Chapter 22: River God
As I sat on the cushions of the “reimpie” strip couch in Claudia’s little hideaway cottage, the echoes of emptiness still reverberated even as I returned to the Africa of my soul.
Those reverberations should have faded by now. Strangely I was only aware of them as the aircraft crossed the Zambezi and then commenced its descent to the airport. Possibly it was triggered by a sense of alienation, because as I looked out the window, far below, the silvered reflections on the waters of Lake Kariba stretched westward towards the setting sun.
Looking at the lakes form laying along the snaking path of the Zambezi, I imagined it to be the long finger of the river god as he pointed his arthritic digit disrespectfully up at me. ‘Fuck off it said’.
If so, I thought, was I really welcome in the land of my birth? And if not why keep coming back looking for some permanence, looking for something to hold onto?
“Iwe, Muzungu! I could hear the cranky old Nyami-Nyami God shouting up at me, “Like the skin of a snake, I will shed you, and your shallow efforts to drown my power will fail and be swept away.”
Admittedly such a slight would be addressed to me as a representative of my Muzungu race, with all our checkered achievements in Africa. But even so, the sum of my accumulated uncertainties, especially the recent ones, made it personal.
Up there, looking down on history, the old news reels flickered in my mind of the drama now smothered by time and the placid waters of the lake. The Italian builders of the dam, battling to save its flooded efforts, and others, mostly in vain, rescuing the drowning animals, as Nyami-Nyami released his mythical fury at them, and the water levels rose.
Now with his finger at me, it was as if Nyami-Nyami was justifiably pointing the blame for Africa’s old ills at others, and now comfortable in this role, was refusing to take responsibility for its present maladies.
Surreptitiously, so that my fellow passengers wouldn’t notice, from my window seat I raised my middle digit back at the hoary old sod.
“Go fuck yourself!” I muttered under my breath.
My perception of the feisty old bugger’s attitude kindled a slumbering awareness of the enigmatic essence of Africa towards me, the sense of indifference, and being spurned, like a futile relationship with an uninterested woman.
Intrinsically the River God lore was part of Africa’s appeal. Like with the ancient Greeks, Africa’s spiritual pantheon is more interesting than those of the west. It augments my draw towards the land I love, whose vestiges begin north of the Limpopo River. But at the same time, it is a lore that has no obvious role for me in its narrative.
Maybe the emptiness was also influenced by the hollowness that usually niggles at my mood when the flight is routed over the northern portions of the city. It reveals how the unsightly urban sprawl is steadfastly scratching away at the farm and remnants of the woodland that once existed between the city and the airport. The old Africa continues to be scratched away.
Even as recently as a decade ago the road from the airport to the traffic circle junction with the great East Road was one of the most picturesque approaches to any African airport. The unspoiled richness of the original bush forest trees filled the view on the airport side, and the parklike openness, dotted with tall Borassus palms pleased the eye on the other. The eucalyptus grove which decorated the junction, like an amulet at the end of a chain, is gone, along with the man who planted the trees, old Abe Galoon. He came here when the vast expanses of Africa was supposed to host the new Eden of a Jewish Homeland. Gone too, is the pair of Black Sparrowhawks who, each year would raise their chicks in the grove.
Instead commercial buildings are springing up along the south side of the road, and there is a rumor of a new airport terminus. Probably it will be funded by the Chinese, and built by them, and the predictable lack of repayment on its debt will be held as government blackmail. Africa hosting its latest wave of neo-colonialist marauders.
I wondered when the new look of Africa would replace the old in my dreams. If so would it be worthwhile like a ghostly Flying Dutchman to keep striving to sail around and corral Africa’s beauty? Or was it pointless, because as with a spurning lover, would I ever be welcomed into her dark skinned family.
Claudia texted me that a friend was occupying my room for the night, but would be leaving early in the morning. I didn’t mind, I was grateful to otherwise have prioritywhen I was in town.
It being the late flight into Lusaka, I only cleared out of customs after sunset. I was pleased to be collected by the shuttle to Pioneer camp, close to the Great East Road, where I spent the night in its atmosphere of old comfortable Africa, and listening to the cries of the night-apes and the hoods of the spotted Eagle Isles in the trees above my chalet. Hearing these sounds I smiled to myself as I thought of the billboards announcing the Sino-African brotherhood. The ostentatious announcements of the latest quasi-colonizers believing their own bullshit. I wondered how long it would take before the yellow replaced the white man in the African psych as the prime focus for blame.
Africa always eventually manages to find a teacher to champion its lessons, Idi Amin taught the Indians that they were not welcome. Mugabe repeated this to the Europeans. I wondered where, and which leader would be tasked by history to teach the Chinese that here the only true brotherhood is that of the tribe.
But, now I am sitting updating my journal on the couch in Claudia’s small cottage.
In the journal I noted that after picking Trevors brains about the Mlimo, and recharging my soul with a visit to the Inanke cave, I met Sophia.
If I was honest with myself I would have noted that the visit with her was the main motivation for the detour on my way back to the Kafue.
I had waited three decades for such a meeting.
After all this time I am still moved by her memory and I had a chance to mingle these with reality..
I was full of seething anticipation. Would she dangle possibilities, and then clip her golden braids as I climbed.
But…. What was amazing was that I never expected to see this pinnacle of beauty, and success, and moral aloofness in mourning.
Yup “mourning” is the only word I can think of which epitomized my impression. An aura of sadness, of loss and despair.
I arrived early and sat at the café we later were to sit and sip our coffee as we unfurled the past. At exactly 11 am I pressed the door buzzer.
I was awkward and bumbling and trying to impress, and I did not connect all the dots… But I registered all of them, and slowly put them one at a time in place, until the pixilated image of the lost decades emerged, as i had thought about it so many times before.
She stood across the room. From out of its dim gloom I saw her smile at me for the first time in thirty years.
She led me into a side office, hers maybe?, She talked to me as if it was a job interview, letting me talk and tell a bit of my life… kids, years, business. It was her turf, I was the intruder. She had the psychological edge. She initially offered me a drink. I said no.
I wanted to say, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
She asked a pretty young dark haired girl in the office to do something.
That was when I first detected the mourning and sadness. She was accusing and annoyed, and made it even worse with a hollow laugh at the end of their conversation. My heart went out to the girl. I wanted to tell her, “You are doing just fine sister.”
She suddenly said “lets” go out and eat!” I could’ve leaned across the table and kissed her, it was claustrophobic there. She stopped on the way to give further instructions to the lass… something needing to be sent to the printer and for it to be ready for a Monday meeting.
Seated across the cafe table, everything about her broadcasted sadness and despair. Her office is stark, bleak and without cheer. Her clothing is grey and black with long sleeves. It is done all the way up her neck, so that it acts as a barrier between her and the world. It covers and hides her body. It dissipates any joy and happiness that may sneak out from behind the wane smiles and slight twinkles in her eyes when I did manage to get her to briefly forget about the weight of the world on her shoulders.
I tried to remember her gorgeous big soft and surprisingly weightless breasts… the beautiful bell shape of her hips, how they spawn the curves of her thighs and legs. But the bleakness of her cladding smothered my memories.
I asked if she had pierced ears. I wanted to give her a pair of my autumn earrings. She explained that she has no jewelry except a ring from her father, engraved HK? – Henry, if I remember correctly. She said he is still alive. I asked of her sister. Leah is dead, as is her mother.
She sees herself as a victim of her own character. She chooses the same kind of men in her life she says. Men who let her down. Men like me… and now her ex-husband. Were there others I ask, Yes she says. Her Alan has survived the purges of the “Black Empowerment” at the University down south . He is off doing his fun academic thing, surrounded by adoring student groupies. He was dallying with a few, while she had been trying to make the business run and raise her daughters.
With me she is right every time. I said I didn’t want to upset the equilibrium of her life in anyway…. And I didn’t. What I did not know is that the equilibrium of her life is screwed up anyway. If anything I could maybe nudge it back into kilter.
She is still the only one I could have stayed with for life. Maybe! I say maybe because I don’t know who this woman in mourning is today. Like the old Africa of my dreams, I have changed and she has changed and we are not who we were and I may still be able to love her, but that is not enough.
Where is the bright happy impulsive girl I loved, and if that girl is still in her being, I still yearn for her.
She said she remembers our time as if it was someone else’s. She wonders that she was the age of her daughters now when all that happened.
Not me! I remember everything. So much locked into slumbering dreams.
As I told her, relationships were and are the biggest failure of my life. The lack of commitment, and trying to please everyone, has destroyed some of the biggest chances I ever had. Maybe.
Anyway to hell with the water that has flowed down the river, and since then been diluted into the flat featureless ocean of our lives.
Now as I attempt to paddle back up-stream, it is it’s current flow that interests me. Is it seeping? Trickling? Flowing smoothly? Will its flood flush me away again? Is Nyami-Nyami correct? Mzungu, remember what I told you, Africa is only for the Africans.
We will see!
Once we stumble over the crest of our lives we are who we are. I am who I am. I am no longer like fresh concrete which can flow and fill and shape itself to the forms of life. Like the crusty character of the old river god, time has hardened my foundations in the soil of this place.
I can no longer be as someone else wants me to be, not even myself. Not even the rejecting spirit of Africa.
With the toothless grin of Nyami-Nyami leering at the flood of my thoughts, I finished scribbling these last words in the journal, and looked up to see Claudia’s smile as she came through the door.
The echoes of my dreams, were no longer reverberating, somewhere high in the sky over the Zambezi they had faded and died. They had been replaced with the emotional acceptance of pragmatism and convenience.
How did the song go? If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
I wondered if that were as true for a maiden as it were for a land and a life.
Once again I was massaging Claudia’s neck and shoulders, as she ummm’ed her pleasure. It was a ritual I performed almost each time when she returned from the office, and after she had made us both a cup of tea.
“I see you are back wearing some more colorful clothing!” I stated, “does that mean you’re no longer dealing with the problem client like you told me last time?”
“No.” She replied, “It is just that he is out of town for a while.”
“Does that mean he will be back soon?”
“Yes.” she said, “Of course. He is part of the Beyh clan. “
“But he is a different sort of beast… very different from the rest of them.”
I took a sip of my tea.
“Really. I know Mohammed, and I know his 3 sons, and Yusuf the old uncle, who seems to be relatively harmless. I didn’t know there was another active member of the Beyh clan in the city.”
Claudia sighed. “Dedi, you don’t know the whole story. It is a story of Africa. You never met old man Beyh. He is now dead. When they Indians were kicked out of Zanzibar, he moved here. Old man Beyh was an astute man.”
Claudia closed her eyes in pleasure at my manipulations, and continued speaking with her eyes closed. “Even as he found himself being expelled by the racial fervor of the nationalism sweeping across Africa, the old man saw big opportunities. Nationalism would be Pan-African, it would need logistics, which in many instances would cross borders. Also he recognized that primarily the face off would be between Black Africa and White colonialists. Thus like the Jew in the old middle age feudal system, someone who did not fit into either bracket would have an advantage. They would be beyond how the blacks and whites saw each other. They could move where others could not.
Even better if the “fixers” had people they could trust on the other side of borders, in countries where the rule of law was scant, maybe even non- existent, in times of strife.
Old man Beyh sent his sons to set up shop in different countries. South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Mozambique. The old man had his eldest son, Mohammed, stay here in Zambia with him.
The other piece of the Bayh story was that On Zanzibar the old man owned a motor repair shop. All his sons knew how to repair and operate big trucks. Old man Beyh knew that the revolutionary movements would need logistics. Thus his trucks hauled guns, uniforms, food, and people. From the ports of Dar es Salaam, Luanda or Beira, down to the Zambezi, Chobe, Kavango, or Limpopo rivers, where ever the struggle moved.
Each of the sons used the same recipe, provided by the old man, in each of their adopted countries to set up a Pan-African long-haul trucking network.
They never looked back, and it is the long distance hauling at the core of their cross-border family allegiance that allows them to stay ahead of the other jackals.”
“Ahh that feels so good.” Claudia half opened her eyes as I continued to kneed her shoulders.
“Mustafa Beyh!” She slowly pronounced each syllable in the name. I could detect the distaste in her voice, but there was a note of respect in the way she said it.
“He is the youngest of the brothers,” she continued. “You haven’t heard of him, because he controls those tentacles of the babe families reach up in Dar-es-Salaam. Of all the brothers, Mustafa is the one most like his father. He sees opportunities where others see chaos. He thrives where the rule of law is scant and danger scares others away.
As you know, our neighbor to the north, the Congo is such a huge country that it is almost ungovernable. Its eastern regions are scantly controlled from the capitol on the west coast, which is barely able to govern even itself. And in the east of the Congo is where many of its minerals are found. There is fierce competition for these, from east and west. The rare earths and copper are all elements treasured by the Europeans, the Americans and the Chinese. All of it needs to be hauled from somewhere to somewhere else, and other stuff taken back again.
Lubumbashi and the Congo Panhandle, as it sticks down into the heart of this country, is one of those mineral rich and wild-west regions. It is where opportunity is rife for the stout of heart. “
As she rolled her head slowly in appreciation to my manipulations I asked, “How does this affect the Beyh family?”
“Like the smell of rotting meat attracts a hyena,” she replied, “some such stench has recently caught the attention of the youngest of the Beyh brothers. Mustafa Beyh has started to uncurl one of his long grasping tentacles. He has begun to sniff the air across the border from Mufilira.
Unfortunately, because they are brothers, and it is a family alliance, it is not only Mohammed who regards me as his employee.
So you see Dedi, that is my problem, Mustafa is why I wear formal business suite when he is around. To let him know that I mean real business.”