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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 5 - A Date With The Commissioner Of Police

... Chabwele was a breeding ground for crime. Theft was most common; sex workers plied their trade – sometimes with clients who refused to pay and beat the women instead; there were beggars and appallingly disabled people, some of whom crawled to Dombe’s traffic robots each day in the hope of handouts from drivers brought to a halt by the lights. There were drug dealers who infiltrated from West Africa, and the drug addicted.

Yet among this flotsam of humanity there were those who still tried to make an honest living. Little kiosks sprang up everywhere, operated by women selling essentials – like cooking oil, salt, maize meal – in tiny portions, carefully weighed, wrapped in recycled plastic packets which hung from strings. On the fringes of the slum, Ministry of Transport trucks periodically dumped quarried stone for gangs of desperate men to break into gravel for thirty cents a day – mind numbingly hard work which produced calloused hands and damaged eyes from the shards of splintered stone which shattered with each hammer blow...

Shacks in Chabwele are washed away in an unexpected storm - yet on the morning after the disaster Sandy Mackelson, the British High Commissioner, still breakfasts on bacon, sausage and eggs.

Michael Wood's story of corruption and the profound contrast in culture and affluance an imaginary African country is made all the more vivid with laugh-out-loud incidents and situations. To read earlier chapters please lick on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

Before Chabwele slum existed, the vicinity was beautiful. People started to gravitate to it because Marimba River flowed towards Dombe, not from it. So the first hundred or so informal settlers were able to safely enjoy the pleasures which fresh flowing water offered. For millennia the river had tumbled down a gentle gradient sufficient to form numerous rock pools both large and small. Long ago lion, leopard, buffalo, and elephant would drink from these – alas now, such beasts were gone forever. The pools became a gathering point for women spending part of their day scrubbing clothes in the shallows, working Omo into the materials and bashing them against the rocks to drive out the dirt. On especially hot days they would laugh, sing and bathe together, away from the prying eyes of men. The pools were a playground too for their children who soon learned to swim and frolic in the deeper water.

Their homes were simple mud huts constructed close to the river bank; there was plenty of firewood to forage from the forest land higher up; not far away there was space to plant seeds, and at night the little village which had formed, was filled with the pleasant aromas of burning eucalyptus, frying fish and boiling nsima. There was time for storytelling in the traditional way and all were held spellbound, enraptured, as those with the skill unraveled their nightly tales.

As Dombe grew, so did the overspill to Chabwele. Soon a thousand people staked a claim, then a thousand more, and more. The simple yet peaceful existence which the early arrivals had enjoyed was quickly snuffed out. New shacks were built with any material people could find – cardboard, rusting sheets of corrugated iron, scrap wood, old car doors, plastic sheets. A large blue and white metal signpost directing drivers to the American Embassy, disappeared the very afternoon it was erected.

People lived cheek by jowl in Chabwele, without privacy. There were no latrines; residents went to the woods – until these were hacked down – or they defecated in the reeds close to the river. Garbage was strewn everywhere; disease became the norm. Chabwele was transformed into an awful place made worse by the reek from Dombe’s sewage works close by. Processing machinery was always “under repair”. Only migrant wader birds seemed comfortable paddling in the concrete lined ponds.

Chabwele was a breeding ground for crime. Theft was most common; sex workers plied their trade – sometimes with clients who refused to pay and beat the women instead; there were beggars and appallingly disabled people, some of whom crawled to Dombe’s traffic robots each day in the hope of handouts from drivers brought to a halt by the lights. There were drug dealers who infiltrated from West Africa, and the drug addicted.

Yet among this flotsam of humanity there were those who still tried to make an honest living. Little kiosks sprang up everywhere, operated by women selling essentials – like cooking oil, salt, maize meal – in tiny portions, carefully weighed, wrapped in recycled plastic packets which hung from strings. On the fringes of the slum, Ministry of Transport trucks periodically dumped quarried stone for gangs of desperate men to break into gravel for thirty cents a day – mind numbingly hard work which produced calloused hands and damaged eyes from the shards of splintered stone which shattered with each hammer blow.

There were neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods. Top Rock was perched high above the river. There, Dombe’s property entrepreneurs rented out basic brick houses to better off Chabweleans – two rooms without even a layer of plaster on the inside walls. It was to one of these that Sam and Patience Phiri returned each evening, kerosene lamps for light, a pair of charcoal burning jikos for cooking.

Somewhere far below, close to the river bank, Noah Bamidele existed with his wife and four children – though it was barely an existence. There was never enough money and Noah seemed to find it increasingly difficult these days to interest buyers in his artifacts, many of which were now stored in his shack. “God willing, one day I will trade these things” he thought.

Marimba River was unusually dry even for the time of year. Its flow was reduced to trickling streams. There had been seasonal rain ending in April, accounting for the greenery which the Mackelsons had observed as they flew over the country five weeks earlier. However local people knew this hadn’t been nearly regular or heavy enough to sufficiently nourish the maize plants, the chilazi (yam) or mbatata (sweet potato).

One day in May the extraordinary happened in what was supposed to be the dry season. Thick clouds gathered over Dombe. They blackened ominously and signaled the onset of ugly weather. As the afternoon progressed, rumblings of thunder could be heard in the distant hills, warning of an approaching storm. By six o’clock, as darkness was beginning to fall, the first heavy drops of rain splattered onto the town’s pavements causing people to run for shelter. Within minutes a tropical downpour was lashing the capital’s streets, filling storm drains, washing away accumulated garbage, drowning rats too slow to escape, pelting and stinging people still out in the open.

Three kilometers away, Chabwele’s makeshift shacks were no match for such a storm. Their occupants shivered from the inevitable soaking as water streamed through inadequate plastic roofing. Flashes of lightening followed by booming thunder shook the ground and terrified the shanty inhabitants. Marimba River became a sudden torrent and as the night progressed, its size and power increased.

Noah gathered his family around him and tried to comfort them. But he was unable to prevent his own fear transmitting to the children. They howled with each flash of blue light, each thunderous noise louder than exploding ordinance. The storm raged on, hour upon hour without let up.

The father of four reflected on the cold hovel in which they sat, soaked. This is what God had in store for him for the rest of his life, he felt. He could imagine no escape from the misery and in all likelihood, his children would never be any better off either. Then, uncomprehendingly at first, Noah was startled by mud-filled sludge which began to slush into the hut through the bottom of the makeshift door. In seconds it seemed, this was already a few inches deep and rising. Stung into action, Noah and his wife agreed they must urgently move out to higher ground. With the youngest children in their arms, and the other two ordered to stay close, they evacuated the abode, slipping and sliding in the treacherous warren of passageways between other shacks, until they were high enough to feel safe from the surging water below.

Others who had been living on lower ground were also scrambling to safety. As Noah’s family sat despairingly, drenched on the muddied hillside, huddled together, occasional apparitions would crawl past them, cursing their luck and this hell hole of Chabwele. Noah sat with his eyes glued to the spot where he knew his house to be. He was now oblivious to the screeching of his youngest offspring; a different fear gripped him. When the sky lit up he had a second, no more, to check the water’s progress. At last, he saw his home, all that he possessed, his hard won artifacts which he had journeyed hundreds of miles to collect – all slip away in the torrent. He knew nothing would be recovered. Also gone was most of the money he had earned from his recent sales to the Mackelsons.

When the sun emerged over the horizon and slowly began to burn away lingering cloud which had been cloaked with its distinctive, storm-coppery tints, the sad chaos of Chabwele was fully revealed. This was a disaster zone. Hundreds of homes had been swept away in the swollen river; hundreds more had slid part of the way down the mushy embankments as the soils which had formed their foundations were eroded by rivers of overnight water, gushing down the hillside.

There were fatalities. Limbs of the dead protruded grotesquely from accumulated mud and debris. Survivors wandered about dazed, silent, unable to comprehend the extent of the catastrophe. In spite of their hopeless situation they knew they could expect no help. Lower Chabwele residents had no influence, no status, no rights. No one would have noticed or given a moment’s attention to the possibility of their suffering.

Noah instructed his eldest children, eleven and thirteen years old, to take charge of the youngest of four and five. Their mother’s first priority was to join forces with others whom she knew, to salvage some building material from the wreckage, and then erect another shelter, however temporary. She would then walk into Dombe to beg for loose change. Noah had also thought through his intended contribution to the family’s survival strategy. He would go to that High Commission man and tell him a lie; that he had found the steam trains; that the caretaker wanted a deposit before agreeing to work on dismantling the brass name plates. He would then have some breathing space to embark on a real search. Yes. That was what he must do.

* * * * * *

The overnight storm had also kept the Mackelsons awake but there was no interruption to their morning routine. The “ER” embossed silverware was already on the highly polished mahogany dining room table when Sandy and Madeleine emerged from their bedroom. The neatly folded napkins were correctly positioned and even for breakfast, the maids had put out the most elegant crockery. There was freshly pressed orange juice, natural yogurt and Swiss muesli to start the day. Mary stood at a discrete distance, beneath a flattering old portrait of the Queen, ready to clear away for the next course.

They could hear singing in the kitchen; a wailing lament:
Mbaya myana yane bamutya cimbwe
Mbaya myana yane bamutya cimbwe……..
(Mbaya, my child is called a hyena)

This was a new cook. The previous incumbent had lasted two days with Madeleine at the helm. “What can you do?” she had asked when she and her husband first moved into their grand new surroundings. “Scramblidy eggies,” he had replied, duly producing a plate of soggy substance which appeared to be swimming in engine oil. Madeleine had demanded to see his references. To her amazement, he had managed to produce one from his room in the staff quarters. This he proudly handed over for inspection. It was headed “United States Agency for International Development,” dated February 1999 and signed by the Director.

“To whom it may concern. Cederik Chayale worked in my house as cook and general houseboy for exactly one week. If he does for you what he did for me, you will be well and truly done.”

The poor man had kept this precious piece of paper for eight years in total ignorance of the vicious irony it contained. Madeleine sacked him but not before she had advised on the cruelty contained within the document, suggesting he tear it up. Disbelieving, Cederik had carefully folded the reference and placed it in his shirt pocket, before turning away with tears in his eyes. Soon afterwards Madeleine had lured a proper cook away from the Residence of the French Charge d’Affaires, on a promise of improved pay and conditions. In his newly equipped kitchen he was preparing bacon, sausages and eggs just as the Mackelsons liked them. The Residence was running splendidly.

“Mbaya myana yane bamutya cimwe,” the lament continued.

* * * * * *

At the height of the storm a tree had been blown down and fallen into the Residence driveway. Garden staff and the two security guards were busy with a chain saw. The middle section of the tree was cut out so that the front gates with their imposing coat of arms, could be swung open when the High Commissioner was ready to go to work. The rest of the trunk could be cleared away at a more leisurely pace. The chauffeur was washing and polishing the Flag car, as he did each morning.

At 7.15am, the High Commissioner emerged from the Residence. He instructed Rabsoni to drive him to Central Police Station. The car was well known around Dombe. A jet black top specification Range Rover with a difference. It was bullet proof. Not that anyone seriously thought Sandy Mackelson would come under fire in Zungula – but the Department of Foreign Affairs in London had agreed it was better to be on the safe side, and had accepted the phenomenal cost. The luxury vehicle always flew a small Union Jack when the High Commissioner was aboard. As Rabsoni approached from Dunduzu Road, officers on guard at the gate of Police Headquarters had already spotted them coming and leapt to attention, saluting as the car passed through and came to a halt exactly at the entrance to the building. The Commissioner of Police and six of his most senior officers were lined up waiting to receive their important visitor. Each of them also saluted before Mackelson shook their hands in turn. As this little ceremony was underway the Briton was aware of a shuffling of booted feet behind him but didn’t see what was causing the kerfuffle until he was invited to turn about face by his host. As he did so, a hastily assembled brass band struck up a barely recognizable version of “God Save the Queen”. Trumpets, trombones and tubas emitted an assortment of strangled sounds for a seemingly interminable time until it was all brought to an end by a clash of symbols.

“So you can see Sah, they are very good. Very spot on as you Breetish can say. Your predecessor has booked us for your Queen’s Bethday celebration,” the Commissioner of Police proffered.

“I see. Well, we mustn’t disappoint I suppose. I’m sure it will all come right on the day,” Mackelson replied cuttingly.

Smiling broadly at what he had interpreted as a complimentary remark, the Commissioner, Lawrence Chitambo, then ushered his guest inside. With the six officers following closely in attendance, the party made their way up two flights of steps and into the top man’s office. A corporal stood at the door and held a stiff salute. The eight men entered and settled themselves around a conference table. As they did so Mackelson thought there was something familiar about Chitambo but couldn’t quite place him. As a senior diplomat, the High Commissioner had been subjected to an endless round of welcoming cocktail parties over the last few weeks, shaking hundreds of hands, mostly of black people. Chitambo had probably been one of them.

Tea was brought in by a pretty young secretary; and plates of digestive biscuits which the six officers began to consume with a relish which was difficult to credit. The office door operated with some sort of electronic mechanism. When the meeting was about to get underway, Chitambo ostentatiously snapped the door shut with something that looked like an antiquated TV remote control. He then cleared his throat as if about to make a lengthy speech to an attentive audience.

“You are most welcome High Commissioner. It is an honour to have you call upon us. Natur-ally, you have come today, not to finalize arrangements for the band, but to tell us when you are going to give us that man you are harbouring.”

Between slurping their tea noisily and demolishing what was left of the biscuits, the six officers signaled their approval with a chorus: “Ahheeh”.

“The case against this pehvet (pervert) is clear but he will of coss be given every opportunity to defend in our cots (courts).”

“Aheeeeh”

Sandy Mackelson felt relaxed and non-confrontational but sure of his ground. He held them in suspense momentarily before replying.

“As you know my offices have been virtually blockaded for several days by unruly members of the public. By people who have learned the so called facts from a press which has a reputation for bias and misinformation. I have more than once asked for your government’s help in persuading the mob to disperse. When that has been achieved Sir, and providing I have your assurances about his safety and welfare, Mr Middleton will be released into your custody. Not before. I should point out that in the meantime, my Government is taking a dim view of the situation and will be reviewing its assistance to the Police Force.”

Mackelson felt pleased with his coup de grace. There had been no need to discuss the threat he had just made with Beauty Musajakawa, keeper of British aid funds, because he had seen it in black and white, or could say he did – in the contribution she had made to the Queen’s Birthday Party speech. In fact Beauty had not connected an intended review of police assistance with the Middleton crisis, but the High Commissioner intentionally implied cause and effect. His cunning immediately brought about a more conciliatory tone from the chief of police.

“Your Excellency. You will understand that my duty is to uphold the law whenever and wherever it ees broken. I can see that some of the demonstrators may have overstepped the mak. I will ensure these troublemakers move off by midday tomorrow. The more peaceful of them will follow once deprived of their spokesmen. With your permission, I will then come personally to take chajee of this Middleton fellow. I give you my personal assurance that he will be treated fine so.”

“Since you have raised ongoing assistance to my Force” he continued, “we too have been reviewing. These six officers, in preparation for our meeting, have drawn up a list of radio equipment and Rand Lovers that we need to better perform our duties. We are also wanting those body armour and improve weapon to help us beat the criminal. I hope the UK will consider our requirements sympathetically Sah.”

As he handed over the list, there was something in Chitambo’s demeanor which finally sparked recognition in Mackelson’s mind. This was the buffoon who had refused him admission to the VIP lounge in Kintyre. Years of training held the High Commissioner’s tongue in check. He was not about to endanger the commitment he had been given with respect to Middleton, by raising the now trivial matter of his own treatment on arrival in Zungula. However, he knew the smug Lawrence Chitambo would be in for a shock before long. Beauty Musajakawa planned a radical change in the aid relationship with ZPF. She and her advisers wanted reform; compression of the ranking structure (there were far too many grades, swelling police numbers), intensive training oriented towards community policing, and conversion of the Force to a more modern people-friendly Service. This would cost a lot of money and Mackelson knew that there would be no room for new vehicles or the enforcement equipment the Commissioner had outlined.

The High Commissioner stood up and shook hands again with the Chief and those who had eaten all the biscuits. There were smiles on both sides, even if Mackelson’s was forced – but he expertly maintained the charade, as all good diplomats seemed capable. Now he thought he held all the cards.

Chitambo fiddled with his remote control device to open the secure door. Nothing happened. He unhooked a two way radio from a belt around his enlarged waist and spoke in clipped tones.

“Corporal. It ees stuck again. Can you unlock!” It was a command, not a request. The party began to walk towards the door but it still hadn’t clicked opened.

“Corporal. Are you there? You must unlock,” he ordered. There was some transmission interference on the radio followed by a panicked message from the man on the other side of the door.

“Sah. I am plessing the button but it will not go. I cannot unlock.”

Chitambo yelled another order into his radio but it was hardly necessary with the unfortunate Corporal just on the other side of the door.

“You will hev to push it. Push it with your shodda man.”

The High Commissioner looked at his watch as the door frame began to shudder against force being applied by the Corporal on the other side, and it seemed, by another of his colleagues. It was proving to be quite a hysterical performance.

“Push hadda man,” the Commissioner of Police repeated, furious now that he was being embarrassed in this way. “Hadda!” he barked again.

Just when Sandy Mackelson was resigning himself to an unexpected delay, the door smashed off its hinges and with the momentum they had gathered from the other room, two policemen flew into the Commissioner’s office and, unable to stop themselves, fell to the floor. Inexplicably, one was holding an umbrella.

Mackelson gave them a withering look, bid them all good day and walked out of the building, feeling at last that he had achieved something; that he was getting on top of things.

© Michael Wood

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