In one day, we have driven all the way from Kande Beach on the shore of Lake Malawi, across the northern neck of Mozambique and into Zimbabwe, where suddenly, the landscape shifts from the flat, dull bush and extremely poor huts of Mozambique to a softly greened, rolling landscape of hills and plateaus strewn with huge boulders. These kopjes – the Afrikans word for the bouldered hills – are actually the remains of magma that was spewed up from the center of the planet millions of years ago and settled in great fields, hills and valleys of granite under the earth’s crust. With time, rain and wind eroded the surrounding earth away to reveal these fluid streams of rock that remind me of great muscles trapped in time. With fluctuating cold and warm weather, the granite cracks into huge boulders which sometimes tumble to the earth. Sometimes, the granite base has eroded irregularly, forming extraordinary sculptures of balanced boulders that look as though they might topple over at any moment but have stood like sentinels for untold eons.
We have been chasing the rain as we head south and the vegetation delicately covers the land in a thousand shades of green. I have rarely seen Africa look so gently inviting, and I feel an urge to yell for the truck to stop so that I can run out and climb one of those hills. I resist, because I know that we will have the opportunity when we go on an early-morning game drive the next day.
All day long I stare out of the window, enthralled. The land seems empty. In Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, the roads are lined with small shanty towns, market stalls, bus stops and people, people, people. Even at 4am, when we left Dar es Salaam, there were crowds of people hurrying to catch buses while huge trucks carrying oil, copper and stone bullied their way through the traffic. There was a sense of tremendous energy, of burgeoning commerce and always, the laughing chatter of the African people. But Zimbabwe seems empty. I stand up in my seat to see whether there are villages hidden in the bush near the roadside, but I see none. Here and there a compound of tidy huts with beautifully made thatched rooves, that is all. With Mugabe in power, it seems that half the population has left and the other half is hiding somewhere over the horizon.
Our campsite is a magnificent place cleverly located among huge boulders, near a lovely lodge actually built onto the rocks and utilizing some of them as its walls and floors. Walking on rocky outcrops is one of my favorite passtimes in the bush and very early the next morning, I am up to walk with the baboons, whose fur glows golden in the haze of sunrise. A tame cat from the lodge follows me, oblivious of the baboons, and rubs herself against my feet. I sit on a high rock with her on my lap, watching the kopjes come to life as the sunlight creeps over this boulder here and illuminates a crevice between those boulders there. It is the most beautiful morning I have ever witnessed and I realize how much I have craved this silence. It is like a prayer not sent up to the gods of the skies, but sent down as a gift to me, and I say thank you.
The next day, we are picked up by Ian, our guide for a game tour and a genuine “bush baby” – a lean, handsome man, a least six feet five inches tall, with close cropped hair and smiling green eyes. He is a licensed hunter and guide, authorized to walk in the bush and carry a firearm, and he has been doing this since he was a boy. He is the stuff of all those romance novels about sexy ladies in Africa falling in love with white hunters.
I sit in the front with him and we find much in common: the bush, for one, where I am completely at home. Our love of Africa and the African people; our passion for African history; and our great sorrow at the loss of indigenous African cultures, for we both recognize how much wisdom and knowledge has been literally usurped, cast out by Christianity and industrialization. Ian is the only person I know other than myself who feels that, in many ways, the African is more sophisticated and better developed than we whites. “They ‘developed’ as far as they needed for happiness and survival,” he says. “They are completely adapted to their environment, and when it comes to the crunch – when our western world comes crashing down – guess who will be smiling and surviving while we struggle to figure out how to make a camp fire.”
Ian has had a very hard time in Zimbabwe, like everyone else and in particular, the white population. He tells me that during the worst period, gas coupons were the only viable form of currency, and were traded for food. He actually had to go out and hunt for food for his family and staff. Mugabe’s regime ousted most white land-holders, using murder and cunning new laws to rob settlers of their land, thus turning what had formerly been Africa’s bread basket into a nation not only unable to feed itself but also unable to maintain its own currency. All transactions are handled in US dollars. The only problem is that no one has any change – you pay in dollars, you get worthless Zimbabwe dollars back in change. If you’re lucky, you get South African rand which are useful if you happen to be going to South Africa, as I am, or Botswana, but which are otherwise a downgraded currency here. So when you buy an ice cream, they will say it costs “One dollar and fifity cents,” but if you pay with two dollars, they can’t give you change and they don’t accept small change, so you either have to buy one and a half ice creams or pay the two dollars and forget the change. And so it goes.
Ian takes us to a cave where there are bushman rock paintings, many thousands of years old. It is hidden away amongst the boulders, known only to him and the local people, and I am thrilled at this great secret he has revealed to us. They are at least 40,000 years old, depicting giraffe, antelope and the fat-bottomed bushmen themselves, glowing red and ochre on the rock. An artist’s hand, without doubt, with shading and lines and an effect of thunderous movement. The pigments are from plants mixed with bile, forming an acid that has etched the paintings into the rock, thus preserving them over centuries. Ian points out the “spirit figures” of a man and a woman at the cave’s entrance, painted there, probably, to protect the work.
Although Ian is white, he refers to himself as a Matabele and speaks the language fluently. He is a genuine “white African” who has spent little time outside of Zimbabwe and is considered to be one of the best guides in the world. He shows us many herbal plants and although we don’t see any “big” game, his sharp eyes spot a golden orb spider, a bright green chameleon and many other smaller creatures even from the moving vehicle. He is determined to find us some rhinos and takes us on a thrilling hike that winds through the bush, up and down several kopjes and along a dry river bed as he examines tracks and sniffs the air. It is getting dark and we must head back to the jeep without spotting any rhinos, and Ian is visibly disappointed and feels he has let us down.
The next day, Ian takes us to a Shona village . This is the kind of thing I loath – a bunch of tourists traipsing around some poverty-stricken village where the inhabitants do a little dance for us, display their rather poorly made artefacts for sale and expect lots of tips. I feel embarrassed and out of place, although I know that our money is badly needed. Ian says that buying artefacts is better than handing over money, and so I search for some little thing that might take my fancy. I am trying hard not to spend extra money, as Zimbabwe is incredibly expensive. So far, I have found nothing on the trip to compare with Kenyan artefacts, either for diversity or beauty, so I cast my eye wearily over the shiny bowls and rather ugly sculptures spread out on the ground. Aha! Now here’s a thing: an odd little carving of wood that, on first glance, looks like the head of some animal with a long tongue reaching down to meet a tail that resembles that of a rattle snake. It charms me and Ian tells me that this is Nyame Nyame, the goddess of all waters.
I purchase it for eight dollars, about twice what it’s worth, and string it around my neck where it lives for the next few days until we reach Victoria Falls. This is an ugly place of fast-food restaurants and travel agents, built around the magnificent falls for the sole purpose of feeding the tourist industry and for the first time, we encounter hordes of Germans, Italians, and overlanders like us and I can’t wait to get out. I dutifully walk to the falls and wander around the viewing points, which are mercifully free today of other tourists – perhaps because the water is very high from the rain and the mist and spray fill the sky, reducing the view to a foggy white haze. And so I am almost alone and enjoy getting thoroughly drenched as I gaze out over the cataracts and listen to the “great smoking thunder” as the falls are known locally.
On my walk back into the town, several men stop me with “Hallo! How are you today? Where do you come from?” and I have learned to simply say, “I am not buying anything and I would like to walk alone,” which they respect. One of them sees my Nyame Nyame and offers me one made of bone, which I refuse. “It is a sea horse,” he says. “Nyame Nyame is the god of the sea and rides a horse, so it is a sea horse.” I am puzzled by this story, and recall that somewhere along the way, I had seen little key chains in the shape of beaded sea horses being sold on the roadside. What did sea horses have to do with Zimbabwe, I wondered, so far from the sea?
I looked at my Nyame Nyame more closely and saw that its shape does indeed, resemble a sea horse. But another tour guide explained to me that this is simply a misinterpretation by illiterate people, none of whom could have ever even seen a sea horse. Somewhere along the way, the myth has become distorted and changed. The head of my little wooden carving is supposed to be that of a tiger fish, with very sharp teeth, attached to the tail of a snake which loops up to rejoin the back of the head.
On a boat trip along the Zambezi River, I get into conversation with a very educated young African. “So what is Nyame Nyame?” I ask. “She is the god and the goddess of all waters,” he explains, “revered by the Togo people who live along the river. The Zambezi River divides Zambia from Zimbabwe, but the Togo refuse to recognize any international boundaries and as long as they are in their canoes on the river, they can pass freely from one side to the other, from one country to the other. ” I can see shrines to Nyame Nyame all along the river.
It turns out that when the Italians wanted to build the Kariba dam, they had neglected to consult Nyame Nyame, who is represented locally by a chief. When the chief at that time approached the Italians, asking what would happen to his people, who would be flooded out of their homes by the dam, he was dismissed. Not long after that, the river rose to unheard of heights and stopped construction on the dam. A bridge was completely destroyed. The Italians rebuilt it and the chief approached them again, but again, he was dismissed, his concerns deemed insignificant. Soon a raging flood took the Italians by surprise, causing the death of 86 Italian workers, most of whom were buried in the still wet concrete and became part of the damn they were building. Now the Italians began to pay attention and eventually, it was agreed that the Togo would be relocated to higher ground, and that as many animals as possible would also be saved before the dam was completed. The Kariba dam was built and still supplies electricity to Zambia and Zimbabwe – and Nyame Nyame is not only satisfied that his work was done well but is also represented today by a chief in Parliament who must be consulted on all matters to do with water.
Tiger fish, snake or sea horse…does it matter? What I know is that it is the power of belief that moves mountains. Belief itself is the clue, not the material symbol of it. And so I remove my Nyame Nyame from around my neck for I feel that perhaps it is a sacrilege, this silly thing made for tourists, and I ought to have more respect for it. I call Ian to thank him for the terrific day he gave us, and without my saying a word, he asks me if I am still wearing the talisman. “No, I took it off,” I say. “Good thing,” he replies. “We’ve had enough rain – we don’t anyone monkeying around with it now.” I laugh but he stops me. “I’m serious,” he says. “You don’t fool around with this kind of thing. You’ve lived in Africa long enough – you should know this.“
He’s right. I have lived in Africa long enough and I do know these things. “So what should I do with it?” I ask Ian. “Pack it away,” he says. “It’s not yours to wear or play with. Keep it safely somewhere and if you ever come back to Zimbabwe, throw it in the river where it belongs.” Ian agrees to do this for me if I send him my Nyame Nyame. “Trust me,” he says. “You’ll be doing all of us a favor.”
I do trust him. He is, after all, a true White African while I am but an envious shadow. I will do what he says and hope that my little Nyame Nyame may swim like a sea-horse, to and fro, until it finds a resting place on the floor of the Great Zambezi, there to work its wonders forever.