Chapter 10: River Snails
One would assume that in remote places, being far away from the hum of modernity, one would find silence.
However, along the length of the Kafue River there is always the whisper of the water tugging at the exposed roots of the trees, attempting to wrest the soil from their fibrous grasp and sweep it down to the Ocean. Even at its lowest winter ebb there is always the trickle of water over the pebbles in the riverbed. Nor is there any quiet to be found further from the river, in the woodland which spreads away on either side, not during the daylight hours, and certainly not in the darkness of the night, even when the moon is at its darkest new phase.
Actually, it is noisiest in the tangle of the river-line thickets, when the sun begins, like the spreading of a giant Persian carpet, to unfurl its light across the Kafue Valley. This is especially true on a spring morning, like now, when the migrant birds have returned from the northern hemisphere and are stridently vying for territory and courting mates.
In the same manner as the instruments of an orchestra blend into harmonies, so do these sounds of the bushveld blend with the whisper of the river. The crooning of doves, coughs of impala and leopard, grunts of warthog, roars of lion, peeps of frogs and fruit bats, brays of hornbils, screeches of monkeys and cicadas and the humming of bees, all these sounds blend into the bush melodies sung by the choir arrayed in this corner of an enormous open air theatre. To this must be added the background whispers of the wind passing through the leaves of summer or rustles of the dry grass of winter, and the splashes of animals wading across the shallows before the rain arrives.
The score is mostly characterized by its mezzo softness, because the human audience usually finds itself at the distant back of the concerts. One needs to pay attention and listen carefully to catch its nuanced moods, sometimes soft and sweet, occasionally loud, strident or staccato, maybe even haunting, such as the sad lonely call of a Black Cuckoo at night. This symphony of sound has been performed here for millions of years. In the vastness of this ancient woodland, its sounds are so much a part of its presence that it is on those rare occasions when there is complete silence that the hackles of danger rise.
It had rained earlier during the night. For a while afterwards, each time I woke from fitful sleep I was aware of the grainy rattle of the droplets on the tight canvas tent top. They were being shaken loose from the leaves of the tree overhead by the occasional soft pants of a breeze, which was all that was left of the wind that had spread out from the base of yesterday’s big sunset thunderhead.
This time the rain had not been particularly heavy. But even so the creatures of the night invariably seem to seek out some shelter while the raindrops are falling.
As the rain fell, there was only the sound of distant thunder, and the peeps of the tree frogs, blending in with the rustle of the rain on the leaves and the ground below. It didn’t take long after the storm cells were pushed off to the southwest that the first bush sounds started to pick up where they left off, and filter into my consciousness. As usual it was some of the louder frogs and the crickets who opened their scoresheets first.
Seeing as it was the end of the prime tourist season, and that the rains had begun, I deemed it unlikely there would be further visitors at the campsite. As a result I had moved my tent, placing it close to the front of the communal Chitenge. This made it easier to cross from the tent to the table and chairs were I usually had my meals, and relaxed when not working.
It was in this position that I lay listening to the sounds of the night with a vague sense of unease. I mulled over possible reasons for this mood. Was it Morse’s avoidance of the subject of the crocodile man when I had casually mentioned it the previous evening? Why had he suddenly got cold feet.
My subconscious, always awake and alert, noticed the silence for some time before it signaled to my cognizant mind that something was amiss. It was too quiet out there for too long.
As I lay on the camp bed in the moonless darkness, I felt the tightening of the skin on my arms and nape. Outside there was complete silence. Inside, only the sound of my tense breathing.
Suddenly my thoughts were disturbed by a scratchy surreptitious sound from the outside. Something had bumped into one of the heavy Mukwa wood dining chairs in the Chitenge. It was the scrape of its legs scratching on the concrete floor which grabbed my attention.
A flash of adrenaline surged through my veins. It triggered that state of super alertness with mind and muscles poised to burst into fight or flight. But wrapped in my sleeping bag and enclosed within the confines of the tent it would be hard to do either. Flight or fight, is a mindless reaction, honed by the countless times my ancestors had reacted correctly.
The genes of those who had fought when they should have fled, or fled when they should have fought, had not trickled down to me. But then most of my ancestors had not been encumbered with the luxuries of sleeping bags and tents.
It did not take more than a few seconds to feel the adrenaline begin to abate, and with it the resurgence of rational thought. Something was moving around on the floor of the Chitenge. What could it be that bumped hard enough to make the chair scrape. Certainly larger than a jackal.
But what animal would walk around on the floor of the Chitenge? Even if there were food supplies left, very few would walk around under the roof of a human made structure.
It certainly was not a baboon. They only stole during daylight. In the darkness, like the monkeys, they would still be sleeping and sheltering at the tops of the biggest trees, out of reach of prowling leopards.
Maybe a hyena or a big cat. But they had never intruded before. Although when my tent was further away, on a few occasions, line tracks circling it were evident in the morning.
As for hyenas, none of them frequented the camp while I had been there, as far as I knew.
But then one never knew, and it is strange what thoughts go through one’s mind at such moments.
Very slowly and quietly, I turned on my side to reach down to the floor and picked up my long sheathed butchering knife. Then equally slowly I slid my legs out from the sleeping bag and sat up on the stretcher bed.
I sat in absolute stillness in a state of heightened alertness as I tried to detect any further sounds.
The dawn would soon be breaking. If there was a lion outside it would be best to remain hidden in the tent, with the ability to defend myself with the knife if necessary.
I sat and waited. And waited..
Until, a half hour later, the first tentative “ha.. ha..ha’s” of a pair of Hadeda’s, was joined by the yelping call of a Fish Eagle as it heralded the dawn. Only then did I lay back on the bed, to catch another half hour of rest before I would get up to investigate.
Sure enough, a short time later, in the early morning light, it didn’t take long to find what sort of animal had moved the chair on the Chitenge floor.
Footprints circled my tent, twice. From there they headed the few yards towards the Chitenge. From the continuity of the prints I could see they hadn’t stepped up onto the concrete. The emphatic dig of the toe and heel marks showed they stood for a while looking back at my tent.
From there the prints led around the side of the structure and headed off in the direction of the Shalamakanga dambo. A shiver prickled the skin of my arms, the footprints were those of ZIPRA boots.
The chair had not been bumped. It had been moved purposefully to make a noise.
A sound made deliberately to wake and taunt me.
There is something special about danger…and the emotions it triggers and engenders. What is even more unusual are the feelings experienced upon its resolution.
This is especially true when the consequence of the danger is as binary as a coin toss, with life or death being the only options. There are very few people willing to engage in endeavors with such dire odds, and if they do, generally longevity is not factored into their future. However there are those that do play with the extremes of danger as if it were a game of dice, which has odds slightly more favorable than that of a coin, but with the consequences of a fateful roll just as calamitous.
One may ask why anyone would return, again and again, to roll the dice, and of course it is because the emotion of relief from dodging death is so intense that it borders on the euphoric. But, like everything that can produce euphoria, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., it can become addictive, because the euphoria is due to a dopamine flood intoxicating the pleasure centers of the brain. If the floods of relief are too frequent it is not long before addiction is knocking at the door, bearing its suitcase full of dangerous dice.
The intensity of the pleasure finding oneself still alive after each extreme gamble is difficult to describe, and even harder to understand. Those who have never experienced such a sensation cannot comprehend the power of its motivation. The utter exhilarating ecstasy of going from the almost certainty of death to life. The faster the transition, the more intense the ecstasy.
Ahhh! The utter euphoric ecstasy of being alive!
I often wonder if the drive that motivates some of the poachers does not have its origins in this dare devil desire to dice with chance and its sometimes dire consequences.
If the politics of Africa had been different, today I would most probably be a farmer, having inherited the family farm between the Munyati and Sebakwe rivers. But that’s not how things turned out. The changing of the names of the rivers, of the roads, of the towns, of the country, of the regime, with its sub-text that the white man was not part of Africa, had so dispossessed me of my identity, that it had allowed me, at times, to wash up and be tumbled across the virtual beaches of distant shores like so much flotsam, even those beaches awash with the acrid smell of burnt cordite.
And now, as I looked down on the tracks leading up towards the Shalamakanga dambo, the shivering echoes of those almost forgotten pleasures, tickled at my mind and gave me virtual goosebumps. It was like a recovered alcoholic finding himself in the middle of a desert with nothing else to drink except a bottle of wine. The alternating waves of excitement and trepidation of giving chase and going on the hunt to seek out the possibility of something potentially dangerous.
The best tracks to follow are fresh tracks. A sense of urgency began to take hold of my being. The sun was already clambering vertically up over the rim of the gigantic African arena.
With the earlieness of such bright, glaring light it would be a hot day. The vague hint of coolness, left behind like a faint echo from the darkness of the night would soon be overwhelmed by the light pouring from the golden orb as it moved to assert its dominance overhead.
I could already detect the humidity lurking in the air. It was the portent of a tumultuous late afternoon. The sun would pour its vitality into the sky heating the air, thereby buoying up its invisible moisture. Carried aloft in hot pillars of air they would cool and be unable to bear their burden. The resulting clouds would rear up, and dissipate their liquid life in paroxysms of sound and thunder. There is nothing that will wash away tracks as quickly as a big thunderstorm.
I only had a few hours to decipher the taunting signs in the sand.
The originator of the tracks was making scant attempt to hide his passage. He was deliberately picking the softest, barest, blatant dirt to leave his sign. To someone who had spent time tracking both animals and men, the dual meaning was written in the sand as clearly as any newspaper headline. “I own this place! I do as I pleas. Follow me if you dare.”
The taunting arrogance was both vexing and exciting at the same time. The throwing down of the gauntlet triggered a long dormant stimulation of some part of my brain, like that of a wild dogs, just before it joins the pack on a hunt. I had to suppress the yimmering of anticipation in my mental jowls.
From around the tent the tracks led towards the shower block. From there they angled across the clay grassless patch behind the thatched structure towards the twin tracts of the sandy dirt road as it led across to the lodge area.
The back-tracking was easy. The originator had deviated slightly to climb and stand on the top of a bush covered ant-hill, which is close to the patch I call the Gateway. Here the big acacia trees spread their boughs across the road like a bower, adjacent to a big anthill mound as if it were an altar at its side. The stranger stood there for a short while, possibly looking across the expanse of the grassy dambo, to survey before making his approach.
The tracks led back to the lodge and through the opening in the grass fence which shields the logistics area from the guests. They led across to the vehicle sheds, indicating someone standing and milling around in the exact spot where I had first seen the old mystery man. They led also, to my surprise, down to the cutaway ramp of the boat launch, to where Eddie was grabbed by the crocodile. Why would anyone stand on the edge of the river in the darkness. With the moon setting after midnight, there could not have been much of a view in the pre-dawndarkness.
Looking across the channel to the little island opposite the lodge I heard a hippo snort. Today the local pod would spend its time in the water under the overhanging trees of the island.
From behind came the sound of voices and the occasional high-pitched tumbling laugh of a woman. The staff had arrived to begin the day. I was surprised at the earliness of the activity. It being late in the season without clients in camp, and with only maintenance to be performed, it was generally at a later hour that things got under way.
Although I was eager to begin tracking, some planning and preparation was in order. And of course, if the track did become difficult, it would be better to follow when the sun was a tad higher and its light able to reach deeper into any shady areas.
I had no idea how far the tracks would lead, thus it behooved having something to eat, and to drink as much as I could before setting off. It would be a hot day, potentially requiring a lot of water. I could find myself away all day, so something light to eat along the way would also be wise.
Turning away from the river’s edge I walked back up towards the kitchen.
There’s a certain comfortable African untidiness about the logistic area of the lodge which I guess stems from an enhanced hoarding trait that tends to develop as a survival shield, to protect from the unknown. One never knows when one can cannibalize something, a bolt or a nut, off an old obsolete piece of equipment. As I walked back towards the kitchen I cost my eyes around for some section of metal pipe that could be cut into an appropriate length. I didn’t yet feel a sufficient sense of danger that would oblige me to ask Morse to borrow the lodges .375 rifle. On the other hand a long thin metal baton would certainly afford some “Stand-off” offensive. But maybe my belt harnessed machete would be enough, if I came upon a belligerent adversary.
Reaching the kitchen I determined to scrounge another cup of coffee. I was sure that by now one of the voices would have put the old black metal kettle on a plate of the kitchens equally old and black propane burners. Sure enough, entering the gloom my attention was drawn to the hiss of the kettle. The scuffed roughness of its sooty surface matched the basic austerity of the kitchen, with its high peaked thatch ceilings, held in place by a bamboo lattice underwork.
Faint traces of smoke from occasional over-cooking had eluded being wafted out the elongated squatness of the window behind the stove. Instead they had risen to color the grassy surface and ribs of the roofs under-belly with a dark grime.
The kettle and its hiss with its warmth and appropriateness at this unexpectedly early hour seemed a good omen at the start of my hunt. its surface was scuffed into dullness by a myriad scratches gathered like battle scars from being rattled around in the back of vehicles as they bumped over rough roads. Looking at it, and letting my eyes adjust to the gloom, I thought it could almost be a metaphor for my life, both of us banged up and scratched, but still able to get fired up and hiss at the world.
As I stood waiting for the water to boil I mused that it would be better if I could take at least one of the game scouts along to help track with me. It was a moot point, they were all out on patrol.
Glancing around the kitchen another surprise awaited. In addition to Geverton the cook and the two serving girls, both Precious and Morse were standing further back, close to the storage pantry in the even deeper semi gloom. They already had the tea bags dropped into the big tin mugs in their hands. Like me, they were waiting for the kettle to boil.
“Mabuka Mwane!” we greeted each other.
“Good morning Morse” I quipped as I looked at him with some surprise, “What are you doing here so early?” I smiled as I continued, “is it because it is a pretty woman who is making the tea.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed his face at my comment. But I like to tease with jestful words.
I suspected that most of the men of the lodge were secretly jealous of Eddie for being the one paying Lobola.
I guessed some of them wouldn’t have minded if the crocodile had succeeded in its attempts to drag Eddie to his demise.
Morse scowled at me. But it passed as I lifted the boiling kettle off the burner and fill their cups.
Precious treated my quip with the same ignoring indifference as she did others who tried to trigger a response.
Looking at me over the top of his mug as he sipped his tea, Morse growled, “I am helping Geverton take end of season stock. Also we are low on perishables.”
After a pause to take a few more sips and dunk a rusk, he continued, “I may need to send a vehicle to Mumbwa for fresh vegetables, or eggs, and maybe a few other things.”
After stirring the milk and sugar in her tea, Precious put her mug on the cutting table and disappeared into the pantry.
She came out holding a thermos flask and two litre size Coke bottles filled with water, and what was obviously some sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. There was also a smalll paper bag.
“You will need this today!”
I was taken aback. How in the world did she know that I was about to go out tracking a man.
With a slight roll of her eyes, and under her breath so that the others couldn’t follow all her words, she explained like a teacher to a child. “Dudu, you surely heard the hyenas calling last night. If you listen carefully you would’ve noted that one of them had a slightly different call. It was a stranger. It made long drawn out lonely calls, whereas the others were excited. The hyenas laugh when they are excited. That is why I knew you would be going out today.”
I was startled by her new open brashnesss, and I was perplexed, “How would you know from the call of the hyenas what I would be doing?”
“Dudu.” She spelled out slowly, “The hyenas were excited because they had a visitor. It was an important visitor. Why else would all the others be excited? That is because it must have been a strange hyena which brings the sangoma of darkness, who had come to speak to the crocodile.”
I stared at her.
“I knew they would be here to check you out, and to plan. Also, I came here very early and saw that you were following some tracks in the sand.
I knew that they would be here sooner or later, to poke and prod you, because they are unsure of you, and what kind of muti you have that thwarted the sacrifice of Eddie.
And I know you, especially since we have talked about this. Now, you ill no longer sit and wait for them. You will go after them.
But remember what I said about the Mwaabe. You should always know that the sangomas say the most powerful muti comes from those with white skins.
The crocodile and the hyena may be conferring with the sangoma of darkness, and his spirits. They will be asking if your sort of white skin is as good in muti as those of the Mwaabe’s, the albinos.
And remember Dudu, when the sangoma’s reap the parts of the Mwaabe, for the best, most powerful muti, the Mwaabe needs to still be alive. They pull first the mboro off, because the testicles have very strong muti. Then they dig out the eyes, which also have good muti. They cut off the ears, nose, lips, and fingers, and maybe even an arm or leg. Then when they feel that the sacrifice is about to die they will quickly hack open the chest to get at the heart while it is still warm, for its full potency.”
We stood and stared at each other.
“Dudu, as I said last time, you need to get to them before they think they have muti stronger than yours!
You will find that they have a weakness, watch them and find it out, to use against them.”
Like a pair of startled cats, the two kitchen helper girls had scuttled away as soon as Precious began to address me.
Geverton, the cook, had also quickly moved out of the way. It was as if they had not wanted to hear what Precious was saying. Geverton was still busying himself shuffling things around in the dimness of the storage room at the far end of the kitchen.
Then, as Precious walked out of the doorway I turned to look directly at Morse to seek his reaction. He too, at least covertly, was ducking out of the way. He was avoiding my questioning stare. With his back to me, and a wash-cloth in his hand, he deliberately wiped and cleaned the surface of the counter next to the stove, where some sugar and coffee had spilled.
I opened the small paper bag and looked inside it. In its dimness was a strand of river snails threaded on a leather thong.
“Morse, I queried, “what do you make of that?”
He turned and glanced at me. For a second he opened his mouth as if to say something,, but instead gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows together with a pinched twinge of his lips as if to signal, I don’t know.
“Morse, something weird is going on. All I get is orders from Precious and for some reason nobody wants to speak about it. I paused to give emphasis, “And that “Includes you!”
I stood in silence as I stared at the back of his head.
“I asked you a few days ago about that old man who appeared out of nowhere when Eddie was attacked by the crocodile. Something strange went on there. Something unusual that Precious was involved in, and you avoid my questions.”
Leaning back against the cutting table in the middle of the kitchen, I rested one elbow on its surface while I savored a sip of the dark coffee in my mug. I watched as Morse finished his wife’s of the stove, and then crossed over to the sink.
I directed my words to the nape of his neck as he rinsed out the dish cloth. “Precious said she confronted that old man” because she is betrothed to Eddie. But the way she behaves and reacts it doesn’t seem that she is really interested in him!”
With growing exasperation I reiterated, “There is something else going on. Why is nobody willing to speak about any of this strangeness?”
Morse slowly turned back to face me, and with a tired almost trance like gaze, lifted his eyes up from the floor and across the room to focus on where I stood.
“Yes Dudu, there are whispers. You know how it is in the Bush, there is always the influence of the sangoma’s witchcraft.
It is like the reaction of a troop of baboons in the trees at night, when they sense that a leopard is on the prowl. They all keep very still. They will not make a sound, because they are all afraid that if they do, it will attract the attention of the leopard.
Everyone in the district, especially here at the Lodge, knows that there is an unknown sangoma on the move. They say he is a very powerful witch-doctor. Nobody is sure if he is here to do good or evil. But the people know that he is prowling around looking for something. Everyone is nervous that if they react, it will attract the attention of the spirits, and bad things may happen to them. “
Morse, walked back across the kitchen. Picking up his mug, he returned to the sink and rinsed it clean. Then folding his arms across his chest in a gesture that seemed to restore and bolster his authority, he went on.
“We all know who the sangomas are in this district. We know their names and where they live, all of them, all the way from Mumbwa to Kasempa, and even beyond to Solwezi. But this one, nobody knows who he is, or where he is from. Dudu, as you yourself saw when Eddie was attacked, he appears out of nowhere, and then disappears again. They say he flies on the back of a hyena. Only the most powerful sangomas have the skill to tame the hyenas, and have them eat the special potions that allow them to fly.”
Listening to Morse’s explanations, I mused over my never ending wonder at how deeply entrenched in so much of African culture the belief in witchcraft is. This is true from the lowest rungs of society right up to the highest. Here I could see that Morse, even in his position as a professionally trained, efficient and effective manager of a high-end tourist operation, was influenced to some degree by this current phenomenon of witchcraft.
After a brief silence he again dispelled my musings with his words.
“There are very few people who have grown up in the African culture, including you, who do not know that the power of the medicine man is real. There are only two types of people in the bush when it comes to muti, those that think that the sangomas muti works immediately and directly, and those who believe it takes as long as is necessary, and that it may come in hard to identify, but effective forms.”
Morse was looking up at the thatch of the roof as he spoke, but he cast a quick glance at my face with a wry pursing of his lips before looking back up and continuing.
“The people feel that some muti has been spread by this strange sangoma. They saw that when Eddie was caught. They had been expecting something. As a result of that, it was apparent to them that this sangoma was here to do mischief. However, it was not clear if this was to be the price of the mischief or its appeasmet. Everyone hoped, and believed that it would have ended there, with Eddie being sacrificed. “
Morse dropped his gaze again and stared at me for a while.
“But that is when things went wrong, and why people are afraid and do not want to speak to you. You interfered. You got in the way of the spell, even as it was happening, despite the ssangoma arriving to claim his sacrifice, and telling you not to meddle. Now, like the baboons hiding in the thickest leaves at the very top of the trees, not moving and not making a sound, the people are waiting and watching to see what happens next. They are scared. They do not want to get caught in the sangomas revenge.
But because you interfered, and stole the crocodile sacrifice, and so far nothing has happened, the people are saying it is because you must also have strong muti protecting you! Very strong muti.
They know that you are a Mzungu, however they also know that you grew up in our culture, and according to the stories they tell, you have survived where others have not. So even before this event with Eddie, there was some mystery whispered about you, about some penga, some maddness. Now, after Eddie, there are more than whispers about your power and muti, and penga madness.
That is why people are nervous of speaking to you. They are afraid, not just of the sangoma, but of you as well. It is bad enough when the baboons feel that there is a stalking leopard below in the darkness, but what is worse is when they sense that there are two. Dudu, the people suspect that you are a second stalker,. They do not want to get caught in the middle of so much strong muti.”
Morse stopped speaking and looked at me for a while. His normally lively broad round face was fixed with a look of steady in tractability. It is a look that only the African can exhibit with perfection. It seems to be filled with the echo’s of resigned acceptance of a fate meted out by the spirit mediums as they bridge between the other worlds and our everyday.
More than ever I felt that I needed Moses to be with me, to act as an intermediary. But where was he? I had not heard back from Father Xavier, or anyone else.
I was in a strange position. Instead of people clamming up and things being hidden from me because I was an mzungu outsider, it was precisely the opposite. My insight status was preventing me from being privy to the background chatter and consensus opinion of events.
In some ways it was an honor. It meant that there were aspects of my being that meshed with their culture sufficiently for the Africans to accept that I was so immersed in their beliefs, that I was, despite my Mzungu skinb, in many ways one of them. For the first time I understood that unknowing ly and unwittingly I was an actor on their stage. I was no longer sitting in the audience. As such it appeared that I had tipped over the beer gourd at the center of this unlikely pantomime.
Staring at Morse I found myself once again at some crossroads.
With witchcraft providing the script for this performance , should I agreed to speak its lines, and take a more raucous role, and run the risk of being caught up even deeper in the plot, with a danger of finding myself cast as the villain. After all I had no belief in their witchcraft, or did I.
Or should I actively stay out of it.
According to what Morse said, everyone assumed that I had muti, which is why the mystery sangoma had not been able to eliminate, or at least neutralize me, yet.
Maybe I should at least outwardly display some tangible evidence of strong muti. From experience, I was intimately familiar with the power of symbolism, when it came to leadership and its consequence in the outcome of events.
Picking up the paper bag I took out the string of river snails threaded on the leather thong. I gently fingered the delicate spirals of the threaded shells. Putting down my mug, I tied the ends together, and as Morse, and the two girls looked at me from beyond the kitchen door, I dropped the letter loop with its shells over my head.
Then, picking up my mug, I walked out into the early morning sunshine.
Geverton came out of the pantry and began to fuss around the kitchen again.
Standing looking across at the big brick bread and pizza oven, with the office and the river behind it, I noticed the other two girls returning to the kitchen. I heard the clink as Morse placed his mug on the slab of the sink. He came out and walked past me to the office.
Hmm, I thought to myself, “The stalker has gone, and the creatures can move again.”