07 – The book of Gideon (the west road)

07:          The West Road

Like its peers, the Great North and East Roads, the West Road 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 above, 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.

Lacking even the aplomb of greatness, it doesn’t take long for the west spokes fizz 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. 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 they exact their retribution for neglect long before it reaches the faraway lethargy of its extremity. Beyond its nourishing urban limits, 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.

 But once there, if today it is true to described the 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 not much more than a conglomerate of 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 nearby 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, is what still keeps them here.

But It was my seeking for the legacy of this physical and mental frugality, with its under-pinning of determination and persistence, which now tugged me towards this god -forsaken little town.

Those were traits I had depended on in the past. I sensed I would again need someone with such characteristics in the struggles that loomed ahead, if the events and narrative related by Precious had any under-pinning of witchcraft.

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Two deep wrinkles originated at the corners of the old man’s eyes, from whence they drifted over and down behind his high cheek-bones. From there they angled lower, where upon they seemingly attach to the lobes of his large ears, holding them to his head like the stay lines of a vintage square-rigger.

As he leaned forward to pour the tea into the tin mugs on the simple table between us, Father Xavier lifted and squinted the turquoise tint of his gaze at me.

My eyes were drawn to 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. Here 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. This appeared to be permanently sequestered below the surface of his face, like the smile of a bride hidden behind the mesh of her veil.

“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 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.”

I joined his chuckle.

He stretched a long bony hand to pass me one of the tin mugs 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 knarled fingers, he picked up a lump and dropped it into his tea with a small splash.

“What have you been doing since you were last here?”

“Well father, so much has happened.” I hesitated a second. My answer might not quite mesh with his question. 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 dribble of milk to the tea. Then using the spoon in the sugar bowl I stirred 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 as 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 not much has changed.”

“We left the bush looking for something to do and somewhere to settle. Finding nothing we returned to the bush. To different parts of it. He went way up to West Africa, 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.”

“Involvement with the bush has been my emotional and physical home for most of my life. It is actually all I have left of my old Africa. But for me, it really only starts north of the Limpopo River.” I remarked.

“I think it was one of the reasons I stayed with the Buffalo soldiers, ‘The Terrible Ones’ for so long.”

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. It allowed in 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. It suggested 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.

I have noticed this trait in some of the unusual men in my eclectic life. Men like Breytenback who founded our unit in the chaos of war torn Angola.

And there was Moses. He was with the Buffalo soldiers before I. He had already participated in many of their “contacts” and engagements.

Both of these men had this  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.

I again needed the quiet steady dependability of my platoon sergeant.

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. The mission has not changed much.

The weathering of the rooves of the long narrow buildings standing at right angles to the river is more obvious, with the rusting of the upper corrugated tin sheets more pronounced. On some buildings the lower sheets had been replaced. This meant that the blend of the old and the new gave an artistic flavor to the roofline, with streaks of rusted russet leaching down from the higher to stain the shine in 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 higher 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 rains 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 tall back, where it hooked the elbow of the other long arm and held it wedged behind him, from whence it dangled down to sway slowly to the cadence of each of his deliberate steps.

Finishing our tea, he suggested we walk the grounds of the mission, and for him to show me the changes.

From his office we strolled to the barn-like building of the church, which looks out over the breadth of the Zambezi River where it curls south 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 from a village threshing floor.

Inside the church we halted before the altar, standing in the gloom as the bright outside light was restricted through four narrow windows set high in each wall. What remained of this sunlight belatedly bounced up from small pools of shimmering light on the floor from whence its reflection was absorbed by the dull hue 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.

To a cursory glance they could be mistaken for political propaganda. This 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, so why not use time tested 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 hung up at my campsite as they dried into biltong. I couldn’t suppress my perception of the visual similarity of the food for the soul on the one hand, and for the body on the other.

I had an amorphous sense of homecoming. It wasn’t spiritual, even though I was in a house of worship, with its tall walls and sparse light, rather 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 come 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. Probably I needed more than Precious’s sandwiches for my belly, and her magic shells hanging around my neck.

Standing 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 vaguely similar conflict to mine. It was a struggle for the fundamental heart of Africa, its spiritual heart. From Moffat at Kuruman, through Livingston at Kololo, right up to Father Xavier, it had always been these missionaries who were the soul soldiers fighting for the spirit of Africa.

Now as the sub-continent reclaims its old self, and some of its beliefs, there were only a few of these old men left, like this priest, 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.

“Father, I need help. My friend Moses can provide the sort I need. But I don’t know where he is. We have lost touch.”

Father Xavier turned and was pacing measuredly with long slow strides 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 translate another language for me. Instead of the Portuguese he learned from you, it is a language of the Bush medicine men that I want him to help me with.”

“What do 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 as a parent. If there is anyone he would keep in contact with, it is you. I would like you to help me find him.”

The old priest shrugged. “I will try. But we have also been out of touch for some time.”

I took off my flopy hat and flapped it at the flies buzzing around my head. “As you know, Moses and I spent a lot of time together. It was only after a while that I discovered he was religious. Which was unusual amongst the volunteers in that sort of unit. He told 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 was silent and left the old priest to his thoughts.

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 teacher’s maybe? A mission education is a treasured luxury and in this part of the sub-Continent the Jesuits provided some of the best.

As we passed between the groups my host tarried to listen. Occasionally he would swap a few words with the teachers, and with a nod acknowledge the greeting given to him as a smile peeped out from under the shroud of his face with a hint of an inner joy. It intrigued me.

Was it this that had provided this old man the fortitude to serve a cause out here for five decades. How else can anyone remain here without relief for so long!

Leaving the children behind, we continued our walking 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 cleared the dust in my throat, “I work for a international conservancy. We are trying to promote conservation in many parts of Africa. I have been hired to reduce the poaching in the park by training the game scouts. I train scouts that operate inside the park as well as in the huge buffer concessions that surround it.”

“But Father, strange things are happening. Witchcraft is involved. I don’t understand why. Both of us who have lived here for so long, we know the people better than most others. You know that the traditional witchcraft always lurks below the surface. Where I am working strange forces are subverting good men. If I am to succeed, it won’t be a case of tracking the footprints of the bad people, but also the tracking and searching for the spirits that are motivating them.”

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 be my translator and guide. If witchcraft is involved I need him to help me track both their footprints and their beliefs and hence their motives.”