The big splash of a bull hippo entering the river nudged me awake. The behemoth was returning from its nocturnal grazing. It hadn’t tarried to nibble the grass near my tent as it headed to the river, where it would spend the day floating in its deep pools.
Listening to more of the hippos returning splashes, I stood in the pre-dawn darkness, sipping a cup of strong coffee under the eaves of a large open thatched roofed structure called a chitenge in the local language. This and the big canvas tent beside it, had been my home for two years. Looking out from under the chitenge’s low roofline, spread like an umbrella above me, I could make out the outlines of the leafy acacia and leadwood trees forming the riverine arbor beyond.
The hippos passing close by didn’t concern me, but an echo of anxiety sounded in my mind as I remembered a roughly penciled note folded in the pocket of my bush shorts. Taking it out I read it again, as the yelping cries of a fish eagle signaled that dawn was nigh. It was time to go. I swallowed the last sip of coffee and put the note back in my pocket as another hippo’s splash was heralded by a chorus of communal ‘hrumph’ing grunts as the other members of its pod welcomed it back.
Setting out from my campsite, a kilometer upriver from my hosts at the Safari Lodge, I drove past the slumbering shapes of it structures in the half darkness, then eased along a few kilometers of winding track through the Bush, followed by a dozen clicks on the dirt arterial road which brought me to the ferry pontoon. Here I would cross the broad width of the Kafue River.
Arriving early, I found myself waiting while the operating crew roused from their huts and congregated where the pontoon raft was beached on the opposite bank. When an early crossing is needed, it often takes a lot of shouting and banging on the steel pillar holding the raft’s anchor cable to shake up any activity across the river.
Luckily, the occupant of a small waiting vehicle was already doing some boisterous rousing. The vehicle was a sad little sedan, its dented, scratched surface obscuring brand recognition. I couldn’t make out if its dull grey color emanated, like the camouflage of a chameleon, from its original enamel hue, or from a color blended with the thick coat of dust on its surface. Bald tires and a crack running the length of the windshield added to its air of fateful resignation.
The occupants of the vehicle stood at the water’s edge, or sat on the bank formed by the cut of the road as it dropped down to the load point. I was concerned as I watched the kids skipping stones across the river. They’d never seen how shockingly quickly, and how far, a crocodile can reach when it erupts from the river’s sluggish margins. This section of the river holds some of the biggest crocs I have ever seen.
While waiting, I spoke to the driver. He was heading with his two wives and five children to the far away city of Lusaka. It would be a long journey with that many occupants in such a small car, I mused.
But this is Africa. Few people from outside can fully understand how western limits do not apply. Here, expectations of comfort and crowding have different metrics. Why would anyone who slept on a woven straw mat spread on the hard dirt floor of a hut all their life be bothered when crammed into a small car, in a way that only students do as a stunt in the West?
Watching the kids, I thought how the note in my pocket alluded to the area that lay beyond a low ridge visible downstream. On its other side is the Luangwa River. It meanders southwards until it finally presses up against this raised rift, forcing it to spill into the Kafue River.
Upstream from this confluence, along the west bank of the Lunga river lies a lush bushland, interspersed with open marshy grass patches locally known as dambos.
It is the gateway to a huge untouched area spreading northwest to the distant Busanga Plains. A veteran game scout I worked with, said it had been two decades since he’d patrolled deep into that area. Recently, park officials decided to allow the construction of a new private lodge within this unsupervised area. Morse Manzola, the manager of my hosting lodge had been tasked with its construction. He sent three men to start casting the concrete blocks. They found the bags of cement, transported there earlier, slashed open. On them was the message now in my pocket. It was scribbled on a piece of brown packing paper.
I was indirectly, but actively connected to the law and order in this area. My job was to provide specialized training to the park’s game scouts, thus The new lodge meant the area around it could no longer be ignored by the patrol schedule and roster. Additional patrolling would be required of scout teams already stretched to their limit to control the blatant poaching in the park.
My proble was twofold. First, there was the threat in the message.
Secondly, considering that conservation is poorly funded by the government, even if I could get Head Warden Banda’s permission to train and deploy additional scouts, I wasn’t sure if I could raise sufficient private funding to subsidize their employment.
Still watching the kids skipping stones, my reveries vanished when I saw that the pontoon crew were finally roused and readying to cross the river.
As the big raft approached, I reached into my pocket and glanced at the spidery, erratic handwriting on the soiled paper scrap.
“Go away! Do not disturb the ancestors’ spirits who have been forced here by the meddling everywhere else.” it commanded.
“You are warned!
Leave here, or you will be hunted down and punished by their spirits as they fight back.”
It was signed,
Returning the note to my pocket, I opened the door to the cab of my vehicle, climbed in and followed the dusty sedan onto the pontoon. Experience had taught me that, when threatened, the last thing to do was to back away from a fight.
When I travel the road between the towns of Kasempa and Mumbwa I’m reminded of an aged alcoholic, because the road between them slowly staggers its barely satisfactory way across the landscape.
I guess, like a few of my red-faced friends, it gets from here to there, but not much else. Like them, it seldom follows the most efficient path; rather, it survives, due to decades of experience gained from the dictates of a hard and unsteady life, commonplace in this remote part of Central Africa.
The road, like those old soaks, with its blemishes, and no longer having the nimbleness of youth, has learned that it is expedient to give a wide berth to as many obstacles as possible. As such, its dusty path leans and teeters as it sways its progress around a low hill, or behind a marshy patch on its erratic progress through the timelessness of the bushland. Scruffy, dirty, and pock marked with ruts and potholes like the wrinkles of neglect and the blemishes of aged acne, it may veer sharply to avoid a freshly fallen tree, or a recently formed rip cut into its mud by the wheels of overloaded trucks scarring its surface.
“Damned trucks” I cursed, as my Toyota Landcruiser jolted through an especially deep dip in the road. My muscle memory usually reacts automatically to guide the vehicle gingerly between the flaws of the road’s sloppy construction and misuse. There’s no need to think about coordinating a press on the brake, or a tug at the gear shift; they simply blend with my unthinking twists of the steering. This enables the vehicle to progress slowly through the thick bush tucking under the lee side of a low ridge which heralds the gradual climb up from the basin of the Kafue River valley.
Thus, my mind was left free to craft my strategy in my meeting with Ernest Banda, the local park warden at his regional headquarters in Mumbwa. The motivation for the meeting was driven by that note laying folded and heavy in my pocket.
I hoped to collar the warden before his midday break, but this being Africa, where circumstances tended to poke a stick into the wheel of any schedule, there was no guarantee that a meeting would be convened at all. I had my sleeping bag and mosquito net, as well as some bread and dry meat to slice onto it for a sandwich, in the event of a lay-over while I waited for another opportunity to meet.
The bite of a tsetse fly is painful, especially that of a young fly. I glanced up after slapping my calf, following another futile attempt to kill the offending insect.
A uniformed guard slowly rose from his simple wooden chair. He’d been] leaning back on its rear legs in the shade of an austere brick guard house when I’d stopped my Landcruiser before the pole of a pivot barrier. It marked the edge of the Kafue National Park, the second biggest park in Africa. Beyond the barrier, the road crested before dipping down under the trees, whose boughs reached out like the fingers of myriad artists dappling its sandy surface with shadows.
The post was situated on a gradual slope edging out of the vast flat lands spreading northwards into the Kafue Valley. It was well placed with its building shaded by tall elegant mafuti trees.
Glancing over my shoulder to check that my equipment had not been bounced off the back bed of the vehicle, I saw how those trees, whose unbroken canopy lifts its graceful leafy summer elegance like a song on the wind, spread their melody in a dark coppery green patina, ocean like, until their endlessness spilled over the edge of the horizon, from whence I had come.
The guard post was the first of two landmarks. Half an hour further on I would pass the second: a prison farm set so remotely in the bushland that it daunted the ardor of any prisoner contemplating escape. Two more slow bumpy hours would bring me to scratches of civilization. These would eventually coalesce into the scruffiness of the town of Mumbwa, my destination.
While the guard slowly picked up a big ledger book, I slapped again at the fly as it buzzed against the vehicle’s side window. Still smarting from its nip, I muttered “You little bugger. When I catch you, I’ll pull off your wings and make you walk.”
As the guard, officious in his neat, but faded, olive green uniform, lazily moved across the few feet of compacted dirt which separated the guard house from my vehicle I slowly rolled down the window. Leaning back in the seat I nodded my greeting.
“Bwwanji Bwana,” the guard responded in the informal ‘lingua franca’ Nyanja language.
His flat, smooth high cheeks echoed the slenderness of his young physique, giving him an elegant, almost effeminate air. It expressed itself in the tone of his thick accent, and the way his native Kaunde morphed his R’s into L’s. Despite a lazy indolent air as he approached the vehicle, there was an unexpected politeness in his demeanor as he handed the big ledger through the window for me to sign.
Despite his polite deference, it was best to remember that he was the authority figure here, and in Africa authority matters, no matter how trivial it may seem. Here authority is seldom benign. It often kicks downwards, sometimes harshly, as it tends to bend upwards with servility. I knew when to be polite, despite the redundancy of the formalities, and the advantage of my age.
“Where do you come from?”
The guard’s question was rhetorical. This was a ritual, performed thousands of times a day all over Central Africa where echoes of its colonial past are still being scribbled in the lines and columns of big ledger books.
“From Chamafumbu,” I replied politely as I provided details: name, origin, destination, vehicle registration, number of passengers. It was the ritual of pointlessly filling out the information demanded only by the headers of the lines and columns on the thick, blotter like paper of these black books.
Closing its grubby, worn cover, I handed its heaviness back to the guard, wondering what they did with these things once they were filled with countless scribbles. The ritual was more than the mere recording of every vehicle passing along this remote road. It suggested to the populous that an effective and watchful law and order prevailed.
Like the uncomfortable bumps and jolts of the road, the Authority, using old colonial laws, is the capricious entity in shabby administrative centers at each end.
As I watched the guard set the ledger down on his chair, he stretched out, with the timeless pace of Africa, to lift the barrier, allowing the ‘Cruiser to pass.
I craned my neck to peer sideways through the window, checking that the pivot pole cleared the cruiser’s roof. With a pang of regret, I considered the generational gap between myself and the guard. I was almost too young to remember those British officials who brought those big black books to Africa, and then who’d hastily abandoned their roles as Imperial Bwanas, masters who, after a glorious but brief appearance on the stage of Empire, returned from whence they’d come. They’d streamed back in the wake of other colonialists like themselves, from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Congo.
However, left behind, unnoticed by history, were generations of emotional gypsies, like me, born and raised on the Continent, who were never considered a true part of the new Africa, or the old Europe. By necessity, us country-less vagabonds were condemned to spend life with a mental suitcase always ready in case we were told to move on.
I was a relic of that old Africa as I waited for the young representative of the new to lift the barrier pole to let me proceed.
At least this was at the limit of Tsetse Territory: from here on I could drive with the windows open. There would no longer be the need to choose between sauna-like heat in the cab due to non-functioning air conditioning, or the relative comfort of the sub-tropical air wafting away my sweat as it afforded unfettered opportunity to tormenting flies.
With my left hand, I moved the gear shift from neutral to first. I was about to lift the sole of my foot from the clutch when suddenly a loud whistle came from the other side of the cab.
“Eeweh!” someone shouted. “Hey, you!”
A second guard appeared from behind the building. Older, and plumper than his colleague, he was more affable about the weight of his authority, which had settled around his mid-rift. Why carry that weight over to the window of the cab to deliver a message when it can be shouted?
With a dramatic pause, and a serious tone, but still with a broad smile on his friendly face, he shouted his message.
“On the radio, they say to tell you. Back at your camp!” He paused again.
“They say someone has been attacked by a crocodile!”
(9th Edit 03/20/2021)
(10th edite 06/14/2021)