(39 – Narina)
I knew that in Africa, as in many other places in the world, it is seldom wise to leave items of value in a bag checked into the hold of a commercial aircraft, and as such It is best to travel as check-in light, and back-pack heavy as possible.
However, the downside of being laden with copious carry-on is that the security checks, which although often almost cursory, in this part of the world, still sometimes require the inconvenience of unpacking into the plastic trays of the security scanner.
It was just such an annoying situation which made me grind my teeth at Johannesburg’s O.R. Thambo International airport..
I was late and in a hurry. I knew for the short international flight to Bulawayo I would need to be at the A gates early, as we would be taken by bus to the aircraft.
However the gritting of my teeth ended almost as soon as my awareness registered the figure which stepped alongside me in the line at the security conveyor belt.
In the shuffling wait in the queue to the check point she had obviously stood unnoticed to my rear.
The first flick of my startled eyes registered her beauty in a breath catching way.
Unpacking my laptop and kindle into separate trays, more slowly now, I continued to flick my eyes surreptitiously, I hoped, over the outline of her elegant and sparsely sumptuous figure.,
She was as dark as a Gypsy, with the tone of her smooth skin complementing the somber simplicity of her clothing, clothing which fitted her like the fur of a sleek black cat. The only concession to color was to the silver necklace which glistened out from under the long sooty silk of her hair, as it cascaded down onto her shoulders like the moonlit waters of the Zambezi as they glide down into the Devil’s cataract.
The last item she placed on the tray was her jacket. As she slipped this off i saw that the neckline of her dress possessed a high, embroidered cut, with short, almost tank-top shoulders.
It was then that I gave in to temptation and let my eyes linger.
Out from under the cut off delineation of her top was the finest artistic filigree of ferns and flowers I had ever seen. It was etched onto the burnished amber of her skin. The tatoos tumbled down her shoulders, onto her upper arms, brushed behind her elbows, and reappeared with delicate appropriateness back onto her forearms, until their fine stylized fronds teased to the edges of her wrists..
From the fineness of her features and the darkness of her eyes I knew she was not Gypsy, rather, being in Africa she was probably from the stock of those who, long ago ,crossed the ocean from the Punjab, and followed in the footsteps of the Arab slave traders of Zanzibar.
I mentally whistled to myself before turning to follow as she passed through the gate of the metal detector.
It is seldom in this day and age of body art that a tattoo makes such and impression… I was not sure if it was the artwork, or the dark hinted romance of her face and figure, or the surprise of its revelation which was more attention catching.
Maybe it was the combination of it all, in this surprising setting.
Whatever it was, it seems to have lodged in my subconscious…
That night I dreamed of a maiden standing before me. She was as dark as that Indian gypsey girl, with eyes as black as those of the Queen of Cush. As she turned away I could see, unobstructedly, her whole back. Her shoulder blades were etched in just the same sort of filigree’ed sumptuousness, detailed on skin burnished as brown as a calabash.
When I roused up from the bed of my slumber, I thought to myself that maybe Moses was correct. Maybe the dog in me might still be able to howl at the moon.
Long howls, loud howls, wild howls.
Maybe even longer and louder than those mornful howls of the heart, the faint echo’s from the misery of a despair as black and long as that maiden’s hair…
.. Long ago howls at her back, as Sophia had turned to leave me.
(40 – O.R. Thambo)
As I was slowly carried down the escalator from the terminal of the Gau-Ttrain, into the check-in hall of the A terminus I thought how it was South Africas hosting of the world soccer tournament that had lifted Joburg’s OR Thambo Airport out of its prior mediocrity.
The airport had been at the center of the frantic construction effort to prepare for the events all over that country. It was the Gateway experience to so many hundreds of thousands of visitors who poured through its arrival halls and then dispersed to the various, and mostly distant soccer stadiums to cheer or curse their particular team’s success.
The euphoria of the flow and ebb of the fan tsunami is now only a distant memory. To give credit to the engineers and constructors of that edifice to Africa’s advancement and modernity, only now, a few years short of a decade later, are the first signs of the African malady beginning to show. Here a stationary walking conveyor belt is blocked with a strip of yellow tape, over there a window is cracked, and in the underground parking a ticketing machine is not functioning. .. Prompt and regular maintenance is not an African forte. its people are so accustomed to stepping over cracks that mostly they do not even notice the flaws any more.
However, the Mug & Bean on the intermediate floor between the A and B terminals, is still full of the vibrancy from those early years. It being a ubiquitous franchise all over the country, it is an easy venue to remember and hence to set as a meeting place, which is where I had arranged to meet Trevor.
I had chosen a table close to the greeting podium where two giggling waitresses were waiting, one of which broke away and followed me to the table, where she casually slid the menu in her hand towards me, as she asked how I was.
To catch her off-guard with something quirky and unexpected, I replied ‘Still alive!’.
The board expression on her face changed to a broad smile as she replied with a ‘That’s good’.
It being midmorning and knowing I was headed north to a country of politically squandered dearth I decided to spoil myself by ordering a latte and a slice of chocolate cheesecake. Who knew if I would be able to find a slice of any sort of cake in a Zimbabwe restaurant.
As I watched the shelf like pout of the waitresses rump flick away with my order I mused that she must be feasting on some good left overs to be able to sport such a posterior.
‘God bless the new well fed shape of Africa’, I muttered to myself as I looked around at the other patrons.
Then as I sat and scooped off small nibbles of the softly turgid slice of cheesecake with a teaspoon I tried to remember how long it had been since I had last seen Trevor.
Not too long ago actually. Maybe not the last time I was here, but the time before that. A year and a half ago maybe?
With the image of the waitress’s rump still in my mind, I thought how Trevor had also put on quite a bit of weight in the last few years. His once lean cheeks had become noticeably jowely. If I added in his almost bald dome and his thin rimmed glasses, it would be difficult to pick him out as the same person in our old high school photos. But I guess the same could possibly be said of myself by someone who had not been close, to watch my own metamorphosis from skinny shy high school runt, into a lean muscular soldier, and then into tall lanky middle age, with sun-dried skin and a head a balding as Trevor’s.
I wondered if Trevor would be dropped off by someone, or if he would be coming in on the Gau-Train as I had. Traffic could be a real problem on the cities ring road and its spokes at this time of the morning. Also, seeing as it was a short international flight up to Bulawayo, we would need to join the scrum in the hall which serves the mid numbered A-gates. This hall more resembled a bus station than an airport, and we would need to be at our gate at least half an hour before the scheduled aircraft departure time. The bus station atmosphere was warranted because that is just what it is, from here all passengers are taken to their aircraft by bus.
After taking particularly long to slowly chase the last mouthful of the delicious cake around the plate, and using my finger to surreptitiously aid it into the teaspoon, I checked the bill and added a generous tip, more for the eye-candy provided by the waitress than her un-hurried service.
‘Well’, I had thought, It was less than an hour to take off and I could no longer risk waiting for Trevor.
I had gathered my laptop and carry-on bags and headed for the escalator down to the security check and immigration.
Then, It was at the security check that my senses lit up when I noticed the tatoos on the girl behind me in the queue., and I had deliberately let her move ahead of me at immigration.
But I lost sight of her when I had quickly ducked into the first curio shop, where I had hastily bought a lovely patterned salad dish and two mugs as gifts, and to the consternation of the cashier, stuffed them into my bag without any wrapping.
Then walking as quickly as I could I had headed to the far end of the airport shopping mall and down to the ‘cattle’ gates.
The shuffling queue was already moving when I joined it, with the first bus already full and ready to depart for the aircraft.
As I handed my ticket to be checked at the doorway, I looked across at the next queue over.
The beautiful Indian girl with the tattoo was in its melee.
I looked at the neon board above that desk, and saw that she was boarding a flight to Lusaka.
(41 – Old friends)
The first bust had disgorged all its passengers by the time mine reach the aircraft.
The crowd at the foot of the mobile stairs slowly fed itself up towards the aircrafts door, as a few yellow jacketed officials looked on like some exotic herdsmen tending a flock of goats.
I looked around at the busy tarmac and its bustle of activity and aircraft. The area was actually the service area for most South African domestic flights, which was shared with the short distance international hauls. I knew that this was an area that serve the most active route in the world, the Joburg- Cape Town route, which surprisingly sees more air passengers traveling between them than any other two cities in the world.
And then my slight sense of anxiety dissipated when half way up the stairway I recognized a bald head, with below it the customary short sleeved khaki shirt and shorts, sporting long socks almost to the knees, which, in turn were slid loosely into well worn leather veldskoen shoes. Trevor was about to enter the aircraft.
I have been allocated a window seat in row 30 towards the rear. I slowed my progress to the stairs and let other passengers go ahead. I was one of the last to board. I wanted to scope out any free seats, and see if I could either sit next to Trevor, or, seeing as the flight did not seem to be too crowded, find a pair of open seats so that we could sit next to each other and talk on the flight.
There’s something about the bonds formed during childhood which unlike many of the other aspects of life, never seem to age or mature.
With falconry being one of my hobbies, I was aware of ‘ imprinting’, where I could take a very young hawk, and raise it in that crucial stage of its development, between the age of 15 and 30 days old, and for the rest of its life, I would be its ‘parent.’
It would react to me with complete familiarity and lack of fear, making it very easy to train as a hunting bird.
Trevor and I had known each other since being together at Que Que Junior school, and as such are familiarity with each other and lack of inhibitions may have also stemmed from us being together during a youthful imprinting phase of our lives.
Talking to him, was as if we were still two school boys, able to chat and discuss with complete open frankness almost any subject under the sun.
Luckily as I move down the corridor I noted that there was an open middle spot next to him.
The climb out of Johannesburg was bumpy, but not as rough as the dissent into Bulawayo. By then it was after midday and the air close to the ground had been heated sufficiently by the bright summer sunshine radiating off the rocks, leaves and grasses of the warm continent far below.
The invisible moisture which had been carried in from the far away Indian ocean, was now being lifted aloft in huge condensing columns, until the tops reached so high, that the jet-stream swept there tops into the classic anvils of tropical cumulonimbus clouds.
Pausing the flow of our conversation, I looked out the window to peer at the top of one of these awesome phenomena as it slid past not too far below the wings of the aircraft.
‘It looks like we can expect a thunderstorm in Bulawayo later on this afternoon,’ I said to Trevor.
‘We could use it’, he replied, ‘we never seem to have enough rain in Bulawayo these days’.
However as Trevor and I were well acquainted with the roughness of many of the aspects of African travel, and unlike some of the foreign passengers who were looking around nervously, we hardly broke the flow of our conversation.
‘How did you get the gig?’ Trevor was spooning mouthfuls of the chicken and sadza from the little tinfoil container he had lifted from his lunch tray, and which he held up near his mouth for convenience and efficiency.
I did not answer him immediately, instead I continued to ruminate on how sadza, being the staple maze meal dough-like food favored by most of the poor and rural population of Africa, was more frequently replacing the usual rice or mashed-potato starch portion of the menu on the intre African flights. Maybe, I surmised, it was a sign that a lot of the poor had been lifted into middle class by the end of apartheid, and they had brought their eating habits with them.
I had mentioned this to Trevor when our food trays were first delivered, that Sadza on the menu was probably the best sign that Africa had a democratic future. That it was a sign that South Africa at least, had a growing middle class, and that the most important aspect of any thriving democracy is a big and vibrant middle-class.
Trevor had agreed, ‘Yup, that’s the problem in Zimbabwe, Mugabe and his thugs surround themselves with a small elite, and keep most everyone else in a state of impoverished peasantry, which at election time can either be beaten into submission, or be bought by handing out a bag of maize-meal.’
‘Free and fair elections, what bullshit.’
I chuckled back, ‘Give some of the fancy American clients at our Lodge in the Kafue a few beers and get them talking about politics, and listen to them tell you how sitting comfortably on the stool of a democracy depends on the checks and balances between the three even legs of governance, the executive, legislative and judiciary.’
I swallowed a mouthful of my sadza, liberally smeared in the meals chicken gravy . ‘But actually’, I continued, ‘what they don’t realize, and take for granted, is that the ground the stool sits on, the soil which supports all of those three legs is the earth of the middle class.
I continued my drift on the theme to Trevor, I am not a political science genius, but I have come to realize the middle class have enough to afford investing in a dog in the hunt for a better future… and if there are enough of their dogs in that hunt, they can turn on and nip the heels of self-centered autocratic leaders.’
Trevor finished chewing and swallowing his mouthful. He nodded his head sideways to indicate the three smart casually dressed men sitting in the seats across the aisle from us. ‘I wonder what all these Chinese on this flight think of the sadza? I bet they would prefer rice.’
‘That is another sign of the times, and the new Africa.’ I nodded to him, ‘I hear that in Angola there are now more Chinese than there were Portuguese colonialists at the time of independence in 1975.’
‘Yet.’ Trevor leaned back from his meal, ‘The Chinese these days own most of Zimbabwe, and the government is so indebted to them that it’s almost as if the Chinese run the place.’
Trevor mopped the chicken gravy at the bottom of its tin-foil bowl with the last of his bread-roll. ‘I heard that it was an official Chinese government policy of having 5 million Chinese immigrate into African countries. They want them to become Chinese ex-pats, and hence indirectly form a China sympathetic element in the fabric of each country.
‘Hey,’ I agree. ‘They run the Zambian Electricity supply to repay themselves all their investments into the Kariba hydro-electric expansion. The archway across the main highway out of Siavonga at Kariba these days is written in Chinese script.’
I glanced out the window as I felt the nose of the aircraft dip to begin its descent.
Trevor handed his tray to the airhostess, ‘Isn’t it funny how so many whites are desperate to leave Africa these days, and quietly the voids they are leaving are being filled by the Chinese.’
I picked up where he left off.
‘And closer to home for me, they have started to mine copper very close to the outskirts of Chifumpa village on the border of the Kafue where I operate. I am told that little half Chinese, half African babies have started to appear amongst the unmarried women of the village, and even some of the married ones’.
I stopped talking and allowed the airhostess to collect my tray as the captain announced the preparations for landing.
Stepping off the plane I was confronted by the big ugly box like structure of the new Bulawayo airport. New for me, that was, seeing as I had not been here since the late 1990s, when the airport buildings was still the old colonial structures, built of bricks and plaster, with the composite panes of their metal frame windows held open with sliders and latches made of brass. And all the entrances, even into the largest hallways were through wooden doorways leading into simply paneled reception areas with sturdy desks fashioned from Rhodesian Teak.
Doubtlessly at the time of the old airports construction, the design driver and choice of many of its elements must have yielded to the same constraints , with efficiency, and fitting within a limited budget, being paramount.
However I remembered how the old buildings blended in with the trees and vegetation. And it was those lovely tall Central African trees, the Mafuti and the Masasa, which had shared the airport grounds with the buildings. These trees shielded the observer’s eye from any boring ugly simplicity and squareness that the buildings may have possessed. This, in turn meant that the overall effect was one of subdued graciousness.
Not so with the new building.
Like the face of a mental patient the copious glass frontage of the tall canyon like side stares blankly out at the equally bare and bland flatness of the aircraft runways.
The spindly metal support shafts spaced along its front, do nothing to alleviate the buildings unimaginative design. And they are obviously unnecessary to support any nonexistent deep eaves, which possibly could have provided some aesthetic architectural element. Even worse, their stubbiness offer the observer scant soothing shade, opposed to the old trees and lawns. Instead the sandy yellow roof-rods garishly rise up to meet with the ridiculously happy bright-blue of the corrugated tin roof.
Ohh well, I thought, the project was probably funded mostly by the Chinese and mostly designed by them. I would even wager that much of the materials were imported from there, and the work done by the Chinese, with a token African ‘supervisor’, whose name could be touted for local propaganda.
Then, as we left the airport behind and I rode with Trevor and his wife Colleen into the city, it revealed how the new airport building was an aberration. Its attempt to imbue any visitor with an impression of successful modernity, faded almost as soon as we turned out of the parking area gates onto the road leading to the city.
Everything along the way hinted that this was where Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep. But the slumber had affected not just that old mythical character, but everything else man made along the way.
The sadness was that it appeared that little had been attended to during the prolonged multi-decade slumber.
Like so many old people sitting in wheel chairs on the verandah of a hospice, set back from the roadway, the houses passed us by.
Even some of the more substantial dwellings that were once inhabited by the affluent, and which once exuded the same aura of graciousness as the old airport, now seemed to have succumbed to and accepted the consequence of their neglect.
The well-tended lawns had long since dried up and withered back into the bare soil, as had the flower beds. And the dust of the soil had been blown about by the winds or scattered around by the raindrops of the summer storms. This dust now coated the outside walls of these old structures in successive layers of grime. And the sun had long since baked the paint on the tin roofs into flaky chips.
However the closer we got to its center, the more I could see how the fingers of the city slowly cast off the blanket of its spell and twitched into life. We had left the outstretched torso of Van Winkle in the scruffy grime of the outer suburbs.
It was not that this sense of awakening was from any rejuvenation. Quite the opposite, the city had not shaken off any of its old colonial past. Neither did it derive its twitches of vibrancy from that source. Its inheritance from the past in the form of its skeleton and aged flesh were still very much in evidence, in the predominance of old two-story buildings, having their offices above and shop fronts below.
The hollow eyed glass windows of the store fronts now stare out at the cracked and uneven pavements bordering the wide bounteous width of the streets, which, so it is said, were originally spaced to allow a fully spanned ox-wagon to reverse its direction.
Instead the vibrancy of the city’s streets came from the hordes of people walking along its pavements, as they weaved in and out to avoid the wares of the hawkers spread on blankets on the uneven sidewalks. The hawkers themselves sat on their haunches with their backs leaning against some of the storefronts, as they harangue and attempted to entice anyone who was unwary enough to make eye contact.
I noted how almost all of the hordes were well dressed as some of them spilled off the pavements to cross haphazardly. Like aspiring Spanish Bull-fighters they exhibited the same artful disdain as they dodged the mini-buses and other vehicles which had scrounged enough fuel to keep going.
Here and there a wheel barrow made an appearance as goods were moved around. I even noted a throng of school boys, wearing long grey pants, white shirts and ties with blazers bearing the crest of Milton High School.
They were uniformed echoes of a faded empire, which still resonated here.
The difference was that the schoolboys were all African, and not the little white boys who I played cricket against when I was their age.
It was also this uniform African’ness of the throngs on the street that was so evident. Gone was the diversity of yore. It was difficult to pick out any person of another race.
I knew that Mugabe, in his racial obsession had managed to actively hound out most of the white land-owners. This intentional destruction of the largest section of the country’s wealth generater’s, when combined with financially unsustainable socialist policies, had brought about the economic collapse of this once productive land. In turn, this had chased away most of the remaining business people.
The city which had once boasted one of the oldest and most successful Jewish communities in Central Africa, five thousand strong, had now dwindled down to less than fifty individuals. It was obvious that the diverse communities that had once thrived here, had fared no better… Gone were the Caucasians, the Greeks, the Lebanese, and even the Indians.
The roads now had different names, those of the heroes of the revolution had been painted over the empires greats.
But, I was glad to see that they had not cut down the trees, which still lined the boulevards and still shaded the parks with even more stark sumptuousness than they did decades ago, when wearing the long grey pants, the white shirt with tie, and the blazer of Falcon College, I walked under them as a schoolboy.
‘This is why I continue living here, and why I will never leave.’
Trevor made a why gesture with his hand as we drove towards the thatched archway and its site ticket office which was the main gate to the matopos national Park.
This country is so messed up these days, almost anybody who wants a normal life and has a skill has left here. But despite all the harassment, the police roadblocks, the potholes, the power outages, the lack of civic services, electricity and running water, and the decrepit state of the schools, I stay here because of these hills.
As the road had wended its way south-westward, past the barely functional agricultural research station, and the tired looking buildings of the Rhodes Elementary Preparatory School, the boring and gently rolling countryside, covered with scrubby thorn trees, gradually begun to change and fill with pimply looking rocky outcrops. In front of us, like the layers of a mirage dancing in the heat at the end of the road I could see how the far off images slowly coalesced into what could almost be described as a giant Lego-land. But instead of colorful plastic, the building blocks were huge grey granite boulders, whose rough surfaces were subliminally painted with the subdued brush strokes of delicate lichens. Everywhere I looked I could see these natural canvases daubed with paler patches of flakey white. Sometimes these were blended with darker greys, or even black, and streaked through with the russet from the ferrous traces leached out of the rock by millions of years of weathering.
Trevor spoke again, ‘One of the greatest gifts that history has not thanked the colonial era Europeans for, is the gift of national parks to Africa, and to the rest of the world. Most of the ungrateful bastards who live here don’t even realize what a gift they have been given. Not yet anyway!’.
He paused to duck and crane his head to look out the side window of the vehicle admiringly as we passed the first steep jumble of rocky kopjes.
‘I guess the real bastards are the scum-bag politicians who have kept the vast majority of the population in poverty, so that these poor slobs have to spend most of the time scrounging for a living, instead of contemplating the aesthetics of life.
Actually, everyone just takes these parks for granted. Even the foreign tourists who are still adventurous enough to put up with the bullshit in this Godforsaken country.”.
Trevor was on a roll.
‘Admittedly a lot of these parks were designated when the land was not nearly as populated, but even so. Socialist regimes are all about the proletariat, about poor people and giving them as much as the state can grab, other people’s money, other people’s land and of course from the wild animals, giving away the land of the state itself. Not a single national Park has been designated since socialism swept over most of Africa.
Actually I am surprised that so many of these parks have even survived, and not been de-gazetted..’
As Trevor filled in our particulars at the window of the small office, the smile of the portly Wharton who took our fees spread almost as wide on her face as the gaps between the buttons on the shirt of her khaki uniform, which had been strained apart by the size of her chest.
‘The Rangers say that the rhino are close by and you should be able to see them if you take the Mleme dam loop’ she said.
The excitedly animated tone of her voice was not reflected in the slow lethargy of her movements as she walked outside to open the gate, and let us into the park.
‘Thank you Mama, we will look for them.’ Trevor politely acknowledged her helpfulness.
As we drove away, he grimaced his mouth, ‘This country is still full of lovely people, especially these Matabele. Too bad it’s full of lousy politicians.’
The road led deeper into the park and I could see how the piles of rock, some of them is ordered as the loaves of bread on a Baker shelf, and others is jumbled as the blocks in a toddler’s playpen, here and there gave way to the signature huge inselberg domes of the Matopos.
The sparse and scruffy grass that had spread out between the thorn-trees most of the way from the city now changed to a softer and sweeter variety.
With this much of the surface area of the land covered by rock, any rain that fell was obviously concentrated and caught in the sandy soil that had been blown in across the millennium to form the flat bottoms of the glens and vleis between the hills.
As a result the drought resistant thorn trees we had seen along the way were also replaced by their lusher and more luxuriant brethren, so that at times it seemed that we were driving through some variant of the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Tall and elegant Mountain acacia reached up to the summer sky from clefts in the rocks, and below them the broad green leafed fig trees with roots flattened and spreading out over the rocks like poured treacle mingled their greenery with vine creepers and herbaceous bushes.
The road that led to the Togwane dam, and the signs that pointed the direction to the Inanke cave beyond it reflected the general state of the country. It was easy to see that not much in the park had been touched in the last two or three decades. Luckily Trevor knew the directions by heart and his land-cruiser could easily handle the rutted road to the small parking area with its forlorn little guard room.
It was here that we were to begin our long seven kilometer hike to the Inanke cave, but not before we were made to sign another book by a wizened warden, who seemed quite pleased to see us. I guess anyone would be please for some company, even if it were only to sign the hiker’s book, if it had been two weeks since one had last seen any visitors.
As if to confirm the dates we could see in the book, ‘We do not get many people here.’ the scrawny little man commented.
The magic of the walk out to this Holy Graille of rock art and beauty began as soon as we left the little parking area and found ourselves swallowed into the lush canopy of trees that lines the bottom of the water courses like a thick green morning fog.
When I first walked out to this site three decades ago, there had been a well-worn little pathway. It had been easy to find.
Now its course was not clear, having been extensively overgrown by the underbrush. This was not a problem because mostly it followed the watercourses that rose and fell as they were constricted between the large rock domes on each side.
And if we look carefully in those places where the course required crossing some open bare rocky incline, if we searched carefully, we could just make out the white arrows that had been painted on the rock back in the colonial days when visits to the site were more frequent.
It did not take long for us to find ourselves cresting the rise between two promontories and coming out of the swaddling herbaceousness, to stand at the top of a granite slope. It was a slope that looked down on an exquisite Valley edged with massive inselbergs and decorated with boulders the size of buildings, whose edges were blurred with the greenery of leaves and filled with the music of bird calls, Golden Orioles, The far off bark of a baboon, and here and there the haunting trill of a Purple Crested Loerie.
I challenge anyone not to feel the spirit of this place, and find affinity with the mood which has obviously affected all those that passed this way over the last few thousand years.
It is a spirit of reverence to nature that intoxicates the mind, and urges homage. If I tarried here long enough, as undoubtedly did the ancient bushmen sangoma’s, I would probably also be drawn to expressing my indebtedness to the deity’s by tithing with similar images of ochre, which we could detect faintly etched, and shielded in displays of ancient reverence under big overhanging rock walls along our pilgrimage.
After a steep climb out of a narrow valley and jumping across the stream forming its bottom, I recognized the huge dark rock-face which reared up and then folded around to the right. Near its crown it tucked under itself like a wave rearing up as it sucks in its breath before crashing over into the jumble of rocks at its feet.
I searched for the Black Eagles nest that I remembered had been piled up in a massive bulk of sticks and twigs on the slightly sloping ledge below the stone waves lip. It was gone, but with a sense of elation I noted that the birds were not, I could see one of them sitting higher on the cliff face further up the valley.
Suddenly the unassuming face of the ‘Falcon Thief’ slipped into my mind. Maybe it was he who had inadvertently knocked the nest from its location. After all it was not far from here where he had started his notorious career. He had infiltrated one of the oldest and best established studies of eagles in the world. He offered his services to climb to their precarious nests to document incubation and chick survival. And at the same time doctoring the records as he stole their eggs and sold them for huge sums to unscrupulous collectors.
I thought how Africa certainly produced some eccentric characters, and he certainly was one of them. Now, decades and after years of prison time, it seemed that he was still at it. Recently I read that he had been arrested at a Brazilian airport, on his way back from Chile, where he had stolen rare Cassini Falcon eggs. he had the eggs strapped to his body to keep warm during the flights. Later the intent was to incubate them and sell the chicks to an Arab Sheikh.
The sandy floor below the cliff was relatively devoid of thick vegetation, and we did not need to concentrate on where to place our next footprint. The old trek path was relatively obvious and I guess it was this easy progress that allowed Trevor to begin talking..
You asked me about the Mlimo.’
Trevor was slightly ahead of me as we walked. ‘Here in Zimbabwe, even though 90% of the population will claim to be Christian, most of them fear the sangoma’s power more than they respect the love of Jesus.’
As you know politics and religion have always been close bed fellows. Look at the bible, no self-respecting king would go off to war without having his favorite deity on his side. The Bible and the Khoran are full of chats between God and his prophets as to the good or bad behavior of the people and their rulers, and the bad stuff that happens to them when they are naughty.
‘Yup’, I agreed, ‘You could get toasted pretty quick if you did not toe the correct religious line. Just as well that a reprobate like me is around today and not then. But that is true even today.’ I continued, ‘Try being a religious cynic like me in Afghanistan.
Trevor nodded his head. ‘Politicians have always manipulated religion. Look at Henry VIII. He even created his own church to get complete power and to switch wives.. Sheesh it seems that divorce has always been a messy affair. ‘
But, back to our recent past, Mugabe and his ilk were smart, they learned enough communism from their Russian and Chinese supporters to figure out how to make this new revolutionary socialism keep their own personal feeding troughs full, without it displacing to any significant extent the deep traditional beliefs of the people.
They simply jazzed things around a bit. They fitted the authoritarianism of communism onto the same tribal authoritarianism that has always existed in Africa.
Once they had taken over, they used the formal colonial laws when it was convenient, and disregarded them when not..
And they added another slightly lower layer in the form of traditional courts.’
He paused, ‘and that is where the bullshit begins.’
‘Yes,’ I commented, ‘Up in Zambia, they also have the traditional courts.’
Trevor cut in, ‘yes but up in Zambia you are lucky that Kaunda did not have to fight a war to take over the country. In Zimbabwe Mugabe did. First a brutal war with colonialists, and then with his rivals, mainly Nkomo and his Matabele. he learned that the rule of law is not necessary to get what you want when you out number the others, and you have a gun and someone supplying you with plenty of ammunition.
But our smart socialist leaders also knew that to maintain power they needed to tie in, just enough, to the underlying belief of the people.
So basically that is why Mlimo is alive and well today, even if out of favor in many parts of this country, because Mlimo is a Matabele belief, and the political rulers of this place are from the Mashona tribe. Their preferred juju junkies are not here in the Matopos, they are in the Chipinga district and in Gokwe.
However, Mlimo and all the rest of the other tribal hoo haa’s is resurging on the back of political bolstering.
For example, a recent University of Zim Vice-Chancellor was also Prez of the Zim Healers Association, which is a funky term for head witch doctor honcho. This professor wrote that traditional courts agreed that witches existed while formal courts thought otherwise.’
He urged amendments to the Witchcraft Suppression Act. This is legislation inherited from the Cape Colony in South Africa, enacted in 1899. The professor wanted the act changed ‘ in keeping with the popular thinking and beliefs of the majority’, as he put it.
The act was, and still is designed to protect people from being stoned to death by a mob when accused of being a witch.
Naturally, the traditional courts regard it as unjust legislation seeking to punish the accusers.
And a high court justice said that ‘many Zimbabweans retain strong beliefs in the power of spirit mediums, and held fast to traditional rites. And that the strongly held conviction and belief in witchcraft and traditional healers cannot be wished away.
And he is correct!
Witchcraft is a fact of life all over Sub-Saharan Africa. As they used to say in the army, ‘The fish starts to stink from the head.’
And here in the Matopos, the Mlimo still hold enormous sway over the people.’
As we walked through the relatively open grassy flatness which spread out below the cliff like the froth pushed before a spent wave, I realized that Trevor and I needed to start looking for the first of the faded arrows painted on the wide rock slope on our left, which would point the direction up towards the cave.
Trevor suddenly stopped and took out his water bottle from his back pack and took a long draw.
‘Best you also take a drink’ he said, ‘you have a long steep climb ahead’ and he pointed to the arrow I was looking for.
‘Where is the Crowned Eagles nest?’ I asked.
Trevor gestured further along the valley. Its’ about a kilometer from here on the right hand side. It is in the biggest tree below a Steep rock face, which makes it very convenient for photography. I have set up a hide on a little shelf slightly higher than the nest itself. It is easy to find because it is where the next major valley joins this one.
‘I hope the chick hasn’t fledged. Isn’t it a bit late in the season for them to still have a chick’.
‘It is. But this pair double clutched after somehow their first egg disappeared.
‘From here your climb should take just over a half hour, and a bit less coming back down the slope. Up there maybe give yourself an hour reacquainting yourself with the rock art and taking in the view and ambiance. So how about we meet back here in two hours? That should give me time to get some good photos of the chick exercising its wings if it has not yet flown, or if I am very lucky, it being fed by the parents, if they bring in a monkey or a dassie.
I looked up in the direction the faded arrow pointed. The bare slope of the rock was dotted with clusters of hardy resurrection bushes, so named because of their ability to go without water for long periods as they cling to the sun baked granite, and then burst into ebullient vitality with the first rains.
I watched as Trevor put his water bottle back in his backpack and took out his camera and telescopic lens from the soft cloth with which he had wrap both of them, and fitted the lens to the camera body.
I did not really need his prompting to drink profusely. I had learned my lesson. Decades ago, on a solo hike in the heat of October, I had almost succumbed to heat exhaustion. I had been lucky enough to find a pool of water caught in a dip in the rocks, left by an early rainfall.
Good luck! I said to Trevor as he turned to walk on along the path which skirted the base of the huge rock dome. ‘Bring back some good pix.’
I was familiar with the Crowned Eagles which nested down stream from the lodge far away on the Kafue.
And suddenly I was conscious of the distance between there and here, and the strangeness of my quest to find out the seeming witchcraft connection between the two places.
I thought about what Trevor had just said, politics and religion have always been bedfellows.
And with that I turned to start on the ascent with a slow one foot in front of the other. A friend who had done a lot of trekking in the Himalayas had taught me how to climb slopes such as that ahead of me, Toe-to-heel she had told me.
Looking up the slope I could see how the dimples and roils of the granite lifted inexorably until, way off and high up ahead, they met the sky.
In addition to the resurrection bushes, the surface of the huge dome, like the blemished skin on the head of an old man was dotted and spotted by sporadic little clusters of stunted trees. These clung to life in the shallow scrapes of soil that accumulated anywhere an unevenness formed a meagre detritus filled hollow, which the rush of summer’s flash floods could not wash away.
As I narrowed my eyes against the brightness of the sky, a long way up ahead, just before the dome curved over the horizon, I could see one particularly wide and prolific concentration of vegetation. It rose un-cropped out of a fold in the rock. It was like a thin strip of hair missed by the old man as he shaved, because it was tucked into a crease at the top of his cheek.
I thought back to what Trevor had said to me the previous evening about the Mlilo, as we sat savoring a sundowner on the wide verandah of his house nestled into the rocks, above the hillside dam, in the suburb of that name in Bulawayo.
‘The cult of the Mlimo hinges around powerful sangomas, he had said between sips of his beer. ”They serve as mouth pieces for an Oracle. And certainly the Ntsheleni cave is the one most associated with that occurrence. However as no Caucasian has been in attendance at one of the sessions, it is not clear to what extent it is an unseen sangoma, who is the voice, or the utterances are those perceived by a receptive devotee who is in the throes of a trance.
And the Silozwane cave is also mentioned as an oracle site. But these days it is too well visited and hence disturbed.’
‘The Matopos have been synonymous with magic for many thousands of years.
There are about three or 4000 bushman arts sites in the hills, the oldest extant paintings have been dated to about 13000 years ago, with the youngest from about 1800 years ago. Undoubtedly there were paintings older than this but they almost certainly have deteriorated and the rock on which they were painted has long since exfoliated.’
Trevor had taken another few sips of his beer and with a pen knife cut off a few slivers of biltong from the black leather like strip he held in his hand. He had offered a few of these slivers to me, which I accepted just as eagerly as did his mongrel dog who sat begging at his knees.
‘Almost all of them are not decorative art, but rather have some ritual or religious significance and symbolism. Today we see only the easily accessible stuff, but a lot of it is painted high up on narrow ledges or far off nooks and crannies.
Interestingly a professor in South Africa has studied the bushman lore. He realized that much of the rock art was painted to act as a catalyst to push the Sangoma’s into a trance state. In this trance state they could fly away on the backs of animal totems to get the answers to the problems of the people.’
Then just before Colleen his wife called us in for dinner, Trevor had said. ‘But these days, because it is the most inaccessible and the most beautiful, I have heard that on very special occasions the Oracle is delivered at the Inanke cave.’
‘You should go and see the place if you haven’t been there for a while!’ he suggested.
In fact I can take you out there tomorrow. I want to go and check on an eagles nest that I’ve been photographing, so taking you will be a good excuse.’
And so now with Trevor’s words in my mind, and feeling the stinging tiredness in my legs I panted up the last few yards of the climb. After nearly two decades, I was about to come face to face with what I remembered as the most spectacular display of rock art in Africa. The Sistine Chapel of rock art, as it is described in Wikipedia.
The faint white arrows led me up the southeast side of the big fold of bushes, behind which I knew the cave spread back into the granite. From there I crossed above, so that now I was approaching from the west along a level shelf. It was far more overgrown than I remembered, and required quite a bit of pushing aside branches and clambering over roots to make headway.
As I pushed aside the last blocking branch, the cave opened up in high hallow simplicity.
On its walls and ceiling were the Erie stylized stick figures of men running, or maybe dancing, and animals parading. There were the strange| dot decorated oval shapes, which some experts presume to be honeycombs, or maybe an ants nest. And I’m sure that if I had one of the experts beside me they would explain, how some of the figures are therianthropic, and the significance of the legs of the men painted the same color as those of the large totem animals, or the streams of potency coming out the back in sprays from some of the figures. Or maybe they would tell me how the dying shapes of a kudu signified the consummation of a marriage.
All of this decoration did not matter to me. The painters had disappeared almost 2000 years ago. Who knew what their ultimate motive was, to producing such starkly simplistic and emotionally moving images. I did not care of the nuances.
But what is certain is that the echoes of the occult that drove the ancient painters still lived on in the minds of the people that surround the matopos. Being alone in this place, even I was affected. The ideas expressed in these ochre and orange images, are no longer being born in minds of the ancestral bushman, they been wiped out and there remnants push far into the Kalahari Desert. But the occult and its traditions still live in some form in the minds of the Matabele tribe of this area.
I stood in silence looking up at the ceiling with no thoughts in my head. I simply absorbed the beauty of this place. If I had been moved by the mystical ambience of the sites in images walking here, I had now arrived at its Jerusalem.
I banished all logical thoughts from my mind and let myself be pulled along by the mesmerizing effect of the utter almost religious loneliness. Of the primitive firstness of this huge cave and its high wide ceiling, and the view down across this surreal landscape. A landscape made magnificent by being untouched, unspoiled by the arrogant polluting hands of modern man.
I should imagine that one can have the same sensation of lonely reverence if one stood all alone in the middle of a medieval cathedral when it is closed and outside heavy snow muffles the sounds of the whole world.
But here there was no snow, probably has not been since the last ice age. The only sound was the faint whispers of the wind through the shielding screen of branches.
I wondered if the supplicants, when they came to listen to the oracle, if it also somehow sounded to them as the whisper of the wind now did to me.
I closed my eyes so that I was left with only the whispers in my mind, and the tickle of a pebble rolling down over the lip of the cave.
And another set of quiet clicks as another pebble fall followed, with soft woody ticks as the leaves cushioned its fall in front of me.
One pebble being gradually loosened over time by the movement of branches or grasses. Maybe. But two pebbles?
My senses were jerked back into a state of heightened alertness as I stood in tense silence.
I was no longer looking at the images on the walls. Iinstead I was casting my glances to left and right, to the caves approaches.
I could detect the faint swish as someone began to do the same as I had a short while before.
Branches were being moved as someone approached.
A tall lean figure emerged out of the undergrowth. It straightened to stand fully erect and look at me with the same stillness with which I returned its gace.
It was the figure of a tall lean African man. He was clad in olive fatigues. With a deeply lined face he had the grey hair of an elderly man. In his right hand he held an AK-47.
My blood ran cold as I recognized him.
After contemplating me for a moment he slowly started to walk towards me.
‘Kunjani’ he said, ‘Hello’.
But unlike the other times I had seen him, he smiled, and his face was transformed with friendliness.
What are you doing here?’ I asked suspiciously and nervously.
The man shrugged, and with the same voice with its distinctive African accent I had heard when he had ordered me to leave Eddie he said,
‘I work here! ‘
‘But then what were you doing up in Zambia, and how did you get here so quickly.’
The man smiled at me, ‘It has been many years since I was on the other side of the Zambezi.’
He stepped closer and looked out over the vista.
‘I have worked as a warden in this park since Mugabe’s Gukhurhonde against us Matabele. I came back here to help my people after they were massacred’.
‘But I saw you up in Zambia just two weeks ago!’ I insisted.
‘No’. The man slowly shook his head. ‘Maybe you saw my brother up there. Unlike me, he stayed after the Chimura struggle against Smith.’
And it is as well that he did. He is more headstrong than I am, and he would’ve made a fuss and fought, and they would’ve killed him. Mugabe is more brutal than Smith was.’
I stared incredulously.
‘I came back, and my brother stayed there’. A pause, ‘The Mlimo told us to do so.
And I have not seen him for many years. Even though we were very close.’
The grey haired figure narrowed his eyes at me, ‘You see my brother and I are twins, identical twins. But, that is another story and it is a long story.’
Dumbfounded, I stared at him.
Then he slowly moved across to stand beside me and he gestured to me to look out across the hills.
And a deep slow African voice said, ‘Isn’t it so beautiful! This is why I stay here!’