(17 – Thunderstorms)
I had woken some hours after midnight.
The old boy of the Chamafumbu pride was noisy.
Maybe it was because he, like me, is affected by the magic of a full moon and it made him want to express his power. The drawn out rumbles of his moaning roars had ruffled the smoothness of my slumber.
Somewhere far away upstream on the opposite side of the river one of the bosses of the Mushingashi pride was also roaring. Over there, two young short-mained males had dethroned the old king sometime during the last rainy season.
Wrapped in the darkness of the night, and enveloped within the layers of my tent and sleeping bag like a silkworm in the comfort of its cocoon, the sounds kindled my primitive subconscious response, making me mentally wide-eyed and alert. Instinctively I knew that it is best not to draw the attention of a big prowling cat at night. I needed to have a pee, but I would tarry a while until I heard Chamafumbu’s roars receed a tad. His roars were so close I could discern the intake of breath between the big boy’s bellows.
There are very few places in the world where a soul can listen to the roar of a lion and know that there is no fence between it and yourself. It produces a visceral emotion which, I am sure, is evidence of how many hundreds of thousands of years lions were an extant part of our ancient ancestor’s daily reality. I challenge any one to not feel that tingle of fear when it is nightfall and a pride of lions is on the hunt close by. Darkness is when a lion is at its best, its most aggressive and fearless. The unwary and nocturnally reckless amongst our forbearer’s were eaten.
Just before dawn the birds had already begun to rouse and the big Leadwood and Acacia trees had more form. So too did the shapes of the shower and chitenge structures across the open ground of the lodges camping area. The full moon which had earlier been hazed over by high alto stratus was more revealed as it brushed the landscape with the silver dust of its pale luminescence.
A Heuglin’s Robin who frequented the thickets behind my tent was one of the first to herald the pending birth of the new day with song. After its first tentative beginning, almost as if to clear its throat, the sound of the call rose to the resounding crescendo of its climactic perfection.
It is a call almost as emblematic of Africa as that of the Fish Eagle. With that of the Purple Crested Turaco, the beauty of this sound symbolizes for me the denser more fecund parts of Africa, the warmer, wetter, more enticing parts, those parts with the ready-to-be-plucked ‘forbidden’ fruits.
Finally the slightly less deafening amplitude of Chamafumbu’s vocalizations allowed me to overcome my reticence to rouse.
Then, with my bare legs extended towards the fire pit, and my view of the embers of last night’s fire wedged in the V formed between the sandals on my feet as they hooked over each other, I relaxed.
I sat in the pre-dawn dimness and sipped my coffee. French pressed in my African style, very strong, sweetened with two spoons of sugar and mellowed with a dash of powdered milk, it was perfected with two rusks to dunk in it.
And I contemplated my options.
With my elbows on the armrests of the camp chair, I cradled my mug in both hands just inches before my face.
This allowed quiet shallow sips with minimal arm movement. I did not want to disturb the small herd of Puku antelope that had spent the night out in the openness of the grossi dambo. A few of the doe’s were grazing closer to where I sat.
The wisps of steam rising from the cup before my eyes made the outline of the antelope Flickr and fade like apparitions in a dream, then, as the steam curled in a different direction, they reappeared with perfect clarity.
The steam rose sensuously up into the black pre-dawn magenta of the sky as it was nudged by the almost imperceptible sideways slide of the night air. The fractionally heavier coolness of this air eased it between the trunks of the tall trees, and their surrounds of shrubs, from where it slowly slid across the open expanse of the dambo before it finally filtered down to settle into the wide rut of the river bed itself.
It was still early and it was Sunday. Without guests in camp Sunday is the only day that has a slight relaxation in its routine. Things start a bit later on Sunday than on the other days at the Lodge.
Later I could head across and share another cup of coffee with Idaa the manager and get an update on what it happened, if anything, while I was away. Or maybe I could take the boat and head a few clicks upriver to meet with Richard. I was curious if he was aware of anything unusual in his sector of the Lunga-Luswishi. He could brief me on any developments with our cooperative anti-poaching activities.
Or I could continue the escape from it all. I could come back with the downloads of messages from the lodge’s painfully slow dish satellite link. I could come back and read and sleep and check any email from the cyber elsewhere.
Or I could ignore it all. I could experience the wonderful escape from the rest of the frenetic apostasy of modern progress.
With my tent pitched on the edge of the altar of one of nature’s last cathedrals, that of the Kafue, I felt that I could almost commune with any of the Gods of the Universe. I did not need to pay large sums of money, like some of my old school chums who had managed to ‘make it’, when they attempt to find the peace and harmony of soul on the couch of a piss pot psychologist, or in the expensive austerity of a week spent in an Ashram.
So, I went back to my tent and let time go by.
I slept most of the day rousing fitfully to make a cup of coffee or to drink some mango juice. Sometimes I switched my attention to listen to the low background hum of the thousands of bush bees gathering nectar from the tiny composite flowers of the tree above the chitenge apron. These were the flowers I would have to keep sweeping away as, with their mating complete, and the pollen wiped from the legs of a bee onto a receptive stigma, the tiny petals of these flowers wilted and dropped and sprinkled from their florets in their tens of thousands, like confetti at a Kurdish wedding. The hum was the music to accompany the essential splendor of one of nature’s myriad porn shows. It was raw incestuous sex at its most perfect. As a biologist I knew that nature did not concern itself with the narrowness of our morality, the bees did not care that the flowers were from the same parent tree, nor did the flowers.
By mid-morning outside the tent it was hot, and hotter inside. I furled up all of the tent’s side window flaps to let in the breeze flowing across the dambo and tickling the leaves on the trees so that I could detect the faint rustles of their response.
Finally I roused sufficiently to have a shower and shave and got ready to go over and join Idaa for a sundowner.
But before I pack my laptop into my backpack, I read once more what I intended to send to Sophia.
It had been a few days since I returned from the visit to Father Xavier in my quest to find Moses. I had heard nothing since. There was little I could do to further my search. All I could do was wait and hope.
But, while there, the burst of excited delight engendered by Sophia’s short communique had slowly since dissipated. There had been no response to my initial few sentences of happiness at her unexpected outreach.
Anyway, what does one say after a gap of three decades. .
Since then the solitude of the evenings had given me time to compose a short essay, indicating in an indirect manner where I was in life. A sort of bridge between the then and now in a symbolic way.
I would see if it triggered a response. If It was no longer possible to touch her body, maybe it would still be possible to touch her mind.
While I packed away the laptop I could hear distant thunder. As a precaution I decided to unfurl and secure the window covers. Just In case it rained a tad.
Walking the short distance between the camp area and the lodge, a few spits of rain began to dimple the twin strips of the roads sandy surface..
Despite the ominousness of the distant thunder, It seemed that it would remain that way for a while, at least until I reach the shelter of the main Chitenge.
But it was as if someone had quickly turned off the lights. Leaving my tent it had been in the light of afternoon. Five minutes later and halfway down the road it was dusk!
This is how it is in Africa. As soon as the sun sets, day is done, and it is dark. But this was more rapid. I sort of sensed that the clouds were coalescing above me.
Suddenly, the skies aloft were split by a flash so bright that it could only have escaped from a toolbox left behind from the creation of Genesis.
The massive juddering strobe lit the darkness directly overhead, freezing the leaves and branches of the Acacia and Euphorbia trees at the side of the road. The deafening clap of thunder which blew away these images frozen on the retinas of my eyes, arrived only five seconds later.
I was glad that my sandals had thick rubber sole’s with good lightning protection. But I was aware that even this would be useless in a close strike. In the army the statistics from the war in Angola showed that the greatest killer had been vehicle accidents, followed by unintended gun-shot wounds, thirdly enemy action, after which it was a toss-up between lightning strikes and crocodile attacks.
It is very dangerous to shelter under big trees during a thunderstorm. Thus I headed out away from the road which follows the tree line.
From the center of the dambo I could look over the trees and see that the whole South east sky was possessed by a wall of hell. It was flooded with a mighty wave of deep angry purple clouds. They were seemingly suspended in motion, but oozed danger. The light from the set sun still lingered to the west. It highlighted wispy frontrunners. These straggly clouds were painted in lighter shapes of mauve and bluish-grey .
If I glanced at the massive purple wall I could see the sparkling bolts of hell boiling and rippling across its surface like the great licks of a serpents tongue.
The rumbles of thunder even overwhelmed the sounds of the swish of my feet through the thick grass of the dambo.
I made it to the Chitenge before any significant rain began to fall.
From the Chitenge deck, which cantilevers out over the river bank, I had a great view of the show.
Then…..Like a freight train I could hear it coming towards the lodge from across the distant low hill and river.
The trees over there shook and lashed around.
And with a growl it arrived, the blasting, flapping, tumbling body of air. The trees all around bent and succumbed to the push of the wind, thrashing their boughs and fluttering off leaves. A crash came from the vehicle sheds… Something big had been knocked over or blown into something else fixed in place.
A few drops of rain began to spatter.
Then it opened up! Sheets of deluging rain lashed across the trees and under the thatched roof of the chitenge and splashed against the furniture.
One of the staff came running across from the kitchen. I helped him drag the big padded chairs further back under the roof and out of the rains reach.
And it kept lashing down.
The water poured from the roof line and began to flood across the lawn.
This went on, the rain and the wind, for an hour. Until , almost with a sigh of submission it was spent . Its force and fury was replaced with the gentle brush of a cool drizzle.
I had just witnessed one of nature’s greatest shows…a big bruising African thunderstorm.
The summer’s wet season had arrived.
And there it was, the surprising unexpectedness of Africa.
Because, from the gap in the fence, instead of Idaa coming to join me for a belated sundowner, it was Melody who came striding across the lawn through the softness of the drizzle.
Her clothes were wet and clung to her figure, revealing her femininity, as well as indicating that she had come all the way from the staff quarters and not just the kitchen.
But this time, instead of with an air of supplication, she crossed directly to where I stood.
She looked down at her shirt as she took the fabric on both sides between her thumbs and forefingers, then tugged the cloth away from the closeness of her shape, so the fabric no longer clasped her form, and gave me less excuse to drift my eyes over her attractiveness.
Sheesh I thought to myself I’ve been in the Bush too long, I need to get back to Lusaka and some time with Claudia.
While still flicking the fabric of her shirt free from its wet cling, it was as if she could sense the edge of her hold on my attention. As she lifted her head to look at me, I could detect a faint glimmer of haughty superiority in her eyes.
‘Bwana, we need to speak.’
And with a slight edge to her voice added, ‘The crocodile man was here last night. He spoke to some of the staff.’
‘Can we meet tomorrow morning?’ I replied, ‘Idaa will be here in a few minutes.’
‘No Bwana. I want to speak to you now when the others will not see us talking. I will come to your camp after you are finished here.’
With that she turned and walked away through the softly falling rain
(18 – A dress)
I could barely contain my reaction. I am still not sure if it was a gasp of surprise, or a whistle of wonder.
The cut was conventional. The sleeveless frugality, together with the austerity of its simple square neckline freed my eyes to drift down over the sumptuous pattern of the fabric. From there it was a scintillating slide over her shape, all the way down to its modest termination. It did so and avoided prudery with a slight and judicious exposure of her knees.
– Wow, that is an amazing dress!
The intricate intertwining of the underlying pattern of orange-gold and yellows, was overlain with dominating splashes of big nested windowed rectangles and eye-like circles. The starkness of these random sized dashes of black and white was ameliorated with an occasional substitution of turquoise gray. it was a dress which could have been picked directly from the wardrobe of Adele Bloch-Bauer, after she had modeled for Klimt himself.
The smooth ebony slenderness of one arm demurely crossed over her midriff as she cupped the elbow of the other, as it in turn dropped its stillness like a shadow at her side.
Maybe the visual shock of its colors appearing out of the darkness of the night would have been less impactful if this was Durban, and it was July, and the grand horse race had not yet switched the attention away from the display of fashionable attire.
Instead it was my lonely and almost forlorn campsite in the North East corner of an immense Kafue solitude. This was not exactly the appropriate place for a fashion parade.
– Thank you, she murmured quietly, I wanted you to see it.
Her words were accompanied with a mock curtsy, and a toss of her head which hinted at an air of indifference, almost as if she were not seeking a compliment.
– Where did you get it?
– I made it myself. I bought the fabric in Lusaka, at Manda Hills.
As my surprise ebbed I pulled another camp chair closer to the halo of the fire and indicated for her to be seated.
– Do you go there often?
My question was rhetorical, I knew that the young women who worked at the lodge would not be able to afford frequent trips to the big city.
– I go when I can, she replied, which is not enough!
There was a barely hidden edge of bitterness in her voice.
I changed the subject.
– So how is Eddie?
As I lean back in the camp chair and stretch my legs I was a tad self-conscious of my dress.
Even though there had been a slight cooling of the evening air in the aftermath of the downpour, it was still comfortable enough to sit outside in the drabness of my khaki shirt and shorts, with my feet pointed at the camp fire.
I was not sure if it was this contrast in our clothingn, or something else. But whatever it was, like a pond ruffled by a breeze I was also aware of a faint sense of unease.
It was as if she had been a butterfly always with its wings closed to blend in with the bush. Then, in the blink of an eye, this Charaxes had opened her wings to reveal the brilliance of hidden colors, and a potential to fly faster and higher than I ever imagined.
I reminded myself that she was almost a servant in her stature at the lodge, and probably three decades younger.
Admittedly I was not her boss. Thus I did not really need to concern myself with an issue of maintaining a formal working distance.
But, now, wearing that dress, it transformed her into something else. What exactly I was not sure. And there was the surprise of that subtle brazenness in the way she had told me she would be over.
Maybe there was a crack in my male armor. Maybe she had detected it when I let my gaze drift for too long over the shape under the wet cling of her uniform.
But as we both gazed at the flickering dance of the fires flames, I had that almost forgotten premonition of danger. That six sense one learns to detect when walking into the killing ground of a bush ambush. There’s nothing upon which to place a validating finger. There is just the sense that someone else has the advantage. That if it was you, this is where you would set a trap. That to survive, sounds needed to be listened to more carefully, eyes opened wider, gazes cast quicker, footsteps more cautious. A sense to move away from the obvious and easy, and instead to hug the denser and more impenetrable margins.
Sheesh I thought to myself, what a killing ground, what a way to die! The sparkle of her beauty was spectacularly augmented by her attire.
But that was a ridiculous and out of place premonition. My ego reasserted itself with its veto. She was young, and despite my age, the Bush life had kept me fit and trim, so why not assume the obvious. Why else would she come to my campsite three hours after sunset, when the rest of the lodge had shut down. Why would she endure a distant walk in the darkness. And why else would she dress so sumptuously, if not for me.
But, she just continued to sit in silence as if mesmerized by the flicker of the flames.
The rhythmic, monotonous peep of a fruit bat came from the dark denseness of the water trees behind us.
Again I asked,
– How is Eddie, have you heard from him.
Still staring at the flames, she slowly straightened and then hooked her legs together, and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
-They say he will be fine.
The gold of the dress was reflected in the warmth of the flames, and its yellow in the light from the propane lamp as it hissed quietly on the table beside us.
The moon had not yet risen and the lamps light also stretched the umbra of her shadow like a faint stain over the paleness of the sand.
I began to relax and enjoy the situation, with the unusualness of her company.
Sophia could wait, Claudia could wait, Moses could wait. The whole goddamn world could wait. Caution be damned! Why not walkout brazenly into the middle of her wide open Oshana.
-Can I offer you something to drink? I have some mango juice, some Cola.. Do you drink alcohol, I asked. I even have some liquor I keep for special guests. It is only gin and tonic, but most people like it.
Rising and stretching like a cat, she took the kettle that was on the table and placed it between the logs of the fire.
-Do you have tea? Tanganda or RooiBos.
Then without waiting for my reply, she stood and turned to face me from the opposite side of the fire, looking down on where I set with fingers furled on my lap.
-Bwana, she stated firmly, look at me.
-Why do you think I am standing here dressed like this. Do you think it is to pander to your pride?
I sat in shocked silence.
I suddenly realized that I had been led into the virtual openness of the Oshana for a reason. The dress was the ruse for something different.
-I dress this way to shock you. To show you that I am different.
-I see you looking at me, and I see how you speak to me. Yes, you are a m’zungu. But because you have grown up in Africa all your life, and so many of your friends are African, you have their attitudes.
– Because I am a woman, you take me to be weaker, less capable, even inferior.
-I watch you watching me. I am too young for you, you know that, and yet you still look at me in that way.
-I see how you ignore the obvious. That you ignore that I am different. You cannot see that I want something more.
-Do you think that anyone can produce a dress like this out here?
When caught in any ambush, if one is still alive after the first few seconds of surprise, the only way to survive is to surprise the surprisers, to attack back and hope to win the fire-fight, instead of being picked off as one runs away.
She had caught me out in the mental open.
But before I could even turn to attack she sprung another.
-And I also ask you.. Are you lazy, are you scared?
-Why have you not responded to what I have told you. Why have you not acted quickly?
Now all I could do was let her pick me off at her convenience.
-Bwana, I have told you that the Crocodile has very powerful Muti. He makes it himsellf. It is so powerful it is attracting attention from distant places. That is why the Hyena is here. He flies here when the moon is full to get it.
-You are a m’zungu who understands these matters of Muti. You know where the most powerful Muti comes from.
-Bwana you are here to stop the poaching of animals. You know that it is the money of the rising middle class in China and all Asia that is driving the demand for the Muti of elephant tusks and rhino horns.
-It is the same in Africa. Uhuru has given this sub-continent a rising middle class, but it is for a different Muti medicine.
-Bwana, maybe you are like me, and you follow the news from the rest of this country and the world.
-I’m not sure if you heard that a few months ago here, in Lusaka, a Mwenya middleman was court with a freezer full of m’chende.
-The word in the villages is that the Hyena wants the medicine from the Mwaabi (albino)
-And so most of the Mwaabi have left, or they are hiding in the bush.
-You have thwarted that Crocodile once with Eddie.
-That crocodile is still hungry, and he was back here last night.
-You need to remember that even though you are a m’zungu, you have a white skin.
-So this time, when I warn you, do not be lazy.
-If you do not find him, he may find you out in the open, when you least expect it.
(19 – Footprints)
I am sure that I am not unique.
Somewhere deep inside the core of our souls there must be a child lurking and peeping out with a sense of wonder, because sometimes, unexpectedly, that fallow enthusiastic eagerness at confronting the newness of life still manages to manifest itself.
When this happens to me, it is as profound as when, long ago, I pressed those small pedals into their full rotations, and propel the bicycle across the lawn of the rose garden. There was that initial sense of apprehension as I felt my father release his steadying grip behind the saddle. Then there was the thrill of the first wobbly independent passage across the lawn. The exhilarating glee of discovering speed. It was unspoiled by the culminating scratchy crash of my bicycle into the fruit laden hang of the naartjie trees beyond the roses..
Because that child does not age and has not yet learnt to count, we lose track of the progress of all the tomorrow’s that have spanned the gape between what seems to be only yesterday and our todays.
But because only fools and children speak the truth, it takes the youth of someone else to make one aware of the magnitude of that count.
After all, our minds are notorious at playing tricks with our reality. If all we get to see of our aged selves is not much more than a few minutes in front of a morning mirror as we shave or put on our makeup, how can we be blamed for ignoring the progress of our decay.
I realized that for me someone who is old is always ten years older than I.. Thus as I enter the fifth decade of life, someone in their 60s seems to be old,
Hence by extension, for Precious, just beyond her second decade, I must have seemed ancient.
It was her youth, and not her foolishness which etched the truth on the mirror in my mind.
And as the dew of dawn flicked off from its fleeting hold on the brush of grass around my ankles, her words still lingered.
– You are too old for me, and you know it.
I was confronted by the discovery of something unexpected, the surprising and disturbing differences in the newness of her being.
I knew that she was also correct with the rest of her statement.
I had grown up amongst the people here in Central Africa. The woof of its culture had woven itself into the warp of mine. Thankfully the most tragic aspect of my culture, that of colonial racism had been brutally expunged on the battlefield. Constad Viljoen had been right, ‘If they can fight for us they can vote for us’.
But in Angola it was more than voting that we did. Only in the great equalizer of military conflict does one come to understand brotherhood, equality and mutual dependence. We learned that dependence had no relationship with color orcreed. It was those who had buddies they could depend on around them who survived the battles best. Even more importantly it was those with buddies, black, brown or white, who shared and shook together who later walked away with some semblance of sanity.
It was the loners that had trouble with it all. In the good units they were weeded out long before they could become bosbefok’ed from the stress, which would be magnified by the lens of their aloneness.
And ‘Os Tterriveis’ was one of the best units the world has ever seen.
However, out there we did not have women to bond and come to terms with… Precious recognized this in me. Despite the influence of my M’zungu culture, I found it hard to readjust my perception of a womans position on the totem pole of life. I still bridled at taking orders or imperatives from them, especially if they were young.
As I walked across the dambo towards the chalets, the long tongues of grass, still sodden from the previous evening’s downpour, had licked sufficient moisture onto the shins of my legs that it’s droplets trickled over my ankles and into the tops of my leather veldskoens. With no socks, I could feel the moist squishiness in the toes of each shoe.
With the advent of the rain, I knew that even as I walked, life all around me was beginning to surge. The mixture of water and warmth would soon transform the predominant somber hues of the dry winter Bush into the bursting, almost iridescent vitality of the hot wet rainy season.
As I approached the first upstream chalet, My mind drifted away from its preoccupation with the enigma of this young woman. Instead I was reminded of the first time I felt my bare legs being caressed by the dampness of this long grass.
Back then It had been with that same vague childlike sense of apprehension, which precedes the wide-eyed exhilaration of discovery, that I had first stepped up onto the platform of the Lubungu Pontoon.
It was February 1997.
Rather than the wobbles across a lawn, it had been the lurching progress of a Toyota hi Lux which revealed the magic of this particular seclusion, which is embroidered into the refracted dapples of this bit of bushveld.
For the first time I saw the edges of the Shalamakanga dambo painted in ebulliently verdurous swaths of light green or dark olive, with interstitial dabs of grey, brown and fawn.
And beneath this visual plethora the rain was still running down the barely visible road ruts which we were following.
And the elephant grass, my God the elephant grass. It grows here like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. It was so tall that the tassels of the strands slapped back as far as the cab of the car when hit by the forward motion of the vehicle. These tassels accumulated on the hood and piled up on the glass of the windscreen, beyond the reach of the wipers, into a slush is thick as the mud which splashed onto the doors, and coated the roofs of the wheel housings.
The mid-summer of ’96-’97 was very wet. It was the extent of the wetness which prompted my slight trepidation. What would be the state of the unmaintained road far out ahead? Especially once we crossed on the pontoon to the north bank.
And even more so when the vehicle turned its snout away from the main road and headed back to the river. If we had vehicle problems, or got very stuck in the mud, we would be in trouble. Our vehicle did not have a hydraulic winch.
Incidentally, while out there, the manager of the only functioning lodge on that section of the river at that time, Leopard Lodge, hearing via the bush telegraph that someone had arrived at the old camp, came out to investigate, and got resoundedly stuck in the mud.
Actualy even today these problems exist to some extent.
But back in that wet of ’97 we had come to look for the almost non-existent remains of what used to be a well maintained colonial era camping ground.
‘We’, were myself and an old high school friend who had made it big overseas. He wanted to be somehow involved back in the Africa of our boyhood.
Our goal was the old derelict camp located in a one kilometer square section of land along the north bank of the Kafue River.
This was more or less in the rivers mid point along its 2000 kilometer meandering length. Because it was across the river from the National Park, and in the Lunga-Luswishi GMA, it was ‘private’ land and it was for sale.
Here the Kafue River still heads South West along its very ancient path, little changed from 10 million yers ago, when it was still part of the mighty Limpopo river, when that river rivaled todays Nile or Amazon. The Kafue had not yet been stolen by the young and vigorous Zambezi which was quickly cutting its way up from the Indian Ocean.
In those heady days of that wet summer it seemed that the winds of change mentioned by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in his 1961 speach had finally begun to blow with a steady warm breath over all of Sub Saharan Africa.
Mandela had left Robben Island, South African voters of all colors and creeds had exercised their right to choose. Even in Zimbabwe inflation was manageable and Mugabe had allowed locals to haveUS dollar denominated bank accounts. His paranoia had not yet become apparent.
Up across the Zambezi in Zambia, a new political party was in power. President Chiluba was encouraging foreign investment and allowing those with business plans and dollars or rands to take up residence.
The pull of all this northward vortex had sucked me up over the Limpopo, and then hearing the first whispers of the Zimbabwe War Vets, it had sucked me even further, up over the Zambezi, into Zambia. After all, why piss into the stench of the Zim war vets wind.
I had started high school at Falcon College in the old Rhodesia, and finished it at Kearsney College in South Africa. The motto of the first was ‘Sic Itur Ad Astra’, and the later ‘Carpe Diem’. So why not seize an opportunity and head unto the stars…
But being broke, I had contacted my old moneyed school mate. Two weeks later, we found ourselves fighting our way through the mud of Central Africa to kick the tires of this opportunity.
I was a long as escort, while he checked if this was an opportunity worth seizing. I told him it would not last long, even the timid would eventually begin to head back into the ‘bad’ Africa north of the Limpopo. $40k for one square km of land on the edge of the Kafue National Park was a risk worth taking.
And as we approached our destination I remember being struck by the magnificencce of the trees.
In the rainy dullness of that first day the trunks of the huge Leadwoods had been stained gunmetal gray by the wetness of the rain, and they were obscured by the tallness of the grass and the copious plethora of the copsed foliage,
Then in a sudden and short lived break in the rain burdened clouds, the sunlight was splashed in viridescent emerald of on the leafy foliage of the trees which lined our passage. The weight of the rain seemed to cause the branches to droop in our honor like the solemn skirted curtsy’s of maidens welcoming our attendance at a medieval festival.
Ahhhh, What a welcome it had been.
The only building standing was a small thatched shack with crumbling half height walls. I remember the sense of pleasure at discovering that despite its decrepit state the thatch was still holding up. The floor was dry and would be home for the next two days of almost incessant rain.
The outline of that old building is still recognizable. Now it is with repaired walls reaching up to the new thatching. It serves as the lockup room for the more valuable and easily stolen supplies such as diesel, cement and tools.
With all those memories in my mind I passed the old shack and walked a tad further to the open tin roofed structures of the vehicle sheds.
It took a while, but I finally found what I was looking for.
It was a clear boot-print.
I had been expecting that.
In the days I had been away with Father Xavier the spoor sign would surely have started to be degraded. Whatever remained would have been washed away in the previous eves deluge.
But here in the soft sand under the tin roof of the sheds, the rain had been kept away.
As I looked down on its impression in the sand, a dead man crept quietly over my soul. I recognized the print.
It was a ZIPRA boot-print, with all its unmistakable characteristics.
A big part of warfare in Africa involves tracking, and we had had to learn who were the players, both past and present. This one had been on our learn list.
Four decades ago, the boots supplied by the Russians to the men of Joshua N’komo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army. (ZIPRA) had very characteristic X shaped studs at the center of the soles of their boots.
I rolled the realization around in my mind, Crocodile man’ wore ZIPRA boots.
As I looked down at the print where he had stood when I attended to Eddie, I thought how ZIPRA had basically been a movement of the Matabele tribe. The Matabele had the Matopos hills.
Those hills, with the oracle of the Mlimo, was at the heart of so much of the mystical tribal beliefs of Central Africa.
More than ever I needed Moses to help me piece together the riddle pressed into the sand at my feet
(20 – Old Jacarandas)
Thirty years ago the hilarity in Sophia’s voice checked abruptly. She paused as we spoke on the phone. In the background I heard a muffled conversation with someone with a male voice.
Then, with a barely audible sighe, as if turning back to speak to me, and in a slow, deliberate cadence she said,
– I don’t want you to ever contact me again!
She hung up the phone.
I was shocked!
But for 3 decades I had respected her wish.
However, with the advent of the Internet, every few years I have engaged in some cyber stalking. I learned that she has had an illustrious career in architecture and the design of big public works. I also knew that she lived somewhere in the greater Tell Aviv area.
I found out that she had a partner. That they had two daughters. I was unsure if she ever had been, or still was married, because in her professional career she uses her maiden surname.
And now!! in the aftermath of her stunning outreach! How should I reply?
Should I tell her that I love her? That I miss her? Of course not.
Yes, her short two lined communiqué, certainly had hissed over my being like a spray of aerosol through the flicker of a candle.
But love? longing? No.. that would be bullshit.
So how should I reply? With soppy sentimentalism, full of platitudes. No…
I would just reply with a simple story. Maybe it would speak to her sense of nostalgia, and hint at what could’ve been, had events been otherwise, in our case, had a war not intervened.
My dearest Sophia,
The old-timers of Lusaka tell of the days when they were young, back in the 50s and 60s, when they would cut away from work early on the Friday of a long mid year weekend, to be able to leave the flat leafy Jacaranda shaded suburbs of the city by 3 o’clock.
Heading out towards Angola on the Great West road, they would deviate to the Northwest at Mumbwa, the shabby dishevelled little town which did, and still does, served as the administrative center for the countries western province.
If they drove at elevated speeds, as young men are want to do, when spurred on by alcohol and a sparse and sympathetic police presence, four hours later, just after it was dark, they would be at the Lubungu pontoon.
On the flat open ground adjacent to the pontoon, they would set up camp for the night in the light cast by the headlights of the vehicles until the kerosene Primus lamps could be lit.
The next morning, as they woke to the clink of the kettle being heated on the wood fire prepared by the servant who invariably was in attendance, they would slowly extricate themselves from their blankets. Still dressed in their khaki shorts and with the coarse cotton fabric of their short-sleeved bush shirts roughened by their slumber, they would nurse their hangovers. Then, just as slowly, they would lace up their leather ‘veldskoen’ shoes, and wander over to warm themselves with their hands spread open towards the heat of the fire.
In the pre-dawn gloom and with their coffee mugs now clasped in their palms as a substitute for the warmth of the fire, they could wander over to check out the focus of their visit. There before them, Spreading North East and South West, with broad lazy twists and loops, like the long swaddling sashes used by the African women to strap their babies to their backs, they could see how the Kafue river wended its wide way, tucked broadly into the opulent lushness of its banks.
Soon their hangovers would be assuaged by the sweetness of their African coffee, into which they would dunked and sucked the big thick ‘Ouma’ rusk biscuits.
When the mixed dregs of their beverage and rusks had been flicked onto the dry grass, and the mugs given to the servant to clean, they would call to the pontoon crew.
After some haggling as to the ‘incentive’ price needed to have an early start, six young men, all from the area of Chief Kasempa, would saunter across from their nearby huts.
As the crew slowly spread themselves out evenly along the up-stream edge of the pontoon’s hulking platform, they would still be hugging themselves and rubbing the exposed bareness of their arms to ward off the chill of the air as it seeped down to cover the river with a cloak of early morning stillness.
Once in position, the men would slide the slots cut in their wooden mallets onto the draw cable, whose shallow parabolic arc, together with that of the thicker, higher anchor cable, disappeared across into the low fog which, in winter, invariably forms over the waters of the river.
As the pressure on their mallets gripped the cable, in chanted unison, their heaves, like those of travail, would slowly edge the hulk of the pontoon, and its burdens, like some prehistoric beast through the swaddling mists on the broad surface of the river.
Reaching the far bank, it would not take long for the crimson orb of the sun at the eastern edge of the enormous sky to begin to unfurl and dissolve the mists as it heralded a new day.
Once across the young men would be outside the boundary of the National Park. Now they could head a tad further, as the road edged north towards the next pontoon, over the Lunga, and on to Kasempa. They could cut back to meet the river further upstream, or simply camp on the far side where they would launch the boats using the pontoon beach head as a ramp.
Either way, here on its clear and eddying currents, the young men would spend the next few days, largely unaware of the hindsight that would in six decades, allow them to realize that they had been in one of the Gardens of Eden.
Six decades later, the winds of time and change would have blown away the youth of these men. Those gusts of change would be of such significance that, just as the gusts of August scatters the leaves of the gracious spreading Jacaranda’s, the old timers too, would mostly have been scattered far from that Garden of Eden.
Uncannily it was at a wedding on the other side of the world where, like an ancient mariner, one of those old timers, recognizing my accent, had tugged at my sleeve. He would not let me go until he had finished his tankard of beer, and told me of those halcyon days when as a young boy, he had fished in Eden.
As I listened to his tale, I wondered if I should tell him that despite it all, not all of Paradise had been lost..
Should I tell him that now, sixty years later, just as it was still confined within the flat sprawl of his mind, the streets of his memories are still adorned with the leafy crowns of the Jacarandas. That some of those same trees, with six more decades of growth, now arch across the roads like the buttressed ceilings of a cathedral.
Should I tell him that only a month before, I had camped for the night on the south bank of the pontoon, where, sheltered from the chill of the air in my sleeping bag, I had lain awake listening to the clink of the kettle.
Should I relate that, in the brief dimness that precedes an African dawn, I had lain listening to nature’s symphony, as it had sounded here for millions of years, unspoiled by man…the snort of an impala, the bark of a baboon, the wild bray of a Hadeda Ibis taking flight, the drawn-out plaintive bugleing of a flock of trumpeter hornbills. Or maybe it was The last call of a Scops Owl before it would hide away for the day from the mobbing of other birds.
And the most beautiful of them all, the Heuglin’s Robin, in the same thicket as that of the old mans memory, with its call rising, rising, rising, to crest in a crescendo as climactic as any passion, long since dissipated by the decades of his exile. I knew that crescendo was a sound and a song which, must still linger in his nostalgia, as surely must the rusted hulk of the pontoon.
Should I relate that it is the same hulk, unchanged except for a pair of crank-start 1-pant engines.
And that it still plies its slow deliberate ways, across the waters of Eden.
Your – Gideon.
(21 – Slinghsot)
Despite my attempts to sort it out, it was as if some of Schrodinger’s cats were playing hide and seek between my feet while they chased the laces left behind by a pair of boots whose prints were discarded in the cubby holes of my mind.
I stood still looking down on the set of impressions for a minute as the cerebral skitterings distracted my thoughts from any reasoned choice amongst a myriad of possibilities. Both the cats and their hiding places provided scant predictability as to any logical certainty Stemming from past experience, and how it could be applied to the present or future.
Then, as I turned away from the vehicle shed which had protected the prints from the elements, anyone observing the sympathetic swaying of my arms to the slow metronome of my strides, could probably accurately wager as to where I was headed, but they could hardly guess at the randomness of my mental grasping at the straws floating past on my theoretical eddies.
My steps were intended to take me towards the Chitenge and a ritual rendezvous with Idaa, who I knew would be sitting out on the deck overlooking the river having his usual mug of morning coffee.
Actually it was more of a mental sniffing than a grasping, because the sun had just begun to drift up over the rim of the horizon, when, in my mind, Schrodinger’s cats morphed into a pack of dogs. These hounds scented and bay’ed back along the virtual tracks pressed into the multitude of imaginary pathways, which reached back in time like the criss-crossed wakes of a flotilla on a choppy sea.
Sheeesh, I exclaimed to myself, what sort of chop had pushed these boot prints along for forty years until they washed up on the shores of this remote strand of bushveld.
My pensive paces took me the long way around towards the Chitenge. From the sheds I wound my way between the haphazardly parked game viewing cruisers, the tractor, and the structure’s and tools needed to run a self-sufficient lodge in a very remote part of Africa.
From there the route circled behind the ant-hillock whose giant trees shades the laundry and kitchen block. I wanted to let the scenting lopes of my mental hounds cast about my thoughts a tad more. Maybe they would flush a clue from the thickets of my subconscious..
The only ZIPRA man I knew was a big jovial round faced character with a great sense of humor and a very deep and easy laugh. This made him fun to hang out with, and we had become friends.
He had related to me some of his experiences as one of N’Komo’s ZIPRA cadres.
Like so many of the young men of his generation he had been ispired by the winds of Uhuru which had already swirled across the colonial landscape of Africa for over a decade.
From their Mau Mau origins in the Aberdare Forests of Kenya, the dust devils of these winds had already achieved much success. By the late 1970’s their swirling columns had scattered the Europeans like so much leafy chaff left on the ground of a threshing floor.
The French had been blown out of West Africa, the Belgians out of the Congo, the Portuguese away from Angola and Mozambique, and north of the Zambezi River the British expats had handed over their colonies, or trickled down the continent like ping-pong balls in a Xmas sock, until they were caught in the toe of Southern Africa.
My friend Amos said that being from Bulawayo and a Matabele it was a given that he would join N’Komo’s ZIPRA, seeing as politics is so heavily determined by tribalism.
His group of conscripts slipped across the border into Botswana, where they were slowly moved from one transit camp to the next, with horrors of abuse and hardship at every stage until they reached their training area in Tanzania, which meted out much of the same. Then, as they made their way back down to Zambia to be able to cross the Zambezi and fight, it was even worse. This time the return was via northern Mozambique. He related how they were detained for weeks near Tete by the Mozambiquen’s in terrible unsanitary conditions. Many of them began to die of disease. They tossed the bodies into an old abandoned mine shaft.
– That time in Tete was the worst of it all.
He laughed and slapped his thigh in his telling,.
Then after a pause, he had leaned forward to look at the floor. With his elbows on his knees, and with the huge spread palms of both hands clasped over his cranium like the skull cap of an old Hassid, he slowlly shook his head, as he gave the long drawn out Ahhhhh that precedes much that is heartfelt in African speach…
– The rain, the mud, no food, no sanitation, no shelter, no medicine, the malaria, the disease. The Mozambiquans were alrready favoring Mugabe’s ZANU, and giving us trouble.
– But even worse… Gidi, You know how it is with us, those spirits from the mine shaft , they would come out at night to seek us out.
Amos Malaba was lucky, back then, the war was coming to an end. Rhodesia would soon become Zimbabwe. Upon returning to Bulawayo his astute and wealthy uncle, sensing the soon to be Mashona/Matabele tribal war for the control of Zimbabwe, organized a student visa to the USA, which is where we met and became friends.
One day he would return to Africa he told me, maybe after his daughter finished her medical studies in Boston.
I contemplated the likelihood of my friend Amos wearing just such a pair of boots with its unique inner crosshatched tread as he tossed the bodies of his companions down that old mine shaft. I wonder if the boots worn by the crocodile man had been alongside him. If so how uniquely dissimilar their paths had been. In the one case an astute uncle and in the other… Well that was why my mental dogs were still casting for clues.
My virtual peering into the past of my semi- somnambulatory reverie was disturbed by the swish of a branch from high above. This was followed by the chatter of a Vervet Monkey. It came from near the crowns of the biggest trees which crested the termite tel.
I paused and looked up opposite the small outdoor toilet structure tucked into the thick herbacious bushes ringing the mound. Beccause the staff slash and mow the grass right up to the edge of the hillock, from a distance the mound, and the flora of its canopy sort of flairs up from its parklike surrounds like the giant fuzzed up hair of a Rastafarian. The chit of the monkey was not a full on alarm bark, rather it was the possible scolding directed at a young one, or maybe a slight ‘watch-out’ notification to the others.
Maybe one of them had recognized me, as the nasty guy with the slingshot.
I was pleased to see I had been successful in transferring my problem to Idaa. I would tease him about it in a few minutes when we sat to sip our coffee. The monkeys had moved their nocturnal ‘roosting’ spot from the trees above my campsite to the kitchen copse.
At least our problem was, as yet, only with the monkeys, not yet any baboons. If baboons were involved the thievery could and would escalate significantly. These little primates could be a real pest when guests were in camp. No food could be left unattended for more than a few seconds without it being snatched by a cheeky darting scamp. Which is where the sling-shot comes in handy.
Having grown up on a huge spread in the bush of colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I had won the lottery of life. Firstly I had received a world class education, courtesy of Her Majesty’s government. If nothing else, the British Empire believed in educating its subjects and the quality of teaching, via correspondence, or later at Hartley and Que Que Junior School (now renamed to the equally phonetic frogs croak, Kwe Kwe) was exemplary. I duff my cap to my teachers, these days probably to their souls, Miss Richards, Mrs’s Bath and Bradly, Mr. Griffiths and principle Barker, and of course Woodward who really showed me how to run and jump on the dry dusty sports fields.
Secondly to my African UmFana friends, who on the farm, taught me how to mix maize meal and cook Umpotohai on the lid of a 44 gallon drum, set over a fire. How to catch fingerling fish and fry them on the same lid. How to dip a Matepi stick into a barrel of molasses so that its tar like sweetness dripps onto the crust of the Mpotohai, instead of being sprayed onto the cattle feed, with its ability to tantalize the palate of both kid and cow alike.
And of course how to make a sling-shot, the Uma’legen of the bush, ‘legen’ being the African word for rubber.
A good slingshot is as finely tuned and balanced as the best Rigby side-by-side. Its accuracy is even more dependent on good craftsmanship. The trajectory of its pebble shot is so much more precarious, then a load of lead sliding down the straightness of a mechanically drilled gun barrel. The V of the wooden handle must be selected with just the right gap, just the right thickness of both forks, which must be whittled with a pen knife to exact weighted balance so that its short arms tuck exactly behind the thumb and forefinger of the leading hand. At the same time the stumpy roundness of the base must be such that its weight can be pressed with authority into the palm of the outstretched hand by the curl of the ‘up-yours, ring and pinkie fingers as precisely and gently as the breast of a diminutive and distant lover.
The best ‘felitjie’ leather is from the tongue of a worn out veldskoen. It is cut in a perfect elongated oval so that the pebble shot fits exactly in the middle. It must not slide slightly to the side as it accelerates from the apex of the drawn hand tucked on the cheek bone of a sideways cocked head.
In this way, with the V handle held horizontally, so that the tautness of the upper rubber points along the line of sight to the target, it enables all of the shooters skill to be concentrated on elevation, rather than traverse.
Of course the greatest skill is in finding the red Firestone rubber of an inner tube and cutting the long uniform thickness draw strips. Then using the same big Gillette razor blade to cut the even longer and thinner binding thongs which will wind round and around the arms of the ‘catty’ until almost none of its wooden skeleton is visible. Then the drawn strips will be cut long enough so that they can dangle down beneath the handle and be curled up, to be bound back upwards like the long braided tassle’s of a maidens hair.
Thee thieving monkeys had learned the hard way that my ‘catty’ was not just a work of art. My proficiency at making and using a good ‘catty’, had played a buig part in the shift of their nocturnal residence to Idaa’s fiefdom.
Looking up at the tops of the Leadwoods and Accacias I raised my hand and gave the finger to the monkeys watching from their lofty perches.
– Little buggers, I muttered to myself.
I could hear the hippo’s snorting their greetings at the late returnees as they splashed back into the water.
But something unexpected and unusual was waiting for me, as I crossed the small patch of lawn to the Chitenge, Melody stepped from the shadows. With both hands she proffered me with a mug of coffee.
– It has two sugars, and milk, just how you like it Bwana.
Beyond her I was greeted by a smiling ‘Bwerani Bwanji’ from Idaa.
As we both watched Melody glide away through the gap in the kitchen fence, I could not help notice the quizzical look on his face.
But keeping a poker face I did not return his stare.
It was now clear that she had an urgent agenda, which was not yet clear to me.
And, the gist of that agenda began to pre-occupy my thoughts as much as that of the mystery crocodile man.
(22 – Silence)
If one seeks silence, it is not to be found in the tropical bushveld of the Kafue National Park, not during the daylight hours, and definitely not in the darkness of the night, even when the moon is at the apex of its new phase darkness.
In fact it is noisiest along the thickets of the riverine riperia, just as the sun begins to spread its dawn gold across the Kafue Valley like the unfurling of a giant Persian carpet. This is especially true on a spring morning, like now, when the migrant birds have returned from Europe and Asia and are noisily vying for territory and courting mates.
Just as the instruments of an orchestra blend their sounds into harmonies and cadences, so do these sounds of the bushveld blend in with the sounds of the rivers waters as they ripple past on their way to the Indian Ocean.
Instead of the orchestral lilts, it is whistles, coughs, grunts, roars, peeps, trumpets, screeches and hums which mix in with the ebullient harmonies and rhythms of other creatures, to all blend and form the bush melodies.
Elephants, bush-buck, fruit bats, cicadas, hippo, warthogs, hornbills, crickets and snake-eagles… they all take their turns at standing on the bush dais as they serenade. All of them part of the choir tucked into this particular corner of the enormous Kafue concert hall.
Their music is often mixed with the whispers of the wind passing through the leaves of summer or rustles of the tall dry grass of winter, or maybe the splashes of animals wading across the shallows before the rains arrive.
The score is mostly characterized by its mezzo softness, because the human ear usually finds itself at the distant back of the concerts. One needs to pay attention and listen carefully to catch its nuanced moods and messages. Few of the creatures trust humans. Seldom do they approach or tarry close at hand for long.
But sometimes it can be loud, strident or staccato, maybe even haunting, such as the sad lonely call of a Black Cuckoo at night. All of this audio is used by nature’s Maestro to convey and signal the continual grandness of life as it is performed by the bush denizens.
The creation of this veld music’ has stretch back so long in time that it has enabled the plethora of bush fauna to flourish in all its magnificent audible diversity. This symphony of sound has been performed here for millions of years.
The unbroken pantheon has survived and thrived over the aeons in the face of all manner of adversity, floods, droughts, fires, disease. The ways in which the sounds, sights and scents of the bush interact to make the whole eco-system work is so wondrous that even to a hardened atheist, it is almost as if one can see the hand of a cognizant God in its creation.
Out here, in the vastness of the ancient bush, its sounds are so much a feature of its presence that it is on those rare occasions when there is complete silence that the hackles of danger are raised.
As I lay on my camp bed in the tent in the moonless pre-dawn dark, I could feel the slight tightening of the skin of my arms and nape. Outside the tent there was complete silence. Inside there was only the sound of my elevated breathing.
It had rained the game during the night. For a while afterwards, each time I woke from my fitful sleep I was aware of the grainy rattle of the droplets on the tents tight canvas top. They were being shaken loose from the leaves of the tree overhead by the occasional soft pants of a breeze, which was all that was left of the wind that spreads out from the base of a big sunset thunderhead.
This time it had not been a big storm, and the rain had not been particularly heavy. But even so the creatures of the night invariably seem to seek out some shelter while the rain is falling.
As the soft rain falls, all that can be heard is maybe the sound of thunder, and maybe the peeps of a tree frog blending in with the rustle of the rain on the leaves and the ground below. But it does not take long after the active storm cells have been pushed off to the southwest that the first sounds start to pick up where they left off, and filter into my consciousness. Usually it will be some of the frogs or the crickets.
Now, Seeing as it was the end of the season and that the rains had begun, I deemed it unlikely that we would have any more visitors at the campsite. As a result I had moved my tent, placing it close to the front of the camp areas thatched communal Chitenge. This made it easier to cross from the tent to the table and chairs were I usually ate my meals, and relaxed when not working.
It was from this position in my tent that I lay listening to a silence with a vague sense of unease. In my mind I mulled over possible reasons for this mood. Was it Idaa’s avoidance of the subject of the crocodile man when I had casually mentioned it to him the previous evening over sundowners… or..
I’m sure that my subconscious, which is always awake and alert, had noticed the silence for some time before it signaled to my cognizant mind that something was amiss. That it had been too quiet out there for too long.
Suddenly my thoughts were disturbed by a sharp surreptitious sound from outside the tent. Something had bumped into one of the heavy Mukwa wood dining chairs in the Chitenge. It was the scrape of its legs scratching on the concrete floor which had snatched at my attention.
A flash of adrenaline surged through my body. It triggered that state of super alertness with mind and muscles poised to explode into fight or flight. But still wrapped in my sleeping bag and enclosed within the confines of the tent it would be hard to do either. Flight or fight, is a mindless reaction, honed by the countless times my ancestors had reacted in the right way.
I had not inherited the genes of those who had fought when they should have fled, or fled when they should have fought.. But then most of my ancestors had not been encumbered with the luxuries of sleeping bags and tents.
It did not take more than a few seconds to feel the effect of the adrenaline beginning to abate, and with it the resurgence of rational thought. Something was moving around on the floor of the Chitenge. What kind of animal could it be. For its bump to have made the chair move and scrape it was obviously something large . Certainly larger than a jackal.
But what animal would walk around on the floor of the Chitenge? Even if there were food supplies left, very few animals would walk around under the roof of a human made structure.
It certainly was not an antelope, or a baboon. In the darkness the baboons would still be sleeping and sheltering at the tops of the biggest trees, out of reach of any prowling leopard.
It could only be a hyena or a big cat. But these had never intruded into the Chitenge before, even though when my tent was further away, on a few occasions, I had found line tracks circling it in the morning.
As for hyenas, none of them frequented the camp while I had been there, as far as I knew.
But then one never knew. I suddenly thought of a borehole digging contractor I had met in Kasempa, who told me how his father had been dragged out of his tent by a lion at a camp in the North Luangwa Park. His cries for help to his staff had been ignored due to their fear. His partially eaten corpse was recovered the next day when the lion was shot by a tracking ranger.
It is strange what thoughts go through one’s mind at such moments. I also thought of another occurrence in the Mana Pools area on the Zambezi. An acquaintance had felt an animal pushing its snout into the side of his tent. He told me how he kept his cooking utensils in the tent, and reaching for a frying pan he had hit it on the nose through the fabric wall. Then half an hour later a scream had come from a tent further down-river. A hyena had pushed the fabric of that tent inwards and bitten somebody in the face.
Very slowly and very quietly I turned on my side so that I could reach to the floor to pick up the long sheathed butchering knife that I use to cut up the meat for my biltong jerky. Then slowly I slid my legs out from the sleeping bag and sat up on my stretcher bed.
I sat in absolute stillness in a state of heightened alertness as I tried to detect any further sounds.
I knew that the dawn would soon be breaking, and if there was a lion outside it would be best to remain hidden in the tent, with the ability to defend myself with the knife if necessary.
I just sat and waited until about a half hour later I heard the first tentative ‘ha.. ha.. ha’s’ of a pair of Hadeda’s, which was joined by the yelping call of a Fish Eagle as it heralded the dawn. Only then did I lay back on the bed, to catch another half hour of rest before I would get up and go outside to investigate.
Sure enough, a short time later, in the early morning light it did not take long to find what sort of animal had moved the chair on the Chitenge floor.
I could see that there were footprints which it circled my tent, twice. From there they headed the few yards towards the Chitenge. From the continuity of the prints I could see they had not stepped up onto the concrete. From the emphaticness of the toe and heel marks I could tell they had stood for a while looking back at my tent.
From there the Prince led around the side of the structure and headed off in the direction of the Shalamakanga dambo. My blood ran cold. The footprints were ZIPRA boot prints. I realized that the chair on the Chitenge floor had not been bumped. It had been moved purposefully to make a noise. A taunting sound made with deliberate intention.
There is something special about danger…and the emotions it triggers and engenders.
What is even more unusual are the feelings experienced upon its resolution.
This is especially true when the consequence of the danger is as binary as a coin toss, with life or death being the only options.
There are very few people willing to engage in endeavors with such dire odds, and if they do, generally longevity is not part of their future.
However there are those that do play with the extremes of danger as if it were a game of dice, which has odds slightly more favorable than that of a coin, but with the consequences of a fateful roll just as calamitous.
One may ask why anyone would come back to roll the dice, again and again..
And of course it is because the emotion of relief from dodging death is so intense, it borders on the euphoric.
But, like everything that can produce euphoria, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., it can become addictive, because the euphoria is due to a dopamine flood intoxicating the pleasure centers of the brain. If the floods of relief are too frequent it is not long before addiction is knocking at the door, bearing its suitcase full of dangerous dice.
The intensity of the pleasure finding oneself stil alive after each extreme gamble is difficult to describe, and even harder to understand.
Those who have never experienced such a sensation cannot comprehend the power of its motivation. The utter exhilerating ecstasy of going from the almost certainty of death to life. The faster the transition, the more intense the ecstasy.
Such as, in classical hull-down position, firing at an enemy tank, also in hull-down position, 4000 meters away, waiting the interminable seconds for the spotting tanks correction to my last fired round..
‘Kod-Kod Short, half left.’
Then as my loader slaps in the last APDS round of the salvo bracket, my command to the gunner,
‘Up a quarter, right half.’
As the other tanks shell snap-cracks the sound barrier a few feet from my head and kicks up the dust behind and slightly to the right, I clench my soul and pray to a God unknown to let me see my baby daughter one more time. It has my range. I feel the almost imperceptible swivel of our turret and cannon, as my gunner lays the sight on, always bringing the cross-hairs of his NATO sight in a circle, from right to left, top to bottom. (when firing at a tank turret less than a meter high and 2 meters wide, 4000 meters away the accuracy requires that the slack between the sight and the gun need to be compressed in the same direction for each shell-fire adjustment).
‘Fire!, Fire’!.. I hiss through clenched teeth at the gunner. I am sure he can detect the unbearable tension in my voice from knowing that the dice have been cast, and within seconds they will stop rolling and either we, the crew of my tank, or the crew of the enemy tank, will be dead!.
Then there is the smacking kick of our cannon which rocks the 65 tons of our chariot, with a muzzle flash and discarded Sabots of the APDS round kicking up the dust on the slight ridge behind which we are sheltering our hull.
And Then……… I do not need the spotting tank to tell me that we have scored a hit. There is such a flash of light that it penetrates even the thicknesss of the dust. It can only result from an arrow of depleted Tungsten travelling at 1426 meters a second punching its way through 2 feet of steel and armor.
‘Target, Target, Stop fire, Driver back, Fast!’
I scream into the intercom, to get us all the way down sheltering behind the ridge before the missles arrive, after all we have been up in firing position for 50 seconds and fired 3 rounds, which is plenty of time for an enemy helicopter to pick us out and fire at us, as they did a short while ago, hitting tanks to the left and right of ours.
Ahhh.. the utter euphoric ecstasy of being alive!
The taking of life, in this fashion, is so much more intense than the clasping shudders and lurches involved in its making.
All of that was so long ago!
If the politics of Africa had been different, today I would most probably be a farmer, having inherited the family farm situated between the Munyati and Sebakwe rivers. But that’s not how things turned out. The changing of the names of the rivers, of the roads, of the towns, of the country, of the regime, with its sub-text that the white man was not part of Africa, had so dispossessed me of my identity, that it had allowed me, at times, to wash up and be tumbled across the virtual beaches of distant shores like so much flotsam, even those awash with the acrid smell of burnt cordite.
And now, as I looked down on the tracks leading up towards the Shalamakanga dambo, the shivering echoes of those almost forgotten pleasures, tickled at my mind and gave me virtual goosebumps. It was like a recovered alcoholic finding himself in the middle of a desert with nothing else to drink except a bottle of red wine. The alternating waves of excitement and trepidation of giving chase and going on the hunt to seek out the possibility of something potentially dangerous…..
The best tracks to follow are fresh tracks.
I could feel a sense of urgency begin to take hold of my being.
The sun was already clambering vertically up over the rim of the gigantic African sky.
With such bright, almost glaring light it was going to be a hot day.
The vague hint of coolness, left behind like a faint echo from the darkness of the night would soon be overwhelmed by the light pouring from the golden orb as it moved to assert its dominance overhead..
I could already detect the humidity lurking in the air.
It being early summer it was the portend of a tumultuous late afternoon.
The sun would pour its vitality into the sky heating the air, thereby buoying up its invisible moisture.
As the hot pillars of air rose heavenwards at astounding speeds, they would cool and no longer be able to bear their moist burden.
The thunderheads would rear up, darken, and dissipate their liquid life in paroxysms of sound and thunder.
There is nothing that will wash away tracks as quickly as a big African thunderstorm.
I only had a few hours to decipher the taunting signs in the sand.
Obviously the originator of the spoor was making no attempt to hide his presence or passage. Quite the opposite, it was as if he was deliberately picking the most blatant, soft bare dirt places in which to leave his sign. To anyone who had spent some time tracking both animals and people, as I had done, the dual meaning was written in the sand as clearly as any newspaper headline. ‘I own this place!’ they proclaimed, and almost in the same breath, ‘I do as I please.’
It was the taunting arrogance of their cheekiness which I found both vexing and exciting at the same time. The throwing down of the gauntlet triggered a long dormant stimulation of some part of my brain like that of a wild dogs, just before it joins the pack on a hunt. It almost felt as if I had to suppress the virtual shivers of anticipation in my mental jowls.
From around my tent the tracks led back towards the camp shower block. From there they angled across the clay grassless patch behind the thatched structure towards the twin tracts of the sandy dirt road as it led to the main lodge area.
The back–tracking was easy. I noted that the individual had deviated slightly to climb and stand on the top of a bush covered ant-hill, which is close to the patch I call the Gateway. Here the big acacia trees spread their wide boughs across the road like a bower with the huge mound of the anthill as if it were an altar at its side. It seemed that the stranger stood there for a short while, possibly looking across the wide grassy field of the dambo to survey my campsite before making his approach.
The ‘spoor’ of the tracks led back to the lodge and through the opening in the grass fence which shields the logistics area from the guests. They led all the way across to the vehicle sheds. The tracks indicated someone standing and milling around for a while in the exact spot where I had first seen the old mystery man. They led also, to my surprise, down to the cutaway ramp of the boat launch, which is where Eddie had been grabbed by the crocodile. Why would anyone stand on the edge of the river in the darkness. With the moon setting after midnight, there could not have been much of a view in the pre-dawn blackness.
Looking across the channel to the little island opposite the lodge I heard a hippo snort. It seemed the local pod was going to spend the day in the water under the overhanging trees of the island.
From behind me I also heard the sound of voices and the occasional higher-pitched tumbling laugh of a woman. The staff had arrived to begin the day. I was surprised at the earliness of the activity. It being late in the season without clients in camp, and with only maintenance to be performed, it was generally at a later hour that things got under way.
Although I was eager to begin tracking the spoor, I knew that a bit of planning and preparation was in order. And of course, if the spoor did become difficult, it would be better to follow when the sun was a tad higher and its light able to reach deeper into any shady areas..
I had no idea how far the tracks would lead, thus it behooved having something to eat, and to drink as much as I could before setting off. It was going to be a hot day. I would need to take a lot of water. I could find myself away all day, so something light to eat along the way would also be wise.
Turning away from the river’s edge I slowly walked back up towards the kitchen area.
There’s a certain comfortable African untidiness about the logistic area of the lodge which I guess stems from an enhanced hoarding trait that tends to develop as a survival shield, to protect from the unknown. One never knows when one can cannibalize something, a bolt or a nut, off an old obsolete piece of equipment. As I walked back towards the kitchen I cost my eyes around for some section of metal pipe that could be cut into a 3 foot length. I did not feel a sufficient sense of danger that would oblige me to ask Idaa to borrow the lodges .375 rifle. But on the other hand a long thin length of iron pipe would certainly afford some ‘stand-off’ offensive, or defensive capability if I came upon a belligerent person.
Reaching the kitchen I determined to scrounge another cup of coffee. I was sure that by now one of the voices would have put the old black metal kettle on a plate of the kitchens equally old and black propane burners, which act as its stove. And, sure enough, as soon as I entered the gloom behind the entrance doorway my attention was drawn to the hiss of the kettle. The scuffed roughness of its sooty surface blended into the austere simplicity of the kitchens high ceiling with its thatch lattice underwork.
Over the years some faint traces of smoke from occasionally over cooked meals had eluded being wafted out the elongated squatness of the window behind the stove. Instead they had risen to faintly color the grassy surface and ribs of the roofs under-belly with a grey dusted rime.
The kettle and its hiss with its warmth and appropriateness at this unexpectedly early hour seemed to me to be a good omen at the start of my hunt. The kettles sides had been scuffed into dullness by the myriad of scratches gathered like battle scars from years of being rattled around in the back of vehicles as they bumped over rough bush roads. As I looked at the kettle and let my eyes adjust to the gloom, I thought it could almost be a metaphor for my life, both of us banged up and scratched, but still able to get fired up and hiss at the world.
I mused to myself that It would be better if I could take at least one of the village scouts along to track with me.
These were the scouts, hired from the local area of Chief Kasempa, who I was charged to oversee some of the finer points of their training. However, right then it was a moot point, they were all out on patrol.
Without guests and consequently no tourist activity in camp, there was no reason to have a scout on duty to escort our walking safaris in the national park.
Glancing around the kitchen another surprise was awaiting. In addition to Geverton the cook and the two serving girls, both Melody and Idaa were standing further back, close to the storage pantry in the deeper semi gloom. They already had the tea bags dropped into the big tin mugs in their hands. Like me, they were waiting for the kettle to boil.
‘Bwanji’ we all greeted each other.
‘Good morning Idaa’ I quipped as I looked at him with some surprise, ‘this is unusual to find you here in the kitchen and not in the office at this early hour.’ I smiled as I continued, ‘is it because it is Melody who is making the tea.’
I saw the slight flicker of annoyance cross his face at my comment. But then I often like to tease with a true word said in jest.
I suspected that most of the men of the lodge were secretly jealous of Eddie for being the one who was paying her father the Lobola.
I even suspected that some of them would not have minded if the crocodile had succeeded in its attempts to drag Eddie to his demise. I sensed that Idaa was not immune to the aura of indifference that Melody exhibited towards admiring men, which naturally triggered the reverse emotion in the objects of her indifference.
Idaa’s slight scowl confirmed my hunch. But it soon passed as I lifted the boiling kettle off the burner and proffered it to fill their cups.
I noted that Melody had treated my quip with the same ignoring indifference as she did others who tried to trigger a response.
Looking at me over the top of his mug as he sipped his tea, Ida explained ‘I am helping Geverton take stock. I got a text message last night of a late booking. Since we had started closing the camp for the rainy season, we are low on some of the perishable goods.’
After a pause to take a few more sips of his tea and dunk a rusk into it, he continued, ‘I may need to send a vehicle to
Mumbwa to buy fresh vegetables, or more eggs, and maybe a few other things. So that’s why I’m here.’
After stirring the milk and sugar in her tea, Melody put her mug on the cutting table and disappeared into the pantry.
She came out holding a thermos flask and two litre size Coke bottles now filled with water, and what was obviously some sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
‘You will need this today!’
I was dumbfounded! How in the world did she know that I was about to go out tracking the mystery man.
She looked at me and made a slight roll of her eyes as she explained to me like a teacher to a young child.
Ohh Bwana, you surely heard the hyenas calling last night. If you listen carefully you would’ve noted that at least one of them had a slightly different call. It was a stranger. It was making long drawn out lonely calls, where is the others were excited. You know how the hyenas sounds as if they are laughing when they are excited. That is why I knew you would be going out today.’
I was perplexed, ‘How would you know from the call of the hyenas what I would be doing today?’
‘Bwana.’ She explains slowly, ‘the hyenas were excited because they had a visitor, and it was an important visitor. Why else would all the others be excited? It must have been because it was a strange hyena which brings the sangoma of darkness, and he would’ve been here to speak to the crocodile.’
I was silent as I stared at her.
And I knew that they would be here to check you out, and to plan. And then I came here very early and saw that you were following some spoor in the sand.
I knew that they would be here sooner or later, to poke and prod you, because they are unsure of you, and what kind of muti you have that thwarted the sacrifice of Eddie.
And I know you, especially since we have talked about this. Now, you ill no longer sit and wait for them. You will go after them.
But remember what I said to you about the Mwaabe. The sangomas say the most powerful muti comes from those with white skins.
The crocodile and the hyena may be conferring with the sangoma of darkness, and his spirits. They will be asking if your sort of white skin is as good in muti as those of the Mwaabe’s, the albinos.
And remember Bwanna, when the sangoma’s reap the parts of the Mwaabe, for the best, most powerful muti, the Mwaabe needs to still be alive. They pull first the mboro off, because the testicles have very strong muti. Then they dig out the eyes, which also have good muti. They cut off the ears, nose, lips, and fingers, and maybe even an arm or leg. Then when they feel that the sacrifice is about to die they will quickly hack open the chest to get at the heart while it is still warm, for its full potency.’
We stood and stared at each other.
‘Bwana, as I said last time, You need to get to them before they think they have muti stronger than yours!
You will find that they have a weakness, watch them and find it out.
You will be able to use this to stop them.’
Then, as on the previous occasions, before I could overcome my surprise, she picked up the mug of her tea, and walked out the doorway.
Like a pair of rabbits startled by a loud clap of the hands, the two kitchen helper girls had scuttled away as soon as Melody had begun to address me.
Geverton had also quickly moved out of the way. He proceeded to busy himself shuffling things around in the dimness of the pantry storage room at the far end of the kitchen.
But as Melody walked out of the doorway I turned to look directly at Idaa to seek his reaction. It seemed he too, at least virtually, was also ducking out of the way. He was avoiding my incredulous stare. With his back to me, and a wash-cloth in his hand, he was slowly and deliberately cleaning the surface of the counter top next to the stove where some sugar and coffee had spilled.
‘Idaa, I exclaimed, ‘what do you make of all that?’
He looked around for a second and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows together with a pinched twinge of his lips as if to signal, I don’t know.
‘Idaa, something weird is going on. For some reason nobody wants to speak about it.’
I paused to give emphasis to my words, ‘And that ‘Includes you!’
I stood in tense silence as I stared at the back of his head.
‘I asked you a few days ago about that mystery man who appeared out of nowhere when Eddie was attacked by the crocodile. You know that something strange went on there. Something unusual that Melody was involved in, and you avoided my questions.’
As I leaned back against the cutting table in the middle of the kitchen, I rested one elbow on its surface while I took a few sips of the strong dark coffee in my mug. I watched as Idaa finished his wife’s of the stove surface, and then crossed over to the sink.
I continued to direct my words to his back as he rinsed out the dish cloth. ‘Melody told me that she confronted the ‘mystery man’ because she is betrothed to Eddie. But the way she behaves and reacts it does not seem, to me, that she is really interested in him!’
With growing exasperation I reiterated, ‘There is something else going on. Why is nobody willing to speak about any of this strangeness?’
Idaa, slowly turned and with a tired almost trance like gaze, lifted his eyes up from the floor and across the room to focus on where I stood.
‘Yes Gidi, there are whispers. You know how it is in the Bush, there is always the influence of the sangoma’s muti.
It is like with the reaction of a troop of baboons in the trees at night, when they sense that a leopard is on the prowl. They will all keep very still. They will not make a sound, because they are all afraid that if they do, it will attract the attention of the leopard.
Everyone in the district, especially here at the Lodge, knows that there is a strange unknown sangoma on the move. They say he is a very powerful witch-doctor. Nobody is sure if he is here to do good or evil. But the people know that he is prowling around looking for something. Everyone is nervous that if they react, that it will attract the attention of the spirits and bad things may happen to them. ‘
Idaa, walked back across the kitchen. Picking up his mug, he returned to the sink and flicked the dregs into it before he rinsed it clean. Then folding his arms across his chest in a gesture that seemed to restore and bolster his authority, he continued to speak.
‘All the people, we all know who the sangomas are in this district. We know their names and where they live, all of them, all the way from Mumbwa to Kasempa, and even beyond to Solwezi. But this one, nobody knows where he is from.
Gidi, as you yourself saw when Eddie was attacked, he appears out of nowhere, and then disappears again.
They say that he flies around on the back of a hyena. Only the most powerful sangomas have the power and skill to tame the hyenas, and have them eat the special potions that allow them to fly.’
As I listened to Idaa’s explanations, I mused over my never ending wonder at how deeply entrenched in so much of African culture the belief in witchcraft is. This is true from the lowest rungs of society right up to the highest. Here I could see that Idaa, even in his position as a professionally trained, efficient and effective manager of a high-end Taurus operation, was obviously influenced to some degree or other by this current phenomenon of witchcraft.
And after a brief silent pause he again dispelled my musings with his words.
‘There are very few people who have grown up in the African culture, including you, who do not know that the power of the medicine man is real. There are only two types of people in the bush when it comes to muti, those that think that the sangomas muti works directly, and those who believe it takes as long as is necessary, and may take different indirect forms, that are hard to identify.’
Idaa was looking up at the thatch of the roof as he spoke, but he cast a quick glance at my face with a wry pursing of his lips before looking back up and continuing.
‘The people know that some muti has been spread by this strange sangoma. We saw that when Eddie was caught. We had been expecting something. But after that it was apparent that this sangoma was here to do mischief.
However, it was not clear if this was to be the price of the mischief or its appeasmet.
Everyone hoped, and believed that it would have ended there, with Eddie being sacrificed. ‘
Idaa, dropped his gaze again and stared at me for a while.
‘But that is when things went wrong, and why people are very afraid. Because you interfered.
You got in the way of the ritual as it was happening, despite the ssangoma arriving to claim his sacrifice, and telling you not to meddle.
Now, like the behavior of the baboons hiding in the thickest leaves at the very top of the trees, not moving and not making a sound, the people are waiting and watching to see what happens next. They are scared. They do not want to get caught in the sangomas revenge.
But because you interfered, and stole the crocodile sacrifice, and so far nothing has happened, the people are saying it is because you must also have strong muti! Very strong muti.
They know that you are a Mzungu, however they also know that you grew up in our culture, and according to the stories they tell, you have survived where others could not. So even before this event with Eddie, there was some mystery whispered about you, about some penga, some maddness. Now, after Eddie, there are more than whispers about your power and muti.
That is the reason the people are nervous of speaking to you. They are afraid, not just of the sangoma, but of you as well. It is bad enough when a baboon feels that there is a stalking leopard below in the darkness, but what is even worse is when it senses that there are two stalkers.
Gidi, the people suspect that you are a second stalker, and they do not want to get caught in the middle of so much strong muti.’
Idaa stopped speaking and looked at me for a while. His normally lively broad round face was fixed with a look of steady in tractability. This was a look that only the African can exhibit with perfection. It seems to be filled with the echo’s of resigned acceptance of a fate meted out by the spirits and the mediums as they bridge between the other worlds and our everyday.
More than ever I felt that I needed Moses to be with me, to act as an intermediary. But where was he? It’ had been a couple of weeks since I spoke to father Xavier. I had not heard from anybody.
I was in a very strange position. Instead of people clamming up and things being hidden from me because I was an mzungu outsider, it was the exact opposite. My insight status was preventing me from being privy to the background chatter and consensus opinion of events.
In some ways it was an honor. It meant that there were aspects of my being which meshed with their culture sufficiently for the Africans to accept that I was so immersed in their beliefs, that I was, despite my Mzungu skinb, in many ways one of them. I realized that unknowing ly and unwittingly I was an actr on their stage. I was not sitting in the audience. As such it appeared that I could, and had, tipped over the beer gourd at the center of this unlikely pantomime.
Staring at Idaa I found myself on the budding horns of a dilemma.
Seeing as the language of this performance was one of witchcraft, should I agreed to speak that language and thus take a more raucous role, and run the risk of being caught up even deeper in the plot, with the danger of finding myself cast as the villain.
After all I had no belief in their witchcraft, or did I.
According to what Idaa had just told me, everyone already assumed that I had muti, which is why the mystery sangoma had not been able to eliminate, or at least neutralize me, yet.
Maybe I should at least outwardly display some tangible evidence of strong muti, even if it had not been given to me by one of the local sangoma’s.
Having had to motivate soldiers to put their lives on the line so many times, I was intimately familiar with the power of symbolism, when it came to leadership and its consequence in the outcome of events.
I suddenly remembered the string of river snails on the leather thong that Melody had given me a few days ago. It was still in my pocket. I reached my hand into it and gently fingered the delicate spirals of the threaded shells.
With my mug still in hand, I walked back out into the early morning sunshine.
I could hear Geverton come out of the pantry and begin to fuss around the kitchen.
Standing there, looking out at the big brick bread and pizza oven, with the office and the river behind it in the background, I noticed the other two girls coming back in to the kitchen. I heard the clink as Idaa obviously placed his mug on the concrete slab of the sink. He came out and walked past me to the office.
‘Hmm, I thought to myself, ‘the stalker has gone, and the creatures can move again.’
Despite my checked urgency to begin the tracking of the mystery man I stood and mulled over all this new information.
I thought to myself that if I was to continue the metaphor of the stage, I was like a dyslectic actor who could not read his lines. With this sort of impediment, I would have to wing my performance by improvising and responding to events in such a way as to make it look as if it was all part of this current script, which I could not read.
As I thought back on things, some of the staff’s reticence to interact with me was now understandable. But what was still an enigma, was Melody’s behavior and interaction with me. She had provided an explanation for why she had accosted the mystery man. But I could not help having a niggling doubt as to the sincerity of her concern for her fiancé, with him being sufficient reason for her ulalating, shrieking confrontation with the crocodile sangoma.
If the popular belief was that I possessed some magical powers which counted those of the sangoma’s, why would she also risk confiding in me, initially clandestinely, and as of this morning, openly in front of the others, and thereby potentially invoke the vengeful wrath of the sangoma.
I could not help having the impression that she was playing for higher stakes, and in some ways I was a porn in her game.
She was the only one who had not been afraid to warn me that witchcraft was involved. I could not help feeling that her demure subservience when she was in her tribal role in front of the others was a ruse. I suspected that she was far more comfortable hanging the cloak of a barely hidden brazen sophistication, which came with her display of a modern western insistence on being treated with gender equality, even superiority, when she had accosted me with her exquisite dress and rebuke in the evening. Actually, it went even further, her prodding, almost taunting directives for me to take the initiative and go after the sangoma with his spirits.
After all, to the others in the staff, she was concerned for the safety of her future husband, but in reality I knew that she had made no effort to visit him during his convalescence, or even find out the state of his recovery. Any of my attempts to coax her into speaking about him were met with dismissive indifference.
I walked over to the outdoor scullery to place my tin mug on the drying rack. From there I followed Idaa to the office to ask a few more questions.
I poked my head through the doorway and asked if he had a few more moments to speak to me. I could see that he had just downloaded a few emails from the satellite link. What a difference I thought from even 10 years ago, when everything had to be relayed via VHF radio to Lusaka, with coms scheduled only once a day.
‘Idaa, something else is bothering me,’ I stated, ‘Why if everybody is scared to speak about the mystery man, does Melody not worry about it? You heard her. She is almost commanding me to go after them!’
Idaa pushed back from his desk, and turned his chair to face mine.
He asked, ‘Do you know anything about Adamson Mushala?’
‘Of course I do!’ I retorted with surprise, ‘Anybody who is interested in the early history of Zambia knows about Mushala. He was the rebel Robin Hood who is purported to have had magical powers. He terrorized whole swathes of Western Zambia, acting against officialdom and helping the poor, after being shunned by government in the years following independence.’
I continued speaking, ‘I can remember when I first came here in 1997 with my friend to look this place over. We were guided here by Kings. It was as we were cooking dinner in the only viable building in the old camp, which is today the fuel shed, that Kings told us the story of how Mushala was finally killed. How he had been betrayed by one of his mistresses, to four soldiers, who then were given very strong muti, which made them invisible. How the soldiers crept naked into his secret hideout, where they lay in ambush.
Then when Mushala returned, his powers enabled him to discover that he was being ambushed. But, unfortunately for him, he had made a mistake of leaving his weapon and most powerful muti in his hideout. How he dashed in at full speed to try to get past the ambush, to get to his weapon and elixir’s, but as he flashed past, the soldiers managed to squeeze off a few rounds. I can remember Kings giving a graffic description of where Mushala was hit.
I took a breath, ‘Incidentaly, the story of Mushala is still legend in Zambia, I was speaking to one of our scouts a month ago, who told me that after his death, it was common knowledge that Mushala liked to torment president Kenneth Kaunda, who had ordered Mushala’s death, when he sat for dinner at statehouse. Every now and again, Mushala’s spirit would swap KK’s knives and forks around, placing the knives on the left and forks the right, because everybody knew that Mushala was left-handed. Mushala’s ghost would set a place for himself at statehouse dinners.’
Idaa listend to my tale and nodded.
‘Yes, I have also heard that story, and many more!’
Idaa looked down at his lap and the pen he was fidgeting with in his fingers.
‘Gidi. Do you know anything about Melody’s family? I know that she talks to you, did she tell you anything about it.’
‘No I know nothing about a family.’
‘Well,’ said Ida, ‘she has a very strong-willed mother. She has a mother who did not care about taking risks and who went against the advice of her parent’s, right from the time that she was a young girl.
You see,’ Idaa said in a low voice, ‘Melody’s mother was a teenager when she ran away from home. She was very beautiful, and had a man with a rich family, just like Eddie has a wealthy father. The man was paying her father a big lobola. She abandoned the lobola man. But he could not do anything about it, becaause he was scared.
That was because Melody’s mother ran away to be with her lover.
She was one of Mushala’s mistresses, his favorite and most faithful woman. Not the traitorous one.’
Idaa paused, ‘So you see Gidi, Melody is Mushala’s granddaughter.
She has everything of the wild independent spirit of her mother and grandfather. It is all combined into one person.
And Gidi, it is said that she has her grandfather’s magical powers, it is just that mostly she leaves them dormant.
But they are always bubbling just under the surface of her skin. Which is why even the local sangoma’s do not want to meddle with her.
Gidi, if she tells you to follow the crocodile you should do so.
If she tells you to watch and find out their secret weaknesses, you would be wise to do as she suggests.’