“Come.” The old man broke the silence. “I have a story to tell.”
The priest led me to the upstream riverside corner of the mission, past the row of buildings serving as classrooms and offices. The haphazard placement of the big tree shading the buildingss, having been spared when this spot was settled, compensates for the regimentation of the class rooms built by the colonial contractors. The mix of the orderly and random give that sense of melded Europe and Africa.
The scrub and grass that once filled between the trees is gone, leaving only sandy soil. It is the daily sweeping of this sand, with hand-held grass switches, which adds to the subtle blend of Africa.
Looking down on the sluggish brown eddies of the river, the bench we sat on was in such a bare spot in the shade beneath the spread of a big fig tree.
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 left to burn. The smoke from these fires hazed the sky, 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. Before us, rising above the multiplication tables being rote chanted by the children, from somewhere far away across the river, came the lilting sounds of a radio playing ‘Tuku’s’ haunting ‘Neria’.
Father Xavier sat on his hands with his torso leaning forward. He peered at his knees. His long lanky body held his clothes as loosely as a scarecrow its rags.
As the music faded, the sky was filled with the tinkling chatter of a flock of European bee-eaters, recently arrived after their migration. For the rest of the summer they would grace us with their beautiful presence.
The old man 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?”
A strange question, I hesitated. It was the sort of question I remembered when applying for employment after the war. The sort of question who’s answer invariably showed me the interview office door. Back then all I had to show for the years of fighting were bitter memories. The bitterness had yet to be ground to paste by the pestle of time.
As with a tug on a bridle the drift of my thoughts were nudged back by him straightening his body and looking 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. As long as we were pulling together. We were the first truly multi-racial unit in the army, judged by worth and merit.”
Singing was coming from a classroom.
“We had to fit in together to survive.”
I cleared my throat and spat the phlegm to the side. “But Father, why do you ask if he fitted in?” As you know, it is often the hypocrisy of history that has us older pale males struggling to overcome today’s black empowerment. It makes it hard for me to find relevance in the only home I know.
Is that why you ask?”
The priest shrugged as I went on.
“For Moses it is different, he is indigenous. He doesn’t feel my unease. Nor do you. You can go back to Portugal.
At my age and without technical skills, no place in the world will welcome me. I cannot fly to another summer when the winds of change strips away the leaves of history and I suffocate under their piles.”
Leaning sideways the priest reached down where a few straggly stems of grass survived the daily sweeping. Plucking one and straightening back and placing his elbows on his spread knees, he picked apart the stem with his rough fingers.
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-green 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 Africa.
“In life, there are never any second first impressions.”
A 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. It was 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 twisted stem lifted its branches high above us.
“She was hiding over there, behind the trunk.”
The trees wrinkled limbs stretched out until they droop like the ribs of a broken umbrella, hanging so low they brush the sand beyond where we sat, cloistering us in a leafy bower.
He paused as if to gather his emotions.
I asked her, “U mang’i? What is your name?”
Peering out from behind the tree she replied, “Ki na Danai, My name is Danai’.”
The old man leaned forward. Using a stub of grass he drew linesin the sand between his feet.
“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 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 brancheswhere they spread out over the river. I surprised her, which was why she was hiding.”
Father Xavier used his grassy stub to scratch diagonal lines over his pattern in the sand. He lifted his head to look at me allowing the turquoise squint of his stare to 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. Even though it was long ago, I can still see those child’s eyes, which always seemed to be peering into a special sadness.
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 from beside the bench, and smoothing the sand with his sandal, began once again to draw his lines.
“Yes,” He said, “I know what you need. My information may help you when you find him. It is a different kind of foe that you will face. 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.
Skeptical of where he was going I asked, “What is it about a little girl that will help me avoid the beliefs of bad men?”
We passed through the mission gate and headed away from the river along a dusty track. Where it edged parallel to the river, he paused his steps and with a lick of his lips and a slight grimace, 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.”
Holding the shard gingerly like a conductor’s baton he went on.
“You need to know about his mother. In her story are things that even Moses doesn’t understand.”
The tall priest looked up at a big black and white Pied Crow rowing its way through the air over us, eyeing if we would discard scraps from the bottle in his hand.
“I asked if he fitted in during the war. Here he never did. He wasn’t allowed to. He was always an outsider.
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 why one needs to be knowledgeable about the traditions .”
I nodded in agreement, as a scrawny dog barked at us from where it was tethered next to a hut.
“one of the unfortunate realities of Africa is that the colonial powers didn’t care about the importance of the tribe to the African way of life. They set borders cutting across tribal lands.
The tall thin priest 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? Do you have children?”
His divergence from the subject took me by surprise. I chuckled at his question. “Yes Father, you have a good memory.”
I was reluctant to reveal too much. But 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, especialy the parts blemished by conflict , founnd their lives with scant conformity. He would know that for them truth and trust were often contextual.
He would understand that we had made do with what we found at the roadsides of life, where the rules were not as stringent, nor the consequences as dire. Wherethere is less likelihood of being run over than in the center of life’s bustle. The moral policing is less prevalent inthe gutters.
I kicked at a pile of dry cow dung. “Father that marriage didn’t last long after we left the bush. it lasted as long as it did because 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 has 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.
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.”
“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 exchanged a few words with an old African man walking past in the opposite direction.
Dinai’s grandfather was a poor Lozi man living in Angola with 7 daughters. He sold one to a man from adifferent 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. 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 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. Here the spiritual world of Africa is all around us, all the time. Here their 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. At other times they are full of evil, which seeks to take possession of the soul of a living person to work its malignancy.
Sometimes when people die in the villages the consensus is that someone has been possessed by 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 witch. Dinai’s mother, seeing the writing on the wall, ran away before her daughter could be identified as the devil.”
The sadness edged back into Father Xavier’s voice.
“Because the most damming factor of them all, was her daughter, that little girl with the charcoal black eyes, and the fire red hair, was an albino. Yu understand the place the albino occupies in the spiritual world of Africa. They are wary of Mwabe’s, even scared of them. It was very likely that this white skinned child would be identified as the problem.”
The priest shook his head. “I often wonder if it was the constant threat of witch accusations that etched the saddness in the little girl’s eyes.
The old man bent down and snapped another length of grass, which he chewed on pensively between his words.
“The little girl I first saw hiding behind that tree trunk had been brought back and abandoned by her mother. Even she dared not stay, lest she be possessed by proxy. The rumors of who the child was, clung like blackjack burs to your clothes. The other children shunned her. Even the adults kept their distance. Only a mulatto nun at a clinic across the river accepted her. I am eternally grateful to that nun. She took the little one under her wing, and help me raise the 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 the echo of her past trailing behind, like a zephyr, whispering that somewhere was a spirit, waiting and lurking to take possession of her soul, with the special evil potency of an albino witch.”
The priests tone brightened . “Dinai attended school here at the mission. On many an afternoon, and on some days on the weekends the child, and later the girl, met me out under the trees. We talked about religion, politics and history. We played checkers and chess. I spoke Portuguese to her. She learned fast. 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 didn’t finish high school. Maybe even to get a teaching diploma so that she could return to the mission as a staff member. She dreamed of attending Fort Hare in South Africa, or Makarere in Uganda. Thus 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 to stay with us, her ‘foster’ parents. Those years were the happiest of her life, the sadness 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 even more was to see that her pregnancy was showing.”
We walked in silence until we reached the mission gate before Father Xavier spoke again.
“It took a long time for her to tell me about the father of her unborn child. He was dark, she said. The only feature she clearly remembered was a big burn scar on his chest, in the form of an inverted map of Africa.
He had raped her. “
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.
She gave birth to a son.
“When her son was a year old Dinai 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 a strangerappeared at our mission gate. he had 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. The stranger said that the baby was being brought back to us to send to the father.
We never saw Dinai again. Shedisappeared. I sent people into Angola to search for her, but nobody knew anything. Thus it was that Moses came to stay.
“Who gave Moses his name?” I asked.
“It was my nickname for him,” Xavier answered. ‘It stuck. 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 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 few interruptions. “But father,” I said, “How does this help me with the issues I have back at the Kafue!”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.” he said, ” I suspect that curse I tried for so long to eradicate, for you it could be a blessing. Moses will be good for your cause, because even the nganga’s, those powerful witch -doctors, they will be scared of him.
The ways of the bush are as mysterious as the Lord’s. . He may not realize it, but somehow the nganga’s will know that he is the son of a ‘white witch’…
That is very powerful Muti.”
(9th update – 03/28/2021)
(10th edit, 06/25/21)