Chapter 24: Chilanga
Lying next to her in the “0 dark 30”, which comes long before the earliest of the roosters of Lusaka commence their crowing, I considered how Claudia unconsciously compensated for the transgression of my relationship rules.
Rule one was never have a lover younger than 10 years than myself. Rule two, never have a lover more than 20 minutes away, because when these young rules were being formulated, it was more tempting to pop the top off a beer, than waste 20 minutes getting to any favors.
Now, decades after I had formulated them, in Claudia’s case, she fitted well within the lower brackets of rule one, but she certainly didn’t conform to rule 2. It was a seven hours trip from the Kafue River area of my operations.
However, Claudia amply made up for rule two with the curves of her comforts. Her spooned figure fitted to mine as closely as the inter-locking of jigsaw pieces. More importantly, she did not mind my snoring. She had my permission to dig me in the ribs if I was laying on my noisy back, thereby signaling for a roll onto my quieter side. Sleep with her was bliss, it made up for any and all other mismatches.
I rose and made the cups of coffee which were the last touches with her in the dark and quiet seclusion of the small courtyard.
I then left to cross the city from East to West before the traffic escalated to its usual choking crawl. My first early stop was at Chilanga, on the old road that led down to the Kafue Flats and eventually the Zambezi valley.
Chilanga is the headquarters of the Zambian Wildlife Authority.
At its inception in the colonial days, the HQ found itself way outside the city limits, in a cute little village, which even hosted an auspicious little zoo, overseen by the department. It augmented the sense of closeness to the wildlife that the headquarters projected to the world. But today, the ugly sprawl of the city has over run the area. The huge cement factory nearby now spreads its grey dust over the area. It does so in almost symbolic scorn at the efforts of the department to protect the natural worlds struggle to find relevance in the modern era.
The cynic in me realized that today national parks all over the world are simply glorified zoos, for the entertainment of the crushing press of surrounding over population. When looked at in this perspective, the department was keeping to its traditions, essentially ZAWA, was still simply a glorified zoo keeping department.
But, with ppeople comes politics. In African Wildlife conservation, the frequently petty egos involved affect the management of wildlife in a way that is often as back stabbing and destructive as any street turf war.
The under-current of in-fighting tends to sap much of the energy and efficiency that could be spent in fulfilling the mandate of protecting the natural world.
With all this in mind, it was not just a German banker that I needed to please and whose politics I should understand. To be successful at my job, I learned early that I needed to keep my finger on the political pulse everywhere. It behooved me to know which faction was currently in favor, or ascendancy, and which have fallen fowl of funders, or political expediencies. This was particularly true at that moment when I was seeking to get additional scouting patrols in the Lunga area.
The previous evening my friend Kay had delivered on his promise. He and his wife had invited Claudia and myself out to dinner, which had been attended by the assistant head of ZAWA. During this dinner I had broached the subject of the additional scouts. Alfred, the ZAWA man had advised me that the best way to get this done would be to work with some of the other donor organizations. That was because the department itself had not the funds for this, nor was it likely to get any additional funding. The government was sufficiently cash-strapped as it was. Try and get the contact information for other organizations he advised, and when I had arranged sufficient funds, and long-term funding commitment, get back to him.
Thus, my side step on the way back to the Lodge was in this intelligence gathering spirit, to have a good chat with a few of my “buddies” at the Chilanga HQ. It was there I could glean from those in the trenches what they know about the high-level politics.
Currently the government seemed, once again not to have a clear idea of how exactly to run or fund the national assets.
Should the department be a self -funding parastatal, or a fully integrated government department? If so how much control would be allowed to outsiders? How successful would the Yanks be with their “Nature Conservancy” trying to muscle in on the leadership action. What about the big cat conservancy? They also appeared to expect a bigger role. Or should it be given out to a private concern, like those that operate in some of the East African parks.
Any changes in the status quo could quickly and severely affect my job and employment. It was why I needed to understand the politics and who to approach.
As a mzungu outsider, it would be best to know who to pander to. I had to be a beggar for the scraps of information which would help me survive. Even more importantly it would allow me to live in the sort of Africa I regarded as my home.
Of course, to complicate matters, the ZAWA always play second fiddle to the department of mining. What was the word on the street? Which of the big conglomerates would be interested in taking over concession rights.
Would their interests fall within those of existing conservation areas, such as the Lunga-uswishi.
The Lodge itself was cited on land which once, in the middle of last century, was a prospecting camp.
My stop at Chilanga would provide useful information that I could use to guide my destiny at a high level.
Later, on the way back, I would also stop at the local Mumbwa field HQ. There, after the customary pies and sodas with Ernst,
I would glean the tactical information I needed for my job. They would know which areas were facing greater poaching pressure. I could get a hint of how organized these poachers were and how I should respond by indirectly directing my efforts of the rangers I was training.
For a moment, I thought bitterly of how Ulrich had no idea about the complexities, and behind the scenes actions that actually went into successful conservation efforts out here. I bet his son with his degree in biology had not had any lectures on how to work the politics of an African bureaucracy.
But, Ohh well, that was life.. And if I got replaced by his son I wondered how far he would get.
Thus in Chilanga, sharing a bunch of bananas purchased at the side of the road, and a few bottles of Cola, was all that it took for my best contact to fill me in.
He was still unsure exactly how some of the big foreign endeavors fitted into the picture.
“Yes, all these people”, he said, “they think that they can come in here and run things. But you know the politics of Africa, it is rough. Our African politics is a contact sport. The higher ups are not willing to give up power, and even more importantly they will not give up the money they can make from granted favors.”
After having given me the ‘best’ contact person in a number of organizations, my contact spoke to me as he escorted me back to my vehicle.
“These people are the ones who can get things done” he told me. “They are not necessarily the official people.”
I thanked him for his insights.
As I started the engine another vehicle pulled into a parking bay a few meters away.
Mohammed Beyh was at the wheel.
The sun was hovering at the edge of the western sky as I peeled a few notes from the wad of “Kwacha” in my pocket to convince the crew at the pontoon to make one last late trip across the river.
Then in the beams of my had-lights, driving along the dirt track skirting the lodge’s small parking area, I noticed an unfamiliar land cruiser.
Flipping back through my memory I vaguely recalled Precious mentioning they were expecting a late booking.
A few minutes later, drawing closer to the campsite where our two tents were set up, I saw that Moses had the embers glowing in the fire pit.
When the moist winds have banished the oppressing heat of October, sometimes in the evening after a line of thunderstorms from a low-pressure system have passed by, a faint edge of coolness remains in the air. It was such an evening, and I could feel the fires welcoming glow on my forearms prior to spreading my palms towards its warmth.
It felt so good being back in the Bush after the sojourn in the cities.
With all the changes in the Africa that I once knew in yesteryear, , the ritual of a fire next to a tent in the Bush was one of the few things that had not changed. The “new Africa” had not yet robbed me of this pleasure of a remote piece of its Bush, or a small campfire, the sounds of the night creatures, and a special friend with whom I had shared so many of the joys and tribulations of this continent.
“You’re a star!” I said to Moses when I saw that he had the little tin beaker tucked into the glow of the embers, where it was hissing on its way to boiling the water for two cups of coffee.
He chuckled at me, “It was not hard to guess you would soon be here. After the rain the air is very still tonight. The sounds travel a long way. I heard your vehicle as it came through the dambo on the other side of the Lodge.”
I crouched to rub my hands together close to the embers, “I’m hungry. All I ate today was a banana at Chilanga, and a piece of village chicken at the “Aunty Mercy” motel store in Mumbwa. To get it soft enough they had to boil the fucking thing with a brick in the pot, and then they served me the chicken, and the brick to someone who wanted something softer and tastier.”
“Have you already eaten?” I asked.
“Of course I have!” I didn’t think that you would make it across the ferry. But if you make me half a biltong sandwich I will join you.”
While I was slicing and buttering the bread, and grating the hard dry strips of meat, Moses prepared our cups of coffee. Then we sat sipping and munching while staring into the hypnotic flicker of the flames.
“So, how did it go down south?” he asked.
“Not so good. But it is hard to tell with Germans. He wants metrics. But the time scales are unrealistic. The main guy thinks only in terms of quarterly profit and loss statements to investors. I suspect that he wants to show off to his board of directors about metrics of poachers caught, animal numbers rising etc.. But a herd of impala doesn’t flick out of a cash machine like a fistful of Deutschmarks , and one cannot look up the growth in a population of Puku like the interest on a trust account.
I asked for a budget for camera traps to start some sort of measurement to demonstrate success. But that will take years to give results. I’m not sure if he has the patience to continue the support for years until we have proof that our efforts have paid off.
In the meantime I think that they will keep funding for another year, maybe. After that I don’t know.
I wsa bit cheeky to the asshole at the end. So I don’t think that I made friends. But as they say, ‘friends come and go, enemies stay forever’. So we will see.”
Sitting staring at the flames, my mind went over how life had been a long sequence of “don’t knows”. If there had been any semblance of normalcy, I would probably have inherited the family farm, and I would be a farmer.
But that was not Africa’s plan.
“Moses,” I said softly, “You and I have both learned to exist day by day, month by month. Who knows where we will be and doing once this gig is up.”
I sat for a while before continuing. “Hopefully it will be in the Bush somewhere. It is the only place that doesn’t break its promises, or kick us out. It is the only gift life has given us. Unlike us, it does not age. It keeps being rejuvenated. If it is not destroyed by humans.
I looked at Moses as I asked him, “Is that the work of a God or a Devil.”
Moses shrugged his shoulders.
Almost prophetically, across the river came the warning cough of an Impala. There was probably a Leopard on the prowl.
It was after we had finished our sandwiches and sat sipping the last dregs of coffee at the bottom of our mugs, that I asked him what happened out here while I was away.
“So tell me what have you found so far? Did you discover anything about what’s been going on here?”
Moses raised his hand and gave his chin a scratch. “Yes, but it was not quite what I expected.”
“There are some strange interactions which are confusing the picture.”
Moses paused as if to organize the sequence of his thoughts before continuing.
“We know that there is an old man messing about with witchcraft. That for some reason he is inciting and stirring up the local population, with rumors and stories, and the usual stuff that presses the superstitious buttons.”
Moses leaned sideways and stretched his arm to set his mug on the ground beside his chair.
“This individual is not from here, although he is familiar with the area. So why is he here, why now?”
“OK, I agree with all that” I said, and waited for Moses to continue.
“To begin with I wanted to find out if this individual was the real deal. Was he a genuine sangoma? Did he have a basis in his witchcraft?
If he was, he would have a place where he could focus and concentrate his ritual practices. If he were a real sangoma he would need to communicate with his spirits. The African spirit beliefs keep their ghosts and spirits close at hand. They are not way out beyond the reaches of the galaxies. . Where there is a sangoma he keeps the spirits gathered around him. So where could this be?”
I smiled at Moses. “Hey, sign me up. When I check out, I want to keep my spirit close to here, not up in some fucking far away heaven.”
“Now, now!” Moses admonished, “There is no need for you to be disrespectful. One of these days God is also going to slap you on the wrist for being cheeky.”
He smiled and pulled a prophetic face before continuing.
“But anyway, I had a hunch that the area around the confluence of the rivers, with its hills and cliffs would be a good place to start looking, especially since we saw him shouting at us from the top of a cliff there.”
I rose and pushed the beaker back into the fire to boil more water.
Moses went on talking. “I started by making friends with the rangers at their pontoon patrol base. There they showed me where, not far downriver at the foot of the cliffs a mental man had lived on the river bank. He had simply lived in a scrape under the trees for years with no shelter. They also told me of the rumor of a white farmer, who during the uneasy days after independence converted his wealth into gold. The rumor is that he buried it on the hills above the cliffs before he died. All of these strange things give the area a special significance when it comes to the superstitions in the hearts of the people. It is the sort of area to which a new sangoma would gravitate. People would take him more seriously if they knew it was there that he made his magic.”
I handed Moses a rusk biscuit from a pack on the ground next to me.
“With a bit of scouting around it didn’t take too long to find a cave.” Moses continued. “It seemed to have been ritualistically used for a long time. There were faint totems engraved on the rock walls.
From the tracks on the ground, it was obvious the place was visited frequently.
But for some reason it took a while for him to visit when I was staking it out. So it also took a while to get on his sign.
Interestingly I discovered that he walks in to his cave, using different routes, and he goes to great efforts to hide his movements.
He arrives from further away on a bicycle which he hides in thick bushes near the road.“
Moses stopped speaking and watched me as I took the beaker of boiling water away from the fire.
Then he went on speaking as I started to make us both another cup of coffee.
“I discovered that he only travels on his bicycle at night, when there is little chance of meeting another vehicle.
He regularly meets someone at the old construction quarry on the road, not too far from where our lodge road joins it.
He doesn’t trust whoever he meets there. He hides his bicycle far away, and walks in towards the meeting place from different directions.”
Moses sipped the cup of coffee I handed him. “As we learned in Angola, often to ambush a high value target, you have to lay in wait for a long time.”
It was a few nights ago that I saw who he was meeting. That is where things began to get confusing.”
Moses stopped as if to organize his telling.
“Up to that point it seemed to be a story of a sangoma, moving into a new area. The strange thing was that there were very few people in this territory. Like politicians, it is hard to be a religious leader without people to lead.”
I sarcastically interjected, “They don’t lead, they manipulate.” Then I asked, “Who was the meeting with?”
Moses did not speak for a few moments.
“The meetings are with the two Russians. Before then the Russians had never left their vehicles when they met, and I could not recognize their boot prints. But this last time they did.
But things got even stranger.
Another vehicle arrived.
This time it was late at night. It was an important meeting. The new vehicle arrived from the direction of the Lunga pontoon. But that pontoon does not operate after dark, so where they came from I do not know. Either that or they bribed the crew even more than you did to get across late at night. Like with the Russians, there were two men in the new vehicle. They spoke Spanish to each other. I picked up the odd word, from my Portuguese, but I couldn’t understand the gist of what they were saying. They spoke for about half an hour. The Russians left, and the Spanish speakers headed back north. The old man disappeared into the Bush.”
I didn’t interrupt Moses during his update.
“Wow!” So what do you think is going on?”
“I have no idea, but the strange behavior of the Russians has something to do with it. They have been here for a month. But what I hear from their camp, they do no hunting. They are looking for something else.”
We sat looking into the embers of the fire and thinking.
From somewhere between our camp and the Lodge, came a series of high pitched, throaty yelps. A side-striped Jackal had started its evening search for food. Somewhere beyond it came the trill of a Scops Owl.
I listened for a while.
“It would be worth our while to coax more information out of those two son-of-a-bitch Russians!” I said to Moses. “Maybe we should eat our pride and go over to visit them again up at Alan’s camp, and kiss their asses.”
Moses kicked at a log which had burned back from the fire. A shower of sparks arched into the air for a second.
“The best way to get information out of those two characters is to get them motherless drunk. We should figure out how to get them over here and give them free booze.”
Moses cleared his throat. “Actually that might not be a bad idea. It seems that most of the guests at the Lodge right now don’t drink too much alcohol, so maybe they could spare us a few bottles of whiskey and vodka at cost.”
“Have you met the latest guests over there? I asked him curiously.
“Yes, there is a father and daughter, and the daughter’s friend. For a few days there was also the brother of the older guy.” Moses spoke nonchalantly, “the two woman stop by here a few days ago. They are bored. The friend is not too happy about the sparse rations of alcohol.”
“Actually, they have stopped by a few times, at least one of them has.”
“Are the woman good-looking?” I asked him.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I”m curious, because maybe we can use them as bait to bring in the Russians. It didn’t seem those two were a faithful pair of husbands, straining at the bit to get home to their darling wives.”
“Yes,” Moses agreed, “the women are lookers. The one is a tall pale, the other short and dark.
He paused. “The most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
“Moses!” I teased him, “that is the first time I have ever heard you say that about a woman. We’re going to have to get you out of the Bush if you start talking like that. I can’t have you starting to get Bush-mad”