Like a long thin etiolated stem, the Great West Road sags far across the flat wide western spaces of the country, until it brushes up against the borders of Angola, where, just before it does so, almost as if in a last act prior to its succumbing to the shriveling of its desiccation, it births the forlorn little town of Lukulu.
This long thin stem, like its peers, the Great North and East Roads, starts inconspicuously as a spoke of the traffic circle on Cairo Road in the center of old Lusaka. Its routing has not changed since the layout of the city almost a hundred years ago. But like with the runt of the litter, the bustling vibrancy of the placenta which feeds it, favors its other siblings. The Great North Road heads up and is burnished by the copper of Kitwe and Katanga, and all the promise of the rest of Africa. It eventually even reaches as far as the city from which Cairo Road gets its name. The next spoke of that traffic circle spawns The Great East Road. It leads down to the flat plains and the growing artery of trade from the ports of Mozambique.
However, on the Great West road, it does not take long for the fizzle and bustle of the city to expire. The surge of humanity suffocates in the traffic jams and squalor of the chaotic informality of the small businesses, back street repair shops and black-market stalls that line its dusty grubby verges. One can buy almost anything here. Sunglasses, 3rd or 4th hand used tires, tomatoes, bananas, cement, gravel, wood carvings, or strips of meat, from which, every now and then, the flies are disturbed for a few seconds by the desultory flick of a fly switch.
Over the last twenty-five years I have seen how the progress of Africa has stretched this chaos further out, like the tentacles of an octopus, along this arterial.
If it is the effectiveness of the squeeze of the industrial slum which quickly chokes the vitality of the road as it wanders westwards, this is compounded by the enormous distance to its end that saps most of its remaining strength. The flow from the pulsing heart of Lusaka simply withers and fades long before it reaches the flatness of its far extremity.
If this is true today, it was infinitely more valid four decades ago, when Moses was a child, growing up near Lukulu. The town is still not much more than a few stores and some administrative offices, and a prison. A prison, where the prisoners sit outside, self-guarded, at midday, in the shade of one of the few big trees out on the Liuwa Plain of Barotsealand. After all, where would they escape to, out in the vacuum at the center of this vast empty area?
And, of course, there is the little mission complex, with one or two more buildings than it consisted of when Moses was being instructed by Father Xavier. It is still so remote that only the hardiness and willingness to accommodate frugality, which originally brought the Jesuits to minister to the “heathen” of these parts, still keeps them here.
It was the legacy of this physical and mental frugality, with its under pinnings of determination, that I had depended on so many times in the past, and which I knew I would, once again, need and count upon in the struggles that loomed ahead of me.
The layer of early morning fog still lay on the surface of the river. I could see the vague shape of the raft disturb the mist into aerial eddies as it pushed its chugging way across towards where I sat in the cabin of the cruiser.
As I waited an old Bedford truck joined me. It would be interesting if they could fit both of us on the pontoon, for a single crossing. The occupants of the vehicle, and there were quite a few of them, seemed to be a party of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for all the women in the group were dressed with black skirts, and red jackets with wide white lapels to match the color of their head scarves. All this reflecting, even in religion, the tribal affinity for a uniform.
As I watched the women and some kids climbed down from the back bed of the truck. Like the mist on the river a thought settled into my mind. Why were many of the challenging periods of my life, like now, made more complex or simpler, by a Moses at their core?
Moses. It was a name and a personage as familiar to me as those of my family, right from the earliest of Sunday stories at the little church on the neighbor’s farm near Chikari.
Watching the waters slowly slide downstream, I wondered what I would do if suddenly one of those kids down there, as they sought to skip their stones furthest out over the water, were to find a cradle caught in the reeds along the bank?
And what if they found a crying baby in it? If I was back there then, thousands of years ago, on the banks of the Nile, sitting around waiting for some papyrus pontoon to ferry me across, and I knew then, as I do now the consequences of picking up that baby Moses. Would I implore them to put it back. Tell them to let the cradle float on down the river! Khanka ena, push it away!
Without that Moses, would Father Xavier, seventy years ago, have been moved to bring light to the “uninitiated heathen” of Barotseland.
My mind lazily flicked at the pages of my memory, in synchrony with my eyes as they followed the slow spinning of a fluff of foam caught in a wide eddy below me. I let them flip back, to when, decades ago, I once stood on the pinnacle of Sinai’s Jebel Musa at dawn. How I had watched the sun push back the darkness, and slowly lift it up from where it was impaled on the crags of the mountains. How, as it rose, it had painted the eastern Arabian sky the hue of aortal blood.
Maybe, I thought, it was after just such a dawn that that first Moses descended from the starkness of the magnificent mountain. For me, the issue was not so much the mountains, as the babies, floating on the waters, who became men, men capable of carrying tablets down to other babies skipping stones on those waters. Those tablets which, ever since, in various interpretations, have accused us all with lists of transgressions etched in blood, flooding from an Arabian east. Those laws which washed away our innocence, to replace it with dogma, doctrine and uniforms that reached across thousands of years and thousands of kilometers to dress a group of women in black, red and white, even out here in the remotest of bushveld.
I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other Gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
In the Angolan bush, a long time ago, I had learned those first Ten Commandments from my modern Moses, by reciting them after him, to ward off the boredom.
It had been while we were discussing guilt and regrets in life. The most unusual topics can creep into a discussion after days and even weeks spent alone in the bush, just the two of you.
Guilt and regrets, I thought to myself, only the old are truly burdened with regrets. Regrets slowly accumulated until it is blatantly obvious that the paucity of so much of each life stemmed from temerity at the forks to the roads less travelled. When I first met Moses, I was still too young and inexperienced to regret anything, and the worst guilt I could muster was that nicking a photo of Sophia from a family album while on a visit from boarding school.
And, it was Moses who was to lead me to so many of the forks in the road of my life.
Rubbing the stubble on my chin I smiled, Sophia, now that was a fork worth taking. Too bad it had to wait so many years.
And, should I feel guilty that my Moses had sometimes seemed more of a God to me than that on Jebel Musa.
Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder.
And both Moses and I had murdered. We had even murdered on the Sabbath, sometimes murdering so intimately that we would press the barrel against the flesh to deaden the crackle of execution.
You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; wife, servants, donkeys.
And this was where the notch of the grafting of the beliefs of Father Xavier onto the “heathen” at the core of Moses could be detected. Moses said that this showed him that the God of the bible was not an African. Those last four laws were white-mens” laws, like the other laws left behind by the British, these laws benefited those that have, not those that have not.
I watched as the crew pivoted and gunned the single cylinder Chinese diesel engine on the opposite side, to line the heavy draw bridge up with the bank below us.
The Lubungu pontoon crosses a gracefully wide and shallow stretch of the Kafue. Its placement here is deliberate. Here, the broadness of the river smooths out and slows the flow of the water, which in turn reduces the sideways tug of the current on the floats when the old rusted raft plies its way back and forth, tethered in place by the pulleys to the guide cable, like some old worn out biblical beast of burden.
I let the ancient name again drift through my consciousness, like more of the sporadic puffs of foam that continued to slide past on the slow current of the river, while I watched the dusty Bedford cautiously edge over the stones and up onto the pontoon.\
t was time for me to move. Clambering back onto their truck, I noticed that two of the children were albinos.
It was unusual, I thought, to see two of them in a group.
But It was time for me to move.
Even though I would join the road as it headed west at Mumbwa, it was still a long way to Lukulu, and my meeting with Father Xavier.
I knew that if anyone could help me find Moses, it was him.
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