North of the Zambezi River October is suicide month.
It is when the vestiges of winter are burned away by the resurgent vitality of the sun sliding south across the equator. The early summer heat is unbearable, so hot the only relief is said to be death.
Retreating from the sun’s glare on the chitenge’s deck as it cantilevers out over the water, I sat at the head of the polished mahogany dinner table. From its position in the shade under the tall thatch roof it offered respite from the heat.
Fortunately no guests were present to witness the morning’s struggle to save Eddie. If the events had left me shaken, they would certainly have rattled foreign visitors. With the lodge manager being away, I was glad to have returned in time to help.
The tension and stress had left me dehydrated. A tall glass of orange juice thus added to the soothing effect of the shade.
I had asked the kitchen staff to make me a sandwich. Having left before dawn and not eaten anything I was hungry.
While waiting with the events fresh in my mind, I mulled over reasons and repercussions.
Looking up I saw Precious approaching, bringing a carefully-sectioned sandwich on a simple white plate as if I were a paying guest. That it was Precious bringing my fare was unusual. I knew enough about the staff to know that she wasn’t part of the dining service team.
She crossed the small lawn from the opening in the fence hiding the kitchen. Approaching from my left, she twisted slightly to the side with her left hand extended as proficiently as a server as she wordlessly set the plate before me.
Listening to her footsteps fade I savored the salty fattiness of the meaty grits of grated biltong jerky on the bread. This was washed down with gulps of cool juice. As my hunger receded my focus returned to chew on the mornings perplexities.
What sort of muti was Precious referring to? The word means medicine. But muti had existed in the Bush long before modern medicine was brought by the missionaries. The 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 at the time of David Livingston. Ancient muti can come as potions, spells, or curses. It didn’t matter how much of the Muslim or Catholic or Adventist people had embraced, the thing most feared and respected here in the bush is the muti.
Recently one of the scouts, a devout Adventist, had disappeared for a week. When he finally resurfaced, 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 accepted as a plausible explanation.
But, experience has conditioned me to 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, followed by another.
Glancing behind me, there it was, that splash of the unexpected.
She was in the shadows of the low half 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, forming a parallel V, the traditional way a woman shows respect, patiently requesting an audience as if I were a ‘chief’.
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 stared wordlessly at her as, once again, she poured the ink of her big raven eyes all over me.
“Okay! What in the world is going on? Come over here and explain things.”
“No Bwana. Not here.”
“Precious,” I reiterated, “wat the hell is going on?”
In the darkness of her eyes I detected the simmering glow of her passion.
“Bwana. Wwait for me at your camp. I will be there later when I finish. Here there are too many ears.”
She rose and disappeared through the gap in the fence.
Dumbstruck, I left the other half of my sandwich untouched on the plate
. This behavior, ordering of an 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.
Even more perplexed than before, 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 burn and smolder. The best longest burning wood is that which has grown
in shallow austere soils, toughening it. It smolders for hours, long after the guest dinner is served, all night until its glow is coaxed back to life, so that its flames warm outstretched palms as the hippo’s splash back at dawn.
Like the fire, were the events the first sign of some witch medicine to test my resolve? if so how long would things smolder before they could be doused?
What sort of muti had the camo clad naganga brought to plant in the shallow clays of this place?
How strong would be his breath, as he blew on my embers.
With the sun leaning west of its zenith high overhead, I walked past the smoldering logs. Thin wisps of pale smoke twisted upwards, like my thoughts, until they slowly split before scattering into the hot air.
What a day!
It seemed a lifetime ago that I heard the shout of “Iwe”, coming from the portly gate guard.
Instead of heading directly to my camp along the inland track, 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.
The view from the camp 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.
On one side the thick arbor line defines the river’s edge. On the other, the copses of big trees appear 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 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. As she approached I examined her tall figure. She had lost a sliver of the usual assertive swaying characteristic of her stride. There was a hint of furtiveness in how her head 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 pointing her gaze at me, “It is bad muti Bwana!”
Extending a long leg she kicked at a leaf on the floor.
“We have been waiting for it.”
“Waiting for what?”
“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.”
I peered 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?”
“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, but it has been getting worse for a while. Even the ngangas we have here are nervous. Outside 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 new muti .”
“So what did you get?” I asked.
Delicately she fingered the snail shells on the leather strand around her neck. ” The nganga gave me these to keep away the spirits of the bad ancestors.”
“And Bwana,” she continued, “I was to make loud noises or to sing loudly to warn the spirits away”.
This explained 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.”
Her words made me uneasy.
“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.”
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 this 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.
I asked 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, 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 walls of the caves.
“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 old man flicked back into my mind.
“Did you not recognize the crocodile? It came back to claim its sacrifice. It was in disguise.”
The people are saying 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 try to force me to leave. But I am not yet ready to go.”
She continued, “Only you, as a muzungu, can stop this! Even the Mlimo, after all this history have not yet perfected their curses on the white man.”
She fingered the little snail shells strung around her neck. “Yu 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.”
My unease increased. 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 intense 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 my platoon sergeant had been an excellent teacher.
However, tracking and dealing with mystical witchcraft figures was something else.
“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 after her as she walked away, with a rejuvenated swagger.
(9th edit – 03/21/2021)
(10th edit – 06/16/2021)