“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 charcoal 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 leafy virtual 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 area. 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 was not 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.”
Lobola – bride price
Sangoma – witch doctor
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