Chapter 3: Crocodile
A croc attack . . . sheeesh! Although I’d heard of them often enough, this was a personal first.
Here disaster, and the unwanted child it often spawns, Tragedy, has its accommodating rituals. It being one of the children of Fate, the mother whose fingers weave the fabric of remote bush life, its easily-provoked proximity must be treated with careful respect. Life is lived knowing that in any dark corner of the village lurks the coils of a slumbering serpent.
In these remote swathes, to abate the appetite of its writhings, everyone has a role in the rituals of appeasement. These aren’t performed by unknown men with faces hidden by fire helmets or uniforms and vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. There aren’t any other actions which elsewhere elicit only the rubber-necked curiosity of gawking spectators. Instead, it is with up close participation that any relief is to be found. Here everyone has watched, as the unwelcome serpent of fate has inexorably beckoned someone into the clasp of its coils. The squeeze of ill fate can only be loosened with the age old rituals, with their keening, clapping of hands, or stamping of feet and maybe, the sprinkling of spells.
I hesitated. The manager of my hosting lodge, Morse Manzole, was in the faraway city of Lusaka. It was the end of the tourist season: no guests were at the lodge and many of the staff away on leave. I wasn’t sure of the medical proficiency of those left there.
I thanked the portly guard, turned the vehicle around, and with a sense of grudging resignation retraced the path I had come along.
A while later it was with a vague sense of relief that I saw the iron anchor beams of the pontooon ahead. I could slow the ‘Cruiser down so that it no longer drifted dangerously away from the rutted crown of the road, as if on ice. A lifetime of driving in Africa allows one to learn the limits of this dance with the dirt. Too slow and vibrations of the rutted corrugations of an ungraded road are intolerable; too fast and the syncopated shudders of heavy-duty tires make them bounce in unison, loosening the vehicle’s grip on the road.
In tandem with the slide of the tires, my mind drifted over the diverse forms of African disasters, whose only characteristic shared with those elsewhere is their unexpectedness. Under this pre-occupation, I’d been pushing the ‘Cruisers speeds beyond its dangerous sliding limits.
I don’t know why the news of this attack filled me with such a sense of foreboding. I’d seen enough adversity in my life. The war in Angola had scribbled tens of thousands of victims on its tally sheet, its brutality unnoticed by the rest of the world, but not by those who’d been there.
Certainly not by fellow soldier Moses and myself. Still contemplating some of the morbid flavors I had tasted I slowed the ‘Cruiser down. At least here my vehicle no longer ran the risk of triggering the thumping flash of a mine.
I glanced to my left to watch a herd of impala skittishly trot away from my approach. Beyond them, deeper in the woodland, I spied a few of the local baboon troop, the young ones shrieking as they scampered about.
Now, in the midday heat of late October, despite the distraction of my thoughts, I marveled at the beauty of the bushland flowing past, resplendent with the emerald green of freshly budding miombo forest trees, holding their leafy canopies aloft above long, slender trunks as elegantly as any gathering of Ascot ladies their parasols.
Despite its condition and with a bit of risk taking, the road allowed me to make good time: Only two hours since leaving the check-point, including the recrossing at the pontoon. I’d been lucky. The ferry happened to be waiting on the south bank.
In another month, when the wet season began in earnest, progress along the road would be more difficult. The road’s neglect and abuse would make it challenging as the oppressive heat of late October mixed with moisture brushed across the land from the east. Like the coupling of ancient gods, the mingling of the air and humidity would rear up until their white clouded crowns climaxed in ecstatic roars of thunder. Brilliant flashes of lightning, birthing sheets of rain, would bring misery to the road, affecting its ability to bring rapid relief for anyone in need of aid.
In this wilderness area the size of Belgium, it’s no wonder that here disaster is so impactful. The whole region is bisected by a single east-west paved road with a few north-south dirt arterials which, like the one I was travelling along, were barely passable when wet.
Here it is not a bankruptcy or stock market collapse which blights life. Seldom is someone left penniless from the debilitating costs of an illness. The red is not in the final tally of an accountant, but the burgundy of dried blood.
But for me, despite it all, it was as it should be. Its harshness, cloaked in its beauty, kept the ugliness of that other more domesticated world at arm’s length.
I shrugged as I nosed the cruiser to the right off the relatively tolerable ruts of the main road, and shifted into low gear to negotiate the more serious bumps of the hand cut dirt strips. These strips lead the last few kilometers, through the trees and over the wide damp grassy spread of the dambo, before it reaches the narrow cuff of thick riverine foliage whose huge trees shade the lodge complex.
I heard a high-pitched trill long before I stopped the vehicle near a large wooded anthill behind the kitchen. As I cut the engine, the sound revealed itself to be the tongue trilling ululation of a woman.
In Africa, this is the sound of celebration, but not now. It emanated from a group of women standing beside the opening in the thatch grass fence around the service area. It was a savage, almost incomprehensible sound.
It came from a woman who stood a head taller than the others with her thick black braids dangling between her shoulder blades. She wore her teal Lodge uniform in a rakish, taunting way.
The eerie sound rose and fell, wavered, then gained strength before subsiding like an echo.
Something in its primitive pitch hinted at ethereal evil, telling the listeners to wrap themselves in the protection of ritual. At the same time, it had a selfish joyousness, a thankful relief: the Spirits had chosen someone else to be sacrificed.
As the keening faded like the echoes of a distant choir, ancient Africa faded with it, as it had done over the centuries to lurk, watch, and wait as the new world carelessly reasserted itself.
As I approached, the woman opened her eyes to pour the black ink of her stare over me, and I noted the name tag pinned to her shirt, ‘Precious’.
* * *
Under the ebulient spread of the shady boughs of the big water trees lining the river’s edge, the sloping cut of the boat launch ramp offers easy access to the water. It is where they pump the water up into the holding tank behind the kitchen. From the drag marks it was obviously the site of the attack. They had not moved Eddie far. He lay on a blanket at the eroded crest of this ramp.
The shock on his face was visible from a distance. Even the dark ebony skin of the African has a great pallor when in shock. Quickly crossing the short distance to them, I moved between the men standing looking down at Eddie. They stepped back to let me kneel beside him.
His expression had assumed the fatalistic torpor I’d seen so many times. It is part of Africa, the acceptance of one’s fate. Dire situations have been woven into the fabric of life so often, there is seldom enough time to pick apart the tangled knots of cause and effect.
I recognized the men standing next to the attack victim.
“How did this happen?”
“We were pumping water Bwana, and the crocodile leaped at Eddie. We were getting ready to start the pump’s engine.”
It was Kings who was speaking, a big muscular man, who spoke with a deep voice. The skin between his eye-brows tended to crease into furrows as he talked, as if he was concentrating on some complexity.
I admonished, “Why didn’t you change where you pump water every day, so that the crocodiles don’t learn your pattern.”
A sense of helpless frustration crept into my voice.
“Yes, Bwana, but the water is so shallow. We aren’t sure how the crocodile got so close. Eddie hadn’t even put the hose into the river. It was so fast.”
I cut in sharply, “You were careless. That crocodile waited for hours. It let the weeds drift over it so its shape was broken under water.”
“Bwana, we were careful!”
I remonstrated sharply, “ It was smarter than all of you.”
A scowl crept over Kings broad face. Creases of tension appeared at the corners of his mouth, which to a casual observer would seem to be the start of a smile.
Having dealt with soldiers for years, I knew how far to push a point, and when to ease on the throttle, especially like now, without being his boss.
I was surprised to see that no attempt at 1st aid had been attempted.
His being the dominant personality in the group of men, I turned my attention to Kings, “Do you know any 1st aid?”
He shrugged. But another of the men replied that he had some knowledge of it.
“Why has nothing been done to stop the bleeding?” I asked.
Nicholas, the man, looked at Kings as if waiting for him to give the answer, but Kings continued his scowl, until Nicholas shrugged his shoulders as well.
There is a stark difference between giving orders and eliciting willing cooperation. Initiative has no genesis in following orders, thus if disaster was not to get the upper hand someone needed to take the initiative, to at least get some cooperation.
How did Eddie get away?” I asked.
“Bwana, He was lucky.” This time it was the third man who spoke. “He held onto the pump. It had the hose up to the kitchen, so it wasn’t 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. I hit it many times before it let go.”
Kings scowled at the man as he gave the explanation. I couldn’t place the source of his sullen hostility. Maybe his mood wasn’t personal. It now seemed he was also casting the net of his petulance over all of them.
Glancing towards the river I saw the small box like engine and the centrifugal pump where it had been dragged almost into the water while Eddie hung on for life.
For a moment as I considered what to do, it seemed that the world held its breath. Even the birds were silent. There was only the rustle of the leaves as the trees draped their shadows over the corrugated tin roof of the vehicle shed, and spilled the rest onto the thatch of the old storage room.
The hierarchical protocol of rural African life waited to see if I would speak, say what to do. I was older than they, and one seldom disrespects age in Africa. Even Kings held his silence, as if waiting to see if I could challenge the deference the other two men gave him.
I remained on my knees looking down at the motionless figure on the blanket, with the three silent men standing over me.
Here time and urgency are seldom considered when solving problems. Why bother? Rarely will haste affect the outcome of fate. One cannot get an ambulance here five minutes earlier or get to the hospital within half an hour to influence outcomes. Kasempa is 150 kilometers away, and Mumbwa 120. With the road’s conditions it would be four hours to the minimalistic basics of a clinic. Here the medical air rescue service down to the modern efficient hospitals one and a half thousand kilometers away in South Africa, was only for lodge clients.
There was a serene expression on Eddie’s face. His eyes were half open, and clouded with a distant unfocused stare, as if entering a trance.
I said nothing.
Using my bush knife, I cut away the legging of his long pants to expose the deep punches and gashes left by the crocodile’s teeth, where they had gripped his leg.
The puncture marks of the crocs teeth had been further ripped by the violent twisting and shaking of the beasts head as it tried to break Eddie’s clutching hold on the pump. The reptile had exerted powerful backward lunges with its thrashing tail in the water. It had made savage efforts to drag Eddie down into aquatic oblivion.
“Get me the medical box from behind the seat of my vehicle”, I said to no one in particular.
Eddie had lost a lot of blood. This was evident from the broad expanse of the dark burgundy staining of the blankets. He was still losing blood. There was an ooze from a particularly deep wound at the back of his knee. At least the faint rhythm of the ooze indicated he had a pulse. With each leaking dribble Eddie’s life was oozing away.
Looking back over my shoulder it was with a 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 athletic figure approach, and crossed to where we were at the top of the ramp, her smooth gait gave her the appearance of gliding towards us. Her long legs flicked forward without conveying much bob to her body. The bright orange color of the first aid kit contrasted with the teal blue leggings of her uniform.
As she reached us, my eyes were drawn to the white speckles of the small river snail shells strung on a simple short strand around her neck. These, I noted, color contrasted with the smooth amber chocolate of her skin.
Hmmm…I mentally noted. She is a woman full of surprises.
Then like the bats at dawn, my curiosity faded away. Shifting my focus, I looked back down at Eddie.
“Help me turn him over”, I asked Precious as she bent to do so.
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.
He was so weak he was not responding to commands. I shifted his head to the side. Then with a signal to Precious and a gentle push, we rolled him onto his belly.
Using the big non-sterile pads from the second drawer I wiped away the debris and matted blood from around his deepest lacerations.
A slow thin ooze of blood still stained away from the longest gash.
Taking a tourniquet from the bottom drawer I wrapped it above his knee and pulled it tight. Then pushing and releasing my fingers into the back of his calf, I check that it filled back out, indicating that the tourniquet wasn’t too tight.
“Take those gloves and put them on” I said to Precious.
The three other men stood looking on with blank emotionless expressions. Still standing alongside the grass fence of the kitchen and laundry the other girls were also uneasy silent observers.
Without looking up I issued soft instructions to the three men. They must ready the old Land Cruiser I said. 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 its tank. That should easily get them to Mumbwa and back. Also to pull one of the mattresses out of the storeroom and lay it on the cruisers open back bed.
I waited to see if I had broken Kings’ restricting hold over the two others.
They turned and moved away. Then, with a sullen look on his face Kings followed them across to the sheds.
Bringing my attention back to the woman knealing beside me, I noted that there was something different about Precious. When the regularity of life was disturbed, it was as if a strange hint of dependability rose to her surface.
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 long slender hands, but even with the encumbrance of the folds, it was easy to detect the dexterity of her fingers.
“Now take some of that cream,”” I instructed as I pointed to the anti-biotic ointment, “Smear it all over his cuts”.
While she was doing so, I cut a length of the fishing line and threaded it into a suture hook. Using the gloved fingers of one hand, I pinched together a section of ripped lesh and quickly hooked the curved needle through and out. Eddie didn’t flinch. I cut and tied the ends of the line. This was performed three more times, which took care of the big oozing gash.
I tore open the covering to three large abdominal pads. Eddies wounds were so extensive that anything less would not have sufficed.
Being abdominal pads they weren’t adhesive. We would have to be fast to secure them over the wounds.
“Press your finger on these”. I instructed Precious.
She placed a forefinger at the top and bottom of each pad in turn as I tagged them with athletic tape.
Once this was done I asked her to hold and raise his ankle slightly so that I could use Cobam tape to wrap around his leg in a swaddle.
The suturing should allow the blood in the deep wound to clot. However my final touch was done with Duct Tape to provide an impervious barrier. I figured any blood that did make it through the pads would clot and prevent further leakage.
It would have to last until they got to the clinic.
I sat back on my haunches and gazed for a moment at the thick copse of trees and brush covering the mound of the ant-hill on the opposite edge of the clearing. Then I lifted my eyes to the etchings of high cirrus clouds above. They were the wispy decorations set in the ceiling above our pitiful drama.
The cycle of life, to eat and be eaten. Eddie had nearly been a straggler in that ancient process of predator and prey. It was a cycle that has disappeared from our modern reality, and made us foolishly assume we aren’t part of it.
Then my thoughts returned to dwell on Kings’ hostility towards me. It was new. In the two years I had been here, not being part of the lodges operations I had had minimal interaction with the staff. His attitude perplexed me!
Suddenly, as if nature began to breathe again, the trumpeter hornbills were braying in the thick tangle of trees on the island opposite. Over there the crocodile was probably nursing a battered head and ego, waiting and watching for the next careless moment.
It was touch and go if Eddie could survive the shock of the attack and his blood loss aftermath, and the yet to be endured bumps and jolts of the four-hour drive to the clinic.
Kings had the old Land Cruiser backed up and the tail gate down when the voice broke into our busy silence.
“Leave him alone!
It had a quiet distinct tone of authority, with a raspy roughness like the creak of steps in soft sand.
“Leave him alone!” the command was repeated.
“Stop your meddling!”
With startled surprise I looked up and searched for the source of the voice.
I found it when the command was again reiterated.
“Do not touch him!”
It emanated from a figure standing leaning 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 obscurity, half hidden by the drabness of the random equipment in the shed’s shade.
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 African curls.
I jerked back in shock as a curdling shriek erupted beside me. Precious snapped to her feet with the speed and surety of a striking scorpion. The air was filled with the shrill howling wail of her ululating.
With complete confoundedness I rocked 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 before him, her demonic sounds 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 in dumbfounded shocked 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 and laid him on the foam rubber mattress on the vehicles bed. Then Kings moved across to reenter the truck-cab as the other two climbed onto the back, where they sat alongside Eddie.
They drove away.
“What the fuck is going on!” I exclaimed incredulously to Precious.
“Bad witch medicine” she whispered, “Bad Muti Bwana!”