Chapter 10: Footprints
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 for the first time, propel the bicycle over the lawn of the garden. There was that initial sense of apprehension as the hands holding the saddle released their steadying grip. There was the thrill of the first wobbly independence. The exhilaration of discovering speed.
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 tally.
Our minds are notorious at playing tricks with our reality. If all we get to see of our aged selves are a few minutes in front of a morning mirror how can we be blamed for ignoring the progress of our decay.
For Precious, I must seem ancient. It was her youth, and not any foolishness etching the truth on the mirror of my mind. Her words lingered.
“You are too old for me, and you know it.”
If what I ignored was obvious to the young, should I look deeper into the mirror of my life and see the wrinkles in my efforts to preserve this place?
Like that child on a bicycle, I was discovering something unexpected, the surprising and unsettling impact of her words. More than anything, the sense of her maturity in steering a shared destiny towards an outcome which would allow us to part ways later knowing that all is well with the world.
I grew up amongst the people of Central Africa. There, the woof of its culture intertwined with the warp of mine. Thankfully its ugly aspect, that of colonial racism, was later forcefully expunged on the battlefield. In the unit everyone counted.
However, out there we didn’t have women to bond with as equals… Precious recognized this. Despite the influence of my mzungu culture, I found it hard to readjust my perception of a woman’s position on the totem pole of life. I bridled at her imperatives, especially since she was younger than I.
Strange how life flows in different directions for each of us, even as we stand beside each other, sharing its burdens. Precious, to get away, me to stay, to escape the present and seek what was left of the past.
As I walked across the dambo towards the chalets, the long tongues of grass, still sodden from the previous evening’s downpour, were licking their moisture onto the shins of my legs, from where the droplets trickled over my ankles and into the tops of my leather shoes. Without socks, I could feel the moist squishiness between my toes.
Life all around 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 determined woman. Instead I was reminded of the first time I felt my bare legs being caressed by the dampness of this long grass.
Ahhhh, looking back at when I first came to this place, what a greeting it had been. That same forgotten exhilaration of discovery. It had been as if the years were peeling back, and I was coming home.
Setting those thoughts and memories aside, 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 finally I found what I was seeking.
It was a clear boot-print.
While I was away meeting Father Xavier, the track would surely have degraded bynow. 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 preserved.
As I looked down on the imprints, a dead man stepped 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 insurgent movement (ZIPRA) had a 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.
Daniel’s biblical riddle written on the wall floated into my mind, ‘Mene Mene Upharshin’.
I wondered where I would find my ‘Daniel’ to decypher mine, written 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. Staring at the set of impressions, my mental skitterings stumbled over possibilities. Neither the imaginary cat nor its hiding place provided a 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 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 drifting 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 hound, which bayed 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, like my thoughts, took me the long way around. From the sheds I wound between the haphazardly parked game viewing cruisers, then the tractor, various structures and the assorted equipment needed to run a self-sufficient lodge in a remote part of Africa. From there I circled behind the big anthil with its giant trees shading the laundry and kitchen block. I was in no 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.
The casting back and forth of my mental dogs was disturbed by the swish of a branch from high above, followed by the chatter of a Vervet Monkey from the crowns of the biggest trees in a herbaceous island. These islands flair up between the 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. Perhaps 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.
These dash-snatch-n-grab thieves had learned the hard way that my slingshot was not just a work of art. My proficiency at making them, a skill from my childhood, and using a good slinshot, had played a big part in the shift of their nocturnal residence to Morse’s fiefdom.
Lifting my gaze to the tops of the Leadwoods and Accacias I raised my hand to give 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 wasn’t 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 a late returnee splashing back into the water.
With his legs extended and his ankles resting on the guard rail of the deck out over the river, Morse returned my greeting and asked, “How was your trip?”
Pulling up a chair next to his, and holding my cup of dark coffee, poured 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.
As Morse and I chatted I noticed precious approaching. Stopping a few meters away she gave a little curtsy in African style with one foot slightly to the rear so that it was more like a kneel than a curtsy. At the same time her hands, held as if praying, were clapped softly and slowly together, signaling a request for audience.
Morse nodded an acknowledgment. “What is it?” He asked.
“Dimas has left a message for Bwana David to say that he is at the pontoon scout camp.”
“An unusual woman!” I said after we watched her walk away. I don’t know her as well as you, but from our few interactions, 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.
“Dedi. Around here people always advise to do as she instructs, because it is not wise to mess with the spirit of Mushala.”
A frown appeared on his round face as his voice lost its flippant tone, “Do you know anything about Adamson Mushala?”
“Of course I do!” I retorted with surprise, “Anybody who is interested in the early history of this country 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.”
“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. He told me how Mushala was finally killed. He hwas betrayed by one of his mistresses. She told four soldiers, who were given strong muti, making them invisible. They crept naked into his secret hideout.
When Mushala returned, his magic discovered the ambush. But, 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 the empty cup in his hands and then tossed its dregs over the railing into the river.
“The people believe that Mushala’s ghost still wields power. 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 reached into a pocket and took out a small knife. Unfolding its blade he began to clean under his finger nails.
“Dedi! 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 didn’t 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, Precious is Mushala’s daughter. She has everything of the wild independent spirit of her mother and father. It is all rolled and mixed into one individual.
And Dedi, it is said that she has her father’s magical powers, they are always bubbling under the surface of her skin. Which is why even the local nganga’s do not want to meddle with her.”