Chapter 5: The Great West Road
Like the wilting of a long etiolated stem, the Great West Road sags towards the sunsets across the flat wide spaces of the country, until its shriveled florets lean up against the borders of Angola. There, as if in a last budding act prior to desiccation, its colorless petals spread into the forlorn little town of Lukulu.
This long thin stem, like its peers, the Great North and East Roads, starts inconspicuously as a spoke of the traffic circle on Cairo Road at the center of old Lusaka. Its routing has not changed since the layout of the city almost a hundred years ago. But like with the runt of the litter, the bustling vibrancy of the placenta which feeds it, favors its other siblings. The Great North Road heads up and is burnished by the copper of Katanga, and all the promise of Africa to the north, even reaching as far as the city from which Cairo Road derives its name. The next spoke of that circle spawns The Great East Road which reaches down to the humid coastal plains and is fed by the growing artery of trade from the ports of Mozambique.
However, with the western spoke it doesn’t take long for the nominal ordered fizz of the city to falter. The surge of traffic along its arterial pours into the choke of industrial area jams, and scatters through the squalor of the chaotic informality of back street repair shops, black-market stalls and informal vendors which line its grubby verges. One can buy almost anything here. Sunglasses, 3rd or 4th hand used tires, tomatoes, bananas, cement, gravel, wood carvings, or strips of meat from which, every now and then, the flies are disturbed for a few seconds by the desultory flick of a hand.
The slums pressing in at its flanks further squander its verve as it wanders westwards. This is compounded by the enormous distance to its end which saps most of its remaining vitality. The flow from the pulsing heart of Lusaka simply stumbles and bumps fitfully over the potholes and between the capricious road blocks or speed strips, as it exacts its retribution for neglect long before it reaches the faraway lethargy of its extremity. But once there, if today it is true to described the little settlement close to its western tip as just another chaotic and shabby African town, it was definitely more appropriate six decades ago. The town is still not much more than a few stores and some administrative offices, and a prison, where the prisoners sit outside, self-guarded, in the shade of one of the few big trees out on the Liuwa Plains. After all, where would they escape to, out in the vacuum at the center of this vast empty area?
Of course, there is the little mission complex, with not many more buildings than when it was founded decades ago. It is still so remote that only the hardiness and willingness to accommodate frugality, the attribute which originally brought the Jesuits to minister to the “heathen” of these parts, still keeps them here.
But It was my seeking for the legacy of this physical and mental frugality, with its under-pinning of determination, which now tugged me towards this god -forsaken little village.
Determination and persistence were traits I had depended on many times in the past, and which I sensed I would need and count upon in the struggles that loomed ahead, if the events and narrative supplied by Precious had any semblance of truth.
The two deep wrinkles originating at the corners of the old man’s eyes drifted over, and then down behind his high cheek-bones. From there they angled lower, where upon they seemingly attach to the lobes of his large ears and held them to his head like the stay lines of an old square-rigger.
As if to seek the source of their support, my eyes were drawn to the other two parallel wrinkles which angled down with unusual severity over the inner hollowness of his cheeks, until they brushed the corners of his purse-lipped mouth. At this point the straightness of the furrows were warped in a gentle curl round the edge of a slight smile, which played hide and seek with the hint of a faint inner mirth. It appeared to be permanently sequestered below the surface of his face, like the smile of a bride hidden behind the mesh of her veil.
But it wasn’t only the seductive friendliness of his smile which peeped out from under the shroud. There was also a hint of an inner joy. It intrigued me. It tugged and held my attention, like the flame of a candle holds the circles of a moth.
It could only have been this inner delight with life which had provided this old man the fortitude to have served a cause out here for almost 5 decades. How else can anyone, not endemic to this place remain here without relief for so long!
As he leaned forward to pour the tea into the tin mugs on the plain formica top of the table between us, Father Xavier lifted and squinted the clear turquoise tint of his gaze at me.
“It has been a while!”
Even after fifty years, the lilt of drawn out vowels in his thick accent clearly indicated his Portuguese origin.
“Yes father it has been a while. We will need the fingers on both of our hands to count that far back . Maybe even our toes.”
I grinned back as he responded with a twitch in the corners of his mouth giving an accent to the pale hue of his papery lips.
“I was never good at maths, so if you want an accurate count, you may need to remove your sandals to help me count.”
I joined his chuckle.
He stretched a long bony hand to give me one of the two tin mugs placed on the table. In the other he proffered a small bowl of lumpy sugar. He was accustomed to most everyone out here preferring their beverages sweet tasting.
Ignoring the teaspoon in the bowl and using his fingers, he picked up a lump and dropped it into the tea in his own mug.
“What have you been doing since you were last here?”
“Well father, I have done so much.” I hesitated a second. I realized that my answer might not quite mesh with his question. After all there’s a difference between what happens and what one does. I continued, “And I have done so little. Mostly things just came to me.”
Leaning forward and reaching over, I picked up the small ceramic jug on the table. From it I added a splash of milk to the tea. Then I used the spoon in the sugar bowl to stir my beverage.
“It’s like yesterday all that turmoil happened. When it was over, as you know, we came here for a short while, on the way to the rest of our lives.”
I paused and savored another sip. I was silent for a while, and I let my thoughts drift back to those unusual days.
“The last time I was here I didn’t have a home to return to, and I still don’t. So from that aspect not much has changed.”
“We left the bush looking for something to do and somewhere to settle. Finding nothing we returned to the bush. But to different parts of it. Which is where I lost track of him.”
I took another sip of tea. “Father, I assume you know who I am talking about, when I say both of us?”
“Yes!” he replied softly over the top of his mug as he cupped it in both hands close to his lips. ‘I remember how close you were.”
“I guess involvement with the bush has been my emotional and physical home for most of my life. But for me, it really only starts north of the Limpopo.” I remarked.
“I think it was one of the reasons I stayed with the Buffalo soldiers, ‘Os Terriveis – The Terrible Ones’ for so long.”
As I spoke, I had a flash back to the impression I had formed, decades before, of a trait of this serene old Jesuit priest’s character. It was of his quiet, tranquil entrancing way of listening. Where others would be listening primarily for the break in a speaker’s flow to interject, with him there was a quality and depth to his listening.
It was hypnotic. It drew one on, it effortlessly loosened the halter grip on the self-consciousness. It made one feel the relief from the anxiety of shuttered shyness. This was replaced by the catharsis of telling. The focused silence of his listening let one know that it isn’t necessary to hold onto the rocks in the stream of life, its suggestion was to let go and allow the words to flow with the current, because by doing so, with him alongside, one was swept to better places.
It is strange how I have noticed this trait in many of the special men in my eclectic life. Men like Breytenbach, who founded “Os terrives” out of a leaderless militia rabble in the chaos of Angola following the collapse of Portuguese rule. He had this gift. .
And of course there is Moses. Moses was with the Buffalo soldiers before I. He had already participated in many of their “contacts” and engagements.
Both of these men had Father Xavier’s gift of being able to listen, and in their listening make you search your soul for the truth, and to tell it to them.
As a fresh, wide-eyed one pip officer, full of blustery theory and inexperience, I had inherited Moses as my platoon sergeant. I wouldn’t have been able to become a good officer, let alone survive, if he had not been there to guide and teach, with the quietness of his listening.
It was why I was sitting here, in the austerity of this drab and dusty mission station with its priest, at the Western extremities of the country.
I again needed the quiet steady dependability of my platoon sergeant
The mission has not changed much.
The rooves of the long narrow buildings standing at right angles to the river are more weathered, with the rusting of the upper corrugated tin sheets more pronounced than those lower down. Maybe this was because on some buildings these sheets had been replaced with newer ones. This meant that the blend of the old and the new gave an artistic flavor to the roofline, with streaks of russet rust leaching down from the higher sheets to stain the shine from the corrugated gullies of those below.
As is often found on officious buildings in Central Africa the first few feet of the outside walls are painted a different color, in this instance pale blue, with the rest of the wall up to the eves, a creamy white. The smart blue band, being a durable oil based paint, allows the spackling of mud flicked onto its surface during the rainy season to be easily wiped clean.
There was a new, bigger church building, and it also had its exterior painted in this fashion.
“What is the urgency that brings you here?”
The old priest had his left forearm tucked behind his back, where it hooked the elbow of the other and held it wedged behind him, from whence it dangled down to sway slowly to the cadence of each deliberate step.
Finishing our tea, he had suggested that we walk the grounds of the mission, and for him to show me the changes.
We walked from his office to the barn-like building of the church, which looks out over the breadth of the Zambezi River as it curls down out of Angola, loosely cradled in the flatness of the Lozi plain. In the distant far bank across the river the scrawny straggle of civilization was strewn about like the chaff and husks from a village threshing floor.
Once inside the church we halted before the altar, standing in the quasi gloom afforded by the restriction of the bright outside light as it squeezed in through the narrowness of four sets of windows set high in each wall. The gloom was pervasive, because what remained of this sunlight as it belatedly bounced up from small pools of shimmering light on the floor was absorbed by the flat ivory of the walls.
A big panel of chevron wicker work stood in adornment behind the alter. At each corner of the cavernous space banners were hung. These dangled down from the corrugated ripples of the tin roof, with colors of yellow, black and green and patterns matching those of the wicker work.
The words, “AS THE HOLY SPIRIT FILLS THE WORLD”, ran perpendicularly down one, and ““USE YOUR LIFE FOR GRACE AND GLORIFY HIS KINGDOM” ran down another.
To a cursory glance they could be mistaken for propaganda banners at a political rally. This sense was magnified by the colors being the prime hues found in the revolutionary national flags in this part of Africa.
Experience has taught both the Priest and the Politician what works. They were both in the business of winning the hearts and minds of the plebeian poor, and why not use workable techniques.
The thin wooden carving of the crucified figure on the cross hanging on chains above the alter, reminded me of the wizened strips of meat dangling from the ceiling of my campsite chitenge drying into biltong. I couldn’t suppress a silent observation of the visual similarity of the food for the soul on the one hand, and for the body on the other.
I was aware of an amorphous sense of homecoming. It wasn’t so much spiritual, even though I was in a house of worship, with its tall walls and sparse light, rather it was because the dimness, high walls and corrugated tin roof reminded me of the inside of a tobacco curing barn on the farm where I was raised.
It was strange that this decades-dormant feeling should whisper to me at this unusual place. Maybe there is a God, I pondered, but if so it surely was that of the Khoi-San Bushman. A God who has a sense of humor and likes to play tricks with us. Maybe I needed more than Precious’s biltong for my belly, and shells for my neck after all.
As we stood before the alter, I prepared to ‘confess’ to this old priest my issues and needs, I was cognizant of standing at the front line of a diferent conflict than mine. Here it was a struggle for the fundamental heart of Africa, its spiritual heart. From Robert Moffat at Kuruman, through David Livingston at Kololo, right up to Father Xavier, it had always been these missionaries and their missions who were the soldiers-of-the-soul fighting for the spirit of Africa. Only afterwards, following in the wake of these men of morality, had come the traders and administrators, with their new laws, imported from places as far away as the ideas of their new religions.
However unsuitable to the local cultures their ideas, for over a hundred years missionaries have led the charge towards the deepest darkest parts of the beliefs of Africa, with a philosophy epitomized, in many cases inadvertently by what is written on Livingston’s statue at the Victoria Falls.
“Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.”
For their determination, they had to be admired.
But, as the sub-continent reclaimed its old self, and some of its beliefs, there were only a few of these old men left, like Father Xavier, who remained fighting the rear-guard activity at these lonely outposts in an attempt to save some form of victory in the battle over Africa’s spiritual ideas.
I had a nagging feeling that maybe the old beliefs wwere more appropriate for the preservation of the natural world. The old Africa had not screwed up the continent from its naturalaspect, as badly as had the colonists and their ideas and religions. That if so maybe I should join the old Crocodile man, instead of hunting him. But almost immediately I knew that it did not matter. Humans destroyed the environment everywhere, no matter how ordained their beliefs.
“Father, I need help. I feel that Moses can provide this. But I don’t know where he is. We have lost touch with each other.”
Father Xavier turned and was pacing measuredly beside me as we moved back out into the bright afternoon sunlight.
“When we were with the Buffalo Battalion,” I paused, “he could speak the Portuguese to the Angolan Soldiers in the unit until I learned enough of the language. Now I need him to again translate a language for me. Instead of the Portuguese he learned from you, it is a language of his people, that of the Bush medicine men that I want him to help me with.”
“So what is it that you want from me?” Father Xavier continued to walk slowly with his gaze cost down at his feet.
“Father, Moses grew up here on the mission. He regards you almost as his own father. If there is anyone he would keep in contact with, it is you. I would like you to help me find him and make contact.”
The old priest shrugged. ‘”I will try.’ He said. ‘But we have been out of touch for some time.”
“Father, As you know, Moses and I spent a lot of time together. It was only after a while that I discovered he was a religious man. Which was unusual amongst the volunteers in that sort of unit. He rationalized this to me by telling me he was fighting to stop the forces of evil. He said that the communists were the anti-Christ. He wanted to stop their spread into Africa.
I let the old priest thnk for a while.
Opposite us, as we walked were small groups of children. They sat on the sand in the shade of the trees.
A teacher was with each group, either standing or sitting on a chair. Some groups had an assistant, trainee teachers maybe. A mission education is a treasured luxury. In this part of the sub-Continent it was well known that the Jesuits provided some of the best available.
As we passed between the groups my host tarried here and there to listen. Occasionally he would swap a few words with the teachers, and with a smile and a nod acknowledge the greeting given to him.
Leaving the children behind, we continued our way back to his office. I picked up where I left off.
“Father, as you know the Bush is never far from the African soul, and there’s some things that they will immediately recognize and know how to deal with. These are things that those like me, and maybe you, even though I grew up with them, will never fathom.”
I continued, “I work for a big international Conservancy trust. They are trying to promote conservation in many parts of Africa. I have been hired to reduce the poaching in the park, and the huge buffer concessions that surround itk. I am now focusing on the North East section of the conservation region, the Lunga-Luswishi.”
“But Father, strange things are happening. Witchcraft is involved. I don’t understand why. As one who has lived here for so long, you know the people better than anyone. You know that the traditional witchcraft is always lurking below the surface. Where I am working strange forces are subverting otherwise good men. If I am to succeed, it won’t be a case of tracking the footprints of the interlopers, but also the tracking and searching for the spirits that are afoot in the Lunga-Luswishi.”
As we spoke the day was getting hot. The warmth of the sun was making me sweat, causing the fabric of my shirt to cling to the inside of my armpits.
“Father I am too pale, not in my skin but in my soul to be able to reach that dark side of Africa. I need Moses to again be my translator and guide. Instead of men’s footprints, I need him to also help me track and hunt their beliefs”