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 epithet.
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 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 elevated sweating from the morning’s 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 signal from the kitchen 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 a thin layer of butter spread between 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 waterbuck 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 the big square squatness of our farmhouse.
Now, decades later, I was lucky to still be in a place with connections to a high-end hunting conservancy, which afforded me access to scraps of venison from which I made my biltong. Without guests in camp, I was loathe to burden the kitchen staff:, hence the simplicity of these sandwiches fit the convenience bill.
Looking up with some surprise, I saw that it was not Grace who was approaching. It was Melody carrying the carefully-sectioned sandwich, not wrapped in the customary wax paper, but offered on a simple white plate.
Melody was part of the more specialized duo who handled dinner services, while the lunch was generally the task of less-experienced Grace or Nora.
Idaa, the camp manager, told me that Melody 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 Melody’s 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 her left hand extended to wordlessly set the plate with its simple fare before me.
Then I heard her footsteps quietly 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. With a faint sense of relief, I set aside my mental mulling over the morning’s events to recall 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’d spent their lives developing their orchards: orchards which, together withthe others in the valley, gave the name to the concentrate I mixed to make my drink.
My mind, like my teeth on the dry biltong, went back to chewing on the tougher issues.
I wondered what sort of muti Melody was referring to. Translated directly, it meant medicine, but I knew that the word muti 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 as alive and well in Africa today as it was at the time of David Livingston. The muti could come in any form: potions, spells, or curses. It didn not matter how much of the Muslim or Catholic or Adventist people had embraced, at the final reckoning, the thing most feared and respected out here is the muti.
I thought how only a month ago one of the scouts, a devout Adventist, had not shown up for patrol for a week. When he finally reappeared, his explanation was that some rival had paid a sangoma to cast a curse on him. A spell to impair his performance. It put him to sleep for a week he said.
I smiled as I thought what some western exec, some Bill Gates, would think if a lieutenant showed up with just such an excuse. Out here it was a very plausible and acceptable explanation.
But, 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,… and then another.
I turned to look backwards, and there it was, that splash of the unexpected.
She was back in the shadows along the wall that leads to the chitenge’s river deck, sitting on the concrete floor.
She supported herself on one side with her arm extended; the other lay across her lap. Her legs were tucked together, also sideways, to form a parallel V, the traditional form of a woman showing respect, 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 help me to understand.”
“No Bwana. Not here.”
“Melody, what the hell is going on? Please explain yourself.”
In the inky blackness of her eyes I detected 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.”
With that she rose and glided through the gap in the fence.
Dumbstruck, 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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