Chapter 7: Dinai
“Come.” The old man broke the silence in which we were walking, “I have a story to tell.”
Instead of returning to his office, the priest led me past the row of buildings serving as classrooms and offices.
The mission is a subtle mix of Europe and Africa. The straight lines of the class room blocks follow the blueprints used decades ago all across the old British Colony. Their orderly layout gives the place its subtle hint of European order.
Rural Africa seldom has straight lines.
The old man led me back to the upstream riverside corner of the complex.
Here, as in the rest of the mission, the haphazard placement of the big trees is where they sprouted eons ago, before this spot was settled. At least they have not been cut down,. They provide soothing shade from the midday sun. The scrub and grass that once filled between their trunks is gone, leaving only the bare sandy soil. It is the daily sweeping of the sand, with hand-held grass switches, as is the custom in the villages, which gives the mission its opposing subtle blend of Africa.
Looking down on the sluggish brown eddies of the river, the bench on which Father Xavier and I sat was in such a swept spot, in the shade beneath the spreading branches of a big fig tree.
Every year, at the end of the dry winter, much of Central Africa is set alight to flush small creatures into the jaws of scrawny village dogs. It being late October there wasn’t much more of Africa left to burn. The smoke from these fires hazed the sky overhead, yet the sun’s perpendicular rays were so bright they imparted a lightness to the grey tint of this wash.
We sat beneath these nebulous skies, silent, listening. In front of us, rising above the multiplication tables being rote chanted by the children, from somewhere far away on the other side of the river, came the lilting sounds of a radio playing ‘Tuku’s’ haunting “Neria” …”Do you know that song?” I asked Xavier. “She must have been special to inspire such a melody. If I had another daughter I would name her Neria.”
Father Xavier sat on his hands with his torso leaning forward. He peered down at his knees. His long lanky body held his clothes as loosely as a scarecrow its rags.
As“Tuku’s” music faded, the skies high above were filled with the tinkling chatter of a huge flock of European bee-eaters, recently arrived after their southward migration. For the rest of the summer they would grace us with their beautiful presence.
It was a while befor the old man said anything. He sat staring at the leather of his sandals listening to the birds, the children, and the even more distant bark of a dog. Without looking up he asked, “How did Moses fit in with the others when you were together in that war?”
The question caught me off balance. It was the sort of question I remembered from the tests when applying for some jobs after the war. Back then I had little to show for the years of fighting, except bitter memories.
But as with a tug on a bridle the slip of my thoughts were nudged back to his question with as little input as him leaning back and straightening his body as he looked directly at me. “We all fitted in, I don’t know how, we just did. Whoever could stay the course had the “fit” forced in by the togetherness of mission and spirit. Race and creed did not matter, as long as we were pulling together. We were the first truly multi-racial unit in the army. Everybody was judged by worth and merit.”
I stopped and listened to the singing coming from a classroom.
A rush of introspection washed over me with his question. Back then we had to fit in together to survive. Today, it was the hypocrisy of history that had me struggling to overcome the new indiginous empowerment which kept me from having relevance in the only home I knew. I pushed the thought aside. After all, at my age and without specific technical skills I wasn’t welcome anywhere else in the world. It was up to me to sink or swim in the Africa with its new complexities.
Unlike a bird I couldn’t fly back to some other summer as history blew in the autum winds of change to strip the leaves from the old Africa I had known.
I spoke again, “But Father, why do you ask if he fitted in?”
The priest leaned sideways and reached down to the foot of the bench where a few straggly stems of grass survived the daily sweeping. Sstraightening back to place his elbows on both spread knees, he began to pick apart an end of the stem with his fingers.
With a deep sigh he began to speak, at first softly, and then as he told the story, more emphatically, even angrily!!
“Like you and I, Moses never fully fitted in anywhere. He carries a mark. It is why he loved being with you in Angola, because you were too busy to notice it.
The old man raised the blue-grey hue of his eyes at me with a quizzical look, ‘I think that you should be aware of this if you want him to help your cause, it may be a blessing.”
I sat looking at the sand at my feet. Then with the palms of my hands turned downwards and tucked beneath the sides of my thighs, I listened to a tale of African sadness.
“In life, there are never any second first impressions.”
A deep soulfulness effused the old priest’s voice. It was so palpable that I glance at him to check if anything was amiss.
He went on speaking, “My first impression was of her face. Big sad charcoal eyes, and the tight curls of her flame red hair. The face of a child, maybe three or four years old.”
He pointed at the wide lumpy surface of the tree trunk, and following his gesture I raised my gaze to see how the twisty stem lifted its big branches high above us.
“She was hiding over there, behind the trunk.”
The trees wrinkled limbs stretched out wide until they droop down like the ribs of an umbrella, hanging so low they brush the sand beyond where we sat, cloistering us in a leafy bower.
The old man paused for a moment, as if to gather his emotions before continuing.
I asked her, “U mang’i? What is your name?”
As she peered out from behind the tree she replied, “Ki na Danai, My name is Danai’.”
The old man leaned forward, and with a stub of grass in his hand, drew lines between his feet. After drawing his pattern in the sand he continued to tell his tale.
“It was in the mid or late 50’s.” He hesitated. “I was young when I first arrived here, full of enthusiasm and a desire to serve. I wanted to change the world, bring all of the kingdom of God to this big flat empty land.”
“I had been here quite some years when I was sitting right here, where we are now. The child had also discovered this quiet shady spot, with its dome of branches providing solitude from the world. Its shelter wasn’t as thick in those days, but it was adequate, and like now, you could see the water under those branches as they spread out over the river. I surprised her, which was why she was hiding.”
Father Xavier used his grassy stub to scratch diagnal lines over his pattern etched in the sand. He lifted his head to look at me. I felt the turquoise squint of his stare again brush over my face.
“As I said, there are no second first impressions. That face was one of the most striking I have everseen. Seldom does one confront such a visage, in such an unexpected manner. It was so long ago. But I can still see before me those child’s eyes, eyes that always seemed to be seeing a special sadness, as if they peered into the future.”
He straightened, then leaning back he cocked a knee to lift his leg so that the tip of his sandal erased the lines in the sand.
Father Xavier picked another stem of grass from beside the bench. Then, smoothing the sand with his sandal, began once again to draw his lines.
“Before I go on I will give you some background… Maybe you know it, but maybe you were too young for it to be part of your life.”
“When i grew up my uncle lived in Angola, which was a Portuguese colony. He told me of Africa. So I came to Africa and to this area to help the people when the British left. Because of that I have been here for a long time. Long enough to know Moses’s mother and his grandmother.
He waited for this information to sink in. I was unsure of its relevance, but I pandered the old man by not asking questions.
“Yes, I know what you seek. Because of that I will tell you a story which may help you when you find him. It is a different kind of foe that you will be facing. It is the foe that I have faced since I came here sixty years ago, in my battle to overcome the traditional beliefs of the people. My story will help you understand who Moses is and what is special about him. You said you will need to hunt not so much men, but rather the ideas that motivate them. So be patient and listen to me.”
I was skeptical of his assertion. I asked, “What is it that I need to know about a little girl which will help me avoid the ambushes of men’s beliefs?”
We walked in silence, passing through the mission gate and headed away from the river along the dusty road. Where it edged to the left to parallel the river, he paused his steps and with a lick of his lips and a slight grimace, he bent down to pick up the flattened remnants of a plastic water bottle crumpled into a sandy rut.
“There must be a special place in hell for the man who invented the plastic bottle, with the way these things are polluting Gods world.” With the shard held gingerly between the forefingers and thumb of his hand, like a conductor’s baton he spoke again.
“To understand Moses,” he murmured quietly, “You need to know about his mother. You will find in her story things that even Moses doesn’t understand. I asked you if he fitted in with your unit during the war. I asked because here he never fitted in. He could not. He wasn’t allowed to. He was always an outsider. To understand why, you need to know about his mother. His mother was that special little girl under the tree.”
Father Xavier nodded a greeting to two women bearing buckets of water on their heads as they walked past us and away from the river.
‘Of course, to understand that little child’s life one needs to be knowledgeable about the traditions out here. This I am sure you know. You will understand how important it is to belong to a tribe, and to have a totem. That was something I didn’t realize when I came to Africa. I think of myself as Portuguese, and the other whites, like you, those who were born and grew up here, you think of yourselves as Zambian, Zimbabwean or South African. You do not regard yourselves as firstly Lozi, or Kaunde, or Bemba, or Tonga, and only after that is Zambian, as the native Africans do here.”
I nodded to acknowledge my agreement.
A mange village dog barked at us from where it was tethered next to a hut.
“Also,” he continued, “one of the unfortunate realities of Africa is that the colonial powers didn’t care about this importance of the tribe to the African way of life. They set borders which cut across tribal lands.
The tall thin priest slowly stretched his sinewy sun-burned arms above his head before clasping them behind his back.
“Come”, he said, “Let’s walk back to my office while we talk”.
“My son, when you were here the last time, and yes that was a long time ago, you were married. Where is your wife, and do you have children?”
I responded with a chuckle to his question. “Yes Father, you have a good memory.”
I was reluctant to reveal too much to this old man of religion. But after a few moments of reasoning I reckoned that I could be delicate about my past, and he wasn’t the city sort of clergyman. He would know that for those who spent their lives in remote parts, life was seldom conformist. He would understand that often we had had to make do with what we could find at the roadsides of life. At the verges the rules were not as stringent and the consequences for non-conformity not as dire or dangerous. After all, one is less likely to be run over when standing at the curb than in the center of life’s bustle. The moral policing is less prevalent. But a person is also less likely to go anywhere quickly or conveniently. It was obvious to me that neither Father Xavier nor I, in our different, yet unconventionally similar ways, were interested in going anywhere easily and fast. Neither of us had ever chosen to fully respect the rules at the center of life.
I kicked at a pile of dry cow dung as I walked next to him. “Father that marriage didn’t last long after we left the bush. I think that the reason it lasted as long as it did was that I was always on active duty, and she liked collecting my paycheck. We got good money, with the extra “danger pay” added in. We had a son. He is now grown and he even finished University, so I guess he got the brains from hismother . I have 3 other children. I never married their mothers. I am lucky they all still like me, but they like being away from me even more.”
Father Xavier smiled. “Yes, so you will understand how different the idea of marriage is in tribal Africa. You will also know what it is like to be a parent.”
He walked in pensive thought for a while. “Although I have never had children myself, what I have seen is that it is more important to have a good mother than a good father.”
He coughed to clear his throat.
“In many ways it feels that out here we are closer to the old testament. Like in the bible, here they are tribal, and often marriages are arranged. Out here they still often purchase a bride in what they call Lobola.
The priest stopped to exchange a few words with an old African man walking past in the opposite direction.
This brings me back to the story of the child. Out here, if a man is poor and he has many daughters, sometimes, even despite the strength of the tribe, he will sell his daughter to someone from a different group, if enough is tendered for lobola.
Dinai’s grandfather was a poor Lozi man living in Angola with 7 daughters. He sold one to a man from the Ganguela tribe for twenty cows. It was a lot to pay in those days.”
A deep sigh prefaced the next part of the priest’s tale. “And of course, giving its flavor to all of life out here, like the sea its salt, is witchcraft. I have struggled with this from the day I first arrived here, and I still do. We in the west have a much more esoteric understanding of evil. Yes, we all know that the world is full of it. But we seldom individually personalize it. When bad things happen, we say it is the work of the devil. We generally think that the devil lives in some faraway place, some distant hell, maybe even further away than heaven beyond the stars. But out here the understanding of evil is very different. That is because the spiritual world of Africa is all around us, all the time. Here they believe the dead do not travel far away to a heaven or hell. They wander the darkness and the lonely places around us. They believe these spirits are sometimes benign, even good. But at others they are full of evil, which needs to take possession of the soul of a living person to work its malignancy.
As you know, often when people begin to die in the villages the consensus is that someone must be possessed by such a devil. Their belief is that the only way to get rid of the evil is to banish or kill the witch who is possessed. In Dinai’s village some children had died, and Dinai’s mother was an outsider, she was a Lozi. A nganga was summoned to sniff out and hunt down the person who was the witch. Dinai’s mother, seeing the writing on the wall, took her daughter and ran away before that little girl could be identified as being possessed of a devil.”
The sadness edged back into Father Xavier’s voice as he spoke softly.
“You see, my son,…., The most damming factor of them all, her daughter, that little girl with the charcoal black eyes, and the fire red hair, she was an albino. And you will understand the place the albino occupies in the spiritual world of Africa.”
The priest shook his head. “I often wonder if it was the constant threat of witch accusations that etched the sad mark in the little girl’s eyes. Even then it was as if they could see far into the future and it’s portend of sorrow.
She was a wonderful child. She grew into a wonderful girl. But the mark of destiny followed her everywhere. It wasn’t the stark difference of the color of her skin and hair that made her stand out. It was as if the echo of her past trailed behind, like the gentlest of zephyrs, whispering to everyone that somewhere was a spirit, waiting and lurking to take possession of her soul, with all the special evil potency of an albino witch.”
The old man bent down and snapped a length of grass, which he chewed on pensively between his words.
“You see, the little girl I first saw hiding behind that old tree trunk had been abandoned by her mother. Even her mother dared not stay with her, lest she be possessed by proxy. The rumors of who, and what she was, clung to her like the burs of the black-jack cling to your clothes. This aura made the other children shun and avoid her. Even the adults kept their distance. Only one person, a mulatto nun at a clinic across the river, completely accepted the little girl. To that nun I am eternally grateful. She took the little one under her wing, and help me raise the child.”
The priests tone brightened as he spoke. “Dinai attended school here at the mission. On many an afternoon, and on some days on the weekends the child, and later the girl, would meet me out under the trees and we would talk. We would talk about religion, politics and history. We would play checkers and chess. I would even speak Portuguese to her. She was brilliant. She learned fast. It was as if her mind was a sponge, she soaked up knowledge and information.
In those days here at the mission we only provided classes up to Standard 5, or the end of Junior School. She was so talented I realized that it would be a travesty if she somehow didn’t go on to finish high school. Maybe even to get a teaching diploma so that she could return to the mission as a staff member. She herself dreamed one day of attending Fort Hare in South Africa, or Makarere in Uganda. Thus, to this effect I arranged with a friend in Lusaka to have her stay with them, while she attended Munali Girls High School.”
An image of the school flashed into my mind. I always passed it on the way to Claudia’s cottage.
“We at the mission would not see her for months.,” he said. “Only during the long Christmas break would she come back here to stay with us, her ‘foster’ parents. Those years were the happiest of her life, the sadness almost left her eyes. Then one day, when she was just short of her sixteenth year, she stepped down unexpectedly from a bus from Lusaka. It was during the school term. We were shocked to see her. But what shocked us even more was to see that her pregnancy was showing.”
Again we walked in silence until reaching the mission gate before Father Xavier spoke again.
“It took her a long time to tell me about the father of her unborn child. He was dark, she said and his breath smelled of spicy food. The only feature she clearly remembered was a burn scar on his chest, in the form of an inverted Africa. He had raped her. And so it was that her baby boy Na’u was born.”
The old man raised his bony hands from where they had been linked behind his back. He clasped them again behind his head as he walked.
“When the child was a year old and Dinai about 16 she suddenly announced she had received a message from her mother. A mother who had abandoned her and whom she could barely remember. She was determined to go back to the village in Angola and show her mother her baby. A month later, here at the mission a stranger showed up one morning with the baby. As you know here in Africa when a child is born out of wedlock it is raised by the father’s family, not the mother. This Angolan stranger said that the baby was being brought back to us to send to the father.
We never saw Dinai again. She simply disappeared. I sent people into Angola to search for her, but nobody knew anything. Thus it was that Moses came to stay at the mission.
“Why was he called Moses and not Nau?” I asked.
“It was my nickname for him,” Xavier answered. ‘It stuck. Like Moses he had shown up abandoned on the banks of a broad African river, and I didn’t push his cradle away. But, for her baby son, the whisper that followed his mother, with its scent of spiritual smoke, continued to fan the same embers in the people’s minds. He inherited her curse. He was never allowed to fit in. So there you have the story.”
I had been listening with no interruptions. “But father,” I said, “I still do not see how this information helps me with the issues I have back at the Kafue!”
“Well,” he said, “I am a religious man, I love my Lord, but after so many decades out here I am a practical person, and I have learned that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Thus, I suspect that curse, the curse I tried for so long to eradicate, for you it could be a blessing. I say this because, my son, I have spent so much time with the people of Africa. Moses will be good for your cause, because even the nganga’s, those powerful witch -doctors, they will be scared of him. As the ways of the Lord are mysterious, so are the ways of the bush. He may not realize it, but somehow, in an unknown manner, the nganga’s will know that he is the son of a ‘white witch’…
And that is very powerful Muti.”
I nodded in agreement.
“So you see my son,’ the old Portuguese priest spoke quietly, ‘I think that I was a good foster father, but we all need special mothers. And Moses had a very special one, even though she was taken away from him.”
(9th update – 03/28/2021)