29 – The Book of Gideon (scar)

29: Scar

The road between the Lubungu and the Lunga pontoons has held up remarkably well considering its gravel surface has seen scant maintenance for the past decade. As the road meanders northwards, where it meets the Lunga River its gradient dips down steeply into a gap carved in the river bank forming a loading pad. Here the drawbridge of the metal monster is pushed up onto the soil by the momentum of its approach, making it easy for vehicles to drive up onto its platform.

Moses stood beside me, facing towards the cab of our vehicle, with his elbows resting on the hood as he looked down and scratched at a few pebbles with the toe of his shoe. Our patience was waning.

“If I had to start a war in this part of Africa,” I said to him, “Sunday morning is when I would begin shooting.”

Pausing the scratching of the gravel, he turned his head to look at me with a quizzical grin on his face.

“Very little shooting would be necessary, “I muttered, “It would all be over in minutes. All those buggers over there are still so hungover, they wouldn’t even be able to find their guns let alone their god-damned rifles.”

Moses pursed his lips, “Guns? Rifles?”

“Yup,” I said testily. ”Remember how Sergeant-major Oliveira would make new recruits grab their package and repeat after him ‘this is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for shooting, this is for fun’. These buggers are so wasted they couldn’t even point their guns out their pants to piss.”

“I wonder where those sods managed to get enough hooch to get so motherless? “ I bet they started binging on Friday.”

Finally a lethargic figure appeared at the top of the opposite bank. He slowly carried a big blue plastic canister down the slope and out onto the pontoons platform. He then equally slowly began to pour its contents into a funnel inserted into the tank of one of its swivel engines.

Moses went back to scratching the dirt with his tow.

Plenty of patience is a necessity in Africa. Both of us had accommodated it by departing our camp before dawn for the long rutted ride up to the village.

A second figure, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes followed the first down the bank. He stepped aboard and waited for his peer to finish filling the other engine. Fishing a rag out of a scruffy plastic can, he used this to wipe a dipstick to check the engines oil.

Watching this performance I sarcastically commented to Moses, “Why do things in parallel, when you can waste more time doing them serially. If this was anywhere else in the world one would assume that these clowns were union men being paid by the hour.”

I dug deeper into the reserves of my patients. The first man walked slowly up the slope and headed away until the top of his head disappeared into the long grass at the side of the road.

“What the hell are they up to now?” I asked.

Moses turned around and called out across the river, and a few sentences were shouted back and forth in Kaunde, before he turned back to me.

“The book. They have gone to get the man with the book.”

I shook my head. Some scientist type should research if it is nature or nurture that gives the African soul such a large compliment of patience, from the moment they are born. Moses and I had spent so many years together on operations, whose success depended on meticulous timing, and yet, even with him, his ‘fuse’ was always longer than mine.

Fuming was a waste, there was nothing to do but wait for the crew to get its painstaking act together.

The pontoon crew saw themselves as doing us a favor, they didn’t see themselves as providing customer service. Especially not on a Sunday morning.

Leaning against the front of the land cruiser, I slapped at an annoying tsetse fliy. They were bad today!

My frustration stemmed from impatience. I wanted to get on with the followup chase.

Yesterday I had sent a message to the scout stick leader by courier. It was when a report came in on the lodge radio from the men guarding the materials at the new lodge site that they had heard nearby shots fired during the night.

With the pontoon still moored on the far bank, I wondered how long it would take to pick up the six patrol team scouts. From the moment one crosses the river, until reaching the district capital of Kasempa, the roads condition will make it a six hour trip for any brave soul to travel the next 80 kms. This havoc is wreaked upon the road by the big trucks moving copper ore. Not even the South Africans, let alone the Chinese, can build a dirt road to stand that sort of punishment. Their efforts are churned into a quagmire when it rains.

The huts of the village are dribbled down that quagmire in a desultory fashion until they reach the inconspicuous track leading to the parks northern Kabanga gate. Two of the scouts lived at that far extremity.

It was with no pleasure that I contemplated three hours crawling from one mud bath to the next, with the diff locked and the vehicle in low -ratio. My only consolation was on the way back, we would have a complement of strong men to push the vehicle through the mud, should it be necessary.

My annoyance was distracted by the sound of engines as two vehicles drew up behind ours.

To my surprise it was Alexei driving one, accompanied by his father.

As the pair stepped out of their vehicle I greeted them. They responded warmly enough and asked where I’d been and what I was doing. I explained I was headed to pick up scouts after their leave rotation, and was going to deploy them in an area which was hosting some suspicious activity.

Alexi nodded a greeting to Moses, who raised his hand in a perfunctory salutation. Vladimir on the other hand glared back when Moses called a taunting toned “good morning” across the roof of our vehicle.

He still harbored a grudge.

Alexei mumbled evasively to my query as to where they were headed, something up north a way, ‘to check it out’.

“Hunting?” I asked. Surely not. You will be outside the GMA.”

“Nyet,” He replied, “we also do some consulting.” After a brief pause and a shrug of his shoulders, “For mining,” he said.

“Are you still at Alan’s camp?” I asked, and was taken aback when he answered in the affirmative.

I whistled, “That must be costing you a pretty penny!”

Alexei smiled with a shrugged. “We have good client who pays well.”

An occupant from the last vehicle walked towards us. He stopped and beckoned to Vladimir, who walked across and bent his head forward with a slight sideways cock, as they conversed in quiet tones. The man then return to his vehicle, being driven by what I assume was a servant, because he held the door open for his master.

This man’s hair was tinged with grey, indicating his maturity. His white cotton shirt was tucked neatly into long charcoal trousers slightly crumpled around his waist by the clasp of a thin black leather belt.

There was a dark ochre tone to his skin, and there was something Hamitic about his hawk-like features. It suggested an ancestry blended from the aristocratic Indian traders of Gujerat, with that of the occasional concubine from Aden, the stock who long ago stretched out and dabbled in the slave trade of East Africa.

I turned to Alexi. “Hmmm. Who is that? Not exactly a friendly type!”

“Is he travelling with you?” I asked.

Alexei regarded me with surprised curiosity. “Haven’t you met him yet? He is staying at your lodge.”

It was my turn to be surprised. “Really, that must be Mustafa Beyh!”

I peered intently at his vehicle, trying to make out the features of the man masked by the glass of the windshield.

“No, I was away. I only arrived back two nights ago.” I retorted, “And he has not been around.”

“So what does he do with you?” I queried.

“He is an investor.”

I remembered them mentioning at our previous meeting that they were involved with mining operations in Africa. Their lack of interest in hunting now made sense. They were at the hunting camp for its convenient luxury.

Detecting Alexei’s reluctance to talk, I turned to look at the river as the first thump of the single cylinder diesel signaled its coming to life. With flywheel spinning, its billow of black smoke drifted across the water like a squirt of squid’s ink.

Everyone’s attention was drawn to the pontoon as it crept across the river towards us.

It was an opportunity to have a last leak.

Walking up the roads gradient, I cut off to the side where the underbrush scratches at passing vehicles as it encroaches on the waiting area.

After relieving myself I walk back.

The tall thin Gujerati was standing behind his vehicle, where he had taken off his long sleeved shirt. He pulled an under vest up over his head. The suns morning rays had reached the cab of his cruiser. Without the engine and air-conditioning running, it was getting warm in the cab.

He tossed the vest through the open window. Then raising his arms he slid them through the sleeves of his shirt, so it dropped back over his head and down his chest.

For a brief moment as he fumbled to find the sleeves, his upper torso was exposed to my view.

The skin of his narrow chest was covered with the welted tautness of a big scar. The blemish of its pale color contrasted sharply with the ochre chocolate of his skin. It was as if boiling oil had been poured down from the top of his chest.

In a widening splash it spread down, then puddled out to one side across his belly.

It stuck in my mind. But I couldn’t figure out why.

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*********

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I was in a hurry, probably futiley so. The poachers would be long gone. The report of a shot fired was already a day old. However my sense of urgency persisted. Thus the road can be frustrating, exasperating, like now when the vehicles progress, already limited by its corrugation induced shudders is slowed further by an obstacle. It was a tree toppled across the road by an elephant. The footprints of the herd were dappled over its surface like lily pads across a pond.

It had been a big heard. Chewed and discarded branches lay spread over a wide swathe.

They had crossed the road only a half hour before, some of the dung piles still had steaming wisps of foggy vapor.

At least I had collected the six scouts in less time than I had anticipated. So now there was nothing to do except bottle my frustrations.

I brought the snout of our vehicle to a stop before the fallen tree, and stretched back in my seat with an annoyed abruptness.

If we did nothing about it the tree could remain for months. It was too large to be summarily dragged aside, and the Bush on either side sufficiently accommodating to allow a detour.

If I pioneered a skirting path my tracks would be widened with successive vehicles following sheep-like. Each set of wheels would press into the sand and mud, until the trenches were impassable. Then others would circle further out, until the obstacle is surrounded by rings of rutted inconvenience.

Moses looked at me with mild curiosity, waiting to see what I would do.

Switching off the engine, I took out my knife and started cleaning the grime from my nails, left there from a wheel change I had done earlier in the day.

“Can you ask the scouts to cut the tree?” I asked him, “The government pretends to maintain the road, like it is pretending to be paying all the scouts salary, so we may as well get our money’s worth from them.”

I watched as the raised sinewy ebony arms of two men drove the flared blades of their bush axes into the tree’s flesh. Each swing as effortlessly and precisely executed as the wrist pivoted chip of a professional golfer. Angled first from the left than the right, or the top after the bottom, in successive patterns, each bushmaster chopped their wedges into the bark, until the tree slowly sank its stiff form into a shapeless pile of wood, chips, and straggly branches.

I was touched with sadness as the regal tree crumpled into formless lumber. A few hours earlier we had driven past it when it was one of the proud pantheons making the Miombo woodland of the Kafue valley so special.

“Isn’t the bush beautiful?”

Looking beyond the butchering of the tree, I gazed down the length of the road as it leaned gradually sideways before burrowing into the canopy of the tall woodland far ahead.

 “It is only when one is dispossessed of it, that one realizes how subliminally exquisite it is. But unfortunately that realization is usually too late.”

Moses made an indifferent face. “Oh boy!” he cocked his head without returning my glance, “Who kicked the cot of your philosopher this morning? What woke your deep thinking?”

“’I’m serious. Consider how lucky you and I are to be sitting here. Looking at a tree pushed over by an elephant, in a place in the world which, for at least a hundred kilometers roundabout is still untouched by man. You and I have so often been dispossessed, not just by others and circumstance, but even by our own stupidity. None of that has yet taken this stuff away from us.”

“What do you mean?” he had a quizzical look on his face.

“Where else in the world is someone sitting in the middle of a Garden of Eden, watching a tree pushed over by an elephant as it is cut up? You have to admit it is unique.”

Moses shrugged his shoulders, “So what is your point?”

Look carefully at this road,” I said to him, “it stretches along what other people think is monotony.”

It isn’t philosophy I’m talking about. It’s our ability to recognize when life is so good that it is paradise.

Once gone, like with an old girlfriend, you can’t pick up where you left off. A woman’s beauty fades. That of the bush doesn’t. Everything that we’ve known in life has changed. Only the sun, the stars, the moon, the wind and this bush woodland has not. It doesn’t grow old, it comes back to life when the rains return. It is magical for me. I don’t want to lose it, or leave it”

I gestured towards where the scouts were pulling the last remaining branches and chopped up sections of the trunk to the side of the road, “look at how easily we can kill a pillar in Gods Garden.”

That is why we are here, to make all this last as long as possible. . We humans too easily take the familiar for granted. Even when it is paradise., a shrinking paradise.”

“Sheesh!” Moses exclaimed, “The philosopher in you certainly has had a lot of coffee this morning and is on a buzz.”

I ignored him. “There are few things that I haven’t fallen in and out of love with. About the only thing I’ve remained true to is the Bush. In some ways it has replaced my need for people. Both of us have lost much that was important. I have lost the country I grew up in. It has a different name. So are its towns, its streets and rivers. Because I am a mzungu I’m a pariah in the country of my birth. But the towns and names are just human veneers.”

I watched as the scouts dragged the cut branches to the side of the road andpiled them up.

“Here I can reach out for that underlying essence of my land, and touch what I love, smell its smells, feel its sweat on the skin of my arms and ankles, its hair brushing my legs as I walk, and the sound of its breath in the rustle of the leaves.”

I paused for a moment. “You, you did not lose your country, instead it was your family. I sometimes wonder what that must be like, how it affected you. Do you wonder about your mother?”

 I peered at him. “I guess Father Xavier must have told you about her.”

He nodded imperceptibly.

“Do you sometimes wonder about your father? Do you wonder about brothers or sisters?”

The tree was now cleared and as the scouts clambered back onto the vehicle, I let out the clutch.

Looking at the pathetic pile of branches piled upside down where only hours ago it held its lofy crown up to the skies, my mind suddenly took the image lurking in my subconscious and flipped it bottom to top. It was the scar on Mustafa’s chest.

With a shock I realized that inverted it was like a map of Africa, exactly as Father Xavier had described.

Unconsciously it had driven the drift of my questions to Moses. Questions which equally suddenly I was too conflicted about to ask further of him.

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**********

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I pushed my anxieties to the back of my mind as I concentrated on negotiating the primitive bush track from the main road to the new lodge site. It led westward through thick wooded patches interspersed with open marshy sections. We were forced to skirt far out around these waterlogged dambos, as well as cross two deep washouts before finally reaching the Lunga River and the construction site.

There was barely any evidence of the Kikuji luxury lodge. Its future chiteng would be in the shade of a gigantic Mahogany, towering its ebullience over that of its peers. Under the tree was a platform onto which were piled the blocks, metal sheeting and other construction material. Over it a framework of wood held up a canvas tarpaulin covering the goods. Three guards were using this as their camp site shelter.

It already being mid-afternoon by the time we arrived,

From the guard’s description, the shots had been close. I was worried that there was a message in their proximity. Shots alone would suggest a hit and run operation. But if we also found snares it would imply a taunting, mocking of authority. “Catch us if you can”, a deliberate taunting arrogance.. “We will be back to check the snares.”

 Moses and I joined the scouts on a short patrol downriver on its east bank to see if we could find the tracks of the shooters.

Having recently rained it was unlikely we would pick up any tracks.

It didn’t take long to find the first blatantly set snare!

On either side of a well-worn game trail leading down through a break in the undergrowth at the river’s edge, cut brush was piled loosely to funnel any hapless animal towards a waiting wire noose.

It was a flagrant throwing down of the gauntlet. I tried to remember the wording of the warning note, left here, what now seem so long ago.

“Moses, “I asked, “what do you think?” It looks like somebody is playing games with us. Like we did in Angola, “tempting” with a small bait, for others to follow us, so we could pulverize them when they walk into our ambushes.”

“Yes!” he replied, “But I am not sure that is the motive. It might just be that they want to scare us away.”

“Why would a snare scare us?” I asked.

“Because there is muti involved.” He said. “Where the snare was tied to the tree, the wire was slipped through the vertebra of a jackal.”

Moses let his words sink in, “I suspected this, so I looked for it. It was a small bone pressed into the flakey bark of the tree. I removed it before the scouts noticed it. I didn’t want them to be worried about following these people if they were protected by muti.”

“Maybe it was only this one, but if there are more, we need to find these muti snares and remove them. We do not need the word getting out that the poachers have a mganga on their side.”

“Damn!’ I exclaimed, “all I need is another scout or two to get spooked and disappear.”

Moses gestured across to the other side of the river.

“I will go with the scouts tomorrow and look for sign further down, on this side of the river, But I think that you should go to ZAWA in Mumbwa and ask for them to deploy another stick. They can start at the confluence and search on the other side of the river, in case. You need to be with them,” he said.

You need to look for those muti snares and untie them before a scout does.

“OK,” I replied, I will head back immediately and spend the night at our lodge, so that I can get an early start for Mumbwa.”

Moses could detect the concern in my voice.

“You seem especially upset. Why?”

I shrugged. If only he knew the extend of it all..

“One of my main fears is for more scouts to quit if they are scared away by witchcraft.

My boss Jean said that Ulrich told him that in his opinion, I was to blame for any team member who quit. Ulrich did not want to waste money training scouts who left because of my ‘bad leadership’, as he put it.

He has no idea about the power of witchcraft and how it affects some people out here.

My job is on the line if we do not get to the bottom of this stuff soon.