North of the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, late October is when the vestiges of winter have been burned away by the resurgent vitality of the sun as it slides south over the equator. Before the rains arrive to provide a temperate cooling, the early summer heat can be unbearable, so hot that it is said to drive people to suicide, hence the epithet ‘suicide month’.
At least there was respite from the heat in the shade afforded by the chitende’s tall thatch roof. I sat at the end of the polished wooden table gazing out over the deck, which cantilevers out under the roof’s brow like a big jealous giant sticking out its tongue at the river drifting past.
Fortunately no guests were at the lodge to witness the mornings dramatic struggle to save Eddie’s life. If the events had left me shaken, they would most certainly have rattled foreign visitors. With the lodge manager being away, I was glad I had been able to return in time to help.
I quenched a thirst exacerbated by the morning’s stresses. The tall glass of cold orange juice added to the soothing effect of the shade. While I enjoyed its chill I waited for a sandwich of dry ‘biltong’, grated onto slices of thinly buttered bread.
Having the unusual unfoldings fresh in my mind, I mulled over its reasons and potential repercussions.
The tension had consumed so much energy that in addition to being thirsty, I was hungry.
My duties included the training of the scouts doing the poaching abatement on the hunting concession adjacent to the national park. This afforded me scraps of venison, left over from trophy hunts, from which I made biltong jerky. With biltong, it was easy to bribe the kitchen staff to make sandwiches. Everyone in Africa loves biltong.
Looking up I saw it was Precious approaching, carrying the carefully-sectioned sandwich, not wrapped in the customary wax paper, but offered on a simple white plate as if I were a paying guest.
That it was Precious bringing my sandwiches was unusual. I knew enough about the staff to know that she was not part of the dining service team.
She crossed the small buffalo-grass lawn from the opening in the thatch fence hiding the view of the kitchen. Approaching from my left, as the servers are trained, she twisted slightly to the side with her left hand extended as she wordlessly setdown the plate with its sandwich.
As her footsteps quietly faded I chewed a few bites, savoring the salty fattiness of the meaty grits on the bread. I washed it all down with a final gulp of cold juice. My mind, moving its concentration away from a focus on food, went back to chewing on the tougher issues.
Being a child of Africa I was familiar with the concept. But I wondered what sort of muti Precious referred to. Translated directly, it meant medicine. But muti had existed in the Bush long before modern medicine was brought here by the missionaries. The ancient traditional muti is the stock-in-trade of the nganga, the African Witch Doctor.
So much for all our imposed Western civilization. Witchcraft is as alive and well in Africa today as it was at the time of David Livingston. Muti could come in any form: potions, spells, or curses. It didn’t matter how much of the Muslim or Catholic or Adventist people had embraced, at the final reckoning, the thing most feared and respected out here is the muti.
Only a month ago one of the scouts, a devout Adventist, had not shown up for patrol for a week. When he finally reappeared, his explanation was that some rival had paid a nganga to cast a curse to impair his performance. It put him to sleep for a week he said.
I smiled as I thought how here it was a plausible explanation.
But, experience has conditioned me to always be ready for the unexpected in Africa. The events of the morning certainly had served as a refresher.
I heard it again, a soft polite cough from behind, and then another.
Turning to glance behind me, there it was, that splash of the unexpected.
She was back in the shadows of the wall that leads to the deck, sitting on the concrete floor.
She supported herself gracefully with an extended arm; the other lay languidly across her lap. Her long legs were tucked sideways, to form a parallel V, the traditional form of a woman showing respect, patiently requesting and waiting for an audience with a ‘chief’.
Here patience is a necessary requisite, and the woman of the Bush have more of it than anyone I have ever encountered. But this form of supplication, coming from Precious, halted my chewing as effectively as a slap in the face.
I sat staring at her as, once again, she poured the ink of her eyes over me.
I took a deep breath.
“Okay Precious. What in the world is going on? Come and sit here, and help me to understand.”
“No Bwana. Not here.”
“Precious,” I reiterated, “wat the hell is going on? Please explain it to me?”
In the darkness of her eyes I detected the simmering glow of her passion.
“Bwana. I want you to wait for me at your camp. I will be there later when I finish. Here there are too many ears.”
With that she rose and disappeared through the gap in the fence.
Dumbstruck, I didn’t even finish my sandwich. This behavior, this ordering of a older man to do something, coming from a woman, out here in the Bush, an order to an authority figure, was, to put it mildly, unusual.
I sat for a while, even more perplexed than before. Then I remembered I needed to send a message to Ernest Banda, the head warden, that I wouldn’t be able to meet. I distracted my thoughts by sending him a WhatsApp text to this effect.
After sending the text, I set out to walk back the kilometer to my campsite, where I would wait for Precious.
From the chitenge, the path leads across a small gully towards the chalets, before edging back towards the river and on to the open fire pit. More a platform than a pit, logs of Leadwood are placed upon it to smolder. The Leadwood is a tree so hardy that it can survive in shallow poorly drained soils. Thus, with the randomness of seed dispersal, some trees species find themselves spending their lives trapped in desiccated austerity.
The shallow layer of clay that prevents the rainwater from draining away, also prevents roots from reaching deeper to seek moisture once the surface water evaporates, which occurs quite quickly under the glare of the African sun.
I couldn’t help thinking that this was a metaphore for those of my ilk.
The harsh conditions toughen and temper the timber and make the Leadwood ideal as firewood. Dense and slow burning, it smolders for hours. It smolders after the sundowner drinks and the guest dinner is served. It smolders all night, until the girls coax its glow back to life at dawn, so its flames once again welcome those who gather for coffee as they watch the sun rise to the snorts of the hippos splashing back into the river.
How shallow the clays of this continent had shown themselves to be to those of my ilk, but how those who had stayed had been toughened in the desiccation of our cultural roots, and how many times our embers had been blown on by the continents breath, like now.
What a day!
It seemed a lifetime ago that I had heard the shout of “Iwe”, coming from the portly gate guard.
Now, with the sun sliding westward from its zenith high overhead, I walked past the smoldering logs. Their thin wisps of pale grey smoke twisted upwards, like my thoughts, where they slowly separated and split before scattering into the air.
Instead of heading directly to my camp along the track furthest from the river, I chose to stroll beneath the hanging branches of the big river trees forming a curtain between the open grass of the dambo and the river. My scout training activities being ancillary to those of the Lodge, I’d thankfully been offered this campsite, a kilometer upstream, which allowed me to keep a low profile when clients were present.
Relaxing outside my tent under a big mahogany tree I continued to chew the cud of events. I stretched my legs forward and with fingers interlaced and resting on my belly, my elbows spread out beyond the sagging armrests of the camp chair like the wings of a broody chicken. I could not make head or tail of it.
The view from where I sat is one of my favorites. There is something about its simplicity and lack of clutter that appeals to my sense of aesthetics. It is minimally touched by the hand of man, unchanged from how it was over a hundred years ago, when, Orlando Baragwaneth paddled his dugout canoe past here on is way to “discover” the copper of Katanga to the north.
On one side the thick arbor line defines the river’s edge as it heads down towards the lodge. On the other, the copses of big trees seem to float on old abandoned ant-hills, as if laid out by some master gardener.
Where the thickets spread back from the breadth of the dambo, as the freckles on the cheeks of a redheaded girl merge up into the fire of her hair, so too do the trees blend into the flat bushveld which stretches as far as the eye can see, if one could get above its canopy to look.
The sun’s rays were slanting obliquely from the west when I noticed her crossing the open ground between the chitenge and the road skirting past the campsite. As she approached I examined her tall figure. She had lost a sliver of the usual assertive sway which characterizes her stride. There was a hint of furtiveness in how her head scanned sideways, or glanced back over her shoulders.
Reaching me, I wordlessly offered her a chair. We sat in silence, looking out at the view before I turned and asked. “So what is going on?”
She took her time before focusing her gaze on me, “It is bad muti Bwana!”
She extended a long leg and kicked at a leaf laying on the floor.
“We have been waiting for it.”
“What do you mean, waiting for it?”
“In the village Bwana, they say that there is muti put on us. So we knew it would happen.”
“Ahh, Precious!” I exclaimed, “How are you sure of this?”
“Bwana! You know the ways of Africa. You, from what they say, have always lived with us Africans, and you know these matters, how they affect us.”
Sittting in silence, I looked across at the strangely aloof young woman. The long single braid of her hair which had dangled down her back earlier in the day, was now looped around the crown of her head like a coiled cobra. There was no frivolousness about her demeanor. I instinctively knew that what she was telling me needed to be taken with all its implied seriousness.
“So what are they saying in the village about this muti?”
“Bwana, they say that the poachers have some powerful ngangas on their side. Ngangas who give them muti. It can even make them invisible.”
Unease niggled at the edge of my consciousness. Witchcraft in Africa is one of the hardest obstacles to overcome.
“Bwana, this muti, they are saying it may be able to curse the people here, to harm them. We didn’t know when it would happen, or to whom. But we were expecting it. Eddie was the unlucky chosen.”
“Yes, Precious that could be so, but we can get some other muti against it.”
“Bwana, I have done that. You haven’t known about this situation, but it has been getting worse for a few months. Even the ngangas we have here are nervous. Other strange ngangas, with strange messages are involved. Because of that, I didn’t know what sort of special muti I needed, as we had not yet seen the effect of any of the outside muti .”
“So what did you get?” I asked.
Delicately she fingered the snail shells on the leather strand around her neck, she said,” The nganga gave me these to keep away thespirits of the bad ancestors.”
“And Bwana,” she continued, “He said I should make loud noises or to sing loudly to warn them away”.
I contemplated her words. It now made sense why she had been ullulating when I arrived at the beginning of the drama, and why she screamed before chasing the old mystery man away.
“So Precious doesn’t that mean everything will now be OK?”
“No Bwana, this new muti, it was brought here by a special nganga. A nganga all the way from the Mlimo. He flew here on the back of a hyena. It was one of the darkness nganga’s.”
My unease deepened as I digested her words.
“Mlimo?” I queried incredulously, “Are you sure it was from the Mlimo?”
“Yes Bwana, it was the same nganga who decades ago gave the muti to Mushala. I have a relative who saw that nganga flying at night.”
I had heard of the fable of Mushala, and I detected a tone of reverence in the way she mentioned his name.
Again I could see the black ink in her eyes, and how the sensuous pout of her lips barely moved as she continued, “They say that it is very strong muti.”
It had been decades since I had heard any reference to that mysterious spiritual fabric of the bushland. Mlimo! Up here on the other side of the Zambezi River! It seemed impossible! Why would the ngangas of that extraordinary oracle stretch their tentacles out so far. But it was Precious who had tendered the reference to Mlimo. There was no way that she could have made that up if there wasn’t some fire smoldering at the base of her smoke.
Things were not getting any clearer.
I asked slowly, softly, almost to myself, “Why the Mlimo?”
It had been decades since I last visited the Matopos Hils, hundreds of kilometers away, far to the south, where the oracle cave of the cult is situated. The Matopos is an exquisitely beautiful, eerie area. Its hills are unique in that they are formed from a jumble of gigantic granite inselbergs. It is a place that oozes a sense of the spiritual. A place of rocks and huge boulders stacked up on top of each other, like the aftermath of some gigantic dice of destiny, rolled by the long forgotten Gods of Munhamutapa. It is the spiritual Jerusalem of Sub-Saharan Africa. A place of black eagles, and their soaring spirits.
It is where, I was told, once a decade, at midnight in the chill of a moonlit winter’s night, the ghost of Cecil Rhodes rises from his grave, and links arms with that of Leander Starr Jameson. Then the shadows of the men of the Shangani patrol descend from the fresco of their monument as they all greet Chief Lobengula and his Matabele warriors. They form a circle with the ethereal spirits of the even more ancient Khoisan painters of the rock religion. Then in unison they clap and shout their despair, as, like me, they mourn the Africa that once was, and the Africa they, each of them, in their disparate and futile ways, envisioned and vainly hoped for, even as it was pulled from their grasp by successive uncaring generations.
But despite the change, it is still the place of the Mlimo, the resilient vestige of that Khoisan religion, daubed thousands of years ago in stark splendor, on the remote rock canvas of the caves.
“Precious why are you telling me about this muti?” I waited for her to look up, “Why are you scared to tell me in front of the others?
“Bwana”, her hands were folded in her lap, as she quietly spoke without raising her eyes.
“Do you know that Eddie was paying my uncle lobola?”
I have often wondered how Shakespeare derived the themes and plot lines of his creations. I have since realized that he surely was an astute observer of life. Drama was all around him. But some of the stuff, out here in the bush, its reality and jig sawed events, are no less worthy than those which once caught the bard’s attention. Lobola is the still common practice of buying a wife from her father, mostly in payments of livestock.
“No, I did not know”.
“Yes, Bwana. He has made almost half the payment. Another year and he wil be able to buy the last few cows to give to my uncle.” Seeing the question in my raised eyebrows, she added, “He is paying my uncle because my father is dead.”
“So Bwana, they will understand that I resist. Even if it is the Mlimo, even if it is not marriage that I want.”
She crossed and uncrossed the long lovely length of her legs and nervously looked around.
“They will expect that. They will not be concerned. They will smile at my efforts, because they know my muti has no chance against theirs.”
“But Precious, I still do not understand why you are hesitant to tell me these things, why you hide from the others.”
She shrugged and shook her head, almost as if weary at having to explain the obvious.
“Bwana, did you not see that stranger? Did you not hear him tell you not to meddle?”
The gaunt features of the phantom stranger flicked back into my mind.
“Did you not recognize the crocodile. It came back to claim its sacrifice. It was disguised as that old man!”
The people here are saying that if I interfere too much, like you did, that crocodile will come back to take some other sacrifice. That is what they are scared of. They must not see me interfering more than is expected, otherwise they will force me to leave.”
Precious continued, “Only you, as a muzungu, can stop this! Even the Mlimo, after a hundred years, have not yet perfected their curses on the white man.”
She paused before continuing. “So you must act. That Crocodile has been moving for hours. It will be meeting with the hyena when he brings the nganga of darkness. They will be talking about you. They will be discussing what to do with you”.
Dread began to replace my unease. Dealing with poachers was one thing, they could be tracked, hunted and trapped. This I could do, that is what I was here for. I had tracked and hunted for most of my life. In Angola I had studied its most intensely exciting variation, the tracking, hunting and ambushing of the human animal. I had done this with some of the world’s best practitioners. I was lucky, I had been a good student, and Moses had been an excellent teacher.
However, tracking and dealing with mystical witchcraft figures was something completely different.
“So bwana, Go! Go before it is too late. You need to get close and discover their weaknesses. You must stop them.”
With that she stood.
I stared with perplexity as she walked away, with a rejuvenated swagger.
I was not sure why I was here!
After all, if I could glance with squinted eyes into the future, to see things in historical context, maybe I could understand why I find myself filled with a feeling of hollow helplessness as I listen to my feet crunch on the pebbly gravel of this wide shallow riverbed.
Or even better, if I could fly higher than the Crowned Eagle which I see almost daily soaring overhead, I know I would look down on this flat wide portion of the world, and even without a view of history, see myself for what I am. An African by all measures, except one, I was a pale skinned descendent of colonialists.
I am no more than a pale scab on the dark skin of Africa, a scab attempting in its diminutive and most probably futile way, to heal some of Africa’s wounds. Now more than seven decades after the first cries for freedom from colonialism rang out from the Abadare Forests in Kenya, I, or my peers, can hardly yet be blamed for any of the sub-continents old unhealed wounds, let alone for the new. Instead, now most are self-inflicted by the African inheritors of that native freedom.
And yet, maybe my gloom stems from those echoes of guilt, because I am still a member of the white tribe of Africa, a tribe which was so central to upsetting the ancestral way of life. It is a tribe which, today, as a powerless minority, can be easily identified and conveniently used as the cause of many of its maladies.
Eeven though I bridle at the suggestion of blame, like some genesis of abuse, I sense that I am still at its root, and so need to forever give redress to the undeserving descendets of the abused.
But also, maybe it is because I know that I am probably too late to take up the scalpel and stitches to any wound. I realize that issues needing dexterity and mental skill should most effectively be handled by hands younger and steadier than my own past-prime fists.
I don’t know why I am drawn to the people and places like this. Is it to escape the past and seek a new future? Or is it to escape even further back behind the past blighted with failed relationships and the obliteration of an identity. Or maybe it is an attempt to shape a future as a reflection of the past?
But the pebbles are crunching beneath my boots.
Reaching down, I pick one up and flick it into the pool spreading before me. The pebble is as round, smooth and nondescript as any of the others, except for its color. It is almost black, with its dimpled surface etched by a few hairline streaks of quartz that cut across its oblong shape like distant lightning in the night sky.
As the rings of the small splash ripple outwards I remove my boots to wade through the ankle-deep water, which, like the chain of a necklace, is still sliding slowly between the scattered pools as they dot down-stream.
I wonder where that single pebble came from, and how long it lay there amongst the bed of the other pale pebbles under the soles of my shoes.
I wonder how long it had taken for the aeon’s to wear its original shape to resemble the roundness of its peers. Like culture, time could change its shape, but not its color.
Now, for the first time in its ancient existence, it had been picked up and flicked by some external destiny into a different pool, where once again it would find itself in the grind and rub of life with, and against all the others of its seeming ilk.
Then, after the soon to arrive floods of summer it would again blend with the pebbles at the bottom of its new hollow. It would shiver and tickle as the flooding waters tug at its shape. Only the strongest of surging eddies would budge it.
If it had remained where it originally came from, maybe hundreds of kilometers away, would I have noticed it laying as a single pebble amidst other similarly black, quartz streaked peers. Probably not!
And me? After years of laying in the dry river bed of life, with all my edges knocked away, what destiny was it that had tossed me into this backwater of Africa, the latest shallow, murky pool of my existence.
Much of my genome had arrived at Table Bay from Europe 300 years ago on a Dutch East India-man, , and the rest, almost a hundred years ago, to a coffee farm, in the highlands of Kenya.
Now, like the pebble I had tossed, only my color distinguished me from the thousands that surrounded me. But that made all the difference. That color, still cursed in much of Africa, singled me out.
“Go, Go now, before it is too late!”
Her voice still echoed in my mind. In which of these pools would I find a crocodile lurking, waiting to burst out of the slime at the bottom to grab my leg, and drag all that awareness of history beneath the ripples of time. It wouldn’t care about my white ‘mzungu’ skin.
Would the darkness of my nurture be enough to make ripples big enough to affect the surface of this wide, flat verdant pool of Eden. Or would there be a surge strong enough to budge and bury the pebble of my existence.
This uncertainty clouded my mood with gloom. Did I still have enough energy, like the flashes of some quartz in a rock, to light up the dimness of a fading life.
It weighed on my spirit.
Some fated destiny had picked me up and tossed me here.
Unlike Moses, I am not a believer, but sometimes I wished I had his faith. His certainty that it is ordained and has purpose.
Life would be so much easier if I felt it had some grand plan, instead of being brought here on the back of a fucking hyena.
(9th edit – 03/21/2021)