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A First World War Soldier

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There's nothing quite so wideawake as a tropical night in Africa. At dawn the African dove commences with his long-drawn note like a boy blowing over the top of a bottle, one bird calling to another from the palms and mango trees. Then the early morning songsters wake.

There is no libel more grossly unfair than that which says the birds of Africa have no song. The yellow weaver birds sing most beautifully, as they fly from the feathery tops of the avenue of coconut palms that line the road to the clump of bamboos behind the hospital.

But they fly there no longer now, for our colonel, in a spasm of sanitation, cut down this graceful swaying clump of striped bamboos for the fear that they harboured mosquitoes. As if these few canes mattered, when our hospital was on the banks of the reed-fringed river. Morning songsters with voices of English thrushes and robins wake one to gaze upon the dawn through one's mosquito net. Small bird voices, like the chiff-chaff in May, carry on the chorus until the sun rises. Then the bird of delirium arrives and runs up the scale to a high monotonous note that would drive one mad, were it not that he and the dove, with his amphoric note, are Africa all over. A neat fawn-coloured bird this, with a long tail and dark markings on his wings.

Then as the sun rises and the early morning heat dries up the song birds' voices, the earth and the life of the palm trees drowse in the sunshine.

But at night, from late afternoon to three in the morning, when the life of trees and grasses and ponds ceases for a short while before it begins again at dawn, the air is full of the busy voices of the insect world. Until we came south to Morogoro, to the land of mangoes, coconut, palms, bamboos, we had known the shrill voice of cicadas and the harsh metallic noises of crickets in grass and trees. But here we made two new acquaintances, and charming little voices they had too. One lived in the grass and rose leaves of our garden, for the German blacksmith who lately occupied our hospital building had planted his garden with "Caroline Testout" and crimson ramblers. His voice was like the tinkling of fairy hammers upon a silver anvil. And with this fine clear note was the elusive voice of another cricket that had such a marked ventriloquial character that we could never tell whether he lived in the rose bushes or in the trees. His note was the music of silver bells upon the naked feet of rickshaw boys, the tinkle that keeps time to the soft padding of native feet in the rickshaws of Nairobi at night. At first I woke to think there were rickshaw boys dragging rubber-tyred carriages along the avenues of the town, until I found that Morogoro boasted no rickshaws and no bells for native feet.

Punctuated in all the music of fairy bands and the whirr of fairy machinery were the incessant voices of frogs. Especially if it had rained or were going to rain, the little frogs in trees and ponds sang their love songs in chorus, silenced, at times, by the deep basso of a bull frog. And often, as our heads ached and throbbed with fever at night, we felt a very lively sympathy for the French noblesse of the eighteenth century, who are said to have kept their peasants up at night beating the ponds with sticks to still the strident voices of these frogs.

With it all there is a rustling overhead in the feathery branches of the palms in the cobwebby spaces among the leaves that give the bats of Africa a home. A twitter of angry bat voices, shrill squeaks and flutters in the darkness. Then stillness--of a sudden--and the ground trembles with a far-off throbbing as a convoy of motor lorries approaching thunders past us, rumbling over the bridge and out into the darkness, driving for supplies.

The road beside the hospital was the old caravan route that ran from the Congo through Central Africa and by the Great Lakes to Bagamoyo by the sea. For centuries the Arab slaver had brought his slave caravans along this path: it may have been fever or the phantasies of disordered subconscious minds half awake in sleep, or the empty night thrilling to the music of crickets, that filled our minds with fancies in the darkness. But this road seemed alive again. For this smooth surface that now trembles to the thunder of motor lorries seemed to echo to the soft padding of millions of slave feet limping to the coast to fill the harems or to work the clove plantations of his most Oriental Majesty the Sultan of Zanzibar.

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