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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 16 - The Sacred Cottonwood Tree: Spirits Re-awoken

...“My brothers, we have fallen into the trap of settling our differences with the spear, rather than with our tongues. War is never the answer. We have also been unfortunate with poor harvests and hunger – maybe that was the reason we quarreled. And most recently we have been stricken with disease. These have taken a terrible toll. For sure. But I ask you, what other people on god’s earth could show such resilience in the face of all these troubles? The United Nations has brought medicine to combat the strange illness which the white people call meningitis. I can also ensure that the north will get its fair share of maize which donors are importing to help us during this period of shottage. To stop us eating the very seeds which we need for a harvest next year. So two of our problems are being dealt with. Can we not demonstrate that we have the will to end our fighting as well? We can all benefit if we do. The donors will come. More money will improve our lives. Maybe we will get more wives and therefore more children. Let us agree without further ado, to put any remaining differences aside.”...

There are good men in Africa, and Sam Phiri, who makes a speech to resolve a tribal war, is one of the best of them.

Michael Wood's dazzingly readable novel about the intrigues and corruption in an imaginary African country is full of humanity and understanding. To read earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

In the aid business there were occasional rays of light; when coordination of action between donors, government, NGOs and civil society organizations actually worked for the greater good. In Zungula, the initial response to an outbreak of virulent meningitis had been appallingly unprofessional. Donors had been too prepared to believe Ministry of Health claims that everything was under control. They should have known that where the north was concerned – a part of the country always marginalized and as far as possible ignored by central government – aid agencies needed to do their own ground-truthing.

The courage of an old man, Fostinho Benedicto, who rode his wobbly bicycle all the way from Dwangwa to Bakili, was the catalyst that finally ignited a chain of positive reaction to the meningitis crisis. Within three days of Michael Huxley relaying Fostinho’s information to Beauty Musajakawa, and her subsequent conversation with counterparts in Dombe, World Health Organisation experts had been summoned from Geneva to assess matters for themselves. As speed was of the essence, and Embassies judged it was still unsafe to travel by road through those areas where sporadic tribal fighting continued, specialists were flown by helicopter to the epicentre of the outbreak within an hour of arriving in the country.

Once back in Dombe their report made grim reading:
“.........Long before we touched down in Mponde, we saw bodies lying in the bush. Many hundreds. Dogs and wild animals were feeding on some of them. There was insufficient time to strike out from the villages to examine even a sample of the corpses. Given their proximity to Mponde and Dwangwa (which we believe has been relatively free of ethnic tensions) we must assume that these were not people who had been killed in the current Umnaravi/Ngoni conflict. More likely the victims would have contracted the meningitis virus, and as their fever intensified, they probably wandered, disorientated, away from the shelter of their huts. Family members and those who would ordinarily have been carers, in all probability would also have been stricken. There would have been no one to guide the sick back to the village, even if there had been a point in so doing. All would have died without hope of assistance; without any understanding of what had so speedily overtaken them.

Aerial evidence suggests that the outbreak has already spread to an area including a twenty mile radius around Mponde and we believe it is far from contained. When our aircraft landed we found hundreds more dead and dying. We were equipped only to report the situation as we found it and could do little for people who pleaded for our help. If Mponde and Dwangwa are characteristic of what is to be found further afield, the UN agencies and bilateral donors must act immediately to get the vaccination programme underway. For every day we delay, we risk the disease spreading outwards further and faster, and possibly exponentially. We rank tackling this is as a Priority 1 intervention.......”

In the best traditions of emergency relief, vaccines arrived in Dombe within a week of the report being filed. However, everything was paid for with funds pooled by only a few donors. The rest stood back, apparently immune to the suffering. President Chilembe agreed that three army helicopters could be used to ferry supplies to Mponde and beyond; the British Ministry of Defense picked up the fuel bill from their military training budget. Zungulan Health and NGO staff with medical expertise were diverted from normal duties and flown north to help administer the vaccines. Riding4Health, a small UK NGO, offered use of their 125cc bikes so that personnel could move quickly from village to village. Churches and mosques in Bakili recruited paid volunteers who, once vaccinated themselves, were allowed to travel to affected villages to help with the grisly task of burying those for whom assistance had come too late.

Within two more weeks the worst of the epidemic was suddenly over and recorded new cases began to drop dramatically. Some of the least sick recovered. Government and donors claimed the operation as a victory; they said their combined response to the situation had been exemplary. The Daily Times was full of competing reports fed to them by aid agencies greedy for publicity. Norway had done this; Britain had supplied that; WHO had led the way; USA had mobilised their Peace Corps (whose inexperience was probably more hindrance than help) for “special duties”. Yet the truth could not be avoided. First reports of the meningitis outbreak reached Dombe in May. It was August before anything was done.

Towards the end of the year the full extent of the disaster became clear. The official death toll was put at five thousand. Only the BBC’s World Service covered it – for 17 seconds.

* * * * * *

Beauty and Sam Phiri arrived together in Bakili on the Air Force Dakota. During the short flight the British aid boss noticed two things. First that her companion was distracted. She thought the journey would have been a good opportunity to brief him further and sound him out on proposals she wanted to put forward during the peace and reconciliation conference. However he didn’t appear to be taking anything in and asked no questions. She liked the man but he needed to snap out of whatever was troubling him. Otherwise what use could he be at the conference.

Her other observation was that the handsome pilot who had given her the reassuring smile the last time she travelled on this aircraft, was not on board. Immaculately uniformed Zungulan men were at the controls in the cockpit. Beauty masked her disappointment.

As arranged, Michael Huxley was waiting at the little airport terminal situated a few miles outside Bakili. He had parked the old ODD Land Rover in the shade of a Large-leafed Rockfig tree. A flock of a dozen or more Brown-headed Parrots were feeding above on the ripened, dark red fruits, discarding the stones which clinked and clunked onto the roof of the vehicle and then bounced to the dusty ground below. When she spotted him, Beauty thought her doctor friend looked very tired and drawn.

“Hi Michael.” She greeted him with her usual smile and quickly introduced her companion.

“Pleased to meet you Sam. Shall I drive or would you like to take charge of this old crock?” he said to Beauty. “I thought we had better get you to the guest house right away so that you can claim your rooms. I have never seen Bakili so busy. We’ve had the WHO and their cohorts crawling all over the place. Mind you, they’ve done a pretty decent job. Now it’s the turn of the village chiefs and their elders. I can’t believe how well the local NGOs have done to muster up such a gathering. I’m told there are representatives from thirty of the most important towns and villages affected by the fighting. There isn’t a spare room to be found anywhere. Just as well you booked in advance.”

Michael and Elizabeth Huxley had offered Beauty and Sam each the comfort of a room at their little house but on this occasion Beauty had politely declined, thinking it was best to stay where some of the other conference delegates would be accommodated. She knew there would be work to do in the evening with her Scandinavian and German counterparts who said they would be traveling by road because the Air Force flight had been fully booked.

“You drive,” Beauty said, “I have no idea where the guest house is.”

As they turned out of the parking area, Beauty waved to the toothless woman who had sold her samozas a few weeks previously. The woman waved back but there was no trace of recognition on her face. A few minutes later the trio had reached Bakili’s perimeter and soon were immersed in the chaos of the town’s main street. The northern capital was quite unaccustomed to traffic jams. Now it was experiencing congestion on a scale never seen before. Impatient motorists honked their hooters; small whizzing motorbike riders weaved in and out of near stationary cars and trucks, all caution abandoned. It was truly extraordinary for the normally tranquil town. A small army of traders walked up and down the lines of vehicles, selling cold drinks, bananas, cashew nuts, and an assortment of junk – rolls of black plastic bags, clothes pegs, egg-timers, skipping ropes. One man carried “Abdominisers” in gaudy boxes inscribed “Stomach to Steel in three weeks”.

The old Land Rover was like an oven. Air conditioning was not among creature comforts commonly associated with the marque. The vehicle’s occupants began to drip. At last Michael Huxley was able to manoeuvre the car into a dusty side street at the end of which the road turned to red murram. It lead down a steep, winding gradient. At the bottom and about fifty metres to the left of the road was a half full reservoir which looked inviting for a swim. It was fenced. Around the muddy perimeter Michael could make out White-fronted plovers, migrating Greenshanks and Avocets, busily trotting in their characteristic ways along the water line, searching for crustaceans and insects.

Presently they came to a driveway lined with tall eucalyptus trees. Leaves and fallen twigs had accumulated into a carpet on the cracked concrete paving. They turned in and stopped outside run down premises; a building in the old colonial style which had seen much better days. There was a balustrade veranda on three sides, decked out with old cane chairs and tables made by a local artisan. A sign above the front door – it was hanging from two rusty chains – proclaimed Safari Ethnic Lodge. A boy of about sixteen greeted them, dressed in typically northern attire – an ankle length smock, sandals, and a little round woven hat like a fez perched precariously on his head.

“You are welcome to this ples. I am Chester or some they call me Small.”

Beauty could barely suppress a giggle. He had given them this last item of information in a serious tone and with no hint of self consciousness. There was nothing small about him for a boy of his age but at some point in the past he had obviously accepted this appellation without question, and it had stuck. In Zungula, “Small” was a denigrating term applied to one who is insignificant in the eyes of another.

There was no one on hand to help with luggage. Small made no effort in this direction. Instead he said simply, “You will follow me now now.” He led them along a dark corridor, past a rank shared bathroom – from a safe distance Beauty could see that the toilet was black with grime. There were two adjacent rooms at the bottom end where the Dombe visitors saw with some trepidation that they would be staying for the next three days. Upon close inspection however, the rooms were clean. The linen was fresh and new towels lay at the end of the beds. The windows had mosquito screens layered over the wood frames but these had holes in the mesh and in places the wire was twisted inwards as if someone had tried to break through from the outside.

“Are the mosquitos troublesome?” Beauty asked Small.

“Aheey, no madame. In this place, (he paused).... there are no mosquitos.”

“And is there hot water for a shower?”

“That water. It is not hot. It is not cold.”

Michael was not impressed and again asked Beauty and Sam if they wanted to change their minds about his offer of accommodation. It was tempting of course and terribly kind, but Beauty didn’t want to trouble him and Elizabeth more than she was already doing. She knew that having guests for several nights could be very hard work. The Huxleys would be tired from their long working day at the hospital and undoubtedly they would still be inundated with patients. Evening rest would have been important to them.

The conference would be starting at 8.30 am the following morning. The three agreed that Michael should take the Land Rover away and have a driver collect Sam and Beauty in good time the following morning. The rest of the afternoon could be spend refining project ideas which Beauty had devised as possible incentives for Umnaravi and Ngoni warriors to resume a peaceful coexistence. Beauty would also want to hear from Sam, how much maize was to be earmarked for the north, and in particular, what percentage could go to the war torn areas.

When Michael left them to it, and Small had disappeared for his afternoon siesta, Beauty, sensitive to Sam’s quiet demeanour, asked what was troubling him. To her surprise, the man revealed everything about his marriage falling apart. Staring at the floor, evading her eyes, he spoke in a monotone, sparing Beauty only the most unpleasant details. “It is Patience,” he began. “She has gone with another. You will know him. That Tembo........”

Unsurprisingly, Beauty could detect hate in Sam’s fixed expression. Hate for the man who had seduced his wife; taken her from him; turned her into somebody else. It seemed an eternity before Beauty could get back to concentrating on her work. However sorry she had been for her companion, the business at hand was more important than his personal problems. To her relief, just after six in the evening, Small reappeared and cooked a simple stew. It was surprisingly tasty. “That wan made from Guinea fowl,” he said by way of explanation. The meal at least had the effect of cheering Sam a little.

Beauty waited up until very late in the evening. The Scandinavian and German contingent did not appear. When she finally went to bed her head had barely hit the pillow when in the darkness she heard a familiar whine in her ear. For the rest of the night the mosquitos attacked her mercilessly. From time to time she got up and switched on the light to hunt. The walls of her room were soon blotched red from blood imbibed by the crushed insects. New waves continued to invade and feast; relentlessly.

* * * * * *

When Sandy Mackelson arrived punctually at Dedza Prison, Henderson Suswe, the diminutive Commissioner, was waiting at the entrance. He had the appearance of a boy who had secretly tried on his father’s uniform which was several sizes too big. The two men shook hands briskly; Suswe then led his guest inside. Mackelson recalled with a slight shudder, the entrance to the main compound where the inmates had been assembled on that wretched day – the time when he and Stainbury had arrived to find out about Middleton. Instead of proceeding through that colossal barred door, Suswe guided the High Commissioner up a short flight of stairs into an office which overlooked the prison yard. He could see men moving around aimlessly below, still crammed together like pilchards. He couldn’t see Noah Bamidele. The office reminded Mackelson of a Colditz movie; of a watchtower perched over the compound of a concentration camp. Suswe’s desk was bare; not a single file; not even a stapler, pen or paper. No sooner were they seated than there was a knock at the door, and a prison officer entered with two bottles of warm cola. He carried no glasses and none were requested. The officer left the room on tip-toe, crouched, as if to emphasize the silent manner of his departure; like stalking an animal in the bush.

“Sah, I am sorry for that man Mr Middleton. In spite of your kindness in saying I am not to take blame so, I feel small responsibility.”

“What happened to him was awful. The man’s family now have to cope with their loss and the manner in which he died. For our part however, we must move on.” There was a certain hard-heartedness in Mackelson’s reply.

“I agree with that wan. You said that you can help us in Dedza with something from the British High Commission. I thought it was that ODD which had all the money?”

Suswe might have come across as a simple individual on first acquaintance but he was shrewd, respected by the President and therefore had a degree of influence in Dombe. He sat on the National Council for Safety, Security and Access to Justice, chaired by the Vice President. He had been the first to speak out against an “interfering European Union” as he described it, in relation to their report on Zungula’s Human Rights, and in particular, conditions at Dedza. “I see no reason why we must copy European prison standards here, even if we can affod. I am reading that in England, the prisons are bursting and every cell have television and what not. We do not want the criminals applying to get in to our prisons!” he had argued, and Council members had unanimously supported him, many slapping their thighs in delight at the humorous manner in which he had made his intervention.

“I might be able to find additional resources,” the High Commissioner said.

“What are you having in mind?” Suswe replied, edging closer.

Mackelson noticed another difference between Suswe and Chitambo, the foul Commissioner of Police. Before suspension of police aid, the latter had arrogantly handed over an extensive list of equipment and transport requirements, then virtually demanded that these be provided. In contrast, Suswe was prepared to bide his time. To let his guest take the lead. Unfortunately Mackelson’s only real agenda was Noah Bamidele so he had not come armed with concrete proposals, as perhaps he had led Suswe to believe.

“I had rather hoped that you could tell me if there were areas in which we might cooperate,” he said to Suswe, trying to hide his discomfort.

“Sah a new prison would be very nice. This wan is very old as you can see. It cannot accommodate as many criminals as we would like to put inside these walls.”

“Regretably Henderson, my Government doesn’t accept there is a strong case for a new prison. This is partly because we believe more could be done to resolve overcrowding by giving those who commit less serious crime, non-custodial sentences. The other side of the coin is that we’re committed to spending the bulk of our aid money on poverty reduction rather than building infrastructure which will prove a strain on Zungula’s recurrent budget when downstream maintenance is considered.”

“I see.”

There was an awkward silence for a moment or two. Mackelson’s mind was working overtime, desperately trying to think of something plausible and tempting for the little man to seize upon. Suswe probably knew from the outset that his new prison proposal would be rejected out of hand.

“I think our cooperation should start relatively modestly. We can see how this goes and build on it as time goes on,” Mackelson suggested, speculatively. Suswe nodded but recognized that this was coded: “Don’t expect more than bananas.” Mackelson played his first card. “What about blankets for both prisoners and prison staff?”

“I am sure that is a good wan and all concerned will he grateful. But I am thinking High Commissioner, you could just have mentioned that on the telephone rather than coming all the way down to Dedza. I think there was something else which you felt justified the journey?”

“There is. I know that times are hard with the harvest situation being what it is. Not only does this affect prisoners, but it must also impact on the staff here as well. I realize it must be very difficult for them to do their job as effectively as you would like when they arrive for work hungry. No man should be in this position.”

“That is so Sah. We are all of us hungry these days.” Suswe had replied with a note of caution in his voice for he was clearly not going to be swayed by a few sacks of mealie from the diplomat. Sandy Mackelson read him and put another card on the table. A piece of inspiration which had come to him at the last minute.

“What I propose is that we help you establish a prison farm. We will provide whatever tools you require plus all the seeds and fertilizer. We can help with layout, and if you think it desirable, we can think about expanding into an animal breeding programme in due course. We have similar projects in other African countries. All have produced not only enough to improve the prison diet, but also a healthy surplus, the disposal of which is of course a matter for the prison authorities.”

It was only upon hearing the last piece of information that Suswe’s ears pricked up and he became truly interested. The thought of having as much meat as he wanted was itself a tempting proposition. However the prospect of making money was added inducement. What better way to run a business, he thought. Raw materials financed by the British; all the labour provided free by the prisoners; profits returned to him to share only with those officers he would depend on to help keep things ticking over. He liked it.

“High Commissioner, I think this is also a very good idea as well as those blankets you have been mentioning,” he said, so that the first offer did not slip from view. “I would like to start the fam as soon as possible. I think you are doing us a big service.”

Now, Sandy realised, he must use the bon homie generated to best effect. “Excellent Henderson. I am sure it will be a success. I presume there is a suitable piece of land adjacent to the prison which can be used for the farm?”

“Certainly so. The prison is surrounded by land which is owned by the gavanment. We could not have a situation where ordinary people were living too close to our place.”

“Well Henderson, I am very pleased with this outcome. It will enable me to report to my colleagues in the European Union that you are determined to improve conditions here. They will see it as a very positive step forward. Who knows. This might soon lead to other donors also taking an interest,” Mackelson added disingenuously.

“That is namber wan. Wan hundred percent,” Suswe replied smiling, shaking the High Commissioner’s hand warmly as the two men stood.

“Henderson, I wonder if I might now ask a favour of you.”

“Of course Sah.”

“It is a little embarrassing”, Mackelson acknowledged, as the two men made their way down stairs.

“No problem, I am sure. No problem at all.”

“One of your prisoners is an artifacts trader who has sold me some nice African things in the past. I learned of his arrest a few weeks ago when he wrote to me from here. The man’s name is Noah Bamidele. I understand his crime was trespass. In essence he is a good man and my personal belief is that the length of his imprisonment already has served as a good punishment for his crime.”

Suswe nodded again. He was obviously familiar with the prisoner in question. The High Commissioner then asked directly if it was possible to release Noah.

“You are wanting the servant back at his place of wek?” Suswe asked sombrely.

“Well, he isn’t on my staff as such. As I have said, I do buy some of his things, and I can vouch for him. If his release could be arranged without too much fuss, I would be very grateful indeed.”

“As I say, it is not a problem. You can take him. Take him now if you wish. I will have him brought out.”

This was all that Mackelson could have hoped for. Suswe was no fool. He would know that the offer of aid was fully intended as a trade for Bamidele. Why else the sudden urge for generosity towards a Prison Service which had been so consistently ignored. Thank goodness it was within Suswe’s powers to release prisoners with no further questions asked. The aid was no skin off the High Commissioner’s nose and in any case it could be presented in a positive light.

Then Sandy Mackelson remembered his midday appointment with the luscious Lucy Kanyerere. The last thing he wanted was Noah in the way for the rest of the day.

“Henderson, I can see you are a busy man. I have some other business to attend to in the area this afternoon. Perhaps I can pick up Mr Bamidele at about 4.00 pm if that would suit?”

“That would be OK. There is one minor matter however,” Suswe said on further reflection. “Release of prisoners before a trial requires some administration on my pat. To amend the recods and so so. There will be individuals whose cooperation I have to guarantee. That is for sure. I fear there is a cost attached to what you are aksing. Twenty five thousand Kwacha should be enough for me to make all the arrangements.”

Mackelson might have known. He had heard that almost anything could be done within the penal and judicial systems in Zungula so long as the appropriate price was paid. Had the High Commissioner asked for Noah’s permanent disappearance, he felt sure this would have been acceded to just as readily. He was being asked directly to pay dash. Fortunately it was not an impossible sum. Even so he hated the thought of giving in to it. He was condoning corruption. It would be the first and last time, he told himself. It would be worth it to get the wretch of a trader off his mind; to reassure Madeleine that he had been magnanimous.

“Very well. May I organize this on my return to Dombe? I can have the money delivered directly to your office.”

“That will be convenient. Thank you Sah. It is a pleasure to be in cooperation with you now.”

* * * * * *

Bakili had nowhere to sit three hundred plus people in a formal conference setting. The NGO organizers had ingeniously decided it would be handled like a traditional village gathering. On the outskirts of town there was an ancient cottonwood tree which towered above the rest of the landscape. The tree was now about three hundred years old and had been considered sacred for generations. In times gone by, elders would sit under its enormous canopy to discuss rituals which had to be performed before farmers could start to cultivate. At such gatherings, the elders’ deliberations were time consuming, their concentration hindered by the quantity of millet beer imbibed. Great importance was attached to consulting the ancestors, a process designed to ensure that the spirits were on side and would not cast any malevolence upon the village. In keeping with that old tradition, NGOs organizing the gathering of chiefs had also taken precautions, publicly pouring a libation of gin and the blood from a sacrificed goat at the base of the cottonwood tree’s massive trunk – this to appease spirits of the ancestors, and to reawaken their protective roles during the course of the conference.

The seating arrangements for those in attendance had also been handled delicately. It had been important to demonstrate respect for the chiefs by affording them maximum shade throughout the day. That meant working out which side of the colossal old tree would remain coolest as the sun progressed across the skyline. The Umnaravi representatives were separated from Ngoni by a group of mediators, security officials, and the few lesser aid representatives who had made the effort to come. Ranked behind each chief were his elders. Armchairs were brought from town for the former; Beauty, Sam and the mediators were given less comfortable flip-up wooden seats, hired from Bakili bars; elders sat on the ground as tradition demanded.

The first day was a study of chaos and disharmony. The mediators had intentionally designed in to the proceedings, opportunity for one side to vent its anger against the other. The Umnaravi were branded thieves; only their women were noble enough to look after cattle (the ultimate insult to Umnaravi herdsmen). The Ngoni were murderous invaders; illiterate; and used grass to wipe their bottoms! Scornful abuse was hurled back and forth all day but the anger was channelled skillfully by the mediators whose abilities also included fluency in each of the tribes’ mother tongues. Sometimes the proceedings were slowed by the need for them to translate remarks into English for the benefit of donors. The mood of each faction was also kept in check by frequent rounds of fizzy drinks, a relative luxury for most in attendance, the availability of snacks such as chicken wings and feet, and a hearty lunch which was catered for by students from the Elliot Joseph Chilembe School of Catering in Bakili.

On the second day, the first signs of progress were observed. Before the discussion began, a senior chief from Machope (Umnaravi) stood, walked across to his Ngoni counterpart, and very publicly embraced him. Only a few people present realized that this was not entirely a gesture of good will. It was premeditated and had been planned the previous evening following long negotiations behind the scenes involving Actionaid. Both men had undertaken to cooperate on the understanding that they would each receive six cows. Their long shake of the hand was interpreted by the hundreds present as an encouraging sign and had therefore been a master stroke by the veteran NGO.

So when the talking started in earnest on Day 2, the quarreling had died away and the emphasis started to move towards reconciliation; the need to live in peace; to put disputes aside once and for all. When an Umnaravi chief spoke, his words were followed by voluminous thumb clicking from his elders, a traditional sign of approval. Their Ngoni counterparts chanted “Aheee” behind their leader to indicate agreement. By mid morning, the mediators were planting in the minds of assembled chiefs, the notion of potential rewards for burying the hatchet.

Sam Phiri was one of the first outsiders to speak to the conference, having been in a sense, the President’s representative. He wore a suit, much smarter than the one which Joe Tembo had privately ridiculed several months previously. So it was clear to those from the villages that this was an important man. His speech, delivered in English, was broken up a sentence or two at a time so that the interpreters could manage it. Fortuitously, it also gave him a bit more time to think what to say next.

“I am Phiri. My father was Lupenga. He has passed on. Although I live in Dombe now, my spiritual home is Machope. I know that hundreds of families on both sides of the dispute feel aggrieved, and many mourn the loss of loved ones. My message is this. We have all surfered enough. However the fighting started, let us not lose this chance to put aside further thoughts of revenge. I have a mother who is old and frail. I admit to you that I have selfishly been praying first for her. For she is all the family I have left. But I am also praying for the north and everyone who lives in this precious land. I pray that we can all of us settle our differences and resume the lifestyle that we had before. You know, in days gone by my father used to drink millet beer with friends in neighbouring villages. It mattered not if they were Ngoni. They were his friends. They traded; they told stories and joked under the light of an open fire; they helped one another in time of need. That is the image we should be striving to portray to those in the south who think we are savages; to those who believe that our communities are not deserving of assistance from central government; to the foreign donors who are conspicuous by their absence – except.....”, and here he paused and turned to acknowledge Beauty Musajakawa, “.....the British, who have not forgotten us at this difficult time.”

Not until this last information was interpreted, did the audience rise with rapturous applause. Beauty was forced to her feet to acknowledge this but sat down quickly, embarrassed to be in the limelight.

Sam spoke for thirty minutes. All were impressed with his steady if sometimes emotional delivery. He brought to mind Aleke Banda, the former Malawi Minister, who could hold his rural audiences spellbound. Sam seemed transformed from his depressed state two days previously. He had come alive again, recharged by being back among his own people. He had turned himself from quiet man to natural public speaker and finished with a flourish:

“My brothers, we have fallen into the trap of settling our differences with the spear, rather than with our tongues. War is never the answer. We have also been unfortunate with poor harvests and hunger – maybe that was the reason we quarreled. And most recently we have been stricken with disease. These have taken a terrible toll. For sure. But I ask you, what other people on god’s earth could show such resilience in the face of all these troubles? The United Nations has brought medicine to combat the strange illness which the white people call meningitis. I can also ensure that the north will get its fair share of maize which donors are importing to help us during this period of shottage. To stop us eating the very seeds which we need for a harvest next year. So two of our problems are being dealt with. Can we not demonstrate that we have the will to end our fighting as well? We can all benefit if we do. The donors will come. More money will improve our lives. Maybe we will get more wives and therefore more children. Let us agree without further ado, to put any remaining differences aside.”

There was more happy applause as Sam sat down. The delegates had all heard countless promises in the past from politicians and aid practitioners, all of whom had gone away and done nothing. Somehow they were taken with this man’s conviction. As the President had predicted, they were prepared to believe Sam Phiri because he had spoken from his heart; because he had his roots in Northern Region. What he had to say provided the perfect platform for Beauty and the NGOs to speak of their own proposals – to add meat to the gristle.

For the first time in the long history of British aid to Zungula, Beauty said she would allocate £3 million for the north alone. This was still small beer compared to the sums soaked up in the south, even allowing for continuing suspension of financial aid to Elliot Joseph Chilembe’s government. However, Beauty Musajakawa knew that much could be achieved with this money. Some of it would be transferred directly to the most effective NGOs. They would drill boreholes and provide pumps to bring fresh water to the surface in villages where hitherto, people had to trek to the rivers for their daily requirements. This would free up several hours in a typical day for women to pursue more productive activity, including work in the fields.

Schools, some of which had been burned down in the conflict months, would be rebuilt with improved compressed brick technology. They would be provided with new materials – books, blackboards, chalk, writing books, pencils, previously absent from classrooms, making meaningful teaching impossible. The President’s boma for future gatherings of chiefs, would be approved. Its construction would lay the foundation for peaceful resolution of disputes before these developed into conflict situations.

Beauty also promised help with animal husbandry. Elsewhere in Zungula there had been success with rabbit rearing for meat and skins; bringing into communities, bigger and stronger rams and bulls for breeding purposes; even cockerals. The introduced animals were passed from family to family, spreading the benefits widely through targeted villages.

There would also be greater attention paid to health issues in the north. Beauty planned to build more clinics so long as the Umnaravi and Ngoni tribesmen added their labour power. There would still be work for her to do in Dombe, exerting pressure on the Ministry to ensure that clinics were appropriately staffed, and essential supplies of drugs provided regularly. Assuming budget support resumed in due course, she would make this one of the conditions.

Finally she announced plans to set up a small business support scheme, providing half of the start up costs for sound new initiatives anywhere in Northern Region. More detailed guidelines would be issued and the British would employ someone to manage and develop the scheme.

When the NGOs had spoken to announce their own plans, the collection of projects was more than any of the assembly of chiefs could take in. At least they felt, now there was some hope of progress, and of sustaining peace on the back of promised development actions.

The indaba drew to a close but not before the Umnaravi and Ngoni again tried to outdo one another – this time in their distinctive singing and dancing. As the evening sunlight disappeared below the horizon it was replaced with flaming torchlight. A beautiful warmth came from a large fire lit a suitable distance from the sacred cottonwood tree. First in the half light, male Ngoni dancers burst into the circle of seated delegates, their faces painted, their fierce stamping of feet in unison literally shaking the ground. They carried spears, and shields made from stretched cow hide. As they stomped and thrashed to the accompaniment of their drummers, the power of these men left little to Umnaravi imagination. Then Ngoni women joined the throng, smiling widely, clapping and ululating, shaking their heavy bosoms and bottoms to the mesmerizing beat of the drums. The men began to dance around the fire, occasionally leaping over it, amazing the audience with their agility. And then in a display of good intention, each threw his spear into the fire.

This act of contrition was all that was needed for the Umnaravi dancers to make their appearance. Women came first singing a song which told of survival and the fine line which their tribe had walked for generations. There was a sadness about them compared to the exuberance displayed by the Ngoni. Their hair was painstakingly decorated, braided, cowrie shells woven in tightly. Around their ankles they wore ceremonial amber beads and metal rattles which provided a slow rhythm for men following closely behind. Then the tempo of the drumming changed, like an engine moving from low to high gear. They were suddenly moving faster, the men pushing their womenfolk along with playful thrusts from their hips.

Soon both tribes were dancing together, a potent symbol of the new unity which, almost miraculously, had been found over the last two days. The chiefs, enjoying the entertainment and a pot of shared beer sucked from long bamboo straws, would now certainly take the message back to their villages that there was to be no more war. An end to it, was their collective resolve.

The following day Beauty and Sam were not sorry to say goodbye to the Safari Ethnic Lodge. Small took their payment for the rooms without a word. Sam wanted a receipt. “Ah no. In this place we have no receipt,” the young man had replied.

Sam would stay a few more days in the north so that he could visit his mother in Machope. Beauty thanked him for the support he had offered at the indaba and asked if he would come to dinner when he got back to Dombe. It was nice to see him smile and say yes in response.

Beauty soon made her way to the airport to catch the morning flight home. There was a queue of only half a dozen people at the check-in but after five minutes it had moved not an inch. She was surprised to see a white couple at the desk, arguing with the young woman employed by Zungula Airways to weigh luggage.

“No, no, no,” the man was saying impatiently, “you can’t possibly be right. We took the same suitcases and the same things on board from Dombe and we were well within our limit.” He was thumping the counter in frustration.

“I am sorry Sah but your baggages are now twenty kilos over.”

“No. Your stupid scales are wrong, not me,” the man was saying indignantly.

Musajakawa wondered what this pair were doing in Bakili. They looked in their mid-sixties and rather out of place, him in a daft looking safari suit and Panama hat, her like a fashion reject from the 1950s. The woman had remained silent during the encounter but had “tut-tutted” support for her husband throughout the exchange. People behind were beginning to make cutting remarks, countering the arrogant tone the man had adopted.

“I came here as a volunteer to help you people,” he was shouting, looking around, having picked up the critical vibes, “and this is all the thanks I get!”

Beauty stepped forward. “I wonder if I might help?” She spoke directly to the employee, not to the Englishman. “I am traveling with hand baggage only. Could you accept them using my allowance?”

The younger woman smiled up at Beauty Musajakawa, grateful to have been presented with an acceptable way out of her predicament. The Englishman had pushed his weight around and tried to bully the check-in girl.

“Well. Thank you very much,” the man said to Beauty. “I’m Peter Bosson by the way, and this is my wife, Andrea. We’ve been helping this lot with a business plan for a mushroom farm,” he declared, referring to no one in particular. “I’m with Commonwealth Executive Services,” he added pompously, “we’ve had a terrible time of it up here you know.”

Beauty ignored his outstretched hand.

“By the sound of it, the sooner you return to England the better.”

With that, she resumed her place in the now extended queue, leaving the Bossons open mouthed but no less contrite. A voice a few paces behind her said, “Well done.” She turned around to find none other than the handsome pilot smiling broadly at her.

“Remember me?” he asked.

“Sure. You’re um, err...,” She was teasing.

“I’m Rick. Rick Holgate. Any chance of my buying you a coffee after we’ve cleared the check-in? Assuming we can find one in this place.”

“You’ll be lucky,” she said with a tight lipped grin, trying hard to conceal her obvious pleasure at running into the man. He’d been flying one of the army helicopters to and from the villages affected by the meningitis outbreak but his work on this was now at an end.

There was no coffee on offer at the airport canteen but they did manage to buy a couple of Refresh drinks. They found somewhere to sit and quietly exchanged information about themselves. It soon emerged they had in common a love for the north of Zungula and were each highly motivated to help in their different ways during what had been a very testing time. Beauty’s eyes glittered with a stronger impulse. The journey south seemed to go by in a flash. Rick had been unable to sit with the woman he had frequently thought about since he first saw her several weeks before. However, when the seat belt sign was turned off, he made a bee-line for her and the two chatted amiably for most of the flight. Now that he was acquainted, he was pleased as punch when before they parted at the terminal, Beauty extracted his easily acquired agreement to meet again.

* * * * * *

Sandy Mackelson drove straight from Dedza prison to the little pottery a few miles down the road. He was a few minutes early so he looked around the shop which sold a variety of garden pots – from small ones which looked no bigger than thimbles for planting seedlings, to huge Ali Baba style earthenware, large enough to hide a man. The shop also displayed locally made jam, honey and baskets, all of which were tempting to the average shopper and strategically placed near the till. Perhaps he should buy something for Madeleine, he thought. Then he realized how hypocritical that would have been. Buying her a trinket while on the point of meeting up with his lover. He decided against and walked to the restaurant building, which he was pleased seemed relatively quiet. A Zungulan couple were just finishing a meal, even if it was barely lunch time. Sandy selected a table at the far corner of the room and sat down. A waitress soon appeared wearing an apron which read “Potty about Pots”. The place must have had foreign management. He ordered a Green and settled down to wait for Lucy. At 12.20pm the waitress appeared again and asked if he would like to order some food. He explained he was waiting for someone. She smiled and invited him to ring the little porcelain bell on the table if there was anything he wanted. A further twenty minutes passed but Lucy had still not made an appearance. He rang her mobile phone. There was no reply. He rang again at 1.00pm but still there was no answer. Could she have got the time mixed up? That would be it, he decided. But another half an hour later she had not shown or phoned. He began to fidget at the table. His beer was finished long ago and he felt a bit of a prune sitting there with nothing in front of him to eat, and no company. He still had a couple of hours to kill before the time he had agreed to pick up Noah Bamidele from prison. Exasperated, he tinkled the little bell.

“I’d like a steak pie and potatoes please,” he said to the waitress “and another Green.” As she trotted off Sandy wondered what could possibly have happened to Lucy. His planned frolic on the forest floor was clearly not going to happen now. She had seemed so keen. It was her who had urged him on. He began to imagine that she had had an accident on the road from Dedza. It was notoriously dangerous after the World Bank had succeeded in closing the railway. Stupid sods, he thought.

After he had eaten, the High Commissioner allowed himself the luxury of a third beer and then decided he would head off back to the prison. It was still an hour before the appointed time but this was unlikely to make any difference. When he pulled up in the black Range Rover outside the towering prison gates, he saw that Noah was waiting. Mackelson immediately recognized the jeans and trainers which Madeleine had given him. Henderson Suswe had already departed for Dombe.

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