Leave this area.
Even the scouts know not to be here.
Learn from them.
The note in my pocket preoccupied my mind.
However, I let my thoughts drift back to the more immediate task at hand, namely driving, and how each time I travel the road between Kasempa and Mumbwa, I am reminded of an aged alcoholic. This is because the road slowly wends its barely satisfactory way across the landscape.
I guess, like a few of my old alcoholic friends, it is still a functioning one. It gets from here to there, but not much else. It does so not so much because it follows the most direct, or efficient path, but rather it survives, like my friends, due to decades of experience gained from the dictates of a hard and unsteady life, as is commonplace in this remote part of the world.
The road, like those old alcoholics, now with its blemishes, and no longer having the nimbleness of youth, has learned that it is more expedient to give a wide berth to as many obstacles as possible along the way. As such, at times its dusty surface leans and teaters to the left, or the right, as it sways its way around a low hill, or behind a marshy dambo, on its winding progress through the aged timelessness of the bush.
Scruffy, dirty, and pock marked with the ruts and pot-holes like the wrinkles of neglect and the scars of aged acne, it also sometimes staggers sharply to avoid a freshly fallen tree, or a recently formed rut, pressed into its mud during the wet season, by the wheels of the overloaded ‘malasha’ trucks. These trucks, are not only an anathema to the ribbon of this road, but also to the bush fabric through which it weaves its way. Piled high with their sootiness, they bear the black bags of their burden back along these arteries to bleed into the slums of the far away towns and cities.. The charcoal malasha which is the heating of choice in the shanties, provides the fuel, to smolder like a cancer.
It is a cancer now feeding, inexorably, upon the sprawling tree lined fringes of the deceptively endless, timeless and fragile beauty of the bush.
‘Fucking malasha trucks’ I cursed, as the Land-cruiser jolted through an especially deep rut in the road…
I am always filled with wonder at how mostly, except for this recent lurching failure, my muscle memory can act almost like an automatic cruise controller. Usually I don’t have to think at all to guide the Land Cruiser gingerly between the ruts and daunting potholes which, unlike some of the roads I remembered in far off Angola, where they were scarred and scuffed by the exploding ‘ripples’ of our Valkiri rockets, or dimpled by the hastily filled-in craters of their landmines.
Instead here the damage is from poor construction and misuse.
I do not have to think about coordinating my actions on the brake pedal, accelerator, and the gear shift, as they blend with the emphatic, and sometimes urgent twists on the steering. But however it happens, all this wonder of my being unthinkingly enabled the vehicle to progress sloly along this section of the ‘route’, as it ran through the thick bush tucking below, and hugging the lea side of a low ridge. It heralds the beginning of the almost imperceptible climb up out of the broad flat basin of the Kafue valley.
This left my mind free to think about what I was going to say at the meeting scheduled at the park HQ at Chunga.
My plan was to return by nightfall, before the river pontoon crew left at sunset. With this in mind, I had deliberately left from the lodge early. But this being Africa there was no guaranteeing any meeting would be convened at all, let alone it being on time and on schedule. Hence I had my sleeping bag and a mosquito net, as well as some bread and biltong jerky to slice onto it for a sandwich.
As usual, earlier, much earlier, I had been stirred from sleep by the splash of the hippos as they returned from their nocturnal grazing. A few of the pod had taken to nibbling the stubble of the lodge lawns like a scattering of sheep, before heading deeper along their ‘hippo highways’, towards their principal grazing areas further from the river.
Hippos are always a concern Idaa, the camp manager, held for guests who had imbibed a tad too much, and wanted to walk, alone, the short distance from the lodges lounge ‘chitenge ‘to their chalets. Especially in the early evenings when the hippos leave the waters of the river. Would a hippo feel cut off if a guest passed too close between a seemingly slow and lumbering giant and the river. The speed that a hippo can run is astonishing and its bite often fatal.
I had roused before dawn. I knew that as these massive creatures passed bck between the chalets and the camp area where I resided, they would be fed, and not tarrying to nibble. Once there, they would spend the rest of the day in the river.
Thus it was quite unconcernedly, in the pre-dawn darkness, that I stood and sipped my cup of sweet, strong coffee under the eves of the thatched cooking chitenge. It was across the bare, swept ground from the big, airy canvas tent which had served as my home for the last few months. Looking up to the apex of the thatched roof, which spread like a giant dark umbrella high above me, I could just see, under its eves, the outlines of the leafy Acacia and Leadwood trees that make up the riverine riperia outside.
I listened as the first cries of a pair of Hadeda Ibis added a noisy backdrop to each returning hippo’s splash, which in turn, was heralded by a chorus of communal hrumph’ing grunts as the other members of the pod, already in the river, greeted each returnee.
Once at the pontoon, I had to wait for the operating crew to arrive from their huts, to where the raft was beached on the opposite bank. They seldom get going before 7am, and if an earlier crossing is needed, it takes a lot of shouting and banging on the steel pillar which holds the anchor cable across the river, to rouse a response from the far bank.
Luckily, I was not the first. There was already a small vehicle waiting, doing the rousing. Like the Land-cruiser I was driving it was also a Toyota, but it was a Corolla sedan. A dull, scuffed grey in color, it had seen better days, with smooth tires and a crack running from side to side the whole length of the windshield.
Its occupants stood down at the water’s edge, or sat on the bank formed by the cut of the road as it dropped down to the pontoon load point. A vague uneasiness crept into my consciousness as I watched the kids skipping stones across the river from its sluggish margins. They had obviously never seen how shockingly quickly, and how far, a crocodile can reach when it erupts from the water. This section of the river holds some of the biggest crocs I have ever seen.
I spoke to the driver. He and his cousin were heading from Chifumpa to Lusaka. With them were three wives and five children.
I mentally grimaced when I noted to myself that it was going to be a long journey for that number of occupants in that size car. But this is Africa. Few people in the West can fully understand how things can be coaxed to such stunning limits of performance. This is because the expectations of comfort and redundancy have different metrics out here. If you have slept on no more than a woven straw mat laid down on the hard dirt of a hut all your life, why would you be bothered when crammed into a small car, for hours, in a way that only college students do for a few minutes as a stunt in the West.
I was facing down river toward the confluence of the Kafue and the Lunga while leaning against the side of the ‘Cruiser, watching those kids.
Upstream from the confluence along the west bank of the Lunga, sprawling north and west all the way across the bush and wide-open dambos to the edge of the Busandga plains, is the unknown. It is a huge area, ignored for decades by the authorities, leaving a vacuum of civil law and order. Even Geverton, the oldest of the ZAWA scouts based at the lodge, said that he last patrolled there over two decades ago.
It was to this unknown land that Ida had sent Morse and Kings. They were tasked to continue the casting of the concrete cinder blocks which would be used in the construction of our future Chukudzi Island fly camp: our camp on the edge of the unknown Lunga land.
Morse and Kings had found the bags of cement, transported there a week before, slashed, and on top of them a piece of paper with a scribbled message.
I was headed to Chunga to negotiate training a few more village scouts to help me in my job. This was supposed to attempt to restore some semblance of law and order, at least to where we had reached out in our tenuous attempt to protect and preserve one of the last unspoiled areas of Africa.
When the pontoon finally approached across the river, I glanced down once more at the spidery, erratic handwriting on the paper.
I wondered at its threatening and slightly mocking message.:
Leave this area.
Even the scouts know not to be here.
Learn from them.
(02 – Big Black Book)
The bite of a Tsetse fly hurts, especially that of a young one!
It hurts worse than that of a horse fly!
As I glanced up, from slapping at the back of my calf, after another futile attempt to kill the offending insect. I could see how the uniformed guard slowly rowsed and rose from a single austere chair, placed in the shade under the eve’s, just outside the doorway of the simple brick Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) guard house.
As the guard slowly picked up a big ledger book, I again slapped at the insect, this time as it buzzed on the vehicles side window.
‘You little bugger’, I muttered to myself, ‘I can also play this game, when I catch you I will torture you back! I will pull off your wings and make you walk’.
As the figure, resplendently officious in a neat, but faded olive green uniform, lazily moved across the few feet of compacted dirt which separated the guard house from the Toyota Land-cruiser, I just as slowly, rolled down the window of the cruiser.
I leaned back in the drivers seat as I nodded my greeting to the guard.
The guard greeted back, also in Nyanja, who’s use at the ‘street level’, is like some echo from a long ago age of slaves and copper kings. An echo whose faint pulse still underscores and replaces the recent out of place chatter of the official English, as the informal ‘lingua franca’ of the country.
‘Wheh you come flom?
The slight high cheeked pinch of the tall slender guards young face was almost beautifully effeminate,. Despite the slow indolence of the way he had approached the vehicle, as he handed the huge ledger through the window to me, there was also a certain unusual politeness in his demeanor. A demeanor which expressed itself in the tone of his thick accent, and the way his native Kaunde morphed his English R’s into L’s. After all he was the ‘authority’ figure here, and in Africa authority matters, no matter how trivial.
And iin some parts of it, especially north of the Limpopo, it is accepted that authority is selddom magnanimous with its respectfulness. It often kicks downwards, sometimes brutally, just as it always bends upwards, with subservient servility. I knew when to be poolite back, despite the redundancy of the formalities, and the advantage of my age.
The guards question was rhetorical. This was a ritual. A ritual which is performed thousands of times a day, all over Central Africa, in those parts like this, where these faint echoes of its British colonial past are still being scribbled in the lines and columns of these huge books.
‘From Kafue River Lodge!’ I replied politely as I filled in the details, name, origin, destination, vehicle registration, number of passengers. It was the ritual of filling out seemingly pointless information. The details demanded for by the headers of the lines and columns on the thick, almost blotter like paper of these big books.
Closing the worn grubby cover, and handing its heaviness back to the guard, I wondered what they did with these things once they were filled in with countless, almost incomprehensible scribbles of individual handwriting. I knew that the ritual was more than the mere recording of the details of each and every vehicle passing along the dirt narrowness of this remote and rutted road.
While the road connects the scruffiness of the regional capitols of this back water of Africa, this ritual, and the book at its center, serves to remind all those who head this way that the tribal law, superceded in colonial times by English Common Law, although resurgent, has not been reinstated.
Quite the opposite. Like the uncomfortable bumps and jolts of the road, the authority, still using its left-behind colonial rules, is still the extant entity in the scruffy capitols at each end, where it is to be respected, at one’s peril.
I did not ever want to find myself, even for a single night, in the horrors of an African jail.
As I watched the guard set the ledger down on the chair, and then, with the timeless patient pace of Africa, swing the barrier to allow the cruiser to pass, I wondered if the big black book would go back to join tens of thousands of others. Would it mold away for another 60 years, in the low corrugated asbestos roofed sheds where they had been left behind. Discarded like flotsam in the tide of Independence Uhuru which swept through East and Central Africa decades ago. An Uhuru whose ledgered detritis was still being washed up onto the chairs of the gate guards, in some of the remotest and unlikeliest spots across the vast echoed extents of the old British Bushveld Empire.
The big black books were still here, long, oh so long, after the petty bureaucrats of thatbankrupt empire were gone, so long ago that this representative of law and order, with his black book, and AK-47 leaning up against the wall, next to the austere wooden chair, would be too young to remember any of it.
Twisting my head and craning my neck forward to peer sideways out the window, I checked that the guard swung the pivot pole far enough to clear the side of the cruiser. With a pang of regret I realized that despite the generational gap between myself and the guard, even I was almost too young to remember any of them, those officials who had hastily abandoned their individual roles as imperial Bwana’s. Those masters who, after their brief glorious appearance on the stage of empire, had gone back from whence many of them had come, as ex-pats, to pick up where they had left off as clerks, cab drivers, cook’s, corporals and maybe even a colonel or two. They returned to lives which faded and blended into history and the dreariness of some crowded and claustrophobic suburb of Leeds, London, or perchance Glasgow.
While waiting for the barrier pole to swing to its limit, I could see how the guard post is set on a slight slope, which edges up out of the vast flat lands as they spread out northwards into the Kafue valley proper. I mentally shrugged as I thought of how the manager of Mushingashi, the huge private hunting concession bordering the park, had placed it’s simple building well, Shaded by some of the spindle tall elegance of the mafuti trees.
I thought how, a few months previously, while stranded here for two days, waiting for a replacement fuel pump for the cruiser, I had walked up the slope of the low hill behind the post. From there, I could see how those trees, trees whose almost unbroken canopy lifts its graceful leafy summer elegance like a song on the wind, and spreads its melody in a dark coppery green patina, almost ocean like, until its endlessness spills over the edge of the horizon.
At least this was the limit of the ‘Tsetse land’, from here on I could drive with the windows fully open. There would no longer be the need to either bear the sauna like heat, due to a non-functioning air conditioning system, cloistered in the closed, tsetse free, cabin of the cruiser… as opposed to the relative coolness of the warm sub-tropical air which would waft away my sweat, while at the same time, it wafted in the tormenting Tsetse’s.
Using my left hand, I moved the gear shift of the Cruiser from neutral into first, and I was about to lift the sole of my left foot off the clutch while easing down on the throttle pedal with the right, when suddenly on the other side of the cab, I heard a loud whistle..
‘EEWEH !’ Someone shouted out, ‘Heyy you!
Another guard, who I had not seen, appeared around the side of the building. Older, and plumper than his colleague, he was more affable about the weight of his authority, which it seemed to me, to have settled around his mid-rift. Why carry that weight over to the window of the cab to deliver a message when it can be shouted..
Then, with a pause, maybe for dramatic effect, and with a slightly more serious tone in his voice, but still with a broad smile on his wide friendly face, he shouted across the rest of the message,
‘On the radio, they say to tell you… Back at your camp!’
He paused again, ..
‘They say someone has been caught by a crocodile!
(03 – Ullulation)
All over the world disaster, and the unwanted child it so often spawns, tragedy, has its rituals. Out here in the remote African Bush, everyone knows its bastard progeny with a familiarity that is almost personal.
It being one of fate’s children, and fate being the mother whose fingers weave the fabric of all bush life, its easily provoked proximity needs to be treated with careful respect. It is as if life out here is lived knowing that in a dark corner of the village, the cold-blooded coils of a slumbering snake are always lurking.
Out in these bushveld swathes, to abate the appetite of those fateful writhings, everyone has a role in the rituals of appeasement. These rituals are not carried out, as in the west, by unknown specialists, whose actions elicit no more than the rubber-necked curiosity of gawking spectators, and whose features are hidden by big fire-helmets or uniforms, with flashing lights and accompanied by the sound of sirens.
Instead, here it is up close and individual, because here in remote Africa almost everyone has watched, personally, as the unwelcome child of fate has inexorably beckoned someone into those clasping coils.
It was with a vague sense of relief that I slowed the cruiser down so that it no longer, almost as if on ice, drifted dangerously away from the rutted crown of the road. A lifetime of driving in Africa allows one to learn the limits of this dance with the dirt. Too slow and the vibrations of the rutted corrugations of an ungraded road are intolerable, too fast and the syncopated shudders of heavy-duty tires causes them to bounce in unison, loosening the vehicles grip on the dust and dirt.
In tandem with the slide of the tires, my mind was drifting over the possibilities of the various sorts of African disaster. It was this pre-occupation which had been pushing the cruisers speeds to, and sometimes beyond, its upper dangerous sliding limits.
I do not know why the news of this particular event had filled me almost immediately with a sense of foreboding. It was not that I had not seen my fill of bad things happen in the African bush. Gracious, the war in Angola had a quarter million victims. Because it had been in areas, and along dirt roads just as bad as this, with a remote unimportance to the outside world so absolute, that its brutality went by almost completely unnoticed.
Unnoticed, that is, by the rest of the world, but not by those who were there. Certainly not by Moses and I.
I thought about this as I prepared to slow the cruiser down. At least here I knew that my vehicle would not be triggering the thumping flash and dirt of a mine.
As I contemplated some of the morbid flavors of Africa, I glanced to my left, letting my gaze follow a herd of Puku antelope as they skittishly scampered away with the approach of the vehicle. Beyond them and deeper in the bush, with young ones shrieking and scampering about, I could see a few of the troop of baboons which often frequents this section of the road.
Now in the midday heat of late October, despite the distraction of my thoughts, I could still marvel at the beauty of the bush as it spread and flowed past on each side of my travel. It was resplendent with the emerald green of the freshly budding leaves of the Masasa, the Mafuti, and other trees of the miombo forest. These tall trees held their leafy canopies aloft above long slender trunks as elegantly as any gathering of Ascot ladies their spread parasols.
But despite its condition and with a bit of risk taking, the road had allowed me to make good time. Only two hours since leaving the ZAWA check-point, and its news, delivered by the portly guard. This included the pontoon crossing. I had been lucky, the ferry happened to be waiting on the south bank.
In another month, when the wet season started in earnest, I knew things would be different.
Despite it being the main road linking the two regional administrative centers of Mumbwa and Kasempa, the roads neglect, together with its use by overweight trucks, would soon make it a challenge. In less than a month, the oppressive heat of October would be mixed with the moisture being brushed over the land by the summer winds. Then, I knew, almost every afternoon, like the coupling of some ancient Gods, this hot mingling of the air and moisture would rear up until the white climax of their crowns would scrape the brink of heaven. This ecstasy would be heralded with roaring rumbles of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. These, in turn, would signal the birthing of the sheets of rain.
The daily drenching would bring life, giving splendor to the leafy bush, as well as to the wide open dambo-fed grassy plains of Busanga, which lay some distance off to the northwest. But it would bring misery to the state of the road and its ability to affect the outcome of many of the sorts of suffering to be found out here.
In this wilderness area, the size of Belgium, it is no wonder disaster and tragedy have a more profound flavor. I thought how the whole region is bisected by only one single paved road, and a few graded dirt arterials, barely passable in the wet season.
Out here it is never a stock market collapse, or the bankruptcy of a business. It is never someone left penniless and careless as a result of the debilitating costs of a serious illness. Out here the red to be reckoned with is not the final tally of an accountant, it is measured by the oozing spread of the blood-stains on the sand.
I shrugged as I nosed the cruiser to the right off the relatively tolerable ruts of the main dirt road, and shifted into low gear to negotiate the more serious bumps of the hand cut dirt strips. These strips led the last few kilometers, through the trees and over the wide damp grassy spread of the dambo, before it reached the riverine Riperia whose huge trees shaded the lodge complex.
I could hear the high-pitched trill long before I brought the vehicle to a stop in the middle of the road where it bends around the huge thickly wooded anthill behind the kitchen.
As I cut the engine and opened the door, the sound immediately revealed itself to be the ululation of a woman.
In Africa ululation is normally the sound of celebration.
It emanated from the group of four women standing just beyond the opening in the thatch grass fence which divides the ordered tidiness of the kitchen and laundry from unsightliness of the vehicle sheds and storage rooms.
Only one of the four women had her head slightly tilted backwards, with her mouth wide and her tongue trilling out the pitch.
But there was something in its tone that immediately indicated that it was not the sound of rejoicing.
The sound rose and fell and wavered, and then gained strength before fading again. It was eerie and out of place.
Like a comment said in merciless jest, there was something in its essence which was the antithesis of rejoicing. Instead, in some distant and primitive pitch, it hinted at a long-forgotten fugue.
It almost possessed the faint echoes of some ethereal evil. It signaled to all that could hear that they should wrap themselves in the protection of the rituals. But in the dichotomy of its tone, it still held its overt selfish joyousness. It was still also a sound of relief. A recognition that the spirits have chosen another to be sacrificed to the gods.
It held true to its other essence as an acknowledgment that one must be grateful for being spared the inevitability of some of life’s events. An acknowledgment that such things must happen.
As I rounded the curve of the fence I could see that the women were wearing their work uniforms. Above the teal blue long leggings of their trousers the beak of the lodge logo African Skimmer bird was dipping its way across the fawn of their cotton shirts.
The trill slowly faded like the echoes of a distant choir. It was as if old Africa had faded with it, as it had done for the last hundred ears, to lurk and watch, and wait, as the methods of the new world carelessly asserted themselves.
Iin my young formative years, I spent almost half of my life amongst the children and huts and ideas of the workers’ villages on my fathers farm. I knew the customs of Africa. And despite knowing I would always be perceived as a representative of that other world. The outside, full of logic and science, what was before me was from the African side of the cultural veil. But it was unique. I did not understand it.
One of the women stood almost a head taller than the others. With her thick black hair plaited in a long braid which hung down low between her shoulder blades, she also wore her uniform in a rakish almost taunting way.
It was not just her song which was an enigma, it was her very being.
Only when I was meters away did her voice fade, and a silence ensued so profound that it seemed that nothing dared intrude into the vastness of its vacuum.
It was then that I noticed how her mouth closed at the same time as Melody slowly opened her eyes, to pour the dark liquid inkiness of her stare all over me.
Over the eons, the early rains of summer which fall far to the north in the Congo, move south to soak into the soil after the long dryness of winter. When the soil can take no more, in many places it becomes so soft and waterlogged that it is almost impassable to anything but the toughest of the 4×4 vehicles equipped with winches and track boards.
Generally, by mid-summer, when the screech of the cicada Christmas beetles is at its deafening loudest, the excess rain waters slowly seep through the grassy mats that cover the shallow bottoms of the wide dambos, where they are collected to trickle along the rivulets and streams that pass under and through the flat leafy spread of the tall miombo forests.
Gradually the waters gather the strength to push and force their way through the filtering reeds of the Lukanga swamps. Once through, and cleansed clear, they gain speed as they channel across the broad flat plain of the Kafue basin.
By January and February, there is so much water swirling downstream that even with the shallow gradient and breadth of the land, there is more than enough to cut a broad channel into the soft layers of the Kalahari sandstone, which was laid down over millions of years by the dust brought in from the deserts of that name far to the west.
It was obvious that they had not moved him far from the top of the eroded gravel ramp which leads down under the spread of the shady boughs of the big wild fig and other trees which, like the fur trim of a royal cape, flourishes in ebullient arboreal richness along the river banks. The ramp was originally cut decades ago when the site was used by the early prospectors who, fresh with success in Copper Katanga, came here seeking to repeat their performance with the discovery of another rich deposit. With its gradual gradient down through the usually steep banks the ramp offers easy access to the river. It is where we launch and retrieve the boats when it is necessary.
It was obviously also where the staff had been pumping the waters of the river to fill the holding tank perched hidden amongst the thicket and trees atop the old anthill behind the kitchen. From the drag marks in the soft sandy soil I could see that it must also have been the site of the attack.
I could recognize the shock on Eddie’s face from a distance. Even the dark ebony skin of the African has a slight great pallor when in shock. As I crossed the short distance to them the three men who were standing looking down at Eddie moved back to let me kneel down beside him.
I could see how his expression had assumed the almost fatalistic torpor which I’d seen so many times before in other places. It is part of Africa, the acceptance of one’s fate because such situations have been observed by the unlucky participant so often that the assumption is that there is little to be gained by intervention.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“We were pumping water Bwana, and the crocodile jumped at Eddie. We were not even standing in the river. We were about to start the pump engine.”
“I told you that this would happen. That you should change where you pump water every day so that the crocodiles do not learn your pattern.”
It was with a sense of helpless frustration, which I let creep into my voice, that I said this.
“Yes, Bwana, but the water is so shallow. We do not know how the crocodile managed to sneak up close to us under such shallow water. And Bwana, Eddie had not even put the hose into the river when it happened. We had just moved the pump down closer.”
I cut in sharply, “But, do you not remember that I also told you never to stand closer than your own height from the edge!…And do you not realize that the crocodile did not sneak up on you. It was there for hours waiting. It covered itself with slime so it looks like an old log under water, unless you look carefully.”
“Yes Bwana, but we were careful!”
I remonstrated sharply, “No, you were not, It was waiting for you. It learned your habits, and anyway, have you never seen how fast a crocodile can move. It is the fastest lizard of them all. It is faster than a big legovan lizard, and you have seen how fast they can run.”
A slight scowl had crept over Kings broad face and creases of tension had appeared at the corners of his mouth, which to a casual observer would seem to be those of a smile, but I knew otherwise.
Kings had been here for a long time, all his life in fact. He was from the village of Chifumpa, but had spent most of his years in the fishing village which had thrived a short distance downriver, until the operators in the area made a deal with the chief to move them away. That was when the lodge and others in the tourism industry slowly came back to the Kafue after decades of neglect, even abandonment, in the wake of the bush war in what used to be Rhodesia to the south.
During those years in the 60’s and 70’s the Kafue, and this area in particular had been one of the transit bases for Nkomo’s Zimbabwe insurgent movement. For over a decade it had been a “no” go area. The echo’s and consequences of that tragic war lasted a long time…
I knew that one of those consequences was why I was standing here on the banks of the Kafue. I was here as part of the on-going effort to roll back one aspect of that distant storm. The poaching storm.
During the bush war, the animals of the park had been the meat pantry to the fighters of the insurgency. The local contract poachers who had shot and supplied the meat to the insurgency movements, had not forgotten their practices. In the years since the bush war they had simply switched to different markets,
Kings had been one of those suppliers. He was a man with an attitude who did not like to be reprimanded. He was used to leading, not being led. As I had dealt with soldiers for so much of my life I knew how far to push a point and also when to back off the throttle of discipline.
“So how did Eddie get away?” I asked.
“Bwana, He was lucky.” Kings shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “He held onto the pump, and it had the hose up to the kitchen, so it was not easy for the croc to pull him back quickly. He held on with the crocodile pulling at his leg until I found a big stick and hit it on the head. But I had to hit it many times before it let go.”
Kings was now almost apologetic as he gave the explanation.
I glanced down towards the river and could see the small box like contraption that was the engine and the centrifugal pump which we used to fill the water tanks.
For a moment it was as if the world was holding its breath. Even the birds were suddenly silent. The only sound was the rustle of the leaves in the big trees as their shadows draped over the corrugated iron roof of the vehicle shed and the thatch of the old storage room.
The order of the old African world is so hierarchical. Its protocol was now waiting for me to say something, for me to make a decision and tell them what to do. It is not as though those lower in the hierarchy cannot make the decisions, it is just impolite to do so.
Not only would it be impolite for one of them to have taken the initiative and done anything, it would also be disrespectful because I was older than any of them, and one seldom disrespects age in Africa.
Also, out here in the Bush, time and urgency are hardly ever factors to be considered when solving life’s problems. Why should one bother. It is seldom as though doing something sooner or faster is going to affect the outcome of fate. It is not as though one can get the ambulance here five minutes earlier or get to the hospital within half an hour to be able to change the situation. Kasempa is 150 kms away, and Mumbwa 120km. Not only the distance on a rough dirt road, but also both of these destinations require a pontoon crossing.
With the roads in their current condition, it would be three, or even four hours before one could reach the minimalistic basics of a clinic.
Out here the MARS, the medical air rescue service down to the modern efficient hospitals almost one and a half thousand kilometers away in South Africa, was only for clients.
As I knelt down beside him I could see the almost serene expression on Eddie’s face. His eyes were half open and slightly cloudy with the distant unfocused stare, like those of someone about to enter a trance when commanded to do so by a shaman.
As I pulled away the pieces of gauze strapped over his wounds, I could see the deep punches and gashes left by the crocodile’s teeth, where they had gripped his leg.
I could also see that the problem was the gashed tearing of some of the puncture marks, caused by the ripping of his flesh as he clutched to the pump for dear life. The croc must have been able to exert backward lunges as it thrashed its tail in the shallow water behind it, in its attempts to drag Eddie loose and down into aquatic oblivion.
“Get me the medical box”, I ordered to no one in particular.
He had lost a lot of blood. This was evident from the broad expanse of the dark magenta staining of the blankets. Eddie was still losing blood. The bandages over the wounds had not been able to stem the flow. Particularly the deep one at the back of his knee. At least the faint rhythm of the ooze indicated that he still had a pulse. The situation was urgent, With each weak leaking pulse I knew that Eddies life was dribbling away.
It had been decades since I had been faced with the urgency of action to prevent a life from departing its physical form and, as they believed here, joining the ethereal array of spirits which affect, engage, and meddle with every aspect of existence.
It was at this point that I sensed, like the blood from Eddie’s leg, something in me begin to seep. But it was not blood, and it flowed and filled inwards, not out. It was an emotional change, which was slowly creeping back into me, and it was the antithesis. It was the shutting down of my emotions. It was that old honed state that allows me to function efficiently without any emotional engagement. The state where I can look at a situation almost as an observer giving advice. That old coping mechanism from the field of war.
As I waited for the medical box and its tourniquet’s to arrive, I glanced up and gave orders to the three men standing looking down at me with uneasy faces to ready the old Land Cruiser. They needed to check its oil and water, and if necessary take out a fresh barrel from the storeroom and with the hand pump transfer 40 liters into the vehicles tank. I estimated that this should easily get them to Kasempa an back. I also said for one of the mattresses to be brought out of the storeroom and laid on the cruisers open back bed.
I could hear the rhythmic ticking of the corrugated iron roof of the vehicle shed next to us. It was expanding and contracting in the alternating sunshine and shadows as the wispy clouds drifted by high overhead, like decorations etched into the immense ceiling of the endless arena in which our pitifully small drama was playing out.
Glancing back over my shoulder it was with a slight flicker of surprise that I saw it was Precious who was carrying the large water-tight box of the Pelican First Aid kit.
As her tall shapely athletic figure approach us from the small circular hut-like “rondavel”, which is the office, and crossed to where we were at the far edge of the administrative section, it seemed that she almost appeared to glide. The steps of her long legs flicked effortlessly before her, without conveying any bob to her body. The bright orange color of the first aid kit contrasted with the teal blue leggings of her uniform.
Then as she reached us, my eyes were drawn to the white speckles of the small river snail shells that were strung on a simple short strand around her neck. These, I noted, also color contrasted, with the smooth amber chocolate of her skin.
Hmmm…I mentally noted.. She is a girl full of surprising contrasts.
But, as I turned my head to look down at Eddie, my thoughts faded back into the recesses of my mind like the bats back into their shadows at dawn.
I always keep the bandages and surgical tape in the top of the four drawers in the case. The most important items in my opinion were the triple-plus antiseptic cream, the cotton pads, the Cobam elastic adhesive tape and, the endless versatility of my own addition, duct tape.
“Help me turn him over”, I asked Precious as she bent to do so.
Using the technique of first pulling and placing his one knee across his other leg, and with me holding his hips and Precious his shoulders, we first rolled him onto his side.
I could see that Eddie was so weak that he could no longer respond to any commands. I shifted his head to the side, and then with a gentle push rolled him onto his belly.
Using some of the big non-sterile pads from the second drawer of the kit I proceeded to wipe away the debris and matted blood from around his lacerations.
A slow thin ooze of blood still stained away from the deepest, longest gash.
Taking a tourniquet from the bottom drawer I wrapped it above his knee and pulled it very tight .
‘take some of those gloves and put them on” I said to Precious.
Kings, Nicholas and Kariyongo stood looking on with blank emotionless expressions. Still standing alongside the grass fence of the kitchen and laundry the other three girls were also silent uneasy observers.
There was something different about Precious. When the ritual of life was disturbed, it was as if it allowed a different hidden aspect of her aura to slip to the surface. It was a strange hint of reliable dependability.
I pointed to some packs of sterile alcohol swabs, “Use those to clean all over his leg”.
The latex gloves were mush too large for her slender long fingered hands, but even with the encumbrance of the folds of latex, it was easy to detect the sure dexterity of her movements.
“Now take some of that cream”, I instructed her as I pointed to the anti-biotic ointment, “and put it all over his cuts”.
While she was doing so, I tore open the covering to three large abdominal pads. Eddies wounds were so extensive that anything less would not have sufficed.
These, being abdominal pads were not adhesive, and I knew I would have to be fast to secure them in place over the wounds.
“Press your finger on top of these”.
Precious placed a forefinger at the top and bottom of each pad in turn as I tagged them in place with some athletic tape.
Once this was done I asked her to hold and raise his ankle slightly so that I could use the Cobam tape to wrap around his whole leg to cover all the wounds.
The final touch was done with Duct Tape to provide an impervious barrier so that any blood that did make it through the pads would block and prevent any further leakage.
I sat back on my haunches and gazed for a moment at the thick copse of trees and brush covering the mound of the anthill on the opposite edge of the clearing.
A thread slipped over my consciousness, how many life and death struggles had those tall spreading brachystegia branches seen in their century of existence.
Lions and antelope, hawks and birds, owls and mice. Just a month ago, before dawn, a Leopard had killed an impala right in the opening in the grass fence where the girls were now standing.
The cycle of life, to eat and be eaten. Eddie had almost been the latest in that ancient process of predator and prey. The cycle that is almost hidden from our consciousness in the modern era. The era of hypocrisy and pseudo conservation. The only reason, I knew, that we talk about conservation is because we no longer allow the lion or the leopard or anything dangerous into our worlds. They can no longer eat us. We fool ourselves. We may imagine that a son of God has done all the dying for us. But in reality, if we believe that, we must also recognize that in the original Garden of Eden, there were predators and prey, and in that garden our position was not always pole.
As I looked at Eddie, I knew that I was still in that ancient Eden.
But then suddenly, as if nature had stopped holding its breath. I could hear the trumpeter hornbills braying in the thick tangle of the trees on the island opposite, where the crocodile was probably now nursing a battered head and ego, waiting and watching for the next careless moment.
Also, almost as if as a comment on the drama of the moment, from the dense tangle of the thickets an emerald spotted wood dove lamented its soft haunting call, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, my family is dead, and my heart goes doo dooo dooo dooo dooo!”
I knew it was still touch and go if Eddie could survive the shock of the attack and its blood loss aftermath, and the yet to be endured bumps and jolts of the three-hour drive to the Kasempa clinic.
By this time Kings had the old Land Cruiser backed up and the tail gate down.
“Leave him alone!
The voice had a quiet distinct tone of authority, with a gravely roughness like the creak of steps in the softness of sand.
“Leave him alone!” the command was repeated.
“Stop your meddling!”
In startled surprise I looked up and searched for the source of the voice.
I found it when the command was repeated,
“Do not touch him!”
It emanated from a figure standing leaning almost lazily against one of the support posts at the far end of the vehicle shed.
As I looked on with amazement, the figure stepped out from its position of obscurity where it had been half hidden in the drabness of the shade, and the formless outline of the tractor in the parking bay between him and us.
It was from a very thin, almost scarecrow like figure, dressed in a camouflage uniform. He was slightly stooped with the grey hints of age in his unusually long crown of tight curls.
Suddenly my blood was almost curdled by a shriek beside me. Precious snapped to her feet with the speed and surety of a striking snake. The air was filled with the shrill howling wail of her ululating.
With utter confoundedness I reared back on my knees and watched as Precious, with head thrown back to fill the air with her savage cries, advanced step, by deliberate step, towards the interloping stranger.
Halting directly in front of him, her haunting ululation faded like the echoes of a wild dream.
She screamed at him, “YENGA! TU YENGA AKUNO”
“Go, Get away from here!”
In the profound silence that followed, the mysterious figured turned. With his camouflage uniform blending into the bush, he melted away.
I looked shocked and dumbfounded at Kings and asked, “Who the hell is that?”
Wordlessly, Precious glided back.
She nodded to the three men. With each of them holding a corner of Eddie’s blanket, they lifted him up and laid him on the foam rubber mattress on the bed of the truck. Then Kings moved across to reenter the truck-cab as Kariyongo and Nicholas climbed onto the back to sit alongside Eddie.
They drove away.
“What the fuck is going on!” I exclaimed incredulously to Precious.
“Bad muti” she whispered, “Bad muti Bwana!”
North of the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, October is known as ‘suicide month’. It is when the last vestiges of winter have been burned away by the resurgent, almost brutal vitality of the sun as it crosses south over the equator. Sometimes, before the rains arrive to cool things down, the early summer heat can be unbearable, so hot that it is said to drive people to suicide, hence the epithet.
At least I could get some respite from the heat as I sat at the end of the polished wooden table in the shady coolness afforded by the high thatch of the chitenge roof. I acknowledged to myself that it was fortunate no guests were in camp at the moment. If the events of the morning had left me dumbfounded, they would most certainly and thoroughly have rattled any foreign visitor.
With all this fresh in my mind, I tried to make sense of it. As I pondered the possibilities, I needed to quench the thirst brought on by elevated sweating from the morning’s drama and tension. Thus, to abet the effect of the shady coolness, I held a tall glass of mazoe orange juice clasped in both hands. While I did so, I waited for Grace to signal from the kitchen that my sandwiches were ready for pick-up.
The sandwiches were one of the habits I retained from my childhood. Back then, my mother would prepare the biltong jerky sandwiches, by grating the dried strips of venison biltong onto a thin layer of butter spread between slices of bread.
The venison was the by-product of the plentiful wild game which co-existed with the cattle of our family’s huge ranch. My father would shoot a kudu antelope or waterbuck every few weeks to provide the farm workers with an allocation of meat. A section of the rump or loin would then be cut into long slices and layered with liberal coverings of rock salt. Thereafter, it was hung up to dry below the tin roof of the gauze-enclosed veranda that spread along the north side of the big square squatness of our farmhouse.
Now, decades later, I was lucky to still be in a place with connections to a high-end hunting conservancy, which afforded me access to scraps of venison from which I made my biltong. Without guests in camp, I was loathe to burden the kitchen staff:, hence the simplicity of these sandwiches fit the convenience bill.
Looking up with some surprise, I saw that it was not Grace who was approaching. It was Precious carrying the carefully-sectioned sandwich, not wrapped in the customary wax paper, but offered on a simple white plate.
Precious was part of the more specialized duo who handled dinner services, while the lunch was generally the task of less-experienced Grace or Nora.
Idaa, the camp manager, told me that Precious insisted on the dinner service. He could not understand her stubbornness. But he said, to make up for her insistence, she ‘paid’ for this quirk by doing some of the more menial midday chalet cleaning.
Hence my surprise to see Precious’s floating gait crossing the small buffalo-grass lawn from the service opening in the thatch fence which shields the kitchen. Approaching from my left, as the servers are trained, she twisted slightly sideways with her left hand extended to wordlessly set the plate with its simple fare before me.
Then I heard her footsteps quietly retreat.
After chewing a few bites and savoring the salty fattiness of the tougher meaty grits left in the sinewy shards on the bread, I washed it all down with another gulp of my ice cold orange juice.
This juice was another echo from my adolescent past. With a faint sense of relief, I set aside my mental mulling over the morning’s events to recall memories of Mazoe. I thought of the stair-like drops in the road into the Mazoe valley. I wondered if the ancient, washed-out leader of Zimbabwe still spent much time out in the beautiful homestead near the Mazoe dam, the homestead he and his avaricious young wife confiscated from the elderly couple who’d spent their lives developing their orchards: orchards which, together withthe others in the valley, gave the name to the concentrate I mixed to make my drink.
My mind, like my teeth on the dry biltong, went back to chewing on the tougher issues.
I wondered what sort of muti Precious was referring to. Translated directly, it meant medicine, but I knew that the word muti had been translated into medicine, not medicine into muti. Muti had existed in the Bush long before medicine was brought here by the missionaries. The ancient traditional muti is the stock-in-trade of the Sangoma, the African Witch Doctor.
So much for all our imposed Western civilization. Witchcraft is as alive and well in Africa today as it was at the time of David Livingston. The muti could come in any form: potions, spells, or curses. It didn not matter how much of the Muslim or Catholic or Adventist people had embraced, at the final reckoning, the thing most feared and respected out here is the muti.
I thought how only a month ago one of the scouts, a devout Adventist, had not shown up for patrol for a week. When he finally reappeared, his explanation was that some rival had paid a sangoma to cast a curse on him. A spell to impair his performance. It put him to sleep for a week he said.
I smiled as I thought what some western exec, some Bill Gates, would think if a lieutenant showed up with just such an excuse. Out here it was a very plausible and acceptable explanation.
But, experience has accustomed me to always be ready for the unexpected in the bush, and the events of the morning certainly had been another refresher.
I heard it again, a soft polite cough from behind,… and then another.
I turned to look backwards, and there it was, that splash of the unexpected.
She was back in the shadows along the wall that leads to the chitenge’s river deck, sitting on the concrete floor.
She supported herself on one side with her arm extended; the other lay across her lap. Her legs were tucked together, also sideways, to form a parallel V, the traditional form of a woman showing respect, patiently requesting and waiting for an audience with a chief.
Patience, of necessity, is endless in the Bush and the woman of the Bush have more patience than anyone I have ever come across. But this form of supplication, coming from Precious, halted the chewing of my sandwich as effectively as a slap in the face.
We sat staring at each other as, once again, she poured the inky blackness of her stair all over me.
I took a deep breath.
“Okay Precious. What in the world is going on? Come and sit here, and help me to understand.”
“No Bwana. Not here.”
“Precious, what the hell is going on? Please explain yourself.”
In the inky blackness of her eyes I detected the simmering glow of her passion.
“Bwana. Go to the camp-area. Wait for me. I will be there later when I finish. Here there are too many eyes and ears.”
With that she rose and glided through the gap in the fence.
Dumbstruck, I did not even finish my sandwich. This behavior, this ordering of a man to do something, coming from a woman, out here in the Bush, an order to an authority figure, was, to put it mildly, unusual.
From the chitenge, the path leads across a small gully towards the chalets, before edging back towards the river and on to the open fire pit. Actually, it is not so much a pit as a platform upon which the mopani logs are placed to smolder. The mopani being a tree that thrives in shallow poorly drained soil, spends most of its life in desiccated conditions. The same layer of clay that prevents the rainwater from draining away, also prevents the roots from reaching deeper into the soil to seek moisture once the shallow surface water dries up, which it does quite quickly under the glare of the tropical sun.
It is these harsh desiccated conditions which make the plentiful mopani wood ideal. Dense and slow burning, it can smolder for hours. It smolders on after the guests have finished their evening sundowner drinks. It smolders all night, until just before dawn when Grace or Nora can easily stoke it back to life before daybreak, in time for the guests to once again gather for coffee and rusks as they watch the sun rise, and they listen to the snorts of the hippos splashing back into the river after a night of grazing.
What a day I thought to myself. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I had heard the shout of “Iwe”, coming from the portly gate guard.
Now, with the sun sliding slightly westward from its zenith high overhead, I walked past the smoldering logs of mopani on the fire-pit platform. Their thin wisps of pale grey smoke twisted upwards, like my thoughts, to be slowly split and scattered into the hot sky.
Walking back to wait for Melody, instead of heading to my campsite along the road which wends its way upriver on the “bush side”, I chose to pick my way under the branches of the narrow tree line that separates the open grass of the dambo from the river.
Pausing my steps, I reached down and snapped a stalk of elephant grass. Placing its end in my mouth, like a contemplative ox, I began to chew on its cud.
(07 –Go now)
The view out from under the broad roof of the camping area chitenge is one of my favorites. I prefer it to the views out across the river from the decks of any of the lodge chalets. There is something about its simplicity and lack of clutter that appeals to my sense of aesthetics.
It is minimally touched by the hand of man, little changed from how it was over a hundred years ago, when, no less than at the height of the rainy season floods, Orlando Baragwaneth paddled his dugout canoe past here, on is way to “discovering” the copper of Katanga.
On the one side the sharp line of the riperia defines the rivers edge as it heads down towards the chalets of the lodge. On the other, the copses of big trees seem to float on old abandoned ant-hills, almost as if layed out by some master gardener.
As this patchwork of copses spreads back from the expanse of the grassy dambo, they then, just as the freckles on the cheeks of a redheaded girl merge up into the fire of her hair, so too do the copses coalesce. They blend into the flat bushveld that stretches as far as the eye can see, if one could get high enough above the canopy of its trees to look, which one can, if one climbs the low hill that is visible in the distance, across the river.
The sun was slanting at a full diagonal before I noticed her figure crossing the open ground between the chitenge and the road which skirts past towards the Salamakanga dambo.
As she approached towards where I sat I had time to study her elegant and full feminine figure. I also had time to note that she had lost a sliver of the usual self-assertive sway which characterizes her stride. There was a hint of furtiveness in the way her head scanned to the sides, or even glansed back over her shoulders.
Reaching me, she wordlessly sat on my proffered chair.
We then sat in silence, looking out at the view for some minutes before I turned to her and asked. “So what is going on?”
She took her time before focusing her gaze on me, “It is bad muti Bwana!”
From the simple wooden chair on which she was sitting, she extended a long shapely leg and kicked at a leaf laying on the floor.
“We have been waiting for it.”
“What do you mean waiting for it?”
“In the village Bwana, they say that there is muti put on us. So we knew it would happen.”
“Ahh, Precious!” I exclaimed, “Are you sure that you know what you are talking about?”.
“Yes Bwana I am sure! You know I am correct, you know the ways of the bush. Maybe the politicians in Lusaka would not take this matter seriously. That Bwana is because they are so used to lying and cheating, that they no longer recognize the truth. But you Bwana, from what they say, you have lived with us all your life, and you know these matters, how they affect us all”.
“Now, now” I remonstrated, “not all politicians are bad. Would you not say that HH is an honest man, or Levi before him?”
As she sat in silence, I looked across at her presence, the strangely aloof aura of the strikingly beautiful young woman sitting opposite me. The long single braid of her hair which had dangled down her back earlier in the day, was now looped around the crown of her head like the coils of a cobra. There was no frivolousness about her demeanor. I instinctively knew that what she was telling me needed to be taken with all seriousness.
“So what are they saying in the village, in Chifumpa, about this muti?”
“Bwana, they say that the poachers have been given muti. It is muti that makes them invisible.”
As I listened I felt a sense of unease niggle at the edge of my consciousness. Witchcraft in Africa is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome.
“Bwana, this muti, it is also to curse the people here and harm them. We did not know when it would happen, or to whom. But we were expecting it. It was Eddie who was the unlucky one to be chosen.”
“Yes, Precious maybe that is so, but then we can get some other muti against the bad muti.”
“Bwana, I already did that. I did not know what sort of muti to ask for, as we had not yet seen the poachers muti. But the sangoma gave me these shells to keep away the evil spirits.”
As she spoke she delicately fingered the snail shells on the thin leather strand around her neck.
“And Bwana,” she continued, “He said I must make loud singing to help chase them away”.
“So Precious that means everything will be OK from now on,” I stated.
“No Bwana, this muti that the poachers have it was brought here by a special sangoma. A sangoma all the way from the Mlimo. He flew here on the back of a hyena. It was one of the darkness sangoma’s.”
My vague sense of unease deepened as I digested this information.
“Mlimo?” I queried her incredulously, “Are you sure it was from the Mlimo?”
“Yes Bwana, it was the same sangoma who gave the muti to Adamson Mushala. I have an old relative who saw this sangoma flying overhead at night.”
Again I could see the inky blackness in her eyes, and how the sensuous pout of her lips barely moved as she said, “They say that it is very powerful muti.”
It had been decades since I had heard any reference to that strange mysterious part of the spiritual fabric of the bush.
Mlimo! Up here on the other side of the Zambezi! It seemed impossible!
Why would the sangomas of that extraordinary oracle stretch their tentacles out so far. It was hard for me to believe that the Mlimo would be involved in whatever was going on out here. But it was Precious who had tendered the reference to Mlimo. There was no way that she could have made that up if there wasn’t some fire smouldering at the base of her smoke.
Things were not getting any clearer.
I asked slowly, softly, almost to myself, “Why the Mlimo?”
I have never been to the Elitsheni “oracle” cave of the Mlimo, few Caucasian people have. But I know the Matopos hils, hundreds of kilometers away, far to the south, south of the Zambezi, halfway to the Limpopo, those hills where the cave is said to be situated.
I have always imagined it to be like the magnificent Nanke cave, which is located in the same hills.
The Matopos is an exquisitely beautiful, eerie area. Its hills are unique in that they are formed from a jumble of gigantic granite inselberg domes. It is a place that oozes a sense of the spiritual. A place of rocks and huge boulders stacked and piled up on top of each other, like the aftermath of some gigantic dice of destiny, rolled by the long forgotten Gods of Munhamutapa. It is the spiritual Jerusalem of Sub-Saharan Africa. A place of black eagles, and their soaring spirits.
It is where, I was told, once a decade, at midnight in the chill of a moonlit winters night, the ghost of Cecil Rhodes rises from his grave, and links arms with that of Leander Starr Jameson. Then the shadows of the men of the Shangani patrol descend from the fresco of their monument as they all greet Lobengula and his Matabele warriors. They form a circle with the ethereal spirits of the even more ancient Khoisan painters of the rock religion. Then in unison they clap and shout their despair, as they mourn the Africa that once was, and the Africa they, each of them, in their disparate and futile ways, envisioned and hoped for.
And it is a place of the Mlimo, the resilient vestige of that Khoisan religion, daubed thousands of years ago in stark splendor, on the remote rock canvas of the caves.
“But Precious why are you telling me about this muti?”
I waited for her to look up, “Why are you scared to tell me?
“Bwana”, her hands were folded in her lap, as she quietly spoke without looking up from the floor.
“Do you know that Eddie was paying my father lobola?”
I have often wondered how Shakespeare came up with the themes and plot lines to his creations. I have since realized that all he needed was to be an astute observer of life. Drama must have been all around him in its micro and macrocosms. But some of the stuff, out here in the bush, its reality and jig sawed events, are so fantastically remarkable they exceed his creativity.
“No, I did not know”.
“Yes, Bwana. He has made almost half the payment. Another year and he would be able to buy the last few cows to give to my father.”
“So Bwana, they will understand that I resist. Even if it is the Mlimo.”
She crossed and uncrossed the long lovely length of her legs and nervously looked around.
“They will expect that. They will not be concerned. They will smile at my efforts, because they know my muti has no chance against theirs.”
“But Precious, I still do not understand why you are hesitant to tell me these things, why you hide from the others.”
She shrugged and shook her head, almost as if she were weary at having to explain the obvious.
“Bwana, did you not see that stranger? Did you not hear him tell you not to meddle?”
A chill ran up my spine as an image of the gaunt reptilian features of the phantom stranger flicked back into my memory.
“Bwana, did you not recognize the crocodile. It had come back to claim the sacrifice it had been promised. It was disguised as that old man!”
“If that Crocodile sees me talking to you, if it sees me interfering with the muti, it will come back for me. Bwana, you need to follow that Crocodile, you must stop it before it gets back into the river.”
My sense of unease had spread and grown into a feeling of dread. Dealing with poachers was one thing, they could be tracked, hunted and trapped. This I could do, that is what I was here for. I had tracked and hunted for most of my life. I had studied its most intensely exciting variation, the tracking, hunting and ambushing of the human animal, with some of the world’s best practitioners. In the real-life school of bush warfare and its “contacts” there were usually only two grades, pass or fail, winners or losers. Only the very best consistently lived to perfect their proficiency. I was lucky, I had been a good student, and Moses had been an excellent teacher.
However, dealing with the muti that the poachers were said to possess, and its effect on the people, was another thing altogether.
“Bwana!” Precious continued, “Only you can do this! The Mlimo, they have not yet perfected their curses on the white man.”
She paused before continuing. “So you must act fast. That Crocodile has been moving for hours. It will be meeting with the hyena when he brings the sangoma of darkness. They will be talking about you. They will be discussing what to do with you”.
“So bwana, Go! Go now, before it is too late”.
With that she stood.
I looked on with dumbfounded perplexity as her remarkable figure walked away, with a rejuvenated sway.
I am not sure why I am here!
After all, if I could glance with squinted eyes into the future, to be able to see things in historical context, maybe I could understand why I find myself filled with a hollow feeling of helplessness as I listen to my feet crunch on the pebbly gravel of this wide empty riverbed.
Or even better, if I could fly higher than the Martial Eagle which I see almost daily soaring overhead, I know I would look down on this flat wide portion of the world, and even without a view of history, see myself for what I am.
I would see that I am no more than a pale scab on the dark surface of Africa, a scab attempting in its diminutive, and most probably futile way, to heal some of its wounds. Now more than seven decades after the first Uhuru, I, or my peers, can hardly still be blamed for any old unhealed wounds, let alone for the new. Instead, now most are self-inflicted by the inheritors of that Uhuru.
And yet, maybe my gloom stems from those echoes of guilt, because I am still a member of the white tribe of Africa, a tribe which was so central to upsetting the ancestral way of life. It is a tribe which now, today, as a powerless minority, can be so easily identified and conveniently used as the cause of many of the continent’s present-day maladies.
Maybe, even though I bridle at the suggestion of my part in the blame, like some victim of abuse, I feel that I am still at the root of the abuse and so need to help absolve the abusers.
But also, maybe it is because I know that I am probably too late to take up the scalpel and stitches to this wound. I realize that issues needing dexterity and mental skill should most effectively be handled by hands younger and steadier than my own past-prime fists.
After all the cause I took up with such verve and valor over three decades ago, the cause I so nobly followed when I was in my prime, has been caught in the baleful glare of history and found so utterly wanting.
I don’t know why I am drawn to the people and places like this. Is it to escape the past and seek a new future? Or is it to escape even further back behind the past blighted with failed relationships and the obliteration of an identity. Or maybe it is an attempt to shape a future as a reflection of the past?
But the pebbles are crunching beneath my boots.
Reaching down, I pick one up and flick it into the pool spreading before me. The pebble is as round, smooth and nondescript as any of the others, except for its color. It is almost black, with its dimpled surface etched by a few hairline streaks of quartz that cut across its oblong shape like some distant lightning in the night sky.
As the rings of the small splash ripple outwards I remove my boots to wade through the ankle-deep water, which, like the chain of a necklace, is still sliding slowly between the scattered pools as they dot down-river.
I wonder where that single pebble came from, and how long it had lain there amongst the bed of pale and gray, brown and opal hues of the stones beneath the soles of my shoes.
I wonder how long it had taken for the aeon’s to wear its original shape to conform with that of all its peers.
But now, for the first time in its ancient existence, it had been picked up and flicked by some external destiny into a different pool, where once again it would find itself in the grind and rub of life with, and against all the others of its seeming ilk.
Then, after the soon to arrive floods of summer it would again blend with the other pebbles at the bottom of its new hollow. It would shiver and tickle as the flooding waters tug at its shape. Only the strongest of surging eddies would make it budge.
If it had remained where it originally came from, maybe hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, would I have noticed it laying as a single pebble amidst other similarly black, quartz streaked peers. Probably not!
And me? After years of laying in the dry river bed of life, with all my edges knocked away, what destiny was it that had tossed me into this backwater of Africa, the latest shallow, murky pool of my existence.
Much of my genome arrived at Table Bay in April 1721on the Dutch East Indianman, “Raadhuis Van Vlissingen”, and the rest, almost a hundred years ago, to a coffee farm, in the highlands of Kenya.
Now, like the pebble I had tossed, I knew that only my color distinguished me from the thousands that surrounded me. But that made me different. My color and sometimes only that color, still cursed in much of Africa, singled me out.
“Go, Go now, before it is too late!”
Her voice still echoed in my mind. In which of these pools would I find a crocodile lurking, waiting to burst out of the slime at the bottom to grab my leg, or arm, and drag all that awareness of history beneath the ripples of time. It would not care about color.
Would the darkness of my nature and nurture be enough to make ripples big enough to affect the surface of this wide, flat verdant pool of Eden.
This uncertainty clouded my mood with gloom. Did I still have enough energy, like the flashes of some quartz in a rock, to light up the dimness of a fading life.
It weighed on my spirit.
Some fated destiny had picked me up and tossed me here.
Unlike Moses, I am not a believer, but sometimes I wished I had his faith. His certainty that it is all ordained and has purpose.
Life would be so much easier if I felt it had some grand plan, instead of being brought here on the back of a fucking hyena
(09 –Eleven men)
Eleven! The number flitted into my reverie with a quiet stealth, just as the shadow of the African Goshawk, glides through the dense foliage of the rivers riperia in its efforts to surprise some unsuspecting black-eyed bulbul to carry back to its young in the nest it has in a large Leadwood tree not far up-river.
The hour before dawn here on the edge of the Kafue river, when there is no moonlight, is filled with a special smoothness which seeps out from the depths of its silence. It is when the creatures of the night have tired of their cavorting and have quietly begun to search for places to sequester themselves from the soon to arrive sunlight. It is as if they have to hurry and have gone quiet in their haste. This is because here in this broad flat African valley, when it arrives, the dawn is quick and abrupt, with the sun leaping perpendicularly up above the horizon, instead of slowly sliding diagonally above the edge of the world like an old man rising from the bed of his slumber’s, as it does in the higher latitudes of the old world.
There are eleven players on a soccer team, eleven players on a cricket, and eleven on a football team.
Why is it always eleven! The thought continued to flit through my consciousness as I blew onto the embers beneath the old metal kettle I had placed over the logs of my camp fire.
Eleven! In almost every army in the world the basic fighting unit, the section, has eleven men.
There is a section leader, a section 2nd in-command and nine other riflemen, one of which always carries the light machine gun.
If some space alien scientists arrived on earth to study us, they would soon recognize that we humans, spread in vast numbers all across the globe like a swarming plague of locusts, are actually a very social species.
They would note that we loved to hang around with others. They would soon notice that one of the worst punishments to be inflicted on any individual human was to be banished from a group.
And that the worst punishment of all, worse even than death, was to isolate an individual from its peers, and thus from their interactions with their group’s culture, rituals, and language.
In fact, the alien scientist would note that the human would prefer to share a cell with a psychopath, rather than suffer solitary confinement.
But it would also soon be noted that the social nature of the human extended its friendliness mostly inward, and seldom outward. That when faced with competition, the young human males banded together into gangs to cooperate, allowing them to face all manner of challenges.
My reverie rekindled the vague sense of unease and anxiety which had plagued me all the previous day with its events.
As the amorphous threat alluded to by Melody still tickled at the back of my mind, I was once again, very cognizant of my aloneness and solitude.
All I could hear was the pad of the sand beneath the leather soles of my sandals as I walked in the pitch-black darkness along the sandy ruts of the road between my camp site and the lodge. Sightlessly I knew that as long as my feet stayed in the depression of the ruts they would lead me to my vehicle.
Strange, I considered, here again as I had done so long ago, and like I had done with Moses, so many times. I was pondering why it was that a band of eleven men was so efficient and functional.
After all, not to long before I was born, a few decades ago, like they had done for thousands of years, the young men of the Zambezi Valley, and those of its nurturing tributaries, such as the Kafue, had still sallied forth in their bands to hunt the dangerous big game of the region, maybe a rogue elephant, a rhino, the buffalo, or the other large antelope, which once existed in such abundant proliferation in these parts.
Not only would these young men engage in the hunts that yielded bonanzas of protein from the meat of their spoils, to augment the grubs, bugs, berries and bird’s eggs gathered by their women-folk, but also they would have had to defend and fight against the haranguing and pilfering of lions, hyenas and jackals, attracted to the meaty bonanzas.
Only by cooperating could they succeed in their endeavors.
And, I knew, a handful of them still did, a handful of unpleasant ones.
But, it was not just against wild animals that the young men competed, it was also against the young men of neighboring groups. The competition was over territory with its access to the bonanzas of food and females.
However, unlike the competition between most other animals out here, where the vanquished slunk away to lick and heal their wounds, allowing them to compete and fight another day, with us human animals the competition was sometimes uniquely murderous.
It still is.
And, as I walked I was aware of this murderousness, even if it came as a crocodile, hidden in the form of a human.
The Stygian silence pervaded my mood as I began to load my sleeping bag into the cab of the land-cruiser.
With a start I was surprised to hear the soft pad of a footstep behind me, it was softer than one of mine.
Then a figure materialized at the edge of the faint glow cast by the cruisers cab light.
It had a blanket cast over its shoulders, and then with an outstretched forearm, and with the palm of the other hand laid at the crook of its inner elbow, as is customary to express polite respect when offering a gift, it proffered a plastic bag.
Even in the darkness the braid of her hair was unmistakable. It now fell down the side of her face to be cradled between the rise of her breasts.
“These are for you, bwana, I have prepared these sandwiches. They are the biltong sandwiches you like.”
I was utterly nonplussed, I had intended to make my own.
“You will need these where you are going, there is nowhere to get food until you get there”.
I opened my mouth to say something but my surprise only allowed a thank you, and with that she disappeared into the night.
How the hell did she know I was going, let alone know that I intended to travel a great distance?
Holding the bag to let the light of the cab illuminate its contents, sure enough, there were four sandwiches, sliced in half and wrapped in wax paper.
And, tucked in below them, at the bottom of the bag, lay a long thin strip of leather which threaded through the piercings in the whiteness of a row of small delicate river snails.