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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 4 - Trouble In The North

… “We were told that even the Defence Force, dispatched to Chiweta to maintain order, had divided on tribal lines. The Bishop claimed that at least four hundred people have been killed in the last couple of weeks. Truck loads of panga wielding Umnaravi tribesmen were apparently leaving their villages by day to confront the Ngoni – but only tattered bands of survivors were returning, the rest overcome by the superior fighting skills of their opponents. President Chilembe said the conflict was fanning outwards like an out of control forest fire….

Beauty Musajakawa, head of a British aid mission, brings a report of fighting and possible food shortages in the north of Zungula.

Sandy Mackelson, the British High Commisioner in Zungula likes neither the messenger nor the news which she brings.

Michael Wood continues to weave an enjoyable web of intrigue in this story of present-day African politics. To read earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in he menu on this page.

Beauty Musajakawa was unique in Whitehall – the first woman of African origin to enter the Senior Civil Service. What’s more she had done it the hard way, by scaling the ranks from the bottom.

For the first seven years of her career she could not make headway and watched people much less able shooting up the ladder ahead of her – she imagined a glass ceiling which held people of colour back. Things only started to improve when a new government came into office – steps were taken to encourage ethnic minorities into the Service, and to fast track those who showed potential. On the inside already, Beauty quickly made up for lost time. She sought out the most demanding jobs and impressed in each new role. By the time she had reached her thirty fourth birthday she was heading her first department, dealing with the Overseas Territories – the remnants of Empire; a scattering of islands in the Caribbean, Pacific and mid-Atlantic whose administrations, for reasons best known to themselves, chose to remain British.

In recent times the job had come to be known as “the graveyard” in ODD circles. The Secretary of State was anti when her attention was drawn to these relatively well off small states which seemed to show little affection for Britain. Their disproportionately large aid budgets were a distraction from the main business of poverty reduction in Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, Beauty radiated enthusiasm for her new job and had been hell bent on making it a success. She deftly handled prickly relations, even hostility between her own Ministers and those on the islands. For Montserrat, devastated by a series of volcanic eruptions which buried Plymouth and made two thirds of the island uninhabitable, she doggedly argued the case and eventually secured an increase in aid, and was skillful in its deployment. She toughed it out with DFA colleagues following her recommendation to cancel the proposed Hill of Difficulty Road project on Pitcairn Island, instead diverting money to social development – Beauty had discovered that most of the island’s score of men were involved in child abuse.

In St Helena she demonstrated excellent negotiating abilities in settling the annual budget with an over-expectant Council. In short, Beauty Musajakawa was bright, gritty and determined – qualities rarely found in any civil servant, let alone a woman of colour who might well have given up the chase given the odds stacked against her.

People who watched her in action, observed that men in particular were putty in her hands. She had been well named. Her English mother had met a Ugandan lecturer at Makerere University while volunteering with VSO in Kampala during the 1960s. What had started with a few quiet drinks in the Speke Hotel at sunset (marveling at fruit bats emerging from nearby roosts, blackening the red and yellow skyline), soon developed into a more serious relationship. Even so, friends were surprised by the suddenness of their decision to marry. This was a couple deeply in love.

Preferring then to return to London rather than witness Milton Obote’s emerging megalomania, they bought a cheap one bedroom flat in Finsbury Park’s shadowy Queen’s Drive – all they could afford at the time, and set about starting a family. When Beauty arrived a couple of years later, she was of course nusu-nusu (half-half) as the Swahili put it. During her early childhood she was tall for her age, gangly, and suffered endless ribbing at school. By her late teens however, it was clear that the awkwardness was gone forever. She was clever, confident and had become stunningly attractive; a formidable combination which would stand her in good stead once her career began to blossom.

When the Zungula position came up, Beauty applied without hesitation and romped home against inferior opposition. It had long been her ambition to work in Africa, leading a strong development team, even if Zungula would not have been her first choice. Top management was convinced that she had all the necessary skills and aptitudes to do well in the challenging environment. Now a full year into the job, it was obvious that she was made for it; her London bosses’ confidence had been well founded. She had an excellent strategic mind, got on well with the people that mattered and was trusted by them. Beauty may have been born and bred in England, but as far as Zungulans were concerned, she had been sired by an African and was counted as one of them. President Elliot Joseph Chilembe had noticed her, as all men did. He invited her periodically to his Kintyre palace, with some other donor representatives – usually Africans, for discussions about the deployment of aid funds. The President wasn’t a fool. Money would be directed with his interests in mind but he had to make donors believe they held the reins. So long as the money continued to flow he would easily find ways of taking his share.

Sandy Mackelson had tried to displace Beauty at a palace gathering that very weekend. After all, he was, even if by a small margin, the more senior player. However the President had called the Residence the evening before the conference to make plain his annoyance, racing through the preliminary chit chat without allowing the High Commissioner an opening.

“Your Excellency. I hope you are enjoying our hospitality in the warm hat of Africa. We must soon agree a date for the presentation of your credentials. As you may know, I like to wait until at least two newly arrived Ambassadors can attend on the same day. My Chief of Staff will be contacting you about this now that the new Taiwanese fellow is here. You hed what happened to his predecessor I suppose? The poor fellow was taken – by a hippopotamus I’m afraid. A terrible business. He had been sailing at the lake side with his wife. The beast capsized the craft and took hold of him in those terrible jaws. You know, his wife was very brave. At one point she was on the animal’s back, beating it with her bare fist, aksing the animal to let go of her hasband. By the time the alarm had been raised, it was all too late.”

“I hadn’t been aware of that Mr President. Unfortunate indeed. And dreadful for the Ambassador’s wife,” Mackelson offered as an afterthought. “But I do look forward to meeting my important obligation to you as soon as possible.”

“Not really so important Your Excellency. A mere formality between friendly gavanments. But perhaps you will find the ceremony an interesting reflection of our calchar. What is more important to me is maintaining my helpful discussions with your Miss Musajakawa. A very good gel that one. And had weking too. My people tell me she is often in your building until late into the evening – weking for Zungula. We greatly appreciate her efforts and of course the big money which that Overseas Development Department is making available each year.”

The key point had been made in thinly disguised diplomatic code. The High Commissioner read this and was forced to give way on his plan to usurp Beauty in Kintyre. The President’s put down was doubly incisive as it had intentionally played on an apparent rivalry which existed between the two UK departments represented in Dombe. He had made it obvious that he considered those responsible for the development budget to be the partner with most influence. When the conversation ended, Sandy Mackelson almost burst a blood vessel. Madeleine had to fuss around him with a drink and some freshly baked biscuits from the kitchen, while he paced around like a delinquent.

“I don’t know why Chilembe is so bloody keen to have Miss Smart Arse down in Kintyre every other weekend. Does he think he’s going to shag her!” he spurted, crumbs flying from his twisted mouth.

“Don’t be so damned coarse.” Madeleine retorted. “She’s a perfectly nice young woman. You ought to be pleased that she has his confidence.”

“Confidence my foot!”

“Maybe it’s you who fancies Beauty. After all, she wouldn’t be your first roast dish! You’re old enough to be her father so don’t pin your hopes too high.”

Mackelson stormed off into the garden. Madeleine had seen these fits of temper many times before. It was better to let them fizzle out by allowing him space. Something was clearly worrying him. Why did he let things get on top of him like this? He was supposed to be enjoying this last posting. And what had got into him having a go at Beauty Musajakawa like that?

* * * * * *

Beauty flew back to Dombe early on Monday morning; Magic, her driver, took her straight to the office, the two of them shaking and bouncing along the pot-holed airport road, in an old Land Rover which still had “Presented by Britain” and the ancient “Overseas Development Administration” logo stenciled on the doors. Monday started with “prayers” – a ritual meeting with the High Commissioner and his staff to consider the week ahead. Beauty tapped in the security code on the button pad which allowed her access to Chancery, and walked towards Sandy Mackelson’s office. She was intercepted by his secretary, Heather.

“Morning Beauty. They’re meeting in the slammer today. And they’ve already started.”

“The what?”

“Ah, you don’t know about that then. I’d better take you around.”

They passed through another secure door and entered a small room which had only a desk and telephone as furniture. The facing wall appeared to be of solid steel painted grey, with a door cut into it like the entrance to a ship’s engine room.

Mackelson’s secretary dialed the telephone: “Beauty’s here.”

Momentarily the heavy door was opened by Eric Stainbury, known to all in the High Commission as Oily – on account of his spotty features and unwashed appearance. Everyone knew he had another role in Dombe: one that was secretive and underhand. Beauty noted that the entire room was a steel cube – floor, ceiling and walls. There were no windows or light sources other than a number of caged dullish lamps which were clamped to the walls like limpets.

“I’m assuming from the expression on your face that you haven’t been in here before?” the High Commissioner asked.

“No.”

“Very well. I should explain that it is totally secure. We can’t be overheard. From time to time, when there are sensitive matters to discuss, this is where we meet. On the need to know principle, only the most senior staff are present – that’s why we are thin on the ground this morning.”


Beauty surveyed the room. Andrew Cunningham was present as Head of Chancery. Oily wasn’t really senior at all but attended given his delving into the darker recesses of Zungulan politics.

Sandy Mackelson looked grimly at Beauty and asked her to brief the meeting on her discussions with the President that weekend. “We are waiting with baited breath to hear what transpired,” he added acidly.

Beauty was a bit taken aback by the senior man’s tone but ever prepared, had thought about what she was going to say on her way in from the airport. She took a deep breath.

“As you know, the President has indicated that he’d like to hold regular meetings with those who are most active in the donor community. He emphasized these are to be separate from more regular sessions with senior diplomats. For the time being he wants to host aid officials in Kintyre but is sure of moving the venue to Dombe shortly, for reasons which I’ll come to. We met on Saturday afternoon. Ruud van Heldon attended for the World Food Programme, with Emily Mabusela from the Bank, and Tom Odinga standing in for the Head of UNDP. Apart from note takers, the only other Zungulan present was Bishop Chesendera. The President’s main preoccupation seems to be the conflict in the north. This appears to be escalating more rapidly than our own intelligence suggests.” Oily flinched at this. Beauty continued.

“We were told that even the Defence Force, dispatched to Chiweta to maintain order, had divided on tribal lines. The Bishop claimed that at least four hundred people have been killed in the last couple of weeks. Truck loads of panga wielding Umnaravi tribesmen were apparently leaving their villages by day to confront the Ngoni – but only tattered bands of survivors were returning, the rest overcome by the superior fighting skills of their opponents. President Chilembe said the conflict was fanning outwards like an out of control forest fire. He was concerned that the Minister of Home Affairs’ call for help from the diplomatic community had not, so far, resulted in any action. He asked if aid officials could combine with NGOs operating in the north to help bring about a solution.”

Beauty paused to let her information sink in. It was Sandy Mackelson’s turn to grimace but Oily Stainbury was the first to respond. “The Umnaravi and Ngoni have been fighting each other for as long as their history has been recorded. There have been several outbreaks of violence within the last decade. Surely we would be wise to steer clear. Like any fire, it is bound to fizzle out naturally.”

If Beauty was hoping for a different response from Mackelson, she was to be disappointed. He had been listening intently but true to his current form was also disinclined to involve the High Commission in what could become a protracted problem. “In any case,” he added “I can’t allow the President to divide and rule this Mission by playing one half of it off against the other. I can see no justification for donor interest in the conflict, given the raft of other problems with which we are dealing nearer to the capital.”

Musajakawa saw this as a challenge to her delegated authority and was not prepared to let it pass. “I am sorry but I disagree. The conflict has become a pressing issue. My Secretary of State will want to be consulted about whether we join with others in helping to resolve the situation. She is bound to be concerned, not only about loss of life, but also the damage which is being done to social infrastructure while the fighting continues.”

The die was truly cast. Beauty realized she wasn’t making any friends in this oppressive room. However there were principles at stake and she felt she could not abandon her job’s main purpose; of helping to mend the torn lives of poorer Zungulans, including those unfortunate enough to be affected by conflict.

“What else did the President discuss with you?” – Mackelson’s mood was now deeply set.

“Two matters, one of which is also a concern. He reported an outbreak of meningitis in and around Mponde. The Ministry of Health is trying to assemble a team to investigate. Secondly, as I alluded to at the beginning, the President is contemplating moving his main residence to Dombe. He agrees with senior diplomats that the endless stream of Ministers and civil servants moving back and forth to Kintyre is an unacceptable burden on the annual budget. A move to Dombe, he feels, would contribute to an overall improvement in the efficiency of government.”

“Tell us about it,” Oily sneered. Beauty ignored the jibe.

“There is one other thing, unconnected to my meeting with the President. I have reason to fear there is an impending food shortage. I’ve discussed my concern with van Heldon and he agrees. Even in the most productive areas, the maize crop is substantially down on last year. Normally we would rely on government figures to signal if there was a problem but there are real inconsistencies between quantities reported as harvested by the Ministry of Agriculture, and those being handled by the Grain Marketing Board. In preparation for the forthcoming Regional Food Security meeting I’m planning a week’s absence from the office to visit some key production areas, to see the situation for myself. As my focus will be the north, I’ll keep in contact by satellite telephone.”

The meeting turned to other matters including the High Commission’s unwanted guest from the teaching profession, but business was quickly concluded thereafter.

“Before you go, I would like your contributions to my Queen’s Birthday Party speech please,” this Sandy Mackelson’s parting remark as the meeting came to a close. As participants filed away to their respective ends of the building, Andrew Cunningham took Beauty to one side.

“I admired your pluck in there Beauty. But be patient. He’s still relatively new in the job. We need to make him feel that he has some say in aid work. It’s our most reliable means of influencing in Zungula – perhaps the only way to do so.”

Beauty was quick to respond to her colleague’s interpretation of things.

“I’d prefer to be on side with HC and to receive the benefit of his political wisdom. But I have a clear responsibility to enter territory where perhaps DFA would be more cautious about treading. Someone needs to do something about the situation in the north. We can’t leave things as they are.”
“I take your point Beauty. If you’re determined to go, I hope you’ll take care. It sounds pretty hairy up there. Do me a favour and steer clear of the hotspots. One piece of advice. Don’t take any risks with meningitis. Make an appointment at the High Commission clinic before you leave, and get yourself a shot. We don’t want to have to repatriate your corpse now, do we?” he said with a sympathetic smile.

The next step for Beauty was to contact Matthews Chihana at the Grain Marketing Board, to establish whether he had time to accompany her on what was potentially a risk filled journey.


© Michael Wood


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