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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 11 - Contrasting Fortunes

...At 8.45am, four police motorcyclists drove into the High Commission compound, only after the gate staff had vigilantly checked their bikes for devices – these procedures instituted for all visitors arriving in vehicles, as part of tighter security measures following the anthrax scare. The police would form an escort on the short drive to the palace. They set off at speed, the motorcycles in front and behind, blue lights flashing, sirens blaring. Other vehicles were quick to get out of the way. It was a grave offense to impede a convoy on Presidential business and motorists did so at their peril. In the black Range Rover, Beauty sensed the power that politicians must feel when they were transported in this way. People on the streets, some ragged, some without shoes, stopped to stare as the VIPs flashed by. The little Union Jack strapped to the bonnet of the car gave notice of who was at the centre of all the fuss...

The British High Commissioner is summoned to present his credentials to the Presient of Zungula.

Meanwhile, far away from the pomp and ceremony of the capital, tribal warfare erupts, and an outbreak of meningitis is raging unchecked.

Michael Wood's sweeping story of life in an imaginary African country engages every one of its readers' emotions. For earlier chapters of this great story please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

The Wa Tonga, king of the Umnaravi, was still a relatively young man and had not yet reached his fortieth year. He lacked experience, the wisdom of an older man and clearly had some shortcomings as a leader, doing little if anything to advance the welfare of his people. Neither did he adhere much to his advisers’ perception of royal duty, except by keeping fifteen wives as happy as could be expected in the reproduction department. He already had so many sons and daughters he couldn’t remember all of their names or even the season in which they were born. Apart from pleasures of the flesh, the king ate and drank to excess, took no exercise, and therefore had the appearance of a fat puppy.

Part of his indolent routine was to spend Saturday afternoons lounging in his throne room. This was just a bit larger than a conventional mud hut. The walls of the circular structure were decorated with out of date Mobil calendars. Several battery operated “pendulum” clocks tick-tocked away, though none had been adjusted to tell the correct time. The mud floor was covered by a well worn linoleum in a pattern of black and white square tiles. The raised throne was simply a cement construction with old carpets scattered on top instead of traditional animal skins. If these surroundings were not luxurious by royal standards, being king did bring other benefits. Rumphi was connected to the national grid so that the Wa Tonga’s cluster of huts would have electric light and refrigeration. No other village within miles was electrified. Rarely received visitors to the palace were therefore amazed by one incongruous feature –satellite television. The box was always on and it was noticeable that the Umnaravi king had about as much concentration as a dizzy blond, his eye constantly straying to the screen.

Saturday afternoon was reserved for viewing English Premiership football. Wives were banished on such occasions as they neither understood nor were interested in the game, and their constant chatter and giggling were too much of a distraction. Instead, elders were allowed into the throne room to enjoy the afternoon’s entertainment, so long as they brought with them, sufficient bottles of lubricating refreshment. It was not unusual for the king to be blissfully unconsciousness, drunkenly sprawled on his throne by the time the match had finished, his cohorts also asleep at his feet.

It was close to the start of the new season and Chelsea was about to play Arsenal in the Charity Shield. The television volume was turned up to help replicate the ground’s atmosphere. Cool Carlsburg Green was flowing freely in the hut-cum-palace. Details of the rivals’ teams and their likely playing formations were announced by over-excited commentators who ably demonstrated the demise of the English adverb. The London supporters were roaring good-natured abuse at the Football Association over the still incomplete Wembley Stadium now more than a year behind schedule. The assembled elders marveled at the noise. It was going to be a great afternoon.

Then, above the singing and flag waving on the screen, the king thought he could hear some restlessness among his beloved horses in the adjacent hut. Now that his attention was focused on it, yes, he felt certain he could hear their whinnying. It was obvious that his elders had detected it as well. He reached for his remote control and turned down the television volume. There was no doubting it now. The men could also hear screaming from their womenfolk. And the smell of burning grass began to invade their nostrils. Fire! Somewhere close within the palace compound was burning.

The men fled by way of the adjoining stables which were filling with acrid smoke. A dozen valued animals inside were terrified. They pulled viciously at their tethers and kicked out at the sturdy wooden rail which secured them. Grass thatching above was on fire and the blaze looked out of control. The Wa Tonga ordered his elders to help release the horses but the smoke was thickening so fast that the men bolted instead for the door, in blind panic. Left alone, the king at last showed signs of manhood, and bravely managed to free half of the horses before he too was forced towards the door by the intense heat. All of this could only have taken a couple of minutes but already he was gasping for air in the confined space.

His eyes were stinging as he fell to the ground outside and he was conscious of at least two horses leaping over his prostrate body as they burst from the fiery burning stable. The noise from the other animals was unbearable. He looked back into the large circular hut but could see nothing now but billowing grey smoke. It was a hellish pandemonium inside.

The Wa Tonga sat in the dirt of the yard, his flowing white robes now covered in sooty ash, particles of which he could see floating everywhere, lifted by the heat from the inferno. He couldn’t comprehend what he was then witnessing outside. Every one of his huts was alight. His vision seemed blurred from the shimmering heat of the blaze, which acted like the haze of a mirage in the desert. What he saw was real enough and it left him in mesmerized paralysis. A band of near naked men, armed with pangas and crudely fashioned knives, had cornered and were hacking at the elders who fell like meat to the floor of a butcher’s shop. The attackers could only be Ngoni, their faces covered in distinctive red ocher, decorated with images in white chalk paste which they believed offered protection against their enemy. No mercy was shown. Blow upon blow rained down on the old men, whose flesh was chopped and gouged from their thinly built frames. They offered no resistance. Only cries for help and futile attempts to cover their heads. But there could be no shielding from the heavy bloodied blades.

Methodically the Ngoni then turned their attention to the women – the king’s wives who had not escaped the preliminary carnage. They too were cut down, with no more concern from the perpetrators than if they were handling the carcass of a sheep. And then the children, howling with terror, bewildered, clutching their dead and dying mothers. Each was dispatched as if part of an ordinary day’s work. No one was spared, except the Wa Tonga himself, whom the attackers worked around, as if he were invisible.

When the slaughter was almost over, the Umnaravi king remained frozen in the position he had pulled himself up from after tumbling out of the stable door. Three horses paced around the compound, still panicked by the smoke and now the smell of blood. The Wa Tonga knew that all was lost. Yet he was thinking clearly, beyond the cruelty and horror. If only he’d placed sentries on the outskirts of the village, he thought. Several of his huts had now burned so completely that only smoking mud shells remained; and glowing embers. The king still had the presence of mind to wonder what had happened outside his own compound, and whether associates of these murderers had sacked the village in its entirety. Surely they could not have done that?

Finally the killers came for him. Without a word, they marched across as if themselves in a drug-induced trance. Two Ngoni grabbed him by the ears and pulled him the length of the compound to the shade of a tree. He trotted with them, head stooped low, like a donkey obeying the stick. Then the butchers thrust the Wa Tonga against the support of a low slung branch and roughly manipulated his head over the bough until the back of his neck was exposed. “My poor horses. My sons.” These were his last thoughts as momentarily he felt the excruciating pain of the blades. After much frenzied hacking and chopping, the Ngoni raiders severed the king’s head and thrust it onto the end of a spear.

* * * * * *

Elliot Joseph Chilembe moved swiftly into his Dombe palace, assisted by an army of servants and assorted helpers. He had been familiar with the building when it had served as the country’s Parliament, but now that he had explored its grand rooms and traversed every corridor of the three storey western wing, he was fully satisfied that this was far more in keeping with a President’s domestic requirements. There was still conversion work underway in the cavernous area which had been the main debating chamber but this was a minor inconvenience. The drilling and knocking started only after his departure in the morning, and had been wrapped up by the time of his return each evening.

It was still early, only 5 am, but the President was accustomed to rising at this hour. A man in his position had much to do. This included handling substantial business interests. As he buttoned up his waistcoat he surveyed the splendour of his new bedroom. It was dominated by an excellent copy of “The Parable of the Blind” which Chilembe thought to be Pieter Bruegel’s finest. The work, in oil, had been acquired from the “Outrageous Art” gallery in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield area, but returned twice for corrections before the President was fully satisfied. Not a day passed without him surveying with pleasure the fine colour tones in the background of the painting, the delicate handling of the trees through which stronger light filtered to the foreground, where the anguished features of stumbling blind men formed such a macabre contrast.

Pleated curtains in an extravagantly patterned silk were magnificent over the three French doors which led out to a long veranda overlooking immaculately kept gardens. A Georgian desk littered with decanters and expensive perfumes, was illuminated by two towering altar candlestick lamps; a pair of rare British Empire eagles had been converted tastelessly to support a gilded table top set in front of an enormous framed wall mirror. There were comfortable sofas and luxurious Persian carpets. But what pleased the President most was the four poster bed imported from Zanzibar, and of such enormous proportions that it could, and did accommodate several girls at a time.

Still fast asleep after the night’s exertions were two Indian beauties. Chilembe had a quiet chuckle to himself as he recalled a BBC “Hardtalk” programme which had been his inspiration. A Ugandan Asian businessman had been in the spotlight. The man had been driven out of Kampala by Amin but had subsequently made millions in Britain. The cantankerous interviewer had criticized the man for previously being part of a community which had failed to integrate with Africans, and suggested that racist attitudes on the part of Asians had contributed to their demise at the hands of the dictator. The businessman had been indignant, claiming he had done everything possible to help black people – he employed dozens in his biscuit factory, he said. However when asked if he would allow his daughter to marry a black man, he couldn’t disguise his true emotions and had almost choked. Now, the President thought, things appear to have changed somewhat and the boot is on the other foot. I am cavorting with two of your daughters. What’s more, as fathers you have given your girls every encouragement to come to me. As part of our little business arrangement. He agreed to allow these gentlemen to continue operating their saw milling enterprise in Kintyre, if they could see their way clear to helping him with some private entertainment. Such was their greed, the men had willingly cooperated and even delivered their precious daughters to the palace in their Mercedes’. The rest had been easy.

Chilembe walked over to the bed and and sat down beside his latest conquests. He ran his fingers lazily over their slender, shapely bodies, admiring their long silky jet black hair, and facial features so different from his own race. The girls stirred only a little in response to his caresses. He chuckled again and left them to recover at their leisure from the drugs he had placed in their re-charged drinks only a few hours before.

* * * * * *

Sandy Mackelson had taken exceptional care with the way he looked that same morning. A colourful new silk tie and plain white shirt had each been taken out of their wrapping to contrast the dark Armani suit which he wore only on special occasions. His brogue shoes had been highly polished by Residence staff. He had been to the barber the day before to have tidied up what Madeleine described as a mop. The barber had also removed prolific amounts of hair protruding from the High Commissioner’s nose and ears, the effect of which had hitherto had a startling effect on those with whom he came into contact for the first time. Now Sandy Mackelson looked almost a new man, like a product from a make over show.

At last after several months in Dombe, he was now to present his credentials to the President. This might seem like a formality so late in the day, but he felt the occasion would give him true legitimacy. For the last few nights while pacing about on the Residence khonde, the High Commissioner had been rehearsing a standard form of words devised by mandarins in Whitehall – a pledge of diligence in pursuit of his duties while in the Queen’s service, and some intentionally vague language about respect for the Presidency. He would need to be word perfect. That was expected of Her Majesty’s representatives abroad. His thoughts momentarily sidetracked to the new Taiwanese Ambassador who would also be going through the motions that morning, immediately following the British ceremony. God knows how that little chap would get on. He could barely speak English!

Fortunately, now that the President was living in the capital, there was no longer any need for senior diplomats to travel to Kintyre for the ritual. This also made it easier for a small retinue to attend the event as interested observers. Sandy invited his Head of Chancery, Andrew Cunningham, and Beauty Musajakawa. Madeleine would also be there to offer moral support, as the formality of it all had the reputation of an oddly nerve wracking business.

The British party was duly assembled in the foyer of the High Commission offices, enjoying the cool air conditioning while it was available. Madeleine looked like a butter ball, dressed in an unflatteringly clingy yellow dress which, wherever you looked, seemed to bulge in ugly rolls from the surplus flesh underneath. She wore a cream coloured hat and silly white gloves. If she had asked once, she had enquired a dozen times of her husband, “Do you think the gloves are a bit over the top?” He had kept his thoughts to himself, but on this occasion at least, was rather embarrassed by his wife’s dress sense. In contrast, Beauty looked both elegant and formal in a plain three quarter length dress which was tapered to the waist, adding emphasis to her alluring figure. Her normally wayward bushy hair was tidily pinned back.

At 8.45am, four police motorcyclists drove into the High Commission compound, only after the gate staff had vigilantly checked their bikes for devices – these procedures instituted for all visitors arriving in vehicles, as part of tighter security measures following the anthrax scare. The police would form an escort on the short drive to the palace. They set off at speed, the motorcycles in front and behind, blue lights flashing, sirens blaring. Other vehicles were quick to get out of the way. It was a grave offense to impede a convoy on Presidential business and motorists did so at their peril. In the black Range Rover, Beauty sensed the power that politicians must feel when they were transported in this way. People on the streets, some ragged, some without shoes, stopped to stare as the VIPs flashed by. The little Union Jack strapped to the bonnet of the car gave notice of who was at the centre of all the fuss.

When they reached the palace gates, they were waved straight through without the newly instituted identity checks carried out by tough looking soldiers on guard – Ngoni, whose fearlessness had been put to the test during the selection process, by placing burning torches against their legs. Those who cried out were rejected in disgrace.

This was merely the perimeter of the palace grounds. It was another kilometre along the impressive private road, fringed with Royal palms, before the vehicles came to a halt.

“Hard to believe that only a few weeks ago this was the bloody Parliament,” the High Commissioner complained to his colleagues, as he stepped out of the vehicle. A Presidential Guard of twenty men immaculately turned out in red tunics, black peak caps and belts whitened with Blanco, gave a salute as the party entered the more formal surroundings of the palace building itself. The entourage was greeted by the Chief of Staff who requested that they be seated until called. The upright chairs in this waiting area were ornately carved, backrests bearing a coat of arms, including a lion’s head depicted with superb accuracy.

There they waited a full ten minutes in a sort of quiet, nervous tension. Barely a word was exchanged. Finally the doors to a huge ceremonial chamber were opened and the party was invited to step forward. No sooner were they on their feet than an unexpected commotion broke out inside. Lining each wall on the left and right hand sides of this vast chamber, were perhaps fifty or more men. Leopard skins covered their manhood, but little else. There were smaller strips of the skin tied like bandanas around their heads, securing plumes of ostrich feathers which had seen better days. Each man thumped a cylindrical wooden drum covered with cow hide, which in turn was secured by little wooden pegs driven into the hollowed casing. The drum skins had been pre-tightened by prolonged exposure to the sun. Their cumulative effect was a deafening, but exciting and intoxicating melee of rhythm.

In front of each drummer, more modestly attired women got up from the floor and began to dance in such a frenetic fashion that it would have been impossible for the average person to comprehend, had they not seen it with their own eyes. The women sang in high pitched notes as they gyrated and tortured their bodies, their smiling faces showing evident delight in their performance. The pace of the drumming and dancing intensified as the diplomats were ushered further forward and asked to take up their positions along a white line which had been taped onto the Italian marble floor. Madeleine stood to her husband’s right, and Beauty to the right of her. Andrew Cunningham took up the left hand position.

From that point on, the party at least thought themselves briefed on procedure. The President would soon make his entrance, quietness would be resumed, and they could get on with the formalities. Where was the President however? The two white men, a white and a nusu nusu woman, dressed as they were, looked faintly ridiculous standing there amidst the frenzied hubbub. The African participants were enjoying themselves. That much was evident. On it went for a full fifteen minutes, dancers working themselves into such a lather that Sandy Mackelson was reminded of the odours which surrounded him at the airport luggage carousel when he and Madeleine first arrived in Zungula.

Suddenly, the performance came to an end and the silence was broken only by the breathlessness of the performers. The women resumed their positions on the floor, their menfolk standing behind them. At last the President emerged from behind an ornate screen. Perhaps he had been there all along – it was not clear. At the sight of him, the assembled women began a new chorus of ululation, waggling their tongues to create the required tones, and reinvigorating the atmosphere of the occasion. The President waved his silver handled ndodo; the commotion died down. One woman who continued overlong was playfully smacked by the drummer behind her, causing a ripple of amusement.

The President then beckoned the High Commissioner only to come closer. The briefing made clear that as he did so, his guests would be required to walk backwards, heads bowed, until they had reached a position where seats had been placed for them close to the door from which they had entered. About a dozen backyard paces were needed to complete this maneuver successfully. But none of the visitors had practiced and they looked like a comedy turn as they wobbled their way to the back of the room, Madeleine’s gloved hands outstretched for balance like a fairy godmother.

Given the excellent acoustics, it was evident that the President had intentionally lowered his voice for the formal exchange of words which now took place with the Queen’s envoy. Those assembled could just about hear him say “You are welcome. My Government………” but then the volume faded like a dying wind-up radio. Mackelson felt obliged and relieved to respond in similarly hushed tones. The British entourage could only make out bits of what he said:

“I, Sandy Mackelson, British High….having commenced …do solemnly…and to uphold…Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth .....and sends you her assurances …utmost consideration…”

The President then handed Mackelson a Note, bound in a handsome red leather folder, which formally confirmed him as Britain’s most senior diplomat in Zungula. The two men then shook hands and proceeded towards the back of the chamber, past the British guests, and into the fresh air outside. At that point, waiting musicians also smartly attired in red tunics, played God Save the Queen. What’s more, the rendition was so splendid it might easily have passed as a performance of the Royal Marines. All present stood approximately to attention. When the anthem was over the President was introduced to Madeleine and reacquainted with Andrew Cunningham. Pleasantries were exchanged. Patently however, Chilembe’s interest was focused on another.

“Ah Miss Musajakawa. I am glad that you could grace this occasion. Let us be sure to have another meeting soon. There are things we need to talk about.”

If the remark was designed to infuriate the High Commissioner, who had been expecting about fifteen minutes of private discussion with the President, it certainly succeeded. Mackelson felt as if his big day had been denigrated, devalued. Beauty also felt angry that the President had sidelined her senior colleague in this blatant manner, but there was nothing she could do to put it right. Meanwhile the Chief of Staff was standing in the background speaking into a two-way radio. All around could hear his message. “OK, OK. We are not yet through. Aks the guards to keep them there until those British have gone.”

It was clear that the Taiwanese Ambassador had arrived but had not been afforded the same priority treatment as his British counterpart, held up as he was at the entrance to the palace grounds. The Chief of Staff then spoke in hushed tones to his boss. Doubtless a tight timetable had to be adhered to. In what seemed like a very premature and sudden end to the proceedings, President Elliot Joseph Chilembe made abundantly clear that the event was over. He turned his back on his guests and moved smartly inside to get ready for the next engagement.

* * * * * *

Mponde village was dying. For weeks the Ministry of Health had been aware of the meningitis outbreak but neither they nor the donors had dealt with it. Perhaps the village was ill-fated, remote as it was from Bakili, and now further isolated by sporadic inter-tribal warfare affecting a swath of northern region. The disease had reached epidemic proportions in Mponde and had spread to some neighbouring villages as well.

In Europe, headlines were made if two or three children died in a single incident of this bacteria driven disease, but in Africa it was not unusual for hundreds to be affected without a blip registering on Western radars. Mponde villagers did not have the knowledge to understand what was happening. Many simply concluded in a fatalistic way that an evil spirit was making their men, women and children fall ill, so sudden was their deterioration. First people developed acute fever, with headaches and vomiting. Epileptic fits struck children with no such history. Then the victim fell into a stupor or coma from which it was almost impossible to recover.

A depleted assembly of village elders had met to discuss the crisis which had befallen them and decided to send a delegation to the authorities in Bakili. The messengers had never returned. There was no sign of any help. Elders were faced with a dilemma. To try and bury in mass graves with the haste that was required to prevent the spread of secondary diseases, or to give each individual the due ceremony that tradition required to send them safely on to the ancestors. Putrefying bodies were taken to the village perimeter and laid side by side, until the village chief ruled on the matter. He had been frozen with indecision. Surviving village men moped around in a spirit of defeated resignation, surrounded by the wailing of women. In every hut, someone lay dying, but so far gone that they were oblivious to the pain and anguish their plight was causing their loved ones.

One morning an old man arrived in the village on a bicycle. He stopped outside a hut where he heard voices and called to those inside.

“Moni. Chonde. Mundi passe mazi” (Hello. Please. Bring me some water). A young woman emerged from the hut, wrapping a patterned chitenge around her waist as she did so. The old man’s gaze fixed on the face of Dr Victor Mpande, still relatively fresh on the printed material, and momentarily his thoughts turned back to what he thought had been better days.

“Ndatopa.” the old man announced (I’m tired), “Ndikupita ku Bakili. Ndifuna mazi.” (I am going to Bakili. I need water).

The young woman went back inside and returned with a cool tin cup full of water from her clay urn. The man drank this down thirstily and thanked her. Another older woman then emerged from the hut.

“Where are you from Bambo?”

“I come from the village of Dwangwa,” he said, pointing in the direction from which he had emerged. A dusty trail leading into the bush.

“And you are going all the way to Bakili on that bicycle?”

“That is it.”

“Then you must also take some food.”

The older woman went back inside and retrieved two tomatoes and a small piece of dried salted fish, wrapped in brown paper. She apologised that she had no cooked maize.

“You will tell them about us in this place,” she said simply.

“It is the same for us in Dwangwa. That is why I must go,” he replied. “All our younger ones are gone.”

At no stage was there any mention of the dreadful disease which was afflicting their respective villages. Only the unspoken recognition that something mysterious was killing them. As the old man got back onto his bicycle and pedaled away the two women called after him. “Pitani bwino” (go well). For he would need luck and good fortune to reach his destination.

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