Out of Africa

Thousands of miles away, chiefdom has similarities and differences

I’ve just returned from west Africa, where I’ve been reporting on the work of the world’s biggest non-governmental hospital ship. ‘Africa Mercy’ is anchored off the Republic of Benin and has a team of volunteer doctors and nurses who carry out thousands of onboard operations. Unusually for the Chief, for it is normally he who is travelling, MacGregor of MacGregor was at home on dog and flood watch. But chiefs are hard to escape from, whichever continent you are in…

It amuses me that while we debate the role of Scottish clan chiefs in today’s society, several thousand miles away they are also pondering the relevance of their own African tribal chiefs. I heard one man say ‘the problem with chiefs is they are not accountable to anyone’; another maintained that the old ways were the best ‘and There are similarities between our traditional chiefs and theirs. Both societies had to get used to living in remote and difficult locations. Africa was a warrior nation, so was Scotland, and personal survival depended on martial skill, bravery and fitness. Like our clansmen of old, the Africans could move fast, at night and across country. Just as the bush had its witch doctors, so the glens had their bards and soothsayers. But there, perhaps, is where the resemblance ends. A tough customer For example how many Highlander leaders could match the Victorian stamina of the veteran Zulu Chief of Chiefs, the great King Cetshwayo?

‘How many Highlander leaders could match the Victorian stamina of the veteran Zulu Chief of Chiefs?’

In 1879 the old war horse ran hundreds of miles, barefoot, at the head of his men to fight the battle of Isandlwana. He was 70 years old. There must have been no more spine-chilling sight than when Lieutenant Charlie Raw was sent to spot the enemy. As the hapless scout looked over the hill, into a valley the size of Glencoe, he saw the nightmare that was to become a reality; 50,000 ululating men sitting on their cowhide shields. As fearsome as a Highlander is in full cry, the Duke of Cumberland never had to contend with that. It grieves me to say, but our chiefs must have seemed like kittens compared to those lions. African tribes could easily raise tens of thousands of fighters.

Families like the MacDonalds, MacKenzies and MacLeans could probably muster a thousand, and the MacGregor’s biggest contingent was 600 men for the battle of Glen Fruin. Mind, not all were MacGregors; some were just vagabonds who were looking for any fight. Marriage lines If he didn’t like you, a Scottish chief couldn’t simply say ‘off with his head’. Nor did he have the luxury of travelling light. Whereas an African chief might wear a loin cloth and carry a simple iron spear, ours didn’t seem to move without being wrapped in several yards of heavy wool and cocooned by an array of dirks and daggers.

Then there is the matter of wives. It seems to me an African chief can take as many as he likes – and in a country where a man is judged by the size of his family, he often does. A Scottish clan chief may indeed take more than one wife, but not usually at the same time. I discussed the matter with my husband. He reluctantly agreed about the valour and stamina of foreign chiefs. On the subject of wives he became rather animated… I am Wife Number Two and I do not rest on my laurels.

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