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 seep 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 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 Tuku 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 various corporate jobs after the conflict ended and Moses and I had nothing left to do. 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 fit 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 succeed as we did. We changed the history of Southern Africa, and Moses was part of that.
But we were an inconvenient piece 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.
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