Early in the morning, leaving Moses and the scouts to continue their patrol down the river I drove back to the lodge, with the intention of travelling the following day to the Mumbwa HQ to speak to senior warden Ernst about an additional scout team to check the west bank of the Lunga River.
The buzz of the cell phone in my pocket brought me back from the mental mulling’s which were besetting me as I drove. I had reached the out-stretched signal of the lodges satellite Wi-Fi.
The pent-up messages of the last few days streamed into the instrument, announcing their arrival with short sharp vibrations.
Stopping in the middle of the road where it skirts the kitchen fence, I scanned the texts.
Maybe there was something important to deal with before I continued back out of Wi-Fi range up at my campsite.
Jean, my boss down in South Africa wanted to talk to me. It was important he said. He was willing to fly up to meet in Lusaka and speak about it in person. Ulrich had called to inquire about another scout quitting. Was this so? Jean wanted to know. If so he needed to discuss things with me before reporting back to Ulrich about our action plan.
It was obvious Ulric saught my hide on his boardroom wall.
With the engine running I sat and stared at the message.
What the hell was I doing here?
How could I ever explain things to a foreigner in his office in Germany about African beliefs. He would assign the same importance to witchcraft’s influence over life out here as he would to the churches in increasingly atheist Europe.
It was hopeless, especially if he was fishing for rumors to validate his preconceived long distance suppositions.
What kind of son of a shallow bitch banker can he be if he thought like this?
Why was this guy even funding conservation in Africa? Was it an echo of his own guilt in the role that Europe laid in messing up the continent in the first place? Maybe from a sense of collective historic guilt he should be considered more culpable than myself. Where I attempted to do something with my sweat, he used other people’s money to buy absolution, cloaked to his shareholders as marketing.
If I could fly high enough to squint down on this flat wide portion of the world, and even without a view of history,I would still see myself for what I am, an African by all measures, except one, a pale skinned descendent of colonialists abandoned out here by the ancestors of those sitting in a comfortable office far from the realities of this continent. To history I was little more than a pale scab on the dark skin of Africa, attempting in my diminutive and most probably futile way, to heal some of its wounds. I could hardly be blamed for the sub-continents old unhealed cuts, let alone for the new, self-inflicted by the inheritors of that native freedom.
But my gloom was accentuated because I am probably too late to take up the scalpel and stitches to any gashes. I realize that issues needing dexterity and mental skill should most effectively be handled by hands younger and steadier than my own past-prime fists. Maybe Ulrich recognized that as well, and wanted to ride the band wagon of replacing the old with new.
I engaged the gear and began to drive on past the Lodge. A flutter from under the chitenges roof caught my attention. It was the silhouette of Lauren’s hand, stretched high above her bare shoulder as she energetically waved at me.
Backlit by the afternoon light in the cool gloom of the chitenge, she wore a tank top and faded cut-off jeans.
Hmm, I thought, today had been sun tan time for those nice long legs and arms, below a bit of burnishing for her shoulders.
So why not catchup with her before I headed to Mumbwa early in the morning. She was fun. I needed something to get me out of my funk.
Stopping, I shouted across at her that I was going to clean up and would be back in an hour.
But leaving her behind my dark mood persisted. Probably it was prodded by the new moral dilemma which droopd its implications over me from the moment I recognized the scar on Mustafa’s chest.
I don’t know why I am drawn to the people and places like this. Is it to escape further back behind blighted relationships and the obliteration of an identity. Or maybe it was an attempt to shape a future as a reflection of an unrealistic ideal of how it should have been. Or maybe it was the only place I thought of as home, which is a very difficult place to leave.
Like a pale pebble laying for years in the dark river bed of life, with all my edges knocked away, what destiny was it that had tossed me into this backwater of Africa, the latest shallow, murky pool of my existence. Would some far away banker toss me into some other dried up pond.
The flotsam of my genome had washed ashore in Table Bay 300 years ago on a Dutch East India-man, , and the rest, a hundred years ago, to a coffee farm, in the highlands of Kenya. Now, that pale pebble my color distinguished me from the thousands round about. But that was sufficient. it singled me out.
“Go, Go now, before it is too late!” Her voice echoed in my mind.
Would it be a banker or a crocodile lurking, waiting to burst out of the slime at the bottom of a pool to grasp my leg, and drag all that awareness of history beneath the ripples of time. It wouldn’t care about my white ‘mzungu’ skin.
Would the darkness of my nurture be enough to make ripples big enough to affect the surface of this wide, flat verdant pool of Eden.
Did I still have enough energy, like the flashes of quartz in a rock, to light up the dimness of a fading life.
Unlike Moses, I am not a believer, but I wished I had his faith. His certainty that it is ordained and has purpose.
Life would be so much easier if I felt it had some grand plan, instead of being brought here on the back of a fucking hyena.
I wondered what had long ago broken the branch of a big Leadwood tree beside the path where it wrapped around the anthill towards the kitchen. The tug of an elephant’s trunk? A thunderstorms billowing downdraught?
Whatever it was, the healing of the break wrapped around to leave an aperture to a glove sized hollow. It was sufficient space for a pair of Arnots Chats to raise a family, a seemingly safe spot, but this was their second attempt.
So what became of the prior brood? Maybe a ground squirrels dash and snatch up the tree trunk, or had the squeaky begging clamors of the chicks caught the attention of a mamba. Had the snake surreptitiously slithered along the branch, peered its big black unblinking eyes into the gloom, whereupon to open the wide grin of its mouth to bite and swallowed the pink cocktails, even as they unwittingly continued to beg for food.
But this time fate was on the side of these latest chattering youngsters. They owed there domicile to the presence of lodge guests back in September, at the time of spring-time nest selection. Being chats, their parents had more tolerance for the presence of humans than the Black-Collared Barbets, whose greater aggressiveness would otherwise have won the struggle for nest real estate.
But, so much for the scolding of the cheeky little black and white birds, it was Lauren’s figure standing out on the deck that drew my attention as I pulled into the parking area.
I was ready to embrace her fun and let it distract me from the concerns, anxieties and moral dilemmas.
Walking across to join her an unusually boisterous rush of air buffeted the tops of the trees. From there its fervor tumble down the slope towards the river, shaking the shrubs growing in the gully running along one side of the chitenge. Rising, it playfully pushed at the woven reed matting along one of the walls, before its final mischievous act, snatching my floppy hat and tossing it into the grass. Bending to retrieve it, I noticed an unfamiliar vehicle partly obscured beyond the nearest chalet.
With my faded cloth crown back bolstering my pride, I acknowledged Lauren’s breezy, “Welcome back stranger.” Behind her two figures were slumped in the large lounge chairs.
“How did your mission go?” she queried.
I had mentioned to her two days ago that I would be out deploying scouts.
She walked across to the beverage table tucked against the now limp matting of the chitenge’s wall.
“Tea or coffee?” she asked, “If its coffee, it will be the plastic stuff. The good stuff is finished..” She was referring to the chicory based instant substitute.
My gaze drifted across to the new figures,. One was leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, her chin resting on the knuckles of her hand as she held a phone in the other. Her companion had her elbows splayed on her upholstered armrests. She also didn’t look up from a lazy reclined focus on her device to notice my perusal.
I was struck by the jet black main of the smaller woman. Her hair’s cascades framed a finely sculpted face. Our eyes met as she looked up. A smile spread on a bounteous mouth whose pouted lips were coated with red lipstick so startling it rendered her virtually theatrical. This was augmented by dark eyebrows giving a hieroglyphic appearance.
The other woman was equally striking. Her hair, although not as full, found its dark chestnut abundance tinted auburn with golden highlights. Her wide green eyes set far apart, with pencil thin eyebrows spanning a high bridged nose was a profile stolen directly from a Minoan vase. Her classical features were enhanced by a wide yellow band drawing the hair back from her forehead. The smooth olive hue of her skin hinted at a Latin origin.
I nodded surreptitiously in their direction, as under my breath I asked Lauren, “Are they your friends?”
“Not mine. Companions of Mustafa’s friends. There is no need to keep your voice down. They don’t speak English.”
“What a handsome pair,” I admired, “They certainly have discovered that WhatsApp works out here.”
Noting the wide golden bracelet adorning the hand of the darker one, and the light elegance in the purple flow of her close fitting dress, which I thought would be more appropriate for London’s Belgravia than here, I muttered, “An expensive pair I should imagine.”
Lauren snorted as she led me out onto the deck. “You’re probably right about them being expensive in more ways than one. But who cares?” she said, “these days marriage is not necessary to airbrush whoredom. It has always been about bartering in goods and services.”
“Wow!” I had touched a nerve. “You have strong opinions.”
“No, I have experience, which breeds realism, which accentuates the fallacies of social consensus.
Exposed to vagaries of the wind, we sat on the deck with the rustle of the leaves sprinkling their sounds onto those of the ripples tugging at the exposed roots in the river below. Lauren’s candor appealed to me. She lacked ostentatiousness. It hinted of a life which had given up trying to melt itself to the taste of the time. I wasn’t sure if her lack of conformity had come from within, or as in my case, been imposed from without.
“I will be heading in to Mumbwa early tomorrow morning.” I said, “I want to ask the head warden to send a patrol up the west side of the Lunga River.”
We’d been sitting on the deck for some time discussing the unusual activity I had encountered yesterday. She bet me, if I dug deep enough, I would find Narina’s father and his friends manipulating some sort of puppets tying those vertebrae to trees.
“He’s a jackal,” she said, “a master at manipulation. Most people don’t know what he’s up to, or that they are snared in his mesh. Now he’s wooing big money. As you said, that pair over there do not come cheap.”
“Who are they?” and who are they with? I asked. “What do you know about them?”
“Not much, only what Narina told me. They are South American, from Columbia I think. She can speak their lingo, because she married someone from over there. She lived there quite a few years.”
“Mustafa has dual motives for inviting his darling daughter and myself out here to celebrate our freedom. It is convenient to have her around to translate.”
The latin connection was not what I would have guessed. But then Africa always manages to concoct some unlikely trait in those who had lived here long enough, it makes for strange bedfellows.
“Needing her to translate is why he doesn’t want ‘us’ to leave,” she grumbled.
“How have you and Narina remained friends if you have such a poor opinion of her father?” The surprise on my face showed.
Lauren sighed heavily. “It’s a long story. We were at school together.”
“Well!” Lauren continued,” We had a strange relationship, I was a teacher, fresh out of teachers training college, when she became the head-girl. Her mother had recently been killed in a car accident, and she was distraught and needing comfort.”
“At the time I was a rebel, and even though I was pretty obedient to society’s mores, I identified more with the rebelliousness of youth than the conformity to a stuffy teacher’s hierarchy. Narina on her part, although a very strong character, obviously inherited from her father, also had aspects of the softness of her mother, and needed consolation. It was this unusual give and take, of mixing her advice to me, my sympathy and authority to her, back and forth exchange of roles, that bonded us together, and has kept us thus ever since.”
“Her father was never around. So in actuality I never really had to deal with her Jekyll-Hyde father much. “
Lauren inhaled deeply on the cigarette dangling in the fingers of her hand and blew two smoke rings at me, which I stuck the index finger of my clenched fist through in an equally rude gesture. I could also give and take. She smiled.
“OK.” she said, “Why don’t we go for a walk and I’ll tell you more.
The branches of the tall acacias spanned above the ruts of the road like an arbor.
Pointing to the flat vegetative surface enveloping one of the tree trunks like treacle dripping down its sides, “That is a Strangler Fig” I said. “In these thick tree copses there is a figh for sunlight. These figs solve that problem by starting at the top from a seed pooped by a bird. Thay send down long straggly roots. As they grow and thicken the roots may even spread enough to wrap around the host and strangle it. Hence the name.”
Ducking under low branches and snapping a few twigs in her way Lauren crossed to the trunk and rubbed her palm on the fig’s smooth grey-green bark.
“It reminds me of a snake skin.”
Stepping back onto the road she linked the fingers of her hands behind her head as we continued walking.
“Where were we?” she said rhetorically. “”You asked me about my business.”
“Well, I married a handsome charismatic Maronite Lebanese. They are known for pushing the limits and not backing down to get what they want. I was young, he wanted me, and got me. He swept me off my feet.
His family made its fortune in the furniture business. I was ‘allowed’ to dabble at the periphery, I think more as ‘eye candy’ for male clients.
I chose the fabrics for reupholstering secondhand furniture. But I wasn’t given permission to get high quality durable materials. ‘What for?’ was the position, if a quick turnaround could be made with a decent profit.
It didn’t take me long to figure out it was an opportunity. I attendid auctions and learned where and what to look for.
I then ran my own little business out of the garage of a friend, pretending it was hers and not mine, because a wife was not supposed to have her own business, and dabbling with the competition was an anathema.
Over time I felt like that Acacia with the fig slowly smothering it. Things got worse when my daughter was born. I was supposed to stay home. I was expected to be an obedient wife and not rock the comfortable affluent sailing of the family boat.
Things came to a head when I refused to leave my gig. It was doing well, and the cracks in our solidarity widened.
By then I loved my independence, and I no longer loved my husband. Intimacy had disappeared. He even told me I was too stupid and ugly to get anyone to like me. I loved challenges. I had my first lover a week later, carefully chosen to fill a particular opportunity. Why not link the bed to the business. After all, objectively it is preferable to be a freelance prostitute than somebody’s slave. If you cut away the fluff that is wwaht it is in an ‘old-fashioned’ relationship. Simply a concubine obliged to the whims of a husband and his family, expected to be happy with a comfortable lifestyle not of my choosing.
My first lover was an Indian fellow who imported fabrics from the middle east.
‘Hmmm, I see where you get your ideas about relationships. You are pretty prickly. Just as well I did not go fishing with you” I said to her. “I might have stepped on one of your barbs.”
“Precisely!” she replied as she deliberately again blew the smoke from her cigarette at my grinning face.
He opened my eyes to the surprises of the Levant, with its high-quality leathers and fabrics.” She glanced at me, “and the Kama Sutra.”
Stopping, she balanced on one foot as she raised her other leg to stubb her cigarette on the heel of her shoe.
“Do you think I am shocking?” She asked.
“No. I find it refreshingly honest.”
Lauren shrugged, “I guess so.”
“So, How did you get to be here?” she asked.
The crunch of our steps syncopated their sounds in the sand. Her long legs matched mine exactly.
“I am here because of missed opportunities and following a dream which was a mirage.”
“I always seemed to be at the right place at the wrong time.
The only time I got it right was in the army. It was an exhilarating period of my life, which probably contributed too much of the mismatching ever since.
After the war there was scant place in the new Africa for a white man in the Army.
But there was security jobs. I spent quite a few years with those. But once I was over the middle age hump, even those dried up. I was seldom at home, which was not conducive to stable relationships.
That is one of the greatest regrets of my life, not realizing when I should’ve stuck around. I assumed the ‘She’s’ in my life would wait for me. They didn’t. Only long enough to have a baby and get most of my danger pay.
Since then, like you, I have become jaded about relationships.
“But to answer your question, I got this job here because somebody in my old army unit is now the head of a conservation foundation trying to bring good practices to the parks in Africa.
Unfortunately I may be on the brink of being fired. Because I am part of the old Africa.”
“Don’t you feel alienated by what Africa has become in our lifetime?” I asked her.
There was only the crunch of our steps and the far away snorts of some hippo to fil the void of my question.
“Actually I love the new Africa.” she said. “Iits vibrancy. Its mixing of cultures. THe breakdown of the old ways and the synthesis of new. It is the essence of my life. Color, texture, shape, Patton.. I get my inspiration from everything around me.”
“Yes but then you live in the Cape., at the tip of Africa”I interrupted. “It has never really been part of the rest of the continent. It has always had a different history, culture, outlook, ideas. The rest of Africa has always trickled down and fermented in the fields at the foot of table Mountain, bringing new tastes and talent.”
Up here I feel that I am about to be swept away by the flood of indigenous empowerment,, or something else that will make me irrelevant.
Maybe I should marry a black woman to anchor myself in place.”
“Why don’t you?” she asked.
I smiled at her. “If I was younger I would. But the one that interests me knows it, and I think in some ways she responds to me. But like all good women she is more realistic than I am. She has told me she is too young for me.”
“I have a relationship with a woman in town. It is a good relationship of convenience. A pleasant one for both of us. I rent a room from her and keep her entertained when I can. But she can pick me up and put me down whenever she wants.”
“Who knows? A good thing about being immersed since birth in African culture is that I feel no guilt at loving two or more women at the same time. But I’ve yet to find a Madonna who will tolerate me. At my age we are who we are. It is difficult to change for anyone. Not even if we want to change ourselves.
Lauren cleared her throat. “What about your idea of a Madonna, is she allowed to love two men.” She looked at me carefully. “Is that part of your African culture too?”
“Back in the war, in our unit, in order to survive, we often had to share everything.” I said. “When you know that you can trust someone it is strange how much you can share.”
“Speaking of Mumbwa,” Lauren changed the subject, ” I want to go with you. I want to get the hell out of here. Even if I have to stay at the ‘Aunty Mercy Motel’ for a month before I can catch a bus.”
She added, “Tonight I’m inviting you to join me for dinner.”
Looking at me closely she said, “We need to celebrate my last evening here!”