Over the eons, the early rains of summer which fall far to the north in the Congo, move south to soak into the soil after the long dryness of winter. When the soil can take no more, in many places it becomes so soft and waterlogged that it is almost impassable to anything but the toughest of the 4×4 vehicles equipped with winches and track boards.
Generally, by mid-summer, when the screech of the cicada Christmas beetles is at its deafening loudest, the excess rain waters slowly seep through the grassy mats that cover the shallow bottoms of the wide dambos, where they are collected to trickle along the rivulets and streams that pass under and through the flat leafy spread of the tall miombo forests.
Gradually the waters gather the strength to push and force their way through the filtering reeds of the Lukanga swamps. Once through, and cleansed clear, they gain speed as they channel across the broad flat plain of the Kafue basin.
By January and February, there is so much water swirling downstream that even with the shallow gradient and breadth of the land, there is more than enough to cut a broad channel into the soft layers of the Kalahari sandstone, which was laid down over millions of years by the dust brought in from the deserts of that name far to the west.
It was obvious that they had not moved him far from the top of the eroded gravel ramp which leads down under the spread of the shady boughs of the big wild fig and other trees which, like the fur trim of a royal cape, flourishes in ebullient arboreal richness along the river banks. The ramp was originally cut decades ago when the site was used by the early prospectors who, fresh with success in Copper Katanga, came here seeking to repeat their performance with the discovery of another rich deposit. With its gradual gradient down through the usually steep banks the ramp offers easy access to the river. It is where we launch and retrieve the boats when it is necessary.
It was obviously also where the staff had been pumping the waters of the river to fill the holding tank perched hidden amongst the thicket and trees atop the old anthill behind the kitchen. From the drag marks in the soft sandy soil I could see that it must also have been the site of the attack.
I could recognize the shock on Eddie’s face from a distance. Even the dark ebony skin of the African has a slight great pallor when in shock. As I crossed the short distance to them the three men who were standing looking down at Eddie moved back to let me kneel down beside him.
I could see how his expression had assumed the almost fatalistic torpor which I”d seen so many times before in other places. It is part of Africa, the acceptance of one’s fate because such situations have been observed by the unlucky participant so often that the assumption is that there is little to be gained by intervention.
“How did this happen?” I asked.
“We were pumping water Bwana, and the crocodile jumped at Eddie. We were not even standing in the river. We were about to start the pump engine.”
“I told you that this would happen. That you should change where you pump water every day so that the crocodiles do not learn your pattern.”
It was with a sense of helpless frustration, which I let creep into my voice, that I said this.
“Yes, Bwana, but the water is so shallow. We do not know how the crocodile managed to sneak up close to us under such shallow water. And Bwana, Eddie had not even put the hose into the river when it happened. We had just moved the pump down closer.”
I cut in sharply, “But, do you not remember that I also told you never to stand closer than your own height from the edge!…And do you not realize that the crocodile did not sneak up on you. It was there for hours waiting. It covered itself with slime so it looks like an old log under water, unless you look carefully.”
“Yes Bwana, but we were careful!”
I remonstrated sharply, “No, you were not, It was waiting for you. It learned your habits, and anyway, have you never seen how fast a crocodile can move. It is the fastest lizard of them all. It is faster than a big legovan lizard, and you have seen how fast they can run.”
A slight scowl had crept over Kings broad face and creases of tension had appeared at the corners of his mouth, which to a casual observer would seem to be those of a smile, but I knew otherwise.
Kings had been here for a long time, all his life in fact. He was from the village of Chifumpa, but had spent most of his years in the fishing village which had thrived a short distance downriver, until the operators in the area made a deal with the chief to move them away. That was when the lodge and others in the tourism industry slowly came back to the Kafue after decades of neglect, even abandonment, in the wake of the bush war in what used to be Rhodesia to the south.
During those years in the 60’s and 70’s the Kafue, and this area in particular had been one of the transit bases for Nkomo’s Zimbabwe insurgent movement. For over a decade it had been a “no” go area. The echo’s and consequences of that tragic war lasted a long time…
I knew that one of those consequences was why I was standing here on the banks of the Kafue. I was here as part of the on-going effort to roll back one aspect of that distant storm. The poaching storm.
During the bush war, the animals of the park had been the meat pantry to the fighters of the insurgency. The local contract poachers who had shot and supplied the meat to the insurgency movements, had not forgotten their practices. In the years since the bush war they had simply switched to different markets,
Kings had been one of those suppliers. He was a man with an attitude who did not like to be reprimanded. He was used to leading, not being led. As I had dealt with soldiers for so much of my life I knew how far to push a point and also when to back off the throttle of discipline.
“So how did Eddie get away?” I asked.
“Bwana, He was lucky.” Kings shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “He held onto the pump, and it had the hose up to the kitchen, so it was not easy for the croc to pull him back quickly. He held on with the crocodile pulling at his leg until I found a big stick and hit it on the head. But I had to hit it many times before it let go.”
Kings was now almost apologetic as he gave the explanation.
I glanced down towards the river and could see the small box like contraption that was the engine and the centrifugal pump which we used to fill the water tanks.
For a moment it was as if the world was holding its breath. Even the birds were suddenly silent. The only sound was the rustle of the leaves in the big trees as their shadows draped over the corrugated iron roof of the vehicle shed and the thatch of the old storage room.
The order of the old African world is so hierarchical. Its protocol was now waiting for me to say something, for me to make a decision and tell them what to do. It is not as though those lower in the hierarchy cannot make the decisions, it is just impolite to do so.
Not only would it be impolite for one of them to have taken the initiative and done anything, it would also be disrespectful because I was older than any of them, and one seldom disrespects age in Africa.
Also, out here in the Bush, time and urgency are hardly ever factors to be considered when solving life’s problems. Why should one bother. It is seldom as though doing something sooner or faster is going to affect the outcome of fate. It is not as though one can get the ambulance here five minutes earlier or get to the hospital within half an hour to be able to change the situation. Kasempa is 150 kms away, and Mumbwa 120km. Not only the distance on a rough dirt road, but also both of these destinations require a pontoon crossing.
With the roads in their current condition, it would be three, or even four hours before one could reach the minimalistic basics of a clinic.
Out here the MARS, the medical air rescue service down to the modern efficient hospitals almost one and a half thousand kilometers away in South Africa, was only for clients
As I knelt down beside him I could see the almost serene expression on Eddie’s face. His eyes were half open and slightly cloudy with the distant unfocused stare like those of someone about to enter a trance when commanded to do so by a shaman.
As I pulled away the pieces of gauze strapped over his wounds, I could see the deep punches and gashes left by the crocodile’s teeth, where they had gripped his leg.
I could also see that the problem was the gashed tearing of some of the puncture marks, caused by the ripping of his flesh as he clutched to the pump for dear life. The croc must have been able to exert backward lunges as it thrashed its tail in the shallow water behind it, in its attempts to drag Eddie loose and down into aquatic oblivion.
“Get me the medical box”, I ordered to no one in particular.
He had lost a lot of blood. This was evident from the broad expanse of the dark magenta staining of the blankets. Eddie was still losing blood. The bandages over the wounds had not been able to stem the flow. Particularly the deep one at the back of his knee. At least the faint rhythm of the ooze indicated that he still had a pulse. The situation was urgent, With each weak leaking pulse I knew that Eddies life was dribbling away.
It had been decades since I had been faced with the urgency of action to prevent a life from departing its physical form and, as they believed here, joining the ethereal array of spirits which affect, engage, and meddle with every aspect of existence.
It was at this point that I sensed, like the blood from Eddie’s leg, something in me begin to seep. But it was not blood, and it flowed and filled inwards, not out. It was an emotional change, which was slowly creeping back into me, and it was the antithesis. It was the shutting down of my emotions. It was that old honed state that allows me to function efficiently without any emotional engagement. The state where I can look at a situation almost as an observer giving advice. That old coping mechanism from the field of war.
As I waited for the medical box and its tourniquet’s to arrive, I glanced up and gave orders to the three men standing looking down at me with uneasy faces to ready the old Land Cruiser. They needed to check its oil and water, and if necessary take out a fresh barrel from the storeroom and with the hand pump transfer 40 liters into the vehicles tank. I estimated that this should easily get them to Kasempa an back. I also said for one of the mattresses to be brought out of the storeroom and laid on the cruisers open back bed.
I could hear the rhythmic ticking of the corrugated iron roof of the vehicle shed next to us. It was expanding and contracting in the alternating sunshine and shadows as the wispy clouds drifted by high overhead, like decorations etched into the immense ceiling of the endless arena in which our pitifully small drama was playing out.
Glancing back over my shoulder it was with a slight flicker of surprise that I saw it was Melody who was carrying the large water-tight box of the Pelican First Aid kit.
As her tall shapely athletic figure approach us from the small circular hut-like “rondavel”, which is the office, and crossed to where we were at the far edge of the administrative section, it seemed that she almost appeared to glide. The steps of her long legs flicked effortlessly before her, without conveying any bob to her body. The bright orange color of the first aid kit contrasted with the teal blue leggings of her uniform.
Then as she reached us, my eyes were drawn to the white speckles of the small river snail shells that were strung on a simple short strand around her neck. These, I noted, also color contrasted, with the smooth amber chocolate of her skin.
Hmmm…I mentally noted.. She is a girl full of surprising contrasts.
But, as I turned my head to look down at Eddie, my thoughts faded back into the recesses of my mind like the bats back into their shadows at dawn.
I always keep the bandages and surgical tape in the top of the four drawers in the case. The most important items in my opinion were the triple-plus antiseptic cream, the cotton pads, the Cobam elastic adhesive tape and, the endless versatility of my own addition, duct tape.
“Help me turn him over”, I asked Melody as she bent to do so.
Using the technique of first pulling and placing his one knee across his other leg, and with me holding his hips and Melody his shoulders, we first rolled him onto his side.
I could see that Eddie was so weak that he could no longer respond to any commands. I shifted his head to the side, and then with a gentle push rolled him onto his belly.
Using some of the big non-sterile pads from the second drawer of the kit I proceeded to wipe away the debris and matted blood from around his lacerations.
A slow thin ooze of blood still stained away from the deepest, longest gash.
Taking a tourniquet from the bottom drawer I wrapped it above his knee and pulled it very tight .
‘take some of those gloves and put them on” I said to Melody.
Kings, Nicholas and Kariyongo stood looking on with blank emotionless expressions. Still standing alongside the grass fence of the kitchen and laundry the other three girls were also silent uneasy observers.
There was something different about Melody. When the ritual of life was disturbed, it was as if it allowed a different hidden aspect of her aura to slip to the surface. It was a strange hint of reliable dependability.
I pointed to some packs of sterile alcohol swabs, “Use those to clean all over his leg”.
The latex gloves were mush too large for her slender long fingered hands, but even with the encumbrance of the folds of latex, it was easy to detect the sure dexterity of her movements.
“Now take some of that cream”, I instructed her as I pointed to the anti-biotic ointment, “and put it all over his cuts”.
While she was doing so, I tore open the covering to three large abdominal pads. Eddies wounds were so extensive that anything less would not have sufficed.
These, being abdominal pads were not adhesive, and I knew I would have to be fast to secure them in place over the wounds.
“Press your finger on top of these”.
Melody placed a forefinger at the top and bottom of each pad in turn as I tagged them in place with some athletic tape.
Once this was done I asked her to hold and raise his ankle slightly so that I could use the Cobam tape to wrap around his whole leg to cover all the wounds.
The final touch was done with Duct Tape to provide an impervious barrier so that any blood that did make it through the pads would block and prevent any further leakage.
I sat back on my haunches and gazed for a moment at the thick copse of trees and brush covering the mound of the anthill on the opposite edge of the clearing.
A thread slipped over my consciousness, how many life and death struggles had those tall spreading brachystegia branches seen in their century of existence.
Lions and antelope, hawks and birds, owls and mice. Just a month ago, before dawn, a Leopard had killed an impala right in the opening in the grass fence where the girls were now standing.
The cycle of life, to eat and be eaten. Eddie had almost been the latest in that ancient process of predator and prey. The cycle that is almost hidden from our consciousness in the modern era. The era of hypocrisy and pseudo conservation. The only reason, I knew, that we talk about conservation is because we no longer allow the lion or the leopard or anything dangerous into our worlds. They can no longer eat us. We fool ourselves. We may imagine that a son of God has done all the dying for us. But in reality, if we believe that, we must also recognize that in the original Garden of Eden, there were predators and prey, and in that garden our position was not always pole.
As I looked at Eddie, I knew that I was still in that ancient Eden.
But then suddenly, as if nature had stopped holding its breath. I could hear the trumpeter hornbills braying in the thick tangle of the trees on the island opposite, where the crocodile was probably now nursing a battered head and ego, waiting and watching for the next careless moment.
Also, almost as if as a comment on the drama of the moment, from the dense tangle of the thickets an emerald spotted wood dove lamented its soft haunting call, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, my family is dead, and my heart goes doo dooo dooo dooo dooo!”
I knew it was still touch and go if Eddie could survive the shock of the attack and its blood loss aftermath, and the yet to be endured bumps and jolts of the three-hour drive to the Kasempa clinic.
By this time Kings had the old Land Cruiser backed up and the tail gate down.
“Leave him alone!
The voice had a quiet distinct tone of authority, with a gravely roughness like the creak of steps in the softness of sand.
“Leave him alone!” the command was repeated.
“Stop your meddling!”
In startled surprise I looked up and searched for the source of the voice.
I found it when the command was repeated,
“Do not touch him!”
It emanated from a figure standing leaning almost lazily against one of the support posts at the far end of the vehicle shed.
As I looked on with amazement, the figure stepped out from its position of obscurity where it had been half hidden in the drabness of the shade, and the formless outline of the tractor in the parking bay between him and us.
It was from a very thin, almost scarecrow like figure, dressed in a camouflage uniform. He was slightly stooped with the grey hints of age in his unusually long crown of tight curls.
Suddenly my blood was almost curdled by a shriek beside me. Melody snapped to her feet with the speed and surety of a striking snake. The air was filled with the shrill howling wail of her ululating.
With utter confoundedness I reared back on my knees and watched as Melody, with head thrown back to fill the air with her savage cries, advanced step, by deliberate step, towards the interloping stranger.
Halting directly in front of him, her haunting ululation faded like the echoes of a wild dream.
She screamed at him, “YENGA! TU YENGA AKUNO”
“Go, Get away from here!”
In the profound silence that followed, the mysterious figured turned. With his camouflage uniform blending into the bush, he melted away.
I looked shocked and dumbfounded at Kings and asked, “Who the hell is that?”
Wordlessly, Melody glided back.
She nodded to the three men. With each of them holding a corner of Eddies blanket, they lifted him up and laid him on the foam rubber mattress on the bed of the truck. Then Kings moved across to reenter the truck-cab as Kariyongo and Nicholas climbed onto the back to sit alongside Eddie.
They drove away.
“What the fuck is going on!” I exclaimed incredulously to Melody.
“Bad muti” she whispered, “Bad muti Bwana!”
Muti = medicine, also witchcraft
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