27 – The Book of Gideon (chilanga)

27:        Chilanga

Laying next to her in the “zero-dark-thirty”, 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 ten years younger than myself. Rule two, never have a lover living more than twenty minutes away, because when these 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, Claudia fitted well within the brackets of the first, but she certainly didn’t conform to the second, seeing as it was a seven hours trip from the Kafue River area of my operations. However, she amply made up for it with the curves of her comforts. Her spooned figure fitted to mine as closely as inter-locking jigsaw pieces. More importantly, she didn’t 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.

So it was that rising very early, I made the cups of coffee which were the last touches with her in the darkness of the courtyard. I then left to cross the city from East to West before the traffic escalated to its choking crawl. My first stop would be at Chilanga, on the old road leading down to the Kafue Flats and the Zambezi valley.

Chilanga is the headquarters of the Zambian Wildlife Authority.

At its inception in the colonial days, the HQ was established fa outside the city limits, in a cute little village. It even hosted a zoo which took in and attempted to rehabilitate injured and orphan animals.

Today, the ugly sprawl of the city has over run the area. The nearby cement factory spreads its dust over the vicinity in symbolic scorn at the efforts of the natural world to find relevance in the modern era.

The cynic in me realizes that today national parks everywhere are  essentially glorified zoos, surrounded everywhere by a crushing press of over population, along with the corresponding habitat alteration or destruction.

But, with people 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 counterproductive as national politics.

It was a fractious affair. Due to underfunding, outside donors made up some of the shortfall. But with money comes influence and agenda’s. This was true even to my own situation. It wasn’t only a German banker that I needed to please and whose politics I should understand and be wary of. I needed to keep my finger on the political pulse of the department. It behooved me to know which faction was currently in favor, and which funders were not.  Or which political expediencies were waxing or waning. It was particularly important as I sought to get additional scouting patrols in the Lunga area.

The previous evening an influential friend had invited Claudia and myself to dinner together with the assistant head of ZAWA. During the meal I had broached the subject of the additional scouts. Alfred, the ZAWA man had advised me to work with other donor organizations. The department itself hadn’t the funds. The government was cash-strapped as it was. Contact other organizations he advised. 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. I could glean from those in the trenches what they know about the high-level politics.

After picking up any strategic information at Chilanga,  later on I would also stop at the local Mumbwa field HQ. There, following the customary pies and sodas with Ernst,  I would gather as much  tactical information as possible to aid 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 directing the efforts of the rangers I was training.

For a moment, I thought bitterly of how Ulrich, as he held the purse strings of my project,  had no idea about the complexities, and behind the scenes actions required for successful conservation efforts out here. I bet his son with his degree in biology hadn’t had any lectures on how to work the politics of an African bureaucracy.

But, Ohh well, I thought, that was life. If I was replaced by the banker’s 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, it was all that it took for my best ‘insider’ 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 giving me the names of the ‘best’ persons to call in a number of organizations, my contact escorted me to my vehicle.

“These 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 a vehicle parked a few meters from mine.

Mohammed Beyh was at the wheel.

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The sun teetered on the brink of the western sky as I peeled a few notes from the wad of “kwacha” in my pocket to convince the pontoon crew to make one last late crossing of  the river. Then, in the beams of my headlights, driving along the dirt track skirting the Lodge’s small parking area, I noticed an unfamiliar vehicle.

Flipping back through my memory, I recalled Precious mentioning a late booking.

A few minutes later, drawing closer to the campsite where our tents were set up, I saw that Moses had the embers glowing in the fire pit. It spread its welcoming glow on my forearms prior to me stretching my palms towards its warmth. It felt good being back in the Bush after the sojourn in the cities.

With all the changes to the Africa I knew in yesteryear, the ritual of sitting before a camp fire in the Bush was the same.  The “new Africa” hadn’t yet robbed me of this pleasure of its remote bush, a campfire, the sounds of the night creatures, and a unique friend with whom I had shared so many  joys and tribulations .

“You’re a star!” I said when I saw he had the 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. Moses chuckled at me.

“It wasn’t hard to guess you would soon be here. After the rain, the air is very still tonight. Sounds travel a long way. I heard your vehicle as it came through the dambo on the other side of the Lodge.” Crouching I rubbed 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.”

“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 dry strips of meat, Moses prepared our coffee. Then we sat sipping, munching and staring into the hypnotic flicker of the flames.

“How did it go down south?” he asked.

“Not so good. It is hard to tell with Germans. The main donor is a German, the head honcho of a big corporation. He wants metrics. His time scales are unrealistic. He thinks 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. One cannot look up the growth in a population of Puku like the interest on a trust account. I requested a budget for camera traps to start some sort of measurement to demonstrate success. But that will take years to get 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 they will keep funding for another year, maybe. After that I don’t know. “

I sat silently listening to a fruit bat peeping rhythmically in the tree overhead.

“I was cheeky to the asshole at the end. So I don’t think that I made friends. As they say, ‘friends come and go, enemies stay forever’. So we will see.”

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 hadn’t been Africa’s plan.

“Moses,” I said softly, “You and I have learned to exist day by day, month by month. Who knows what and where we will be 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. It does not age. The only thing that destroys it are humans.

I looked at Moses as I asked him, “Is that the work of a God or a Devil?”

He shrugged.

Prophetically, across the river came the warning cough of an Impala, followed by a distress bleat.  In reverence to its sacrifice we sat silently listening to its last bleats of life. A leopard had been successful with its prowling.

Finishing our sandwiches and sipping the last dregs of coffee, I asked,  “So tell me what have you found so far? Did you discover anything about what’s been going on?”

Moses raised his hand to scratch his chin. “Yes, but it wasn’t quite what I expected.” “There are some strange interactions which are confusing the picture.”

Then he frowned as he organized the sequence of his thoughts.

“We know that there is an old man messing about with witchcraft. For some reason he is inciting and stirring up the local population, with rumors, stories, and the usual stuff that presses superstitious buttons.”

Moses leaned sideways as he stretched his arm to set his mug on the ground.

“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.

“I wanted to find out if this individual was the real deal. Was he a genuine nganga? 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 nganga he would need to communicate with his spirits. The African spirit beliefs keep their ghosts close at hand. They are not out beyond the galaxies. So where could this be?”

I grinned at him, “Hey, sign me up. When I check out, I want to keep my spirit close to here, not up in some damned far away heaven.”

“Now, now!” Moses admonished, “There is no need for you to be disrespectful. One of these days God is finally going to slap you on the wrist for being cheeky.”

He pulled a long dour prophetic face .

“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 that cliff there.”

I rose and pushed the beaker pot back into the fire to boil more water.

Moses went on talking. “I started by making friends with the ranger scouts 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 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 superstitions. It is the sort of area to which a new nganga would gravitate. People would take him seriously if they knew it was where 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 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 track.

Interestingly I discovered that he walks in to his cave, using different routes, that 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 watched as I took the beaker of boiling water away from the fire.

Then he continued as I made us both another cup of coffee.

He 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.

Moses sipped the coffee I handed him. “As we learned in Angola, often to ambush a high value target, you sometimes have to wait for a while.”

We listened as a lion roared downriver beyond the lodge.

“A few nights ago I saw who he was meeting. That is where things began to get confusing.”

Moses stood up and paced around the fire.

“Up to the it was a story of a nganga moving into a new area. The only unusual thing was that there were very few people in this territory. It is hard to be a religious leader without a congregation to lead.”

I sarcastically interjected, “They don’t lead, they manipulate.” Then I asked, “Who was the meeting with?”

Moses was silent for a few moments.

“They meet with the two Russians staying at Alan’s lodge. Before then they had never left their vehicle when they met, so I couldn’t see their boot-prints. But during the last rendezvous they god out for some reason. So I  saw their prints and who they were.

Then 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 stared curiously at Moses.

“Wow!” So what do you think is going on?”

Moses shrugged.

“I have no idea, but the strange behavior of the Russians has something to do with it. They have been here for a month. From what I hear from their camp, they do no hunting. They are up to something.”

We sat looking into the embers of the fire and thinking.

From 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.

“It would be worth trying to coax some 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. “That might not be a bad idea. 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, who went back to Lusaka a few days ago.” Moses spoke nonchalantly, “the two woman stop by here a few days ago. They are bored. The friend is not too happy about the alcohol restrictions being imposed by daddy.”

“Actually, they have stopped by a few times, at least one of them has.”

“Are the woman good-looking?” I asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“I”m curious, because maybe we can use them as bait to bring in the Russians. Those two were not exactly a faithful pair of husbands, straining at the bit to get home to their darling spouses.”

“Yes,” Moses agreed, “the women are lookers. The one is tall and fair, the other short and dark.”  He fixed my face with the flint of his gaze. “She is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Moses!” I teased him, “that is the first time I have 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.”

I grinned broadly at him as he glared back.