10 – THE GREAT WEST ROAD
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.
11 – FATHER XAVIER
The two deep wrinkles that originated at the corner of the old man’s eyes drifted down above, and then behind his high cheeck bones. From there they angled lower, where upon they seemed to attach to and hold the lobes of his large ears to his head, like the stay lines and sails of an ancient square-rigger.
Almost as if to seek the source of their support, my eyes were drawn to the other two parallel wrinkles which angled down with unusual severity over the inner hollowness of his cheeks, until they brushed the corners of his purse-lipped mouth. At this point the straightness of the furrows were warped in a gentle curl round the edge of a slight smile, which seemed to play hide and seek with a hint of a faint inner mirth. This, in turn, appeared always to be momentarily sequestered just below the surface of his face. It was like the visage of a beautiful bride hidden behind the mesh of her veil.
But it was not only the smile which seem to constantly wake from its slumber under the seductive shroud of that imaginary mesh. There was more. There was a hint of a inner joy. It intrigued me. It tugged and held my attention, in a non-destructive way, like the flame of a candle holds the circles of a moth.
It could only have been this inner joy which had provided this old man the fortitude to have served a cause out here for almost 5 decades. How else can anyone, not endemic to this place remain here without relief for so long!
As he leaned forward to pour the tea into the tin mugs on the simple table between us, Father Xavier lifted and squinted the clear turquoise tint of his eyes at me.
“It has been a while!”
Even after forty years, the lilt of drawn out vowels in his thick accent clearly indicated his Portuguese origin.
“Yes father it has been a long time. I will have to take off my shoes to count on my toes, I do not have enough fingers to help me count all the years.”
I grinned back at the twitch at the corner of his mouth which, as he acknowledged my joke, gave an accent to the smile formed on the pale paper hue of his lips.
“At school, I was never good at maths, I always needed help with numbers, so watch out, if you want an accurate count, I may ask you to take your shoes off as well”.
I joined his chuckle.
Father Xavier stretched out a long bony hand and gave me one of the tin mugs. In the other he profited a small bowl of lumpy sugar. He was accustomed to most everyone out here preferring their beverages being sweet.
Ignoring the teaspoon in the bowl and using his fingers, he picked up a sugar lump and dropped it into the tea in his mug.
“What has happened to you, since you were last here?
“Well father, I have done so much”. I hesitated for a second. I realized that my answer did not quite mesh with his question. After all there’s a difference between what happens and what one does. I continued, “and I have done so little.”
I leaned forward and reaching over, picked up the small jug of milk. I added a splash to my tea. Then I used the same spoon in the sugar bowl to stir my beverage.
“Time has gone so fast, it seems like just yesterday all that turmoil happened and when it was over, we came here for a short while, on our way to the rest of our lives.”
I paused and savored another sip of the tea. I was silent for a while, and I let my thoughts drift back to those tumultuous days.
Then I broke the stillness.
“The last time I was here I did not have a home to return to, and I still don’t. So from that aspect not much has changed for me.” And I continued.
“We left the bush, and after a while I went back to the bush.”
I took another sip of tea. “For both of us it has always been the bush.”
“Father, I assume you know who I am talking about, when I say both of us?”
“Yes!” Father Xavier replied softly over the top of his mug as he held it up in both hands close to his lips and slightly in front of his face.
I continued, “I have not had a real home since my family left our farm in the old Rhodesia….and that was before I was even a teenager. I loved that place. I loved the magic of the bush and the life I led. I was in the bush with my band of young umfana friends at every opportunity. I was one of them. There was not a hut in the village that I could not enter whenever I wished. I played with them, danced with them, made catties and wire cars with them, hunted with them, swam in the river with them, got bilharzia with them… I argued with them and laughed with them.
And later, in my teenage years growing up between the undulating sugar cane fields and mountain kloofs of coastal South Africa I felt like an exile.
For years I dreamed of returning to that place, the bush, which in my mind only really starts to the north of the Limpopo River.
My dreams were magical. I would realize in my sleep that it was a dream. I would rush around to see as much of it as I could before they ended. It was the bush, it never left me.
In some way or other the bush has been my emotional and physical home forever.
I think that the bush was one of the main reasons I stayed with ‘Os Terriveis – The Terrible Ones’ for so long.”
As I spoke, I momentarily had a flash back to an impression I had formed, decades before, of an aspect of this serene old Jesuit priest’s character. It was of his quiet, tranquil almost entrancing way of listening. Where others would only be waiting for the break in a speaker’s flow to interject, with him there was a quality and depth to his listening.
It was almost hypnotic. It drew one on, it effortlessly loosened the halter grip on the self-consciousness. It made one feel the relief from the anxiety of long shuttered shyness, with it being replaced by a catharsis of telling. The silence and focus of his listening let one know that it is not necessary to hold onto the rocks in the river of life, its suggestion was to let go and allow the words to flow with the current, because by doing so, with him alongside, one could be washed along to better places.
It is strange how I have noticed this trait in many of the greatest men that I have met in my eclectic life. Jan Breytenbach, who founded “Os terrives” out of the leaderless militia rabble he found in the chaos of Angola when the Portuguese rule collapsed. He had this gift. He crafted them into, in my opinion, one of the finest fighting units the world has ever seen.
And of course there is Moses. Moses had been with the “Os Terriveis”, Buffalo Battalion, long before I had, and had participated in most of their almost constant “contacts” and full on conventional engagements.
Both of these men had Father Xavier’s genius of being able to listen, and in their listening make you search your soul for the truth, and to tell it to them.
As a fresh, wide-eyed 2nd Lieutenant, full of blustery theory and inexperience, I had inherited Moses as my platoon sergeant. I would never have been able to become a good officer, let alone survive, if he had not been there to guide and teach me, with the quietness of his listening.
It was why I was sitting here, in the austerity of this drab and dusty mission station with its priest, at the Western extremities of the country, not far from the Angola border.
I once again needed the quiet steady dependability and guidance of my platoon sergeant
12 – MISSION
The mission had not changed all that much in the decades since I was last here.
The long narrow buildings still angle away at right angles to the flow of the river. Their corrugated tin roofs have a lot more rust, at least this was so with the upper sheets which run down both sides of the roof’s ridge roof. It was evident that on some buildings the lower sheets had been replaced. The blend of the old and the new gave an almost artistic flavor to the roofline. The russet leaching of the rust of the higher sheets had begun to stain the shininess of the corrugated gullies of the lower one’s.
As is often found on officious buildings in Central Africa the first few feet of the outside walls are painted blue and the rest of the wall up to the eves, a creamy white. During the wet season the splashes of mud which are flicked onto the walls from the roof’s run-off, are not as noticeable.
The exterior of the new church building was painted in this fashion.
“What is the urgency that brings you here?”
The old priest had his left forearm tucked behind his back, where it hooked the elbow of the other and held it wedged behind him, from whence it dangled down to sway slowly to the cadence of each of his deliberate steps.
Finishing our tea, he had suggested that we walk the grounds of the mission, and for him to show me the changes.
We had walked from his office room to the barn-like building of the church which faced looking out over the breadth of the Zambezi River as it curls down out of Angola, loosely cradled in the flatness of the Lozi plain. In the distance, on the far bank, I could see the scrawny straggle of civilization, strewn about like scaled-up versions of the chaff and husks from a village threshing floor.
Then, reaching it, we were standing before the altar, in the quasi gloom afforded by the restriction of the bright outside light as it squeezed in through the narrowness of the four sets of windows set high in each wall.
The ivory paint of its interior absorbed some of the harshness of the pools of sunlight as they shimmered on the floor. Behind the altar a big panel of chevron wicker work adorned the back wall. At each corner of the cavernous space banners had been hung. These dangled down from the corrugated ripples of the tin metal roof, with colors of yellow, black and green and patterns matching those of the wicker work.
The words, “AS THE HOLY SPIRIT FILLS THE WORLD”, ran perpendicularly down one, and ““USE YOUR LIFE FOR GRACE AND GLORIFY HIS KINGDOM” ran down another.
I could not help feeling that to a cursory glance they could be mistaken for propaganda banners at a political rally. This sense was magnified by the colors being the prime hues of some of the revolutionary flags of a few of the nations in this part of Africa.
But, I thought to myself, at the end of the day I guess experience has shown both the Priest and the Politician what works. After all they were both in the business of winning the hearts and minds of the plebeian poor, and why not use workable techniques.
The thin wooden carving of the crucified figure on the cross hanging on chains above the alter, reminded me of the freshly sliced strips of meat hanging from our old farm house, slowly drying into biltong. I could not suppress a silent observation to myself as to how interchangeably attractive is the food for the sul and bely in this part of the world.
I was suddenly aware of an amorphous sense of homecoming. This was not so much spiritual, even though I was in a house of God, with its tall walls and sparse light. Rather it was because the dimness, high walls and corrugated tin roof reminded me of the inside of the tobacco curing barns on a farm where I grew up near Chikari. I thought it strange that this decades-dormant feeling should whisper to me at this unusual place. Maybe there is a God, I pondered, and if so it must be the Khoi-San Bushman version. Their God has a sense of humor and likes to play tricks with us. Maybe I needed more than Precious’s biltong for my belly afterall.
But, as we stood before the alter, and I prepared to tell the priest what was troubling me, I was cognizant that I was standing at the front line of the conflict and struggle for the fundamental heart of Africa, its spiritual heart. From Robert Moffat at Kuruman, through David Livingston at Kololo, right up to Father Xavier, it had always been these missionaries and their missions who had been the soldiers-of-the-soul who had fought for the essence of Africa. Following in the wake of these men of morality, had come the traders and administrators, with their new laws, coming from places just as far away as the ideas of the new religions.
However unsuitable to the local cultures their ideas, for over a hundred years missionaries have led the charge towards the deepest darkest parts of the beliefs of Africa, with a philosophy epitomized, in many cases inadvertently by what is written on Livingston’s statue at the Victoria Falls.
“Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.”
But now, as the sub-continent reclaimed its old self there were still a few of these old men, like Father Xavier, who remained to fight the rear-guard activity at these lonely outposts in an attempt to save some form of victory in the battle over Africa’s beliefs.
“Father, I need Moses’s help.”
He has always been my help. I need this help again.
Father Xavier had turned and was pacing measuredly beside me as we moved back out into the bright afternoon sunlight.
“When we were with the Buffalo Battalion,” I paused, “he spoke the Portuguese to the Angolan Soldiers in the unit to help me communicate with them, until I had learned enough of the language. Now I need him to translate a different language for me. Just like the Portuguese that he learned from you, it is a language of his people, that language of the Bush medicine men. The language of the witch doctors.”
“Father, because you raised Moses from the time he was a young boy, he has followed in your footsteps. Long ago I had found out, actually only after many months together, that he is a religious man. This surprised me, considering who we were. But he rationalized this to me by believing he was fighting to stop the forces of evil. He said that the communists were the anti-Christ. He was fighting to stop their spread into Africa. So now I need him to help fight another “evil.”
Opposite us I could see small groups of children. They were sitting on the sand in the shade of the trees.
Each group had at least one adult, either standing or sitting on a chair in the position of authority. Some groups even had two or three adults. I was not sure if these were trainee teachers. Most of the activities of the mission centered around educating.
In this part of the sub-Continent it was well known that the Jesuits provided some of the best available.
As we passed between the groups Father Xavier tarried here and there to listen. Sometimes he would swap a few words with the adults, and with a smile and a nod acknowledge the greeting given to him.
Leaving the kids behind we continued our way back to his office and I picked up where I had left off.
“Father, as you know the Bush is never far from the African soul, and there’s some things that the African will immediately recognize and know how to deal with. These are things that those like me, and maybe you, even though I grew up with them, we will never be able to fathom.”
“Father, I work for a big international Conservancy. It is an organization which is trying to promote conservation in many parts of Africa. I have been hired to try to reduce the level of poaching in the huge buffer concessions that surround the national park. At this time I am focusing on the area of the North East section of the conservation region, the Lunga-Luswishi.”
“But Father, strange things have been happening. Witchcraft is involved, and I don’t understand why. As one who has lived here for so long, you know the people better than anyone. You know that the ancient witchcraft is always lurking below the surface of many of the souls. Powerful forces are subverting otherwise good men.”
“If I am going to succeed, it will not be just a case of tracking the footprints of the interlopers, but also the tracking and searching for the spirits that are afoot in the Lunga Luswishi.”
I was aware of the warmth of the sun, and of the sweat it produced causing the fabric of my shirt to cling to the inside of my armpits.
“Father I am too pale, not just in my skin but in my soul to be able to really reach that dark side of Africa. I need Moses. I need him as in the past to be my translator and guide. Instead of men’s footprints, I need him to help me track and hunt their ideas.”
13 – FITTING IN
The continent of Europe is oriented east-west. That gentle horizontal gradient has allowed the undulating waves of culture and ideas, like the fulcrum of a see-saw in a children’s playground, to swing back and forth between Europe and Asia in relative equilibrium for thousands of years.
However, the continent of Africa is oriented North-South. As everyone knows, in a perpendicular gradient, It is much easier for things to trickle down, than push up. Thus, it has been the ideas and culture of the North which have dribbled into Africa, and not the converse. Fortunately, the barrier of the Sahara filtered this flow, else a flood would have ensued and the subjugation of Africa, together with its ideas and culture could have been even more pronounced.
Only recently, within my lifetime, has modern travel evened out that gradient, and trivialized the crossing of the Sahara to enable the ideas of Africa to creep northward and begin to patina the paler surfaces of much of the outside world.
But as is mostly the case in the aftermath of unwanted subjugation, the progeny from the rape do not care about their origins. They will thrive, as long as they have a loving caring mother.
And Africa has always been the mother of mankind.
“Come.” The old man broke the silence in which we were walking, “I have a story to tell you.”
I had thought we were walking back to his office, but he deviated slightly to the right and walked on past the particular row of rooms that served as classrooms and offices.
The mission is still a subtle mix of Europe and Africa. The straight lines of the efficiently built class room blocks, were obviously copied from the blueprints left behind by the colonial administrators. I say this because they are so similar to those of Que Que Junior School (now spelled Kwe Kwe), which I attended so long ago. It was a design used for many of the schools across the old Federation. The straight lines gave the place its subtle hint of Europe.
Rural Africa does not have straight lines.
The old man led me back to the upstream river-side corner of the complex.
Here, as in the rest of the mission, the haphazard placement of the big trees is owing to where their seeds scattered and sprouted eons ago, before this spot was settled. At least these trees have not been cut down, and thus provide soothing shade from the midday sun, even if the scrub and grass that once filled between their trunks is gone, leaving just the bare sandy soil. It is the daily sweeping of the sand, with hand-held grass switches, as is the custom in the villages, which gives the mission its subtle blend of Africa.
Looking down on the slow dirty brown eddies of the river, the bench on which Father Xavier and I sat was placed in just such a sandy swept spot, sheltered from the sun by the spreading branches of a big wild fig tree. The sun’s nigh perpendicular rays was so bright that they still managed to impart a lightness to the smoke grey tint of the haze in the skies. It being late October there was not much more of Africa left to burn. At the end of the dry winter, each year, much of Central Africa is set alight to flush the small creatures of the bush into the jaws of the packs of scrawny hunting dogs found in every village.
And as we sat, both of us were silent and listening. From somewhere not too far away came the faint but clear evidence of how unconcerned as to its origins the virtual mixing of southern ebony and northern ivory could be, in the resulting beauty of its bastard progeny. Because, rising above the multiplication tables being chanted in rote by the children in one of the classrooms, from somewhere, maybe it was from one of the huts on the other side of the river, probably from a battery powered CD player, came the exquisitely haunting sounds of Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi singing “Neria” … She must have been a beautiful girl to have inspired him to write such a melody. If I ever had another daughter I would name her “Neria”.
Father Xavier sat on his hands with his torso leaning forward so that it appeared to me as if he was peering down at his knees. His long thin body held his clothes like a scarecrow its loose tattered garb.
As the sound of “Tuku’s” voice faded from across the river, the skies high above us were filled with the tinkling chatter of a big flock of European bee-eaters, recently arrived from their long migration from Syria and Turkey down the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, and across all of Africa. Now for the rest of the summer they would grace us, as with the song, with their beautiful presence.
It took a while for him to say anything, he just sat staring at the leather of his sandals and listening to the birds, and children, and the even more distant bark of a dog. Then without looking up he asked, “How did Moses fit in with the others when you were together out in the bush?”
The question caught me off guard. I was not expecting this sort of personality evaluation query. That was the type of thing I remembered from the few psycho-metric tests I had done years ago when applying for a few corporate jobs after the conflict ended, and I had nothing to show for it, except bitter memories. They wanted to know if my “leadership style” would fit in to their corporate culture. Cultures full of politeness and pseudo equality and outward concern for each other. I guess this was where I stumbled in most of these hurdles. I could not take them seriously…
But like with a pilot’s hands on the yoke of an aircraft, the side slip of my thoughts were nudged back to the father’s question, with as little input as him leaning back and straightening, to cross his legs over each other.
I had never really considered how we all fitted in, we just did. But as I thought about it I realized that there had been a selection process… an extreme process. The initial months of basic training with its spit-and-polish, its sleeplessness, its kilometers of jogs with logs the length of telephone poles on the shoulders, the route marches with astoundingly heavy full kit and ammunition.
Whoever could stay the course had the rest of the “fit” forced into them by the togetherness of mission and spirit. It did not matter what your race or creed. As long as there were eleven of you together. We had been the first truly multi-racial unit in the army.
And there was absolutely no political correctness, everybody was judged by their worth and merit, not where they came from, or thought they were.
And some of the instructors wore T-shirts, inscribed in large lettering on the back,
“Fit in or fuck off.”
Actually, we fitted in so well together, with all our creeds and hues, that I suspect we were one of the reasons that the “Rainbow Nation of South Africa” managed to transition, with such astounding peacefulness to majority rule.
As that nation gathered its loins in the lead up to its first free elections, the beast of radicalism began to feed off the simmering fare of uncertainty and unease. As the threat of civil war loomed, the much revered ex-Chief-of-Staff of the army, Constand Viljoen, famously said “If they can fight for us, they can vote for us” (“As hulle fir ons, kan veg, kan hulle vir ons stem”).
His famous words, I am sure were influenced by his observation of the color and creed blindness of “The Terrible Ones”, and thereby ameliorated the fears of the white minority who, in the wake of Uhuru elsewhere, suspected their fate could be like that of the ruling minorities of the Belgian Congo, Mozambique and Angola, who were left with not much more than a suitcase of clothes.
Fit in!…. Father, Of course he fitted in. We all had to, if people did not fit in, we died. Unless you were there you cannot really understand how we depended on each other to not just survive, but to thrive and succeed as we did. We changed the history of Southern Africa, and Moses was part of that.
But in hindsight we were an inconvenient slice of history. And so, Father, few people know what we did, or how influential we were. That is because of how politically incorrect we were, in how the unit came to be created, what it did and then how it was disbanded. But that is a tale for another time.
There are different things that need to be fitted together to make a military unit work smoothly. A good sergeant needs to fit and make things fit in, and he was one of the best.
We had three sections in our platoon, 33 men. Young men. We were not much older than they were. As the officer I determined the when and where, but he, as the Sergeant, mostly managed the how. How much food and water to carry, how much ammunition. He was closer to the men and knew them better, which ones to task with what, how far they could be pushed, how to keep them happy and disciplined. He took care of their problems with family, and girlfriends or wives, and between them.
More than most he knew that to really succeed he had to manage all the relationships around him. As I described, he managed those under him, our men.
But he also managed the relationships with his peers, with the other platoon Sergeants. It was a wonder to see how he used honey, with everyone, and not vinegar. Most of them did not even realize what he was doing. They just got to respect him.
In a unit as aggressive as we were, many of the leadership styles were tainted with vinegar-macho-ness, which works just fine amongst the toughness of the sorts who gravitated to the unit. But the subtle honey of Moses’s style got him so much further. He instinctively knew that reciprocity is a huge player in all our relationships. That if I do you a favor it is like depositing money in a bank, you will always be able to count on your credit when a return favor is needed.
Moses always had credit with everyone, even with the other companies.
We always went in with a plan and were very aggressive. That is why they called us “Os Teriveis.”
Those who are the most aggressive almost always win, and few units in the history of the world were as consistently aggressive for so many years. We gave the politicians the room they needed to wiggle.
But even with the best plans, things go wrong.
If we were pinned down and needed some covering fire from a different sector to rattle our foes, those being led by the Cubans and Russians, he, Moses always got it, a few more 81mm mortar rounds, because he would always give it. Reciprocity works even in war.
And he managed me. I did not realize it in the beginning. But if I made a clueless decision, in his quiet way he would suggest something else and then phrase it in a way that made it seem that it was my idea.
But Father, I am curious. Why do you ask if he fitted in?”
Father Xavier leaned sideways and reached down to the side of the bench where a few straggly stems of grass had survived the daily sweeping. Then straightening back to place his elbows on both his knees spread wide, he contemplated the strand of straw as he slowly picked it apart.
Then with a deep sigh Father Xavier began to speak, at first softly, and then later as he told me Moses’s story, more emphatically, almost angrily..
‘I asked,’ Father Xavier said, ‘because Moses did not fit in easily. I doubt that he ever will. If he did fit in with you in Angola, it was because you were alll pressed together by the war, so closely and constantly that the others, those that were of the Africa that you and I knw, did not notice his Mark of Cain.
The old man raised the sea-blue hue of his eyes at me with a quizzical look, ‘I think that you should be aware of this if you want him to help your cause, it may be a blessing or a curse.’
Then I sat looking down at the sand below my slightly spread legs, and with the palms of my hands turned downwards and tucked beneath the sides of my thighs, I listened to Father Xavier tell me a story of deep African sadness.
14 – DINA’I
“There are never any second first impressions in life.”
A tone of deep soulfulness had crept into the elderly priest’s voice. Its palpability was so tangible that it made me snatch a sharp sideways glance to check if anything was wrong.
He went on speaking, “My first impression was of big sad c
harcoal eyes, and of the flame fiery redness of her curly hair. The face belonged to a child, maybe four or five years old.”
The priest turned slightly to point at the lumpy twisted thickness of the old fig trees trunk, and following his gesture I raised my gaze to see how the trunk also lifted its herbaceous branches aloft above us.
“She was hiding over there, behind the trunk.”
Moving my eyesight out laterally, I noted how the trees long branches stretched out to hang down like the ribs of an umbrella. They hung so low they almost brush the sand beyond where we sat, so that it cloistered us in its virtual leafy bower.
The old man paused for a moment, as if to gather his emotions before continuing.
I asked her, “U mang’i? What is your name?”
And as she peered at me from behind the tree she replied, “Ki na Dana’i, My name is Dana’i.”
The old man leaned forward and with the stub of the grass straw in his hand, began to draw parallel lines in the sand between his spread feet, and at the same time he continued to tell me his story.
“It must have been in the mid or late 50’s.” He hesitated. “I was a young man when I first came here. I was full of enthusiasm and a desire to serve the Lord, and I was going to change the world and bring all of the kingdom of God to this big flat empty land. Like me, she had also discovered this quiet shady spot, with its dome of branches that provide some solitude from the rest of the world. Its sheltering screen wasn’t as thick in those days, but it was still adequate, and like now you could see the water under those branches that spread out over the river.
It seemed that I had surprised her, which was why she had been hiding.”
Father Xavier switched the strokes of his grass stem to scratch vertical lines over the horizontals he had already etched in the sand.
He lifted his head to look directly at me and I felt the turquoise squint of his stare brush over my face.
“As I said, there are no second first impressions in life.
And that was one of the most striking impressions I have ever had. Seldom in life does one confront such a visage, in such an unexpected manner. It was so long ago. But I still can see in front of me those child’s eyes, eyes that always seemed to be seeing a special sadness, as if they could see into the future.”
He straightened, and leaned back to cock his one knee so that the sole of his sandal rubbed over the lines he had drawn in the sand.
Father Xavier picked another stem of grass from beside the bench. Then, smoothing the sand with his sandal, he began once again to draw his lines in the sand.
“Before I go on with my story I will give you some background… Maybe you know it, but maybe you were too young to have it part of your life.
I came to this place when the old Federation was about to break up. The British were bankrupt. They had spent all their money on fighting the Germans in WWII. The rest of the world saw that if the English and French and Dutch could throw the Germans out, why could they, out in the colonies, not also throw the colonialists out as well, and they did.
The war knocked all the fight out of the idea of Empire. The British had lost most of their resilience and resolve. All that Gandhi had to do to force them out of India, was to march to the sea and hold aloft a handful of salt. Even though the British sent one of their top generals, who had just helped defeat the Japanese in the Pacific, Mountbatten could not organize a smooth transition to self-rule, and millions of people slaughtered each other as India split apart.
I had an uncle who lived in Angola, and so I came to Africa and I came to Barotseland to help the people when the British left, in case, maybe, the same chaos as had been in India happened here.
We Portuguese, we were clever, we had stayed out of the Spanish Civil War, and we had stayed out of WWII. But our president, Caetano, was stupid. He said that we would stay in our African colonies forever, that they were not colonies, that Angola and Mozambique were part of Portugal.
Caetano did not see that his colonies would be the first to descend into chaos, and so, even though I sought to be of help in the face of potential chaos, by coming out here, I missed it in Angola.”
I could not understand where the priest’s narrative was leading.
“Father,” I asked, “Why are you telling me this? All I would like to know is where to find Moses.”
He narrowed his eyes and a slight hint of annoyance edged onto his face.
“Yes, I know what you seek.
Because of that I am telling you a story which will be of great help to you when you do find him.
It is a different kind of foe that you will now be facing, and my story will help you to stay clear of ambushes of another kind.
You said your will need to hunt not so much men, but rather the ideas that motivate them. So be patient and listen to me.”
I was slightly skeptical of his assertion and asked, “What is it that I need to know about a little girl that will help me avoid the ambushes of men?”
We walked in silence for a while. We passed through the mission gate and headed away from the river along the dust of the road.
Where the road edged to the left to parallel the river, he paused his steps and with a tic of his lips and a slight grimace of his jawline, bent down to pick up the flattened remnants of a plastic pop bottle crumpled into a sandy rut in the road.
Then with the plastic shard held gingerly between the forefingers and thumb of his left hand, like a conductor’s baton, Father Xavier began to speak again.
“To understand Moses,” he murmured quietly, “You need to know about his mother.
You will find in her story things that even Moses does not understand.
I asked you if he fitted in with your unit in the war. I asked that question because here he never really fitted in. He was always an outsider. To understand why, you need to know about his mother.
His mother was that special little girl.
Of course, to understand that little child’s life one needs to be knowledgeable about the traditions out here.
This I am sure you know. You told me once that you grew up near Chikari and Kwe Kwe. That you spent much of your early years in the workers’ villages on your father’s farms. So you will be familiar with the things that lay beneath the darker, hidden surface of this African life out here.
You will understand how important it is to belong to a tribe, and to have a totem.
For me, that was something I did not realize when I first came to Africa. I think of myself as Portuguese, and the whites, like you, those who were born and grew up here, you think of yourselves as Zambian, Zimbabwean or South African. You do not regard yourselves as firstly Lozi, or Kaunde, or Bemba, or Tonga, and only after that is Zambian, as they do here.
Also, one of the unfortunate realities of Africa is that the colonial powers did not understand or care about this importance of the tribe to the African way of life. They set borders which cut across tribal lands, so that some of the tribe is in one country and the rest in another. For example, As you know most of the Lozi tribe live here on the Zambezi plane, but some of them are in Angola across the border.”
The tall thin priest slowly stretched his sinewy sun-burned arms above his head before clasping them behind his back.
“Come”, he said, “Let’s walk back to my office while we talk”.
“My son, when you were here the last time, and yes that was a long time ago, you were married. Where is your wife, and do you have children?”
I responded with a chuckle back at his question. “Yes Father, you have a good memory.”
I was hesitant at revealing too much of myself to this old man of religion. But after a few moments of reasoning I reckoned that I could be delicate about my past, and he was not the city sort of clergyman. He would know that in reality, for those who had come out of and were still one with the bush, life was seldom comfortable if it was lived in the center of the highway. For many of us, we were more at home amongst those who had been washed into the gutters of life’s pathways. At the verges the rules were not as stringent and the consequences for disobedience not as dire or dangerous. After all, one is less likely to be run over when standing at the curb of life than in the center of its bustle, the moral policing is less prevalent. But one is also less likely to go anywhere quickly or conveniently.
It was obvious to me that neither Father Xavier nor I, in our different, yet unconventionally similar ways, were interested in going anywhere easily and fast. And neither of us had ever chosen to fully respect the rules at the center of life.
I kicked at a twig as I walked next to him. “Father that marriage did not last long after we left the bush. I think that the reason it lasted as long as it did was that I was almost always on active duty, and she liked collecting my paycheck. We got good money, once all the extra “danger pay” was added in.
We had a son. He is now finished with University, and I have 3 other children with other women. I am lucky they all still like me, but they like being away from me more.”
Father Xavier smiled at me as he said, “Yes, so you will understand how different the idea of marriage is in tribal Africa.
In many ways it feels that out here we are closer to the old testament. The people of the old Testament were tribal, and you know that out here they marry with Lobola.
It is still the most prevalent form of a man acquiring a wife.
The old part of the bible says that a man “takes” a woman to be his wife. It does not say that they fell in love and will love and cherish each other until death parts them.
Like with the ancient Hebrews, in these remote tribal areas, even today, a woman does not have much to say about who she should marry.
People think that this is bad. But it works and in some ways is similar to arranged marriages in very religious sects in other parts of the world.
And this brings me back to the story of the child.
Out here, if a man is poor and he has a lot of daughters, sometimes, even despite the strength of the tribe, he will sell his daughter to someone from a different tribe, if enough is tendered.
Dina’s grandfather was a poor Lozi man living in Angola with 7 daughters.
She was sold to a man from the Ganguela tribe for twenty cows. It was a lot to pay in those days.”
A deep sigh prefaced the next part of the priests tale. “And of course, giving its flavor to all of life out here, like the sea its salt, is witchcraft.
I have struggled with this from the day I first arrived here, and I still do.
We in the west have a much more esoteric understanding of evil. Yes, we all know that the world is full of it. But we seldom individually personalize it. When bad things happen, we say it is the work of the devil. And we generally think that the devil lives in some faraway place, some distant hell, maybe even further away than heaven, further even than the stars.
But out here the understanding of evil is very different. That is because the spiritual world of Africa is all around us, all the time.
The dead do not travel far away to a heaven or hell. They wander the darkness of the night and the lonely places in the hilltop caves, and the abandoned mine shafts of old prospectors digs.
These spirits are full of the unknown. Sometimes they are benign, even good, but sometimes they are full of evil, and that evil needs to take possession of the soul of a living person to work its malignancy.
As you know, sometimes when bad things happen and people begin to die in the villages the consensus is that someone must be possessed by a devil.
The belief is that the only way to get rid of the evil is to banish or kill the witch who is possessed.
In Dinai’s village some children had died, and Dina’s mother was an outsider, she was a Lozi.
A sangoma was summoned to sniff out and hunt down the person possessed by the devil. The person who had turned into a witch.
Seeing the writing on the wall, she took her daughter and ran away, before that little girl could be identified as being possessed of a devil.”
That tone of sadness had edged back into Father Xavier’s voice as he spoke softly to me.
“You see, my son,….,
The most damming factor of them all, her daughter, that little girl with the charcoal black eyes, and the fire red hair,
She was an albino.
And you will understand the place the albino occupies in the spiritual world of Africa.
For the longest time I wondered if it was the threat of living with the risk of being accused of being a witch that etched the sad mark of Cain in the little girl’s eyes. Even then it was as if they could see far into the future and its portend of sorrow.
She was a wonderful child and grew into a wonderful girl. But the mark of Cain followed her everywhere. It was not just the stark difference of the color of her skin and hair that made her stand out. It was as if the whisper of her past had trailed behind her like the gentlest of zephyrs, and everyone knew that somewhere in her soul was a spirit, waiting and lurking to take possession, with all the special evil potency of a white witch.
You see the little girl I first saw hiding behind that old tree trunk over there had just been abandoned by her mother.
Even her mother dared not stay with her, lest she be possessed by proxy.
The rumors of who, and what she was, clung to her like the burs of the black-jack weeds cling to your clothes.
This aura caused the other kids to shun and avoid her. Even the adults kept their distance if they could.
Only one person, a mulatto nun at a clinic across the river, completely accepted her as a normal child. To that nun I am eternally grateful. For she took the little girl under her habit, and help me raise the child.
She attended school here at the mission. However, on many an afternoon, and on some days on the weekends the child, and later the girl, would meet me out under the trees and we would talk. We would talk about religion and politics and history. We would play checkers and chess. I would even talk Portuguese to her. She was brilliant. She learned fast. It was as if her mind was a sponge, she soaked up knowledge and information.
In those days here at the mission we only provided classes up to Standard 5, or the end of Junior School. But she was so talented I realized that it would be a travesty if she somehow did not go on to finish high school. Maybe even to get a teaching diploma so that she could return to the mission as a staff member. She herself said she dreamed one day of attending Fort Hare University in South Africa, or Makarere in Uganda.
To this effect I arranged with a friend in Lusaka to have her stay with them, while she attended Munali Girls High School. At the time the country was newly independent and the top Lusaka schools were now available to African children.
We at the mission would not see her for months. Only during the long Christmas break, during the wet season would she come back here to stay with us, her “foster” parents.
These years were the happiest of her life, the sadness had almost left her eyes.
But then one day, when she was just short of her sixteenth year, she got off the bus after the long journey back here from Lusaka. It was during the school term and we were shocked to see her. But what shocked us even more was to see that her pregnancy was starting to show.
It took a long time to tell me about the father of her unborn child.
He was dark, she said and he had the scent of spices. The only feature she clearly remembered was a burn scar on his chest in the form of an inverted Africa, and that was all. Because he had raped her.
And so it was that her baby boy Na”u was born.
When the child was about a year old and Dina”i about 16 she suddenly announced that she had received a message from her mother. Out of the blue, from her mother who had abandoned her and whom she could barely remember.
She said she wanted to go back to the village in Angola and show her mother her baby.
A month later, here at the mission a stranger showed up one morning with the baby.
As you know here in Africa when a baby is born out of wedlock it is raised by the family of the father, not the mother. This Angolan stranger said that the baby was being brought back to us to send to the family of the father.
We never saw Dina”i again. She simply disappeared off the face of the earth. I sent people back into Angola to try to find her, but nobody knew anything about her or had seen anything.
And so it was that Moses came to stay with me at the mission.
And why was he called Moses and not Nau? It was my nickname for him. Because like Moses he had shown up abandoned on the banks of a big broad African river, and I did not push his cradle away.
But, for her baby son, the zephyr that followed his mother around, with its scent of spiritual smoke, it continued to fanned the same imaginary embers in the people’s minds. He inherited her curse. He was never allowed to fit in.
As you know I am a religious man, I love my Lord, but after so many decades out here I am a practical person, and I have learned that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Thus, I suspect that curse, the curse I tried for so long to eradicate, for you it could be a blessing. I say this because, my son, I have spent so much time with the people of Africa.
I think that he will be good for your cause, because even the sangoma’s, those powerful witch -doctors, they will be scared of him.
Just as the ways of the Lord are mysterious, so are the ways of the bush.
He may not realize it, but somehow, in a mysterious manner, the sangoma’s will know that he is the son of a ‘white witch’…
And that is very powerful Muuti.”
15 – SOPHIA
For most people the drive back from the west part of the country to the Kafue is a long boring and maybe even arduous affair, full of flatness, and made even more uninteresting with much of the original bushveld scratched away like the hair of an old mangy dog, by the virtual ticks and lice of human occupation.
But I am an exception, for me the drive is always interesting. Since early childhood I have been an avid bird enthusiast, and even where there are long stretches of monotony, there is always something interesting to see if one is aware of the avian fauna. I could observe the astounding beauty of the Lilac Breasted Rollers. I counted how many I saw as they were stationed along their territories adjacent to the road, waiting for a passing vehicle to startle and flush an insect. They are a species which is benefitting from human expansion and the accompanying clearing of the bush for crops.
The same was true for the two Lanner Falcons I spotted. They being a falcon which is not averse to taking prey on the ground, as opposed to other Falcons such as the Peregrine and Taita, who only take prey in the air, the Lanners have benefited from the plethora of village chickens and their chicks.
But a sighting of a Kori Bustard was heartwarming. One of the biggest flying birds in the world, there was something regal in the way it strode across the open grassland.
I had left the mission after a last lazy breakfast of toast and tea with Father Xavier. Even though it was only mid-morning, the road far ahead was already being broken up into shivering aqueous-like ripples by the refraction of the hot air.
It was going to be a long, hot journey.
In many places the bush has given way to the clumps of huts which cluster along the roadway for convenience, and then stretch away into the distance on each side, where they are serviced and fed by the arteries of dirt footpaths and rutted tracks spreading back like the varicosed veins on the cheeks of a drunkard.
The untidy little clusters of huts always come with their symbionts, maybe a few sporadic cows, as well as the goats and ubiquitous chickens, scuffling between the patchy bristles of subsistence mielies (corn) scratched from the dry nurture-less soil. Long gone is the canopy of trees, whose leaves provided the shading shadows and fallen mulch which for millions of years has caressed and soothed the soil below. Now, instead, like the flat, wizened breasts of an old woman, after decades of monotonous childbirth and monoculture, almost all of the flush and fertility of life has been suckled away.
Yes surely, here and there some of the original verdancy is still evident, sometimes on this or that side of the road, or maybe on both, left there by the rare stewardship on tracts of private property, or left-over land reserved for government purposes. For me these islands of the old Africa are where I symbolically breathe freely, before taking a deep breath prior to ducking my head under the surface of my awareness. I do this mentally to be able to ignore the tug of hopelessness I feel when traveling through these stretches of human induced degradation.
Don’t get me wrong, this blight is not unique to this stretch of the road, or to this region. It exists all over the country, and indeed all over Africa. In fact, it is not even the worst I have seen. While flying low level over the river which forms the northern boundary of the Ruaha national Park in neighboring Tanzania, I have seem that this boundary between the park and human habitation is like the boundary between heaven and hell. Leafy Eden is on the one side, and then spreading back from the river bank on the other, the people and the goats and monoculture have created a bare, blighted desert.
It is definitely not the mythical Africa promoted in the glossy tourist brochures, but it is what much of Africa is becoming.
In my mind, as I drove eastwards, I had been explaining this to myself.
Mentally talking to myself was one of the coping mechanisms I had developed in the past when alone in the Bush for long periods. The habit had persisted. I guess that the trait was not all that quirky, and if taken in perspective, because we are a social species and thus not meant to be so alone, it was excusable. Maybe it was the long lonely drive that had triggered my listening to the echoes of my mental dialogue.
But more likely it was with a ghost that I was engaging. A ghost from the past. A ghost which had returned to me suddenly, and so unexpectedly, just the previous evening, on a day, which no less strangely, was my birthday.
It was a ghost I had tracked and hunted, and for thirty years, had always proved tantalizingly elusive.
All it said was,
“Hi, Is it u? I am younger and older now”.
The words unsettled me.
I am not a religious person. But the timing of this reappearance was almost ordained.
After all, scientifically I know that I am only slightly more evolved than some primates, with my DNA sequence matching perfectly 98.4% that of a Bonobo Chimpanzee . With this in mind, I always enjoyed teasing those of my esoteric friends who were more spiritually oriented than I. This was especially true with an old girlfriend who, as the result of a prior dabbling with a Hindu Holy man, ardently believed in reincarnation. I would tell her I was slightly disappointed to be stuck here with her on this iteration of life. That it would have been much better if we had lucked out with a stint as Bonobos. What a perfect life I would tell her, to spend all and every day swinging around in the trees of the jungle, without a worry in the world, eating bananas and engaging in free love. Needless to say, she soon returned to the Swami. Her beliefs found greater reinforcement by being told that she was now a step up from her past invocation as an Indian princess. I guess in addition to making her happy, this also got him much further along the path to nirvana-like loving with her, than the Bonobo world view I had espoused..
Ohhh, well, there is more than one way to peel a potato.
But despite the true words said in jest to my mates, I could never figure out why the “Kingdom of God” and all the riches of the world be promised only to those with a genetic sequence similar to mine, and not to a creature 98.4% an exact copy of our human genome.
Thus, it was with some unease that I thought back on the last few days, with the events and their sequence. It seemed eerily unusual, almost beyond the randomness of chance.
Maybe Father Xavier had more insight into hidden spiritual realities, and maybe so did Precious, with the necklass of river snail shell “muti” around her throat.
I savored those ghostly words as I stood in the middle of the hook bridge over the Kafue River.
I always stop after crossing the bridge, and then walk back to its center to stand looking down at the slow eddies of the water. There is something deeply relaxing, even hypnotic to look down and watch the slow roll of the river as it passes under the bridge and below my feet.
Here, I like to equally slowly eat my biltong sandwich, and sip the cup of hot sweet coffee from my thermos flask.
It is with sparse fanfare in this section that the Great West road passes from East to West through the center of the Kafue National Park. The only noticeable indication that a traveler has that they have entered the park is the unbroken expanse of bush that spreads, in all its beautiful originality, for as far as the horizon, and beyond, on either side of the bridge. Sometimes, if I am lucky I will see the large elephant bull who often frequents this area. If he is close to the road I may stop a while and watch as he slowly breaks off the branches and foliage with the dexterity of his trunk, and with a flick, shoves the greenery into his mouth.
Thirty years. That is a long time, and yet it is nothing. For thirty years her imaginary ghost had walked beside me in so many strange, wonderful and terrible places.
It was that long ago that I last saw her.
In the warm humid coastal evening air of that far-away place, it had been for a brief hour that we sat side by side on a bench in the cities botanical garden. There, amidst the floral opulence, unknowingly for the last time, we touched and spoke, we laughed and embraced, and I beheld her magnificence.
In all those years since, I have often wondered if she remembered me. If she wondered what became of me, as I did of her. I am sure if I had made the correct, utterly agonizing choice, and returned to her, then today I would believe in love and destiny and faithfulness and it would all be so obvious and easy.. but a war intervened. If it had not I would probably be a lot blander, more boring, a believer in constancy.
Ever since, I guess, in mental limbo, the toying with my imaginary maiden has condemned me to be the footloose and fancy-free wanderer that I am.
The reality of her visage has long since faded. Even if I possessed the memory to preserve her image, time surely has worked its changes and today I would probably pass her unrecognized in the street.
I often wonder if it was the perspective drawing, I did as I lay on my barrack bed at the unit on the bluff, which triggered her interest and illustrious career in architecture and interior design.
Now I occasionally play with my lost mental image. Sometimes I have her hair tied in a bob and her neck extended. At others her ginger tinted golden hair is tied over in a dutch braid… In my mind I can make her whoever I want… Maybe I will recognize her… stranger things have happened…
Such as…last night her tantalizing me, across almost three decades, with an imaged glimpse of her full, feminine and beautiful legs, just as I remember them. and with her words “Hi, Is it u? I am younger and older now”.
And yet, even though I have not heard it for thirty years, I remember the lilt of her voice as clearly as yesterday.
And the clay of the Kafue talks to me, maybe if I fashion it, I will recognize her in the mud in my hands.
16 – VULTURES
Space and time according to Einstein are one and the same, just like you cannot have left without right and up without down.
And whatever you call it, left or right depends on which side you look at life. Seen from the front it is on your right, from the back it is the left, from underneath it is up, and from above it is down. We look at the same thing and describe it in different frames of reference.
The genius of Einstein is that he realized that time is part of this paradox of perception. That it is all relative and real. The past and future are part of the same left/right, up/down thing, and the present is just where we are in time when we happen to open our eyes. And if we did this change of perspective at the speed of light, time would come to a standstill and we would become infinitely heavy, because it is all linked to the inexorable tug of gravity.
And Einstein also said, ‘God does not play dice with the universe’.
But to me at that moment, it seemed that he did, because as I looked up at the azure hugeness of the hot summer sky, I could almost feel Sophia’s ghost standing next to me. After all I was in Africa, and here the spirits and ghost are everywhere at all times, not just in the haunted darkness of the night or a person’s imagination, as some in the west believe.
The vastness of the sky above us, (me and my imaginary ghost that is), was underpinned and thus enhanced by the flatness of the unfettered perspective when viewed from the center of the bridge, because out here over the water there are no trees to obscure the view in any direction. It was almost as if the heat of the sun directly overhead, as it glared down on the river, had melted away any lumps in the landscape.
As I looked over the dull broad turquoise of the waters, the river flowed towards me, and if I turned around, it flowed away, like time.
There’s something about mountains which always seems to bring forth a sense of inspiration in most people, including myself. The crags of the Drakensberg, the giant inselbergs of the Matopos, the cloud draped crowns and clefted-cliffs of the Vumba, all of these trigger a stir of something in my soul. Life feels good when I am hiking along some dirt path tucked into the folds of a valley of any of these ranges.
But in this part of the Kafue basin it was the lack of anything ‘gimmicky’ that really brought home to me the enormity of nature. Out here there are no hills, no crags, no deep valleys, or clefted-cliffs. As I stood on the bridge and squinted my eyes to cut down the midday glare reflecting off the water all I could see was the huge flat horizon. Like the rip of a tide, it cut across my perception, stretching seemingly forever with its left and right, it’s before and behind and with the ripples of the Bush below and the sky above.
I grew up as a child surrounded by similar huge flatness, between the Munyati and Sebakwe rivers and all that spilled and seeped across that flatness. How could I not be imprinted with all this bonanza of raw Africa? It utterly fascinated me. From the age of five when my father bought a pair of binoculars and a copy of Robert’s birds of Southern Africa, with a slingshot around my neck, almost every day I joined my Umfana friends to go out and explore and hunt the birds in the bush.
I collected bird’s eggs, the first egg of which was that of a Dabchick, with its glossy water impervious eggs hidden under the strands of weeds it had pulled over them as it sneaked off its barely floating nest at my approach, and the last was that of a Yellow-billed Kite taken from a nest near Shongweni.
And I collected butterflies. African Swallowtails and Monarchs and Mimics, beautiful fast-flying Charaxes, which I had lured with rotting bananas, just long enough to drop my net over. The prize of my collection was a rare ‘Mother of Pearl’ I had caught as it sat opening and closing its wings amidst the leafy detritus caught between a jumble of granite boulders on the family farm.
This childish dabbling in nature led to a degree in biology earned (barely) over many years of evening and later on-line studying. I think that I was the student with the longest attendance at the institute. I suspect that I was finally awarded my degree simply to get rid of me. It was starting to be embarrassing, I had been there longer than some of the staff with tenure.
But that study has served me well in understanding the wonders of nature.
It allowed me to know that one of the true wonders of nature is the eye… The complexity of how the eye evolved, to function as it does is astounding. This has left even some of the most die-hard proponents of evolution with a niggling doubt about shutting the door on creationism.
But there are those in both the evolutionary and creationist camps who say that understanding the science behind life trivializes it. They prefer to look at it in a romantic emotional fashion. They are like those who only look at the outside of a car. However, if one wants to see the real marvel of the modern motor vehicle one needs to open its hood and look at what is underneath.
Thus my formal studies allowed me to appreciate the mind boggling complexity of every aspect of life in its expressions in nature. It was the marvel of my eye that thus picked up the specks in the sky. There were less than a handful of them distributed vertically in a loose slowly twisting column. If they had not been thus clustered I probably would not have noticed them seeing as the closest column was approximately two ‘clicks’ (kilometers) away, far off to the northwest.
I immediately recognized them for what they were and what they were doing, vulture’s gaining altitude in the updraft of one of the powerful thermals so prevalent on a hot African day. Returning to the cruiser I fetched my binoculars to more closely observe the birds. As I watched, the spec at the top of the column reached an altitude of a few thousand feet above ground level. Suddenly it peeled off and started to head north northeast in a flat shallow glide. Every now and again it would slightly drop its wings in a stiff half wing beat, which I knew was a signal to others.
Following the direction of its flight with my binoculars, sure enough I picked up the next column, and then continuing the direction of my scan, I detected a further pillar of circling birds, now so distant that it was barely visible even with the magnification of the glasses.
The vulture’s were on the march. Somewhere far away to the north northeast was a kill. The vultures were using the thermals to gain height before gliding to the next elevator, whence they once again gained altitude, before gliding on. There occasional stiff wing beat was a signal to every other vulture that there was food to be had.
I turned around in a slow circle and scanned the skies in every direction. Sure enough off to the east in the direction of Mumbwa, where I was headed, was another thermal column and another progressive line of birds heading to where they could join the final feeding frenzy.
I knew that most of the birds would be White-Backed’s, as they are the commonest of the Vulture’s in the Kafue. A pair of these birds had a nest right above the dirt road that led upstream along the river from our Lodge to that of our neighbors, who currently held the concession of the Lunga-Luswishi Game Management Area.
But looking more attentively at the closest circling group I could detect at least one which was noticeably bigger, It would be one of the rarer kings of the clump, a Lappet- Faced Vulture, who once it reached the kill would dominate the scrum.
There would also obviously be some of the smaller more delicate Hooded Vulture’s, mixed in with the White-backs, but from my distance the size difference was too small to distinguish amongst those in the rising circle.
As I stood and watched the pillar closest to me moved slowly nearer. It was pushed along by the breeze making the tall dry stalks of the elephant grass at the edge of the road nod and sway in unison with its eddies. I saw how the virtual pillar was dynamic. The birds at the top peeled off out of the counterclockwise spiral of the thermal. They were replaced by others approaching from the opposite side, in a well-spaced almost direct line, where upon with a sharp left bank of their huge wings they slid and slotted into position at the bottom of the vortex, only a few hundred feet above the tree canopy.
I understood the aerodynamics of these amazing birds. This was because I had once entertained aspirations of being an Air Force pilot, and even started studying for a private pilot’s license in preparation. But at my induction the test showed I was slightly red-green colorblind. The sergeant conducting my test said I would be a good infantryman. But, I digress in my telling of my tale.
If one is a bird who leads a lifestyle, based on waiting until something dies and you can eat it, it means that you need to develop certain characteristics to afford yourself an advantage in your special niche. One needs to get up high in the sky, with incredibly good eyesight, and while you are up there to spend as little energy as possible, while you look around searching for things that have died. Thus, the brought big wide area of the vulture’s wing is ideally designed to maximize lift. The lift is augmented by the first five feathers of its primaries extending out in a taper, so that when the wing is extended they seem almost to be like spread fingers of a hand. But the slotting acts to create micro-vortexes which aid the lift co-efficient of each feather behind it.
Of course, the down side is that the wide lift producing surface area of the vulture’s wing also produces high drag. Its wing is not maximized for speed. If you want that the engineers of nature must supply a long narrow wing, which needs the lift augmented by plenty of flapping. Such a wing, with its narrowness and minimal drag, can cut through the air at high speed, like the wings of the Palm Swifts that glue their eggs to the leaves of the Borassus Palm trees, a few of which I could see raising their shaggy crowns aloft along the river bank.
But then the vulture does not need to get anywhere very fast. Its food is not going to run away. In many cases, it can spot things, while its food is still in distress, even before it dies. Or if the death is administered quickly at the hands of a Leopard or a pride of lions, the gathering vulture’s need to wait until those higher up the pecking order, so to speak, are satiated, and they can get their turn. Just like the Japanese designers of my Land Cruiser have had to make design compromises to suite for its purpose, so also has the genius of nature designed the wing of the vulture to suit its niche. We both, the vulture’s and I, need to go places reliably and effectively, but for this to happen we need to compromise on speed.
However, it is only when one sees these vulture’s circling overhead so effortlessly, seemingly defying gravity and spreading across space and time with apparent impunity, that one can appreciate the incredible highly evolved complexity of this special species.
The other thing that the vulture needs is phenomenal eyesight.
From a distance of 2 kilometers up int the sky it must be able to distinguish and detect the natural color camouflaged fur or hide of a dying animal, even if it is laying partially concealed under a canopy of leaves. The eyes of a vulture are unsurpassed in all of nature.
I dropped my binoculars and let them hang on the strap around my neck. Space and time and gravity. God does not play dice with the universe. But mankind does. I rolled these sentences around in my mind.
The flight of these magnificently elegant birds, embodied all of these elements, with their back and forth, up and up, gravity defying sweeps. But it is actually a different kind of gravity that I considered. The plight of the vulture’s. No bird in history has, or is, disappearing off the face of the earth as fast as the vulture is right now.
I considered how many millions of years it had taken, with millions of tiny random modifications to its strands of DNA, so that each tiny change afforded its owner either an advantage or a disadvantage in life, and the ability to pass on its changes to the next generation. Each of these tiny changes has produced this species, and the differences between the Hooded, the White-backed, the Lappet Faced and the others. It was their specialization of flight and sight which had gotten these birds into such trouble.
While flying it was their collective trait to signal to each other that something had died, and so fly and point to all the other vulture’s to where there was food.
This trait could be used by game departments to detect when a big animal such as an elephant or a rhinoceros had been poached. Using the converging flight path of the birds as a guide to food, law enforcement and ranges can quickly detect and get to the site of a poaching kill. This meant that the authorities could also quickly mount a follow-up tracking operation to attempt to intercept the poachers.
But unfortunately the poachers have also learned what the wardens are up to, and so in many parts of Africa the poachers have begun to poison their poached carcasses in an effort to deliberately wipe out the vulture’s, so that they would not be unwitting semaphores to law enforcement.
Luckily, so far north of the Zambezi River, there has not been much of this poisoning. This is because the minds here are predominantly for copper, and not gold as it is in the countries to the south. Up here it is hard to get the cyanide that is used in the gold refining process, and which provides the poachers with the poison to put in the carcasses.
The second amazing trait that is unique, and so sadly increasingly fatal to these birds is their phenomenal powers of sight. Africa is full of spiritualism, and unfortunately for the vultures, the witch doctors of Africa believe that the vulture’s site allows it to look into the future.
Ever since the first Uhuru swept out of the Abadair forests with the Mau-Mau in Kenya, the winds of change have been blowing in Africa. As a result, with African Independence all levels of governance is now conducted by Africans. For many Africans the religions of the West are skin deep. It is the witchcraft and ‘Muti’ of the shamans which affords the ultimate power.
Many African politicians, starting at the most junior levels of town administrators, going right up to the highest level of state politics, now seek out some advantage with a spiritual totem. If it is not the politicians it is also many of the businesspeople. All over Africa, hidden away in backstreet shops or warehouses, one can find the bush-meat and Muti markets, where the totems that will give good luck and benefit in almost any endeavor can be found. Crocodile heads, leopard skins, lines teeth, pangolin scales, owls talons, hyena snouts, Jackals tales.
And of course, there are the heads of vulture’s with the ability to look into the future of any aspiring politician.
Ughhh… I turned and walked back towards my Land Cruiser.
With her ghost standing next to me, what is 30 years?
For me it seemed an eternity, but in those 30years it has been mankind and not God who has been playing with the dice. All it has taken is thirty years for these gracious birds circling overhead to almost disappear from the earth.
I asked my ghost to help find Moses. Only he could help me with the witchcraft. Sheeesh, I was letting the bush get to me… a ghost? I would banish it from my mind.
After all Sophia was no longer a ghost, after 30 years she had sent me email.