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When The Crocodile Smiles: Chapter 18 - Friday Phiri And Thoughts Of A Dynasty

...Tembo stopped in the hallway and examined himself in the mirror. In his grey suit, white shirt and Chinese silk tie, he looked immaculate. There was a scuff on his shoes which he wiped away with a hankerchief before placing this back in his breast pocket. Today, he told himself, he would make headlines. Outside, the blue Jaguar’s engine was running...

Joe Tembo dreams of becoming President of Zungula. Meanwhile the British High Commissioner to that impoverished land faces suspicious eyes because his wife has left him. And Sam Phiri does a good deed...

Michael Wood interweaves characters and situations to create a most satisfying and believable story of life in a 21st Century African country.

To read earlier chapters please click on When The Crocodile Smiles in the menu on this page.

Beauty’s relationship with Rick Holgate was blossoming. He was a few years younger than her, in his early thirties. A Zimbabwean national, he had been like thousands of others from that country, black and white. He had left; escaped the economic, social and political chaos which Mugabe and his henchmen had heaped upon his countrymen. Yet the last thing Rick wanted was to leave Africa. He had been raised in the Eastern Highlands. He had thought this to be the most wonderful place in his then limited understanding of the world. His father had been a ranger working in Nyanga National Park so Rick had been used to an outdoor existence, of hill walking, trout fishing, birding and mountaineering. Now he found that Zungula also offered these pursuits and he playfully chided his new girlfriend for not taking more time away from the office to enjoy what the country had to offer. He was right. Beauty Musajakawa took her job responsibilities very seriously. Few believed the hours she devoted to it. Rick felt sure that far from distracting her, more relaxation could enhance her work performance.

Because Rick’s schedule would take him away flying for three days in a typical week, the two were determined to spend time together before his next departure. They had been dating for just a week. It had seemed very natural, uncontrived, when they had first kissed. Not usually prone to public displays of affection, Beauty could not resist it one evening when Rick had invited her to eat at the Balmoral Guest House. It was a little known, normally quiet haven which servecd tasty chambo dishes. That night their table was candle lit – because Rick had gone to the trouble of bringing his own. He had also acquired a bottle of South African Chamonix Chardonnay and asked the German owner to chill it in advance. Good wine was hard, if not impossible to come by in Zungula.

“All of this for me?” Beauty has teased with her best angelic look.

“Only because I think you are fantastically beautiful,” he’d replied.

“Really?” she smiled, “How beautiful?”

“Well, steady on,” he said adoring her, “your eyes are beginning to look as bright as herrings’ flashing in a net.”

“Huh! Is that insult or compliment?”

“I like a good herring.”

It was then that she leaned across and gave him a lingering kiss, almost setting her woolly jumper on fire in the process. They laughed and joked throughout the meal about how she might have gone up in a puff of smoke, and this being Zungula, there would have been no fire brigade to come to her rescue. To the other diners it was evident that this couple were enamoured. It had been a delightful night out. Being with Rick was proving to be much more in keeping with Beauty’s idea of a good time and was a very pleasant change from the endless round of diplomatic cocktail events which her limited social life had been centred upon until then. She was happy when he accepted her invitation back to Area 43 for a nightcap.

They drove through the quiet streets of the suburb chatting about plans for the weekend. Rick was suggesting a camping trip to the shores of Lake Dzalanyama. Beauty had never done this before and felt a wave of excitement at the prospect of spending a couple of cozy nights under canvas with this attractive younger man. The camp site, she knew, was adjacent to the Livingstonia Hotel, in a picture post card setting at the far end of a beautiful beach. There, hippos could occasionally be seen basking in the cool lake, behind the safety of house size boulders coloured blue-grey by the lapping water, their tops splattered white by visiting reed cormorants. “Let’s talk about it some more when we get to my place,” Beauty said, “We’re almost there.”

She turned the car into Gitangoza Road and was now about four hundred metres from her gate. As usual this up-market residential area resembled a morgue – no sign of life. To get back to the buzz of Africa, one had to drive in the opposite direction, to Old Town. Suddenly ahead, a figure stepped out onto the tarmac from under the cover of a tree. Beauty was forced to brake hard to avoid knocking him over. Her car tyres screeched. The high centre of gravity cabin of the 4WD rolled a little until, in the split of a second, though it seemed like an eternity, Beauty hauled the car into a straight line. She stopped just short of the man. Standing in the middle of the road he made no effort to move out of the way of the stalled vehicle. His face, illuminated in the beam of the headlights looked rebarbative. Then, with slow intent, he raised his arm and hurled a half brick at the windscreen. The car occupants could do nothing; amazingly the glass didn’t shatter. If the shock of this wasn’t enough, two more men, dressed in fatigues, appeared from the other side of the road and they too threw heavy rocks which belted the paint work with a short volley of deadened thuds. Yet another man came forward from the shadows, this time with a panga, and he began to hack methodically at the car door on Rick’s side.

“Stay calm Beauty,” Rick instructed urgently. “If they were going to kill us they would have tried to get in. Get the car in neutral and start her up.”

The big petrol engine came to life. Beauty was far from calm; she raced the accelerator before engaging, causing her to panic further. She couldn’t get the vehicle back into gear. While the bashing of her car continued, she seemed to have forgotten how to drive, and flustered helplessly. One of the attackers was now sprawled over the car’s bonnet, his ear fastened like a limpet as if listening for something; all the time he thumped and scraped with the rock he clutched; like someone demented.

“Clutch, then first gear,” Rick yelled, failing now to keep his voice measured. At last Beauty was able to get the car into motion, its engine complaining madly. The vehicle lurched and juddered forward like a bronco. When they were finally clear of the assailants, Rick felt sure that they were too close to her home to risk entering the property. The men would see where she lived and might well pursue them.

“Let’s go to mine,” he suggested, looking back into the darkness and seeing the crazy one now sitting in the middle of the road.

“No. I want these buggers to feel fear for themselves.”

She insisted they cover the short remaining distance to her house, hand on the car horn to alert the night watchman that something was wrong. Thank god he was awake. When the pummeled car was safely inside the grounds and the gate slammed shut behind them, Beauty immediately got on her radio hand set as the watchman looked on, mouth gaping as he examined the state of the car.

“Watchdog, Watchdog, this is Charlie 1. Do you read?”

There was no reply, but this was not unexpected. “Watchdog” would probably be in bed by now. She repeated the call. At last the answer came: “Charlie 1 this is Watchdog, over.”

Call signs like Alpha 1, Romeo, Pine Cone, and Echo were used to avoid the use of personal names, and therefore of individuals being identified in the event of radio signals being intercepted.

“Watchdog. I’ve just been attacked in my car by four or five men, about three hundred yards from my house. I’m now inside with a companion. Can you send out a security team? Over.”

“Charlie 1. We’ll be there in five. Over.”

When Beauty first arrived in Dombe she had scoffed at the radio checks and exercises which all High Commission staff were required to participate in at 6.30am each Monday morning. Now she was thankful for the training and her retention of the codes. Once inside her house she began to quiver. Her nerves were racked. She had been brave. However, this episode, added to her experience of atrocity in the North, had pushed her a little over the edge. Rick hugged and kissed her gently. Only minutes later the BHC security people arrived. There had been no sign of the gang on their way to Beauty’s home. Two extra guards were posted on the property with instructions to stay alert throughout the night. The British security officer agreed to make another sweep of the streets in the area. He thought his team might yet find someone acting suspiciously. Rick volunteered to stay the night. Beauty snuggled into his chest and kissed it lightly. “You had better stay,” she warned. “I don’t want a few scum bags ruining my hot date.” They went to bed and were content, just this once, to lie in each other’s arms.

* * * * * *

Daily Times Editorial, 15 September
PRESIDENT CHILEMBE TO RUN AGAIN!
Yesterday at 4.00pm the President’s office issued a statement putting an end to unwelcome speculation that he would be stepping down at the end of his current term. To the relief of an entire nation, he has confirmed he is willing to serve a third. We must all be thankful. Our jitters are over. For there had been widespread public concern at the thought of this country being led by anyone other than Elliot Joseph Chilembe. No one is capable of stepping into his shoes. Cabinet members are still growing into their jobs; still proving themselves. Most are inexperienced even in managing single portfolios. The opposition is fragmented and in disarray; some are very corrupt. The President has done the right thing.

In the recent past, international donors have made obvious their preference for a hand over of power to a new incumbent, thereby they say, keeping within the bounds of our Constitution. We are a new nation, not so long ago freed from the slavery that was inherent in colonial times. We are a fledgling democracy. Who can say that our Constitution was right first time around; especially when the international agencies were more its authors than we Zungulans? We look forward to supporting our President come election time. If the donors complain, they know where the door is!

* * * * * *

In the slum of Chabwele there were no pit latrines. People simply squatted or urinated wherever they could find a bit of privacy. They had been immune since childhood to the embarrassment of being caught with their pants down or their wraps hoisted up. It was a common to see people shitting behind another person’s abode. The laws of physics determined that excrement was eventually carried downhill with waste water sludge, deposited at the valley floor among those who lived at the Marimba water’s edge. This was where Noah’s wife had struggled to put together the semblance of a home while unbeknown to her, he languished in prison.

Noah left his wife’s bedside and began to climb the well worn path to Top Rock. He paused occasionally to catch his breath. For a man in his mid-fifties he was reasonably fit considering the paucity of his diet and the conditions in which he lived. Indeed at his age he was already twenty years beyond the average Zungula male life expectancy. He had spent much of the day thinking about his evening appointment with the man whom he’d seen the previous day, sitting outside that house, holding his head between his hands. What could a man like that want with him? He had been well dressed and he had spoken in English, perhaps guessing from Noah’s own clothing that he was foreign. In spite of what the man had said, maybe he was going to offer some work after all? Noah needed it badly. Since his release from Dedza he had earned very little money. He had stopped his wife attending the shabeen. For these last few days he had joined his children at the dump, scavenging for whatever they could eat or recycle. Two days back he had carried an old car tyre to Chabwele and sold this to a man who made sandals by cutting and tearing the rubber into strips. Noah considered the artisan for a moment and concluded that he was a clever one – making something from nothing. His sandals were very popular.

Now as Noah reached the crest of the hill, he realized that he was not very presentable. He wore the same old clothes. He was dirtier. The dump was a smelly place. When he turned the corner on the stony path he wondered after all if he might not mix up the man’s house with someone else’s. They all looked much the same, like a row of military-style barracks. He was relieved to find Sam waiting outside his home.

“Good evening Boss,” Noah said, clasping Sam’s outstretched hand in both of his and lowering his eyes a little in a mark of respect.

“Welcome. Please come in,” Sam responded by way of greeting.

The older man was surprised to see that the house had virtually nothing in it, for he had not been around when Sam was clearing out the belongings of Patience, his faithless, wanton wife. It would soon be dark and his host was already lighting the paraffin lamp so that he would not have to fiddle around in half light. The two men sat on simple chairs, made by a local carpenter.

“I think you are whandering why I have aksed you to come?” Sam continued.

“That is true, Boss. Maybe because you can give me some employ?” his voice rising in hope.

“No. As I told you yesterday, I can give you no work. In fact I may soon be leaving this place. I must find another house to rent.”

Noah was not particularly disappointed for there was nothing he could expect of this man on so short an acquaintance. Yet his curiosity about the purpose of the meeting remained as strong as ever. A man like this one, who wore clothes like a white man, a shirt and tie, could not want friendship, or for that matter, his company.

“What is your name?”

“I am Bamidele, Boss.”

“I am Sam Phiri. Yesterday when you saw me, you were the only one who spoke to me kindly.”

“Have you a problem? Maybe I can help some.”

“It is not a problem now. I have decided what to do. My wife has left me – gone to live with that Joe Tembo,” Sam confided. “You will know him,” he added, as if it would be unfathomable not to.

“Ahh, no. I do not know this man.”

“He is the Minister of Finance and drives a big blue British car.”

“I am sorry for this Boss,” Noah offered, referring to Sam’s intention to up sticks. “Where will you go?”

“Another place,” he replied vaguely, for he had no real idea yet where he might put down new roots.

Sam took a long look at Noah without awkwardness. His hands were like leather, the lines on his face betraying hardship. He had a family to care for. If things didn’t change for the better his sons would grow up just like him; living from hand to mouth from one day to the next. They would eat when they could and might go without sustenance for days at a time. What chance was there of anything improving in this God forsaken country, Sam’s thought. In his life time, the population had doubled; there was hardly any remunerative work for those in the middle sections of the skewed social pyramid, let alone the more numerous bottom segment. The Edze was devouring thousands; malaria killing thousands more, mainly children. Domestic agricultural production seemed close to collapse. Politicians, were increasingly corrupt – Sam’s involuntary experience of the grain sale was evidence enough of that, though God knows there were countless other examples of their greed. Only these crocodiles were well fed. Government was inefficient and poorly led. With few exceptions the aid donors had given up on what they called a “basket case” and were putting their weight behind fewer countries in Africa which had demonstrated an appetite for economic reform. Sam despaired.

“I don’t know you Mr Bamidele but tell me, since you are a God fearing man, what would you do if He granted you one wish?”

“That is an easy one for me Boss. I would send my kids to a good school so that maybe they would not have the same life as me. And if He let me, I could do more to make my wife comfortable, for she will not be on God’s earth for much longer. That is all I can say.”

“That is two wishes. But what about yourself?”

“Boss, I have had a life,” he replied simply, as if it was as good as over. Sam knew upon hearing this that Noah had a good heart and in Sam’s current frame of mind, this was more than could be claimed for much of the rest of humanity. He stood up and walked into the single adjacent room. After a minute or two he returned holding a package.

“I have something here which may change your life. Certainly it can change the life of your children.” Sam seemed in a quandary about parting with the envelope but after a moment’s hesitation, he pushed it into Noah’s calloused hand.

“Look inside.”

Cautiously Noah tore it open. He could see the contents in the now dim light offered by the paraffin lamp. His mouth went dry. Why was this man showing him this? He didn’t understand and looked up with questioning eyes.

“It is yours Bamidele. I am giving you that as a gift, but on one condition.”

Now Noah understood it had been some kind of trick.

“You must take some respectable clothes from here tonight which I will also give to you. Then you will go to the Standard Bank tomorrow and open an account. With finer clothes there will be no undue suspicion about the origin of this money.”

The old Nigerian trader risked a smile. He still did not truly believe this was happening.

“One more thing Bamidele. You must say nothing about this to anyone. You know what this Chabwele is like. If they think you have something, they will snatch it like circling hyenas and then your dream will have come to nothing. Do not even tell your wife. Go home like normal, sleep with the packet on your person. Take the clothes in this plastic bag. Remember, first thing tomorrow, go to town. I wish you well Mr Bamidele.”

Sam stood up to indicate the meeting was over, just as Chihana used to do. Noah lingered at the door. “Boss, you are a good man. I will not forget what you have done for me.” He turned and shuffled away without comprehension that as much as $2,000 was pressed close to his chest – roughly the equivalent of what he could expect from six years’ work.

* * * * * *

Commissioner of Police Chitambo drove his old Land Rover to the Shoprite store and parked in a bay around the side of the building. On second thoughts, he started the vehicle up again and turned it around so that he could get a clear view of any movement from the street. He could see that someone was lying in the doorway of an adjacent building, using it as shelter. Cardboard had been erected as protection from the cold night air. Further along, a night watchman had lit a small fire on what passed as pavement. One or two men swaddled in blankets had joined him. They paid no notice to Chitambo. He decided that this pre-arranged meeting place was safe. Whoever he was waiting for was already late, for Chitambo himself was never on time for appointments. Zungulans in authority would have considered it ludicrous to be punctual. Such behaviour was for Small men. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in annoyance.

A full ten minutes later another car pulled up alongside the policeman’s. The occupant got out, looked around to survey the same gloomy scene that Chitambo had taken in, and then got into the passenger side of the Land Rover. It was cold and the vehicle’s windows were steamy.

“You are rate.”

“I had further to travel. You’ve stirred up a right hornet’s nest.”

“You are accusing me?”

“You needn’t deny it Commissioner. Our security people managed to apprehend one of the idiots you employed. Shall we say, they didn’t treat him in a very friendly fashion. Within minutes he was singing like a canary, to use our English criminal jargon.”

“That would be his word against mine, I am thinking.”

“Of course. But we’re not stupid. We know you arranged it. You’re playing with fire my friend. Our Government is bound to be pissed off, particularly as you’ve targeted the second most senior Brit in Dombe.”

“I hear that the half African woman were shaken, but her good looking are still fine,” Chitambo replied, betraying his fine command of the language, and making clear his view of Musajakawa’s blood line. His fat jowls were set in an evil looking grin.

“I think you’re in trouble. As I said, my people aren’t going to take this lying down. I can guarantee there will be recriminations.”

“What is that?”

“It means further retaliation I suppose. Don’t be surprised if the High Commissioner goes to the President about this. On top of the Middleton issue, your standing in diplomatic circles is about as low as it can get.”

“Don’t lecture me Mr Stainbury! I am a man. You are still in school shots.”

“It doesn’t matter what you think about me. What counts is whether Chilembe thinks you’re a bloody liability.”

“He will not think that my friend. I am his most loyal sappota. You see, I always carry out his instructions, without question.”

* * * * * *

Madeleine Mackelson had wanted to get out of Zungula as soon as her challenge of Lucy Kanyerere had confirmed Sandy’s infidelity. Nothing was straight forward in Dombe however and it could take days, even weeks to get on an aeroplane without advance bookings. Instead she had fled to the home of Andrew Cunningham and confided in Patricia, his wife. The two women were friends and often shared duties at the Animal Welfare shop in town. Patricia had taken it upon herself to ring the High Commissioner.

“Madeleine is staying with us if you are interested”, she had announced peremptorily.

“Of course I’m interested. I want to see her; to explain things.”

“Well she doesn’t want to see you. At least not for now.”

The conversation had been terse. Patricia had been a Diplomatic Service spouse for too long not to have seen his sort of behaviour before, but she had been mildly shocked that it had concerned the most senior man in the mission. Neither could she clear from her head the resonantly repulsive image of Mackelson shagging Lucy Kanyerere – someone nearly half his age. Because she knew too that Andrew wouldn’t be going any further so late on in his career, she wasn’t going to stand any nonsense from the High Commissioner and didn’t care if she had been brusque with him.

Although Mackelson’s domestic situation had obviously altered, behind the pressing guilt he now felt, he was surprised and even a little pleased that the dramatically changed circumstances in his home environment were manageable. It was as if his wife had just gone away on holiday. His food was on the table whenever he wanted, thanks to the ever efficient Mary and the team of household servants. At night when he was not on the dreaded cocktail circuit, he read, or operated his model railway for hours at a time – this meticulously set up in one of the Residence’s spare bedrooms. Or he watched Super Sport to his heart’s content without the habitual nagging from Madeleine. “Not more bloody cricket,” had been her ritual refrain. There were times when he even enjoyed his new found freedom. An independence which brought back long suppressed memories of bachelorhood.

It was at work that he truly felt exposed. It hadn’t taken long for news of his affair to spread. People quietened down when he entered their offices; he sensed they’d been talking about him and he was right. Even the local staff seemed to look at him with suspicion; with less respect. In a British High Commission toilet cubicle, someone had scratched into the paint work “Sandy! Woof, Woof. You randy old dog!” The phrase was accompanied by a less than flattering motif of him “dogging for England”. Another humourist had added – “Uganda Relations” – coined by Private Eye twenty years earlier in reference to British diplomatic bonking in Kampala. When Mackelson had discovered the graffiti he was furious but powerless to do anything about it, except instruct one of the cleaners to remove it. He figured he would just have to ride the storm. Sooner or later, he felt, things would return to a semblance of normality.

At Prayers on the Monday morning, a small gathering of BHC, ODD and British Council staff joined the High Commissioner in the slammer room. Beauty Musajakawa was absent, she and Rick having decided to go ahead with their extended weekend at Lake Dzalanyama, to help recover from their nasty experience a few days before. Security was high on the morning’s agenda, for obvious reasons. When Beauty’s car had been examined in the cold light of day, it emerged that one of her attackers had also tried to set fire to it, though this fact was still not known to her and Rick. A rear wheel arch had been burned with an inflammable liquid and BHC staff speculated this had been a crude effort to ignite the petrol tank. They were therefore treating the incident as an attempted murder.

Stainbury astonished those present by passing on his information that the incident had not been a random event with robbery or vehicle hijacking in mind. The attack, he insisted, was a direct result of Britain suspending assistance to the Zungula Police Force. He went further and suggested that the President himself might have given the order. As the MI6 man spoke, Mackelson felt an uncomfortable hot flush. Lucy Kanyerere had warned him about the possibility of Beauty being a target. His blinkered preoccupation with the Vice President’s wife had caused him to forget about any danger to Beauty.

“What possible motive would Chilembe have to organise an attack on her?” he stuttered. “He respects her opinion. As Brits go, he likes her. And she has been more than helpful to him in the North.”

“Maybe so,” Oily replied, “but who else could be responsible? OK, I can see that Chitambo would have been peeved about Musajakawa’s press remarks when the decision was taken to cut off aid to the police. However, he surely wouldn’t have acted without instruction from someone further up? Given the chain of command, that could only be the President or the Office of the President.”

“Or someone who wanted to make it look as if the President was culpable,” Cunningham added.

“Take it from me. The President was involved,” Oily said sardonically to the more senior man. He then turned to the High Commissioner. “My recommendation is that you go and see Chilembe, and the sooner the better.”

* * * * * *

When Sam Phiri returned to the Grain Marketing Board, he noticed for the first time that it was possible to see the summit of Dedza Mountain from his top floor office window. He imagined himself atop the 2200 metre peak, sucking in the fresh air and on a clear day taking in the plains of Mozambique thirty miles further to the east. Sam wondered if climbing a difficult mountain was analogous to career progression. Where was he now in the scale of things? He had never in his wildest dreams considered that he might one day have the run of a large organization – yet here he was, still young, and in charge. Sure, he’d had some luck. He knew that. However, he now began to imagine that far from being at the pinnacle of his career, he might carry his influence further, effectively using the GMB as a springboard. Now that his family nucleus had disintegrated, he told himself that his remaining ambition must be channelled with one thing in mind. To help pull the country from its current trough, onto a more certain path; one which offered some prospect of leaving the wretchedness of poverty behind. He realized these were lofty ideals, but he promised himself that he would try with every fibre in his body.

He called in his Department Heads for a status report on maize transportations around the country – the destination of emergency imports which had been financed by donors. He found to his dismay that not a single truck had left for the North. Yet mobilization to Bakili had been an important element of the peace accord and he had reported as much to the President. There was no way he could risk reneging on his commitment to respond promptly to the needs of northerners.

Sam remembered the individuals whom he had passed on the road when he was traveling to Machope. Their thin, sinewy images were hard to evict from his mind; he remembered all too clearly when he had stopped to offer water to a few, how their weary eyes had none too discreetly searched around his car for proof that he was carrying no food. Poor souls. They had seen the small sack of maize in the back of the old ODD Land Rover. But he couldn’t possibly have arrived in Machope without something for his mother.

GMB records showed that so far, nearly half a million metric tons had come in to Zungula’s grain stores. However this didn’t tally with tonnages which had subsequently gone out to southern depots, and balances remaining in store. In short, Sam surmised that grain was either being stolen from GMB stocks, or the theft was occurring before consignments reached the Board’s silos and the books were being cooked thereafter. Either way, officials inside his organization were likely to be involved, just as he had been in the Kenya business. Now that he thought about it further, he was glad to have offloaded to Noah Bamidele, the $2000 “bonus” he had received from Matthews Chihana. Of course he could have given the money to his mother. He had been tempted; but that would still have constituted personal use of money which he considered tainted and dirty. Much better he concluded, to have given it to someone whom he didn’t know. To hell with it. The money was gone now.

Sam’s team of senior staff looked resentful as he read them the riot act. They were all much older than him and they had been taken aback by the speed at which he had risen to overtake them. They didn’t like this young pup pushing them about. It flew in the face of custom; it was untraditional. Sam knew perfectly well how they felt. On the other hand, even with his limited experience in the top slot, he knew most of these pot-bellied men now seated in his office, were time servers who hadn’t done an honest day’s work in a very long time. It was typical for a department to run, after a fashion, on the back of perhaps one or two willing horses; individuals who were able and whose endeavours carried the rest. Such people were usually quite senior but were placed somewhere below Head of Department level. It was the same in central government. No wonder the country wasn’t functioning. From now on Sam determined, he at least would make a contribution to positive change. He wouldn’t be able to sweep clean all at once, but he would soon induce a marked improvement in the attitudes of his senior managers.

“Listen to me carefully, all of you. I will say this only once. The President himself has appointed me to this position as I am sure you know. Until he indicates otherwise, I therefore carry a responsibility to change the parlous state of this organization. Do you understand what I mean?”

There was silence. They all looked at the floor or out of the window but none met his eye.

“Evidently not,” he continued. “As leaders, collectively, you seem not to have the slightest idea what is going on in your own depatments. It’s obvious to me there is corruption within the ranks of this senior management and I intend to find out where it lies. The grain statistics you have given me wouldn’t bear even the scrutiny of a child. By the end of this week, I want to know how much you cannot account for. The raw data will do. If any of you are brave enough to come to me privately with an explanation of what happened to the missing maize, assuming the story is credible, I will take this into account when I later review the worthiness of each of you to retain your current positions.”

It was hard talk though Sam had intentionally introduced both carrot and stick to his lecture. He hoped the implied threat of sacking might induce someone to tell the truth. He looked at them all and searched for signs of defiance. They were downcast, ashamed. Sam could not afford to soften his position but he knew how easy it was to get involved in corrupt practice. The temptations were obvious. Its damaging tentacles reached every corner of the public service. It wasn’t possible even to obtain a driving license application, without having to hand over some dash. Otherwise the forms would have mysteriously run out; the official would explain that these might take months to be replenished.

“Your second task is to ensure that GMB’s trucks are returned here by tomorrow morning from wherever they may have been delivering, even if the drivers have to work all night. Tomorrow they will be loaded, tonnages accurately recorded, and sent north to Bakili. Meanwhile I will speak to the World Food Programme to establish what assistance they can give us with transportation. Does anyone have any questions?”

“What if our rollies is broken?” this from the Logistics Manager.

“I’m not looking for excuses even before this exercise has begun. If any of our trucks has broken down, you will make sure they are quickly repaired. In case you hadn’t realized, we are dealing with a national emergency. You need to be on top of it.”

Sam closed the meeting. When he got through to WFP he was offered ten more trucks and a promise that drivers would appear early the next day. At last, Sam thought, some progress.

* * * * * *

Friday Phiri lay in his cot bawling, testing not only his newly born lungs but also Joe Tembo’s nerve endings. It was impossible to believe that so small a bundle could produce such a noise. It seemed to fill the house.

Patience was taking a dip in the pool. In no time at all she had adapted perfectly to her new surroundings and now felt she had successfully negotiated a permanent place at the Finance Minister’s home. She was not fully at ease however. She was a smart girl and understood that she had work to do. Not all that secretarial nonsense which she hoped to have left behind forever, but effort to restore her body to the supreme condition which had first brought Tembo to heel. Otherwise, he might be tempted to look for pastures new. Swimming had therefore become a daily routine. At first, like most village girls, she couldn’t swim a stroke. Joe Tembo had taken her in to the cool water and shown her what to do. He had held her up by the belly while she splashed about uncontrollably, her head poking unnaturally high above the water line and her eyes screwed tightly shut, such was her fear. The two had persisted however; within a few days she had mastered the breast stroke and was happy so long as Tembo didn’t try to push her under. She had also been careful not to neglect her duties in bed or to give Joe Tembo any reason to feel jealous now that Friday had arrived on the scene. Indeed she was prepared to let the little boy scream away in an adjacent room while ensuring the Minister’s satisfaction. Of course she now had the benefit of maids around the house and a nanny to look after her son at critical moments, or when she and Joe were out socializing.

Patience Phiri had become quite the envy of many an aspiring concubine and was also much admired by Tembo’s friends and politician colleagues. There was no circumstance in which he could imagine letting her go, especially now that the boy had been born. Tembo had always suspected that the child was his. At first he hadn’t wanted to admit this to Patience. He had simply concluded that the man Phiri could take on the paternal responsibilities while the Minister enjoyed more pleasurable activity which Patience and he indulged in. What better arrangement.

Towards the end of the pregnancy, other ideas filtered into his head. They started when he had gone to see the President that day in his palace – the occasion when Chilembe had told him about voices behind the wall; the so called stowaways. Tembo had begun to see himself living in that massive place, with all its grandeur. He imagined playing host to the international community, to visiting Ministers, perhaps even Heads of State if Zungula could ever be rescued from its unenviable position as a country which no overseas leader had the least desire to include in his or her itinerary. What leader in his right mind would visit Dombe when there were summits to attend in the Bahamas, Kyoto, Geneva, Washington, Gleneagles. Once he became President – surely it couldn’t be long before Elliot Joseph Chilembe was out of the way; the man was clearly mad – Tembo would want a beautiful woman at this side. Patience Phiri fitted the bill perfectly. In fact her pregnancy had given rise to an unexpected benefit, for the boy would be the start of a dynasty. Why not? If the reigns of power could be handed over from father to son in North Korea or the United States, there was no reason why it could not be achieved in Zungula. Little Friday would be so groomed.

Patience pulled herself from the pool and asked one of the staff to bring her a brandy and orange. Joe watched her from the living room window as she spread herself onto a lounger to dry off in the warmth of the sun. At last Friday’s howls had come to a halt. As each day passed the boy’s nanny seemed to be doing more and more of the mothering. After only a few days Patience had even refused to let the nipper suck at her breasts. Bottles were prepared and administered by the nanny. “Anyhow,” Patience had said sulkily to her lover, “those powder milk people are always telling us now that this is better for baby.”

Tembo stopped in the hallway and examined himself in the mirror. In his grey suit, white shirt and Chinese silk tie, he looked immaculate. There was a scuff on his shoes which he wiped away with a hankerchief before placing this back in his breast pocket. Today, he told himself, he would make headlines. Outside, the blue Jaguar’s engine was running.

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