Chapter 2: The Road
Each time I travel the road between the towns of Kasempa and Mumbwa I’m reminded of an aged alcoholic, because the road between them slowly staggers its barely satisfactory way across the landscape.
I guess, like a few of my red-faced friends, it’s still a functioning one. It gets from here to there, but not much else. Like them, it seldom follows the most efficient path; rather, it survives, due to decades of experience gained from the dictates of a hard and unsteady life, commonplace in this remote part of Central Africa.
The road, like those old soaks, with its blemishes, and no longer having the nimbleness of youth, has learned that it is expedient to give a wide berth to as many obstacles as possible. As such, its dusty path leans and teeters as it sways its progress around a low hill, or behind a marshy patch on its winding progress through the timelessness of the bushland. Scruffy, dirty, and pock marked with ruts and potholes like the wrinkles of neglect and the blemishes of aged acne, it may veer sharply to avoid a freshly fallen tree, or a recently formed rip cut into its mud by the wheels of the overloaded trucks scarring its surface.
“Damned trucks” I cursed, as my Toyota Landcruiser jolted through an especially deep dip in the road. My muscle memory usually reacts automatically to guide the vehicle gingerly between the flaws of the road’s sloppy construction and misuse. There’s no need to think about coordinating a press on the brake, or a tug at the gear shift; they simply blend with emphatic twists of the steering. This unthinkingly enables the vehicle to progress slowly through the thick bush tucking under the lee side of a low ridge which heralds the gradual climb up from the basin of the Kafue River valley.
As a result, my mind was left free to craft my strategy in my meeting with Ernest Banda, the local park warden at his regional headquarters in Mumbwa. The motivation for the meeting was driven by a note scribbled in pencil on a piece of brown packing paper, folded and heavy in my pocket.
I hoped to collar the warden before his midday break, but this being Africa, where circumstances tended to poke a stick into the wheel of any schedule, there was no guarantee that a meeting would be convened at all. I had my sleeping bag and mosquito net, as well as some bread and dry meat to slice onto it for a sandwich, in the event of a lay-over while I waited for another opportunity to meet.
Much earlier, before daybreak, I’d been stirred from sleep by the splash of hippos returning from their nocturnal grazing. As these massive creatures lumbered past my camp site, they were satiated and not tarrying to nibble the grass near my tent as they headed to the river to spend the rest of the day in its deep pools.
Unconcerned about the hippos, I stood in the pre-dawn darkness, sipping a cup of rich coffee under the eaves of a large thatched structure called a chitenge in the local language. This and the big canvas tent beside it, had been my home for two years. Looking out from under the chitenge’s low roofline, spread like an umbrella above me, I could make out the outlines of the leafy acacia and leadwood trees of the riverine arbor beyond.
As unconcerned as I was about the hippos, the opposite was true for the hastily pencilled note that was folded in the pocket of my bush shorts. Taking it out I read it again, just as the yelping cries of a fish eagle signaled that dawn was nigh. It was time to go. I swallowed the last sip of coffee to the sound of another returning hippo’s splash, heralded by a chorus of communal ‘hrumph’ing grunts as the other members of its pod welcomed it back.
Setting out from my campsite, a kilometer upriver from my hosts at the Safari Lodge, I’d driven past the slumbering shapes of it structures in the half darkness, then eased along a few kilometers of winding track through the Bush, followed by a dozen clicks on the dirt arterial road which brought me to the ferry pontoon. Here I would cross the broad width of the Kafue River.
Arriving early, I found myself having to wait while the operating crew roused from their huts, and congregated where the pontoon raft was beached on the opposite bank. When an early crossing is needed, it often takes a lot of shouting and banging on the steel pillar holding the raft’s anchor cable to shake up any activity across the river.
Luckily, the occupant of a small waiting vehicle was already doing some boisterous rousing. With nothing to do as I waited I had time to examine the car. The vehicle was a sad little Japanese sedan, its dented, scratched surface barely affording brand recognition. I couldn’t make out if its dull grey color emanated, like the camouflage of a chameleon, from its original enamel hue, or from a color blended with the thick coat of dust on its surface. Bald tires and a crack running the length of the windshield added to its air of fateful resignation.
The occupants of the vehicle stood at the water’s edge, or sat on the bank formed by the cut of the road as it dropped down to the load point. A spirit of unease tapped me on the shoulder as I watched the kids skipping stones across the river. They’d never seen how shockingly quickly, and how far, a crocodile can reach when it erupts from the rivers sluggish margins. This section of the river holds some of the largest crocs I have ever seen.
While waiting, I spoke to the driver, who was heading with his cousin from their distant village to the city of Lusaka. With them were travelling three wives and four children. It would be a long journey with that many occupants in such a small car, I mused.
But this is Africa. Few people from outside can fully understand how things can be coaxed to surprising limits. Here, any expectations of comfort and acceptability have different metrics. Would anyone who slept on a woven straw mat spread on the hard dirt floor of a hut all their life be bothered when crammed into a small car, even for hours, in a way that only students do as a stunt in the West?
Maybe my unease at watching the kids at the waters’ edge was exacerbated by the niggling thoughts that tugged at the corners of my mind. My concern was how the note in my pocket alluded to the area that lay beyond a low ridge visible downstream.
On the other side of that ridge is the Lunga River. It meanders southwards until it finally presses up against this raised rift, which forces it to spill into the Kafue River.
Upstream from this confluence, along the west bank of the river lies a lush bushland, interspersed with open marshy grassland patches locally known as dambos.
It is the gateway to a huge untouched area spreading north west to the distant Busanga Plains,. One of the veteran game scouts I worked with, said it had been two decades since he’d patrolled deep into that area. Recently park officials decided to allow the construction of an additional private lodge within this unsupervised area. Morse Manzola, the manager of my hosting lodge had been tasked to oversee this construction. He had sent three men to start casting the concrete blocks. They found the bags of cement, transported there earlier, slashed open. On them was a message scribbled on a piece of brown packing paper.
My job was to provide specialized training to the park’s game scouts, thus I was indirectly connected to the law and order in this area. The construction of the new lodge meant the roster would be stretched to its limits if we were to provide the additional patrolling required.
The niggle of worry was further exacerbated by the sudden and unexplained quitting of three of the twelve game scouts I’d been training.
My problem] was twofold . First, there was the message scribbled on the paper.
Secondly, considering that conservation is poorly funded by the government, even if I could get Head Warden Banda’s permission to train and deploy additional scouts, I wasn’t sure if I could raise sufficient private funding to subsidize their employment.
Whatever happened, I was determined to protect and preserve one of the last unspoiled areas of Africa.
Still watching] the kids skipping stones, my reveries vanished when I saw that the pontoon crew were finally roused and readying to cross the river.
As the big raft approached, I reached into my pocket and glanced down at the spidery, erratic handwriting on the soiled paper scrap.
“Go away!” it commanded.
“You are warned! Leave here, or you will be punished.” It was signed, “Crocodile.”
Returning the note to my pocket, I opened the door to the cab of my vehicle, climbed in and followed the dusty sedan onto the pontoon. Years of experience in almost every facet of life had taught me that, when threatened, the last thing was to back down.
* * *
The bite of a tsetse fly is painful, especially that of a young fly. I glanced up after slapping my calf, following another futile attempt to kill the offending insect.
A uniformed guard slowly rose from his austere wooden chair. He’d been] leaning back on its rear legs in the shade of a simple brick guard house when I’d stopped my Landcruiser before the pole of a pivot barrier. It marked the edge of the Kafue National Park, the second biggest park in Africa. Beyond the barrier, the road crested before dipping down under the trees, whose boughs reached out like the fingers of myriad artists dappling its sandy surface with shadows.
The post was situated on a slight slope edging out of the vast flat lands spreading northwards into the Kafue Valley. It was well placed, its simple building shaded by some elegant mafuti trees.
Glancing over my shoulder to check that my equipment had not been bounced off the back bed of the vehicle, I saw how those trees, whose unbroken canopy lifts its graceful leafy summer elegance like a song on the wind, spread their melody in a dark coppery green patina, ocean like, until their endlessness spilled over the edge of the horizon, from whence I had come.
The guard post was the first of two landmarks. Half an hour further on I would pass the second: a prison farm set so remotely in the bushland to daunt the ardor of any prisoner contemplating escape. Two more slow bumpy hours would bring me to scratches of civilization. These would eventually coalesce into the scruffiness of the town of Mumbwa, my destination.
While the guard slowly picked up a big ledger book, I slapped again at the fly as it buzzed against the vehicle’s side window. Still smarting from its nip, I muttered “You little bugger. When I catch you, I’ll pull off your wings and make you walk.”
As the guard, officious in his neat, but faded, olive green uniform, lazily moved across the few feet of compacted dirt which separated the guard house from my vehicle I slowly rolled down the window. I leaned back in the seat as I nodded my greeting.
“Bwwanji Bwana,” the guard responded in the informal ‘lingua franca’ Nyanja, which at the street level replaces the official English left behind by the British after Zambian independence in 1964.
His flat, smooth high cheeks echoed the slenderness of his young physique, [giving] him an elegant, almost effeminate air. It expressed itself in the tone of his thick accent, and the way his native Kaunde morphed his R’s into L’s. Despite a lazy indolent air as he approached the vehicle, there was an unexpected politeness in his demeanor as he handed the big ledger through the window for me to sign.
Despite his polite deference, it was best to remember that he was the authority figure here, and in Africa authority matters, no matter how trivial it may seem. Here authority is seldom benign. It often kicks downwards, sometimes harshly, as it tends to bend upwards with servility. I knew when to be polite, despite the redundancy of the formalities, and the advantage of my age.
“Where do you come flom?”
The guard’s question was rhetorical. This was a ritual, performed thousands of times a day all over Central Africa where echoes of its colonial past are still being scribbled in the lines and columns of big ledger books.
“From Chamafumbu,” I replied politely as I provided details: name, origin, destination, vehicle registration, number of passengers. It was the ritual of pointlessly filling out the information demanded only by the headers of the lines and columns on the thick, blotter like paper of these black books.
Closing its grubby, worn cover, I handed its heaviness back to the guard, wondering what they did with these things once they were filled with countless scribbles. The ritual was more than the mere recording of every vehicle passing along this remote road. It suggested to the populus that an effective and watchful law and order prevailed.
Like the uncomfortable bumps and jolts of the road, the Authority, using old colonial laws, is the capricious entity in shabby administrative centers at each end.
As I watched the guard set the ledger down on his chair, he stretched out, with the timeless pace of Africa, to lift the barrier, allowing the ‘Cruiser to pass.
I craned my neck to peer sideways through the window, checking that the pivot pole cleared the cruiser’s roof. With a pang of regret I considered the generational gap between myself and the guard. I was almost too young to remember those British officials who brought those big black books to Africa, and then who’d hastily abandoned their roles as Imperial Bwanas, masters who, after a glorious but brief appearance on the stage of Empire, returned from whence they’d come. They’d streamed back in the wake of other colonialists like themselves, from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania. They followed behind the Belgians from the Congo,. Then the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique followed.
Left behind, unnoticed by history, were generations of emotional gypsies, like myself, born and raised on the Continent, who were never considered a true part of the new Africa, or the old Europe. By necessity, us countryless vagabonds were condemned to spend life with a mental suitcase always ready in case we were told to move on.
These fleeting thoughts colored my mind as I waited for the barrier pole to reach its apex. At least this was at the limit of Tsetse Territory: from here on I could drive with the windows open. There would no longer be the need to choose between sauna-like heat in the cab due to a non-functioning air conditioning, or the relative comfort of the sub-tropical air wafting away my sweat as it afforded unfettered opportunity to tormenting flies.
With my left hand, I moved the gear shift from neutral to first. I was about to lift the sole of my left foot from the clutch when suddenly a loud whistle came from the other side of the cab.
“Eeweh!” someone shouted. “Hey, you!”
A second guard appeared from behind the building. Older, and plumper than his colleague, he was more affable about the weight of his authority, which had 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?
With a dramatic pause, and a serious tone, but still with a broad smile on his friendly face, he shouted his message.
“On the radio, they say to tell you. Back at your camp!” He paused again.
“They say someone has been attacked by a crocodile!”
(9th edit – 03/20/2021)