For this week I thought I’d return to my hinted promise of more stories about the Bruegel picture which I wrote about on the 17th Nov 2019. For some context it might be good to scan it again. This story is about a wonderful old chief and a rogue hippo and the Chefe du Posto who was with us.
We left the nomadic bush family the next day and headed northeast, roughly in the direction of the Zambezi delta – as good a direction as any, I thought. About two or three days on, walking along an old elephant path, we came across a party of two junior headmen from the area, and their followings. They were heading for the local chief’s seat to have a meeting with him about certain issues.
Old Kalemba (the guide/tracker that the Chefe had practically palmed off on me), pulled me aside and said that the headmen would be informing the Chief of our presence and it would therefore be best if we accompanied them to introduce ourselves, because we were wandering around in his territory and it was good manners. Of course, Chefe, never having left the village where he was stationed, had never met the Chief, and this added to the argument for the detour. So we set off with the two headmen and their party for the chief’s village.
Needless to say, when the newcomers saw that my guys had fresh meat they wanted some too, so I had to do some more hunting for the pot, which took a bit of time. This I had to repeat when we got close to the chief’s village, because the Chefe and Kalemba felt that we could not, with an armed white man in the party, arrive without an offering of meat – good manners, again. Be that as it may, it took us about two and a half days to get to the scattering of huts in the bush that was the Chief’s village
I take it forward with a slightly edited version of the story from The Wanderers:
The Chief’s house was a little to the side. His adjutant came to greet us at the gate and inquire about our business. The old fellow saw us immediately. He was a fine old gentleman. Friendly, mild mannered and courteous. A real aristocrat. I wished I could have taken him along rather than the damn Chefe. He probably had a few real great stories to tell.
The adjutant seated us in a circle with the Chief, the two headmen, the adjutant, the Chefe and me. The others sat around the edge, with Kalemba behind me for translation. The Chief patiently listened to each one’s story, asking a question now and then. At one point his wife came up. She did not prostrate herself like women in that area usually did. She simply came and stood behind him with her hand on his shoulder. He put his hand on hers and explained each of our stories to her. She listened graciously, smiling at each, then she went off (to organise food for us, I later realised, and I was then very grateful that I had shot the warthog as a meat offering to them). The food was pot-fried chicken in gravy with a bowl of rice, and we ate taking turns to roll a ball of rice and dip it into the chicken pot – delicious, but not a lot to go round.
When we had finished eating the chief called Kalemba aside, and had quite a long conversation with him. The rest of us sat awkwardly in our little circle, not able to converse, like people waiting in a doctor’s waiting room, but with none of those tattered magazines to flip through. When they re-joined us, Kalemba spoke to me in Fanagalo. Apparently the one headman was from the area to the north east ‘where there are many rivers and the sea’, and he quickly added, ‘and many wild animals’ – the last bit I think he threw in just because he thought I might not want to go there otherwise.
The people there were mainly fishermen living off catches they made in the ‘many rivers’, he explained to me. It sounded like it could be the Zambezi delta, or close to it. A lone bull hippo living in one of the channels had become rogue and was attacking their canoes when they passed. He had already overturned several, causing a total loss of the catch and scaring the wits out of the fishermen, and a few days earlier he had actually bitten into a canoe, and badly damaged it – nearly killing one of the occupants. It was then that the people sent their headman to come and put the case to the chief for help.
The old man was in a difficult position. Unless he could find some ex-soldier-turned-poacher for profit with an illegal Kalashnikov to go and kill the hippo, probably at a considerable fee, he was really as powerless to deal effectively with the situation as his subjects. For traditional fishermen to go after a rogue hippo in dense marshland was of course, well, hard to imagine. So now, with me suddenly turning up as if sent from heaven, the Chief wanted to know if I would go and kill the hippo for them. I really couldn’t say no, and besides, I was more or less heading in that direction anyway.
But, the Chefe, who had been left out of all of these discussions, now realised that something was afoot, and he asked Kalemba what it was all about. Even before Kalemba had quite finished explaining, he donned his most official attitude and announced that the hippo could not be shot without permission from Maputo!
It went dead quiet around the circle – one of those silences that screamed at you. I mean, those people knew only vaguely where Maputo was, let alone imagined that someone there might have anything to say about what they thought was best here, about eight days’ walking from the nearest little track and then at least three more days driving over those terrible roads. To them ‘Maputo’ might just as well have been on the moon, and as far as they were concerned the Chefe, the official ostensibly in charge of them was about as relevant as Goethe!
Their reaction was a mixture of utter amazement, exasperation and indignation all rolled into one. The poor Chefe might actually have been in physical danger. The Chief looked at him and said in a very quiet voice, almost a whisper, but that clapped like thunder, ‘Will the hippo ask for permission from Maputo before he kills one of my people?’ It went even quieter – even the children and the chickens. And everybody, including the chickens, were staring at the poor Chefe. He went all grey and unofficial and tried to fabricate an explanation, to which the Chief listened with pointed politeness. It was all absolutely delicious.
But I was in a difficult position. I had a humiliated Chefe on my hands who took himself quite seriously. If I went and shot the hippo he could make all sorts of trouble for me when we got back. Getting charged by a hippo or any other animal was one thing, but a gun-touting militia with an ego-stressed small town official behind him was another matter. I thought I’d better apply a bit of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’-tactics. So I told Kalemba to tell Chefe that he simply had to go there in person so that he could make a report to Maputo about the situation. This pleased him immensely. He he was suddenly very important again. While he was loudly explaining to all around why he absolutely had to go and ‘investigate’ the situation without delay, I whispered to Kalemba to tell the Chief on the side that I would shoot the hippo for him if I possibly could without falling foul of our dear Chefe.
As it turned out, the Chefe wasn’t able to keep up with us on the three-day walk to the fishing village, and we left him with a group of semi-nomads with the promise that we would come to collect him on the way back. I guess I’d have to admit that we intentionally took a different route back, but I’m sure the poor Chefe eventually made it back, with grandiose stories to tell his fellow villagers and bureaucrats. Also, just in case you are wondering, I did shoot the hippo for the villagers, but that is another story.