Alex Learmont was bor Read more [...]
Short Story Category: 10 Minutes
My father said that he could hear them coming long before they arrived, long before they burst out of the bush, surrounded by villagers, the engine of their truck screaming, everything dipped in noise. He was twelve years old when they came – the same age as his father, my grandfather, had been when the old white explorer came into his life, sick and dying.
I have seen pictures of the vehicle, in the archives in Lusaka. It was a Commer, a great ugly thing. Headlights like eyes. A radiator like a mouth full of closed teeth. My father said that it had a hot smell – foreign to anything he had known before. Later in life when, in his schooling, he learned of Hell, he thought of the first time that odour touched him. So close to burning.
And the people – the men and women who rode in the vehicle – they are in the pictures too, but in black and white. Stripped of colour. Little Gods in wrinkled clothing, with tight cruel faces so different from our own. Europeans.
The story is thus: my father ran to the truck as it lunged its way into our village, tearing a path through the sand. He said that when he fell he felt no fear – only wonder – as it rolled over him. When they pulled him away he felt nothing until he looked and saw that his leg was no longer straight, but hanging off at an odd angle. He tried to stand but the bone buckled under him. He felt nothing until that moment, then – he said this often, as if it were the mark of a moment which fixed him as a person – a pain unlike anything ever experienced before filled his heart. He said it stopped. That his heart stopped completely. The last thing he saw was the man above him. His words stuck in my father’s mind, more noise than language. He recognised the sounds years later, when he went to the mission school and had his English. Jesus Christ. That was what the angry man had said – as if he introduced himself. Then everything turned dark. The sun burst out of the sky and took all the light with it.
He is not sure who set the leg. He thinks he remembers a woman telling the men what to do. Two of their men held him – black men who spoke a different language to ours. They pulled out the overlapping lengths of bone until the leg clicked together and the woman pronounced it straight.
My father said that he was amazed to find that he was two people. One of them felt terrible pain whilst the other was able to observe those around him – the actions of their hands and the look of their faces. He saw all this from a strange distance. Near, yet far.
The travellers stayed for some time – almost a month. My grandfather, who was a headman, did not really give them permission to stay, as he would have done had the visitors been black. They had a Boma Messenger with them, from the District Commissioner’s Office, but it wasn’t this which gave them their authority. Grandfather allowed them to do what they wished simply because they were white. He was powerless to stop them. I understand this. People who come and go at will, crossing oceans and land with ease, unrooted, have great strength.
We – stuck within the little circle of our vision – have no power. I have seen us try this trick of travel. Only to be cut back at every attempt. Europeans understand the power, the confidence, of the traveller, and so they deny us the right to penetrate their world in the way they have taken Africa. Ours became theirs not by force – but because we gave them right of transit. We let them come – and when we looked again they had taken away our future, leaving nothing in return except the knowledge that we are lesser creatures. This is what my father told me: We have made ourselves mice, he said – and we sniff at their fingers for food.
My father said that it was because of his injury that he became an observer, but for his leg he would not have noticed so much. He spoke mostly about their cameras and of the way they used them.
These instruments are in some of the pictures that I have seen. Old fashioned things on their heavy wooden legs. They are like living creatures – stiffly alert like hunters – looking through their awful, single eyes, watching their prey as they innocently graze – waiting for such innocent lives to come close, and be consumed. The cameras look dull in the photographs, but my father said that when the sunlight caught them they gleamed like fishes. They were covered in small circular patterns – scales almost – burnished into the white and yellow metals.
The film was held in circular canisters which they kept as cool as possible at all times. The cans were in turn stored in a chest of woven cane, always placed in the shade where there was a breeze, covered with cooling cloths continually kept wet. My father saw them load the cameras several times. Feed – that was the way he put it. The man who led the team – whom my father thought of as Jesus Christ – was the one who always did it. He would place the magazine of the camera, together with a tin of film, into a black painted wooden box. Then he would thrust his arms into the two holes in the front of the box and pull out two black sleeves. Sometimes my father saw the box as a headless torso – at other times as a severed lower body, trousered, but without feet. Dressed in these sleeves the man would work secretly inside the box for some minutes, as if engaged in magic. It was his face that my father would watch. Eyes closed, face raised in concentration. Like a worshipper.
Why had they come? They had been looking for the places where the old white man had been in the last days of his misguided search for the source of the river Nile. They had been to Chitambo’s kraal and had seen the site of the hut where he had died. This was where the explorer’s men had dried and wrapped his body. They took pictures of the Mvura tree where they had buried the tin containing his entrails, and the last river over which he had to be carried. Now they were looking for people who had been there. Fifty-seven years before. People who had seen Livingstone in his last journey.
They found two such men in our village – Shadrack, an elder in his eighties, and my grandfather.
The Boma messenger was the go-between. He was a proud man, pleased with his rank and of his contact with the whites. He liked to tell what his masters thought and said. Some of their power was his when he spoke.
The mlungus – the whites – had heard of Shadrack. He had been a young man in his twenties at the time of the explorer’s death. He had carried the old man over his last river, and later had helped prepare the cadaver for the journey to Zanzibar. He said that it was he who had dug the hole for the biscuit tin. It was Shadrack who told them of my grandfather, who should have been too young at the time to have been of use, but who had been there. Not just as a helper – but in the old man’s hut.
Livingstone’s two servants – Susi and Chuma were their names – occupied a hut next to that of the white man. They were with him during the day but left him alone at night. It was my grandfather who sat at the explorer’s door, to sound the alarm if the situation worsened.
Why did Livingstone’s men not share his room, if they were so concerned for his welfare? Why did they leave him at night in a child’s care? Was it that they did not care for him beyond that link of Master and Servant? Did they not know that Death likes best to come in the night, when the body is at its weakest? Did they leave the boy who was my grandfather there to nurse, or merely to watch, so that he could go and tell them that the white man had died and that they were free? These were my father’s questions.
My father also said that Susi and Chuma carried the body a thousand miles to Zanzibar. Was it done out of love, or out of the fear that they would be called murderers if they had gone back alone? Moreover, they knew that Livingstone was loved by all of England and so they may have thought that the remains were worth some pennies on a string. If so, was this so wrong? Had they not given their lives in the service of the old man, yet received nothing in return? My father’s tales said nothing of the supposed love between people of different skins. We blacks are ruled by fear and doubt – whereas the whites come with cruelty and confidence. They choose at first hand to condemn – always. The relationship between my village and the film-makers was no different. We feared them – pandered to them – and they did as they pleased.
They took photographs and moving pictures of Shadrack and my grandfather. They dressed them in skins and told them to hold spears. All this was done in front of grandfather’s sleeping hut, and then they were photographed walking through the bush at the edge of the village, holding their spears at the ready. The film-makers wished to give the impression that there were lions nearby. They only worked in the early morning and in the late afternoon. The Boma messenger said this was because the light was good at these times – that the shadows were too heavy towards the middle of the day. The two men received five shillings each. Two worn silver half-crowns a-piece.
Because of all the interest in the past, there was a general telling of tales concerning that time. My father said that he would not have heard any of this had his leg not been broken, and he had not been placed in his grandfather’s hut to heal.
The stories told were about many subjects – hunts, droughts, good and bad years – and about the people who had lived through them. The Boma Messenger, although he knew nothing of our local village lore, would not be left out. He told the story of Livingstone’s death as he had heard it from the whites, recounting it with great reverence.
It appears that the explorer came to Chitambo’s village as a very sick man – on the edge of death. One morning they came into his hut to find him bent over his bed, and that he appeared to be praying. Then they saw that he was dead. God had taken pity on him as a holy man, and had gathered him up whilst he was at his prayers, to dress him in glory and sit him at the throne.
This made my grandfather laugh – he said that tales begin to tell themselves when they have been in too many mouths. Which made the Boma messenger angry – and he asked my grandfather how he could, so proudly, dispute the knowledge of the whites.
Then my grandfather told his story.
He had been placed in the hut – and here was the first point of difference – there was no bed, not in the sense of a European bed, with a frame and a mattress. Livingstone lay on the floor of the hut, on a bed of grass. He was curled up like a child, his hands between his thighs – grandfather showed his listeners how – and he moaned with pain.
Grandfather was not supposed to sleep, but had to keep watch. This, he said, was difficult for a boy, for Sleep is in love with Youth and readily takes children to the dream forest – leaving the old in the dark, to ponder their wasted lives. The boy woke in the deepest part of the night, brought from sleep by a draught of cooler air.
The old man was awake and had managed to sit up, and he was speaking – to his God.
He was angry. He asked why he had been betrayed. Why had he not been allowed to complete his work? Then he rambled a little, saying that the work of Man would lead to the work of God. That before God could claim the souls of Men, he must first make maps for their feet – only then would their hearts follow. Then Livingstone became distraught. He called out and cursed God, saying it was cruelty alone that would not allow him to find the source of the great river. If he had so displeased his Maker, then let him be smitten. The old man sat still and silent for a moment, his hands clasped, as if he expected an answer. Then he fell over, slowly.
My grandfather did not move, for fear that there was indeed some real God in the hut, and that he too might be taken. He sat with the corpse until the first light came, then escaped, to call Susi and Chuma.
My father said that everyone listened carefully to grandfather’s story – even the Boma messenger, who said that he must tell the white men immediately. He had heard them talk about what they called The Mystery of Livingstone’s last moments.
The messenger waited until the whites woke from their midday sleep. My grandfather was summoned, and asked to tell the tale again. He stood in the shade of an awning suspended from the side of the truck, where the whites sat around a folding table. As my grandfather spoke no English, the Boma Messenger was told to translate. The tale was told again, but this time it was angrily dismissed. How could he tell such lies? How could he have known what was said, when he could not speak English? He was told that he would do well to tell the truth, and not try to impress others with a falsehood. Had he expected money? If so, he would be disappointed, for white men do not pay liars for their trickery.
The following day the film-makers left as they had come, vanishing swiftly into the bush, until they were nothing but a distant noise, part of the hum of the forest.
My father’s leg never healed well. It was never straight, and it was short. He was never able, as his brothers were, to go to the mines where they learned things that were not always good. One of them never returned and another died there, underground – whereas my father became a tailor. He lived a life in the shade at the front of an Indian shop in Lusaka, on Cairo Road – working the pedal of the sewing machine with his good leg. And later I was born, and as I grew up, he told me all his truths and the truths of his father – one of which is, that it is not those who speak, but those who listen, who carry the greatest knowledge.
Had they but listened, the film-makers would have taken away great treasure. They did not understand that Livingstone had been so long in Africa that he barely spoke his native tongue. It was in Nyanja that the explorer had spoken with his God.
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