A croc attack! . . .
Sheeesh! Although I’d heard of them often enough, this was a personal first.
In remote and traditional Africa, calamity, with the unwanted child it sometimes spawns, tragedy, has its rituals. It being a child of Fate, the mother whose fingers weave the fabric of village life, its easily-provoked proximity must be treated with respect. Life is lived knowing that in some dark corner lurks the slumbering hands of chance, ready to rouse and reach out at any moment. To placate its grasp everyone has a role in the rituals of appeasement. They aren’t performed by unknown men with faces hidden by fire helmets or uniforms. There are no gawking spectators. It is with up close participation that relief is to be found, because everyone has watched, as the unwelcome serpent of destiny has inexorably beckoned a soul into its coils. The squeeze of ill fortune can only be loosened with those age-old remedies, keening, clapping of hands, stamping of feet and the sprinkling of spells.
I hesitated. The manager of my hosting lodge, Morse, was away on errands in the faraway city of Lusaka. It was the end of the tourist season: no guests were at the lodge. Many of the staff were on leave. I wasn’t sure of the medical proficiency of those left there.
I thanked the portly guard, turned the vehicle around, and with a sense of grudging resignation retraced my path.
My pre-occupation with the best way to thwart this old-new form of African disaster pushed the ‘Cruisers speeds beyond its dangerous sliding limits. A lifetime of driving in Africa allows one to learn the limits of this dance with the dirt. Too slow and vibrations of the rutted corrugations of an ungraded road are intolerable; too fast and the syncopated shudders of heavy-duty tires make them bounce in unison, loosening the vehicle’s grip on the gravel.
I had lost track of time when I saw the big steel anchor beams of the pontoon’s cable head come into view. I slowed the ‘Cruiser so that it no longer drifted dangerously away from the road’s rutted crest.
I don’t know why the news of this attack filled me with a sense of foreboding. I’d seen enough adversity in my life. The war in Angola had scribbled tens of thousands of victims on its tally sheet, its brutality unnoticed by the rest of the world, but not by those who’d been there. Certainly not by fellow soldier Moses and myself. At least here my vehicle no longer ran the risk of triggering the thumping flash of a mine.
Glancing to the side I watched a herd of impala skittishly trot away from my approach. Beyond them, deeper in the woodland, were a few of the local baboon troop, with young ones shrieking as they scampered about.
Now, in the midday heat of late October, despite the distraction of my thoughts, I marveled at the beauty of the bushland flowing past, resplendent with the emerald green of freshly budding miombo forest trees, holding their leafy canopies aloft above long, slender trunks as elegantly as any gathering of Ascot ladies their parasols.
Despite its condition and with a bit of risk taking, the road had allowed good progress: Only two hours since leaving the check-point, including the recrossing at the pontoon. I’d been lucky. The ferry happened to be waiting on the south bank.
In another month, when the wet season began in earnest, progress along the road would be difficult. Its neglect and abuse would make it challenging as the oppressive heat of late October mixed with moisture brushed in from the east. Like the coupling of ancient gods, the mingling of the air and humidity would rear up until their cloudy crowns climaxed in ecstatic roars of thunder. Brilliant flashes of lightning, would birth sheets of rain, bringing misery to the road, thereby extending the gap between relief and suffering.
In this wilderness area the size of Belgium, it’s no wonder that here disaster is so impactful. The whole region is bisected by a single east-west paved road with a few north-south dirt arterials which, like the one I was travelling along, were barely passable when wet. Here it is not a bankruptcy or stock market collapse which blights life. Seldom is someone left penniless from the debilitating costs of an illness. The red is not in the tally of an accountant, but the burgundy of spilled blood.
For me, despite it all, it was as it should be. Its harshness, cloaked in its beauty, kept the ugliness of that other more domesticated world at arm’s length.
I shrugged as I nosed the cruiser off the ruts of the main road, and shifted into low gear to negotiate some of the serious bumps of the hand cut dirt strips leading the last few kilometers to the lodge. Here the trees press in close, then open into the wide grassy spread of a dambo, before the pathway reaches the narrow cuff of thick riverine foliage shading the complex.
The high-pitched trill hovered above the rattle of the vehicle well before I stopped near the wooded anthill behind the kitchen. Cutting the engine, it revealed itself to be the tongue trilling ululation of a single woman.
In Africa, this is usually the sound of celebration, but not now, not here. She stood slightly apart from a group beside the opening in the thatch fence around the service area. A head taller than the others, hers was a savage, incomprehensible sound.
I had seen her often enough in my dealings with the lodge staff. However
I had never spoken to her. She had always been aloof, alluringly distant. Her thick black braids invariably dangling from the back of her head, falling free to sway along her spine. She also always wore her teal-colored uniform in a rakish, taunting way.
Her eerie wail rose and fell, wavered, then gained strength before subsiding like an echo.
Something in its primitive pitch hinted at ethereal evil, telling the listeners to wrap themselves in the protection of ritual. At the same time, it had a selfish joyousness, a thankful relief: because the Spirits had chosen someone else as a sacrifice.
As the keening faded, ancient Africa faded with it, as it had done over the centuries to lurk, watch, and wait as the new world carelessly reasserted itself.
As I approached, I noted her name tag, ‘Precious’.
As I stopped before her, she opened her eyes and poured the black ink of her stare over me.
Beneath the ebullient spread of the boughs of the big trees at the river’s edge, the sloping cut of the boat launch offers easy access to the river. It is where they pump the water up into the holding tank behind the kitchen. From the drag marks it was obviously the site of the attack. Eddie had not been moved far. He lay on a blanket at the ramp’s eroded crest.
The shock on his face was visible from a distance. Even the dark ebony skin of the African has a grey pallor in that state. Quickly crossing the short distance to them, I moved between the men standing looking down at Eddie. They stepped back to let me kneel beside him.
His expression had the fatalistic torpor I’d seen so many times. It is part of Africa, the acceptance of one’s fate. Dire situations have been woven into the fabric of life so often, there is seldom enough time to pick apart the tangled knots of cause and effect.
I recognized the men standing around him.
“How did this happen?”
“We were pumping water Bwana, and the crocodile grabbed at Eddie. He was getting ready to start the pump’s engine.”
It was Kings who spoke, a big muscular man. His voice was deep and the skin between his eye-brows tended to crease into furrows as he talked, as if he was concentrating on some complexity.
I admonished, “Why didn’t you change where you pump water, so that the crocodiles don’t learn your pattern.”
A sense of helpless frustration crept into my voice.
“Yes, Bwana, but the water is so shallow. We aren’t sure how the crocodile got so close. Eddie hadn’t even put the hose into the river. It was so fast.”
I cut in sharply, “You were careless. That crocodile waited for hours. It let the weeds drift over it so its shape was broken under water.”
“Bwana, we were careful!”
“It was smarter than all of you.” I said tersely.
A scowl crept over Kings broad face. Creases of tension appeared at the corners of his mouth, which to a casual observer would appear to be the start of a smile.
Having dealt with soldiers for years, I knew how far to push a point, and when to ease up, particularly as I wasn’t his boss.
Surprisingly no first-aid had yet been attempted.
His being the dominant personality in the group of men, I turned my attention to Kings, “Do you know any first-aid?”
Another of the men replied that he had some knowledge of it.
“Why has nothing been done to stop the bleeding?” I asked.
Nicholas, the man, looked at Kings as if waiting for him to give the answer, but Kings continued his scowl, until Nicholas also shrugged.
If calamity was to be avoided, someone had to take the initiative. I had to be careful if I wanted cooperation. Giving orders seldom elicits willing participation.
“How did Eddie get away?” I asked.
“Bwana, He was lucky.” This time it was the third man who spoke. “He held onto the pump. It had the hose up to the kitchen, so it wasn’t easy for the croc to pull him back quickly. He held on until I found a big stick and hit the crocodile. I hit it many times before it let go.”
Kings scowled at the man giving the explanation. I couldn’t place the source of his sullen hostility. Maybe his mood wasn’t personal. But he was casting the net of his petulance over all of them.
Glancing towards the river I saw the small box like engine and the centrifugal pump where it had been dragged almost into the water when Eddie hung on for life.
For a moment as I considered what to do the world held its breath. Even the birds were silent. There was only the rustle of the leaves as the trees draped their shadows over the corrugated tin roof of the vehicle shed.
The hierarchical protocol of rural African life waited for me to speak, say what to do. I was older than them and here one seldom disrespects age. Even Kings held his silence, as if waiting to see if I could challenge the deference the other two men gave him.
I remained on my knees looking at the motionless figure on the blanket, with the three silent men standing over me.
Here time and urgency are seldom considered when solving problems. Why bother? Rarely will haste affect the outcome of fate. One cannot get an ambulance here earlier or get to the hospital within half an hour to influence outcomes. Kasempa is 150 kilometers away, and Mumbwa 120. With the road’s conditions it would be four hours to the minimalistic basics of a clinic.
There was a serene expression on Eddie’s face. His eyes were half open, and clouded with a distant unfocused stare, as if in a trance.
I said nothing.
Using my bush knife, I cut away the legging of his long pants to expose the deep gashes left by the crocodile’s teeth,.
The puncture marks of the crocs bite had been further ripped by the violent twisting and shaking of the beast as it tried to break Eddie’s clutching hold on the pump. The reptile had exerted powerful backward lunges with its thrashing tail in the water. It had made savage efforts to drag him into aquatic oblivion.
“Get me the medical box from behind the seat of my vehicle”, I said to no one in particular.
Eddie had lost a lot of blood. This was evident from the broad expanse of the dark staining of the blankets. He was still losing blood from an ooze from a particularly deep wound at the back of his knee. At least the faint rhythm of the ooze indicated he had a pulse. But with each leaking dribble his life was oozing away.
Looking over my shoulder it was with a flicker of surprise that I saw Precious carrying the large water-tight First Aid kit.
As her tall athletic figure approach, and crossed to where we were at the top of the ramp, her smooth gait gave her the appearance of gliding towards us. Her long legs flicked forward without conveying much bob to her body. The bright orange color of the first aid box contrasted with the teal blue leggings of her uniform.
As she reached us, my eyes were drawn to the white speckles of the small river snail shells strung on a simple strand around her neck. These, I noted, color contrasted with the smooth amber chocolate of her skin.
Hmmm…I mentally noted. She is a woman full of surprises.
Then like a bat at dawn, my curiosity faded away. Shifting my focus, I looked back down at Eddie.
“Help me turn him over”, I asked Precious as she bent to do so.
Pulling and placing his one knee across his other leg, and with me holding his hips and Precious his shoulders, we rolled him onto his side.
He was so weak he was not responding to commands. I shifted his head to the side. Then with a signal to Precious and a gentle push, we rolled him onto his belly.
Using the big non-sterile pads from the second drawer I wiped away the debris and matted blood from around his deepest lacerations.
A slow thin ooze of blood still dribbled from the longest gash.
Taking a tourniquet from the bottom drawer I wrapped it above his knee and pulled it tight. Then pushing and releasing my fingers into the back of his calf, I check that it filled back out, indicating that the tourniquet wasn’t too tight.
“Take those gloves and put them on” I said to Precious.
The three other men stood looking on with emotionless expressions. Standing further back the other women were also uneasy observers.
Without looking up I issued quiet instructions to the three men. They must ready the old Land Cruiser I said. Check its oil and water, and if necessary, take out a fresh barrel from the storeroom. With the hand pump transfer forty liters into its tank. That should easily get them to Mumbwa and back. Also. to pull one of the mattresses out of the storeroom and lay it on the cruisers open back.
I waited to see if I had broken Kings’ restricting hold over the others.
They turned and moved away. Then, with a sullen look on his face Kings followed them across the open ground to the sheds.
Bringing my attention back to the woman kneeling beside me, I noted that there was something different about her. When the regularity of life was disturbed, she exuded an aura of dependability.
I pointed to some packs of sterile alcohol swabs, “Use those to clean all over his leg”.
The latex gloves were mush too large for her long slender hands, but even with the encumbrance of the folds, it was easy to detect the dexterity of her fingers.
“Now take some of that cream,”” I instructed as I pointed to the anti-biotic ointment, “Smear it on his cuts”.
While she was doing so, I cut a length of the fishing line and threaded it into a suture hook. Using the gloved fingers of one hand, I pinched together a section of ripped flesh and quickly hooked the curved needle through and out. Eddie didn’t flinch. I cut and tied the ends of the line. This was performed three more times, which took care of the big oozing gash.
I tore open the covering to three large abdominal pads. Eddies wounds were so extensive that anything less would not have sufficed.
Being abdominal pads, they weren’t adhesive. We would have to be fast to secure them over the wounds.
“Press your finger on these”. I instructed Precious.
She placed a forefinger at the top and bottom of each pad in turn as I tagged them with athletic tape.
Once this was done, I asked her to hold and raise his ankle so that I could use Cobam tape to wrap around his leg in a swaddle.
The suturing should allow the blood in the deep wound to clot. However, my final touch was done with Duct Tape providing an impervious barrier. I figured any blood that did make it through the pads would clot and prevent further leakage. But most importantly it would keep all my wrappings together in the rattling journey that was about to commence. It would have to hold until they got to the clinic.
Sitting back on my haunches I gazed at the thick copse of trees covering the ant-hill on the other side of the clearing. Then I lifted my eyes to the etchings of high cirrus clouds above. They were the wispy decorations set in the ceiling above our pitiful drama.
The cycle of life, to eat and be eaten. Eddie had nearly been a straggler in that ancient process of predator and prey. It was a cycle that has disappeared from our modern reality, and made us foolishly assume we aren’t part of it.
My thoughts returned to dwell on Kings’ hostility. It was new. In the two years I had been here, not being part of the lodges operations I had had only superficial interaction with the staff. His attitude perplexed me!
Then suddenly, as if nature began to breathe again, the trumpeter hornbills were braying in the thick tangle of trees on the island opposite. Over there the crocodile was probably nursing a battered head and ego, waiting and watching for the next careless moment.
It was touch and go if Eddie could survive the shock of the attack and his blood loss aftermath, and the yet to be endured bumps and jolts of the arduous drive to the clinic.
Kings had the old Land Cruiser backed up and the tail gate down when the voice broke into our busy silence.
“Leave him alone!”
It had a quiet distinct tone of authority, with a raspy roughness like the creak of steps in wet sand.
“Leave him alone!” the command was repeated.
“Stop your meddling!”
With startled surprise I looked up and searched for the source of the voice.
I found it when the command was again reiterated.
“Do not touch him!”
It came from a figure standing leaning lazily against one of the support posts at the far end of the vehicle shed.
As I looked on with amazement, the figure stepped out from its obscurity, half hidden by the drabness of the equipment in the shed’s shade.
It was a very thin, almost scarecrow like figure, dressed in a camouflage uniform. He was slightly stooped with the grey hints of age in his unusually long crown of tight African curls.
I jerked back in shock as a curdling shriek erupted beside me. Precious snapped to her feet with the speed and surety of a striking scorpion. The air was filled with the shrill howling wail of her ululating.
Completely confounded I rocked back on my knees and watched as Precious, with head thrown back to fill the air with her savage cries, advanced step, by deliberate step, towards the interloping stranger.
Halting before him, her demonic sounds faded like the echoes of a wild dream.
She screamed again. “YENGA! TU YENGA AKUNO”, “Go, Get away from here!”
In the profound silence that followed, the mysterious figured turned. With his camouflage uniform blending into the bush, he melted away.
I looked in dumbfounded shocked at Kings and asked, “Who the fuck is that?”
Wordlessly, Precious glided back.
She nodded to the three men. With each of them holding a corner of Eddie’s blanket, they lifted him to lay on the foam rubber mattress on the vehicles bed. Then Kings moved across to reenter the truck-cab as the other two climbed onto the back, where they sat alongside Eddie.
They drove away.
“What the hell is going on!” I exclaimed incredulously to Precious.
“Bad witch medicine” she whispered, “Bad Muti Bwana!”