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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 6 - Roadkill

...In short Michael and Elizabeth Huxley were unsung heroes. They were closer to the dirty side of aid than most; they encountered death every day of their lives, much of which could have been avoided if relatively paltry sums of money had been made available to those few committed Zungulan staff who battled on in the hospital. However the Huxleys were forgotten by their former paymasters. They deserved recognition for their devotion to duty. Beauty wondered about her government’s “Honours” system. These days, she thought, priority was given to fashionable footballers who could barely string two words together and whose record against hungrier opposition was lamentable; it was given to pushy actors with Scottish accents, and lollipop ladies. Recognition was showered like confetti on time serving civil servants...

Beauty Musajakawa, on a trip to the north of Zungula, meets the noble Huxleys, discovers illness and incipient famine conditions then encounters the horrific aftermath of a massacre.

Michael Wood's superlative novel is set in an imaginary country, yet it brings readers face to face with the "real'' Africa. To read earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in th4 menu on this page.

There was much that was different about the north of Zungula. Traditions remained which had long been suppressed or modernized out of the south. Lands were still ruled by tribal kings whose societies were organized into patrilineal clans. Ancestors’ spirits were venerated and called upon in times of need. Witchcraft was practised, albeit not as openly as in days gone by. There was totemism and symbolism. There were unconventional forms of etiquette which visitors had to learn quickly to avoid causing offense. Giving and receiving small gifts was an important mark of friendship. Refusal was insulting, and considered hostile. The trick was to accept a present, show pleasure at receiving it – then to find a way later of compensating the provider.

In spite of their many hardships and the sorry effects of lingering tribalism, life was taken less seriously in the north. The general atmosphere was easy-going even if a careless spark could periodically re-ignite ancient antagonisms. People were prone to frequent singing to mark even quite ordinary occasions. The arrival of a long absent friend; a birthday; the announcement of a betrothal; a child’s first day back from school. They delighted in the sounds of their drums, clappers, jingles, rattles and their xylophones cleverly made with strings of gourd nuts suspended beneath roughly hued wooden keys. Their songs were traditional, told an amusing story, and no matter how often repeated, could induce great hilarity.

The majority of northern people were Muslim though in practice their religion was inseparable from the taboos and magical beliefs which were passed from one generation to the next. Standards of dress were also less flamboyant than in the predominantly Christian south. Men wore flowing embroidered robes and matching hats, dyed in earth tone colours of light green, blue, grey, and white.

There was a long tradition of polygamy in northern region. Women had always outnumbered men, the tendency accentuated by work related migration and male engagement in dangerous activities such as fishing on Lake Dzalanyama – which drowned many, young and old, spilled from their dug out canoes in often sea-like conditions – and as recent events had underlined, inter-tribal disputes took a heavy toll. Polygamy was a social safety net – a means of ensuring that a majority of women would be cared for by those men who remained. A man with several wives could also reasonably hope to have more children, and therefore in times of stability, better economic prospects, as his extended family helped in whatever was his occupation.

The north’s topography and climate were also very different. There were undulating hills and grassy plains in contrast to southern mountains, deep valleys and what was left of forest. Temperatures were higher but the humidity less intense. Away from the overbearing crush of people to the south, there was room to breathe; there were fewer and much smaller urban communities; life still revolved around villages where headmen and chiefs were deeply respected figures who upheld the law, dispensed justice and settled disputes – sometimes with the aid of spirits on whom they had the power to call.

The Umnaravi king’s palace was in the small town of Rumphi, a hundred kilometers west of Bakili. It was nestled in a fertile valley, the River Kaning’ina gently meandering through it. Village chiefs were periodically called to pay tribute at the palace. The king was known as the Wa Tonga. He had many wives as tradition and his status demanded. Each was head-shaven, indicating her association with him. His palace was far from what the imagination might conjure – a series of traditional mud huts, hardly more grand than Grace Phiri’s – one for each of the women, a throne room for the conduct of business, and a much larger, some would say more congenial structure, for stabling. For as long as the Umnaravi’s history had been recorded, horses played an important part, initially as instruments of a conquering army. In the late nineteenth century the Umnaravi were themselves overcome by Ngoni invaders’ force of numbers and more ruthless battle tactics. Even so, they never lost a fondness for their magnificent animals which originated from Arabs who plied their trade far to the east on the Swahili coast.

It was Beauty Musajakawa’s limited understanding of these cultural factors in the north which heightened her enjoyment of it – when she got the chance. These days her job increasingly revolved around Dombe, sitting in gloomy offices, negotiating with disingenuous Ministers, and dealing with inefficient officials – if she could find them. Bureaucrats in the capital knew how to bolster their less than satisfactory salaries. For days on end sometimes, key government staff were missing from their offices, attending workshops and conferences, for which they received allowances and cash in lieu of hotel costs.

Beauty felt unshackled, re-invigorated and as free as a bird as she traveled between town and village in the company only of her driver. She had felt vindicated too following her little spat with Sandy Mackelson in the eerie steel-cubed meeting room in the High Commission. A video-link discussion with her Secretary of State revealed strong support for a donor led initiative to help resolve fighting in the north, and guarded encouragement to visit the area. Beauty was glad to have seen no evidence yet of fighting, or the outbreak of meningitis which the President had reported when they had last met. However it was clear from her journeying that there was a further concern.

As intended, Beauty had approached Matthews Chihana, MD of the Grain Marketing Board, before taking the Zungula Air Force’s droning Dakota to the regional capital of Bakili (having sent her driver ahead on the difficult twelve hour road journey). Unfortunately she had not achieved her objective of persuading Chihana or any of his team to join her on this visit – after all its principal purpose had been to make an assessment of the maize harvest; to establish whether there might indeed be a shortage. Chihana had said he was too busy. Sam Phiri and others were fully occupied preparing for the Regional Food Security meeting, now only a week away. Beauty had then tried the alternative of recruiting a couple of donor representatives, including her friend Neils Hansen. All had made their excuses. Determined to go, she had bravely decided to travel unsupported.

Now more than half way through her week away, the impression she was forming from visits to more than thirty villages in a wide radius around Bakili, was unlikely to fill delegates at the forthcoming Dombe conference with confidence. Individual household grain stores had been on average about twenty per cent full, at a time when they were supposed to be overflowing. People in villages worst affected by AIDS and labour shortage had instructed their children to search for wild berries and “hunger rice” – a species of grass having a tiny but edible seed which could be boiled into a thin gruel. Beauty wasn’t an expert but the situation looked potentially grave. If she wasn’t mistaken, a food crisis was indeed looming in this part of the country. The Government would need to act quickly to distribute stocks held for emergency purposes in their Dombe silos. Otherwise she feared deepening hunger; starvation couldn’t be ruled out. One more full day of village hopping and she would return home. As promised, she’d been making daily reports back to her colleagues in Dombe by satellite phone. Sandy Mackelson had been unavailable but she had spoken twice to Andrew Cunningham. Now she wanted to take in Mponde and Machope, partly to widen her sample still further, and partly to find out what was really going on with the reported meningitis outbreak.

She and her driver had used Bakili as their overnight base, guests of Michael and Elizabeth Huxley, to whose home they returned each evening, exhausted from many hours of uncomfortable, dusty travel by Land Rover. In spite of the age difference, Beauty found the Huxleys to be stimulating and warm hearted hosts. They provided fascinating evening entertainment, regaling her with tales of life as it had been under Dr Victor Mpande, former Life President. It was he who had shrewdly secured South African finance and construction expertise required for much of his planned transformation of Dombe village. For a year or two it withstood a frenzy of building activity; planners and engineers at every corner with their measuring instruments; Taiwanese-supplied tipper trucks carrying load after load of foundation material quarried from the edge of nearby Likabula Forest; cement mixers churning incessantly; hundreds of shiny skinned, bare chested men bussed in from far and wide, shovelling, hammering, heaving pick axes and clinging to precariously angled make-do bamboo scaffolding. From their sweated labour, new buildings rose like mushrooms.

By the late 1970s, Dombe’s village-like characteristics were overwhelmed. Red earthed dirt roads gave way to smooth tarmac; some fancier shops appeared, modern petrol stations, a few supermarkets – all seeming at first like progress. But there was a nastier side to the business of developing Dombe. Low income households with no proof of land ownership, were swept aside in an unprecedented government land grab. Street vendors were set upon by baton wielding police and forced to conduct their trading on the town boundary . Working girls were rounded up, beaten and trucked away. Even the predominance of bicycle transport – the mark of a once quiet and sleepy place – all but disappeared, replaced by fleets of eccentrically named taxi buses (“Fear Woman”, “Never Despair”, “God’s Mercy Machine”), heavy lorries with crooked chassis, Ministers’ Mercedes and four wheel drive cars favoured by aid agencies.

In those days, the Huxleys explained, the country was ruled with an iron fist. Political opponents were imprisoned, “disappeared” or operated from a position of exile. There was strict censorship; the foreign media were banned; newspapers – ironically, almost all of them controlled by government – appeared each morning with large sections blacked out. Yet things worked after a fashion. There was little or no crime. Every child went to school with enough food in their bellies. Many older people now longed for a return to the social order which prevailed during the Mpande years.

The Life President inspired awe among those with whom he came into contact. You could feel the power of the man when his motorcade sped by, preceded by siren blaring motorcycles forcing other drivers to pull off the road. Dr Mpande’s fleet of cars all had specially fitted runner boards upon which four security men in flashy suits, would hang nonchalantly but steely faced, their mirror sunglasses matching the tinted glass of the vehicles they rode upon. And when the Life President emerged from the cocoon of his luxurious Mercedes Benz he was surrounded by throngs of ululating women, dressed in chitenge wraps, t-shirts and head-wear bearing his image. In spite of his advanced years, Victor Mpande would join the women in their celebrations, dancing gingerly, wielding his silver handled fly whisk in one hand, and waving his trade mark bowler hat in the other. His power had been absolute but it was obvious too from his public appearances that he maintained a considerable measure of support.

The more Beauty spoke to the Huxleys, the more she came to respect them. Both were deeply committed doctors who had been living in Zungula for a quarter of a century. Now in their seventies and deserving of a restful retirement after long service to the poor, they insisted there was too much to do to contemplate taking it easy. They had chosen to stay all those years in a very modest little house provided by the Zungula Ministry of Health, which they decorated colourfully with hand painted batiks picked up on their travels to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and a fine collection of African art.

Originally the pair had had their salaries supplemented by the British. The scheme attracted skilled expatriates to take up Government of Zungula positions where there were supposed local capacity shortages. GoZ acted as the formal employer, providing a small local salary which British aid topped up according to the perceived value of the job holder.

In its heyday the scheme had financed engineers, architects, hospital administrators, foresters, doctors, dentists, agronomists, economists and a hundred other professions – across the developing world. It cost millions but was eventually abandoned when its developmental impact was found to be limited. In worst cases the foreigners whiled away their time in old colonial clubs, soaking up gin. More entrepreneurial types took up second jobs in the private sector for which they were paid handsomely, while paying lip service to the posts for which they continued to receive supplementation. Development analysts argued after the event, that foreign “experts” had frozen out and impeded prospects for local graduates.

Once the comfortable cushion of hard currency was removed, expatriates were quick to terminate their association with governments which had hosted them. The Huxleys were among few stalwarts who stayed on in Zungula, surviving only on Kwacha salaries. They even gave up part of this meager remuneration to purchase some of the drugs, basic pain killers, bandages, syringes, needles, and other essentials which they needed for day to day use in Bakili’s Central Hospital. Dombe had little interest in a distant Muslim centre. Budgets available for northern local government, reflected this. The hospital cupboards were bare.

In short Michael and Elizabeth Huxley were unsung heroes. They were closer to the dirty side of aid than most; they encountered death every day of their lives, much of which could have been avoided if relatively paltry sums of money had been made available to those few committed Zungulan staff who battled on in the hospital. However the Huxleys were forgotten by their former paymasters. They deserved recognition for their devotion to duty. Beauty wondered about her government’s “Honours” system. These days, she thought, priority was given to fashionable footballers who could barely string two words together and whose record against hungrier opposition was lamentable; it was given to pushy actors with Scottish accents, and lollipop ladies. Recognition was showered like confetti on time serving civil servants.

Beauty first met the Huxleys when they asked for an appointment to see her in Dombe, close to the time when she arrived in Zungula. It was Elizabeth who did all the talking.

“You have to be mad. Chilembe and his cronies can’t be trusted with cash. What on earth can you be thinking of? You just have to look at how they spend government money, let alone what you might add. The upkeep of palaces, last month’s order for a Presidential jet, needless state banquets, the fleet of new Mercedes’, endless workshops. There’s absolutely no accountability.......”.

The younger woman listened to the tirade with a degree of sympathy but continued to be blasted with volley after volley from Elizabeth until at last Michael said “Come on old girl, you’ve more than said your piece. Miss Musajakawa has a job to do and we shouldn’t take up more of her time.”

They parted amiably enough and Elizabeth extended an invitation to stay with them should at any time Beauty travel to Bakili. The aging doctors where pleasantly surprised when the bright young woman eventually gave them notice of her intention to visit. The north, they knew, was not the usual stamping ground for official aid workers. In Dombe, all the big aid donors were represented but none had yet made an appearance in the neglected north. In the most warped logic, they argued it was too distant, communications too poor, and the infrastructure too primitive to countenance an investment of their time.

After an early breakfast on the khonde, watching in delight as coppery sun birds fed on the nectar of the Huxleys’ bright red hibiscus flowers, Beauty bade her hosts farewell. She hoped to take in Mponde and Machope in one only day, returning to Bakili in time to catch the early evening air force Dakota back to the capital. She reached neither centre.

* * * * * *

Life was indeed looking up for Sandy Mackelson. Since his meeting with Lawrence Chitambo, the few hundred protesters who had been camped outside the British High Commission gates had almost immediately melted away, leaving a trail of litter and debris in their wake. The British teacher accused of buggery, Middleton, had been moved under cover of darkness to the Residence from where, by prior arrangement, he was picked up the same evening by Chitambo and a bulbous sergeant who carried a pistol holstered to his broad leather waist belt, as if to underline the seriousness of the charge that was laid upon their captive.

“You can be sure that this prisoner will be treated well well. We have his human rights croz to our hats,” were Chitambo’s parting words as Middleton was frog-marched out of the Residence into a waiting police Land Rover. Mackelson felt he had done his best for the man. Now he would instruct his consular team to arrange a lawyer and to keep an eye on progress towards an early trial. Responsibility for monitoring Middleton’s welfare could now fall to others under his charge.

The feared anthrax attack proved to be a damp squib. Laboratories in Johannesburg had confirmed that the white powder sent through the post to the High Commission, was in fact DDT. However, Sandy Mackelson asked his security team to keep the office on Black Alert.

The Queen’s Birthday Party speech was drafted at long last, relieving Mackelson of perhaps his greatest source of worry. What’s more, he felt with minimal amendment, the speech would strike exactly the right note.

On a personal level, there were a couple of things which the High Commissioner now looked forward to. The Vice President had invited he and Madeleine to play tennis at Dombe Club. While the game itself would be unimportant, Mackelson felt he could use the occasion to influence the politician, especially on the still lingering Third Term issue. Hopefully this would be the first of regular get-togethers. The meetings could be mentioned in dispatches to London.

The trader Noah Bamidele had also been to see “Boss” and explained that he had established the whereabouts of the old Zungula Railways locomotives. These he said, were housed in a covered siding in Kintyre and were in good condition. Removal of the nameplates would not be straightforward however. They needed the attention of someone with appropriate competence. The caretaker knew just the person, but some up front cash had been needed to secure his services and perhaps to lubricate other palms. Sandy Mackelson thought this was worth the risk and gladly parted with the equivalent of £50 as down payment. Noah had promised to return “before two weeks have passed” to advise the High Commissioner of progress.

That evening, Sandy Mackelson returned to the Residence in up beat mood – so much so that his wife remarked upon it. She had been pleased and not a little relieved to note his change of mood. What a difference a week could make. The two sat down to a satisfying Zungula gin and tonic. As Sandy savoured the drink and the splendour surrounding him, his belly warming from the passage of alcohol through his system, he reflected privately that he hadn’t done badly for a country boy from Fife.

Suddenly a hideous sound – like a coughing consumptive magnified a hundred times, drowned out the peacefulness of the night. Madeleine looked across at her husband with only a hint of guilt in her eyes as the two of them peered into the half illuminated shadows at the bottom of their garden, where the security lights didn’t quite reach. And then the awful truth dawned on His Excellency. Egbert had arrived.

* * * * * *

As Beauty Musajakawa bounced along the badly corrugated gravel road towards Machope, the vehicle shook terribly, the rear cabin windows rattling like only Land Rover Defenders could, making conversation with Magic, her driver, almost impossible. It wasn’t just the noise which troubled her, though that was considerable. On top of this she had to interpret much that Magic said. More than a year of his service had made the task no easier. Beauty was still far from fully tuned to his involuntary switching of l’s and r’s – a charming characteristic of most Zungulans – even the best educated.

“Madame, randlover am needing new splings. And the crock is not weking well so.”

Their exchanges were punctuated therefore, with long silences while Magic wrestled with the winding road which periodically reduced to single track. Its worst sections were like a dried up river bed – conceivably they were! And then, as if a gift from the gods, they could see tarmac ahead. Sometimes road travel was like this in Africa. You could be in the middle of nowhere, grinding out the miles on pitted gravel tracks, when suddenly, relief was at hand. Once on tar, you imagined faster progress, until all too soon the tar disappeared again, in the cloud of dust re-forming behind you.

Magic was familiar with the Machope route and reassured his boss.

“Zis rong tar load”.

“We’re on the wrong road?” Beauty shrieked in horror, thinking that they might have to backtrack, adding hours to the journey.

“No madame. Light load but rong” (right road but long).

As they pressed on they saw vehicles at a distance for the first time in more than an hour’s travel; two saloon cars held up by a slow moving truck. They were still far enough behind these for Beauty to make out an obstacle in the road which first the truck maneuvered around, and then each of the car drivers – a detour into the right hand lane, then back into the left. A number of pied crows scattered and took up positions on top of nearby acacia trees. The three vehicles then accelerated away.

When their Land Rover approached the spot, Beauty’s worst fears were realized. This was no dead animal as she had at first believed. Lying in front of them was the body of a man. Beauty and Magic climbed out of their vehicle. It was a macabre sight. The crows had already dug into his eyes, leaving dark holed sockets. His skull was not cracked, but cleaved. The pool of drying blood beneath his head was shocking. A mass of snot had coagulated over his nose and gaping mouth. His body was positioned as if beginning a swimmer’s front crawl, his arms outstretched. His trousers and underwear had been pulled down to his knees, robbing him of any dignity in death. Part of his left buttock had been tucked into by the scavenging crows, revealing a messy pink flesh. Poor man. Why had the other vehicle occupants not stopped? They had left him there as if he was a crushed rabbit; road kill, as Americans succinctly put it.

Beauty gathered her senses. Her first humane instinct was to lift the body into the back of the Land Rover and take it on to Machope where the authorities would deal with it. Then her Englishness and British procedure began to dominate her thinking. This very place might have been the scene of the crime, she imagined. The police would want to examine it. Therefore it would be unwise to move the man’s body. As she talked this through with Magic, who looked bemused, another vehicle approached behind them. Thank God, Beauty muttered to herself, realizing now that she was shaking with the trauma of having seen a dead person for the first time in her life. Magic was also taking responsibility and flagged the car to a halt. It was a Peuguot 505 with about eight Zungulans aboard. The driver got out and approached Beauty with one eye on his dead countryman. He stooped over the body and began to make clucking noises like a hen. Other occupants of the Peuguot were paying no attention. “Tabu Ley” blasted from the vehicle and Beauty thought she could detect the car gently rocking with the motion of those inside, enjoying the music’s rhythm.

Hen-man was upright again and had progressed to a series of “Ayyyyeee” exclamations. Beauty asked what he would do. After all, she was not a national. Zungulans would know best. The Peuguot driver put a hand on his chin as if pondering the question.

“You see” he eventually replied. “That man. He was not right.”

“Say again. I’m not quite with you.”

“I am saying that fellow have been a mad man.”

Without another word he turned on his heels and got back behind the wheel of his car. The ignition turned and the gearbox crunched noisily. The driver and his companions left Beauty and Magic in a cloud of blue diesel fumes. A woman in the back looked around as the car left the scene. Her hand came up to the window as if to signal something. Instead, she pushed out a black plastic bag full of litter. This rolled to the side of the road, spilling contents which blew about with the updraft created by the departing vehicle.

Magic advised that the best thing to do was find the nearest police station; to report the matter there. Before they left, Beauty took an old blanket from the back of the Land Rover and placed it carefully over the dead man’s body. That might at least keep the crows at bay for a while, she thought, hopefully. Magic also cut a few branches off the acacias and placed these at intervals down the road, to warn any other approaching vehicles.

They had driven less than five kilometers further when as luck would have it, they spotted a police Land Rover with its distinctive blue and white livery, advancing towards them. Magic flashed his headlights and waved frantically out of the car window, indicating that a conference was required. The two cars met side by side. Beauty spoke.

“There’s a dead man on the road a few kilometers back. Has someone reported it to you?”

“A dead man you say?”

“Yes. Everyone is just driving by.”

“Did you kill him?”

Beauty was incredulous. “No, we did not!” she said emphatically. “We found the man on the road. We are reporting it to you. We think he’s been murdered.”

“Mardad you say?”

“Yes. The man’s skull has been broken open.”

“OK. How many kilometers?”

“Maybe four or five, no more”.

The policeman was silent for a moment and then consulted with his companion in their mother tongue. Then he turned apologetically to Beauty.

“Unfortune-ate-ely Madame, that area is outside our jurisdiction.”

Beauty couldn’t believe her ears. These goons weren’t going to help.

“Well can’t you at least radio to the police in whose jurisdiction it is?” she asked, barely disguising her irritation.

“Ahhyy, no.” He was smiling now, on surer ground.

“Why not?”

“Communications is out of action.”

She heard similar stories everywhere. “Remuneration” was always needed to inspire action. If a Dombe home was being broken into by a gang of thugs and the occupant lucky enough to get through to the police on the telephone, he would first have to promise to pay for gasoline expenses before the police would leave the station. However the officer facing Beauty was not interested in money on this occasion. He just didn’t want to get involved.

“You must go on to the next town and report to the police there. It is less than ten kilometers.”

An understandably furious, frustrated Beauty Musajakawa instructed Magic to drive on. When they reached the small cluster of houses and run-down commercial premises which constituted the town, it had no obvious name and wasn’t marked on their map. The central street was bustling with activity however. Men pushed carts loaded with sacks of charcoal. Women sat under large umbrellas selling loaves of bread – the type which the British taught Zungulans to make in colonial times, having the consistency of a marshmallow. Artisans were working on intricately paneled doors carved from the nation’s declining hardwood. Metal gates for wealthier house owners in more distant places were being hammered into shape by sinewy young men. Coiled clay pots were stacked high on the roadside, awaiting buyers. Dozens of traders were trying to scratch a living selling plastic paraphernalia, batteries, miniature radios, catapults. Lost car wheel covers were displayed like dinner plates on a wall. But other than the bread, some paw-paw and a stall of miserable looking tomatoes, there was little food to be seen.

They found the police station in a side street lined with beautiful old mahogany trees. A quartet of bush dogs lay at the foot of the steps leading up to the entrance and gave not a flicker of interest as Beauty made her way inside. The station was manned by two individuals. One was asleep at his desk, snoring, the ceiling fan whirling directly above, blowing open his files. The other was a sergeant tapping laboriously, one finger at a time, on an old Imperial typewriter. He didn’t look up when Beauty entered but did so when she loudly huh-hummed at the counter. Now the man had the appearance of someone who had won the lottery as his eyes feasted on Beauty’s clammy figure.

“I have come to report a dead man,” she declared dramatically.

“You say a dead man,” he parroted, savouring the apparition before him.

“Yes. Lying on the Bakili road about fifteen kilometers from here.”

“A dead man?” He was looking at Beauty suspiciously now, his belly almost resting on the counter top, beads of perspiration running off his forehead. “Are you sure it was a man?”

Beauty was fast losing patience. “Strange as it may seem, I know what one looks like!”

“Did you kill him?”

It was Bob Dylan’s “Motopsycho Nitemare”. “Oh no, no, I’ve been through this movie before.”

She snapped. “For God’s sake. I’m just doing what any normal person would; reporting that some poor wretch is dead on the road – murdered. I have no idea how he came to be there. This is the second time I’ve brought the matter to police attention in the last hour. The first pair would do nothing about it. I’ve had no help from Zungulan motorists either. Now do you want a statement or what?”

“A dead man you say?”

“Right! Goodbye! I’ve had enough.”

Beauty marched out of the station. As she did so the four dogs sprang to life barking and howling around her feet, sounding off at the intrusion into their territory. One had a closed weeping eye, its ears were in tatters and much of its coat around the hind quarters was scratched bare with flea irritation. Beauty warned it off with a half hearted swing of her foot. Untouched, the animal retreated down the road, yelping as it went. As Beauty climbed back into the Land Rover she heard a voice calling behind her.

“Breetish!” The sergeant had come to the door of his office and focused on the car’s Core Diplomatique number plates which allowed identification of the country from which his visitors came. “You Breetish. You know……” he tailed off and then added thoughtfully, “you have good hats. Safe journey please.” With that he turned away to attend to more urgent duties.

Magic was silent, reflecting on the dead man, and the obvious lack of interest which the police had shown. This was very worrying to him; a northern man. Although like many others he had found work in the south, his family were in Mponde and he had been looking forward to seeing them during his boss’s visit, if only fleetingly. Of course he’d heard about the fighting but hadn’t paid much attention to reports, knowing that violence periodically flared and then subsided as if nothing at all had happened. Magic had calculated that Mponde was still about three hours off. They had first to reach Machope and then head south-west. There would be no tarmac. Make it four hours, he thought.

His boss was also lost in her own thoughts, unable to imagine what cruelty had led to the nameless victim on the road. She estimated they were probably now about half an hour from Machope. She wished one of the Huxleys with all their experience of Zungula, was with her – or one of her donor colleagues. Someone in whom she could confide.

She felt emotions beginning to bubble over. Somehow she held back the tears with reserves of inner strength. Underneath it all she wondered if it wasn’t male company she now craved – someone with whom she could share intimacies; unlock pent up physical needs which suddenly seemed more pressing – she hadn’t had a lover for the entire duration of her time in Zungula. Too long by far. People she socialized with in Dombe were nice enough but most were married, and of the available single men, she either didn’t find them particularly attractive, or they were far too young, too naïve. Her mind drifted away to this country of Zungula – so different to her native England. A place of such contrasts; with peace loving people who could turn to sudden violence if the right combination of religious and tribal factors came into play. The wildness of the countryside, yet it was now almost devoid of wildlife. She recalled a conversation she had had with the environment Minister a few months previously. He had seen her looking at a bird jumping from branch to branch on a large ficus tree outside his offices.

“So I can see you are keen on our animals,” he had begun.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about birds, but that’s a Purple Turaco if I’m not mistaken. Ours are nothing like as colourful back home.”

The bird flew off and she remarked on the beautiful red of its wings.

“Ah yes,” the Minister had said, “these bads are with us at all times. All times. Very nice.”

Beauty knew the Minister well enough and the two got along. She could not resist a little dig about the general absence of wildlife in Zungula.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen anything more spectacular than a crow in Dombe. Zungula isn’t best known for its record on conservation. Maybe the government is missing a trick in terms of its future tourism potential?”

“You are very wrong Miss Musajakawa. I can assure you on that wan. We have many lions, elephant, tigers. All manner of beasts.”

The young woman had felt sad that the Minister could be so ignorant of his portfolio, but had to let the comment pass.

“Oh Christ!” Magic had just negotiated a blind corner the other side of which had been obscured by an overhanging Leadwood tree. Once around it they encountered such horror that both involuntarily sucked in their breath. The road had straightened; at the bottom of a slight downhill was an “Irish” bridge – thirty metres of concrete paving, over which a shallow river flowed. An old Bedford three ton lorry was stationary in the water, its progress halted by several very large boulders placed strategically across the road. The driver’s door hung open and his torso hung down. With arms outstretched his fingers just touched the surface of the gently rippling water, into which his cut throat still dripped blood. Swallows and sand martins, oblivious to human death, dipped and weaved across the water’s surface in their expert search for flying insects.

Further back along the bridge there were at least a score more dead. All had been chopped viciously with pangas, mouths agape with the pain of their final moments. Their attackers had been indiscriminate in the way they had gone about their task. One man’s arm was severed at the elbow; another’s face was smashed open from eye to jaw; a third held his stomach which had been opened like a tin of sardines, in a useless attempt to hold in his spilling intestines. The stench was appalling; flies swarmed around the sun-bloated bodies.

After wading through the shallow water and a cursory examination of each victim, during which time Beauty looked anxiously around for any sign of the perpetrators, Magic returned to the Land Rover and confirmed the dead men were Umnaravi. He said that in conflicts with the Ngoni it was near impossible to tell how many of the latter died in battle. It was customary for their women folk to follow warriors at a safe distance. When battles were over they would carry away their own kind and bury them deep in the bush. That was their role – and to collect up weapons of the defeated. It was impossible to be sure whether the dead Umnaravi were indeed a war party but all the indications were that they had been.

Magic was unable to control the nausea he felt from the reek of death. He vomited where they stood surveying the awful madness. He felt ashamed; to have been so weak in front of a woman, even if she was his boss. Beauty remained outwardly composed but inside she felt harried and hopeless. Then she remembered the satellite telephone. She needed to speak to someone with more authority. The phone was a relatively primitive device and actually needed lining up with the satellite’s position in orbit before a call could be connected. This took a few minutes. When Stainbury answered she insisted on speaking to the High Commissioner. Mackelson came on the line.

“Good morning. How is it going up there?” He seemed more friendly than on the last occasion they’d spoken.

“High Commissioner. I’m about fifteen kilometers from Machope. I’ve just come across a truck on the road with all its occupants killed. About twenty of them. We found another body further back, an hour ago. The police weren’t interested. The road here is blocked and I see no way of getting as far as Machope now.”

Sandy Mackelson listened carefully to the grave report and didn’t hesitate with his response. “I’d like you to turn around immediately please. Do you have enough fuel to get back to Bakili?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Then do so. Try to get on this evening’s flight. I suggest you come to the Residence on your way home and give me a full briefing. Is that clear?”

“Yes. I’m booked anyway.”

“Right. Until then, take no unnecessary risks. That includes trying to protect your driver if your vehicle is stopped on the way back to Bakili. Don’t get involved.”

The idea of abandoning her companion to people with murderous intent was repugnant, even if in truth she knew that she would be helpless in such a situation. Fortunately the journey back in the same direction from which they’d come was incident free though for the entire time the travelers, with elevated heart rates, had worried and imagined the worst might happen to them. On passing the point where they’d discovered the first body, it still lay on the road, though someone had acquired Beauty’s blanket.

When they finally reached Bakili airstrip on the outskirts of town, it seemed like a peaceful little haven. Both travelers felt an enormous sense of relief at the sight of it. They also appreciated the relative quiet now that the Defender’s diesel had fallen silent.

The old Dakota was being loaded with cargo and fuel. An old woman with most of her front teeth missing but not in the least self conscious, was selling samosas outside the terminal building. Beauty bought a bagful each for herself and Magic, and a couple of bottles of water from the little terminal kiosk. She was amazed after her experience on the road to catch herself smiling, having read the label on the water bottle:“Aya is a mineral water. It is good to be drunk at all ages. It is water guaranteed. Very pure. Especially recommended for the preparation of Babie’s botties and feeding.”

At the check-in counter there was no computer with details of the passengers booked on the Dombe flight – only a hand written list scratched on a pro-forma. Beauty enquired about space on the plane for Magic, afraid of him running a possible gauntlet on the way south. The chances were that he would have been perfectly safe on the main trunk road to Dombe but having seen what the Ngoni did outside Machope, she had no right to take any risks with his life. Magic was Umnaravi after all – their enemy, at least until the turmoil subsided. She was relieved that there was a spare seat. Magic was issued with a ticket which he gazed at as if it was a very precious thing.

Then Beauty rang Michael Huxley at work, briefly explaining their situation. She realized that he’d be busy in the hospital but asked if he wouldn’t mind picking up the Defender. She would leave the vehicle in the car park with keys under the mat on the driver’s side. Michael readily agreed but was deeply concerned about the killings that his friends had encountered on the Machope road. Beauty’s discovery bore out what Bishop Chesendera had suggested to the President about numbers killed in earlier clashes.

By the time Beauty finished her phone conversation the Dakota’s engines had started with a cough and then a throaty roar. Soon she and Magic were climbing aboard and walking up the inner cabin’s steep gangway, so characteristic of the old workhorse. When they found their seats close to the front of the plane, they saw the pilot through the open cockpit door, doing last minute checks on the battery of instruments in front of him. Beauty was mildly surprised to see a young white person piloting a Zungula Air Force plane. He turned and offered her a reassuring smile as she and Magic fiddled a bit to strap themselves into the unfamiliar military double belts which ran like a St Andrews cross over the chest. By now Magic’s morose mood had completely lifted.

“Madame,” he said with a bright smile on his face as he fidgeted excitedly at the window seat, “today Magic Johnson Mtaba fry never before so.”

As the plane rumbled down the runway it seemed to take an eternity to lift. When at last it did, Magic let out a yelp of delight and glued his nose to the window. The Dakota banked away to the left to make its southward turn. Beauty looked down on the town of Bakili, and then the beautiful thatched mud houses, clustered in the villages further afield, all bathed in sunlight. It was hard to believe that anything untoward could be happening amid such a scene of tranquility.


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