Chapter One of the amazing new memoir, Muzungu
I am usually lost again whenever I dream of Africa, once more adrift in the bundu with no map or compass to guide me. Maybe we are always lost in dreams but there is a distinct sense of panic to my African ones. In them, I inevitably seem to be threshing through head-high elephant grass, reeling in circles under a sledgehammer sun until I wake in a sweaty tangle. These dreams feed off a real event in my case. It happened in 1964 when I was twelve years old near the small town of Fort Roseberry in the country now called Zambia, then still known as Northern Rhodesia. My parents used to let me go shooting with Mr. Kruger, the local game warden. They probably thought he was personally supervising me but the truth was that he’d simply fire up his Land Rover at dawn and we’d roll out over a sandy track through the thick bush a mile or so out from his camp, where he’d stop and hand me a .22 calibre rifle and ten rounds and tell me not to come back until I’d got him a guinea fowl for his pot. The real aim was for me to find my way back to his base on foot. His only guidance was not to waste ammo and to keep the escarpment of the Mansa River always to my left while heading away from camp and the reverse on my return. My parents were also probably reassured that I took our bull terrier, Buster, with me. Buster was bow-legged and not much seemed to go on inside his massy head but he would unhesitatingly attack anything that might threaten me, be it man or beast.
We drove slowly along the red sand of the track in the slanting, gauzy light. It was the height of the dry season and the scrubby miombo woodland formed a leafless grey-stemmed wall on each side. The night creatures had slunk away, leaving their tracks all over the sandy verges. The big game had mostly gone from the area but there were still plenty of smaller animals. I leaned out the window as we jolted along avidly scanning the dusty roadside, looking for the drag marks of porcupines, the riddling clefts of duiker and other buck, or most exciting of all, the fresh pug marks of a night leopard. I was all keyed up in intense anticipation of the hunt although I tried not to show it too much as Kruger did not favour overt displays of emotion. When we came to a creaking halt, he cut the engine, padded around to the back of the Landy, unwrapped the gun from a burlap bag and handed it to me. We’d practised with the rifle a few weeks earlier. He’d stood behind me while I’d pumped a mopane tree full of holes until he was satisfied I was competent. It might have been more efficient if he’d given me a shotgun to pot the elusive guinea fowl but a rifle gave you more options against the unknown threats of the bush.
“I want you back by noon, chop, chop, OK?” he ordered.
“Ja, Mr. Kruger,” I replied.
He scrutinised me for a second, then nodded. Was there a hint of a smile on his tanned thin face? Hard to say. I was in awe of him. He had a strong presence, a bwana mkubwa, with grey eyes like chips of smoked glass under the brim of his worn slouch hat. Dad had told me Kruger had won the Military Cross leading the black infantrymen of the Northern Rhodesia regiment against the Japanese in Burma. Now he was the local game warden, shooter of rogue animals and nemesis of poachers. Rumour was that he’d slotted a few. I had once heard a local farmer referring to him as “that hardegat”, meaning ‘hard-arsed’. He was a taciturn, self-contained man who handled weapons with an easy familiarity, and who could read the bush in all its moods. I was not sure what he thought of me. I had the impression he must have confidence in me as I’d already made a few of these hunting expeditions on my own, and had gone fishing with him. I felt I’d acquitted myself honourably on these expeditions. On the other hand, maybe he merely wanted to keep well in with my Dad, a senior figure in the late colonial administration of the area.
I wanted to believe that Kruger recognised me as a kindred spirit and it was certainly true that I wanted not only to be liked by him, but also to be like him. When asked by adults what I dreamed of doing in life I’d always say “a game ranger”. It was his formidable apartness, the romance of his rejection of the settled ways of most men that had entranced me. He lived in a semi-permanent camp north of Fort Roseberry. I’d heard that the young mfazi who worked at his place was also his wife. That was fine by me. I didn’t have much time for the colour-conscious townie world my parents inhabited. Kruger’s wife was a local Bemba. She never spoke to me but that morning she filled my water bottle with tea made with condensed milk and smilingly handed me a couple of packages of wrapped banana leaves, containing home-cured, incredibly savoury biltong.
Once he was back in the driving seat, Kruger gave me a last glance over, as if I were one of his soldiers going into action. His chilly gaze swept across the slung rifle, a single action Remington, the bulges of biltong packed into my shirt pockets, a water bottle slung on a canvas strap and my sheath knife strapped to my Ruzawi belt. He seemed satisfied and raised a brown forearm in mock salute,
“Good hunting,” he grunted, then reversed and drove away.
The brake lights winked briefly in the soapy light like old dogs’ eyes. There was the sound of chinking tail board chains for a time, then nothing but the muted sizzling of bush crickets as they warmed to their day. The wide mouth of the bush had opened up and engulfed me and Buster.
I knew I was well and truly lost by about nine that morning. The trouble began when I spotted a flock of guinea fowl. They were running in the underbrush shifting through the shadowed scrub like flowing smoke. It was incredibly hard to make out their dappled shapes and their bubbling cries kept luring me on and on. Every now and then I’d get down on one knee and draw a bead on them but I could never find a clear shot. I suppose that if Buster had been a better gun dog he would’ve headed them off and driven them towards me. The best he could manage was to bundle along beside me on his stumpy legs, his great puzzled head constantly turning towards me to see what I was about. I followed the guinea fowl mirage for an age, always seeming to be on the point of success, forgetting to pay any attention to where we were actually going.
At some stage, the flock evaporated into the rising heat of the day, my hunting drive slackened and I began looking for my bearings. The sun appeared to be moving in an unexpected direction and I was unsure where we were in relation to our starting point. The snaky-branched musamba trees hemmed us in, each one with its attendant cluster of grey-brown termite nests like crumbling totem poles. The landscape seemed impervious to orientation, wherever you looked it was identical to the adjacent parts. Buster lay down in the yellow grass, his red-rag tongue lolling. He didn’t seem worried but I was filled with squirmy thoughts. O.K., don’t panic, pick a direction and stick to it. I headed south as best I could calculate. South was good. Kruger’s camp was south. My pace quickened and I became scared that Buster might run off after some creature leaving me truly alone. I attached the length of rope that acted as his leash, occasionally letting him pull me along. There was comfort in surrendering to his powerful bustling progress. At other times, I let the rope trail in the dust knowing I could always tread on it in an emergency.
We came to an outcrop of black-domed, granitic rocks and I quickly climbed up to gain a better view of my surroundings. I kept the rifle ready in case of baboons or a leopard, but had to sling it across my back to scrabble thirty feet up the smooth rock while Buster whined and peered up at me with short-sighted, worried little eyes. It was no better up top, just an unending vista of miombo canopy that shimmered in the haze for as far as you could see. Sis, man! Where was I? I pulled down my shorts and pissed over the rock. I enjoyed being diverted from my predicament, letting go and watching the flow, now going straight, now dividing and dropping to the underside of the rock. All of a sudden, a monitor lizard three feet long scrabbled out from underneath and stared back at me with a look of savage reproof. I realised then I’d been peeing down his secret nest. Africans had warned me that monitor lizards were friends of the tokoloshe, primordial gremlins that lurked in the bush, waiting to do you harm. It thus seemed doubly frightening to have so disrespected the big lizard. Our gardener, Musondo, had given me a smooth round stone to hold in my mouth that could render you invisible to tokoloshe. I wondered if it worked for angry monitor lizards also.
It was well past noon by my little, mechanical Timex and the sun was burning through the crown of my hat. I wished I could blame the tokoloshe for making me lost, but knew it was own stupid inattention. It was a horrible shock as I had already formed the erroneous notion by that age that my inner compass was unfailing and I could always reliably locate the correct direction whatever the circumstances. Calm down, man. I kept on with what seemed a southerly track until the bush opened into a grassy area and I stopped to pick out the spiky blackjack seeds that had crept into my high-sided veldschoen and stung my ankles. It was as I knelt there that the moment of sickening clarity came. I made out in front of me the clear curving imprint of smooth-soled boots and a dog’s tracks also. I knew at once these were my own tracks and those of Buster. We’d been going in circles for hours. Hours passed. Splinters of light hurt my eyes, minatory hawks circled above, as if contemplating dinner and an unseen creature kept up a baleful skreaking sound.
The heat was like a nail being slowly driven into my head. I pulled out the old military, felt-covered water bottle and drank the remains of the sweet tea, giving Buster a splash of the last of it in a cupped hand. We slogged on but ever more slowly. Buster kept looking back at me in a puzzled way. Home boy, home, find home. Eish! I was holding firmly to his rope now, hoping he could pull me out of this mess. At one stage, I blundered into a camel thorn shrub. The twin-bladed barbs carved a hole in my bare ankle. It bled into my vellie and stung grievously. Now my bare foot began skidding around in the wetness inside the boot.
Was it then or later that I lay down and cuddled Buster? I stroked his blunt muzzle, touched the crenellated, cerise patches of skin by his jowls, watching as the sun lamped through one white ear turning it rose-pink. It felt a blessing for his varmint eyes to behold me and to rest my head on his broad muscled back, the same back that Dad had broken his stick over, beating Buster for killing our neighbour’s dogs. All at peace now, he held a deep, solid comfort as I buried my nose in his fur and took in his yeasty dog-smell. Did I cry a bit then? I might have although I’d already learned by then that it got you nowhere. I do know that we curled up then and slept the sleep of the doomed, the two of us together.
The sun was beginning to lose its strength when I awoke. Buster was shifting about. I remembered the biltong and shared it with my companion, both of us chewing peaceably together in the red dust next to a rocky outcrop. I was overcome then with a strange tranquillity, the dusty soil warm and comfortable beneath me, the rifle across my knees. I know this land. I’m at home here and understand its ways. The gun gave me confidence. I loved the burr of the stock, the nutty smell of the oiled parts. I traced with my fingers the reassuring message: Remington Target Master Made in the U.S.A. etched on the breech block. I knew I could fire off some signal shots but it was a small calibre weapon and the sound would likely not travel far. We were truly alone in a way that is unimaginable to the young nowadays. No phones, no drones then, kinders. The sun was definitely dropping now. Thoughts bubbled up of my shameful failure, the likely wrath and disappointment of Mr. Kruger and worry over what my parents might be going through. Yet, while these revolved, I calmly accepted my fate and there arose within me a determination to face up to the prospect of staying out all night.
I began to eye the jumble of black rocks above me, caulked with seams of red silt, while my tongue searched out salty traces of biltong on my dry lips. Bituminous shadows were gathering under the thorn trees. What would it take to hunker down amid the rocks all night? It wasn’t just the predators you needed to worry about as darkness came on. Local friends had told me about lesser demons that hung about houses, the utumbuna and the utuyebele. There must surely also be special spooks that haunted rocky outcrops. The whole of Luapula Province where we lived was a witchy place and I had no charms to ward off demons, apart from the stone that Musondo had given me and I was none too sure how efficacious that one was. A protective fire would have been a good thing but I had no matches or flints, and hadn’t yet learned the friction method of starting a blaze. I began to think I needed some sort of barricade and thought I could cut some acacia thorn with my sheath knife to form a mini stockade around me, a zareba as Kruger called it.
A zareba wouldn’t save me from Chienge Charlie, the man-eating, white lion that I knew had once roamed not far from where I stood although my more empirical self reckoned that a hungry leopard would likely be the biggest threat. I knew leopards loved the taste of dogs, even though Buster would be no push-over. I was mulling these matters over, resting on one of the granite boulders as the air cooled, and the cape doves began their evening cooing, when I heard the clear yelping, nkoya, nkoya cry of a fish eagle far off to my right. It took a while to sink in but then I hooked on to it. A fish eagle always stayed by water. The only water in the dry season was at the Mansa River. Kruger’s advice came back to me: if I kept moving with the Mansa to my right then I had to be heading in the right direction. I needed no further prompting and took off at a limping jog, Buster gamely trotting in front, the sun a fast-dropping balloon, turning from beaten gold to orange to umber.
We’d gone not half a mile when Buster bellied down, ears forward and a ridge of fur raised along his back. His muzzle was pointing off to the left away from our line of route. I was scared that he’d sensed a nocturnal porcupine and was going to run off to chase it. I pulled mightily on his rope but he stubbornly held his ground and started up a low rumbling growl. Hell, man, it’s a leopard. Now we’re really in it. All sorts of fearful thoughts welled but Buster was insistent. I crouched down next to him, racked a round into the breech and tried to scan for whatever he’d picked up.
It was hard to see in the charcoal light but then I heard it…tink. tonk. tink, tonk…the unmistakable sound of domestic animal bells. They grew louder until a flop-eared lead goat appeared outlined against the pale grass, followed by several more goats and a boy herder with raggedy shorts and holding a long stick. I ran forward out of the half-dark and called out to him, “We!” meaning, ‘Hey there!’ I babbled away at him, and could have hugged him on the spot but he backed away from me. I must have scared him, a wild-eyed, rifle-toting muzungu kid erupting out from the dark. He was also probably worried since he wasn’t supposed to be grazing his flock in a game conservancy area. Buster must have looked none too reassuring either, and was taking an unhealthy interest in the goats. I wrapped his leash more tightly around my hand and hauled him back, while also asking the kid where Bwana Kruger’s camp was. He only said,“Pepi”, meaning ‘near’, and pointed with his chin.
I immediately set off in the direction the goatherd indicated, calling back thanks to him until he and his goats were swallowed up by the dark. Not long after, Buster and I came upon a pale ribbon of a dirt road that I could just make out was covered with fresh tyre tracks. It had to be the same one we’d driven up that morning. I started scurrying along it just as the sun dropped down behind the tree line and everything was consumed by the intense, velvety black of African twilight. The sound of three evenly spaced rifle shots told me Kruger was not far off and I popped off three in return. It was the only time I’d fired all day.
A madly bucking Landy, headlights blazing through billowing dust clouds came charging up the track to meet me. Kruger jumped out and held me by the shoulders shouting, “Are you alright, boy? Where the hell have you been?” I affected nonchalance and when questioned about what had happened, attempted to explain casually that I’d travelled a bit farther than I’d thought, giving him some nonsense about how I’d shot a duiker, wounded it and spent all day tracking it. When he asked me what I’d done with the animal I hesitated and said I thought some jackals had taken it. This was probably a lie too far but I expect he was too relieved to have found me to question me much. I heard him tell his woman in Bemba that the boy claimed he’d spent all day chasing a wounded buck. At that, there came the sound of high-pitched giggling laughter in the African manner, “Ki, ki, ki.” This wasn’t the first of many improbable lies I told in childhood to shield myself from the wrath of adults.
Kruger drove me straight home after he’d got some supper and sweet tea down me at his camp and Buster had been given a deep drink of water. My Dad was standing in our driveway with a paraffin lantern awaiting us. He told Kruger he had been on the point of ordering up the Boma Land Rover with a squad of rifle-toting District Messengers to go out to look for me. Kruger offered laconic apologies and I could tell he was annoyed with me for getting him into trouble. I felt I’d let him down but mainly I was thankful to have got away with so disrespecting the bush as to get myself lost. I was soon in bed with a purple daubing of permanganate on my ankle wound. Buster had to be woken from an exhausted slumber to eat his dinner. Next day, I went to the market and spent my pocket money on some fly-blown bones of a cow culled from the Boma herd to reward him for helping me to make my way home.
Nothing more was said about the incident but I was never allowed out shooting with Mr. Kruger again. Looking back now, maybe all of life is a process of becoming lost and finding your way again by luck or calculation. Often since boyhood, I have felt I was going in circles once more. The question that gets louder and more insistent as I age is: how to find my way home when I am lost in the shipwreck of the years? I know that to find yourself you need to walk on the waters of your uncertain past. May this book chart that process. Only by writing and rewriting it will the hand live up to the heart’s knowledge. Too many times, the incessant turmoil of the world has dragged me round in mistaken circles to half-baked approximations of the truth. I think I’m going to try and find Buster’s leash again, that ribbon, the thread that I can grasp like Theseus to lead me out from the mazy bushlands of the past.
Rod Madocks is an author based in Nottingham, England. His latest book is the memoir Muzungu, extract above. His writing includes Our Tan, a Memoir of a Destroyed Life’ by Shoestring Press is a lament for the avoidable loss of a young woman and a savage critique of the British government institutions that failed her, the crime novel 'No Way To Say Goodbye', a book of short stories about his career as a forensic specialist in maximum security hospitals, 'Ship of Fools' , a historical novel set in the Devon during late Victorian times, Babbicam and The Rising Flame a memoir about the WW2 poet, Sidney Keyes.
Website - www.rodmadocks.com