They reached the camp at dusk that night. The tribesman left them about mile outside it. He left without a word, content with his watch and his job completed. He slipped quietly into the scrub in the silent knowledge that his life could continue for a while longer without disturbance. The exhausted tourists found themselves in a place that was both a tribal village and army barracks. On one side of the community was surrounded by long tents that looked like army surplus, the ancient army tents shuddered in the heat, some lackadaisical young men hovered in the entrances, some sheltered from the sun in the stuffy khaki atmosphere within. On the other side of the village stood the familiar “film set” rondvels with their walls made of mud and their rooves of something like sisal. Men and women in a mix of tribal and western dress were sitting at the entrances to these huts eating their evening meal. Goats and chickens wandered through the two camps spanning their divides. The local people watched and talked. Fires burned, smoke rose amid the cooking smells, voices murmured to each other in the quiet camp which grew, for a moment, silent, as the strangers entered. Then, once their credentials with the soldiers’ faction were established, the curious gazes dropped and the aura of suspicion eased – this was merely another aspect of politics. It did not do to arouse too much curiosity. At this signal of careless disinterest, children ran forward to inspect the new arrivals, and once they too had established the strangers as tourists a chorus of delighted “jambos” greeted the travel weary group. The children, hardly clothed, brown skinned, one or two of them too fat and thin to be healthy, ran alongside. ‘Jambo’ they called in their high pitched voices collapsing into giggles and a chorus of renewed vigour when one or other of the guests responded.
The tourists however were too tired to play the game for long. The nervous energy, that had kept them going over the past three days, now dissipated in a kind of relief. There was a feeling amongst them that they had arrived, that they had achieved something. Their hopes rose that they could now rest, that maybe some resolution would be found for the situation they were in. They set aside doubt and wedded themselves to hope. The tourists were led by Leo and Joseph to an older army tent which sat in the barrack half the compound.
They entered the tent and flopped down. Alongside the tents were some more permanent dwellings of rough wooden construction outside of which, uniformed figures gathered, some smoking, some eating, some watching and each armed. A few nodded to Leo and Joseph but none said anything. If the arrival of the tourists had been a surprise, nothing was said, but no pleasure was shown either, and where disinterest and indifference emanated from the tribal camp a tension and hostility communicated itself from the barracks.
The tourists were relieved to find themselves within the flimsy protection of the tent’s sides, shaded at least, from eyes. They seated themselves on the ground, silently. Leo entered with them and stood at the opening to the tent. ‘Some food will be brought to you in a minute.’
‘If we can stay awake that long.’ Carl interrupted and Leo almost smiled.
There is a guard on the camp, so you won’t be guarded individually. You’ve seen what the terrain is like out there, if you do fancy a walk, you’re welcome to try. We’ll be here for three days and then we’ll try and get you to the border. Believe me, we’re your best chance.’ Leo passed his hand over his forehead and pinched the skin between his eyes pressing his fingers together frowning. He raised his head and looked at them. He seemed about to say something else, but he shook his head and turned away.
After a moment Tom voiced what they were all thinking. ‘Do you think he means to let us go?’
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ asked Betty as if it had never occurred to her that they might be killed. ‘Why would he?” rebutted Carl.
‘Because of Jo?’ asked Tom.
‘More likely to have killed us because of that.’ Carl shifted his weight and began taking off his boots. He had been the only one to wear proper walking boots and they had done him proud. ‘I guess he doesn’t want to hold us because we’re too much trouble. We bring on the hunt, and I suppose he doesn’t want to kill us because he wants to show the world that the Rebels are nice guys.’
‘So we’ve got a fair chance of getting out of here then?’ said Jo hardly daring to hope that not only her presence would be irrelevant, but their release assured. ‘Not really, I think that’s what he meant about him being our best chance. If he wants to be mister nice guy the Government sure as heck won’t want him to be. If they find us first I’d say we’re history.’ Jo lay back and closed her eyes, what was the use of all this? She had no idea. She didn’t think she would be able to sleep without eating or drinking something, her lips were cracked and her face stung with the sun, for the first time since Leo had hit her hunger out did her pain, she was really gut shakingly hungry, but when she woke up it was morning.
The tent flap was opened wide to the sun and Joseph stood there with a bowl of steaming gloop that looked and tasted rather like porridge. He set it down and smiled ‘Breakfast!’ He beamed and Jo hauled herself up, blinking against the sun. He caught a look at her face and examined the slowly healing bruise. ‘I’ll send someone over to clean that up a little’ he said. ‘I see maybe there’s an infection.’
‘Got anything for the squits?’ asked Tom also sitting up but in a painful and careful manner. Joseph grinned. ‘Oh yes’ he said. ‘I have something wonderful for that!’ He stood up and surveyed his charges. ‘I have told the children we can for a game drive this afternoon, to find old man lion. There’s room for everyone.’
‘Is the van here then?’ Betty asked, suddenly wondering whether they had walked when they could have ridden.
‘Oh no, it’s an old landrover it’s always kept here.’
‘Where are the kids?’ Carl asked, agitated by their absence.
‘Over there,’ replied Joseph and he pulled back the tent flap so that the adults could see that the children had made friends. Marci was sitting in the midst of a group of children with a homemade toy in front of her. It was a car which was pushed along with a stick. The wheels were made of tin cans, its body was made of wood and some kind of gourd made a cabin in the top. Marci was giving its designers some advice on the axle, the benefit of some experience she had had with a go-cart. Craig had disdained this intellectual pursuit and could be seen crawling along on his belly commando style, a stick in his hand, approaching, with one other boy, an unsuspecting goat.
Despite the fierceness of the sun on their already scarlet skins, the tourists decided to move out into the open. There, at least, the curious could see them easily without having to contrive to wander past the tent and stare in. Once they had eaten, they sat watching the training of the soldiers, men and women, with an assortment of weapons, ranging from spears to automatic pistols. They went through a parade, before dispersing into groups for some kind of discussion. A young woman came over and cleaned the cut on Jo’s face. She said nothing but smiled once she had finished. Joseph came over a moment later and did a little ritual dance round Tom, in mockery of a stereotype, finally handing him a packet of pills. ‘Take two now, and one after every what did you say “squit”.’ That should block you solid.’ Tom grinned sheepishly and took the first two pills. Joseph wandered away to join a discussion group under a young baobab tree. The tourists sat and stared in silence for a while until at last, Carl broke their thoughts with a kind of triviality. ‘So we came here on holiday and Jo came to see her husband?’
‘Fiancée.’ Jo corrected.
‘That leaves you Tom, what are you here for?’
‘You make it sound like prison.’
‘Well that’s about the sum of it’ replied Carl. Tom nodded and chuckled.
‘Well I’m here because I was made redundant. I thought I’d spend some of the money on the cheapest most exotic holiday I could find. I’d never been out of Europe so I went for Africa. It was to be a last fling – as it were.’ There was another silence at the irony and then Betty said ‘So what do you do Tom?’
‘What did I do?’ Tom had been in reverie. ‘Oh I was an accountant. I chose that because I thought it would be a safe career.’ Jo caught the edge of hurt in his voice. His was a life, it seemed, that never quite worked out.
‘What are your plans when you get back?’
‘Set up on my own’ he said. ‘I don’t think it’s likely though. I’m not interested in it and after this, things are going to seem very different.’ The conversation lapsed. It was going nowhere. They were still too tired to make sense, too sensitive to reveal anything that mattered, still to afraid to disagree with each other.
At midday, they split up a little. The family settled down to siesta under a tree, sometimes watching, sometimes chatting. Tom, tired and ill, found a corner of the camp, away from all but the wiry dog that attached itself to him, and Jo went into the tent not wanting to be seen while she cried for Martin.
Her tears did not last long and neither did her prayers, for like all of the tourists all she still wanted to do was to sleep. The heat, the quietness, the gentle murmur of the nearby village and the buzzing of insects overwhelmed her thoughts and she dozed easily in the shade of the tent. The heat was not too stifling in the shade and as she drifted she half thought that she could hear Martin’s voice, talking gently under the baobab tree, teaching maths, for some reason. She awoke, startled a little while later, to the touch of Leo on her shoulder. She sat up quickly and instinctively backed away. The half smile on his face disappeared at her reaction, and crouching before her he dropped his head. Raising his eyes again, he seated himself before and said. ‘I came to make friends.’
‘Friends Leo?’ Jo felt an incredulous anger rise. It was nevertheless an opportunity she had been waiting for, ‘Leo you hit me so hard when we met, I’ll be worried about brain damage for the rest of my life, and you shot a man dead in front of my eyes because I got angry.’ She felt the tears threaten the effectiveness of her invective. She could still see the raised gun, the shooting and the dead child beneath a new body. ‘Because of my anger, Josie, not yours. I pulled the trigger. I’ve grown into the kind of man that does that. I doubt that you know how to pull a trigger. I did it Josie, for anger and for shame.’ She waited. If he had something more to say then let him say it and be done. ‘When I saw you Josie, I suddenly wasn’t in Kinjii any more. Your presence threw me. I felt as if you’d caught me trying to kidnap someone on the A46, and my shame made me angry.’ They paused.
‘But why Leo? Why?’
‘Why? Because Umtata is an evil man. Because Kinjii has had no “justice” as you called it in twenty years. People disappear, mothers lose their sons. Teenagers are hung in the square for playing on Nintendo, or for their parents speaking out of turn. In some parts of this country, children are raped, their hands cut off, in other parts women are routinely kept as slaves and all the money goes to Switzerland or London, for all I know to buy luxuries for Umtata. There’s no infrastructure, no health care and it is a breeding ground for anger and fundamentalism… you think I’m bad go find AlQuaeda’ He paused, while Jo processed some of what he had said, but before she could respond he carried on. “If I had a rocket launcher” Josie remember that. “If I had a rocket launcher some son of bitch would die”. You used to sing that Josie. You had that track, Bruce Cockburn or somebody yes? You could sing about it Josie, in your left wing enclaves, but now you have to face up to the fact that somebody has to do it. I’ve seen what the evil is like here Josie and you can’t fight men like Umtata by laying down in front of trains like Gandhi did. Umtata is not British. He doesn’t play cricket. He would just run you over,’
‘Were you always like this?’
‘You mean was I a terrorist in Leicester? If by that you mean did I make bombs and plant them in gentle English pubs for the IRA or on 7/7, no I wasn’t. I went to get a Law degree, to train my mind and I suppose to get away. To get away from the oppression and the poverty here and from the hundreds of weak men, including my father, who would not stand up to Umtata. But if you’re asking did I know I would one day have to fight, yes Josie, I knew then, I knew I would have to come back and fight.’ She stared at him and for the first time since their reunion they looked each other in the eye. He went on, wanting to tell her, wanting to make her understand. ‘Twenty years ago, when Joseph and I were nine or ten, in the days when you could still get a scholarship to the Palace School in the capital.’ He paused. ‘Joseph is a clever man Josie, my father paid for me, but he won his way in. We boarded. The Palace school was independent then, run by a Christian charity, but it was still next to the Presidential Palace. One night Umtata took it. He shot his way in with an army of thugs. A tribalistic army of people killing and howling. Joseph and I watched from our room. We saw the killings, the death and the fires that burnt the still living guards.’ He stopped and lowered his eyes to the sand. ‘That was awful, that was the end of our innocence. But at first nothing changed. Not for us anyway and we began to accept it. We carried on going to school, we buried the memories of the burning guards, we avoided the new guards and the new soldiers and they ignored us. But then bodies began to appear in the rivers and on the streets and Joseph’s uncle was one of them. Joseph was taken from the school and went back to the village. I used to visit him in the holidays but my father was paying for my education and he was white and had good trade contacts with the West, so I was safe.’ He paused again and traced the tack of a dung beetle as it marched across his sight line. This time, Jo did not feel inclined to try to speak, she understood now that she was to listen. ‘This one time, when I went back to see Joseph… One time, I found Joseph almost mad with grief and fear. He had seen some of Umtata’s men torture and kill a child in front of its mother and then they raped and killed her, before they took away the father to do God knows what to. All that holiday he just sat and shook, jumping at every sound, crying every night.’ Leo chuckled with a kind of angry bitterness ‘He was no fun any more so, as he came through, as he began to recover, even laugh, we vowed we’d stop it or die.’ He smiled at the memory. ‘It was just a child’s vow then, a little “secret” ritual. We were still only thirteen but we knew Umtata for what he was, a despot and a torturer.’
‘A man who eats children?’ Jo interrupted. ‘Isn’t that what they always say about African despots?’ Leo looked at her frustrated.
‘You don’t understand do you? You don’t see what it’s like to live under institutionalized violence for twenty years. You can’t fight that with the law or pacifism, or demonstrations in the square, you need weapons and air support, and yes I believed that then as I do now.’ Jo let it sink in and thought of what she had known of him then. She looked at him. ‘You were brutal after that party as I remember.’ He laughed and for a moment he was almost as she remembered him. ‘In a different kind of way yes, yes I was.’ She looked at him again still disbelieving the fact of their meeting.
‘I fell for you!’ she accused. ‘Hook, line and sinker at that party.’
‘I know’ he said, turning to look at her now ‘and I gave you reason.’
‘Too right!’ she replied, surprised by the intensity of her hurt even now. ‘It took me over a year to get over you then. It’ll take me a lifetime to get over you now.’ They stopped again, Leo consciously set his eyes to mesmerise hers. She let him hold her gaze, He reached out his hand to her face touching her. ‘Would you like to take up where the party left off?’
Jo backed off further and with a sudden movement that shocked even herself, she struck down the extended hand and tensed herself before him, ready to accept another blow. It didn’t come. ‘You see’ he said ‘already you are learning to fight.’ Her rage rekindled she felt tricked and betrayed. ‘And what if you win? What will your world be like? It’s already built on violence and brutality, what difference is there in that? Are you brutal enough Leo? Will you survive it and maintain the justice you’re fighting for or are you just the same’ She had struck at him and wounded him in his self doubt.
‘Everybody fights’ he almost hissed. ‘You just did. Everyone fights for their life and that’s what Umtata has done to this country. Threatened all our lives, made us fight. There are few martyrs in this world. I can think of only one man I know who would lay down his life in a noble, futile act. The rest of us just muddle through, I am better than Umtata Josie, or you and all your friends would be dead and gone by now. Perhaps the only reason I’m doing this is to prove that point to myself alone.’
‘Is that all it is? Just a point of principle? Is there nothing heroic about it?’
‘Oh there’ll be time enough for heroism. It’s going on now all over the world but the might of the institutions of violence in this country are so great, so evil it won’t be defeated by heroism alone. There are no rules in this fight, only brutality and you’ll see it before you leave here I promise you that.’ He stood up and turned to leave.
‘Leo’ she made him stop and she too stood up. She didn’t want to anger him, if not for her, for the others, she also did not want to apologise, but maybe, if she did.. ‘I’m sorry Leo, I don’t know about all this, I should have made more of an effort to find out. I thought it was just poverty, corruption, no oil, no diamonds, I can’t really understand, but I am sorry things couldn’t be different’. The slightest smile crossed his lips as he said
‘So am I Josie, so am I.’
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010