Kafue 02 – Big black books

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DAMN!.

The bite of a Tsetse fly hurts, especially that of a young one!

It hurts worse than that of a horse fly!

As I Glanced up, from slapping at the back of my calf, after another futile attempt to kill the offending insect. I could see how the uniformed guard slowly rowsed and rose from a single austere chair, placed in the shade under the eve’s, just outside the doorway of the simple brick Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) guard house.

As the guard slowly picked up a big ledger book, I again slapped at the insect, this time as it buzzed on the vehicles side window.

‘You little bugger’, I muttered to myself, ‘I can also play this game, when I catch you I will torture you back! I will pull off your wings and make you walk’.

As the figure, resplendently officious in a neat, but faded olive green uniform, lazily moved across the few feet of compacted dirt which separated the guard house from my the Toyota, I just as slowly, rolled down the window of the cruiser.

‘Bwerani Bwanji!’, I leaned back in the drivers seat as I nodded a greeting to the guard. ‘Bwwanji Bwana’ the guard greeted back, also in Nyanja, who’s use at the ‘street level’, is like some echo from a long ago age of slaves and copper kings. An echo whose faint pulse still underscores and replaces the recent out of place chatter of the official English, as the informal ‘lingua franca’ of the country.

‘Wheh you come flom?

The slight high cheeked pinch of the tall slender guards young face was almost beautifully effeminate,. Despite the slow indolence of the way he had approached the vehicle, as he handed the huge ledger through the window to me, there was also a certain politeness in his demeanor. A demeanor which expressed itself in the tone of his thick accent, and the way his native Kaunde morphed his English R’s into L’s. After all he was the ‘authority’ figure here, and in Africa authority matters, no matter how trivial. At least in some parts of it, especially north of the Limpopo, it is accepted that authority is selddom respectful. It often kicks downwards, sometimes brutally, just as it always bends upwards, with subservient servility. I knew when to be poolite back, despite the redundancy of the formalities.

The guards question was rhetorical. This was a ritual. A ritual which is performed thousands of times a day, all over Central Africa, in those parts like this, where these faint echoes of its British colonial past are still being scribbled in the lines and columns of these huge books.

‘From Kafue River Lodge!’ I replied politely as I filled in the details, name, origin, destination, vehicle registration, number of passengers.

It was the ritual of filling out seemingly pointless information. The details demanded for by the headers of the lines and columns on the thick, almost blotter like paper of these big books.

Closing the worn grubby cover, and handing its heaviness back to the guard, I wondered what they did with these things once they were filled. Filled in with countless, almost incomprehensible scribbles of individual handwriting. I knew that the ritual was more than the mere recording of the details of each and every vehicle passing along the dirt narrowness of this remote and rutted road.

While the road connects the scruffiness of the regional capitols of this back water of Africa, this ritual, and the book at its center, serves to remind all those who head this way that the tribal law, superceded in colonial times by English Common Law, although resurgent, has not been reinstated. Quite the opposite. Like the uncomfortable bumps and jolts of the road, the authority, still using its left-behind colonial rules, is still the extant entity in the scruffy capitols at each end, where it is to be respected, at one’s peril. I did not ever want to find myself, even for a single night, in the horrors of an African jail.

As I watched the guard set the ledger down on the chair, and then, with the timeless patient pace of Africa, swing the barrier to allow the cruiser to pass, I wondered if the big black book would go back to join tens of thousands of others. Would it mold away for another 60 years, in the low corrugated asbestos roofed sheds where they had been left behind. Discarded like flotsam in the tide of Independence Uhuru which swept through East and Central Africa decades ago. An Uhuru whose ledgered detritis was still being washed up onto the chairs of the gate guards, in some of the remotest and unlikeliest spots across the vast echoed extents of the old British Bushveld Empire.

The big black books were still here, long, oh so long, after the petty bureaucrats of thatbankrupt empire were gone, gone so long ago that this representative of law and order, with his black book, and AK-47 leaning up against the wall, next to the austere wooden chair, would be too young to remember any of it.

Twisting my head and craning my neck forward to peer sideways out the window, I checked that the guard had swung the pivot pole far enough to clear the side of the cruiser. With a pang of regret I realized that despite the generational gap between myself and the guard, even I was almost too young to remember any of them, those officials who had hastily abandoned their individual roles as imperial Bwana’s. Those masters who, after their brief glorious appearance on the stage of empire, had gone back from whence many of them had come, as ex-pats, to their lives as petty clerks, maybe even as cab drivers, cook’s, or corporals, where they faded back into history and the dreariness of some crowded and claustrophobic suburb of Leeds, London, or maybe it was Glasgow.

While waiting for the barrier pole to swing to its limit, I could see how the guard post is set on a slight slope, which edges up out of the vast flat lands as they spread out northwards into the Kafue valley proper. I mentally shrugged as I thought of how the manager of Mushingashi, the huge private hunting concession bordering the park, had placed it’s simple building well, Shaded by some of the spindle tall elegance of the mafuti trees.

I thought how, a few months previously, while stranded here for two days, waiting for a replacement fuel pump for the cruiser, I had walked up the slope of the low hill behind the post. From there, I could see how those trees, trees whose almost unbroken canopy lifts its graceful leafy summer elegance like a song on the wind, and spreads its melody in a dark coppery green patina, almost ocean like, until its endlessness spills over the edge of the horizon.

At least this was the limit of the ‘Tsetse land’, from here on I could drive with the windows fully open. There would no longer be the need to either bear the sauna like heat, due to a non-functioning air conditioning system, cloistered in the closed, tsetse free, cabin of the cruiser… as opposed to the relative coolness of the warm sub-tropical air which would waft away my sweat, while at the same time, it wafted in the tormenting Tsetse’s.

Using my left hand, I moved the gear shift of the Cruiser from neutral into first, and I was about to lift the sole of my left foot off the clutch while easing down on the throttle pedal with the right, when suddenly on the other side of the cab, I heard a loud whistle..

‘EEWEH !’ Someone shouted out, ‘Heyy you!

Another guard, who I had not seen, appeared around the side of the building. Older, and plumper than his colleague, he was more affable about the weight of his authority, which it seemed to me, to have settled around his mid-rift. Why carry that weight over to the window of the cab to deliver a message when it can be shouted..

Then, with a pause, maybe for dramatic effect, and with a slightly more serious tone in his voice, but still with a broad smile on his wide friendly face, he shouted across the rest of the message,

‘On the radio, they say to tell you… Back at your camp!’

He paused again, ‘They say someone has been caught by a crocodile!’

 

 

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