57 – Obstacle
Admittedly if one was in a hurry, I acknowledged to myself, the road could be frustrating, even exasperating, as when the vehicles speed, already limited by its corrugation induced shudders is slowed even further by an obstacle.
In this particular case it was a tree toppled across the road by an elephant. From their footprints, spread across the dirt like lily pads across a pond, we could see that it’d been a big heard. This was also evident from the other obvious signs of their passage, broken branches lay strewn here and there along a broad swathe, having been snapped from bigger boughs as they were flicked by trunks into munching maws. We had missed the hurts passage by not more than half an hour, some of the dung piles were still steaming wisps of foggy vapor.
But now, after having collected the six scouts, my sense of urgency had abated, and with it my propensity for annoyance with the road and its current obstacle.
As I slowly brought the snout of our vehicle to a stop before the fallen tree, I thought how with no regular maintenance authority, this obstacle could stay that way for weeks, even months., with each successive vehicle following the first skirting path. The tree was too large to be summarily dragged aside, and the Bush on either side sufficiently accommodating to allow a detour.
If I gave in to exasperation and pioneered a path around it, with the passage of time, my tracks would be widened with each successive sheep-like passage. Each set of wheels pressing into the sand and mud, until the weight of big trucks would dig trenches so deep that they become impassable to light vehicles, with their diffs snagging in the middle. Then a new path would be pioneered slightly further out, until the bush around the obstacle is festooned with a web of inconvenience.
‘To be or not to be…. On such a sea are we now afloat,’ I glanced sideways at Moses as he looked back at me with mild curiosity.
‘Shakespeare!’ I said, ‘I bet William would never have guessed that he would be quoted four hundred years henceforth on a godforsaken road in the middle of Africa.’
I switched off the engine and stretched back in the seat.
‘Ask the scouts to cut the tree.’ I said to Moses, ‘the government is supposed to clear the road, just like the government is supposed to be paying the scouts, so we might as well get our money’s worth out of them.’
I then watched how the raised sinewy ebony arms of two men began to drive the flared blades of their bush axes into the flesh of the tree. Each swing was as effortlessly and precisely executed as the wrist pivoted chip of a golf pro in a bunker. Angled first from the left than the right, or the top after the bottom, in successive patterns, each bushmaster chopped their wedges into the bark, until the tree slowly sagged its splayed form into a shapeless pile of wood, chips, and straggly branches.
I was touched with a slight sense of sadness as I watched the once regal tree crumple into formless lumber. Only a few hours earlier we had obviously passed it by when it was one of the proud columnar pantheons which make the Miombo of the Kafue valley so uniquely special.
‘Isn’t the bush beautiful?’
No longer watching the butchering of the tree, I was looking far ahead at the road as it leaned faintly to the left where it burrowed into the canopy of the tall trees.
‘It is only when one is dispossessed of it, that one realizes how subliminally exquisite it is. But unfortunately, this realization only arrives when it is too late.’
I looked sideways at Moses as he sat next to me in the cab of the Land Cruiser.
‘Oh boy!’ he cocked his head without returning my glance, ‘Who kicked the cot of your philosopher this morning? First literature, and now deep thoughts!’
‘No, I’m being serious. I was thinking how lucky you and I are to be sitting here. Looking at a tree pushed over by an elephant, in a place in the world which, for at least a hundred kilometers roundabout is still almost untouched by man. You and I have so often been dispossessed, not just by others but by circumstance, and even by our own stupidity.
But none of that has managed to take this sort of stuff away from us.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Where else in the world is someone sitting in the middle of a Ggarden of Eden, watching a tree pushed over by an elephant being cut up? You have to admit it is unique.’
‘And this road.’ I lifted one hand off the steering wheel and gestured towards the swathe of gravel that stretched through the Bush before us. ‘Isn’t it so beautiful when it comes out with all the shades of green after the rains.’
‘It reminds me of a road we once travel along going to school. It was not too long ago that the Shamwari road was still pristine, like this one. There were a few gates across it, and a few side roads to the remote bush ranches. But apart from that there was no sign of humanity. You could still see duiker, or reedbuck in the grassy patches, or kudu in the Bush at the side. Maybe occasionally chase an ostrich. Once we even chased behind a cheater.
Then the revolutionary politicians took over, caring for only one sort of creature, humans, mostly those belonging to their own ZANU-PF party. Because these politicians had nothing to offer the people after they had stolen much of the public purse, they gave away the land. They encouraged the peasants to spill out along that road. After they had done so, the mob oozed out sideways and devastated what had been there for thousands of years . In less time than it took the first children to reach their teens, the duiker, the kudu, the ostriches and certainly the cheater were gone. The trees were cut down, and the Bush scratched away into scruffy miserable patches of maize, sorghum and watermelons.
‘Ok’ Moses shrugged his shoulders, ‘So what is your point?’
‘ Look carefully at this road,’ I said to him, ‘ It stretches its eighhty kilometers of ostensible monotony between the two pontoons, and then it goes on for another forty until it rises out of the Kafue valley before it reaches the hills around the prison farm.’
I paused. ‘The bush on either side is pristine, just like that bush alongside the Shamwari road once was. In fact, when I first travelled along here in the late 90’s the section between the prison and Mumbwa was also mostly untouched. But since they put in the electricity to the prison the cancer has begun to spread along its length.’
‘So you see, it is not philosophy that I’m talking about. It is our ability to recognize when life is so good around us that it could almost be described as paradise.
‘When we left our farm on the Shumwari Road, a visitor from overseas asked how badly I would miss it, and I can remember not understanding him. At the time it was the only world I knew, and of course I took it for granted. It was only later that I realized what had been lost… Actually it did not take too long for the realization to set in. Even though we moved to what is considered countryside, it was not these huge swathes of Bush with all the animals. In my teens I used to dream about returning to places like this.
It made me aware to appreciate special times and places. It took a lot longer to learn that once gone, seldom can you go back and pick up where you left off.
The old Shamwari was the first precious thing in my life that disappeared. It will never return to what it was.
Elephants have been pushing over trees here for a million years. It is the way it is supposed to be. I bet before I was born they were doing it along the Shamwari.
When you come to think of it almost everything that I’ve known in life has changed and grown old. The only thing that I can think of that hasn’t change, is the son and the moon and this bush, if we leave it alone.
Have you realize that the Bush never grows old, it comes back to life each time the rains return. Which is one of the reasons all those trees and grasses and stuff out there is magical for me.
The saddest thing for me is that inspite of it never growing old, this treasure of life can be so easily killed. People are its killers.’
I gestured towards where the scouts were pulling the last remaining branches and chopped up sections of the trunk to the side of the road, ‘look at how easily we can kill the essentials of Gods Garden.’
So OK, it was an elephant which knocked the tree over, and we have to make a small compromise to cut it up so that we can protect paradise.’
It is why I am out here. And it is why I need you to help me.
Because, who knows, one day some piss-pot politician will come along and say it is more important for the peasants to live here than everything else that has existed here for thousands of years. Including these trees.
And the reason, the politicians will say, is that it is only rich white hunters who benefit, the land is underutilized. Or they will say that the minerals below the surface are more important than all the creatures above it, and everything must be dug up so that the peasants can benefit.
The sad thing is that very few people can recognize the pricelessness of unspoiled land. The peasants are too poor and desperate for food to care, and the politicians are still too busy pillaging. How many people travel along this road and are filled with awe at these trees. How many can see how magnificent they are, or have their spirits lifted by its beauty?’
I ask you, aren’t the open spaces of the dambos inserted into the landscape, in such a seemingly considered manner, as if Eden’s gardener designed the layout himself. A pattern to allow our souls a breath of its timelessness, and to harmonize our sinking under the forest canopy, like a porpoise beneath the waves of the sea.
We humans too easily take the familiar for granted. Even if it is paradise.
I asked some of the Lodge staff what they thought of this road up to Chifumpa. Most described it as long boring and monotonous.
I don’t know about you, but there are few things that I haven’t fallen in and out of love with. About the only thing I’ve always loved is the Bush. I wonder if this has not replaced some of my need for people.
I wonder if you are not affected in the same way. Both of us have had so much taken away from us. I have been dispossessed of the country I grew up in. The country now has a different name, as are most of its towns, and streets and rivers. And because I am a white man I’m a pariah in the country of my birth.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regard myself as a victim. I am lucky. Up here I still feel a sense of belonging, the anti-white man attitude is not as strong as further south. I think it was good that Kaunda nationalized all of the land, because the African does not feel that the white man is stealing his land, he just rents it for 99 years.
This means that I’m still able to reach out and touch that which I love, smell its smells, feel its dews on my ankles, and its grass brushing my legs, and the sounds of it, the wind and the birds, how it looks, how it feels.
I paused for a moment.
‘You, you have not had your country taken away. But for you it was your family. You do not know your mother.’
I hesitated. ‘You do not know your father, or if you have brothers.’ I hesitated again, ‘Or sisters.’
I let my missive sink in.
‘You were raised on the mission. I wonder how that has affected you. Are you as mistrusting of the world as I am?
Is that why both of us have never been able to settle down with any one partner.
I remember how wonderfully my interactions with others began. Ohh, all so very special and unique. But after a while, I grew accustomed to their company. Then it was no longer so obvious.
Out here amongst the trees I know where to find the refreshing magic, but not with a woman. Each time when I did it was in the rearview mirror and it was too late. There is no instant replay in life.’
By now the tree had been cleared and as the scouts clambered back onto the vehicle, I let out the clutch and we slowly moved along the path of paradise.
‘Actually there is something else in life which doesn’t change.’ It was Moses who spoke this time.
‘The truth of the Lord.’ He was talking slowly and emphatically just above the noise of the vehicles engine and its rattles.
‘It is true that we often get accustomed and dismissive of physical beauty as it stares at us in the face, but that is why the Lord warns us.’
Moses admonished me. ‘We mustn’t be taken in by the shallowness of the physical or the flesh. Instead we must seek and be rewarded with the true love of God.’
‘Aahh Moses, I agree that the big religions don’t change, but that’s because they are intolerant. They will not sanctioned change even if it stare’s them in the face. That is the secret to their survival, intolerance of others.
As you know, I’m somebody who got tired of the old stories, lectured to me over and over again by old men standing up in pulpits at school.
I am surprised that more people don’t get bored with it all, especially with the hassles and chaos it creates in the world.
But I guess that is life, and what makes it so interesting. . Each of us has different thresholds of stimulation for different things.
So I ask you, why can’t we get a religion that weighs nature just as sacredly as human life?’
My question was rhetorical.
‘Gidi, you are too shallow, you should study the bible more closely. You would realize God created all things. He holds everything equally dearly.’
I remembered how Moses and I had spent so many hours on these issues when we were out alone for days on deep incursion missions. Back then we had been entrenched in our positions, and obviously we still were. But it had never affected our bond.
And I needed him as much now as I did then, and it was the new wedge that had been bothering me.
So it was time to broach the obstacle and hack at it, if necessary.
‘Moses,’ I said. ‘The difference between us is that my lack of religion allows me to be happy with many shades of gray, where as you need to paint things either black or white, either right or wrong.’
In many instances it does not matter how we look at life we get to the same point in the end.
But when does black become too black and white too white. Maybe we need to look at other things like we look at each other, I am not too white for you, and you are not too black for me. In fact we blend into a greyness together.
But how is it with the others in our lives?
We are unique how we have blended to each other, But not with others. With them even small differences can be disastrous.
Often, if one spends too much time together and keeps bumping into the same little tender difference, maybe feet on a table, a sweaty shirt worn too long, or too much sugar in her tea, to begin with it does not matter. But after the rubs start to fester the frustration grows, until even the smallest brushing on those sores produces a violent reaction.
So what are the differences between you and Narina.
Have you thought carefully about what is happening? Do you really want her as part of your life?
Your differences are not even small. She is a Muslim, and you are not. And how do you think that you will fit in with her family?
They are rich, you are not.
Do you have any idea who her father is? I am told that he isn’t a nice man.
I’m not sure if he will like you as a son-in-law.’
‘So you see what I’m trying to say, is that when we have paradise in front of us we do not realize how fleeting it is, and how it has to be taken care of. So if I want to live in the garden of Eden I need to make sure it is somewhere where we do not need to chop down the trees, and if I want to have an eve there beside me, I need to make sure that the garden is big enough for me not to bump into her bruises.’
I was spurred to nip this burgeoning thing in the bud, because I felt that my paradise was threatened. By what I was still unsure.
However I was certain that the recent events, co-incidents and strangeness was all tied together, and I needed my long tried and trusted ally to be around when things got rough, as surely they would.
Because earlier, while slowly driving back up the river bank off the pontoon, past the place I had seen Mustafa take off his shirt, I recognized what had been bothering me while slopping through the mud to pick up the scouts.
I had suddenly remembered what father Xavier told me about the shape of the scar on the chest of the man who raped Dana’i.
It had been the shape of an upside down Africa.