Chapter 2: Crocodile
All over the world disaster, and the unwanted child it often spawns, tragedy, has its accommodating rituals.
But, it being one of fate’s children, and fate being the mother whose fingers weaves the fabric of African bush life, here its easily provoked proximity must be treated with careful respect. It is as if life out here is lived knowing that in a dark corner of the village, lurk the coils of a slumbering serpent. Thus, everyone recognizes that particular bastard progeny with a personal familiarity.
In these remote bushland swathes, to abate the appetite of those fateful writhings, everyone has a role in the rituals of appeasement. These aren’t performed 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, it is with up close and individual participation, because here in remote Africa everyone has watched, personally, 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.
The premise of it flashed through my mind. In this instance instead of a snake, it was a crocodile. And should I accept that premise? Or should I intervene.
I hesitated. Morse Manzole the manager, who I knew was well versed in 1st aid, was away on errands in the faraway city of Lusaka. It being the end of the tourist season, with no guests at the lodge, a number of the staff had already gone on leave. I wasn’t sure of the medical proficiency of the other staff left at the lodge.
I nodded a thank-you to the portly guard, turned the vehicle around, and with a sense of grudging altruism started back along the arduous road I had just travelled.
A while later it was with a vague sense of relief that I slowed the cruiser down so that it no longer, 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 makes them bounce in unison, loosening the vehicles grip on the dust.
In tandem with the slide of the tires, my mind was drifting over the diverse forms of African disasters, whose only characteristic shared with those elsewhere is their unexpectedness. It was this pre-occupation which had been pushing the cruisers speeds to, and sometimes beyond its upper dangerous sliding limits. A croc attack… sheeesh! Although I had often heard of them, this was a personal first.
I do not know why the news of this particular event filled me immediately with a sense of foreboding. I had seen my fill of adversity. Gracious, the war in Angola scribbled tens of thousands of victims on its tally sheet. There it had been in areas, and along dirt roads as unkept as this, but with its relevance so unimportant to the outside world, that its brutality went by 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 my vehicle no longer ran the risk of 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 Impala as they skittishly trotted away with the approach of the vehicle. Beyond them and deeper into the woodland, with young ones shrieking and scampering about, I could see a few of the baboon troop which often frequents this section of the road.
Now in the midday heat of late October, despite the distraction of my thoughts, I still marveled at the beauty of the bushland 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 Miombo forest trees. These tall trees held their leafy canopies aloft above long slender trunks as elegantly as any gathering of Ascot ladies their 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 guards at the check-point. 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, things would be different. Then, despite it being the main link between the two regional administrative centers, the roads neglect and abuse, would make it a challenge. Then the oppressive heat of late October would be mixed with the moisture being brushed over the land by the eastern winds. Almost every afternoon, like the coupling of ancient Gods, the hot mingling of the air and moisture would rear up until the white crown of their clouds climaxed in ecstatic roars of thunder, and brilliant flashes of lightning, birthing sheets of rain, and misery to the road, affecting its ability to bring quick relief to any suffering dangling from the margins of the road.
In this wilderness area, the size of Belgium, it is no wonder disaster has a profound flavor. The whole region is bisected by only a single east-west paved road, and a few north-south graded dirt arterials, which like the one I was now travelling along, were also barely passable when wet.
Here it is not a stock market collapse, or the bankruptcy of a business which blights life. Seldom is someone left penniless and care-less as a result of the debilitating costs of a serious illness. Here the red to be reckoned isn’t the final tally of an accountant, rather it is still as it has always been, the magenta of dried blood.
But despite all of this, for those who lived here it was as it should be. Its harshness, cloaked in its beauty, kept the modern ugliness of that other 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 the high-pitched trill long before I brought the vehicle to a stop in the middle of the road, where it bends around the big 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 the sound of celebration, but not now.
It emanated from a small group of women standing beside the opening in the thatch grass fence dividing the tidiness of the kitchen from the vehicle sheds.
Only one of them, older than the others, had her head tilted back, with her mouth wide and her tongue trilling out the pitch.
It rose and fell and wavered, then gained strength before fading again. It was eerie and out of place.
Like a stream of sarcasm, there was something in its primitive pitch which hinted at a forgotten fugue, with faint echoes of ethereal evil. It signaled to all to wrap themselves in the protection of rituals. At the same time, in the duality of its tone, it also held a trace of selfish joyousness. A thankful relief. A recognition that the spirits had chosen someone else as a sacrifice.
The women wore their work uniforms. Above the teal blue long leggings of their trousers, the beak of the African Skimmer “lodge logo” 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 century, to lurk and watch, and wait, as the ways of the new world carelessly asserted themselves.
Despite In my young formative years, spending half of my life amongst the children and ideas of Africans, and despite my intimacy with their customs, I would always be from that other world, the outside white-man ‘mzungu’ world, full of logic and science. Now, these sounds before me were from that opposite, African side of the veil.
It was a unique, incomprehensible sound, and it came from a woman who stood a head taller than the others. Her thick black hair was plaited in a long braid. It drooped from the back of her head, from where it dangled down between her shoulder blades. Unlike the others she wore her uniform in a rakish, taunting way.
It wasn’t only 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, with an authority so profound, it seemed to dare anything to intrude into its vacuum.
I noticed how her mouth closed at the same time as Precious slowly opened her eyes, to pour the black ink of her stare over me.
Under the spread of the shady boughs of the big water trees lining the river’s edge in ebullience, the ramps gradual gradient down the steep sides offers easy access to the water. It is where they launch and retrieve the boats, and pump the river water up into the holding tank perched atop the tree covered anthill behind the lodge’s 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 palpable from a distance. Even the dark ebony skin of the African has a slight 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 in other places. It is part of Africa, the acceptance of one’s fate, because dire situations have been woven into the fabric of life so often, that the assumption is that there is seldom enough time to pick apart the tangled knots of circumstance.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“We were pumping water Bwana, and the crocodile leaped at Eddie. We were getting ready to start the pump’s engine. We had just put the pipe into the water.”
It was Kings who was speaking. He was a big muscular man, who spoke with a deep voice. I noticed how the skin between his eye-brows tended to crease into furrows when he talked, as if he was concentrating on some complexity.
“How long have you people been living here?” I admonished sarcastically, “Don’t you know that you should 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, “It sounds like you were careless. Are you silly city people who stand closer than your own height from the edge. That crocodile waited for hours. It let the weeds drift over it so its shape was broken under water. Crocodiles are very sly. I have seen them sink themselves into the mud, where they wait for days for something to be careless.”
“Bwana, we were careful!”
I remonstrated sharply, “No, you were not. It was smarter than all of you.”
A faint 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 at all!
I once again turned my attention to Kings, “Do you know any 1st aid?”
One 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.
There is a stark difference between giving orders and eliciting willing cooperation. After all initiative has no genesis in following orders, but cooperation is its parent, and if disaster here was not to morph in to tragedy, someone needed to take the initiative.
“So how did Eddie get away?” I asked.
“Bwana, He was lucky.” This time it was one of the others who spoke. “He held onto the pump, and 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 Nicholas as he gave the explanation. I couldn’t place the source of his sullen hostility. Maybe his mood wasn’t personal after all. It now seemed he was also casting the net of his petulance over Nicholas as well.
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. The only sound was the rustle of the leaves in the big trees as they draped their shadows over the corrugated tin roof of the vehicle shed, and spilled what remained of their shadow over the thatch of the old storage room.
The hierarchical protocol of rural African life now 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 stayed on my knees looking down at the motionless figure laying on the blanket, with the three silent men standing over me.
In these remote places, 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 results. Kasempa is 150 kilometers away, and Mumbwa 120. It isn’t only the distance on a rough dirt road, but also, both destinations require a pontoon crossing. 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.
I could see the 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 flesh around 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 his hold while he clutched to the pump. The reptile had exerted powerful backward lunges with its thrashing tail in the water. It had made savage efforts to drag Eddie loose and 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 magenta staining of the blankets. Even more problematic was that he was still losing it. There was still a very slight ooze from a particularly deep wound at the back of his knee. At least the faint rhythm of the ooze indicated he yet had a pulse. But with each weak leaking dribble Eddie’s life was oozing away.
It was many years since I had faced the urgency of preventing 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 like the blood from Eddie’s leg, something inside me began to flow as it took unthinking control. Unlike the outward ooze of the blood, it spread inwards. It was an automatic efficient numbness which throttled fear and panic. That old coping mechanism from battle experience.
The corrugated iron roof of the shed next to us ticked rhythmically as it expanded and contracted in the alternating sunshine and shadows as the clouds drifted by overhead. They were the wispy decorations set in the ceiling of the sky above the stage of our pitiful drama.
Looking 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 athletic figure approach past the small circular hut-like office, and crossed to where we were at the top of the ramp, her gait gave the appearance of seemingly 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 bats into dawns shadows my curiosity of the girl faded. Shifting my focus, I looked back down at Eddie.
I always keep the bandages and surgical tape in the top drawer in the case. The most important items in my opinion were the triple-plus antiseptic cream, the cotton pads, the Coban elastic adhesive tape and, the endless versatility of my own addition, duct tape. Also included were some suturing needles and a small spool of very light fishing line.
“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.
Eddie was so weak he could no longer respond to commands. I shifted his head to the side, and 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 so tight as to cut off all circulation.
“Take some of 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 girls were also uneasy silent observers.
Without looking up I spoke 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 the others across to the sheds.
There was something different about Precious. When the regularity of life was disturbed, it was as if it allowed a different aspect of her aura to slip to the surface. A strange hint of 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 long slender hands, but even with the encumbrance of the folds of latex, it was easy to detect the sure 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 the suture hooks. 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 even 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 the 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 him 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.
The cycle of life, to eat and be eaten. Eddie had nearly been a last 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 came back to Kings’ hostility towards me. This was a new thing. In the two years I had been here, not being part of the lodges operations I had had only 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 three-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 snake. 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!”