as well but he hobbled them–sometimes they tried to break free but they were always reined in.”

“But if they could travel across country together for years, they must have had something in common, mustn’t they?”

“Ambition and obstinacy. They were more stubborn than the thirty asses we left Bagamoyo with. And they were rich, immeasurably rich. Over a hundred men were needed to carry their riches, barefoot men who owned nothing themselves.”