All over the world disaster, and the unwanted child it so often spawns, tragedy, has its rituals. Out here in the remote African Bush, everyone knows its bastard progeny with a familiarity that is almost personal.
It being one of fate’s children, and fate being the mother whose fingers weave the fabric of all bush life, its easily provoked proximity needs to be treated with careful respect. It is as if life out here is lived knowing that in a dark corner of the village, the cold-blooded coils of a slumbering snake are always lurking.
Out in these bushveld swathes, to abate the appetite of those fateful writhings, everyone has a role in the rituals of appeasement. These rituals are not carried out, as in the west, by unknown specialists, whose actions elicit no more than the rubber-necked curiosity of gawking spectators, and whose features are hidden by big fire-helmets or uniforms, with flashing lights and accompanied by the sound of sirens.
Instead, here it is up close and individual, because here in remote Africa almost everyone has watched, personally, as the unwelcome child of fate has inexorably beckoned someone into those clasping coils.
It was with a vague sense of relief that I slowed the cruiser down so that it no longer, almost as if on ice, drifted dangerously away from the rutted crown of the road. A lifetime of driving in Africa allows one to learn the limits of this dance with the dirt. Too slow and the vibrations of the rutted corrugations of an ungraded road are intolerable, too fast and the syncopated shudders of heavy-duty tires causes them to bounce in unison, loosening the vehicles grip on the dust and dirt.
In tandem with the slide of the tires, my mind was drifting over the possibilities of the various sorts of African disaster. It was this pre-occupation which had been pushing the cruisers speeds to, and sometimes beyond, its upper dangerous sliding limits.
I do not know why the news of this particular event had filled me almost immediately with a sense of foreboding. It was not that I had not seen my fill of bad things happen in the African bush. Gracious, the war in Angola had a quarter million victims. Because it had been in areas, and along dirt roads just as bad as this, with a remote unimportance to the outside world so absolute, that its brutality went by almost completely unnoticed.
Unnoticed, that is, by the rest of the world, but not by those who were there. Certainly not by Moses and I.
I thought about this as I prepared to slow the cruiser down. At least here I knew that my vehicle would not be triggering the thumping flash and dirt of a mine.
As I contemplated some of the morbid flavors of Africa, I glanced to my left, letting my gaze follow a herd of Puku antelope as they skittishly scampered away with the approach of the vehicle. Beyond them and deeper in the bush, with young ones shrieking and scampering about, I could see a few of the troop of baboons which often frequents this section of the road.
Now in the midday heat of late October, despite the distraction of my thoughts, I could still marvel at the beauty of the bush as it spread and flowed past on each side of my travel. It was resplendent with the emerald green of the freshly budding leaves of the Masasa, the Mafuti, and other trees of the miombo forest. These tall trees held their leafy canopies aloft above long slender trunks as elegantly as any gathering of Ascot ladies their spread parasols.
But despite its condition and with a bit of risk taking, the road had allowed me to make good time. Only two hours since leaving the ZAWA check-point, and its news, delivered by the portly guard. This included the pontoon crossing. I had been lucky, the ferry happened to be waiting on the south bank.
In another month, when the wet season started in earnest, I knew things would be different.
Despite it being the main road linking the two regional administrative centers of Mumbwa and Kasempa, the roads neglect, together with its use by overweight trucks, would soon make it a challenge. In less than a month, the oppressive heat of October would be mixed with the moisture being brushed over the land by the summer winds. Then, I knew, almost every afternoon, like the coupling of some ancient Gods, this hot mingling of the air and moisture would rear up until the white climax of their crowns would scrape the brink of heaven. This ecstasy would be heralded with roaring rumbles of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. These, in turn, would signal the birthing of the sheets of rain.
The daily drenching would bring life, giving splendor to the leafy bush, as well as to the wide open dambo-fed grassy plains of Busanga, which lay some distance off to the northwest. But it would bring misery to the state of the road and its ability to affect the outcome of many of the sorts of suffering to be found out here.
In this wilderness area, the size of Belgium, it is no wonder disaster and tragedy have a more profound flavor. I thought how the whole region is bisected by only one single paved road, and a few graded dirt arterials, barely passable in the wet season.
Out here it is never a stock market collapse, or the bankruptcy of a business. It is never someone left penniless and careless as a result of the debilitating costs of a serious illness. Out here the red to be reckoned with is not the final tally of an accountant, it is measured by the oozing spread of the blood-stains on the sand.
I shrugged as I nosed the cruiser to the right off the relatively tolerable ruts of the main dirt road, and shifted into low gear to negotiate the more serious bumps of the hand cut dirt strips. These strips led the last few kilometers, through the trees and over the wide damp grassy spread of the dambo, before it reached the riverine Riperia whose huge trees shaded the lodge complex.
I could hear the high-pitched trill long before I brought the vehicle to a stop in the middle of the road where it bends around the huge thickly wooded anthill behind the kitchen.
As I cut the engine and opened the door, the sound immediately revealed itself to be the ululation of a woman.
In Africa ululation is normally the sound of celebration.
It emanated from the group of four women standing just beyond the opening in the thatch grass fence which divides the ordered tidiness of the kitchen and laundry from unsightliness of the vehicle sheds and storage rooms.
Only one of the four women had her head slightly tilted backwards, with her mouth wide and her tongue trilling out the pitch.
But there was something in its tone that immediately indicated that it was not the sound of rejoicing.
The sound rose and fell and wavered, and then gained strength before fading again. It was eerie and out of place.
Like a comment said in merciless jest, there was something in its essence which was the antithesis of rejoicing. Instead, in some distant and primitive pitch, it hinted at a long-forgotten fugue.
It almost possessed the faint echoes of some ethereal evil. It signaled to all that could hear that they should wrap themselves in the protection of the rituals. But in the dichotomy of its tone, it still held its overt selfish joyousness. It was still also a sound of relief. A recognition that the spirits have chosen another to be sacrificed to the gods.
It held true to its other essence as an acknowledgment that one must be grateful for being spared the inevitability of some of life’s events. An acknowledgment that such things must happen.
As I rounded the curve of the fence I could see that the women were wearing their work uniforms. Above the teal blue long leggings of their trousers the beak of the lodge logo African Skimmer bird was dipping its way across the fawn of their cotton shirts.
The trill slowly faded like the echoes of a distant choir. It was as if old Africa had faded with it, as it had done for the last hundred ears, to lurk and watch, and wait, as the methods of the new world carelessly asserted themselves.
I knew that in my young formative years, despite spending almost half of my life amongst the children and huts and ideas of the workers’ villages, I would always be perceived as a representative of that other world. The outside, full of logic and science.
One of the women stood almost a head taller than the others. With her thick black hair plaited in a long braid which hung down low between her shoulder blades, she also wore her uniform in a rakish almost taunting way.
It was not just her song which was an enigma, it was her very being.
Only when I was yards away did her voice fade and a silence ensued so profound that it seemed that nothing dared intrude into the vastness of its vacuum.
It was then that I noticed how her mouth closed at the same time as Melody slowly opened her eyes, to pour the dark liquid inkiness of her stare all over me.
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