022: The Arena
Some of the old timers of Lusaka tell of the days when they were young, back in the 50s and 60s[CO1] , when on a long weekend they would cut away early on a Friday afternoon from their jobs serving Her Majesty’s bureaucracy, to be able to leave the Jacaranda shaded suburbs of the city by 3 o’clock.
Heading out towards Angola on the West Road, they would deviate to the Northwest at Mumbwa, the shabby disheveled [CO2] little town which did, and still does, served as an administrative center in the western province. If they drove at elevated speeds, as young men are want to do when spurred on by alcohol and a sparse and sympathetic police presence, some hours later, soon after dark, they would be at the Lubungu pontoon, the gateway to some favorite fishing spots.
On the flat open ground adjacent to the pontoon, with beers already at hand, they would set up camp for the night in the light cast by the headlights of the vehicles until the kerosene Primus lamps could be lit.
The next morning, as they woke to the clink of the kettle being heated on the wood fire, prepared by the servant invariably in attendance, they would slowly extricate themselves from their blankets. Still dressed in their khaki shorts and with their cut-sleeved bush shirts ruffled by slumber, they would nurse their hangovers. Then, as slowly, they would lace up their leather ‘veldskoen’ shoes and saunter over to warm themselves with their hands spread open towards the heat of the fire.
In the pre-dawn gloom and with their coffee mugs clasped in their palms as a substitute for the warmth of the flames, they could wander over to check out the focus of their visit. There before them, spreading North East and South West, with broad lazy twists and loops, like the long swaddling sashes used by the African women to strap their babies to their backs, they could see how the Kafue River wended its wide way, tucked broadly into the opulent lushness of its banks.
Soon their hangovers would be assuaged by the hot coffee, into which they dunked their big thick rusk biscuits. When the mixed dregs of their beverage and biscuits had been flicked onto the dry grass, and the mugs given to the servant to clean, they would call to the pontoon crew.
After some haggling with the foreman as to the ‘incentive’ price needed for an early start, six local men would saunter across from their nearby huts. As this crew spread themselves out evenly along the up-stream edge of the pontoon’s hulking platform, they would be hugging themselves and rubbing the bareness of their forearms to ward off the chill of the air as it seeped down to cover the river with a cloak of early stillness. Then with the pressure on their mallets gripping the cable, in chanted unison, their heaves would slowly edge the hulk of the pontoon with its burdens, like some prehistoric beast across the broad surface of the river.
Reaching the far bank, looking back over their shoulders, the young visitors might note that the unfurling rays from the sun’s crimson orb were already dissolving the mist, heralding the advent of a new day.
Once across, they would be outside the boundary of the National Park. Now they could head a tad further, as the road edged north towards the next pontoon, over the Lunga, [CO3] and on to Kasempa. They could cut back to meet the river further upstream, or simply camp on the far side where they would launch their boats using the pontoon beach head for a ramp.
Either way, here on its clear and eddying currents, the young men would spend the next few days, largely unaware of the hindsight that would in six decades, allow them to realize that they had been in the Garden of Eden.
Six decades later, the winds of time and change would have blown away the youth of these men. Those gusts would be of such significance that, just as the swirls of August scatters the leaves of the gracious Jacarandas, so too would it have scattered the vigor of those once young men.
Strangely, it was at a wedding on the other side of the world where, like an ancient mariner, one of them, recognizing my accent, had tugged at my sleeve. He would not let go until he had finished his tankard, and told me of those halcyon days when as a young man, he sojourned in paradise.
Listening to his tale, I wondered if I should tell him that despite everything, not all of his utopia was lost. Should I tell him that now, sixty years later, as it was confined within the flat sprawl of his mind, the streets of his memories are still adorned with the leafy crowns of the Jacarandas? That some of those same trees, with six more decades of growth, now arch across the roads like the buttressed ceilings of a cathedral. Should I tell him that only a few months before, I had camped for the night on the south bank of the pontoon, where awakening while still sheltered from the chill air in my sleeping bag, I had lain listening to the clink of the kettle. Should I relate that, in the brief dimness that precedes an African dawn, I was an audience to nature’s symphony, as it had sounded there for thousands of years, unspoiled by man…the snort of an impala, the bark of a baboon, the wild bray of a Hadeda Ibis taking flight. Or maybe it was the last call of a Scops Owl before it hid away for the day from the mobbing of other birds. And the most beautiful of them all, I had heard the Heuglin’s Robin, in the same thicket as that of the old man’s memory, with its call rising, rising, to crest in a crescendo as climactic as any passion lost long ago amongst the decades of the old man’s exile.
Surely that song must still linger in his nostalgia, as must the rusted hulk of the pontoon. Should I relate that it is the same hulk, unchanged except for a pair of crank-start 1-pantengines, and that it still plies its slow deliberate way across the waters of the river?
But then, I realized that the old man wasn’t alone in his exile. I had recently commenced my own, and who would be around in future decades to listen to my stories of a rusted hulk plying across a river, and a bird singing in the thickets of my own mind?
Hence, dear reader, before all the leaves of my memories fall away like the discarded flutterings of the Jacarandas, I have attempted to record this narrative of halcyon days spent in an African Eden
– Gideon (Bwana Lunga)
(9th edit – 03/20/2021)