Chapter 9: Footprints
I am not unique.
Somewhere deep inside the core of our adult souls there must be a child lurking, peeping out with a sense of wonder, because sometimes, unexpectedly, that fallow enthusiastic eagerness at confronting the newness of life still manifests itself.
When this happens, it is as profound as when, long ago, I pressed the small pedals into their full rotations, and propel the bicycle over the lawn of the garden. There was that initial sense of apprehension as I felt the hands release their steadying grip behind the saddle. Then there was the thrill of the first wobbly independent passage across the grass. The exhilarating glee of discovering speed. It was unspoiled by the culminating scratchy crash into the fruit laden hang of the mandarin trees beyond the roses.
Because that child does not age and has not yet learnt to count, we lose track of the progress of all the tomorrow’s that have spanned the gap between what seems to be yesterday and our todays.
But because only fools and children speak the truth, it takes the youth of someone else to make one aware of the magnitude of that count.
After all, our minds are notorious at playing tricks with our reality. If all we get to see of our aged selves are few minutes in front of a morning mirror, as we shave or put on our makeup, how can we be blamed for ignoring the progress of our decay.
For me someone who is old is always a decade my senior. Thus as I enter the fifth decade of life, someone in their 60s seems to be old, hence by extension, for Precious, I must seem ancient. It was her youth, and not any foolishness which etched the truth on the mirror of my mind. Thus as dawn’s dew flicked off from its fleeting hold on the brush of grass around my ankles, her words still lingered.
“You are too old for me, and you know it.”
I was confronted by the discovery of something unexpected, the surprising and disturbing differences in the newness of her being, as well as the correctness of her words.
I grew up amongst the people here in Central Africa. The woof of its culture was intertwined with the warp of mine. Thankfully the most tragic aspect of my inherited culture, that of colonial racism had been brutally expunged on the battlefield. Only in the great equalizer of armed conflict does one understand brotherhood, equality and mutual dependence. We learned that dependence had no relationship with color orc reed. It was those who had buddies they could depend on around them who survived best. Even more importantly it was those with buddies, black, brown or white, who shared and shook together who later walked away with some semblance of sanity.
However, out there we did not have women to bond and come to terms with… Precious recognized this in me. Despite the influence of my M”zungu culture, I found it hard to readjust my perception of a woman’s position on the totem pole of life. I still bridled ta woman’s imperatives, especially if they were much younger.
As I walked across the dambo towards the chalets, the long tongues of grass, still sodden from the previous evening’s downpour, were licking sufficient moisture onto the shins of my legs that the droplets trickled over my ankles and into the tops of my leather shoes. Without socks, I could feel the moist squishiness in the toes of each shoe.
With the advent of the rain, even as I walked, life all around me was beginning to surge. The mixture of water and warmth would soon transform the predominant somber hues of the dry winter Bush into the bursting, almost iridescent vitality of the hot wet rainy season.
Approaching the first upstream chalet, my mind drifted away from its preoccupation with the enigma of this younger woman. Instead I was reminded of the first time I felt my bare legs being caressed by the dampness of this long grass.
It was two years ago that with that same vague childlike sense of apprehension, which precedes the wide-eyed exhilaration of discovery, I had first stepped up onto the Lubungu Pontoon.
Rather than the wobbles across a lawn, it had been the lurching progress of a vehicle which revealed the magic of this particular seclusion, embroidered into the refracted dapples of this bit of bushland.
Back then, for the first time I saw the edges of the Shalamakanga dambo painted in ebulliently verdurous swaths of light green mixed with dark olive, and interstitial dabs of grey, brown and fawn. Beneath this visual plethora the rain had been running down the barely visible road ruts which I were following.
And the elephant grass, my God the elephant grass. It grows here like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. It was so tall that the tassels of the strands slapped back as far as the cab of the cruiser when hit by the vehicles forward motion. They had accumulated on the hood and piled up on the glass of the windscreen into a slush is thick as the mud which splashed onto the doors, and coated the under-side of the wheel housings.
This was where I had found out how the Kafue River still heads South West along its ancient path, little changed from 10 million years ago, when it was still part of the Limpopo, whose might then rivaled todays Nile or Amazon. Back then, the Kafue had not yet been stolen by the young and vigorous Zambezi which was quickly cutting its way up from the Indian Ocean. Thankfully, I mused, the rocks and the soil were much older than I, and the old seldom reject the young, even as the young pander to the council of the old.
Thus, in my memory of the rainy dullness of that first visit, the trunks of the big Leadwoods had been stained gunmetal gray by the wetness. Then in a sudden, and short lived break in the clouds, the sunlight had been splashed in iridescent emerald on the leafy foliage of the trees lining my passage. The weight of the rain cause the branches to droop in my honor, like the solemn skirted curtsys of maidens welcoming my attendance at a festival.
Strange how life flows in different directions for each of us, even as we stand next to each other, sharing its burdens. Precious, to get away. Me to stay, to get away from everywhere else.
Ahhhh, looking back, what a greeting it had been. That same forgotten exhilaration of discovery. It had been as if the years were being peeled back, and I was coming home.
With those memories in mind, I passed the old shack behind the kitchen and walked a tad further, to the open tin roofed structures of the vehicle sheds.
It took a while, but I finally found what I was seeking.
It was a clear boot-print.
While I was away meeting Father Xavier, the track sign would surely have started to be degraded. Whatever remained would have been washed away in last nights” deluge.
But here in the soft sand under the tin roof of the sheds, a few foot prints were well preserved.
As I looked down on the imprints, a dead man crept quietly over my soul. A big part of the conflict in Africa involved tracking, and we had to learn who the players were. Thus I recognized the print. Four decades ago, the boots supplied by the Russians to the men of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army. (ZIPRA) had very characteristic x-studs at the center of the soles of their boots.
The print in the sand was made by such a boot.
I looked down at where the crocodile man had stood when I attended to Eddie. Nkomo had drawn his cadres from the Matabele tribe, those people of the far away Matopos hills. And in those hills was the oracle of the Mlimo, and the mystical spirit beliefs of Central Africa.
Where was Moses when I needed his help to decypher the riddle in the sand.
It was as if Schrodinger’s mysterious cat was playing hide and seek while it chased the virtual laces of these boot-prints discarded in the cubby holes of my memory. Looking down on the set of impressions, my mental skitterings stumbled over various possibilities. Both the imaginary cat and its hiding place provided no hint as to why the prints were here, or where they were leading.
Walking away, to the girls peering from the doorway of the kitchen, the rhythmic swinging of my arms to the metronome of my strides, may have correctly indicated I was headed across to a rendezvous with a cup of coffee, but I am sure they gave no hint of my mental grasping at straws floating past on theoretical eddies.
The coffee was a ritual. Morse would be sitting out on the deck overlooking the river having his usual morning beverage, and without guest in camp, I would join him.
As I walked, getting nowhere with the imaginary cat, in my mind I let it morph into a dog, which bay”ed back through the past, scenting for the sort of wind which could have blown these boots along for forty years until their prints were pressed into the sand alongside this remote stretch of river.
My pensive mood took me the long way around to the rendezvous. From the sheds I wound between the haphazardly parked game viewing cruisers, then the tractor, the structure’s and the assorted equipment needed to run a self-sufficient lodge in a remote part of Africa. After which I circled behind the big ant-hill with its giant trees shading the laundry and kitchen block. I was not in a hurry, the coffee could wait. If my mental hounds cast about a tad more, maybe they would flush a clue from the thickets of my memories.
That sort of boot, I remembered, was linked to the Matabele tribe.
The only Matabele man I still had contact with was a big jovial round faced character with a great sense of humor and a very deep and easy laugh, a trait which made him fun to hang out with. We had become friends.
Like so many of the young men of his generation he had been inspired by the winds of freedom which had already swirled across the colonial landscape of Africa for over a decade in the 60’s.
My friend Amos said that being from Bulawayo, and him being a Matabele it was a given that he would join Nkomo’s insurgents, seeing as politics is so heavily determined by tribalism.
In relating to me his time as an insurgent, he described the horrors of it all, which began even before he began his fighting.
“That time in Tete was the worst of it all.” He laughed and slapped his thigh in his telling. Then after a pause, he had leaned forward to look at the floor. With his elbows on his knees, and with the huge spread palms of both hands clasped over his cranium like the fez of a believer, he slowly shook his head, as he gave the long drawn out Ahhhhh that precedes much that is heartfelt in African speech…
“We threw our dead into a mine shaft.”
“The rain, the mud, no food, no sanitation, no medicine, the malaria, the disease. But even worse… Dudu, you know how it is with us, those spirits from the mine shaft, at night they would seek us out.”
I suppose Amos was wearing just such a pair of boots with its unique inner crosshatched tread as he tossed the bodies of his companions into the mine shaft. I wondered if the boots worn by the crocodile man had stood alongside him.
The casting for clues of my mental hounds was disturbed by the swish of a branch from high above. It was followed by the chatter of a Vervet Monkey. It came from near the crowns of the biggest trees in a herbaceous island whose fringe flairs up from the groomed area between the lodge chalets like the fuzzed up hair of a Rastafarian. The chit of the monkey was not a full on alarm bark, rather it was the scolding directed at a young one, or maybe a “watch-out” notification to the others. Maybe one of them had recognized me, as the nasty guy with the slingshot.
I was pleased to see I had been successful in transferring my problem to Morse. I would tease him about it in a few minutes over our coffee. The monkeys had moved their nocturnal “roosting” spot from the trees above my campsite to the kitchen copse.
Thee dash-snatch-n-grab thieving monkeys had learned the hard way that my ‘slingshot catty” was not just a work of art. My proficiency at making, a skill from my childhood, and using a good “catty”, had played a big part in the shift of their nocturnal residence to Morse’s fiefdom.
Looking up at the tops of the Leadwoods and Accacias I raised my hand and gave the finger to the small apes watching from their lofty perches.
“Little buggers, I muttered to myself.
I wished I had a sling-shot which could solve the problems of the other sophisticated pilferers operating in the park.
But that was not reality, I muttered to myself, just before I called out a louder Mabuka Mwane – good morning to Morse, as the hippo’s snorted their greetings at the late returnees splashing back into the water.
Morse returned my greeting and asked, “How was your trip?” and sitting with my strong cup of coffee with plenty of sugar so that like life, I could taste both its bitter and sweetness at the same time I gave him an update.
Sitting on the deck enjoying my cup of coffee and chatting to Morse, I noticed precious approaching and giving a little curtsy in African style. She held her one foot slightly to the rear so that it was more like the start of a kneel than a curtsy,. At the same time her hands, held as if praying, were clapped softly and slowly together, signaling a request to be heard..
Morse nodded, acknowledging her, “what is it?” He asked.
“Dimas has left a message for Bwana David to say that he is at the scout camp at the pontoon.”
“An unusual woman!” I said to Morse as we watched her turn and walk away.”
“I probably do not know her as well as you do, but from my few interactions with her, she is ful of contradictions.”
Morse rocked back in his wooden chair. He lifted one leg to rest on a knee as he looked across at the rising sun and the river below the deck
His tone turned serious, “Do you know anything about Adamson Mushala?”
“Of course I do!” I retorted with surprise, “Anybody who is interested in the early history of Zambia knows about Mushala. He was the rebel Robin Hood who is purported to have had magical powers. He terrorized whole swathes of Western Zambia, acting against officialdom and helping the poor, after being shunned by government in the years following independence.”
I continued speaking, “I know this, because when I first came here, I were shown around by Kings. Back then he was friendly to me. It was as I was cooking one evening, that I invited him to eat with me. It was then that he told me the story of how Mushala was finally killed. How he had been betrayed by one of his mistresses, to four soldiers, who then were given very strong muti, making them invisible. How the soldiers crept naked into his secret hideout.
When Mushala returned, his powers enabled him to discover the ambushed. But, unfortunately, he had left his weapon and most powerful muti in his hideout. He dashed in to get his weapon and elixir’s, but as he flashed past, the soldiers managed to squeeze off a few rounds. I remember Kings graffic description of where Mushala was hit.
Morse nodded, “yes, that is so, but that is not the end of the story.” He looked down at his hands as he played with a pen,
“The people believe that Mushala’s ghost still wields lots of power in the country. For example, it is said that after his death, Mushala liked to torment President Kenneth Kaunda, who had ordered his killing. When Kaunda sat for dinner at statehouse, every now and again, Mushala’s spirit would swap KK’s knives and forks around, placing the knives on the left and forks the right, because everybody knew that Mushala was left-handed. Mushala’s ghost would set a place for himself at statehouse dinners.”
I listened to Morse tell the story.
“Yes,” I said, I have heard some of them.”
Morse looked down at his lap and the pen he was fidgeting with in his fingers.
“Dudu. Do you know anything about Precious’s family? I know that she talks to you, did she tell you about it.”
“No I know nothing about a family.”
“Well,” said Morse, “She has a very strong-willed mother. She has a mother who did not care about taking risks and who went against the advice of her parent’s, right from the time that she was a young girl.
You see,” Morse said in a low voice, “Precious’s mother was a teenager when she ran away from home. She was very beautiful, and was being pressured to marry a man with a rich family, just like Eddie has a wealthy father. The man wanted to pay her father a big lobola. So she ran away, and they could do nothing about it, because they were scared.
Precious’s mother ran away to be with her lover.
She was Mushala’s favorite mistress, and most faithful woman. Not the traitorous one.”
Morse paused, “So you see Dudu, Precious is Mushala’s granddaughter. She has everything of the wild independent spirit of her mother and father. It is all combined into one person.
And Dudu, it is said that she has her father’s magical powers, it is just that mostly she leaves them dormant.
But they are always bubbling under the surface of her skin. Which is why even the local sangoma’s do not want to meddle with her too much.
Here, the people always advise to do as she instructs, because it is not wise to mess with the spirit of Mushala.”
Morse looked at me, “Why do you say she is full of contradictions? Has she asked you to do anything?”