23 – The Book of Gideon (Guests)

23 –       Guests

Precious paused her sweeping of the chitenge’s tiled floor. From under its roof she watched the approach of the two sleek Landcruisers. Virtually unheralded by the quiet purring of their engines, the dark dust covered vehicles glided to a halt in the small gravel parking area across from where she stood.

The quietness of their arrival meant that the welcoming committee needed to scramble to form up in time to sing and clap hands.

Precious looked on as four occupants slowly stepped into the afternoon heat from the air-conditioning of their vehicles. Each was offered a glass of cool juice on a tray, while warm hand towels, to wipe away their sweat, were offered on another.

It was the ritual of making guests feel special.

Later, replaying the scene in her mind, Precious realized that the personalities and relationships of each of the guests was apparent from the moment they stepped forth.

There were four. Morese had pre-briefed the staff. The two men in the first vehicle were brothers. In the second was the daughter of one, accompanied by a friend.

The men were of equal unremarkable height, although the elder of them appeared to be shorter, due to a tendency to stoop forward as he walked. Their shared physical austerity brought to Precious’s mind the bent brittleness of lodged grass in winter on the one hand, and the scavenging thinness of a village dog on the other.

The women contrasted sharply with the men. One was short like her father. The other tall and fair, with no spareness in her movement. She was seldom still, quick to laugh, and effused  a happy boisterous spontaneity.

Where the men handed back there empty glasses with barely a nod of thanks, the tall woman loudly expressed her appreciation,

“Oh, Darling, that was just what I needed!” Ggiving each of the surprised waitresses a wide armed hug, before twisting away with a swing of her hips and a trailing drift of an arm and leg, like that of a swing dancer.

The dark one with a figure as softly  lithesome as a cat, wasn’t as effusive. Nevertheless she smiled broadly with a curtsey of thanks as she handed back her towel.

The initial diffidence with which the two men treated the waitresses was a portent of their attitude to the entire staff. It wasn’t affected, rather a habit. The pair had an expectation of craven service, but with a minimal level of a need to reciprocate with pleasantries. In some ways they reminded Precious of esoteric high priests with a presumption of ordained entitlement,.

For Precious this wouldn’t be particularly irksome. She didn’t need to interact with them. Being mostly part of the cleaning staff she seldom needed to tolerate the face to face arrogance and bad behavior of clients. It took all types. Sometimes the rich who could afford to stay at high-end lodges hadn’t earned their wealth by being polite.

What bothered precious was how the younger of the brothers made scant effort to hide how his eyes followed the figures of the female staff. His gaze prodded and poked as if they were pork for the unclean. But, the ameliorating factor of the group as a whole was the uninhibited sense of fun that the woman brought to their interactions with each other and the staff.

Precious was fascinated by the lovely tattoo on the dark daughter’s shoulders and arms. It had an effect on her latent obsession for beautiful shapes.  It captivated her. It was grist for her minds mill. She had never considered the body as a canvas for artistry. What made it more interesting was its bearer being the daughter of the younger brother. His rigorous observance of a prayer schedule showed him to be an observant Muslim. Precious wondered if the tattoo was there in spite of the father’s beliefs, and if so what did it say about the daughter’s character.

The extroverted personality of the tall fair-haired woman didn’t fade. Her laughter and the loud extravagance of her voice constantly filled the air. Initially her pleasure and appreciation appeared exaggerated, but as the days wore on, and her behavior continued unabated, its effect was infectious. The waitresses began to genuinely smile and laugh in response. The tension when the two men, especially the thin lipped younger Mustafa was around, was quickly dissipated by her obvious love of life, and why not attitude towards it.

Overall during the next few days the guests settled in and the staff adjusted their service as was needed to provide a classy experience.

Precious detected another unexpected twist in a conversation with Everett, one of the lodge’s guides. He said Mustafa asked to stop at Allen’s hunting camp on his first boat trip up-river. He immediately struck up a friendly relationship with the two Russians, who were still there. They in turn had offered to host him on some of their forays. Everett had shaken his head when he described the on-goings. He couldn’t understand why this strict Muslim would find two alcoholic Russians such good company, while back at the Lodge, he would not allow alcohol to be served when he was present. His insistence had become more pronounced when his more tolerant older brother, Muhammad, returned to Lusaka after only two days, saying that he had caught enough fish, which Everett remarked, he had.

It was the alcohol veto, Precious noticed, which put a definite dent in the tall blonde woman’s bubbliness. In the late afternoon while she sat enjoying a gin and tonic on the riverside deck, and one of the staff would request that she take her drink elsewhere, because Mustafa was on his way, she would scowl and muttered to herself before flouncing off to her chalet. There she would sit simmering on its deck.

“Yes”, Precious heard her say to her companion, “I can respect your father’s religious sensibilities, but I am out here to celebrate with you. We came out here to get away from the crap, and enjoy our freedom, like we used to.  With respect to your father, it bugs me that I have to be told how I must celebrate.!”

The short dark one would agree, but in an attempt to defend her father, added “But we are his guests.”

“So what, lets transfer to another lodge. I hear that there are some further downriver. What about the hunting camp up-stream? I can afford it.”

Her indignant voice continued, “Maybe I could book a hunt and shoot a baboon while we are there, and pretend it is my ex!”

Listening from a distance, Precious’s smile broadened into a giggle..

“The Lord only knows!” the tall blonde exclaimed, “It would provide some excitement. And you and I darling, need some of that old buzz back in our lives!”

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Seldom was Moses caught off guard. He was so deep in his thoughts he hadn’t noticed the footsteps. Admittedly the soft grass in the middle of the road muffled the womens approach. Also, his guard was lowered due to fatigue mixed with the distracting snorts of the hippos. Moses had been following difficult tracks for days. Now the big beasts were inordinately noisy, grunting and squealing at each other, with a good deal of splashing about. A cow was in heat, and the dominant bull was being challenged by an aroused subordinate.

Moses  had been seeking the spiritual water hole he knew must exist.  As an African he was intimate with its ways. Like animals must return to the pools to drink, so would a nganga return to a spirit loci where  his witch power

could be recharged by communion with his spirits.

Africa’s priests didn’t need to stand before the altars of grand cathedrals. They were drawn to the lands inspiring places, prepared long before man developed his vanity. It was the humble secret nature of these sites which gave them their authority, by being set amongst nature’s special places. For the “holy” communion of the ngangas there was no need for the pompous showmanship of a cathedral.

Moses was in good spirits, his hunch had paid off. He had  searched for the spirit equivalent of a church steeple…  a rise of an imposing hill,  a cliff face, or the conference of big rivers. The ngangas alter he saught would not be far away.

The search was made easier by the old mystery man himself, when like a leopard defending its den, the grey haired man had angrily waved him and Gidi away, from atop just such a hill at the confluence of the Lunga and Kafue rivers.

When he found it, the cave was set back from the river, half way up a long high ridge in the Earth’s skin,

forced up by the  pinch  between these rivers where  they met. It was neither deep nor imposing, but it was adequate. Its unique suitability had been recognized by ngangas for thousands of years. On its walls were the faint scratched outlines of ancient totems.

The tracks of the mystery man returned to this spot many times. It was where he communed with his spirits. If there was some focus to any of the witchcraft hovering over the region, Moses knew  it would be anchored in this cave.

Assuming that his target would be as proficient as himself when it came to Bush craft, Moses was careful. If alerted in the slightest, the mystery man would be wary, making it difficult, if not impossible to track him down. Moses returned to check the cave each day, using all his skill to disguise his presence. Eventually his patience paid off, he found fresh tracks.

Now back at their campsite, Moses reflected on all of this as he waited for Gidi’s return from South Africa.

Suddenly it was the sound of her voice which startled him, causing Moses to swing around with the speed of a stalking cat hving its tail pulled.

“Sorry!” she exclaimed, “We didn’t mean to scare you.”

Moses looked up sheepishly. “Yes you did give me a jump!”

A tall woman with a wide smile was looking at him curiously.

“When we go on a game drive, or walk past,” she said, “we notice your tents. We were curious to see who lives here.” She paused. “By the way, I am Lauren, and this is my friend Narina.”

The tall woman shook her head to loosen her hair then threaded the pony-tail of her long blonde hair back through the opening of her cap. “If you don’t mind my asking, what is your name?”

“Moses!” he replied.

“That’s an old fashioned name, she said, “very biblical.”

Moses smiled, surprised at her effrontery. “Yes, it is. I guess I deserve it more than you imagine. “

Detecting the quizzical look on her long but pleasant face he fanned her curiosity.

“I began life being abandoned on the bank of a river. Those who raised me, being missionaries, didn’t look far for inspiration. Hence my biblical name.”

Moses noticed how the woman’s wide lips moved, seemingly on the brink of a follow-up question, but he interrupted .

“That is another story for another time.” 

She spoke again. “We have been here for four days, There’s only so much viewing and sitting around that one can take. If it was up to me I would explore further afield.” She gave a frustrated flick of her hands.

“How much longer will you be here?” Moses queried.

“Were not quite sure, it isn’t up to us!”

“So who is it up to?”

Now it was the dark girl looking at him with quiet intensity, weighing him up. He noted that it wasn’t only her speech and manner that contrasted with her friend, it was also her appearance. Where her friend was a long legged race horse, she was a dressage pony. Where her friend was fair, she was dark with eyes and coal black hair that accented the difference.

Her deep copper skin was as smooth as a chamois and where her friend was loud, she was quiet.

“Can I ask what may affect your father’s decision?” Moses queried politely.

“You will have to ask him,” replied the dark one.

He detected a certain tension between the pair.

“Is this a family holiday?”

“We are celebrating my divorce !” The blonde stated with emphatic satisfaction, , as a hint of opposition flitted across the face of her companion.

“Well at least I am!” the leggy one raised her hands above her head, making the V for victory sign with both hands, and giving a little skip of pleasure. “Free at last!!”

“Narina has been footloose for a while”  she continued, “and has forgotten some of the pleasure of being fancy free. But I think her status is fresh enough that she too should be celebrating freedom.”

The dark woman surreptitiously rolled her eyes.

Slightly taken aback Moses chuckled. “That is the strangest reason I have heard for a Safari.”

He couldn’t help asking, “Did you come out here hoping to meet Tarzan?”

“Maybe,” she replied. Then indicating the dark girl, ”We have known each other for ever. Since high school actually. We have always mirrored the events in our lives. So why not celebrate like this?”

Tge tall woman  winked at him, “Too bad biblical  Moses roamed in the desert , not the jungle. He  might have  met Tarzan. Religion would be more fun, especially with Jane around.”

Moses felt the old Jesuit in him niggle an uneasyness at the flippancy of her religious disrespect.

He shrugged, “There is more to the story of Moses than that of Tarzan. I am glad that I am Moses’s namesake, and not Tarzan’s.”

Lauren laughed again and looked at him with a vague respect. A smile even flickered across the dark woman’s face as Lauren bubbled forth. “It was recently that narina returned from some godforsaken South American place, where she had been dragged by her latin ‘ex’. So we decided to join her father, who is out here on business.

“Congratulations!” Moses raised his palm to meet Laurens in a high five as she looked around at the two tents in the campsite.

So! Are you going to let a woman stand around, or will you be a gentleman and offer us a place to sit?

Moses bobbed a shallow bow, and said “Be my guest” as he indicated towards the wooden table and chairs under the chitenge roof.

“Isn’t there anyplace less formal, she exclaimed, we get all the pampering and formality we need at the lodge. I only need a gentlemanly deck chair and a good drink.”

“OK hang on a moment, I think that my partner has an extra seat. He is not here right now.”

Moses gathered three folding camping chairs and led the way beneath the cover of the thick riverside trees down to a little sand bar.

“Don’t get too close to the water” he warned, “Crocs can leap quite a way out to grab you.”

It was one of those lovely late afternoons, where the sound of the rippling water mingled with that of a zephyr tickling the leaves.

Their presence distracted the hippos, who with their ears and snouts barely above the water, suspiciously eyed the people on the bank.

Lauren laughed out merrily as she commented on this, “They look like mischievous children hiding after being caught doing something naughty.”

Moses nodded in agreement.

“How have you found your stay at the lodge?”

Settling into one of the chairs and stretching out her long legs, she spoke lightly, “The best part has been being with Narina, catching up. It has been ages since we could really laugh at some of the stuff in our past. Over the years we have kept in contact, but nothing compares to being next to each other. Electronically one cannot get the humor of some of the stuff we got up to, let alone try to laugh about it via email.”

“At the lodge,: she continued, “The hospitality has been fantastic. The location, the food, the showers, the beds, and the guiding. But we are ready to move on. Lauren looked across at her friend for some affirmation. All she got was a little shrug of the shoulders and a pursing of the lips.

“You see even Narina wants to get back to civilization!”

“I need the bustle of the city, she said. I would not even mind spending some time in Lusaka. They say it is booming these days.

“So where do you usually spend your time, where is home?” Moses asked.

“Ohh, I have a lovely little pent house apartment right in the heart of Cape Town’s docklands. Have you ever been there and seen what they have done?

Moses cast his mind back to the days he had spent in training not too far to the north with Gidi at Langebaan. “Not for a long time.” he replied.

Lauren waved her hand as if to emphasize her point, “I miss the bustle of the city and its perks, and I love looking out of my window at Table Mountain. The Cape is such a beautiful part of the world.

Lauren made a little sad face frown, and then brightened right back up, “So, tell us Moses, what do you do out here. The staff at the Lodge said you are involved with anti-poaching. “

Her tone changed to give staged emphasis, “THAT sounds so exciting!”

“Have you caught any poachers, and do you have to do wild chases like they show on the Discovery channels?”

Moses shrugged, “Well actually I have not been here for long. I am here to help my friend get to the bottom of some strange occurrence’s that could be involved with poaching, but we are not yet sure.”

“Do you go on patrols? Lauren asked.

“My friend Gidi often does. He goes with the scouts he is training to see how well they are assimilating his lessons.”

“What sort of training does he do? And can we go on patrol with you?”

Moses shook his head, “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I don’t patrol, I work alone. I track people, find out what they have been doing.

Lauren looked at him imploringly, “Oh, why not, I”m so bored, we’ve done all the game drives that they can offer, and we been up and down the river on the boat. I don’t like fishing, and I’m on my last book, so we need something interesting to do.”

Looking at her friend Lauren saught support again.

She winked at him, “It you are as good as you say at chasing people I’m sure you could give a gal a run for her money.”

Moses was unaccustomed to forwardness.. His conservative  character wasn’t   comfortable with quick barroom banter, or sparring with raunchy witticisms from women.

Ignoring the comment he turned to Narina. Her reticence strummed some harmonious refrain  in his mind.

“It sounds like both of you are bored.”

 “Yes!” Lauren replied vehemently.

He stood and enquired politely, ” Can I offer you a cup of coffee.”

“How about a gin and tonic?” asked Lauren.

“Both my friend Gidi and I don’t drink alcohol. All I can offer is coffee, tea or I think there may be some cokes that Gidi has stashed in his tent. Would you like me to look?”

“What!!” Lauren expressed her incredulity, “this is the first time I’ve ever heard any of you Bush folk’s not drinking alcohol.”

Moses smiled, “I was raised in a Jesuit mission. There are certain values that remain with me to this day. And my friend Gidi, he used to drink like a fish, but I think that life and alcohol knocked him down so many times, he finally decided that it would be better to fight only one demon at a time, so he gave up the alcohol. He says he had seeing so many of his mates choosing to give up the other option in that struggle.”

“I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.” Narina spoke quietly, but as she did she gazed intently at Moses. He was unsure, but somewher deep within him a responsiv chord quivered.

Lauren stood and linked her fingers, then pushing her arms out in front as she stretched back on tiptoes, she said, “Well I think that I will leave you two to your coffee.. I “m heading back to the lodge. Maybe Tarzan will be there waiting with a knock-me-down G&T.””

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Peering over her shoulder as she swivelled in her chair Narina watched Moses carefully duct under the lianas drooping from the foliage of the trees. In one hand he clasped a French press and a small jar of powdered milk. In the other he held the handles of two large tin mugs, with the top of a packet of sugar scrunched between them.

Settling into his camp chair Moses set the paraphernalia on the sand at his feet.

I apologize for the lack of elegance, but how do you prefer your coffee?” His glance caught her coy smile,. He returned it with a shy one of his own..

“I like it with a half teaspoon of sugar to take the edge out of the bitterness, and the same amount of powdered milk to bleach its blackness.”

He handed her a mug.

The hippos snorted as he poured his own.

 “Please don’t complain about the amount of sugar I take.” He looked up, “It is a bad habit. I prefer my coffee as black as sin, and strong enough to float a horseshoe. I also like it sweet, because then like life, it has both the bitterness and the sweetness mingled together.”

He chuckled at  her sour face .

 Moses took a sip, “I borrowed that description from my friend Gidi.

“Now there is somebody who really loves his coffee, and loves it sweet. He as replaced his previous alcohol with a coffee addiction, not that he was not a caffeine addict before then. Apparently his grandmother gave him coffee in a bottle as a baby. So I guess he had no chance.”

Moses leaned back in his chair and they sat in silence for a while.

Having gotten over their nervousness the hippos resumed their squabbling. They were no longer concerned with the presence of the two people on the sandbar. The scent of the cow’s receptivity was more stimulating than their suspicion of the human presence.

“It sounds like you and your friend work well together. Where is he at the moment? she kicked at the sand with the heel of her shoe.

“He went to south Africa to give a report to the people providing the funds for his training program. He has been away for a while, but should be back in the next week or so, so you may get to meet him. If you are still around that is.”

“What sort of training does he provide?”

Moses shrugged his shoulders. “As I mentioned to Lauren, I have only been here a short while, and I have concentrated on tracking people, to find out what they are doing. So I never really sat in on Gidi’s training sessions. From what I understand he is focusing on the pre-and post “Bang” procedures. These are as important as the interdictions, which get all the publicity.

Gidi describes it in a simple fashion, to make it a clear concept in the minds of the scout ranges. The “bang” is when a poacher kills an animal. This is the event that traditional anti-poaching efforts have concentrated on. But the pre-and post “bang” are often more important to the success of a anti-poaching strategy.

The pre-bang is how to develop intelligence networks and the gathering of actionable information. It is activity which is focused outside of the national park boundaries. For example, if it is a small scale operation, the poachers live in the villages surrounding the park. Everybody knows who they are. The effort is to find informers who will let the ranges know when the poachers leave the village, and if they’re lucky, to which part of the park they are headed.

Then there are the large operations, with intermediaries which may stretch to towns and cities far away up on the copper bel, reaching into the lawlessness of the Congo. From there they stretch beyond into international destinations. But even here the locals will know of the movement of the vehicles bringing in strangers and taking out the goods. For this the rangers need to work with the police and even Interpol. How to develop rapid response liaison protocols is what Gidi focuses on..

Then there’s the post “bang” operations. Zambia is a country which mostly operates within the rule of law. An anti-poaching operation is fundamentally a law enforcement activity. Once apprehended the poachers need to go through the justice system, which entails collection of evidence, and crime scene processing. There is also the preparation for trial. All this has been an ignored aspect. It has resulted in a revolving door for the poachers. Often they are released with a slap on the wrist for lack of evidence.”

Narina turned her head to follow a flare up between two of the hippos, but even so she felt his intense gaze.

That gaze carefully noted the exquisite outline of her features and the silhouette of her face. As she raised her cup to her lips he let his eyes drift down her arm. They followed the fine floral tattoos on the amber of her skin, which tumbled down her shoulders, onto her arms, brushed behind her elbows, and delicately reappeared on her forearms, until the pattern teased to the edges of her wrists.

She turned back to look at Moses, “So what exactly do you do if your job is to track down people. Are you tracking the movements of poachers once they are in the park.?

“No, I’m not tracking poachers specifically. There is something else going on, which neither Gidi nor I can quite understand.”

“What do you mean? Are other people entering the park? to do what?” she asked..

“Well the Kafue national Park is a huge area, over twenty two thousand square kilometers, and with the hunting concessions around it, there is sixty thousand square clicks of wilderness. It has an unusual history.”

Moses picked up a pebble and tossed it into the slowly flowing waters beyond their feet.

“This park was gazetted not too long before the British gave up their colonial control of this country.

Before it was declared a park, there were some small tribes in the area which had been practicing their way of life for a long time. Some of these tribes were moved out of the area, but allowed to keep their fishing rights. So today there is a set number of licenses issued to tribesman to enter the Busanaga planes and set up their big fish traps.

Incidentally that is why we are allowed to fish on the rivers in the park, which is illegal in most other wildlife sanctuaries in the world.

Some of these fishermen also engage in illicit poaching, done while they are in the park legally.”

But mostly this is subsistence poaching. It is opportunistic, and more to feed their family and friends than it is to make money on a commercial scale.

The other problem is that the Kafue is so huge that since independence the government has not allocated sufficient funds to maintain or police it properly.

Thus certain areas of it have come to be considered by some poaching groups as their territory, much like street gangs in the West consider parts of the city to be there turf, which they defend aggressively.

This has been very much the case in the area leading along the Lunga River, from its confluence with the Kafue River, for 80kilometers north.

For a while now Gidi says he has started to see the signs of turf battles around our area of the Lodge.

This is highly unusua. Poachers have tended to respect the long standing status quo, of, if you don’t mess with us, we won’t mess with you.

Gidi asked me to help him figure out what is going on. It seems that the clue to it all is held by a single man.

It is this man who I am following.

“Have you found out much?” She asked.

“Yes.” Moses said quietly, “But it is making the picture more complex.”

He sighed, “But anyway, Gidi will be here soon. I can tell him what I have found so far. He will figure it out.”

“You have a lot of confidence in him!, she stated with a surprised purse of her lips.

“Yes I do,” he answered back, “I have been with him in many bad situations. He has always managed to sort things out and get us out of trouble. He was a very good officer.” Moses paused, “One of the best in our unit, which was one of the best the

 world has seen.”

Moses stretched in his chair. “The only big problem he has is wit women.”

Narina looked at him curiously. “What do you mean.”

“He is like a dog when a fresh plate of food is pushed in his face. He starts with the new before he has licked the old plate clean..”

“Out here,” she asked, “is that such a bad thing?”

“I think so.” Moses replied. “He has lost some  good women, and he knows it.  Deep inside  he feels a certain despair at his bad choices.

 There is a  saddness that hides  behind the  happiness and confidence he displays outwardly.

Narina folded her arms across her chest. “You must know him very well.”

“Yes, We spent years together in a  war. You get to know people intimately in those conditions.
I think he escapes his loss and loneliness by working out here., caught between the past and the future.”

Moses flicked the dregs of his coffee into the river.

“And you?” she asked.

The faint yips of pleasure in his heart were suddenly muffled by  the pangs of his memory.

“I am different.” He shugged wryly.  “I am a believer, and I believe that things will turn out well.”

From the expression on his face  Narina relized that it would not be polite to probe further.

It was Moses who broke the silence that followed.

“I’m curious, what kind of business is your father in?”

Narina sat for a while before she replied. “I’m not sure. He has fingers in many pies. The woman in my father’s family, including myself, are not privy to what he does. But whatever it is he is doing over here, I hope it will be over soon, because I can sense  that my friend  Lauren is starting to annoy him with her pestering.”

“Why is that a problem?” Moses tilted his head quizzically.

“My dearest father is wonderful, but he is an old fashioned type, he doesn’t tolerate woman who do not know their place in life.” She took the last sip of her coffee, and set her mug down on the sand before continuing. “My father is not used to women  who react badly to men who expect  them to remain in the background. She took a deep breath. “Lauren is one of those independent sorts, as her husband found out… So I hope we can be away before things get out of hand.”

“By the way,” Moses stood and picked up the two mugs, “Your name is not what I would expect a father like yours to give his daughter!”

She smiled. “He didn’t give it to me. My mother did. He was away when I was born and he came back too late to interfere. I am named after a bird. A French naturalist named the bird after his beautiful Hottentot mistress.”

Standing holding their empty mugs Moses said quietly, “I’ve read about Le Valliant and the birds he named, and the romance of Narina fits you perfectly. The bird he named you after is very special and very rare.”

He added, “like you.”

She blushed as he went on. “This  dense  habitat on the edge of the river is perfect for them.”

“Oh, so you know your birds!”

Moses nodded.

“Well maybe you can show me one, she exclaimed. ” I have never seen a wild one.”

“And your father’s name?” Moses asked.

“His name is Mustafa,” she said, “Mustafa Beyh”.