21: Down South.
Even though he was only in his mid-forties, it was clear why Ulrich Richter headed up the large European banking consortium providing a substantial amount of the funding for the Nature Trust’s conservation efforts in Africa. He was impressive.
This was to be our first formal meeting. I knew of his reputation of ruthlessness. I knew what he looked like, having sat, unspeaking, in a small audience at a presentation given by Jean, my boss, on a previous trip down to South Africa.
Ulrich’s chiseled Teutonic looks and tall fit physique could easily have starred in one of Leni Riefenstahl’s old propaganda movies.
Our conservation trusts operations in the Kafue were only a small part of Ulrich’s corporate sponsorship in Africa. Although it was directed by an independent board, with Jean as the chairperson, it was the size of Ulrich’s donations that gave Ulrich so much sway over our performance. It was his brutally efficient attention to the smallest detail that had earned him his position and reputation. Now it was our turn to endure the piercing gaze, or glare of his critical eye… heaven forbid!
The tension was palpable in Jean’s voice as we waited for Ulrich’s arrival. “He has an uncanny ability to pick on things we haven’t thought through completely.” Jean stated.
The meeting venue was surprising. The “South 30 by 28 East” had once been a popular small conference center. It had all it needed for its purpose. A neatly delineated parking area was adjacent to its sprawling Cape Dutch style facade, with its white walls below the russet of a terra cota tile roof. It had a generous tidy reception foyer leading into a wide high ceiling conference hall, and equally sized dining area, with a kitchen to service up to fifty attendees. Off to the side an adequate smoking bar for after conference socializing opened out through big glass doors onto expansive and well-tended lawns, partially shaded by large exotic trees, and bordered by bounteous flower beds resplendent with Zinna, Cannas, Arum Lillies and other splashes of color.
Located out in the country, well to the east of the city, its approaches were increasingly being choked by the growing squatter camps which now fester at the peripheries of most Southern African towns. This was one of the key factors in the venues forlorn drop in popularity.
It was only when Jean mentioned to me, that Ulrich was an avid light sport pilot that I understood why he chose this venue for his meeting. It was a fifteen minute drive from a local airfield specializing in that sort of flying. With his pedantic daily schedule broken up into quarter hour granularities, he had come to the meeting directly from early morning flying.
As Jean and I waited in the sparsely furnished meeting hall,it had a single long table set at its center. A chair was placed at the head of the table and two others half way down its sides, one for myself and one for Jean,. Through the window we watched as Ulrich arrived. He held a large canvas sports bag as he quickly got out of the car and disappeared into a small change room on the edge of one of the tennis courts.
A few minutes later, precisely on time, he emerged, no longer wearing casual jeans and a sports jacket, instead dressed like a German banker.
Now as he sat at the head of the table, the jacket of his finely tailored charcoal suit hung over the back of his chair, and I could see that the cufflinks of his delicately pinstriped and immaculately pressed shirt were in the form of small silver elephants. His only other deviation from the conservative exactitude that was obviously expected from a man in his banking position was a bright yellow tie. It was dotted with little hooded falcons, a nod to an elite affiliation with the pastime of kings.
I put aside an impulse to tell him I was a falconer. He probably wasn’t the type to be affected by gestures of commonality.
The meeting began cordially, with Jean offering introductions and talk about the Lodge and its surrounds. Ulrich spoke impeccable English, but with a clear German accent, as if designed to differentiate himself from us.
From the light discourse I discovered it was his being a guest at the Lodge a few years ago, where he had enjoyed the fishing, which resulted in his corporate funding.
After a few minutes of banal anecdotes, it was down to business. Jean gave his report on the financial side of the operation, how much was being spent on salaries, fuel, provisions, equipment and training. My report on the training methodologies followed, how many games scouts had gone through the program in the last year, and what my goals were.
It didn’t take long for the banker in Ulrich to start asking about metrics. He was interested in numbers and statistics. How many more animals per square kilometer were there today? What was the ratio of animal increase to scout presence on the ground. I said I was aware of this, and it attempted to do some very basic metric taking to measure any change. Once a week, I told him, I had counted the number of Puku alongside the roads which skirted a few of the dambos in the area. I presented these figures.
“But what about the other types of animal?” Ulrich asked. “That was more difficult.” I said. “It is harder to count the species that are not found in the open grasslands. This would only be possible if one did a comprehensive camera trap survey.”
“Why had this not been done?” Ulrich wanted to know. “Budget and time”, I replied, “My mandate was to train games scouts, not to do game surveys.”
This answer didn’t find favor in Ulrich’s eyes. I suspect he regarded me as cheeky, that I had not shown him sufficient deference. He went so far as to suggest that if he had been doing the work this aspect would have been addressed.
He icily asked how much it would cost to do a proper survey to get him metrics. I said I would investigate the costs, but that it was unlikely I would be allowed to perform the survey.
“Why not?” He asked with an edge in his voice.
“Because I am not an academic.” I replied, “To do surveys it would fall under the category of research. I would have to apply for a research permit, which given my non existant academic qualifications, I probably wouldn’t get.”
“Then maybe we need somebody more qualified than you to do the job.”“
To rub it in, he continued. “My son has completed a degree in ecology, maybe he would be more suitable.”
“Maybe he would.” I said.
It was clear that this banking guru was accustomed to clicking his fingers, and having everybody spring to his bidding. He was obviously not someone who had spent much time dealing with the clumsy, inefficient, and intricate workings of African bureaucracies. He wasn’t aware that getting permission from government departments in Africa wasn’t something predictable or guaranteed.
A work permit for his son! He had no idea how long it would take, or how much bribe money would be required. But, I shouldn’t delude myself, if his rich kid son wanted the job, I was sure his daddy had enough money to pay any bribes, or grease the palms of the “fixers” to organize a visa. In his case money would not be the issue, rather it would be the black and white purity of his principles that would get in the way.
I wondered how willing he would be to risk staining his records with the pragmatism of the blurry grey strings that often need to be pulled to get things done on this continent.
By this stage I deemed it pointless to mention the issues most bothering about the work on the Kafue. I doubted there would be much place in Ulrich’s world for witchcraft. It was clear that there would be scant chance for further funds for training additional scouts until I could get him his metrics. If he wanted to fire me, I would leave it entirely up to his privileged son to educate him.
I had served in the army long enough to recognize the sort of puffed up HQ theorist, full of self -importance and little experience of field reality. So going for broke, I continued. “Your son, like you, wouldn’t know how to put up with all the larger bullshit of Africa or the local crap to do the job”.
I had succeeded in not only pissing Ulrich off, but also Jean..
Thus it was with subdued anger, tainted with a sense of hopelessness that I watched a very good looking young African woman, dressed in a neat drivers uniform, holding the door open for Ulrich as he paused to wish Jean a goodbye, and praise him for a job well done, before getting into the sleek silver Mercedes.
Ulrich didn’t deign me any parting nicety, instead it was only to say. “Remember I want metrics.”
I silently regretted not using my cell phone the previous evening. I had treated myself to an evening dinner at one of the good restaurants in Springs, the nearby town where I was staying. I had spotted Ulrich also having dinner at a table on the other side of the room. . He didn’t recognize me. After all my picture didn’t appear in the media as much as his, if at all. But I had noted that his good-looking young driver was sharing his table. She had not been wearing her rigorous uniform. Instead it had been in a low-cut dress, and after finishing their meal the pair had walked away hand in hand.
Just as I had told Moses before I left for here, Ulrich as a lucky bastard.
Now, after our meeting, I would’ve liked to send Mrs. Richter and anonymous photograph.
However setting such pleasantly vindictive thoughts aside I turn my mind to dwell on the even greater anticipatory pleasure of heading back north. I would deviate to where it all began, to the yardsticks of my life, a place and a person. Everything since then judged as better, or worse than those emotional metrics, some hills and a girl.
I would stay with an old friend, and while there I would also see if I could connect the dots left behind by the passage of three decades.
What I had not told Moses was that Sophia had texted that she was back in Bulawayo.
As the escalator slowly carried me down into the check-in hall of the airport from the Gau-Ttrain, I thought how it was South Africa’s hosting of the world soccer tournament which had lifted Joburg’s OR Thambo Airport out of its prior” mediocrity.
The euphoria of the flow and ebb of the fan tsunami is now only a distant memory. To give credit to the engineers and constructors of that edifice to Africa’s advancement and modernity, only now, a few years short of a decade later, are the first signs of the African malady beginning to show. Here a stationary walking conveyor belt is blocked with a strip of yellow tape, over there a window is cracked, and in the underground parking a ticketing machine is not functioning. Prompt and regular maintenance is not an African forte. Its people are so accustomed to stepping over cracks that mostly they seldom notice any flaws, and the cracks only get wider the further north one travels in Africa,.
However, the Mug & Bean on the intermediate floor between the A and B terminals, is still full of vibrancy. As it is a ubiquitous franchise across the country, it is an easy venue to remember and hence to set as a meeting place, which is where I arranged to meet Trevor, an old boyhood friend, who like me was on a business trip in Joburg. We had arranged to trave part of the way north to his home in the Zimbabwe city of Bulawayo for a visit on my way back to the Kafue.
I chose a table close to the greeting podium where two giggling waitresses were waiting, one of which broke away and followed me to the table, where she casually slid the menu towards me, as she asked how I was.
To catch her off-guard with something quirky and unexpected, I replied “Still alive!”
The board expression on her face changed to a broad smile as she replied with a “That’s good”.
It being midmorning and knowing I was headed north to a country of politically squandered dearth I decided to spoil myself by ordering a latte and a slice of chocolate cheesecake. Who knew if I would be able to find a slice of anything in a Bulawayo restaurant.
As I watched the shelf like pout of the waitress’ rump flick away with my order I surmised she must be feasting on some good left overs to sport such a bounteous posterior.
“God bless the new well fed shape of Africa”, I muttered to myself as I looked around at the other patrons.
Scooping off small nibbles of the smooth turgid cake with a teaspoon I tried to remember how long it had been since I last met Trevor. Not too long ago actually. Maybe not the last time I was here, but the time before that. A year and a half ago maybe?
With the image of the waitress’s rump still wiggling in my mind, I thought how Trevor had also put on quite a bit of weight recently. His once lean cheeks had become noticeably jowlyy. Add to that an almost bald dome stretching above his thin rimmed glasses and it would be difficult to pick him as the person in our old high school photos. I guess the same could be said of myself, to watch my own metamorphosis from skinny shy high school runt, into lean muscular soldier, and then into tall lanky middle age, with sun-dried skin and a head as sparsely covered as Trevor’s.
I wondered if Trevor would be dropped off, or if he would be arriving on the Gau-Train as I had. Traffic could be a real problem on the Joburg ring road at this time of the morning.
I anxiously looked at my watch. As it was a short international flight up to Bulawayo, we would soon need to join the scrum in the hall serving the mid numbered A-gates. This hall more resembled a third world bus station than an airport. We needed to be at our gate at least half an hour before the scheduled departur. The bus station atmosphere was warranted because that is just what it is, from here all passengers are bused to the aircraft.
After taking particularly long to slowly chase the last mouthful of the delicious cake around the plate, and using my finger to surreptitiously aid it into the teaspoon, I checked the bill and added a generous tip, more for the rubieesque eye-candy provided by the waitress than her un-hurried service.
“Well”, I had thought, it was less than an hour to take off and I could no longer risk waiting.
I gathered my laptop and carry-on bags and headed for the escalator down to the security check and immigration.
In Africa, as in many places in the world, it is seldom wise to leave items of value in a bag checked into the hold of a commercial aircraft. As such It is best to travel as check-in light, and back-pack heavy as possible.
However, the downside of being laden with copious carry-on is that the security checks, which although often cursory, still sometimes require the inconvenience of unpacking into the plastic trays of the security scanner.
It was just such an annoying situation which caused me to grind my teeth. I was late and in a hurry.
However the gritting of my teeth ended almost as soon as my awareness registered the figure standing at my side in the line at the security conveyor belt.
In the shuffling wait in the queue to the check point she had obviously stood unnoticed to my rear.
The first flick of my startled eyes registered her beauty in a breath catching way.
Unpacking my laptop and kindle into separate trays, more slowly now, I continued to flick my eyes surreptitiously, I hoped, over the simple outline of her elegantly sumptuous figure.,
She was as dark as a Gypsy, with the tone of her smooth skin complementing the somber simplicity of her clothing, which fitted her like the fur of a sleek siamese cat. The only concession to color was to the silver necklace which glistened out from under the sooty silk of her long hair, as it cascaded down onto her shoulders.
The last item she placed on the tray was her jacket. As she slipped this off i saw that the neckline of her dress sported a high, embroidered cut, with short, almost tank-top shoulder straps.
It was then that I succumbed to temptation and let my eyes linger.
As if drifting out from under the cut off delineation of her top was the finest artistic filigree of ferns and flowers imaginable. It was etched onto the burnished amber of her skin. The tattoos tumbled down her shoulders, onto her upper arms, brushed behind her elbows, and reappeared with delicate appropriateness back onto her forearms, until their fine stylized fronds teased to the edges of her wrists.
From the fineness of her features and the darkness of her eyes I knew she was not Gypsy, rather, being in Africa she was probably from the stock of those who, long ago, crossed the ocean from the Punjab, and followed in the footsteps of the Arab slave traders of Zanzibar.
I mentally whistled to myself before turning to follow as she passed through the gate of the metal detector.
It is seldom in this day and age of body art that a tattoo makes an impression. I was unsure if it was the artwork, or the dark hinted romance of her face and figure, or the surprise of its revelation which was more attention catching.
Whatever it was, it lodged in my subconscious, because that night I dreamed of a maiden as dark as that Indian gypsey, with eyes as black as those of the Queen of Cush. My dreamy maiden’s back and shoulder blades were etched in just the same sort of filigree sumptuousness, detailed on skin burnished as bronze as a calabash.
However, the woman in the queue wasn’t a dream, but I lost sight of her when I quickly ducked into the first curio shop, where I hastily bought a lovely patterned salad dish and two mugs as gifts, and to the consternation of the cashier, stuffed them into my bag without any wrapping.
Then walking as quickly as I could I headed to the far end of the airport shopping mall and down to the “cattle” gates.
The shuffling queue was already moving as I joined it, with the first bus full, and ready to depart for the aircraft.
Handing my ticket to be checked at the doorway, I looked across at the next queue over.
The beautiful girl with the tattoo’ed arms was in its melee.
The sign above the crowd indicated she was on a flight to Lusaka.