When I was very little it didn’t worry me that my name was Limpopo and I had a brother named Zambezi. It was only when I was a bit older that it struck me that our names were strange and unusual, comical even, since our surname was Rivers. Luckily by that time we were always referred to as Popo and Zam, which didn’t seem that different to Poppy or Sam, really. When I asked my father why we had been named after rivers he told me it had been my mother’s idea.
‘Your mother was not what you’d call the most conventional sort of woman,’ he said. ‘But she was the most beautiful person in the world, both inside and out.’
My mother had died just a few days after I had been born. Her death was caused by a blood clot that travelled from her leg up to her lung – she had been unaware that there was a problem at all, so when she died it was a dreadful shock to Dad because it was so unexpected. Zam was two years old at the time so neither of us could remember her at all, but we knew what she had looked like as Dad had hung a picture of her on the wall. It was in colour and showed a dainty, dark haired lady who had delicate features and was wearing bellbottomed jeans and a psychedelic peasant blouse. Her feet were bare and she was wearing no makeup but she had weaved white daisies into her dark hair. She held a guitar in her hands and I thought she was very beautiful and wished I could remember her. Her name was Jayne and Dad’s name was Tom, so their names were pretty ordinary.
Sometimes I thought that Zam looked a bit like Mum, especially when he was looking pensive, but most of the time he just looked like a smaller version of Dad. He had a shock of black hair that Dad kept trimmed very short with the clippers, dark sparkling eyes and a sprinkling of freckles over his nose. He was very good natured and many things made his eyes twinkle with amusement. When his mouth split into a cheeky grin – which was often – his eyes would crinkle at the corners, and his giggle was totally infectious. He and I were very close; we looked out for each other, played together and shared secrets that we wouldn’t tell anyone else. I think we were closer than most siblings because we didn’t have a mother and Dad was so often not there.
As long as I can remember, I used to wonder what my mother was really like. Not to look at because I had the photograph to show me that, but what she was like from the inside out. I spent hours looking at her picture and fantasising about what it would have been like if she was still around. The good thing about that was I could imagine her in any way I chose – one day she could be motherly and completely devoted to us, and the next she could be a famous guitar player, with the whole world worshiping her and being envious of Zam and I because she was our mother. But even while I had these fantasies I longed to really know her, and promised myself that when I was grow up I would somehow find out all about her from someone who knew, because Dad only seemed to have a limited amount of information about her.
Dad had said that Mum was not the most conventional sort of woman, but as I grew older I realised that we weren’t the most conventional sort of family either. We lived on the edge of Lake Kariba on the Zambian side in a strange little thatched house that I think must have been one of a kind. It had a very big veranda in front, where we did most of our living because it was usually so hot. There were cane chairs out there with comfortable cushions on them. The covers had once been bright patchwork but were now faded and split in many places. There was a wooden table where we could eat our meals and also a big fridge and deepfreeze.
The veranda led into a living room where we could go if it got too windy or rained very hard. There were more chairs there set on a large round sisal mat, but they were the soft kind and were far too hot to sit in most of the time. At the back of the lounge were three big wardrobes where we kept our clothes and more or less everything else we possessed. There was also a small desk where Dad kept his paperwork.
There was no wall as such between the living room and the veranda, just a long bamboo curtain that could be rolled down if necessary when the weather blew in. It wasn’t often necessary, but when it was and the curtain was let down we found it had become the home of a variety of insects which either flew off in disgust, or fluttered lifelessly onto the floor beneath the curtain. There were also little mud nests that the hornets had made stuck to the bamboo. It had a funny smell and jiggled about if it was very windy, shaking out anything that had managed to cling to it when it was unrolled. I remember on one occasion a snake had dropped out of it, making us all leap backwards in fright. Luckily Dad was there at the time and he shot it as it was trying to make off in a hurry into the rain. There was still a little pock mark in the cement floor where his bullet had struck.
There was a ladder that led to the two bedrooms upstairs. I call it upstairs, but really it was more like a platform that was situated above the lounge. It stretched from about the middle of the room to the back wall and was divided by a thin plywood wall to make two sleeping areas. The front of the platform had a half wall to prevent anyone falling off it, but above the wall it was open, although there were faded floral curtains that we could draw for privacy. Because the bedrooms were situated quite high up and the roof stretched for a long way in front of them, covering the entire living room and veranda, the rain was never blown into the bedrooms so there was no necessity for the bamboo curtains there. On one side of the partition there were two beds for Zam and myself and on the other there was another bed for Dad. There wasn’t really room for anything else up there, except the inevitable mosquito nets that hung above each bed.
We had to walk out of the veranda and round to the back of the house if we wanted to go to the kitchen or toilet and shower. Two little separate houses were built at the rear for those purposes. A little way beyond them, behind a massive bougainvillea bush, were two more little houses that were built for our staff.
Since there were no actual doors or windows in the main part of our house we couldn’t lock it up, but that didn’t seem to be a problem when I was little. The only thieves in the area were the vervet monkeys, who could be quite a pest. Our dogs usually kept them at bay, but occasionally they managed to swing onto our veranda, chattering with glee as they grabbed fruit or bread off the table that hadn’t been cleared away quickly enough after a meal. We had big wire meat safes in the kitchen that could be shut securely against the monkeys – it was far too hot to store meat in them, but they were good for the other things that the monkeys might purloin.
Although our house could never in a thousand years be called palatial, the view in front was one that a king might kill for! The house was situated up a steep bank and the whole of Lake Kariba lay glittering before us as we sat on the veranda, un-obscured even by the glass of a window. When the dam was full after we’d had good rains, the water would come right up to the base of the bank, but in the dry season it would recede and we could watch a variety of wild animals as they made their way out to the shallows to have a drink in the early morning and evening.
Of course, when I was little I never really appreciated the wonderful backdrop to our house. Depending on the weather the scene would change in mood and colour, the great expanse of water reflecting the ever changing sky. It was only when I was older and had travelled to different parts of the world that I could really understand how fortunate I had been to grow up in a place that was so wild and beautiful.
Apart from some magnificent bougainvillea and frangipani bushes we didn’t have a flower garden of any sort – Dad said that the elephants, hippos and buck would eat any flowers we planted so it would be a waste of time. We did have a vegetable garden at the back, around which he’d put a very strong fence. But still the wild animals seemed to break in on a regular basis. Worms and diseases also ravaged the crops of pathetic tomatoes and cabbages that Chamakomo, our cook, tried to grow there.
Chamakomo was proud to be our cook, but he was much more than that really. Apart from cooking very good food on the old wood stove, he cleaned the house, looked after the vegetable garden, kept an eye on the grounds, fed the dogs and was generally the boss when Dad wasn’t around. But more interestingly, he was also a practicing African witch doctor. Dad said that juju and black magic was all a lot of bloody stupid African nonsense and didn’t believe he was anything more than a cook, but as Zam and I grew up we were aware that a number of people came to consult him from time to time, and his reputation as a healer was well renowned around the lake. We understood that as well as cure a variety of illnesses he could also help resolve different sorts of problems – from loss of libido to how to deal with a nagging wife! He was a small wiry African of indefinite age, with a frosting of white on his hair and a network of fine wrinkles around his rather milky eyes. His parents hadn’t registered him when he was born so he didn’t really know how old he was, but that didn’t seem to worry him at all. He had a wife and family but they lived some miles away. Dad would have been happy for them to come and live with Chamakomo, but Chamakomo seemed to prefer to live in his little house by himself and just visit his family from time to time. I always felt he was more part of our family than theirs; he certainly seemed to love us all and tried to keep everything running smoothly.
When Mum died, Dad had employed a woman called Mudiwa Banda to look after Zam and I. Mudiwa was a large African woman who became a surrogate mother to us and we loved her dearly. She was a solid, rotund lady who was surprisingly energetic and light on her feet. Her round face often shone with perspiration but she was always smiling and good natured. Her deep brown eyes were kind and compassionate and when she laughed – which was often – her chubby cheeks lifted and squeezed her bottom eyelids up so that you could only just see her twinkling eyes through the slits.
When I was older she told me that she had been married once, but when she was unable to produce any babies for her husband he had sent her back to her parents in disgrace. She was “too sad,” she told me, but when she took on the job of looking after Zam and me she became happy again, because it was like having babies of her own.
Mudiwa was a lovely person; when I was a baby she used to carry me around on her back in a cloth sling in the way all African women carry their babies. I can still vaguely recollect the feeling of her soft body and the soothing rhythm of her steps as she walked around doing the chores and looking after Zam. I can also recall the comforting smell of her body. It smelt of Lifebuoy soap in the morning, but by the evening, after a day in the sweltering heat it had taken on a musky odour. And of course, like all African people who cook on open fires, the smell of wood smoke always clung to her as well. Then there was her singing. She often sang as she worked, funny little African songs that didn’t make any sense.
Dad relied on her a lot. He wasn’t the sort of guy who could ever be a ‘Stay at home dad.’ To be honest, I don’t know of any white, male Africans who would do that, they all seem to be such a macho, masculine lot – or aspired to be so! And Dad was even more macho and masculine than most of them. He was an imposing figure, tall and broad shouldered with handsome, well formed features. He looked as though he’d been carved out of a piece of granite, his body was as hard as a rock and his face was deeply lined and burned a nut brown colour by the hot African sun. He had a shock of thick black hair, deep brown eyes and a mouth that was set in a no-nonsense straight line. You could see at a glance that he was physically and mentally tough and I thought he looked quite fierce most of the time. But it was just his expression; underneath he was a kind and good man and I loved it when he was around, especially at bed time when we’d all sit on one of the beds upstairs and I would cuddle up to him enjoying his masculine smell of sweat, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, while he told us stories about how he’d met Mum and also about the time when the Kariba Dam was first made and all the animals had to be rescued before the water rose up and drowned them. It was called operation Noah and we loved to hear how he and the others had saved so many animals, but most of all I liked hearing about my mother and how she and Dad had got together.
‘I was a young man when my friend Philip and I decided to travel up north to Kenya on an extended fishing trip,’ he told us. ‘Our ultimate aim was to go fishing for Nile Perch in Lake Rudolph, which is now called Lake Turkana, of course. So we bought an old Land Rover and travelled via Tanganyika, which is known as Tanzania now. We camped every night and stopped many times to go fishing in the numerous rivers and streams. We detoured several times so we could fish in the lakes as well, and of course we had to go deep sea fishing which was very exciting. We caught Tuna, Marlin and Sailfish. Those bloody Marlin put up a hell of a fight, man, they’re even more fun than a Tiger fish, hey!’
They had eventually arrived at Lake Rudolph and made camp there. Dad said the road was so bad it took them days to get there, driving at snail’s pace in the blistering heat, but it was worth it.
‘They call it the Jade Sea,’ he told us. ‘And it’s true – the water is this fantastic colour and stretches for miles and miles, glittering in the heat of the sun. The countryside around it is semi-arid and the lake is surrounded by volcanic boulders and purple coloured hills, which make the beauty of the lake stand out more than ever. Man, it’s beautiful.’
They hired a boat and took it out on the jade waters so they could fish for Nile Perch and some of the other species of fish that resided in the cool waters.
‘We caught a monster Perch that weighed 324 lbs,’ said Dad. ‘That was the biggest we caught, but other people have caught some that are over 400 lbs! It was magic on the lake, hey, it was full of fish and the bird life was impressive as well. We saw pelicans, flamingo, ibis, spoonbills, fish eagles and many, many other birds.’
Dad and Philip obviously felt that they’d found paradise on earth, although they were aware that the lake was full of huge Nile crocodiles. They fished during the day and in the evening they made camp at the edge of the lake, where they dined on fish as they watched the sun going down in a blaze of colour, painting the lake so that it changed from jade to the flaming colours of the sky. Later the velvety darkness would fall, revealing clusters of bright stars that seemed to hang just above their heads.
They had travelled to the north eastern shores of the lake and one evening Dad left Philip in the boat while he went to find a good place to set up camp. The fierce heat of the day had passed, leaving the air warm, thick and mellow. Dad felt at peace with the world and himself as he scouted about looking for a camping spot. Suddenly in the distance he spotted what looked like a woman with long flowing hair. It seemed she was sitting on one of the volcanic boulders looking out over the lake. He knew that it couldn’t possibly be a woman in this remote area, but decided to walk towards the place to see what it actually was. He thought it was probably just boulders, one balanced on another,
which made it look like a woman in the fading light. But as he got closer and closer the woman looked more and more real, and what was more she appeared to be of European decent. Dad wondered if their extended stay in such an isolated part of the world had made him go a little bit mad, because he knew without a doubt that what he was looking at could not be a woman of European decent. He kept walking towards her and she just watched him as he approached, not showing any surprise at his appearance at all. He saw that she was quite beautiful, with sparkling, deep brown eyes and long dark hair that was caught up in a lose ponytail. Her skin was smooth and tanned and she had tucked her legs under her as she sat on the boulder. She was wearing shorts and a very colourful top, but he felt she exuded a melancholy air. He stopped just a few feet from her and they studied each other with interest. At last Dad broke the silence.
‘I think I see a beautiful woman before my eyes but it can’t be true. I must either be mad or dreaming!’
‘You are neither mad nor dreaming, sir,’ she replied in a very upper class English accent. ‘I am here in the flesh!’
‘But who…who are you? How is it possible for you to be here all alone in this lonely spot?’
‘Alas, I am not alone. I am part of an archaeological team, headed by the famous Richard Leakey. And you sir, you must have come to rescue me from a fate worse than death?’
‘Man, I’d be happy to rescue you!’ said Dad grinning at her. ‘But why do you need rescuing?’ He held out his hand. ‘Tom Rivers at your service, madam.’
‘I’m Jayne Finnely-White,’ the woman replied shaking his hand. ‘Won’t you sit down? There’s plenty of room on this rock,’ she shifted up a bit. ‘But I’m afraid I can’t offer you any refreshment.’
Dad sat next to her and she told him that Dr Richard Leakey headed the archaeological dig at Koobi Fora which was not far from where they sat. He and some graduate students in anthropology were digging up fossils and trying to find the link in man’s evolutionary chain. However, she was only there because her father was friendly with Richard and had begged him to allow her to go on the expedition.
‘Father was worried about me,’ she told Dad. ‘I joined the hippie movement and adopted their philosophy and he certainly did not approve! Father is a military man – short back and sides, precise and proper! He just couldn’t get his head around the fact that I totally rejected some established institutions, like the army, for example! I opposed all wars – Vietnam in particular – and also the use of nuclear weapons. He didn’t like the people I was associating with because we wore bright, colourful clothing and many of the men let their hair grow long, but it was when I told him that I championed sexual liberation that he really freaked out! Mother was just as bad, she told me that I should be grateful for my upbringing and when I criticised middle class values, she told my father that something must be done before I did something really stupid like getting pregnant or trying psychedelic drugs. I was actually all set to move away from home and join a hippie commune, when suddenly I found that I was to fly out to Africa to join Richard Leaky on a dig! Of course I opposed the idea, but as I said, Father is a military man, very pugnacious, and he always gets his own way! So here I am in one of the most beautiful places on the earth but totally miserable because it’s not what I want. All this grubbing about looking for boring fossils and talk of Paranthropus boisei and Homo erectus – Homo erectus! I ask you! Well, it just sounds rather rude to me! You have come to rescue me, haven’t you?’
Just then Philip turned up. He’d been worried when Dad hadn’t returned to the boat and had gone to look for him. Dad said his face was an absolute picture when he found him sitting on a boulder chatting to a beautiful woman.
Jayne had invited them both to come and meet Richard Leakey who turned out to be quite hospitable and invited them to pitch their tents within his camp. Later, when Jayne had retired and the men sat drinking together, he told them that Jayne had become a real problem.
‘I brought her along as her father is an old family friend and he begged to me to do so. He thought that getting her away from the bad influence of the hippie movement would help her to sort out her head. But she’s not in the least bit interested in what we’re doing here,’ he said. ‘She keeps wandering further and further away from camp. I just can’t keep tabs on her all the time; I’m a busy man, so I’m really afraid that she will come to grief, somehow.’
Dad had fallen in love with Jayne from the first moment that he’d seen her, so he suggested to Richard that he allow Jayne to go back with him and Philip; they’d take her to Nairobi and put her on a flight back to England. Richard told Dad he’d have to think about it for a couple of days, so they stayed at Koobi Fora and after two days Richard decided that Dad and Philip were decent people and said Jayne could go with them to Nairobi if she chose to. Jayne, who claimed later she’d fallen in love with Dad from the moment she’s seen him appear out of the lake haze, was quick to agree to leave Koobi Fora.
By the time they reached Nairobi she and Dad had decided to get married and managed to get a special licence so they could be wed in immediately. Jayne sent a telegram to her parents:
‘Have met the man of my dreams stop getting married in Nairobi then going back to his home in central Africa stop Love Jayne.’
She received a telegram back from her father that read:
‘If you dare to do anything so stupid you will be disinherited stop come home immediately stop Father.’
So they got married and Jayne was disinherited. Her family didn’t want to have any more contact with her but she didn’t care. She’d found the man of her dreams and loved his little house by the lake and the lifestyle that they lived. When she had given birth to a son she called him Zambezi, because she said that since his surname would be Rivers he should be named after a river and the Zambezi was the greatest and most beautiful river in Africa – also it was the longest river in Africa that drained into the Indian Ocean. She said it would be a great honour for him to be named after it and if she ever had a daughter her name would be Limpopo, because the Limpopo River was the second largest river in Africa that drained into the Indian Ocean and it was a pretty, feminine river with it’s grey-green waters and banks all set about with fever trees.
Dad told us this story many times, adding more and more details as we got older and could understand more readily how adults lived their lives. I loved hearing it; it made me feel close to my mother, and with Dad right next to me on the bed I felt it was almost as though we were still a whole family. I just wished Dad was there every night to tell us stories before we went to bed.
Unfortunately he wasn’t around as much as we would have liked. His way of coping with the death of his wife was to work all hours of the day and night, so he didn’t have time to think too much. He was involved in the kapenta fishing industry and had his own rig. The kapenta is a sardine that thrives in the lake and has become a major source of refrigeration-free, high protein food in central Africa – commercially it is very lucrative. Every night when the rigs went out we could see little lights dotted all over the lake as the various owners sailed their rigs out for a night’s fishing. Each rig had enormous lights that were lowered into the water. The light attracted shoals of kapenta and they were then caught in huge circular nets. Later, they were sun dried on racks. Zam and I would always try and guess which light was Dad’s rig when we looked at all the kapenta boats’ lights bobbing about on the lake.
While he was away fishing for kapenta, Mudiwa would give us our supper and put us to bed. She slept on the veranda on a camp bed that Dad had provided for her, so that she was close enough to hear us if we woke up and needed someone. What puzzled me was that she slept on this low camp bed with no problems at all, but in her own little house her bed was raised up on bricks, which, she told me, was necessary to prevent the Tokoloshe from hiding underneath and coming up to attack her. Perhaps the low camp bed was just too low for the Tokoloshe to squeeze underneath, I thought, or maybe it was because the dogs also slept on the veranda and kept them at bay – or even, perhaps, the spray that Chamakomo pumped out of the flit-gun every night to deter the mosquitoes could possibly be poisonous to the Tokoloshe.
Mudiwa had taught us a lot about the Tokoloshe; they were malevolent goblin like creatures that looked similar to gremlins. They were short, hairy pot-bellied and had such big penises they had to carry them slung over their shoulders. Zam and I used to giggle about the penis bit as we thought it was very rude and very funny. Anyway, these creatures apparently wandered about, causing mischief where ever they went. Mudiwa told us about several accidents that must definitely have been caused by these Tokoloshe. She said that anyone who attempted to fight them would be banished to the African underworld and their children would age rapidly and crumble to dust. It all sounded rather alarming, but when we questioned Chamakomo about them he just shook his head, muttered something and walked off. Mudiwa said he did that because he must have seen a Tokoloshe but he was frightened to tell a soul, because if he did the Tokoloshe would return and seek retribution. Dad had only slightly more to say about them than Chamakomo, ‘It’s all a lot of bloody stupid African nonsense!’ he snorted.
Anyway, Mudiwa slept on her low camp bed and was never troubled by the Tokoloshe, while the dogs slept around her, some of them on the cane chairs because they were more comfortable than the hard floor. No one minded them sleeping on the chairs, but they did tend to leave several of their unwanted fleas in the cushions when they vacated them in the morning.
Fleas and ticks were always a problem, even though Dad bought evil smelling powder to put on the dogs to deter them. I don’t think the powder did any more than annoy the fleas and make them rush around in agitation, because the dogs seemed to scratch even more for an hour or two after the powder had been put on because of the fleas’ frantic activities. The ticks seemed completely oblivious to the powder and every night Chamakomo, Zam and I used to go over each dog in turn and pull off all the ticks we could find. Some of them were already bloated with blood, their grossly distended grey bodies as big as peas as they hung on by their mouths, sucking the blood out of the dogs. Others were red spider ticks or the tiny, grey pepper ticks. We’d pluck them off one by one and drop them into a tin of water where they’d drown. Zam liked to pop the fat grey ticks between his fingers so that dark red blood would burst out. He said it served them right for trying to steal blood from our dogs.
A friend of Dad’s told him about this dip that you could wash the dogs in to kill the fleas and ticks, but our dogs were rough African bush dogs, not the sort that would placidly sit in a basin of water and allow you to wash them. We had seven in all: Chaka, Churchill and Rommel were very big dogs – probably a mix of Mastiff, Rhodesian ridgeback, Rottweiler and the local African dogs. Sometimes Dad would take those three with him when he went hunting. Scat, Chillie and Foxy were pure African dogs, quite small, wiry and very tough. Then there was Maddy. Maddy was quite different to the others who were all a uniform brown colour. She was a little wirehaired Jack Russell terrier, white with brown and black patches on her. She had been Mum’s dog. Dad said he’d bought her for Mum because Mum said she loved Jack Russell terriers most of all. He called Maddy ‘the Pom dog’ because Jack Russells had originated in England and she was not rough and tough like the others. They were survival artists who managed to avoid getting killed by baboons, wild pigs and snakes. They dodged wire snares set by the Africans to catch small animals and seemed immune to tick-fever. You could see in their eyes that they were hard and would endure whatever the circumstances, but Maddy was different. She had a soft look in her eyes and liked to be petted and brushed and made a fuss of. Dad liked tough dogs but he said we should take special care of Maddy because she’d been Mum’s dog and Mum had loved her very much. So Maddy became my dog – she was my link to Mum and I loved her just as much as Mum had.
Although Maddy was not as tough as the others she was very much cleverer than they were, I thought. She was the only one that was able to climb up the ladder to the bedroom area and go down it again without any help. Maddy loved me as much as I loved her and liked to sleep on my bed under the mosquito net. She would curl up at the bottom and guard me from the Tokoloshe and anything else that she thought was threatening. Dad did get some dip to wash the fleas off her, but although it worked she soon caught fleas from the other dogs again so I always had flea bites on my legs and body from Maddy’s fleas, but they didn’t bother me too much. They weren’t as itchy as a mosquito bite and didn’t sting like the Tsetse Fly bites that we got when we were out in the bush. Occasionally we got ticks on us which we pulled off quickly because they, like the mosquitoes, carried diseases that could make you very sick.
Another thing that we caught from the dogs was worms. Dad said we shouldn’t let them lick us on our mouths or we could get worms from them, but I think we also got worms from walking around bare footed all the time. Most of the time it was so hot where we lived we didn’t really need to wear shoes, and soon the soles of our feet became so hard we could walk over the roughest ground without any discomfort. When Dad noticed that Zam and I couldn’t stop scratching our bums and out bellies were round and bloated he’d get some worm medicine, some for the dogs and some for us, and we’d all be dosed.
Sometimes it was a long time before Dad noticed things like that. He loved us dearly but he just wasn’t a very paternal sort of guy and was the kind of person who would have relied on his wife to take care of all that sort of thing, if she had been around. He was very active, he loved his kapenta business and worked very hard at it, but he also liked going out in his little motor boat to do some ordinary fishing and would take Zam and I with him when we got old enough not to be liabilities. He would tell us to dig up plenty of worms from the earth, which we did with the help of Chamakomo, so we had bait for our hooks and we would catch Bream, which made very good eating. We also caught Tiger Fish, which had gold and black stripes and big piranha-type teeth, and pound for pound they were the liveliest fighting fish in the world. You couldn’t eat them but Dad and Zam loved the fun of fighting them in. They never gave up tugging, jumping and diving to try and get free from the line. Both Zam and I enjoyed the little fishing jaunts. It was lovely out on the lake with its ever changing moods, dodging the Kariba weed which floated around in great spongy green carpets. There were also petrified trees which protruded from the water, looking grey and ghostly in their leafless state, often with a great Fish eagle perched at the top of them. In the very early morning and at sunset the lake would reflect the lovely skies that we got at those times and become breathtakingly beautiful.
Dad also loved hunting and he would go out on hunting safaris and bring back meat to be made into biltong, which we all loved. He had taught Tikki, one of his safari boys, to make it and Zam liked to help him. I didn’t, I always felt sorry for the poor animal that had been shot, but it didn’t stop me enjoying the finished product. Dad told me that Zam and I had cut our teeth on strips of biltong and that was why we had such good, strong teeth.
Biltong wasn’t that difficult to make. Long strips of meat were marinated in a vinegar solution for a few hours and then rubbed with a mix of herbs, salt and spices. It was then hung out on lines to dry in a cool shed for a few days until it became desiccated. The result was sticks of black, rock hard biltong that was delicious to chew on. Sometimes when there was no fish or meat in the deepfreeze, Chamakomo would dice it up and make it into a stew.
I guess our diet was very healthy. We lived on fish and fruit, mostly, and all the unhealthy things that kids love to have just weren’t an option. Dad did take us shopping in Siavonga, occasionally, the little town that is built on the upper sections of three or four hills close to the lake. Zam and I loved going there and Dad would buy us a packet of crisps if we were good. Outside the shops were advertisements for Coke, Panadol, Cafenal, Milo and Ambi skin lightening cream. There was a man that sat under the advertisements with his treadle sewing machine where he’d make and alter clothes for people. Dad sometimes got him to make shorts and shirts for Zam, but he never made me anything because I just used to wear Zam’ s clothes when they got too small for him. Inside, the shop was full of things, from sacks of mealie-meal to bolts of material. Everywhere you looked there were shelves crammed with packets and tins and bags, and on the floor there were stacks of buckets, hoes, machetes and a variety of hardware – a real Aladdin’s cave in my eyes.
The crisps were about the only junk food that we consumed. Of course, if we went to visit other people there was often very delicious food on offer in the form of biscuits and cakes. Most of all, Zam and I liked to visit Uncle Arend and Auntie Amy. They were our closest neighbours and lived about two miles further down the lake. They were the people who Mudiwa and Chamakomo could call on if there was an emergency when Dad wasn’t at home. They had a telephone and a car, so they could take us to the doctor if we suddenly became sick or got bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion.
I think Dad and Uncle Arend had been friends for years and years, ever since they’d been at school together in South Africa. Dad had had to travel all the way from Choma in Zambia to the school in South Africa, but Uncle Arend only lived about fifty miles from the school, so when they were allowed out on exeat Uncle Arend would invite Dad to come home with him because going all the way back to Zambia would have been out of the question. After they’d finished school they went hunting and travelling together and Uncle Arend had met Auntie Amy in Mauritius when he and Dad had travelled there. Auntie Amy told me that it had been love at first sight and she knew from the minute that she met Uncle Arend that he would become her husband. It certainly seemed to be a match made in heaven, but Mudiwa told me that Uncle Arend could never go back to live in South Africa because he’d married Auntie Amy.
‘Why, Mudiwa?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Because of her skin,’ Mudiwa told me, rolling her eyes.
‘But why, because of her skin. What’s wrong with her skin?’ I couldn’t think what could be wrong with her skin. It was a beautiful, olive brown unblemished skin and I couldn’t think why anyone would find anything wrong with it.
‘Because, you know, the skin it is dark,’ explained Mudiwa. ‘In South Africa dark people and white people can’t be together.’
This was a very strange concept to me at the time and I thought about it for a while, trying to figure out why dark skinned people couldn’t be with white people, but I could think of no good reason. Zam and I spent most of our time with dark skinned people and no harm came of it, so it was a real puzzle. However, I decided that it was probably better for Uncle Arend and Auntie Amy to live in Zambia anyway, because it was nice here by the lake and they had a lovely house, much bigger and better than ours.
I though that Auntie Amy was probably the most beautiful person in Zambia. She had glossy black hair, dark, flashing eyes and a mouth that never seemed to stop smiling. Whenever we went over to visit them she would always have something delicious in one of her tins in the kitchen. She’d ask me to come with her to make the tea and would make me wash my hands in the sink before we started. Then, while she made the tea she would give me a big plate with a white doily on it and ask me to put the contents of one of the tins onto the plate.
‘Arrange them nicely,’ she would say. ‘So they look pretty and appetising.’
I thought that they looked appetising just sitting in the tin; cakes with icing and cherries on the top, sugar coated biscuits, tarts with jam in them – they all looked so delicious it just made my mouth water to look at them! We never had any thing like that at home and I’d never even seen a doily before Auntie Amy showed one to me and told me what it was for.
Uncle Arend was really nice as well. After going to South Africa once, without Auntie Amy, of course, on account of her skin, he came back with a box full of toys for Zam and me. He had bought some things for himself at an auction sale and then a lot had come up consisting of a box of toys, which he’s bid for and got especially for us because we didn’t really have any proper toys.
‘I’m afraid that they’re all boy’s toys,’ he’d told me apologetically when he gave them to us, but I didn’t care, I knew I’d have just as much fun as Zam playing with the toy cars and boats, the football, the Lego, the Action man and the cricket bat and ball.
Before we got those toys, Zam and I played with whatever we could. We dug holes outside our house and filled them with water and floated bits of wood on them, pretending they were boats. We’d build mud castles along side and use twigs for trees. Dad had helped us to build a little tree house which we always had to check for snakes before playing in it. It was a wonderful place to play and with a little imagination it could become a boat on the high seas, a train that went all around the edge of the lake, an aeroplane that flew to strange far away places or even a hospital where people had to be kept in isolation. We could be pirates, doctors, airline captains, train drivers or passengers – the possibilities were endless.
Mudiwa and Chamakomo introduced us to some interesting amusement as well. Mudiwa pointed out some indentations in the sandy ground and told us that an antlion had made the little pits, hoping that a small insect would fall into them. He would hide under the sand and if an insect was hapless enough to fall into his pit, the antlion would leap out and capture him – his fate being the antlion’s dinner! She showed us how to tickle the inside of the pit with a piece of grass so that the antlion would come leaping out from under the sand and grab the grass in his huge jaws, thinking it was going to be another meal. Zam and I would have competitions to see how many antlions we could trick into leaping out of their hiding places.
Chamakomo had another game to show us. If we poured water down some holes in the ground almost invariably a tarantula would emerge. Chamakomo would deftly catch it in a white plastic basin we used in the kitchen and then go in search of another one. When he had got two he’d put them together and immediately they would begin to fight. This was very exciting to watch as it was always a fight to the death and Mudiwa and Chamakomo and even some of Dad’s kapenta boys liked to participate in the fun. Bets would be taken as to which one would win, and everyone would become very animated, cheering on the one they’d chosen to back. Zam’s face would go red with excitement as he jumped up and down encouraging his spider to win. If it did, his cheer could be heard above everyone else’s!
‘Jeez, man, did you see that? Donnered him one time! One time!’ he would exclaim in delight.
I guess it was rather a blood thirsty activity for young children to be participating in, but this was Africa and there was no room for dying swans where we grew up.
Dad, Chamakomo and Mudiwa all alerted us to the dangers that we could come across. The tarantulas that we captured could bite you, although they weren’t very poisonous, but there were other spiders that were much more poisonous. Getting stung by a scorpion would be incredibly painful and may make you sick for days. The hornets and wasps that were always around could also give you a painful sting, but they mostly tried to keep out of your way so it shouldn’t happen unless you were very unlucky.
Any stray dogs that came around should be viewed with suspicion as they might be carrying rabies. This disease affected their brain and made them very aggressive and fearless. If they bit you their infected saliva would enter your body and infect you with the disease. There was no cure for this and after being sick for a few days, the infection would get to your brain and cause paralysis and convulsions. These could be so severe it was not unusual for a rabies patient to break their own back. It wasn’t only dogs that carried rabies. Anything they bit could be infected and carry the disease in their saliva – cats, Jackals, cows, any warm blooded creature – so anything acting in a suspicious way had to be treated with caution.
One day when Zam and I were playing outside and we were so engrossed in our game of making little roads for our toy cars, we didn’t notice a strange dog approaching. All our dogs had gone out with Dad, all except Maddy who was asleep on the veranda of our house where the concrete was cool for her to lie on and she could catch a little breeze off the lake. Some dogs that have rabies have a very distressed cry that alerts you to the fact they’re there, but others are dumb and this one was dumb. Zam looked up from a little bridge he was making and saw the dog that was now almost upon us. Its eyes were wild and there was a foam of saliva around its mouth.
‘Run, Popo, run!’ he shrieked, grabbing my hand and pulling me away from my task of making a petrol station.
Screaming, we ran toward the house. Mudiwa, Chamakomo and Maddy came running out to see what was wrong. Chamakomo had a broom in his hands and he ran fearlessly at the rabid dog, trying to head it away from us. Mudiwa snatched both Zam and I up out of reach of the snapping jaws of the animal, and Maddy, with all her long hair on end, went rushing in to defend the people she loved most.
‘Maddy!’ I screamed. ‘Don’t go near it, Maddy!’ I knew that if she got bitten by the dog Dad would have to shoot her. She would have the infection in her blood from the dog’s saliva and nothing but a bullet in the head would stop the disease developing in her body and head.
I tried to get away from Mudiwa so that I could get Maddy out of harm’s way, but she hung on to me tightly and dragged both Zam and me towards the safety of the house. Maddy was dancing around the rabid dog, distracting it but never getting within range of its jaws. Instinctively she seemed to know that there was something very different about this dog. I was still screaming at her to come to me as they disappeared behind the house with Chamakomo close behind, and I was quite beside myself with fear for Maddy. But Mudiwa just wouldn’t let me go and a few minutes later Chamakomo appeared again with Maddy.
‘It’s okay,’ he said grinning. ‘Dog is dead now.’ I knew he’d killed it with the broom but all I cared about was Maddy.
‘Did it bite Maddy?’ I asked fearfully.
‘No. No biting Maddy, no biting me, it’s okay, you can see Maddy is okay.’
Mudiwa allowed me to go to Maddy now and I checked her all over for bites. She sat there panting with the heat and the excitement she’d had, enjoying the feeling of my hands going all over her body. Zam came to help and Mudiwa also checked her over, but there were no bites and not even saliva on her thick coat. I was so relieved I didn’t even notice Chamakomo going off to dispose of the dead dog.
Obviously all the wild animals that lived in the area could be dangerous. Often there were herds of elephant that came down to the lake to drink and they had to be treated with the utmost respect. Mudiwa taught us how to act if we were out walking and came across elephant. We’d quietly move away from them and keep well out of the way until they’d moved off.
The lake itself was full of dangers; Nile crocodile resided in its depths, together with hippopotamus. The hippos would emerge at night to graze along the edge of the lake and often we’d hear them careering about and fighting. Although they were not meat eaters they caused many deaths, because they were very aggressive when people got in their way and could chop a person in half with one crunch of their massive jaws. But the worst danger in the lake was Bilharzia. This is a parasite carried by fresh water snails, of which there are many around the edges of the lake. The parasite can penetrate your skin and enter your body, usually migrating to the veins and bladder. They feed on your red blood cells and dissolve nutrients such as sugar and amino acids so you become anaemia and tired. Passing urine is uncomfortable; someone once described it as ‘Peeing razorblades.’ Needless to say we were never allowed to swim around the edge of the lake even though it looked cool and inviting as it glittered in the furnace heat. The exception was when we were out in a boat. Dad would sometimes let us swim in the lake if we were far from the shore because there was no Bilharzia where it was deep, and out there you were less likely to encounter the crocodiles and hippo that inhabited the waters.
Snakes were another thing to avoid and there were a good variety of very poisonous snakes that lived in the Zambezi valley. Chamakomo kept the sandy area around our house well swept so that he could see the track of any snake that might come by. Mostly snakes try to keep their distance from the dwelling place of people, but sometimes they accidentally strayed into our space and Chamakomo liked to know if one was around. The ones that we saw most often were puff adders and cobras. The cobras were of the spitting variety and one day when Zam was playing with a wire car that Chamakomo had made him, he ran into a cobra. The wire car was a work of art, each bit of wire straightened and then bent into the needed shape so that the finished car was easily recognisable as Dad’s Toyota. It could be steered using the steering-wheel, which was on an extended bit of wire so the driver could walk along behind the car while steering it. Zam was intent on keeping to the road that we’d made for his car and didn’t notice the big cobra that had strayed onto our playing area. Its glistening green body was coiled and poised to strike, while its flared hood stood up, making it appear even more diabolical. I think Zam would have run right into it had not Foxy suddenly spied it. She ran at it barking in that funny rather shrill way that all the dogs used when they put up snakes. Her warning saved Zam, he abandoned his car with a scream and ran away from the snake. Foxy was too clever to get within striking distance of the cobra but it sudden spat into her eyes, causing her to run away yelping. By that time Chamakomo had arrived with a heavy stick. He brought it down on the cobra’s head as it was spitting at Foxy. The snake was dead but Chamakomo had to catch Foxy and hold her down while Mudiwa washed out her eyes with milk and water. Even though she did it immediately Foxy still got a horrible infection in her eyes and one of them never recovered. It went milky white and she couldn’t see through it ever again. After that Foxy hated snakes more than anything else in the world and would be the first to alert us to the fact that one was near our home.
Zam and I had a healthy respect for snakes after that, but there was one snake that we never saw that really fascinated us. It was Nyaminyami, the Zambezi River God which, it was said, had the head of a fish and the torso of a snake. Both Mudiwa and Chamakomo told us about Nyaminyami. Apparently he and his wife used to live in the Zambezi in the Kariba Gorge before the dam was built, near a rock that jutted out from the gorge. No one dared to venture near that rock because they would have been dragged down and then would have had to spend eternity under the water.
When it was decided that a dam would be built there to provide hydro-electric power, the local people were against the idea because it would mean that they would have to leave their villages set along the edge of the river and be re-settled on higher ground. However, they didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter and reluctantly they allowed themselves to be re-settled, believing that Nyaminyami would never allow the dam to be built and they would be able to move back into their former homes. They didn’t have long to wait until he struck for the first time. In 1957 when the dam was well on its way to completion, Nyaminyami struck. The worst floods ever know on the Zambezi washed away much of the partly built dam and the heavy equipment. Also many of the workers were killed, some of them white men.
‘Families of the white peoples were crying too much,’ Mudiwa told us. ‘Because no on can find the bodies; for three days, no-one can find the bodies. Then other peoples ask the Ba Tonga where they can find the bodies and the Ba Tonga kill white calf and put it in river for Nyaminyami. The next day calf has gone, but white bodies are there!’
‘But where had they been?’ I asked, fascinated. ‘I thought you were going to say that the crocodiles had eaten them – there are so many crocodiles in the river, surely the crocks would have eaten them!’
‘Nyaminyami had the bodies,’ said Mudiwa knowingly. ‘Now he is giving them back because they give him calf.’
Chamakomo took up the story from there, telling us that scientists and other clever people had come and studied the flow patterns of the river to check for the likelihood of another flood of that intensity and they had agreed that that the probability of another occurrence would be once in every thousand years.
‘But these peoples are not knowing Nyaminyami,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Because the next year the flood come again and this time much bad.’
It had apparently destroyed the coffer dam, the access bridge and parts of the main wall, and in Chamakomo’s opinion they should have then accepted that Nyaminyami was just not going to stand for his river being dammed up.
‘But they did finished the dam and Nyaminyami didn’t stop them,’ I pointed out.
‘He is waiting for right time,’ explained Chamakomo. ‘He is very angry because his wife one side of dam wall and he the other. Sometimes when earth shakes you know he trying to get to his wife. One day he will destroy dam – one time!’
I wasn’t sure whether to believe Chamakomo or not. Certainly we often felt earth tremors so maybe that proved what he said was true. I decided to ask Dad.
‘It’s all a lot of bloody stupid African nonsense,’ he snorted. But he couldn’t explain why the earth trembled sometimes, so I secretly thought that Nyaminyami must really be in the river just waiting for the right time to destroy the lake!
Chamakomo had countless other stories to tell us about Zambia and the animals and people who resided there. Some of the stories were wild and unbelievable, but others had a ring of truth about them and most were very entertaining. One thing was for certain, Chamakomo loved to tell stories and was a gifted story teller. When Dad was away, instead of having our meals at the table on the veranda, Zam and I would often go and squat behind the house so we could eat our food in the company of Chamakomo and Mudiwa. Sitting on a log by the kitchen door, he’d tell us stories that enchanted, amused or horrified us.
As I grew older I realised that some to the stories that he told us were in the form of parables and were actually things that were going to happen in the future. Of course at the time of telling I had no idea of this, it was only after the event happened in the future that I remembered Chamakomo’s story and realised that he had somehow known what was going to take place.
The first parable or story that I realised had turned out to be prophetic went something like this.
“Dikeledi the owl was married to Zuberi the lion and she loved him very much. He was strong and handsome and worked very hard to provide a good lifestyle for them both. They were very happy and raised a family who all turned out to be good folk, but as they grew up they moved far away from their parents, so Dikeledi and Zuberi lived on their own again but they were still happy and life was still good.
Of course life cannot always be good, there are always ups and downs and Dikeledi and Zuberi had as many ups and downs as anyone else. Then one day after one of Zuberi’s downs there came a tall granite column that rose up and stood over Zuberi. It threatened to fall on him and Zuberi could no longer hunt. Dikeledi was dismayed at first – how were they going to eat if Zuberi could no longer hunt? But being a wise old owl she soon figured out what she could do. She would teach all the young animals to be wise and they would pay her for this so she and Zuberi could still eat. A motley lot attended her classes – a monkey, a duiker, a mongoose, a bat, a fish-eagle, a hippo, a leopard, a dog and a mouse. While she taught them, Zuberi could do nothing except wander around with the granite column towering threateningly over him. Life went on quite pleasantly for them but suddenly when they weren’t expecting it, the granite tower fell on Zuberi killing him. Poor Dikeledi was heartbroken and went away to live with her children in a far away place. But those she had taught now had a thirst for wisdom, so they scattered in all directions all over Africa to seek more wisdom from someone as wise as Dikeledi.”
‘But why did a column of granite tower over Zuberi?’ I wanted to know when I realised that the story had finished at this point.
‘Because, you know, sometimes this can happen.’ Chamakomo told me irritatingly.
‘No it can’t!’ I insisted. ‘A tower of granite wouldn’t be able to move, so all Zuberi had to do was move away from it so it wouldn’t fall on him if it did fall.’
‘Sometimes you can’t understand before times,’ said Chamakomo. ‘But after some time, maybe months or years, then you can understand.’
I found that explanation very unsatisfactory and tried without success to figure out what the story meant. After a couple of days I just shoved it to the back of my mind and I never thought about it again until after some events that happened a few years in the future.