The crisp stillness of the early morning light was unperturbed by the vibrancy of the bird calls. As an audience of one I sat silently savoring the show, and considering something completely different. Why was it that cooperating groups of young men often consist of eleven members. Soccer, cricket, football all do. Even an infantry section has eleven men. An armored company has that many tanks. I supposed it was the trial and error of historic experience which had found the controlling cognitive limit.
The thoughts flitted into my musings as unheralded as the Goshawk which glided through the dense foliage above my tent, searching for some careless bulbul to feed its two youngsters in a nearby nest.
Getting up from my chair and kneeling I blew onto the embers beneath the old metal kettle as it simmered over the logs of the fire.
The reverie reflected my mental mulling on some training I was schedule to give to a scout team later that morning. With a six man team back from a patrol down the Kafue, today was going to be a theory day.
The scouts needed to operate as a team. But was six the optimum size? Why not eleven? Was eleven only in the fface of confrontation?
Thus far the poachers here were not as aggressive as those in East Africa; there wasn’t yet the need for eleven man teams. But was that about to change?
I swirled the coffee in my cup before taking a sip.
Today I would teach crime scene preservation and evidence collection. I would tell them that each snare, dead animal, or poaching camp should be considered a crime scene. I would lecture about who should be the crime scene manager. How to set up a perimeter if a large poaching camp was to be searched and its evidence documented. How to minimize evidence disturbance by establishing an access path to the perimeter. What to look for. How to place any critical findings in plastic bags, label and note these in a log. Nothing complex, only the fundamentals.
If there was time in the afternoon I would give tips on evidence photography. Law-enforcement may as well get some use from the ubiquitous cell phone. It would be a way of giveing a boost to the good guys instead of the bad, who used the same toold to communicate to avoid the authorities outside the park when transporting their spoils.
I also thought about each member of the team I would be instructing. To be successful with my duties, it behooved me to learn the nature and talents of each team member. Who was capable of writing a comprehensive report? Who was the best tracker, the best evidence gatherer?
Much of this training was basic, but even basic training in crime scene preservation would go a long way to getting a conviction to stick on any detained poacher.
Finishing the coffee and dousing the fire I got ready to drive the half hour from my camp to the scout base near the pontoon. While driving my thoughts focused on mentally preparing myself for the instruction I would give.
As usual the theoretical lessons were conducted under the scruffy thatch roof of a large open structure in front of three squat featureless buildings. These serve as the patrol base for the roster team doing the area patrolling.
The morning theoretical instruction had an air of informality. There wasn’t much of a rush. It wasn’t as if there was a test at the end. As I progressed through the rote of my instruction, my mind wasn’t really as engaged as it should be. Like a tongue is tugged to a chip in a tooth, my thoughts were pulled back to the recent events. Was the old crocodile man operating alone? If he was up to mischief as Preciouss alluded, and he wanted to be effective, unless he was a madman, he surely must have others in support. After all even nganga’s are human, and few of them, except the most notorious, live and operate in isolation. But who could it be? and why?
Precious was correct that as a muzungu I was most suited to get insight into the witchcraft she claimed was a foot. Many of the locals would be unwilling to push their noses into dealings which scared them. Thus by midday, after some hours of carefully given instruction to the men who sat in a semi-circle in front of me, I was glad to be taking a generously extended lunch break.
One of the scouts crouched stirring the three legged pot of n’shema corn meal they would have for lunch. So Leaving the group to its food, I walked back towards the pontoon a short distance upriver, mulling things over. I could hear the single cylinder diesel engines chugging the pontoon raft across the river. The unmistakable sound of a Land Cruiser starting its engine followed. Instead of continuing north along the road, the sound headed towards me, turning down the track leading to the scout base. It was Morse the lodge manager. Coming to a stop he smiled at me warmly.
“I hear you had some drama yesterday” he said without even bothering to extend a greeting.
“So you heard about it.” I said.
“Yes” he replied, “From the gate guards and from the pontoon crew. Such things travel fast on the Bush telegraph.”
I clambered into the cab and we drove back to the scout base, where I gave him an outline of events.
He nodded his head. “There have been strange goings on around here for some time. Certain of the staff are becoming nervous.”
I looked at him, “this is the first I’ve heard of it.” I continued, “But one of the strange aspects, was how Kings was hostile to me during the whole incident. It was as if he wanted to prevent me from doing anything.”
Morse grimaced. “Kings” he said is a difficult person. “He is moody, and he has a chip on his shoulder.” He paused, “Have any of the scouts told you some of the history of this place?” His quiry was emphasized by his raised eyebrows.
“Not really.” I replied. “I know that during the 60’s and 70’s this area was a logistic and transit base for an insurgent movement fighting in Zimbabwe. I was told that for over a decade it had been a “no” go area. “
“That is correct.” Morse stretched in his seat, ‘But it is the rest of the story which may explain some of Kings moodiness. During the bush war, the animals of the park were the meat pantry to the insurgents. The local contract poachers who shot and supplied the meat, didn’t forget their practices. After the war they simply switched to different markets.
Kings was one of those suppliers.”
Morse paused. “He is a man with an attitude. He doesn’t like being reprimanded. He is accustomed to leading, not being led. He also tends to think of this whole area as his own, to do with as he pleases.
The only reason he is no longer a poacher, is that he is not the brightest flame in the fire. He got caught too many times. As a repeat offender, anymore offenses would see him spending significant time at taxpayer expense.”
“But, even so,” Morse went on, “he is like a pet jackal, it does not take too many howls outside in the moonlight to get him thinking about reverting to his bad old ways.”
Morse made a sour face, “I have trouble getting him to follow orders.” Then he smiled, “But I prefer having him on the inside of the tent pissing out.”
I digested this information. “Interesting, but it does not really explain his hostility.”
“By the way,” Morse spoke as if suddenly remembering something, “This morning, I stopped at the park HQ in Mumbwa. Ernest Banda said to tell you he would be available for a meeting tomorrow, if you can make it.”
The next morning found me watching wisps of an early morning fog spread like a threadbare carpet over the waters of the river. The approaching hulk of the pontoons raft nudged these into slow aerial eddies as it chugged its way across towards where I sat in the cabin of the cruiser. I was waiting to cross the river, on my way to meet Ernest at his HQ.
I was joined by a dilapidated Bedford truck. It would be interesting if they could fit both of us on the pontoon, for a single crossing. The occupants of the truck, and there were quite a few of them, found all the women in the group dressed with long billowing black skirts, and red jackets with wide white lapels matching the color of their head scarves. Jehovah’s Witnesses, I surmised, with their colorful garb reflecting the tribal predilection for a uniform, even in religion.
As they invariably do, the children began to skip stones over the water.
As I watched, an image of the old wrinkled face of the camo clad man flashed into my mind.
With their colorful garb, the women before me would find it more difficult to blend into the bush, than had the old man with his drab clothing.
I wondered if the spiritual ideas in the woman’s heads were as colorful as their garb. Would those ideas blend into the fabric of Africa and be as durable as those black magic ideas under the camo man’s gray curls.
In two hundred years whose ideas would still be skipping stones over the waters of this river. His, or theirs?
In some ways I envied them their ability to believe in anything.
Sitting in the cab of the cruiser, my mind lazily flicked at the pages of its memory, in synchrony with my eyes as they followed the slow spinning of a fluff of foam caught in a wide eddy in the rivers flow.
For me, the issue wasn’t so much the spiritual stories, as their effects on the minds of men, who imparted those beliefs to kids skipping stones on waters. Beliefs which evolved into the dogma, doctrine and uniforms that reached down thousands of years into the red, black and white worn by the women before me. But how more valid was the tenacity and flavor of their spiritual narrative compared with that of the old grey haired man? I was a muzungu outsider, a white man. I doubted that the ideas and beliefs my ilk had imported into Africa, had reached much deeper under its dark skin, any more than the tan of my own.
I watched as the crew pivoted and gunned the single cylinder diesel engines, to line the heavy draw bridge up with the bank below.
The Lubungu pontoon crosses a gracefully wide and shallow stretch of the Kafue. Its placement here is deliberate. It is where the broadness of the river smooths out and slows the flow of the water, which in turn reduces the sideways tug of the current on the floats when the old rusted raft plies its way back and forth, tethered in place by the pulleys to the guide cable, like the beliefs of some old worn out biblical beast of burden.
I let the pointless reverie drift out of focus like more of the sporadic puffs of foam that continued to slide past on the slow current of the river. I watched the dusty Bedford with its colorful burden of belief cautiously edge over the stones and up onto the floating platform.
It was time to move. Ernest would be waiting in Mumbwa.
It is always a relief to see the disorganized dull shine of the sun reflecting off the tin roofs of the buildings and houses of Mumbwa.
As the dirt road approaches from the north -east, it runds along a low ridge looking across a shallow valley towards the town.
As it gets closer, the road deteriorates from its punishment from higher traffic density. It preserves this ignominious state as far as its central traffic circle, but thereafter there is the brief respite of its single asphalt surface, which turns south a short distance to meet the main Lusaka highway.
At the circle I headed past the tall steeple of its mosque, spreading its influence over untidy Indian owned storefronts until a tad further I reached the regional HQ of the Zambian Wildlife Authority, (ZAWA) housed in what once was a large colonial administrator’s home.
Like elsewhere, the HQ reflected a universal unconcerned attitude towards tidiness and aesthetics. But it wasn’t aesthetics which brought me here.
In his office Ernest Banda, the regional Head Warden, could be quite a handful. He generally didn’t care to spend too much time away from the office. Even though he was a big strong man, it was clear that his paunchy belly was nurtured by regular beer irrigations. Even he wouldn’t be able to carry enough of it to meet his needs, were he to participate in foot patrols.
I was lucky to have him make time on such short notice.
From experience I knew that the best way to access his helpful side was to extend a lunch invitation at the little Somali owned store at the junction with the great West road. Thus after a Coke and two steak and kidney pies, with another two sodas for the road to go along with my offer of a jerry can of diesel, I broached the subject of the additional scouts and their training.
I told him about the crocodile attack. “Yes, he had heard about it.”
I also showed him the note that had been left on the slashed bags of cement. It did not seem to trigger much of his interest. ‘Yes we will need to patrol there some more.” he said.
Ernest, like many men in his position, was well practiced in extracting favors. He hedged, hummmed and haa’ed around the issue. It was very possible that this could be organized, but this was best if he made a trip himself to headquarters in Lusaka. He would do this as a special favor to me, due to our good relationship. But seeing as his trip would not be part of his regular schedule, his travel may require some extra diesel. And he may need to take the head of department out for dinner, and two nights in a hotel bracetting both ends of his going the extra length, might also be part of the favor he was doing me. And what did I think of some spending money to cover other unexpected necessities that may arise?
It was obvious that Ernest was accustomed to working with foreign mzungus. Those who were out here on contracts for outside NGO’s .
It was amusing to listen to his pitch, and still be so brazen as to think I was unaware of the ways of Africa. “Hey Iweh” I wanted to say, “I am one of the ribes of Africa. I know Africa as well as you, so don’t give me your bullshit.” So because I knew Africa so well, how authority matters and must be pandered to, istead I said, “Let me call my boss in Johannesburg. I will see what we can do.” Then knowing I would get further with honey than vinegar, I gave him enough money for two jerry cans of diesel before setting off for Lusaka. At the end of the day, I needed Ernest on my side. As they say, ‘Friends come and go, enemies stay forever’. It would be stupid to carelessly piss him off, and make him an enemy. . As a muzungu I would have enough other problems, especially if I were to listen to Precious.
In Lusaka I would work my own contacts. Instead of funding a binge on the town for Ernest, why not spend the money on myself.
As I bade Ernest goodbye and drove south to the junction with the Great West Road, dodging the potholes in the tar, I thought how in any case, I had not seen Claudia for six weeks, so she was a nice reason to go to the big city again.
Then, slowing down to round the traffic circle at the town’s center, I noticed a familiar vehicle stopped at the filling station next to the spoke which led Its Dusty Way, Northwest back to the Lubungu pontoon.
Standing to the side, talking to some of the mechanics was Kings.
Swinging on around the circle I drove across to where he stood.
Pulling up next to him I poked my head through the open window and called out a greeting in his own Kaude language, “Twasanta Mwane.”
He turned and looked at me, and frowned, the flesh between his brows wrinkling in their characteristic way, then he turned back to the mechanic and continued speaking.
I waited. Kings ignored me as he continued talking. Finishing his conversation with the mechanic he walked, without looking my way, to his own vehicle.
Annoyed, I got out of mine and walked across to where he had just started his engine. I knocked on his window, and when he rolled it down I asked. “How is Eddie?’
“I don’t know.” was his reply. “Why don’t you go to the clinic in ask them yourself.”
By now I was vexed and in the mood for confrontation. “I don’t know what’s up with you, but I know bullshit when I see it. Also, we both know that you are full of it.”
Engaging his gear, he looked directly at me. Gone was the politeness of ‘bwana’ .
“Listen to me, mzungu, you are the one who brings your meddling mzungu ways here, where they are not wanted.”
He licked his lips, “You’re the one who had better watch out, if you meddle too much.”
He drove away, leaving me smoldering at his unprovoked hostility.
I love returning to my little single room digs. It tucks behind the big garage acrosss from Claudia’s cottage. As I wait for her, I sit updating my journal on the comfortable couch in her abode, which is situated in one of the old dilapidated suburbs of Lusaka. She has very beautifully upgraded the old building.
The importance of the work she does for Mohammed has provided the where-with-all to create a little cloistered oasis. It is surrounded by red brick walls high enough to hide it from -the scruffiness outside, and thereby give it a hidden anonymity which screens it from the attention of unsuspecting passers-by.
On the inside the walls give the place a courtyard like atmosphere. This is augmented by the Bouganvillea creeper which Claudia has trained up and along the top, each wall draped in hues of red, white, pink, or purple flowery profusion.
The cottage sits to one side of the enclosed complex. The brick work of its surrounding wall, and most of the patio paving and path which leads across to the back of a twin car garage, is fresher than that of the cottage and the servant’s quarters behind it. The dwellings older brick work and style match some of the larger adjacent buildings on the block, hinting at a common vintage. It is of an age that matches that of the large Jacaranda’s whose shade somehow ameliorates the tiredness of the old buildings they shade. Once, the cottage was a managers dwelling, part of a bigger operation, occupying the whole block of what is now a section of the city suburbs.
I was lucky to find this place, and Claudia.
I intended spending the night here, as I plan to leave back for the bush at 5am, to avoid the choking strangle of traffic that clogs the city center later.
I had already contacted a friend, who had served together with the current head of the Zambian Wildlife Authority when they were young rangers. My friend said he would see about getting me an audience on my next visit.
Now I was settled bacl for the evening.
Wow! You look very businesslike!”
I had been so engrossed in my thoughts I hadn’t heard her car entering the garage, or her walking across the paving to the fron door.
Nor was I accustomed to seeing her wearing a smart mono-tone business suit, and holding a leather briefcase.
Usually she was dressed in colorful attire, eye catchingly patterned, and comfortably cut.
It was a reason she liked working back in Africa, she claimed, “out here people are more personally extravagant, they like to show off more emphatically, and bright clothing is not frowned on in the workplace.”
“Why not, she often iterated, “colors cheer everyone up!”
Claudia is one of those wonderful people who never seem to have a bad day. She is always full of smiles and laughing at something. I guess if her predilection for color has a part in this, I am all for it.
Setting her leather briefcase and keys down on the table, ““I’ve come straight from the office.” she replied. “In certain circumstances, I have to portray an image of respect for the situation”, she quipped over her shoulder as she filled the kettle. “Thankfully, that isn’t often. However, today was one of those occasions. I was dealing with someone who needs to be sent a signal that I am a ‘no-nonsense professional’. Hopefully dressing professionally in this way will nip things in the bud.”
My curiosity was piqued. She handled the financial and accounting side of some of her boss Mohammed’s more sensitive activities.
Exactly what these were she never overtly explained. She is surely very good at her job, because he obviously trusts her ability to do what is needed, and it was said that Mohammed Beyh did not suffer incompetence at close quarters.
Even though I was excluded from her business life, like a dog let back inside after a party, I often sniffed out enough of the discarded scraps to know what had been served for dinner. Sometimes it was hearing her replies to snippets of phone conversations, at others it was being privy to her rare expressions of frustration at her tasks.
I knew not to pry. The only times I had endured a flash of her annoyance and a snap of her tongue was when I had crossed that line, which even extended into our public interactions. On the few occasions I bumped into her at an Arcades restaurant, a frown flashed my way would warned me off when she obviously was hosting a lunch meeting.
I often wondered if it was more to protect herself, or me that she withheld information. Was this also why, outside the walls of her courtyard, she publically kept me at a distance, bolstering the appearance of our transactional tenant landlord relationship.
She benefited from Mohammed’s protecting umbrella, and surely it was of a type that was able to withstand more than the splashes of raindrops. One did not accrue such a reputation, and the reputed wealth as Mohammed, or dabble in some of the more choppy businesses of Africa, without sometimes sailing close to the wind. He obviously cultivated friends in high places, which meant, of necessity he had accumulated proxy enemies who splattered more than the mud at the bottom of the puddles.
if I were too closely associated with her, and thus with him, I ran the risk of becoming a minor part of a tally, if any outside scores were settled. But I wasn’t faint of heart, and the benefits outweighed the risks of being loosely connected with the Beyh family. From what I gathered, Claudia was brilliant at keeping Mohammeds affairs sailing as close to the wind as possible, and knowing what to do, ease the tiller, or tighten the jib when the sails began to luff.
Who was I to complain, indirectly I also benefitted from some of the appreciations he slid her way.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Without waiting for a reply she poured a second cup.
“I am sorry I missed you when you came through a few weeks ago.”
I took the cup she handed me.
“No problem.” I said as I reached out to take a few of the biscuits she presented. I dunked one into my tea before continuing.
“I have the spare key, and I got your text that you would be working late.”
I lifted the sodden biscuit to my mouth before it disintegrated into the hot beverage.
“By the way where were you?” I asked.
“I was up in Mufilira on business.”
She always sent me a WhatsApp message saying when she was gone.”
“I deposited the “rent”“, so I am legit.” I winked at her, “As always I strive to be a good tenant.”
She pointed her dark eyes at me over the top of the cup she held in both hands.
“Ohh you are!”
Claudia no longer has dependents and her relatively austere lifestyle means she didn’t need servants.
She had married an Englishman a long time ago. But now both her sons remained in the UK, where they had grown up. Once they had left home Claudia returned to Africa. In the final tally her sons were fortunate. Even though their father had been a bad husband, he was a good Dad, Thus her kids grew up with all the benefits and privileges that a barrister father and an accountant mother could afford.
Claudia reminisced to me that unlike her sons youthful years, hers were initially spent in poverty, She bounced back and forth between her English father and her Zambian mother.
Claudia’s mother had been a Bemba nanny, taking care of the children of a sergeant in the British Army. He stayed after Zambian independence as part of the aid in training the new Zambian military. The irony had been that it was his wife, and not the Sergeant, who had most fervently resisted Claudia’s mother’s attempts at getting the English authorities to recognize the Sgt. as the father of the little chocolate girl which she had delivered.
It was only when Claudia was on the brink of her teens, and after the Sergeant had divorced his wife that he signed the paternity papers. This finally allowed Claudia’s mother to overcome the latent racism that lingered in the British home office, and got Claudia the cherished passport which in turn enabled her to begin realizing hers and her mother’s proxy ambitions, with that of an education being at the fore.
Thus, In addition to the passport, a belated child care stipend was sufficient to send her to Chisipitie Girls School in the then pariah break away Rhodesia.
The great education she received there gave her a glimpse of expanded horizons which she embraced with a lifetime fervor.
The upshot of all this was that Claudia had an unused servants quarters at the other end of her courtyard. These were perfect for my needs.
I had found Claudia as a result of my search for a place to stay on those rare occasions when I came into the city on errands. The eight-hour drive from the lodge to the city always necessitated at least a one night lay over.
As she sat next to me on the couch, Claudia set down her cup and twisting sideways, leaned back so that she lay her head on my lap.
“It was a tough day at the office, I need a little pampering,” she smiled up at me.
I stroked her forehead and brushed my hand over the lushness of her thick black curly hair. But I was still curious about her comment describing her need for a business suit.
“What do you mean needing to nip something in the bud?”
“Ohh it’s nothing much really, she replied, it is just that sometimes you have men who still live in the last century. They don’t realize that today, even here, the rules have changed. This guy seems not to understand that some of his attitudes and actions are no longer acceptable, when it comes to interacting with woman. In his world they are all servants, and should be put behind burqas.
Claudia checked before asking, “Can you massage my shoulders?”
I moved my big hands down and began to knead as she continued.
“So with him, a good business suit, and not pandering to his presumptive flippancy when he starts to flirt, helps to keep him at a distance. Maybe it will make him realize that he cannot behave in his usual fashion.
Does Mohammed know about this guy? I asked, then went on without waiting for a reply. “He is a son of a bitch when it comes to business, but from the little I have met him, he appears to be a polite mannered sort. I would imagine e would not stand for people treating you badly.”
She sighed, “Actually if this unpleasant guy was a client it would be easier, but it isn’t so simple.”
I stopped what I was doing for a minute, and took a sip of my tea. Then continued the massage.
“Ahh that feels so good.” Claudia half opened her eyes as I kneaded her shoulders.
“Now it is my turn to ask you questions.” She had her eyes closed as if in a trance.
I stopped my massage, and slightly stiff in my body so that I could reach into my pocket and take out the note that was still there.
I showed it to her. “It all started with this.”
Claudia took it, read it, and turned over its crumpled brown paper, before handing it back.
‘So who wrote it?” She asked.
“I don’t know. It was found on top of some slashed cement sacks, at the building site of a new lodge in the park.”
Putting the note back in my pocket, I returned to massaging her shoulders while she went on making little undulating movements of pleasure like a purring cat rubbing against a leg. She rolled sideways to give access to her back. With my hands kneading along her neck and spine, I told her the events of the last few days.
“So what is your plan?” She queried.
“I don’t know. I don’t really have a plan.” I hesitated. “Well, that’s not quite true. I’m trying to get a meeting with the head of ZAWA to see if he can authorize the employment of a few more games scouts in our area.”
“Do you think that the note with its threat, is tied to the old man at the crocodile attack?”
“I don’t know.” I said. “And I also don’t know how pervasive the trouble is, or how long it has been going on.”
Claudia sat up and leaned against me, as if she no longer wanted the frivolity of the massage, when she was thinking about something serious.
“Morse told me yesterday that there have been issues for some time now, which I wasn’t aware of.”
Claudia nodded indicating that she was listening carefully.
My problem is that I am a mzungu outsider, and I’m loathe to get wrapped up in some witchcraft bullshit. But if it is connected to poaching, then I need to get involved. That’s what I am there for. I can get motivated for that, to protect the animals.”
A slight peevishness entered my voice. “You know yourself about Africa, how difficult dealing with African beliefs can be. So why should I get involved, when these people deep down don’t really accept me, or even want me to be here.”
I told Claudia about Kings’s response that morning.
“You used to talk about your platoon sergeant in Angola.” Claudia looked at me as she spoke. “Wasn’t he is Zambian?”
I stared back at her quizzically. “Yes.” I replied, “so what about him?”
“Why don’t you ask him to help you sort this stuff out,” She said. “As an African he would know what and how all the locals were thinking, they would tell him stuff that they would never tell you.”
“Dudu,” she said using the affectionate name she called me, “you also know how things work here as well as I do.”
For a while I sat thinking, with my arm over her shoulder as she leaned against me, before I spoke again.
“Yes you are right, but I don’t know where he is. It has been years since we last had contact.”
She sat up fully, and turned to face me. “You told me that he was raised on a mission out on the Angola border, and spoke Portuguese, which was why he was such a good soldier in your unit.’
She waited for me to respond, and I didn’t, so she went on.
“You said he was raised by a priest there who he regarded as his father. Instead of going back to the Bush tomorrow, why don’t you go out there? Go see if you can speak to someone on the mission. Maybe they will know where to find him. Maybe he can help you!”
(9th edit – 03/24/2021)