African Roots and Scouting Traditions

It is a truth that youth join Scouts to do what Scouts do. Where did Scouting for youth as we know it originate from? The combination of those ideas happened when American, Fredrick Burnham and Baden-Powell (BP) met in the cradle of civilization, Africa in the 1800’s. These two men rode many times on patrol, and it was in the Matopos Hills that Burnham first introduced Baden-Powell to the ways and methods of the Native Americans and taught him “woodcraft” (better known today as Scoutcraft). Baden-Powell had written at length about reconnaissance and tracking, but from Burnham he learned many new dimensions such as how to travel in wild country without either a compass or map, how to discover nearby dangers by observing animals, and the many techniques for finding potable water.

Baden-Powell’s inspiration while in Africa on the Scouting Movement cannot be understated. Scouting traditions that we still use today were adopted from the influence of the peoples of the Matabele, the Zulu, the Ashanti, and Ghana while BP served in Africa. The presenting of the Wood Badge beads recognition was adapted from the great Zulu King Shaka. Shaka would present wooden beads as orders of merit to mark some great heroic deed.

During the Siege of Mafeking, BP met an elderly Zulu, who wondered about his unusual depression during the siege. The man took from his neck a leather thong, placed it in BP’s hand, and said: “Wear this. My mother gave it to me for luck. Now it will bring you luck.” BP used this thong to string the first Wood Badge.

From the people of Ghana, Baden-Powell learnt the phrase “softly softly catchee monkey”. He learned that he could get the best work out of his force by dividing it into small groups, or patrols, and giving responsibility to the captain of each group.

The Matabele warriors had a unique method of military signaling, using the deep note of a kudu horn to carry coded signals over long distances. BP took one of these horns home from Africa and delighted the first Scouts at Brownsea Island Camp in 1907 as their morning wakeup signal.

When BP entered the Kumasi, the capital city of the Ashanti, he was greeted by a warrior chief who held out his left hand. He told BP “the bravest of the brave shake with the left hand.” So began the left handshake which is used by millions of Scouts all over the world. The explanation of the left handshake is that a warrior uses the left hand to hold the shield, while the right hand holds the spears. To show your trust in someone, you put down the shield and greet them by holding out your left hand.

Jan Grootboom was a Xhosa scout from the Eastern Cape, South Africa who followed and taught Robert Baden-Powell scouting skills during the Matabele campaign. Grootboom had come to Matabeleland as a wagon driver for a missionary named Helm. At the height of the campaign, Grootboom distinguished himself as a courageous and exceptional man especially when it came to scouting around the Matabele camps and outposts. Grootboom had great respect for Baden-Powell, and the feeling was mutual.

In Scouting for Boys, BP introduces Scouts to a Zulu chant which he calls the Eengonyama chorus. BP also devised a Scout dance using the Ingonyama chant and a Kikuyu dance, from the south of Kenya. BP stated that the Ingonyama chant should be `sung in a spirited way, and not droned out dismally like a dirge.’ In the best Zulu style, the leader should yell the first part and the reply should be a deep bass shout. A modern version of a similar Zulu chant is world famous as the opening song from The Lion King.

BP once again fell in love with the “wonderful views over the plains to the bold snowpeak of Mount Kenya”, described after his visit in 1906, and so when ordered by his doctor to rest in the winter of 1937 it was to Nyeri that he came. In October, 1938, BP came back to Nyeri to live in Paxtu, and never left East Africa again.

Africa is the place where BP mixed the ingredients of outdoor adventure with a Scout Law and Promise that any youth can follow for a richer and more fulfilling life. With the help of many others, Scouting was poured out across the globe and continues to flow with a positive message for us to do our best and help other people at all times. Is there any greater tradition than that?

“Like branches on a tree we grow in different directions but our roots remain as one.” – Unknown

In Scouting Spirit,

John P. Vajanyi Jr.

2020/2021 CFC Camping Chair

This article was collected from several sources, primarily: SCOUTS South Africa Wiki / The African Seeds of Scouting / Pine Tree Web / Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero by William Hillcourt