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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 1 - "You Are Welcome''

Michael Wood's novel, which we begin serialising in weekly episodes today, is set in the fictitious Southern African Republic of Zungula – a poor nation emerging from dictatorship.

When Sandy Mackelson takes up his appointment as British High Commissioner, he is ill-prepared for the challenges which confront him.

The story reaches beyond the tension which can exist between international donors (Britain in particular) and a badly managed African government, on appropriate use of scarce aid money. It brings to the surface how the lives of hard- working, honest Africans are affected, and contrasts the impact on some of those who have opportunity in African society,
with others who entirely lack it.

Michael's story is packed with excitement, humour, atmosphere and an array of unforgettable characters.

Do read on....

* * *

How cheerfully he seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws -
(on the crocodile, Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland”, 1865)

The hoe of death does not
Weed in one place. -
Akan (Ghanaian) proverb

Chapter 1

“You are Welcome”

The jet descended slowly, following the shimmering length of Lake Dzalanyama, providing magnificent views of Mulanje off to the east. Then it circled Elliot Joseph Chilembe Airport endlessly without permission to land. Everything was normal.

It was a low priority route for the British, hence their outmoded 747s which even to the least discerning eye looked grubby and due for sale to some unsuspecting African state. Cabin crews had a deserved reputation – for sluggishness and about as much cultural sensitivity as a night out in Blackpool. A smartly attired Zungulan man leaned into the Club Class aisle and beckoned to the elderly stewardess who was approaching with the expression of a frozen mackerel.

“Tss. Madame”, he called, with just a hint of concern. “Could you tell us what is happening? Are we going to land now now?”

Her response was ice cold and delivered without a glance at him as she continued her march towards the rear.

“Sir needn’t hiss like a snake.”

Affronted, he parried with the lightening reaction of someone who wasn’t going to be bossed by an uppity old English woman:

“Are you (all) there?”, he shouted back, deep furrows across his glistening forehead – but the insinuation was too heavily disguised to have any effect. He slumped back in his seat. It was typical, he thought; these airline people had no manners. At least a rare cloudless sky greeted him outside. Normally a bumpy passage could be expected through ghostly chiperoni which clung like cotton wool to the mountains. Far below – and against the odds – Mahogany, Sausage Tree, Jackalberry, Marula and Rain Tree would still be growing on the lower slopes – where charcoal producers hadn’t yet reaped their havoc. After the shorter of two rainy seasons, everything seemed exquisitely lush down there. Greener than England at the onset of Spring. It looked idyllic as the plane’s shadow raced across the landscape.

The pilot, apologizing for the landing delay, pointed out Dombe City on the starboard side. Hired South African designers had split the town in two thirty years earlier, as if it was an apartheid dorp. The Old Quarter incorporated what was now left of the original village. Here the capital’s poorest inhabitants were crowded together with communities of Asian and Lebanese traders. Housing was rudimentary and run down. Open fronted shops, peculiar to the Western eye, specialized in goods which only poor people wanted – crudely cast alloy pots, cheap electrical items, rows of Chinese bicycles which would fall to pieces soon after their acquisition, and plastic shoes. Indian spices, displayed invitingly in wicker baskets, assaulted the senses with the potency of their aromas.

But there was a buzzing vibrancy and excitement about Old Town. Streets throbbed with people making their living. Cars, open backed vans loaded to the hilt, squeezed through the crowds on any side of the road where there was space. Iron-mongers sorted through scrap metals heaped in open yards; carpenters thumped and chiseled at hardwoods; taxi-bus drivers touted for business, shouting to announce their intended destinations; colourfully dressed women carried urns of water and other heavy goods on their heads. People pushed and shoved in every direction. Young boys scuffled burst footballs, pretending to be Beckham or Drogba.

The heaving traditional market was the beating heart of Old Town. Here, Zungulans bargained hard for every purchase – of dried fruit bat, salted catfish, herbal medicine, beautifully patterned material, second hand clothes, every conceivable lotion and potion; of Collared and Red-eyed doves stuffed in rudimentary cages, waiting for the pot. And live bush buck suspended from poles – terrified, eyes bulging, feet bound together. Little kiosk owners sold Victory-V’s, Vick’s Vapour Rub, Milo, Stork Margarine, Palmolive soap and Kiwi shoe polish. Rows of tailors worked pedal-powered sewing machines. Cheap tinny music systems belted out the rhythms of Shabalala and Kanda Bongo Man – at a volume which the speakers couldn’t tolerate.

New Dombe was separated from Old by four kilometers of highway. Distinctly up market, the residential areas were reserved for diplomats, top politicians, rich business people and senior civil servants. Extravagant houses were gated and barred against intrusion. Fences bore warning signs to deter unwanted visitors. “No Hawkers”; “Mbwa Mkali” . Gardens were lush and magnificent, tended by “boys” whose labours produced rich displays of colour and prolific foliage. They said if you planted a walking stick in Zungula’s rich soil, it would quickly sprout green shoots. New Dombe’s streets were neat with immaculately mowed verges. They were lined with jacaranda and flame trees which in season displayed, respectively, brilliant blue and orange blossoms. Altogether this part of town conveyed peace and tranquility.

The incoming British High Commissioner, Sandy Mackelson, and his wife Madeleine, surveyed the town. From the air it seemed no bigger than the lobster fishing village in Fife from where they both originated. As the urban sprawl thinned, they could see fields of maize – the African staple, and surviving compounds of grass-roofed mud huts with dusty little footpaths running between them.

The aeroplane made its umpteenth turn, still in a holding pattern. Mackelson opened his briefing notes again – for want of something to calm his nervousness – he hated flying. There was nothing particularly fresh in the thick file. He had had more than two months of “garden leave” in between postings to acquaint himself with all that was necessary about his new destination. His mind drifted to what had seemed like endless pre-posting meetings. The new Foreign Secretary, pre-occupied with the Middle East, could only spare him fifteen minutes, denting Mackelson’s sense of importance. In contrast the Overseas Development Secretary had provided useful insights following her own recent visit to Zungula, at the conclusion of which she had castigated the Finance Minister for his profligacy, including government’s procurement of forty new Mercedes cars – one for each of the overblown Cabinet.

Mackelson grimaced recalling more tedious sessions with officials in other Whitehall Departments; the DTI for god’s sake! What did they know about Zungula. There was virtually no trade with UK these days. And that obscure “international briefing centre” in Oxford, with dull guest speakers regurgitating their third hand information. For much of the time, the Mackelsons retreated to the well tended gardens, intent on avoiding all but minimum contact with the Bossons, the only other course participants. These were an elderly pair who had long harboured an ambition to visit Africa. They were delighted when Commonwealth Executive Services provided an opening on a voluntary basis. Mr Bosson’s role in Zungula would be to help with preparation of a business plan for a failing mushroom farm in the North. They meant well but were terribly dull – and more than a little full of themselves.

At least the outing had allowed the High Commissioner opportunity to hop on a train. From boyhood he’d maintained an incurable addiction to railways. He had been the nerd with the notebook in draughty stations while his contemporaries were guzzling Watney’s Red and chatting up pretty girls in London pubs. Almost an entire career had elapsed since then but Sandy Mackelson remained an incurable railway buff. A fortnight before departure for Dombe he had insisted on dismantling and doing his own packing of the extensive model railway set up in the loft at home. Each engine and carriage, and all the delicate signaling equipment was wrapped with loving care.

Two key messages did lodge in Mackelson’s mind as a result of his malingering in London. First, and to his amazement, MI6 maintained an interest in places as dud as Zungula. Incredibly, they had a man on his new staff – one of the Consular team. “We like to keep an eye on the old place. Cuban and Libyan influence and what not”, they’d said. Secondly, he was going to have to ensure he wasn’t overshadowed by those aid buggers across the park , whose influence in Dombe was well established. “Zungula is our third biggest programme in Africa,” he was told when he visited ODD’s plush offices in Palace Street with an atrium rivaling in extravagance, that of the International Monetary Fund in Washington.

“We have an Africa wide policy to maximize budget support, allowing client governments more freedom to decide what to do with external funding, given an agreed Public Investment Programme. There are issues of governance of course. Until these are fully resolved, we will want to continue with a few areas of conventional project support……..”

Mackelson had felt he needed an interpreter. His meeting with the Department’s Africa Director had gone down like a lead balloon. Differences of opinion quickly emerged on appropriate aid policy for Zungula. Whitehall made a show of harmony and of being “joined-up”. But in the Private Offices of Ministers, they guarded territory jealously. Senior civil servants were often hauled over the coals if they stepped out of line, sometimes degradingly so, by spotty faced Political Advisers who looked as if they were just out of school – little wonder ODD staff disparagingly referred to them as “the children”. Mackelson had been told in no uncertain terms that development issues were not his prime concern. He had asked if the Mercedes debacle which so infuriated the Secretary of State had not provided sufficient evidence that budget support was a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Director waved the objection away, insisting there was now to be no unraveling of the new Country Plan. Some risks would have to be taken, inevitably, she had said.

“The Plan sets out what is to be spent over the next three years, and in which sectors. It makes clear the proposed divide between financial aid and projects. Your task is to provide the necessary political support for trouble free implementation of this Plan.''

Bloody nerve of the woman, he had thought. The only concession she had offered was to keep matters under review. A fortnight after the meeting, he was still seething.

An announcement from the cockpit jolted Mackelson back to the present and caused a collective groan around the cabin. The single fire engine at Dombe airport wouldn’t start. The flight was being diverted to Kintyre. It was uncertain whether the aircraft would be able to fly back to Dombe that day. Passengers might have to make other arrangements. British airline staff would be on hand to help when the flight touched down.

Fifty minutes later the aircraft slammed so hard on to Chileka runway that overhead lockers flew open; women and children screamed and panic filled the confined cabin space until all realized that the plane was slowing down. In a masterly understatement the First Officer apologized for the “slightly bumpy landing” attributed he said, to Kintyre’s higher altitude.

When passengers started to disembark, their bodies sapped by the long journey and the stagnant fart-filled cabin air, they experienced a new and unwelcome sensation – the full blast of Zungula’s stifling heat and humidity. It was like entering a bake house. As instructed in their “Upon Arrival” notes, the Mackelsons made their way in some discomfort towards the VIPs sign. They observed with some resentment that a party of Americans who traveled First Class, had been collected in a government limousine. At last, sweating profusely from the short excursion across the tarmac, the two arrived at the VIP gate where they were greeted politely by a soldier, or was he a policeman? His khaki uniform was immaculate, shoes highly polished. He wore a peaked cap with a smart red braid around the brim; a cane tucked under his arm.

“Good day to you Sah, Madame. You are welcome.”

“I am the British High Commissioner.”

“Aheeeh. Is it.”

Surprisingly the man made no move to unblock the path. He gazed at them expectantly.

“Can we go in please. It is very hot out here.”

“What is your name please Sah?”

“We are Sandy and Madeleine Mackelson. I am the new British High Commissioner,” he emphasized again.

“So you say you are a High Commissioner?”


Far from impressed the man was imperious and began to study a list attached to his black plastic clipboard. Slowly he guided his finger down the page. Through the slightly tinted windows of the VIP lounge, Mackelson noticed the Americans being warmly greeted by a line of important looking Zungulan men, and ladies wearing brightly patterned traditional dresses with peculiar puffed-out padded sleeves.

“Are you Wald Bank?” the soldier/policeman enquired, oblivious to the exchange only seconds before. Mackelson made a connection to the others inside, now being served with soft drinks.

“No. As I’ve said”, he replied with exaggerated courtesy “I am the British High Commissioner, taking up my appointment,” and for added effect “on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.” He looked at his wife with a satisfied smirk. Their interlocutor remained unmoved, studying that list as if searching for a nit. Madeleine was now perspiring profusely and horrified to feel salty liquid running down her legs. She felt faint and flurried and had had quite enough.

“Can’t you see that we are VIPs!” she piped. “We are British. We have a very large aid programme here. More than those people enjoying your hospitality inside. Can you please let us pass!” she demanded.

“I am sorry Sah – (deliberately ignoring Madeleine’s contribution) – but your name is not on this here liste. You must go to that other ples,” he said, pointing his cane at the “Arrivals” sign.

It was clear even to these Africa newcomers that there would be no point in arguing. To do so would drain further precious energy. Better to relent and make a formal complaint in Dombe. The hapless pair turned about face in an understandable fury. By now they were at the end of a long queue of passengers going through passport control. Their exasperation was complete. Predictably, the British airline staff were nowhere in sight. The “Aliens” queue was insufferably long, moving at a snail’s pace. Immigration officials at three “Citizens” counters were less than fully employed. One sat idly twiddling his gold and black epaulettes, as if in a trance. As the Mackelsons shuffled slowly forward, Sandy’s mobile phone began to vibrate in his shirt pocket. Fumbling to retrieve it, he answered just in time.

“Good morning High Commissioner. This is Eric Stainbury, your Second Secretary, Consular. Sorry that you’ve been diverted. I’m ringing to let you know that your plane will definitely not go on to Dombe now. I understand their scheduling is such that they have to head down to Johannesburg within the hour. Zungula Airways is putting on a special flight leaving for Dombe in about ninety minutes. The airline has said that First and Club class passengers from London will have preference. I suggest you ask the VIP lounge staff to put your name on the list right away.”

“The bloody idiot at the VIP gate wouldn’t let us in Eric. Why weren’t our names on his sodding list?”

“Oh my goodness. We did contact them,” Stainbury replied apologetically, careful not to get off on the wrong foot with his new boss. “Then it seems now you have no other option but to organize things from the Arrivals hall. I’ll also see what I can do from this end.”

The suffering duo took a further hour to clear immigration and customs. They had already dubbed Kintyre’s Arrivals area the body odour capital of Africa. There had been complete chaos retrieving their baggage – a melee of impatient people fighting for space at the carousel (which only worked intermittently), luggage handlers barging and trampling one another to secure suitcases and a possible customer’s tip; horrible little Asian brats ordering their houseboys about with practised authority. And the smell of honest toil in the terrible, sticky heat.

The Mackelsons at last secured their names on the list of priority passengers for the onward flight. With the help of a sweet looking young woman on the domestic airline’s staff, Sandy had thought. So much more pleasing to the eye than his increasingly rotund partner, whose best days in the bedroom department, he knew to be long gone.

The waiting area was packed to the gills. Surely all these people couldn’t get on the smaller aircraft now parked and dwarfed alongside the jumbo? A steward sat sleeping behind a makeshift bar, his head buried deeply in his folded arms. He had nothing to sell. Finally the plane’s departure was announced on a crackly public address system: “Passanejars on Zungula Airways Flight 222 (long pause) …….. can go.”

There was an immediate surge of bodies towards the glass doors. The Mackelsons had taken no chances with the possibility of being ousted. Strategically placed in the room, they were already at the head of the scramble. Madeleine used her considerable girth and elbow power to shield her husband and prevent any displacement by the shoving frenzy behind them. “Don’t you know what a queue is?” she yelled at them desperately. “This is the British High Commissioner!”

The pressure was relentless. Breathless, they were squeezed outside into the heat like a cork shooting from a champagne bottle. Amid shouting and pushing all around they somehow managed to identify their luggage. This was thrown unceremoniously onto a tractor trailer and soon buried by an assortment of other baggage and junk – including a crate of gasping chickens, their red bills gaping, and an almost life-sized carving of a giraffe. The diplomat and his courageous spouse now put any remaining dignity aside, and bolted to the waiting aircraft. The phone was ringing a second time. Mackelson took this expertly on the trot.

“It’s Eric again, High Commissioner. I am sorry to tell you that the ZA flight will be delayed at least another hour.”

“Wrong Eric,” he puffed, with the uplifting feeling of knowing differently. “We have just been given permission to board and are heading out to the aircraft as we speak.”

“Oh. They said something about the President. Well, I should see you in about an hour after all then. Have a good flight.”

Reaching the aircraft steps first, Sandy was beginning to feel far better. This was Africa, he acknowledged to himself. Occasionally things were expected to go wrong. Soon they would be settled at the Residence enjoying a cool drink. As he climbed to the cabin door at the rear of the aircraft, Madeleine struggling behind, a very large hostess, dressed in fiery red from head to toe, commanded him to stop. The belt around her enormous waist was twisted, her cap slightly askew; there were ink stains on her blouse as if a biro had exploded in the heat; and perspiration was trickling in a detectable stream down her forehead. She had the aura of a threatening hippopotamus.

“We are not rodding,” she announced without preliminaries. Mackelson was confused.

“How do you mean?”

“We cannot yet rod,” she declared, in an uncannily disinterested fashion, turning away as she spoke.

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand you,” Mackelson called after her, feeling his voice rise an octave. A second hostess appeared at the door, thin and unwell looking, with poor complexion.

“We cannot yet rod (load) the passanejars,” she said. The High Commissioner was understandably indignant, aghast. Others behind him were also complaining.

“We have just been told to board! What’s going on?”

“We cannot let you on bod now now. You will have to wait for some time more.”

“What! Why? This is no way to run an airline! What’s the hold up?”

“We have to changee capets.”

“Change the bloody carpets? Am I dreaming this?”

“The President will be catching this here plen when it reaches Dombe. That means we have to changee from the blue that you can see, to red wan. And we must do this before leaving Kintyre.”

Mackelson now heard, ringing loudly in his ears, the last jaundiced words of his predecessor whom he’d met only briefly on a crisp London morning two days earlier. Also a brash Scot, the man had not held the top position in the High Commission for his sense of diplomacy, but rather a tendency for brutal honesty with his African interlocutors.

“The bottom line is that Zungala is the arse end of the earth. Ignore all their pleading shite about Britain being their mother country. They don’t like us. They’ll resist everything you suggest. You’ll achieve little unless you throw cash at it twice over. If you build anything, they’ll neglect it. If you give them equipment, they’ll break it. Take my advice. Maximize your time on the golf course. You do play I suppose? And Sandy. Don’t think for one minute that socializing with Zungalans will be anything more than a one way street. They’ll never invite you to their homes – except the President of course.”

© Michael Wood


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