12: Spirit Necklace.
Like a pickpocket the water whispers past as it inexorably pries away the soil from around the roots of the trees on the river bank. At its lowest winter ebb the whisper morphs into a murmur when the flow trickles over the pebbles in the bare bed.
It is never silent here. The woodland spreading away from the river is never quiet either, not even at night when the moon is at its darkest new phase.
It is noisiest in the river-line thickets as the dawn sunlight is unfurled across the Kafue Valley, especially on a spring morning, when the migrant birds have returned from Europe and are stridently vying for mates.
A symphony has been performed in this enormous bushland theatre for millions of years. In this vastness its sounds are so much a part of its presence that it is on those rare occasions when there is silence that the hackles of danger rise in response.
It had rained during the night. For a while afterwards, each time I woke from a fitful sleep there was the grainy rattle of droplets on the canvas tent top. They were being shaken loose from the leaves of the tree overhead by the occasional soft sighs of a breeze, left over from the evening thunderhead.
It hadn’t been particularly heavy. But even so the creatures of the night invariably seek shelter while the rain falls. There was only the sound of distant thunder, and the peeps of the tree frogs. It didn’t take long after the storm was pushed away to the southwest for the first sounds 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.
It being the end of the prime tourist season, and the commencement of the rains, 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 thatched roofed chitenge for easy access.
I lay listening to the sounds of the night with a vague sense of unease. I mulled over possible reasons for my 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 before it signaled something was amiss. It was too quiet out there for too long.
In the moonless dark I felt the tightening of the skin at the back of my neck. Outside there was complete silence. Inside, only the sound of my tense breathing.
Suddenly my thoughts were disturbed by a scratchy surreptitious sound. 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.
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 difficult 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 vice versa, had not trickled down to me.
It didn’t take more than a few seconds to feel the adrenaline 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 large enough to bump a chair would venture under the roof
of a human made structure? Not a baboon. They stole during daylight. In the darkness they would 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, I had discovered lion tracks circling it the next morning.
As for hyenas, none had 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 the mind at such moments.
Slowly, 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.
In a still state of heightened alertness I tried to detect 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 waited. And waited.
Until, a half hour later, the first tentative “ha.. ha..ha’s” of a pair of Hadeda Ibis, 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 getting up to investigate.
Sure enough, 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 in the direction of the upstream 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 sound deliberately to taunt me.
There is something special about danger…and the emotions it triggers. Even more unusual are the feelings experienced upon its resolution.
This is accented when the consequence of the danger is as binary as a coin toss, with life or death being the only options. There are 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 these extremes as if it were a game of dice, with odds more favorable than that of a coin, but with the consequences of a fateful roll 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 dodging death is so intense it borders on the euphoric. But, like anything that can produce such intensity, drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, warfare.. , it can become addictive, because the euphoria is due to the dopamine 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.
It 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 exhilarating ecstasy of going from the certainty of death to life.
I can still hear its echoes like the voice of and old muezin calling the faithful to prayer.
I often wonder if the drive that motivates some poachers does not have its origins in this daring desire to dice with chance and its consequences.
The Africa I inherited with its 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 is not part of Africa, so dispossessed me of my identity, that it has allowed me 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 cordit to stimulate the senses.
And now, as I looked down on the tracks leading away from my tent, 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 to drink except a bottle of wine. There were the waves of excitement and trepidation of going on the hunt for something dangerous.
The best tracks to follow are fresh tracks. A sense of urgency took hold. The sun was already clambering up over the rim of the gigantic arena.
With the light being so glaringly bright it would be a hot day. The hint of coolness, left like a faint echo from the night would soon be overwhelmed by the big orb as it asserted its dominance over the day.
Already the humidity portended a tumultuous late afternoon. It would be dissipated in paroxysms of sound and thunder. There is nothing that will wash away tracks as quickly as a big thunderstorm.
I had a few hours to decipher the taunting signs in the sand. Thehunt beckoned its euphoric finger at me.
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. The message was as clear 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. The throwing down of the gauntlet triggered a long dormant stimulation of a primitive part of my brain, like that of a wild dogs, before it joins the pack on a hunt. I had to suppress the yelps of anticipation in my mental jowls.
The tracks led towards the shower block with its thatch roof. From there, they angled across a clay, grassless patch leading towards the twin tracts of the sandy dirt road to the Lodge.
The back-tracking was easy. The originator had deviated to climb and stand on the top of a bush covered mound. Here the big acacia trees spread their boughs across the road like a bower, adjacent to an anthill 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. Next, they led across to the vehicle sheds, indicating someone standing and milling around where I had first seen the old mystery man. They led also, to my surprise, down to the cutaway ramp of the boat launch 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.
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 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 went 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. One never knows when one can cannibalize something, a bolt or a nut, off an obsolete piece of equipment. As I returned 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 lodge’s 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.
I wanted a cup of coffee. I was sure that by now, in the kitchen, one of the voices would have put the old black metal kettle on the equally old and black propane burners. Sure enough, entering the gloom my attention was drawn to the hiss of the kettle. The old kettle matched the simple austerity of the kitchen, with its high peaked thatch ceilings, held in place by a bamboo lattice under the thatched roof.
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 thatch surface and ribs of the roofs under-belly with a dark grime.
The kettles hiss and warm appropriateness at this 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, in the deeper gloom of the pantry. 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 . “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 was sure that some wouldn’t have minded if the crocodile had succeeded in dragging him to his demise.
Morse scowled at me. But his glare passed as I lifted the boiling kettle off the burner and fill their cups.
Precious treated my quip with the same aloof indifference as she did others.
Morse growled, “I am helping Geverton take end of season stock. Also to check how low we are on perishables.”
After pausing for a few more sips and to dunk a rusk in his tea 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 set her mug on the cutting table and disappeared back into the pantry.
She came out holding a thermos flask and two litre size Coke bottles filled with water, and two sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. In addition she held a smalll paper bag.
“You will need this.”
Like a pair of startled cats, the two kitchen helper girls scuttled away as soon as Precious spoke.
Geverton, the cook, quickly moved out of the way. It was as if they did not want to hear what Precious had to say. Geverton busied himself shuffling things around in the bigger storage room at the far end of the kitchen.
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, not that they wanted to, she explained like a teacher to a child. “Gidi, you surely heard the hyenas calling last night. One of them was different. 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 uneasy with her new open brashness, and I was perplexed, “How would you know from the call of the hyenas what I would be doing?”
“Gidi.” 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 was a strange hyena which brings the nganga 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. I saw that you were following some tracks in the sand.
I knew 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 will 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 ngangas say the most powerful muti comes from those with white skins. The crocodile and the hyena may be conferring with the nganga 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.”
We stared at each other.
“Gidi, you need to get to them before they think they have muti stronger than yours!
But they have a weakness, watch them and find it out, to use against them.”
As Precious walked out of the kitchen doorway into the sunlight I turned to look at Morse to seek his reaction. He too, at least covertly, was ducking out of the way. He avoided 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 sugar and coffee had spilled.
Reaching into the paper bag I pulled out its contents, a long leather thong, with small river snails threaded along its length.
“Morse, I queried, “what do you make of that?”
Turning to glance at me, for a second he opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead gave a slight shrug of his shoulders and lifted his eyebrows together with a pursed twinge of his lips to signal, I don’t know, before he went back to wiping the counter.
“Morse, something weird is going on. All I get is orders from Precious, and for some reason nobody wants to speak about it. I pointed my finger at him accusingly, “That “Includes you!”
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. Something strange went on there. Something unusual that Precious was involved in, and you avoid my questions.”
Leaning with my 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.
Morse finished his cleaning, and crossed over to the sink.
I spoke 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 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?”
Slowly turning to face me Morse reluctantly spoke, “There are whispers. You know how it is in the Bush, there is always the influence of the nganga’s witchcraft. It is like 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. They are afraid if they do it will attract the leopard.
“Why are they scared to tel me this?” I asked.
Morse raised his hand to silence me. “”Everyone knows that there is an unknown nganga on the move. They say he is a powerful nganga. They are not sure if he is here to do good or evil. But we know 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. “
Folding his arms over his chest in a gesture that seemed to restore and bolster his authority, Morse went on.
“We know who the ngangas are in this district, all of them, from Mumbwa to Kasempa, and even beyond to Solwezi. But this one, nobody knows who he is. Gidi, as you yourself saw when Eddie was attacked, he appears out of nowhere, and then disappears. They say he flies on the back of a hyena. Only the most powerful ngangas have the skill to tame the hyenas, and feed them special potions that allow them to fly.”
Listening to the explanations, I wondered as always at how deeply entrenched witchcraft is in African culture. 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.
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 raising his gaze again.
“The people feel that muti has been spread by this strange nganga. When Eddie was cought they could see that it was bad mischief. However, it was not clear if this was the price of the mischief or its appeasement. Everyone hoped, and believed that it would have ended there, with Eddie being sacrificed. “
Dropping his gaze Morse stared at me for a while.
“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, as it was happening, despite the nganga 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 watching to see what happens next. They are scared. They do not want to get caught in the ngangas revenge. So far nothing has happened, the people are saying it is because you must have strong muti for protection. Very strong.”
“You have got to be joking.” I said.
Morse shook his head.
“Even though you are a mzungu, the people know that you grew up in our culture. The stories they tell say 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 nganga, 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. “
Morse’s broad round face had a look of steady in tractability. I recognized it. A look filled with a resigned acceptance of fate meted out by the spirits as they bridge between the magical 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.
It was 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.
In some ways it was an honor. It meant aspects of my being meshed sufficiently for them to accept that despite my Mzungu skinb, in many ways I was one of them. For the first time. I was an actor on their stage, not sitting in the audience.
I was backstage, with witchcraft providing the script for this performance. Should I speak its lines, and take a more raucous role? Should I risk being caught up deeper in the plot, with a danger of being cast as the villain. Or should I stay out of it.
I had no belief in their witchcraft, or did I?
Everyone assumed that I had muti, which is why the mystery nganga had not been able to eliminate, or at least neutralize me, yet.
Maybe I should outwardly display tangible evidence of strong muti. From experience, I was familiar with the power of symbolism, when it came to leadership and its consequences.
I gently fingered the delicate spirals of threaded shells in my hand. 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 strand over my head.
Retrieving my mug, I walked out into the early morning light.
Precious was nowhere to be seen. 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.”