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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 2 - The Prospect Of Tastier Stews

…Sam’s mind flooded with warmth when he thought of his mother’s familiar home. In the middle of the yard was the gnarled old mango tree which provided shade during the heat of the day, and a place to store her clay pots containing water carried daily from the river. Her tan and white bush dog would trail after her on these expeditions but otherwise slept most of the time under the tree, curled up beside the cool earthenware – until night fell when he would join the howling of other village hounds.

His mother never gave that dog a name. “It’s just a dog,” she insisted…

Sam Phiri is a product of rural Africa. But Africa is changing. There’s corruption. AIDS is rife. Carpenters who once made beds and chests now run businesses called “Last Stop Shop” and “Sleep Well Coffins”.

And Sam has just received an unexpected promotion in the Grain Marketing Board – a promotion which is as worrying as it is pleasing.

Michael Wood’s fine novel presents a vivid portrait of present-day Africa.

Sam Phiri couldn’t think clearly. Either he had an amazing stroke of good fortune, or he was letting himself in for much more than he’d bargained. His emotions had swayed from initial feelings of pride, of honour, now to uncertainty and a sense of foreboding. As he drank the first few mouthfuls of a Green in the cool of the evening, he re-examined what had transpired an hour before.

He had been offered promotion – and strongly advised to accept it. Head-hunted to use the western term. It was not just one jump. He was to be elevated with immediate effect from a middle ranking Farm Liaison Officer, to Head of Procurement and Sales Operations. An amazing rise of four ranks within the Grain Marketing Board.

Mind you, he thought, such rapid advancement, while still rare, was not altogether unheard of nowadays. Edze (AIDS) was devastating Zungula’s social structures, retarding economic progress and playing havoc with formal employment, just as it was in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Aid agencies were saying that one in every four people carried HIV – the virus which he knew led to onset of the Edze. In Zungula there was little prospect of practical medical help. Even rich countries hadn’t found a cure. Sam reflected that the only upside to this human catastrophe was sometimes, as in his case it seemed – if you were well and in the right place at the right time – opportunities arose.

The Edze didn’t limit its impact to the poor or uneducated. It transcended all social classes. The President’s younger brother was known to be ill, though it was forbidden to speak of this in public. The country’s commercial tea estates couldn’t keep up with losses of skilled pickers and field supervisors; inevitably, crop quality had declined. Once a much sought after brand beverage, Zungula tea was now anonymous, transported to Mombasa for processing – into a second rate blend. The “Highlands’ Choice” packet, with its charming picture of a smiling female picker from the “Warm Heart of Africa”, had disappeared from European supermarket shelves.

At Sam’s workplace professional people too were becoming unwell in alarming numbers, providing credence to what foreigners, the mzungus, had been saying about incidence of the disease. The pattern was nearly always the same. Performance of afflicted individuals fell away; attendance became erratic; finally they disappeared from view. When management announced that someone had gone back to his or her village on family business, those remaining at their desks understood the euphemism. Their colleague would never return.

Attachment to the home village was strong. For those who left to find work in urban areas, tradition demanded reconnecting with family and friends at least once a year; to reinforce their sense of belonging. Sam visited his Northern Region village of Machope every second month. His mother, Grace, now lived alone in a compound of huts made of wattle and daub. In her eighties but unsure of her exact date of birth, as was common for older rural people, Grace struggled to maintain the thatch roofing. This had become an annual task for Sam, after the rains had replenished giant elephant grasses in surrounding bush land. Never a chore, Sam delighted in the skills which he’d learned as a boy. Repairs were a diversion, a means by which he could put aside the worries of an urban existence.

A generation before, his mother had married Lupenga Phiri, who was many years her senior and a village elder. His life had been devoted to acquiring and rearing cows and goats, though following marriage a new division of labour was introduced – his wife would do all the animal feeding and cleaning. Lupenga was a good man. Never rich by the standards of business men in the towns, his livestock income provided enough for the necessities of life – food, clothing, school fees and books for Sam, and maintaining their compound. There was enough for some luxuries too. Sam remembered his father’s pride upon returning home one day with a new all-black roadster bicycle with “Raleigh” emblazoned in gold letters on the frame, and a little badge on the front proclaiming “Made in England”.

Everyone in the village turned out to see that bicycle. It was a strong, gearless steed. On its sturdy rear carrier Lupenga would occasionally tether two goats, taking them to nearby villages to exchange for other goods or cash – and maybe if there was time, he would join friends to sip some beer from the communal pot. That was a favourite pastime among all aging men. To suck through the long reed straws. To slowly savour growing intoxication from this precious cloudy brew, prepared by women folk from fermented millet. A drink normally reserved for elders and honoured guests.

Sometimes Lupenga transported his wife on the bicycle as well. Between her husband’s sinewy arms, Grace sat on the cross bar. Goats took pride of place on the back of the bike. Sam recalled as if it was yesterday his father laughing loudly as he told his son about his mother’s loud protests each time the heavily loaded bike hit a bump on the stone-strewn paths running between the villages. Though her husband was long gone, Sam’s mother still managed a few animals. These yielded sufficient milk for her own needs, and a small surplus to sell. She was certain also to cook a delicious goat stew when her only son came back home. Sam loved the special flavour of his mother’s cooking, though it took strong African teeth to deal with such tough meat.

Grace’s quarters provided a refuge from the heat of the day. One room was furnished only with a simple cot and a chest of drawers which Sam had brought from Dombe many seasons ago, trussed to the roof of a bus. How it survived the bumpy journey on untreated roads, God only knew. Another small room was the grain store, raised high off the ground, on stakes, safe from rat predation but not unfortunately from the horrible little borer beetles which turned so many cobs to powder. Because the store was mostly empty, Sam habitually brought with him, a five kilogram bag of ground maize. On warning from his mother, he was careful not to buy the genetically modified, tasteless yellow mealie which was finding its way into African markets –“A Gift from the United States of America”. Grace comically insisted she would only eat wholesome white maize.

The largest room in her compound was reserved for livestock – keeping it out of harm’s way at night. Wild animals were no longer the threat, but thieves from the same neighbouring villages where Sam’s parents once mixed happily. The unscrupulous could now sneak into a village long after everyone had gone to sleep, to steal animals and other valued possessions. They would target especially homes belonging to old people – reassured that if their skullduggery was discovered, little if any resistance would be offered.

Sam’s mind flooded with warmth when he thought of his mother’s familiar home. In the middle of the yard was the gnarled old mango tree which provided shade during the heat of the day, and a place to store her clay pots containing water carried daily from the river. Her tan and white bush dog would trail after her on these expeditions but otherwise slept most of the time under the tree, curled up beside the cool earthenware – until night fell when he would join the howling of other village hounds. His mother never gave that dog a name. “It’s just a dog,” she insisted.

During recent pilgrimages to Machope, Sam could see that all was not well. People in rural areas had always had to cope with hardship – greater exposure to malaria, bilharzia, intestinal infections and much else compared to their urban counterparts. In the village, death visited more frequently than the doctor. It wasn’t that illness was absent in towns. But village people could not afford the medicines to make them better. Health facilities were run down. Those who lived away dreaded opening letters from home. Mail announced sickness of a loved one, or worse. Sam realized that Edze in particular was eating away at the core of Zungula’s society. Things that had once been taken for granted in Machope were now in disarray. Teachers were often absent from school; children ran wild in what passed as the playground; the health clinic rarely had a doctor on duty; sometimes a single nurse struggled with ever longer queues of people waiting for hours, at the end of which they might only be turned away without attention.

In a typical community younger men sought employment in often far off towns, sometimes beyond Zungula’s borders – as far as the gold mines in Welkom or Odendaalsrus. When husbands and boyfriends did return home, many were already long infected with HIV, with damning consequences for their womenfolk. Even primary and lower secondary schoolgirls – the up and coming generation – were succumbing. In the classrooms predatory teachers now promised girls better grades if they would “just lie with me for a time”. Such men believed, as the uneducated did, that taking a virgin would cure the Edze. This was what the sing-anga were telling them.

ZBC broadcast a discussion between an African-American evangelist campaigning for more public information, and one of the more liberal ministers of the Anglican Church in Dombe. “Always remember,” the visitor had concluded, “no glove, no love,” this condom commercial delivered in a southern Yankee drawl. “No glurve, no lurv.” Sam wondered how such messages would improve the chances of twelve-year- old girls, some of whom had never seen a radio, let alone heard one. Or help wives whose men demanded, “give it me raw” and used a flay.

In Machope, Sam was worried too that fields looked increasingly unattended. The annual harvest was smaller with each new season. In the past, except during rare famine, there had been something to fall back on. If the maize was consumed before year’s end, there was millet. If that ran out, a family could sell a goat and buy staples with the proceeds, or trade a treasured aluminium cooking pot. However, the last possessions of families, their final reserves, were slipping away. Full time hunger was an increasing phenomenon. Only the undertakers were profiting. Carpenters who once made beds and chests now ran businesses with names such as “Last Stop Shop” and “Sleep Well Coffins”.

While drugs existed to inhibit HIV, these were unaffordable. The Global Fund were moderately successful in some African countries after a slow start but in Zungula, funding had only reached a few hundred people. No one understood where the donors’ money was going; why they couldn’t work faster. The post which Sam was to fill had been vacant for five months. His predecessor was not among the fortunate.

Sam Phiri’s conversation that afternoon with his Managing Director, had an unusual warmth. Called to the large top floor office, Matthews Chihana beckoned him to sit in a comfortable leather chair on the other side of an enormous teak desk. Two thin files sat in Chihana’s out tray. A few letters lay awaiting signature. An IBM computer rested on another desk in the corner of the room. Still covered in supplier’s plastic, a layer of dust had accumulated. A small refrigerator hummed in tune with the air conditioning. President Chilembe’s portrait hung conspicuously next to the window, his bespectacled eyes fixed upon the onlooker from any position in the room – like the Mona Lisa.

“So Phiri you are doing very well.”

“Thank you Sah. I am trying very had.”

“More than that Phiri. Everyone is telling me you are too good for this visiting of farmers. We are pushing you up.”

Sam couldn’t help a bright smile at this unexpected news and Chihana matched it – the two men seemingly at ease with one another, and Sam as happy as a month-old springbok.

“I am very grateful. I know that I can do higher work. Thank you very much Sah.” Sam paused, excited, waiting to hear what would be offered.

“No need at all to thank me now, Phiri. It is no more than you deserve. As from tomorrow morning you will be taking over as the top man in Procurement and Sales. You are a big man now – almost as big as me!”

There was further laughter at this remark but Sam’s was tinged with nervousness. He could scarcely believe his ears and asked his boss for clarification. Surely not promoted to Head of Department? But there was no mistaking what had been said. Chinana produced from his desk drawer, the new pay scale.

“Here is what we will be paying you now Phiri. A big jump eh? I think you will be wanting to accept. After all, if you do not, your chance may not come again for a long time and your lovely lady will be disappointed in you, isn’t it?”

So Sam had said yes before he had time to think properly. As soon as he had done so, Chihana began to usher his charge out of the door, a friendly hand draped across his shoulder. Sam returned to his ground floor office in a bit of a daze. His first instinct had been to call his young wife to tell her of his good fortune. He had been reasonably confident that his hard earned Masters degree in Business Administration and Accountancy from Elliot Joseph Chilembe University was a factor in his selection. How pleased he was that he had persevered. This qualification would now help him to deal with all the extra responsibility in this new job. Also, Patience was expecting a baby. The extra money would make all the difference. Maybe now they could leave Chabwele, the informal settlement which had sprung up close to the city’s sewage works a decade before, growing into the worst kind of sprawling slum without running water, power, waste collection, trees, shade or shambas. Perhaps he and Patience could now rent a bigger place in New Town, with electricity; maybe have a garden to grow maize; some shu-shu. Yes, before long, he thought, Patience’s soups and stews would have all manner of new flavours from the spinach, nandolo and nyemba that she would grow in her spare time.

Sam remembered Patience had warned that he should limit calls to her office. The Minister of Finance was a very busy man. And as his secretary, she was busy also. She had to learn all the amazing things that this Microsoftie Word could do; there were so many letters to type; there was filing to organize. The Minister had also explained the importance of keeping his diary up to date at all times and of attending to the telephone. Then of course tea and biscuits had to be served to all of the Minister’s overseas visitors, or people from the Embassies – the Americans, Germans, British, Norwegians, the funny Japanese who couldn’t speak intelligible English. She had been instructed to be less hospitable with those from the International Monetary Fund however. The Minister had been very clear: “They are like cockroaches and can look after themselves.” Yes, she had told Sam she was always occupied and it would not be good for her career if the Minister thought she was spending time idly talking to her husband.

So Sam left his own office half an hour before his usual 7.00pm departure time without talking to his wife. He walked a short way down African Unity Road and then into Independence Drive. He saw that following the afternoon rain, byamnoni were swarming around the street lights. Night watchmen arriving for their shifts at the PTC supermarket and PV Obeng Motors, were gathering up those large green bush crickets whose wafer like wings had stuck them fast to the wet pavement. With legs and wings removed and fried in a little salted oil, these were a local delicacy.

Five minutes after leaving his office Sam sauntered through the terrace bar of the Dombe Capital Hotel. It was filled with beer swilling men and girls eager to catch their eye. The building was nothing to write home about. Its corridors were musty and the public spaces in need of paint. For those who didn’t want to choke on the bar’s pluming cigarette smoke, tables were set up in the hotel’s tropical gardens, with cabling for some rudimentary lighting strung up between Royal palms. This was a pleasant place to sit and contemplate in the evening’s cool air. Only the sound of whistling frogs, crickets, and the occasional call of a Scops owl broke the silence. Unconsciously Sam tapped his fingers to their unrelenting rhythms. An old waiter approached, hobbling down the narrow footpath from the main building, black trousers, matching bow tie, white shirt, a serving tray painted with the Carlsburg logo. He had probably worked from an early hour and now looked tired from his labours.

“Muli bwanji, bambo,” Sam said, respectfully to the older man.

“Chabwino. Kaya-iwe?”

“Ndili bwino.”

Greetings concluded, Sam ordered his Green. As the waiter turned back towards the main bar, Sam noticed that the sole of the man’s shoe was loosely flap-flapping. Perhaps this accounted for his awkward gait. Shortly the old waiter returned with an ice cool beer; and some ground nuts which Sam gratefully cupped into his hands. The drink was going down well. He started to think more about the conversation with his MD, and to fret. Had he been pushed too fast into accepting the appointment? Did he really have the experience needed? Could it have been staff shortage which accounted for his meteoric rise? What did Chihana mean when he said there was no need to thank him now? Was he perhaps reading too much into this?

His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two influential players in the donor community – Beauty Musajakawa, the Head of Britain’s aid operation and Neils Hansen, a straight talking economist with DANIDA. Sam was a little surprised when the pair walked straight across to his table and said hello. He had attended the same packed aid coordination discussions in the Ministry of Finance, but only as an interested observer, several rows behind the main participants. He had shaken hands in the margins of these meetings but never exchanged more than a few words. It amazed Sam that they had recognized him so readily. Beauty easily broke the ice.

“Moni Sam. I see the usual crush in the bar will be keeping your brewers happy this evening. It’s such a beautiful place this, isn’t it. But extremely unhealthy to be on your own. Mind if we join you for a while?”

Sam thought the company would help dispel some lingering unease about his new job. He was even a bit flattered that these Europeans had joined him. He knew Beauty and her team managed such a vast annual aid budget that it was virtually incalculable in local currency. This gave her access to the President and any Minister in his Cabinet. She and Neils were interested in food security issues – and in the light of Sam’s promotion it dawned on him that he would now have to work much more closely with them in future – almost hand in glove.

“So how are the farmers doing this year?” Neils asked. This was just polite conversation, almost like commenting on the weather in England.

“Ahh. You see. Things are up and down. Some are doing very well, expecially those with irrigation. But I am saying the rains have not been very good so far this year.”

His comment was so typically Zungulan. Neither one thing nor the other. Long after Elliot Joseph Chilembe’s government had replaced the previous regime of Dr Victor Mpande, little had been done to reassure people about freedom of speech; most were still afraid of open discussion, especially with foreigners. Their jobs might depend on skilful masking of the truth.

“In spite of erratic rain,” Neils continued, “the markets I’ve seen around Central Region at least, are pretty well stocked with vegetables and fruits.”

“That is so,” Sam replied, warming to the subject. “However, as you know, it is maize which is important. You can aks a Zungulan man to one of your European dinner patties; you can give him meat and all manner of vegetables, and puddings. But his stomach will not be full unless you also give him mealie. That is how we Africans are.”

Beauty’s curiosity was aroused.

“Are you telling us that there’s a shortage of maize this year?”

“Not a shottage exactly,” Sam quickly reassured her.

“What then?”

“Well the Marketing Bod has still to produce figures on likely yield. I can only say that production may be down on last year small.”

Neils and Beauty exchanged glances and sensed Sam’s discomfort. This was not the office and in any case he was too far down the chain of command to speak knowledgeably about national production. So Beauty changed the subject, realizing too late that it was polite in Zungulan culture to begin a conversation by asking about family.

“How is your wife Sam? I hear she’s expecting a baby.”

“Yes. We are both very happy. I am thinking it will be a boy.”

“Shame on you!” Beauty teased him. “I hope you will be having a little party to celebrate when a girl arrives.”

“Ahhee. I am sure it will be a boy. But boy or girl, I can say we will pattie small. In fact we already have some cause for celebration. Today I was given a promotion.”

Sam had not at first wanted to divulge this. However, he had felt an awkwardness that his friends were leading the conversation, and he wanted to introduce something new to it himself.

“Excellent Sam”, Beauty Musajakawa said warmly.

“So the drinks are on you,” Neils added. “What’s the job?”

Both were privately astounded when Sam explained his future role and seniority, but they gave nothing away other than their pleasure at his appointment. They agreed they would be seeing much more of each other. A meeting to discuss Regional Food Security was scheduled three weeks hence. Experts would be coming from Southern Africa capitals.

“You’ll have plenty to do by way of preparation Sam. If you need any help from our own agricultural team, do let us know,” Beauty said thoughtfully. Sam expressed his thanks and then stood up to leave.

“I had better not keep my Patience waiting any longer. She will be at home by now. I haven’t yet told her my news.”

They shook hands and Sam took off along the garden path, leaving his Green unfinished – unusual for any self-respecting Zungulan male. The two aid workers agreed he looked a little troubled and resolved to keep a close watch on him. They knew someone of strong character would be needed to face up to many competing and powerful interests, who, like vultures, circled around “opportunities” arising from grain production. There had been GMB management blunders in the not too distant past and plenty of interference from senior politicians. The Anti-Corruption Bureau had several top people under its microscope but had not been effective in putting an end to the scams. Much would depend on whether Sam had it in him to keep the crocodiles at bay.

© Michael Wood


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