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 Melody, 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.
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