A Narrow Line
My photo assignment in the capital, Lusaka, had finished sooner than expected so I’d spontaneously gotten on a plane and flown north into the Copper Belt, to a town called Ndola. It was basically the edge of the wilderness.
An African driver in an old rickety car had then driven me for 3 hours through deeply rutted roads until we finally came to a clearing and a bush camp where I was to go on a walking safari. Several small thatched wooden stick buildings had been put up there, a few tents, an outhouse and a makeshift kitchen. In the back were the daub and wattle huts for the African staff. A young white woman with long blond hair came out of one of the wooden buildings and walked towards us. She wasn’t smiling.
“Can I help you?” she asked, looking us up and down. “The camp is closed and won’t open for another two days.”
“I’m a bit early I’m afraid,” I said. “My assignment in Lusaka ended sooner than I expected. I’m supposed to meet Charles for the walking safari that begins the day after tomorrow. I’m going to write a story.”
The woman couldn’t hide her annoyance. “Oh Christ. What are we supposed to do about it? No one called on your behalf and I don’t know you!”
I could tell from her voice she was Canadian. Those long ooo’s in ‘about.’
“Well that’s because Charles is off in the bush somewhere and doesn’t realize I got here a bit early.” I said, trying to smooth things over. “I mean, this is Africa–things like this happen all the time, you know that.”
She just stood there scowling.
“I’ll pay for my food. I just need some shelter,” I was trying to get her to see reason. What did she expect? “I have a sleeping bag.”
“Yeah, well ok,” she said, pointing to a rundown mud hut with a rickety reed door off to the side.“There’s an empty hut available over there that the African scouts use sometimes.”
Guess she doesn’t understand the value of public relations and the media, I thought to myself. Now I was annoyed. God knows what might slither or crawl into that dump during the night. But at least it was safer than sleeping rough.
The driver was looking at me politely and I realised he wanted to take off so I paid him and he left. As he was vanishing in a cloud of dust, I saw that the only communication in this camp was a sat phone for emergencies. I could be completely cut off from the world if I wasn’t careful.
I went over to the hut and put my backpack inside and got a book out to read. I sat down in one of the folding camp chairs by the charred wood from last night’s campfire and the woman came back over to me.
“Did you ask for permission to use one of these chairs?” she said.
I just looked at her and laughed. What an asshole! Then I said, “What did you say your name was again?”
“I didn’t,” she said.
“Then what do you want me to call you?” I asked, purposely slumping down in the chair. “Whatever you like, I don’t really care, she replied.
“Why are you being like this?” I said. I’d been in many safari camps and never experienced this kind of behavior.
“Because I’m sick of you Americans just breezing in whenever you feel like it and expecting the world to stop for you,” she said.
“Hey! Why are you lumping me in with people like that? I’m here working and my job ended early so I came up. And I’m paying you, so get off my back!!” I sat up. I figured it was time for a little pushback to this nonsense. She clearly had an ax to grind.
“Yeah, about that,” she said smirking. “I’m afraid that I was wrong about the cost. You’ll have to pay 50 percent more actually. I miscalculated the food.”
“And I’ll need the money now,” she added. “That is, if you want to eat.”
I was astonished. This bitch was trying to hold me hostage and there was nothing I could do. I had no rations in my backpack other than a crumpled power bar and a bottle of water. It hadn’t even occurred to me back when I was in Ndola.
“No.” I said. “I’ll give you a deposit now but pay for each meal at the end. I need to see that you will deliver–if I paid for all of it you could still keep upping the amount.” I knew that I’d just outmaneuvered her. Someone more inexperienced in Africa would have been screwed. She would have taken all their money and kept on asking for more. It really was an eat or be eaten environment at times. I suddenly wondered if I was even going to be fed.
She shrugged. But her greed got the best of her. As she held out her hand for the money I heard someone call “Kelly!” and she turned around. So that was her name. Good. Now I could make a complaint to the camp owners’ when I got home. I loathed her. She was a bully, and like all bullies knew when to take advantage when the other person was vulnerable.
“Here’s the deposit,” I said. “I’ll pay you tonight after dinner.” I didn’t appreciate her extortion and was already trying to figure out how I could get the price back down to what we’d originally agreed when my driver had still been around. I decided the day Charles arrived I would hold back the remainder and she wouldn’t dare ask me for it. She’d make a bit more than what had been agreed, but not 50 percent more.
The good thing about safari camps was that the food was always served buffet style, and you got yourself an empty plate and then stepped up to help yourself. I knew there was no way she could cheat me out of a decent meal at least.
That night when dinnertime arrived I saw that there were several whites in the camp other than Kelly. I went over to two men in their 20s and introduced myself. One guy was a South African college student from Pretoria on his summer break who served as a general dogsbody, and the other was a mechanic, a drifter really, who’d come over from the UK for the adventure. Bertus and Sam were friendly enough but their class differences were glaring. I wondered how long the bonhomie would last, especially once the booze started flowing, as it inevitably did with camps like these when the clients were absent.
The buffet was decent enough. Whether by design or preference, the Africans ate elsewhere, off to themselves, some with their families. The sun had gone down and the insects had begun their great chorus. Far in the distance I could hear the basso profundo honking of hippo and the occasional squeal of an angry monkey probably pissed off because his banana had been stolen by some interloper. Sam, Bertus and Kelly all just sat there drinking and staring into the campfire. Suddenly there was a great commotion as a work truck came tearing into camp and many African men jumped out, all shouting at once. One remained behind lying in the bed of the truck, very still.
“What the hell is going on?” Kelly said to Sam.
“I’m not sure,” he said uneasily, getting up and drunkenly walking toward the group.
A great wailing had begun from the huts in the back.
Oh shit, I thought. I think that guy in the truck might be dead.
Sam came back and told us that the overcrowded truck had gone over a rut too fast and the poor fellow had fallen off and broken his neck. He’d died instantly. They’d been off repairing the fencing that surrounded the camp and had been in a hurry to get back before the sun set.
He would be buried in the morning but the night was now going to be spent with a lot of drinking and singing in preparation for the funeral.
“Christ,” Kelly said in disgust, already on her second–or was it third?--gin and tonic. “Wait until you see what a bunch of savages they all are.”
Bertus and Sam both nodded in agreement.
“These are just different customs from our own,” I said mildly. “Don’t you find it interesting?” They all looked at me in astonishment.
“Are you a darkie lover, eh?” Bertus said sarcastically in that tight South African accent.
“I find all people interesting,” I replied, finishing my can of soda and getting up. It was time to leave. “Good night. I’m off to read.”
“Good luck with that,” Sam said, “Wait until they get going, you won’t be able to think straight.” I shook my head and walked off uneasily, feeling their eyes on my back.
The hut was actually very clean and had no insects inside, thank god. But I was on edge. Booze and racism were a bad combination, and the Africans were going to get really drunk that night. Who knew what could happen between these two groups, and I would be considered one of the whites, regardless.
So I decided to leave the hut and walk to the back of the camp where the singing was starting.
Many of the Africans spoke English and I began to introduce myself around. One fellow in a ragged Bob Marley t-shirt, eyes already glazed over from alcohol, came out of the crowd and said to me in a slur, “We love Americans. You help us so much. My sister teaches in a school you built. Here, come with me...” and he led me to a chair. “Please sit and listen to our singing as we celebrate my brother’s life.”
“OH! I am so sorry for you and your family.” I said. “This is a terrible day.”
His blood-shot eyes looked at me. “Yes,” and he wobbled off into the small crowd.
The women had begun singing and clapping in unison. I couldn’t understand the words but the slow melody was very beautiful. It went on for many cycles, and then the men began a response. This back and forth went on for a long time with everyone drinking and swaying and beating out the various rhythms. I was glad to be there.
Then it stopped and the crowd dispersed. I could see faint traces of pink in the sky and the mourning doves had begun their pulsing soulful calls to one another. Soon it would be light.
As I walked back to my hut I passed the buffet table, empty but for the large bouquet of flowers in the center. I took them all and went over to the truck where the dead man had been covered with some fabric that had tribal patterns all over it. I lay the flowers on the covered body and as I was walking back Kelly intercepted me.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” she hissed.
“I think it’s pretty obvious, don’t you?” I replied quietly. “You can always go pick more. It’s a nice gesture of sympathy. How would you feel if it had been your brother?”
“Well, he’s not, and these workers are a dime a dozen.” she said contemptuously. “You are not to mix with them, you hear? You will make problems for us. They are already lazy, and will stop doing their jobs altogether. We will lose our authority here thanks to you!”
Thanks to me? I thought. I shrugged and kept on walking. “I think you are wrong.”
“What do you know about any of it?” she was still drunk and her face was red with anger.
I waved her off and crawled into my hut. I needed a few hours sleep. As I was drifting off I heard the shy, plaintive cry of a leopard nearby. I’d never seen any but now at least I’d heard one.
It was getting hot as noon approached and I woke up.
“You missed this morning’s festivities,” Sam said sarcastically as I approached the lunch buffet. “He’s in the ground now but the animals will probably dig him up and eat him later tonight.” Bertus and Kelly laughed but I said nothing and just sat there eating. I badly needed that coffee to kick in otherwise who knows what I might have said to those jerks.
Bertus said to me, “You’ve got a visitor you know. He’s over there.”
Squatting patiently by a tree was an old man. He was carrying a small bundle.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s your new boyfriend,” Bertus said with a guffaw. “No really, hahaha, he’s from the local village. Probably wants to sell you something. The bush telegraph told them a gullible white tourist was in the camp.”
I walked over to the old man and put my right hand over my heart in the traditional greeting. “Mwaikaleni” I said. That was good afternoon in Bemba, one of the few phrases I knew.
He smiled. “Good Afternoon,” he said in English. “I have some things to show you.”
I sat down next to him. He opened the bundle and took out a long narrow mat, beautifully woven from dried grasses into a chevron pattern. I clapped my hands in delight.
“Oh how lovely!,” I said. “How much?”
“Twenty US dollars,” he said. I was shocked. It was such a cheap price for something so lovely, but on the black market those twenty American dollars would probably fetch a lot of Zambian kwacha.
“Ok,” I said.
He reached into his satchel and took out a small ebony frog. Its malevolent eyes were ivory and it was squatting. I turned it over and saw that the carver had given it a little anus.
“Haha, I will take him also. He is very well carved,” I said.
“Yes, we have a very good carver in our village, and for five US dollars this frog is yours.” he replied smiling.
I had no fives so I gave him a total of thirty dollars. I could see he was very pleased, and so was I. “Shaleenipo,” I said, shaking his hand and using the traditional Bemba for goodbye. He smiled and waved.
“Happy now?” Bertus said as I came back towards the camp.
“Yes! Very!!” I replied.
“You want to visit a real witch doctor later?” he was grinning. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.
“Seriously? That would be great,” I said.
“Ok. Then I’ll meet you at the Land Rover in about 30 minutes,” he replied. “Bring your water and a little money.”
That wouldn’t be difficult because I always kept my money in a money belt under my shirt. I even slept that way. Each day before I left I’d put a few American dollars and Zambian kwatcha in my pocket so that I could get around but I never displayed in public the full amount I had on me. That would be asking for trouble, especially in a remote camp like this one.
We drove for about an hour across a beautiful grassy plain. In the distance, giraffe were plucking the leaves off the acacia trees as a few graceful eland browsed nearby. We came closer and closer to a large daub and wattle hut, out in the middle of nowhere.
“There it is,” said Bertus, pointing.
I looked through my telephoto lens and saw that a very long pole came out of the gathered reed apex of the roof, extending towards the heavens, and on its end was......a lightbulb!
“That is fucking brilliant,” I cried. “A light bulb! What a perfect metaphor for a shaman!
We parked and went inside. It was very dark and smokey and my eyes began to burn. In the corner was a middle-aged man dressed in a ragged headdress of feathers, sitting on a tatty old zebra skin. He was throwing down bones like they were dice and ignored us for a bit.
Then he turned and said in English, “What is it you need?”
That’s a good question, I thought. Just what am I doing here really?
I looked over at Bertus in embarrassment not sure what to say.
“Oh, she’s looking for a husband,” he said. What a wise ass! I thought, and glared at him.
The man said nothing but began to root around in a large battered leather bag. Out came a little bottle with some kind of liquid in it and then a coin, an old Rhodesian penny from colonial days. He put the coin in the bottle and stoppered it firmly.
“You are to put this liquid on your face and arms before you go to meet someone you like. And when he sees you he will fall in love with you,” he said solemnly. “I am giving you a very powerful love potion.”
Part of me wanted to burst out laughing but part of me was actually a bit intimidated by this fellow, sitting there so quietly in the shadows.
“Thank you so much,” I said taking it from him. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” he said slyly. “But you can leave a tip in that basket if you wish.”
Well, how big a price can I put on a chance at love? Oh, he was clever all right. So I put an American ten dollar bill in the basket and knew it would be appreciated, especially when he visited the money changers in Ndola.
We turned and went out the door into a vast pink sky that was glowing from the setting sun. As we drove off Bertus starting laughing.
“So you’re all set now, missy,” he said. “Want to try it out on me?” And he put his hand on my thigh.
“Oh please Bertus,” I rolled my eyes and took his hand and put it on the steering wheel. “Give me a break. You’re way too young for me. Just focus on the road.”
“Well, ok, but you missed your chance!” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I replied and looked off at the sunset. “Isn’t that lovely? Every evening is always so special here. I love that about southern Africa.”
He nodded, still sulking a bit from the rebuff. Eh, he’d get over it, especially once we were back at camp and he could get drunk and pass out.
The buffet was in full swing when we got back and Kelly and Sam were already plastered. Don’t they have anything better to do? I wondered.
“So how was your trip to the Monkey King?” Kelly said to us giggling.
Bertus had popped a beer open and had already chugged it. So this was how it was going to be, I thought. I just had to get through this one last night.
“He gave her a love potion so she can find a husband,” he said laughing hysterically. Kelly and Sam joined in the derision.
I smiled. “Come on, it was a little adventure. And did you see the light bulb on his roof? What a great sign–like those Medieval tradesmen signs!”
“I’ve never been to him,” Kelly said with disdain. “Wouldn’t be caught dead there!”
“Me neither,” Sam replied.
And the three of them all began to laugh again. Everyone was getting very drunk, falling off their camp chairs and staring at the fire with glassy-eyed fascination.
“Hey!” Kelly said, standing up and pointing at me aggressively. “Who do you think you are anyway? Do you actually think you can understand these people? What an arrogant asshole you are!”
I could feel she wanted a fight.
The two men started chanting “fight, fight, fight!”
She wobbled over to me and her eyes were glittering with hatred. She put her face right up to mine and said, “Guess what? Do you know we have a gun here? I could kill you tonight and no one would ever even know you’d been here. Do you know that? Charles would come tomorrow and we’d just say we never saw you, and that would be that...” She poked me hard in the chest. Sam and Bertus howled in drunken acknowledgment and looked at each other. “Whoaaa, she’s right!”
I knew then and there I had only a brief moment to turn it all around. It was a narrow line that once crossed would mean disaster. The menace in the air and blood lust was very real, and Kelly had a point. This kind of thing wouldn’t be the first time murder had occurred out in the bush. In remote areas crimes just vanished. The wilderness covered all sins.
So I stood my ground and faced them all.
“Sorry but you’re out of luck,” I laughed. I was faking it of course but I had to do this very carefully. “The American Embassy in Lusaka knows I’m here–they have my entire schedule–and I spoke to the consul in Ndola before I left to come up here. He is expecting me back at the end of the walking safari, and he was the one who got me the driver. So all he’d have to do is check with him and the three of you would be stuck in some horrible African jail for the rest of your lives. Is that what you really want? Do you know what a nightmare those places are?”
That image began to sober them all up a bit.
It was total bullshit of course on my part, but plausible. I could see that the men had cooled down but Kelly was still sitting there staring at me intensely.
Goddamn she was nuts.
“You know Kelly, I think you need a break. You’re starting to go bush crazy.” I said, trying to be friendly. “Why don’t you talk to your bosses and ask for a long weekend or something? Go down to Joberg and party.”
She looked like she was going to explode. “You fucking Americans think the rest of the world is made of money! Fly to Joberg? What makes you think I have that kind of money? I can barely afford a trip to Ndola--I’m stuck here!” and she threw her glass at me and missed. It loudly hit one of the rocks around the fire and shattered.
“Oh shit, Kelly,” Sam said. “Calm down now will ya?” He got up and went over and put her in a bear hug. She began to sob and mumble drunkenly.
It felt like the tide had turned so I got out of there. I sat in my hut with the adrenaline pumping and wide-eyed with fear. I still had no idea what the night might hold for me and wondered if I should go off and sleep rough somewhere. But where? I’d need a fire otherwise the animals would get me and they’d all see that. Maybe I could sneak into one of the Land Rovers and sleep there. That might work. I could wait until Sam, Bertus and Kelly were all passed out and then quietly walk over, climb in, and lock the doors. The keys were always kept in the ignition so no one would be able to get in when I was inside.
Ten minutes, and then an hour, and then two hours ticked by. My adrenaline was still flowing and as soon as the camp was quiet for a while I crept out and began to walk over to the vehicles. Near the outhouse close to the Land Rovers I suddenly heard a weird ooo-up ooo-up sound and some rattling. Shit. A hyena was around looking for food.
The rattling stopped and suddenly a large slumped shadow of a hyena ran past me. He’d seen me coming and was as spooked as I was. I stood still for a while in case anyone had woken up and then carefully opened one of the Rover’s back doors. Not even a creak! Wow. Sam was a good mechanic–kept everything so clean and well-oiled, thank god. I climbed in and locked all the doors, and lay down exhausted for a few hours of sleep.
I woke the next morning to one of the African staff banging on the window. “Breakfast, miss,” he was saying cheerfully. I waved at him and got up.
Neither Sam, Kelly or Bertus was at breakfast; they had all been so drunk they were still fast asleep. I ate everything in sight, I was so hungry and relieved to see the light of a new day. Nothing would happen to me now.
I went back to my hut and lay down and dozed. A horn woke me up and I looked out of my little door. A driver had just pulled in with Charles and the two couples, his small exclusive group, flown in by bush plane from Ndola.
I crawled out and waved.
Kelly, Bertus and Sam were sitting around the burnt out fire eating and none of them would look at me. It wasn’t shame but simple avoidance. I could tell that the sooner Charles and I and the others were all gone from that camp the happier they would be. Then life could return to the alcohol, the boredom and the tedium they had all been so used to.
Charles and the couples went over to the buffet to get some breakfast. “How’s it going?” I said. “I got here a day early.”
“We’re all good. Did they treat you well?” he said smiling matter-of-factly. Oh if you only knew...I thought. “Oh yes, everything was great,” I replied smiling. Must keep the veneer intact–at least for now. Only I had seen the horror behind the curtain.
“We will just have a bite to eat and then get going,” he said. “Get your kit together for the vehicle and we’ll be off in about a half hour.”
“Wonderful! I’m looking forward to it,” I replied cheerfully, knowing that at the end we would be picked up by bush plane and taken back to Ndola for the connecting flight to the capital. We would never be coming back to this camp again.
Kelly, Sam and Bertus all stood submissively by with fake waves as the clients and Charles got into the Land Rover. Before getting in myself, I walked over to Kelly and whispered in her ear, “You’re a sick bitch, and I still owe you for three meals.” She’d been so drunk she hadn’t even remembered.
Her pasted on smile vanished but now there was little she could do to me.
As we were driving off towards the safari launch point I pulled out my telephoto lens and took her picture, just for the record. She looked at me with pure hatred. I’m sure if there had been a rifle nearby she would have picked it up and shot me and claimed she saw a lion in the bush and it had all been an accident. But I got away.
Adventurer, photojournalist and writer, Karen Petersen has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poetry was published in The Manzano Mountain Review and Pilgrimage Magazine in the USA, Orbis in the UK, and The Wild Word in Berlin. Her poems and short stories have also appeared in A New Ulster in Northern Ireland and The Bosphorus Review in Istanbul. In 2015, she read "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the KGB Bar in NYC. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.