North of the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, October is known as ‘suicide month’. It is when the last vestiges of winter have been burned away by the resurgent, almost brutal vitality of the sun as it crosses south over the equator. Sometimes, before the rains arrive to cool things down, the early summer heat can be unbearable, so hot that it is said to drive people to suicide, hence the acronym.
At least I could get some respite from the heat as I sat at the end of the polished wooden table in the shady coolness afforded by the high thatch of the Chitenge roof. I acknowledged to myself that it was fortunate that no guests were in camp at the moment. If the events of the morning had left me dumbfounded, they would most certainly and thoroughly have rattled any foreign visitor.
With all this fresh in my mind, I tried to make sense of it. As I pondered the possibilities, I needed to quench the thirst brought on by the elevated sweating from the mornings drama and tension. Thus, to abet the effect of the shady coolness I held a tall glass of Mazoe orange juice clasped in both hands. While I did so I waited for Grace to tell me that my sandwiches were ready for pick-up.
The sandwiches were one of the habits I retained from my childhood. Back then, my mother would prepare the ‘biltong’ jerky sandwiches, by grating the dried strips of venison biltong onto the thin layer of butter spread between the slices of bread.
The venison was the by-product of the plentiful wild game which co-existed with the cattle of our family’s huge ranch. My father would shoot a kudu antelope or water buck every few weeks to provide the farm workers with an allocation of meat. A section of the rump or loin would then be cut into long slices and layered with liberal coverings of rock salt. Thereafter it was hung up to dry below the tin roof of the gauze enclosed veranda that spread along the north side of our big square squat farm house.
Now decades later I was lucky to still be in a place, with connections to a high-end hunting conservancy, that afforded me access to the scraps of venison from which I made my biltong. Without guests in camp, I did not want to burden the kitchen staff with a cooked meal. These biltong sandwiches fitted the convenience bill.
Looking up with some surprise I saw that it was not Grace who was approaching. It was Melody who carried the carefully sectioned sandwich, not wrapped in the customary wax paper, but no less than on a simple white plate. Melody was part of the more specialized crew who handled the dinner services. The lunch time service was generally the task of less experienced Grace or Nora.
Ida the camp manager had told me that she had insisted on the dinner service. He could not understand her stubbornness. But he said, to make up for her insistence, she ‘paid’ for this quirk by doing some of the more menial midday chalet cleaning.
Hence my surprise to see her floating gait crossing the small buffalo grass lawn from the service opening in the thatch fence which shields the kitchen. Approaching from my left, as the servers are trained, she twisted slightly sideways with extended left hand, to wordlessly set down the plate with its simple fare before me.
Then I heard her footsteps retreat.
After chewing a few bites and savoring the salty fattiness of the tougher meaty grits left in the sinewy shards on the bread, I washed it all down with another gulp of my ice cold orange juice. This juice was another echo from my distant past.
It was with a slight sense of relief that I briefly set aside my mental mulling over the morning and l recalled a memories of Mazoe. I thought of the stair like drops in the road into the Mazoe valley. I wondered if the ancient washed-out leader of Zimbabwe still spent much time out in the beautiful homestead near the Mazoe dam. The homestead he and his avaricious young wife confiscated from the elderly couple who had spent their lives developing the orange orchards, the orchards which together with the others gave the name to the concentrate which I mixed with the iced water to make my drink.
Then my mind, like my teeth on the dry biltong, went back to chewing on the tougher issues.
‘Muti!’ I wondered what sort of ‘muti’ Melody was referring to when she used that word. When translated directly it meant medicine. But I knew that the word muti was there first. It had been translated into medicine, not medicine into muti. Muti had existed in the bush long before medicine was brought here by the missionaries. The ancient traditional ‘muti’ is the stock in trade of the Sangoma, the African Witch Doctor.. So much for all our imposed Western civilization, witchcraft is just as alive and well in Africa today as it was at the time of David Livingston. The muti could come in any form and manner, potions, spells, or curses. It did not matter how Muslim or Catholic or Adventist people had become, at the final reckoning the only thing that much matters and was feared here is still the ‘muti’.
I thought how just a month ago one of the scouts, a devout Adventist, had not shown up for patrol for a week. When he finally did, his explanation was that some rival had paid a sangoma to cast a curse on him. A spell to impair his performance. It had put him to sleep for a week he said. I smiled to myself as I thought what some western exec, some Bill Gates, would think if one of his lieutenants showed up with just such an excuse. Out here it was a very plausible and acceptable explanation.
Experience has accustomed me to always be ready for the unexpected in the bush, and the events of the morning certainly had been another refresher.
I heard it again, a soft polite cough from behind me,… and there it was a third time. I turned my head to look backwards, and there it was, that splash of the unexpected. She was further back, in the shadows alongside the wall that leads to the Chitenge’s river deck.
She was sitting on the concrete floor. Supporting her self to one side with her arm extended, the other lay across her lap. Her legs were tucked together, also sideways, to form a parallel V. It was the traditional form of a woman showing respect. It was as if she was patiently requesting and waiting for an audience with a chief.
Patience, of necessity, is endless in the Bush and the woman of the Bush have more patience than anyone I have ever come across. But this form of supplication, coming from Melody, halted the chewing of my sandwich as effectively as a slap in the face.
We sat staring at each other as, once again, she poured the inky blackness of her stair all over me.
I took a deep breath.
‘Okay Melody, what in the world is going on. Come and sit here and tell me and help me to understand.’
‘No Bwana, not here’.
‘Melody, what the hell is going on, please explain yourself!’
Somewhere in the inky blackness of her eyes I could detect the simmering glow of her passion.
‘Bwana, go to the camp-area. Wait for me. I will be there later when I finish. Here there are too many eyes and ears’.
And with that she rose and glided away through the gap in the fence.
I was so dumbstruck that I did not even finish my sandwich. This behavior, this ordering of a man to do something, coming from a woman, out here in the bush, an order to an authority figure.. was to put it mildly, unusual.
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