24: River God
As I sat on the leather strip seat of the “reimpie” couch in Claudia’s hideaway cottage, the echoes of emptiness still reverberated even as I returned to the Africa of my soul.
They 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 reached 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?
Was this land as fickle as the faded love of some woman. Would it eventually lose interest and spurn? After all I was fresh from the hollowness of meeting Sophia. Was it inevitable that like with her, the changes that time had wrought on both the land and its relationships outstrip any nurturing I may provide? Both the land and its people have changed over the last 3 decades, . These changes are accumulated in miniscule driftings, so slight that they are nearly imperceptible until one faces then 30 years later. Because one has lived with and on the land one doesn’t experience the same shock as when seeing a lover who has been frozen in the mind for thirty years, and realizing that the past has been eroded away, leaving only the skeleton of a past that may not be enough to build a bridge to any future.
“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, your shallow efforts will fail and be swept away by my power.”
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.
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 had raised my middle digit back at the hoary old sod.
“Go fuck yourself!” I muttered back 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, like a futile relationship with an uninterested woman.
I wondered what hybrid attitude I should instead embrace to find relevance with the changes.
Intrinsically the River God lore was part of Africa’s appeal. Like with the ancient Greeks, I find Africa’s spiritual pantheon 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. 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 had 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 priority when 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 sitting updating my journal in Claudia’s small cottage, I noted that the visit to the Inanke Cave had recharged my soul. There were some places that had barely changed in thirty years, and Like a dream of the long ago land, I had confronted my ghost from the past, which only now was I beginning to form back into the reality of her flesh.
To hell with the water that has flowed down the river, I wrote, and since then been diluted into the flat featureless ocean of our lives. As I attempt to paddle back up the torrent of my life, todays current is waht is important. 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… I 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.
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 the land and a life, as it is with a maiden.
With the toothless grin of Nyami-Nyami leering at the flood of my thoughts, I finished scribbling the last words in the journal, and looked up to see Claudia’s smile walking through the door.
With her head on my lap she purred her pleasure as I massaged her neck and shoulders. It was a ritual I performed each time Claudia returned from the office, and after shemade us both a cup of tea.
“You are wearing colorful clothing again” I stated, “does that mean you’re no longer dealing with that problem client?”
“No.” She replied, “He is out of town for a while. But he will be back soon enough. he is part of the Beyh clan. Very different from the rest of them.”
I flicked my hand at the fly that was buzzing annoyingly over her head.
“I know Mohammed, and I know his sons, and Yusuf the old uncle, who seems to be relatively harmless. I didn’t know there was another member of the Beyh clan in the city.”
Claudia twisted on my lap to lay ffacing me. “Gidi, you don’t know the whole story. It is a story of Africa. You never met old man Beyh, an astute man.. He is now dead. When they Indians were kicked out of Zanzibar, he moved here.”
Claudia closed her eyes in pleasure at my manipulations. “Even as he found himself being expelled by the racial frenzy of the nationalism sweeping across Africa, he saw big opportunities. Nationalism would be Pan-African, it would need logistics, which would cross borders. He recognized that primarily the face off would be between Black Africa and White colonialists. 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 in times of strife.
Beyh senior had his sons set up shop in different countries. Angola, Botswana, Kenya and Mozambique. He himself moved to Zambia with his eldest son Mohammed, my boss.
On Zanzibar the old man had owned a motor repair shop. All his sons knew how to repair and operate big trucks. Old Beyh knew that the revolutionary movements would need logistics. 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 struggles moved. Each of the sons used the same recipe, provided by their father, to set up a Pan-African long-haul trucking network. 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 accented each syllable in the name. There was distaste in her voice, but also a certain respect in the way she said it.
“He is the youngest.” she continued. “You haven’t heard of him, because he controls the affairs of the babe family 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.
To our north the eastern regions of the Congo are so far from the capital that they are barely controlled. It is in the east where many of its minerals are found. There is fierce competition for these. 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 Zambia, is one of those mineral rich wild-west regions. It is where opportunity is rife for the stout of heart. “
As she rolled her head slowly in appreciation to my kneading 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 Beyh brother. Mustafa is uncurling one of his long tentacles. He is sniffing 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 Gidi, that is why I wear formal business suite when he is around. It is to let him know that I am a business person who will not tolerate his presumptions.”