08 – TheBook of Gideon (vultures)

08:          Vultures

Ever since Vasco De Gama set the vertical gradient of Africa on the shelf of history northern ideas have dribbled down over the Equator like the sand in an hour glass. Only recently has modern travel flipped that measure, so that the colorful soul of Africa is oozing back up to patina the paler surfaces of the world.

The cultural upheaval of this uninvited mingling has never cared about its origins. . Africa has always been the mother of mankind, a mother who has been pillaged and raped so often by arrogantly uncaring outsiders that nobody particularly cares.

Thinking of the old man’s tale I wondered at the mingled patina rusting beneath the surface of my own sunburned skin. Did anyone care? Was mine also just another sordid story in Mother Africa’s uninvited history?

As the first tinge of dawn’s orange threatened to push away the confetti strewn across the last of evenings indigo, I thought about what the old priest said, motherhood mattered most. There is never a doubt about motherhood. So how much did it matter to both Moses and I as to the mixing of uninvited minglings in our African home. Were we equally children of this continent?

 The thoughts were dismissed by the ping of a text message, followed closely by another, as I walked towards the mission office and its internet hub.

‘Two elephant carcasses found, tusks hacked out. A scout is missing.’

It was from Dimas, the lead of one of the scouting teams I was training.

I couldn’t see the blue gray of the old man’s eyes in the pre-dawn dimness as we sat at his simple ceramic table and waited for the kettle to boil, but I could make out the manner of his gaze, under his bushy eyebrows, focusing its unblinking attention on my face.

“Tell me about your work” the old priest said. “We’ve talked about your friend. But what about you? What do you actually do? How did you get the job?”

“Like anyone over the age of fifty,”I said, “with few skills needed in civilian life, I have had a hard time finding work.”

Outside the sounds of activity and voices gradually filled the air as the mission came to life.

“I’m lucky to have found this job. I’m even luckier that I was given a work permit for this country. Tese days in the safari business, there are young well-educated, well spoken and culturally versatile Africans. They are more than capable of providing great guiding services to high-paying clients. Add to that black empowerment makes it extremely difficult for an older white guy, like me, to get a job in this industry.”

The old man raised his hand to stop me speaking as he rose and walked into a separate room from whence he returned with two tin mugs. I watched as he ladled in the instant coffe, and powdered milk before pouring in the hot water. He handed me one of the mugs together with a bowl of sugar lumps.

“I got the job because I’m friendly with the manager of the trust running my program. Because it is a private concern, who they employ is not quite as tightly regulated as those in government.

The organization gives specialized law enforcement training to the scouts.

I’ve been doing this for two years. My problem is that the main funders are Germans, and they want metrics. They want to see certain minimum numbers graduating from my courses. But we are not in charge of the scheduling for the training. Thus, every now and again a scout is pulled off the course to do something else, which leaves a gap in our success metrics. The Germans don’t like that. But there’s nothing I can do about it, scheduling and roster issues are determined by the head warden.

Up until now I’ve managed to squeak by. However there is a new CEO of our main funding corporation. he apparently is even more driven by metrics than the others. He wants to see minimum increases in game counts to prove that what I’m doing is bearing results. So it is a race against the poachers, in a game where I don’t set the rules. I can train the scouts, but I cannot decide where they are deployed. I cannot determine which areas are better guarded, so that the game counts increase where the Germans are providing the funding.

Thus I never really know what is happening in my future. Right now I love what I do and where I am. But if I lose my job who knows? I guess I will have to go back to be a poor white begging at the corner of some intersection in Durban.

Thus you can understand why I’m concerned about witchcraft in the area of my operations. I cannot afford to have any of my charges get scared and leave. If my results don’t please the funders, my job will be on the line. At this stage of life my chances of getting another gig like this are slim.”

With that I tossed back the last gulp of coffee and reached over to shake the priests hand.

The drive back from the western edge of the country is a long arduous affair, full of flat monotony. It is made even more uninteresting by the fingers of human occupation, which have scratched away the original vegetation like the hair on a mangy dog.

However, anyone keeping their eyes open seldom finds anywhere in Africa monotonous. I spotted a huge bird, a Kori Bustard striding through the grass near the road. Then there was the beauty of the Lilac Breasted Rollers. I counted how many were waiting for a passing vehicle to flush a grass-hopper. The sighting of a pair of Lanner Falcons further helped to divert the tickle of my anxiety.

Three hours after the last slice of toast with Father Xavier, the road ahead was already breaking up into shivering aqueous ripples from the refraction of the hot air. It was to be a long, hot journey.

I couldn’t shake the niggle of apprehension. It had been two years since an elephant was poached in the area. So why now. Add to that the disappearance of the scout. It couldn’t be the absence in the wake of a booze binge. That was too regular to merit mention. Why all this at the same time as the appearance of the Crocodile man?

As I drove, I noticed that there were more huts clustering along the roadway for convenience than in the past. They stretched into the distance, and were fed by the arteries of dirt tracks spreading out like the varicose veins on the cheeks of a drunkard.

These untidy little clusters came with their symbionts, a few sporadic cows to supplement the goats and ubiquitous chickens scuffling between the corn clinging to the barren soil. Long gone is the tree canopy, whose leaves provided the shade and fallen mulch had caressed the soil for aeons. Instead, like the flat, wizened breasts of an old woman, after decades of monotonous childbirth and monoculture, all of the flush and fertility of life has been suckled out of it.

It is not the mythical images promoted in the glossy tourist brochures, instead it is what much of Africa has become.

I wondered why I bothered fighting for the left-over land. What did the old priest say, we all need a good mother?

Did I have the strength to dig in deep enough to halt the old hag’s menopause and fill it with milk and honey?

Heading back to the heart of my struggle I also surreptitiously engaged with a ghost. It was triggered by the other text message.

 It arrived unexpectedly, no less strangely on my birthday.

Tantalizingly elusive, I had hunted that ghost for thirty years, and like the rest of the old Africa that I loved and wanted to preserve, it had been part of that dream and hopes of a future.

“Hi, is it u? I am younger and older now”.

I am not religious but the timing seemed as ordained as it was unsettling.

Perhaps Father Xavier with his crucifix had insight into spiritual realities, and maybe so did Precious, with her necklace of snail-shells.

Standing under the glare of a sun at its zenith, I savored those ghostly words in the middle of the hook bridge over the Kafue River. I always stop after crossing the bridge, then walk back to its center to look down at the slow eddies of the water. There is something relaxing, even hypnotic to watch the roll of the river as it passes below my feet.

I like to leisurely eat my sandwich, and sip the cup of hot sweet coffee from my thermos flask.

Three decades! Looking at the river I wondered how much water had passed under the bridge in that time period. A long time, and yet it is nothing. For thirty years, like the fantasy of returning to an unspoiled place, the ghost of a girl has walked beside me. Sophia always lurked at the edge of my awareness.

In the warm humid coastal evening air of that far-away time, it had been for a brief hour that we sat side by side on a bench in a city garden. There, amidst the floral opulence, unknowingly for the last time, we touched and spoke, we laughed and embraced. I beheld her magnificence. Then, with a hug, a kiss and a casual ‘See you soon,’ we parted.

Over the decades, I have wondered if she remembered me, what became of me, as I did of her. If I had made the hindsightly correct, utterly agonizing choice, and returned in time, today I would believe in love, destiny and faithfulness. It would all be so obvious and easy. But a war intervened. If it had not I would probably be blander, more boring, a believer in constancy.

But, as she had once done with our togetherness, with ten texted words, she poured the past back into my mind.

I guess, in mental limbo, the toying with my imaginary maiden has condemned me to be the footloose, mentally motherless wanderer that I am.

The memory of her visage has faded. Even if I could conjure it up, time has probably worked its weathering. Today I would surely pass her unrecognized in the street.

Over the years I have occasionally played with my lost recollections. Sometimes I have her hair tied in a bob, with her neck extended. At others I have its ginger tint tied over in a Dutch braid… In my mind I can make her whoever I want… Maybe I will recognize her… stranger things have happened…

And yet, even though I have not heard it for thirty years, I remember the lilt of her voice as clearly as the calls of the doves crooning in the trees at each end of the bridge.

And when I fashion it with my fingers the clay of the river talks to me, maybe I will recognize her in the mud in my hands.

Unlike the dried up nurturing of our hopes, the water of the river keeps flowing beneath my feet, like milk flowing from the breast of Africa.

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Space and time according to Einstein are linked, Left is to right, is to up, is to down, is to the when which provides the perceptions of our memories. The past and future are part of the same left/right, up/down thing, and the present is where we are in time when we happen to open our eyes. And if we did this fast enough, time would stop and matter turn infinitely heavy, as it melts into and becomes one with gravity.

With the hot azure of the huge sky above, the ghost beside me reached across space and time. This is Africa, and here the spirits are everywhere at all times, not just in the haunted darkness of the night or a person’s imagination.

The size of the sky above us, (me and my imaginary ghost that is), was enhanced by the flatness of the unfettered perspective when viewed from the center of the bridge,. Out here over the water there is little to obscure the vista in any direction. It was as if the heat of the sun directly above, glaring down on the river, had melted away the lumps in the landscape.

Over the dull muddy turquoise of the waters, the river flowed towards me, and if I turned around, it flowed away, like time.

I squinted to cut down the midday glare reflecting off the water. All I saw was the huge flat horizon. Like the rip of a tide, it cut across my perception, stretching seemingly forever with its left and right, it’s before and behind and with the ripples of the Bush below and the sky above.

How could I not be imprinted with all this raw African womb. Like a hypnotized zombie it drew me into itself and the hope of a rebirth, even as high above me I was reminded that Africa is also about the spirits of its dead. It was its morticians which I detected as I stood philosophizing.

Mere specks in the sky. Less than a handful. Distributed vertically in a loose slowly twisting column, gaining altitude in the updraft of a powerful thermal, so prevalent on a hot day, such that when I raised my binoculars the spec at the top had risen three thousand feet above the tree canopy, whereupon it peeled off to drift north in a flat shallow glide, occasionally giving a dipping wing beat. A signal to others that food was nigh.

Vultures!

Following its flight with my binoculars, I picked up the next column, and in the direction of my scan, another pillar of circling birds, so distant that it was barely visible even with the magnification.

The birds were on the march. Somewhere far away to the north was a food bonanza. They were gliding across the bush using thermal elevators.

I slowly scanned the skies in every direction. Sure enough off to the east towards Mumbwa, was another thermal column and another progressive avian line heading to where they could join the food frenzy. I wondered if they’d spotted an elephant carcass.

Most of them would be White-Backed’s. They are the commonest. A pair had a nest in a tall tree above the dirt road leading Space and time according to Einstein are linked, Left is to right, is to up, is to down, is to the when which provides the perceptions of our memories. The past and future are part of the same left/right, up/down thing, and the present is where we are in time when we happen to open our eyes. And if we did this fast enough, time would stop and matter turn infinitely heavy, as it melts into and becomes one with gravity.

With the hot azure of the huge sky above, the ghost beside me reached across space and time. This is Africa, and here the spirits are everywhere at all times, not just in the haunted darkness of the night or a person’s imagination.

The size of the sky above us, (me and my imaginary ghost that is), was enhanced by the flatness of the unfettered perspective when viewed from the center of the bridge,. Out here over the water there is little to obscure the vista in any direction. It was as if the heat of the sun directly above, glaring down on the river, had melted away the lumps in the landscape.

Over the dull muddy turquoise of the waters, the river flowed towards me, and if I turned around, it flowed away, like time.

I squinted to cut down the midday glare reflecting off the water. All I saw was the huge flat horizon. Like the rip of a tide, it cut across my perception, stretching seemingly forever with its left and right, it’s before and behind and with the ripples of the Bush below and the sky above.

How could I not be imprinted with all this raw African womb. Like a hypnotized zombie it drew me into itself and the hope of a rebirth, even as high above me I was reminded that Africa is also about the spirits of its dead. It was its morticians which I detected as I stood philosophizing.

Mere specks in the sky. Less than a handful. Distributed vertically in a loose slowly twisting column, gaining altitude in the updraft of a powerful thermal, so prevalent on a hot day, such that when I raised my binoculars the spec at the top had risen three thousand feet above the tree canopy, whereupon it peeled off to drift north in a flat shallow glide, occasionally giving a dipping wing beat. A signal to others that food was nigh.

Vultures!

Following its flight with my binoculars, I picked up the next column, and in the direction of my scan, another pillar of circling birds, so distant that it was barely visible even with the magnification.

The birds were on the march. Somewhere far away to the north was a food bonanza. They were gliding across the bush using thermal elevators.

I slowly scanned the skies in every direction. Sure enough off to the east towards Mumbwa, was another thermal column and another progressive avian line heading to where they could join the food frenzy. I wondered if they’d spotted an elephant carcass.

Most of them would be White-Backed’s. They are the commonest. A pair had a nest in a tall tree above the dirt road leading upstream from my campsite.

There was a noticeably larger bird in the nearest group. A Lappet- Faced who would dominate the feast for a while. The column was too far to pick out the smaller more delicate Hooded variety.

The closest pillar moved slowly nearer, pushed along by the same breeze as made the tall dry elephant grass nod and sway in unison with its eddies. It was dynamic. The birds at the top peeled off out of the spiral. They were replaced by others approaching from the opposite side, in a well-spaced almost direct line. With a sharp left bank of their huge wings they slotted into position at the bottom of the vortex, a few hundred feet above the trees.

Observing these vulture’s circling so effortlessly, ignoring gravity as they spread across space and time with impunity, allowed an appreciation of their evolved complexity. Their niche required them to get up high in the sky, to stay there for a long time, almost effortlessly, enabling their incredible vision to seek the dead or dying. They needn’t get anywhere fast. Their feast will not run away.

I let my binoculars hang on the strap around my neck. Space, time and gravity. God does not play dice with the universe. But with these vultures maybe there is one who does. No bird in history has, or is, disappearing off the face of the earth as fast as they.

Both wardens and poachers would be watching. Maybe it was this stream of birds which had alerted Dimas. Any poacher who kills an elephant, and creates a vulture feast, would also know the birds could alert the warden. Maybe that poacher, if he had access to poison, would taint the carcass with the chemical, so that there would not be future vultures to alert the wardens of nefariousness.

But that isn’t the only dark cloud on the horizon of these magnificent creatures.

The business of independent Africa is conducted by Africans. For many the witchcraft of the shamans still holds its powerful undercurrent.

Hidden away in backstreet shops or warehouses, are the bush-meat and muti markets, where the totems, giving luck to almost any endeavor, are found. Crocodile heads, leopard skins, lines teeth, pangolin scales, owls’ talons, hyena snouts, Jackals fur. And, of course, one of the most sought after, vulture’s heads, with their power of sight sparking the belief they will enable the possessor to see into the future. A clear benefit for any aspiring politician, business person, or anyone who can afford such a totem.

I turned to walk back towards the vehicle.

Three decades seems an eternity. But in the up down left right relativity of their flight, and my search, that is the time it has taken for these gracious gravity defying birds circling above to quietly disappear, and my ghost to reappear.

A ghost! I wondered if it had the eyesight of a vulture, and if so it could help me look into the future, or at least look to see where I could find Moses.

 Sheeesh, I was letting the bush get to me… a ghost? I would banish it from my mind.upstream from my campsite.

There was a noticeably larger bird in the nearest group. A Lappet- Faced who would dominate the feast for a while. The column was too far to pick out the smaller more delicate Hooded variety.

The closest pillar moved slowly nearer, pushed along by the same breeze as made the tall dry elephant grass nod and sway in unison with its eddies. It was dynamic. The birds at the top peeled off out of the spiral. They were replaced by others approaching from the opposite side, in a well-spaced almost direct line. With a sharp left bank of their huge wings they slotted into position at the bottom of the vortex, a few hundred feet above the trees.

Observing these vulture’s circling so effortlessly, ignoring gravity as they spread across space and time with impunity, allowed an appreciation of their evolved complexity. Their niche required them to get up high in the sky, to stay there for a long time, almost effortlessly, enabling their incredible vision to seek the dead or dying. They needn’t get anywhere fast. Their feast will not run away.

I let my binoculars hang on the strap around my neck. Space, time and gravity. God does not play dice with the universe. But with these vultures maybe there is one who does. No bird in history has, or is, disappearing off the face of the earth as fast as they.

Both wardens and poachers would be watching. Maybe it was this stream of birds which had alerted Dimas. Any poacher who kills an elephant, and creates a vulture feast, would also know the birds could alert the warden. Maybe that poacher, if he had access to poison, would taint the carcass with the chemical, so that there would not be future vultures to alert the wardens of nefariousness.

But that isn’t the only dark cloud on the horizon of these magnificent creatures.

The business of independent Africa is conducted by Africans. For many the witchcraft of the shamans still holds its powerful undercurrent.

Hidden away in backstreet shops or warehouses, are the bush-meat and muti markets, where the totems, giving luck to almost any endeavor, are found. Crocodile heads, leopard skins, lines teeth, pangolin scales, owls’ talons, hyena snouts, Jackals fur. And, of course, one of the most sought after, vulture’s heads, with their power of sight sparking the belief they will enable the possessor to see into the future. A clear benefit for any aspiring politician, business person, or anyone who can afford such a totem.

I turned to walk back towards the vehicle.

Three decades seems an eternity. But in the up down left right relativity of their flight, and my search, that is the time it has taken for these gracious gravity defying birds circling above to quietly disappear, and my ghost to reappear.

A ghost! I wondered if it had the eyesight of a vulture, and if so it could help me look into the future, or at least look to see where I could find Moses.

Sheeesh, I was letting the bush get to me… a ghost? I would banish it from my mind.

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**********

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Turning off the West Road onto the short tar stretch that leads into and through Mumbwa, I headed past the tall steeple of its mosque, and its untidy pavement markets and store-fronts. At the other end of the town, after passing the grubby entrance to a hotel, half hidden behind the screen of its big exotic trees the road turned sharply as it led to the ZAWA building, where I was sure to find Ernest. I wanted to follow up on the terse text of poached elephants and a missing scout.

Ernest was in his office, in an accomodating mood. He was willing to make time for me. Nothing wrong with that!

At the little Somali restaurant at the junction we sat outside in the plastic chairs watching the slow unhurried passages of customers sauntering in and out of the market section of the store.

The pies were hot and the cola cold, and the store sufficiently set back from the highway that the sound of the passing vehicles did not make it hard to hear each other.

Ernest confirmed that the first clue to something big being poached was, as I suspected the convergence of vultures in big numbers.

A patrol was sent out to investigate, determining it indeed was a poaching incident.

Elephants were the target, two of them, shot in quick succession, close together..

From the size of the carcasses, the tusks could not have been very big. It surprised Ernest that the poachers were going after such low grade animals. Was it worth their while?

Obviously feeling good with life Ernest magnanimously offered to show me one of the victims. The carcass was not too far off the main road and he would show it to me on my way back to the Lodge.

Two Jerry cans of diesel would go a long way to helping him show me the site.

I appreciated the inexpensiveness of his friendship!

I paid the bill and headed to our vehicles to collect the empty Jerry cans from Ernest’s cruiser, which he had conveniently brought along.

Even from a distance I could see the large piece of paper tucked under the wiper of my windshield.

‘This is your second warning,’

It read,

‘Leave the area. Stop your meddling.

If not you will be punished.’

Like the first one it was signed

‘Crocodile.

This time it was written in bold decisive ink.

Ernest shrugged as I showed him the message.

I found myself following his dilapidated white government Cruiser along the road towards the Lubungu Pontoon. .

I appreciated the inexpensiveness of his friendship!

Not long after we had dipped down into the Kafue Valley, through the thick thorny bush below the shallow rim of the basin , that Ernest turned off the dirt road to folllow the track of a vehicle already blazed into a rough trail through the long grass and dense shrubbery layered under tall trees. The tracks were his, from his prior trip.

Even though our progress was slow, it took less than a half hour after leaving the road to reach the site. I had to grant the poacher’s their audaciousness of killing an elephant so close to the road.

At the center where the fracas was most intense, it was like an out-of-control soccer riot. Pecking, pushing, some with open winged intimidation, the birds jostled each other aside. Others were intent only on digging their heads deeper into the stench to tear off another beak-full of putrid flesh.

The less aggressive stood scattered around the periphery, their swiveling heads scanning the scramble, waiting for an opportunity to hop into the epicenter.

In the midst of this chaos a hyena stood like a half-hearted referee trying to reestablish order by unconvincingly baring its teeth. Every so often it lost interest in the boil of birds. It would shove its head through a hole in the thick gray hide stretched across the dead elephant’s rib-cage. Crawling deeper into the cavernous chest, leaving only its tugging haunches visible to the birds, it would rip free the hard-to- get–at flesh lodged between the ribs themselves.

The chitters and excited chuckles of the avian crowd was under-pinned by the hum of the myriad clouds of flies who’s wings sounded like a huge swarm of bees. It was doubtful if their maggots would have time to hatch and consume the rotten meat before the scavenging horde finished this banquet.

Wandering in and out of the crowd were three more hyena whose bloated bellies indicated why they were no longer interested in the carcass and the frenzy. With pricked ears and heads looking out into the bush beyond the scrum, it seemed they were more concerned with a possible appearance of a lion.

An unlikely event. The tracks of lion and leopard were visible in the peripheral sand not yet trampled into a dustbowl around the carcass. Any remaining meat was probably now too tainted for the lions palate. .

At the far edge of the crowd a few marabou stalks stood like old retired school masters looking disdainfully down there long thick beaks at the unruly mob. I wondered why they even bothered to show up.

The wretched elephant had been wounded by the poachers. The skin at the back of its head was hacked open with a bush-axe so that it spine could be chopped apart, ending its writhing’s. The poachers either didn’t want to waste precious ammunition, or didn’t want another shot being noticed.

To get at its tusks, the front of its face was hacked off, leaving its pitiful eye-sockets staring emptily out across the blunt mash of flesh where it once had a trunk. .

The jostle of avian activity only came to an end when our two vehicles were within meters of the shambles.

As we exited and walked towards the carcass the rush of wings of birds taking to the air sounded like the approach of a train. Some struggled to get into the air with such meat laden crops.

We all scuttled across to the northeast upwind side to minimize the retch inducing stench clinging to the scene.

We didn’t stay long. Ernest said that the poachers’ tracks departed in a northeasterly direction.

Also that initially on finding the carcass one of the scouts was sent back to HQ to report the incident. But after a day not having any response from HQ, another Scout had been sent to follow up on what was happening.

There was no sign of the first scout. I again brought up the point that I had asked for more scouts to be trained and brought on duty. Ernest was nonchalant. If I got the funding it would be easy he said. That there had been a number of scouts furloughed. They could be easily brought back on board.

Rejoining the main road I left Ernest to return to his HQ..

Pointing the nose of my own vehicle north-west to head across the vally, I looked at the bold hand written note on the seat beside me.

But what in the world was this all about.

I wondered if it had any connection with the poached elephants. Somebody with sore toes must be seeking me.. I couldn’t think of what in particular I had done to warrant to leave such a warning.

I had little faith in Ernest’s ability to ‘get them’.

It behooved me to start watching my back.