Around the Edges of Civilisation

Journeys back

Once the meandering tracks have led one out of the tsetse belt, animal husbandry appears – and ever more advanced infrastructure to support it. Here, a leaking trough, a length of polyethylene piping, probably filched from some installation deeper inside civilisation, a rudimentary pump, protected from its destructive clients by a few twisted stakes held together with bits of wire.

The water is strangely amber-tinged, probably from the iron oxides in the soil, and slightly brackish, but clean and cool, and for now, luxuriously abundant.

I am now tempted to drop in a story from one of my wanderings.

From The Wanderers, lightly edited.

I had been wandering the area south-east of the Gonarezhou Game reserve in Zimbabwe.  It is a vast expanse of mixed savanna with marula and mopanie and knobthorn, and along the ravines and depressions, leadwood and pod mahogany, and wild syringa and kiaat in the more sandy stretches. Where rocky outcrops rear their rusty heads stand dense groves of ironwood which the elephant love.

On my way into the area I reached the little roadside shop where, on the confident assurances of Nyani, my guide whom I had was lucky to recruit a day earlier at Mwenezi, I had planned to fill up with petrol.

The shop was something that could have come from a really authentic Western movie – Africa style. Its faded sign hanging at an angle from a single nail, and its cracked front veranda and paint-starved walls with the red bricks showing here and there where the plaster had fallen off, muttered that it needed some basic maintenance. It was rundown, as was typical of such establishments here, around the fringes of civilisation.

But there was something sadly charming about the scene, made more charming by a forties-era hand operated petrol pump in front, complete with twin glass measuring cylinders. Its body was dented and only managed hints at its once bright red paint between the spreading patches of rust, but it was still a real classic.

I self-assuredly strode into the dim interior of the shop to make inquiries. It offered everything; from basic agricultural tools and bicycle spares to warm beer and women’s underwear and patent medicine, all safely ensconced  behind a counter with chicken wire stretching from its top right up to the bare corrugated iron sheets of the roof.

“Petrol? No, it is finished, but the truck, it is coming,” the proprietor, who had stepped out onto the porch with me pronounced confidently. “It is close. You can just wait a little bit Mlungu, it will be here! He almost stuttered with eagerness as he eyed the double row of jerry cans on the back of the vehicle. It would be a petrol deal of unheard-of dimensions for him, I surmised.

I decided it was probably worth waiting for a while, and I settled down with my chair under the only reasonable tree in the area (a hardy shepherds tree, if I recall correctly) to brew some tea.

The proprietor sent me a can of lukewarm coke “on the house”, just to show that he knew how to treat his really big customers.  Njani was delighted because he ended up scoring it.

Once we had settled down, me with my tea, Njani with nothing, because he had quickly gulped down his coke, I had the opportunity to study our surroundings more carefully.  It is a thing about our fast-paced western minds: We tend to filter out all but the information directly connected to the task at hand, and then we often miss a lot of detail.

Our tree was about a sixty or so paces away from the shop, on the opposite side of a dusty track running into the oblivion of the tribal area.  Around us it was bare and dust-trodden except for a few defiant grey shrubs and faded mounds of donkey dung, deposited by the scrawny looking specimens  (even by donkey standards) that hung around listlessly for reasons unknown, because there certainly was nothing for them to forage.

On the front porch the usual sunglass-sporting loafers postured self-importantly and a noisy group of men played some game on the cement floor, oiled by generous quantities of the shop’s tepid beer. In a narrow strip of shade along one wall, several resigned-looking people sat. They all had bundles of stuff with them; one had a small wood and wire-mesh cage that held three chickens.

“Nyani, what are those people against the wall doing here?”

“They are waiting for the bus, Sir” (such delightful manners, most of those Zimbabwean chaps).

“Ah, and when is the bus coming?”

“The bus? No, it is coming Sir” – a white matter-of-fact smile.

I looked down the dusty track expectantly, but then realised that his answer didn’t mean that arrival was imminent, just that it is expected, possibly this hour, possibly today, possibly tomorrow or the next day – at some time in the future.

“Nyani, the petrol truck, when do you think it is coming?”

“A, but it is coming Sir.” The smile now showed a hint of uncertainty.

What I should have understood from the start, having lived in Africa all my life, suddenly dawned on me. The petrol truck. It could also be arriving any time between now and next week.

“Hmm, Nyani, where else can we get petrol?” I inquired.

“Maybe we can get at Mwenezi  Sir,”

“But Njani, we just came from Mwenezi. If there is petrol there, why didn’t you say we should fill up?”

“No, I think we get the petrol here, Sir.”

Groan and some obscenities. What the hell! Was he hoping for a roadside snack, or was the proprietor a friend of his – most likely.

I couldn’t really go on without filling up; I might not make it back. It was a good three hours of tortuous rattling back to Mwenezi, but unless I wanted to sit under the scrawny tree for an indefinite time, I didn’t have a choice – it was accepting and re-planning time. No use ranting about it.

But now I realised, I may not have enough petrol left to reach Mwenezi.

For a moment I sadistically considered sending Njani back there on foot with a jerry can, but good sense prevailed. That would take at least five days in itself.

It was a real dilemma. If I got stuck on the way to Mwenezi  I’d be in real trouble.  It could likewise take days before I could get going again.

As I sat pondering the situation, highly irritated, no less by Njani’s silent sniffing around for favour, I remembered once, as a boy, watching my great uncle run his old GMC truck’s engine warm and then adding a few litres of power paraffin  into the petrol tank to help him reach the filling station. Maybe…

I despatched Njani to find out if the proprietor had any other type of fuel on the premises.

The latter came hurriedly waddling out of the shop to my tree, his large belly bouncing under the loose shirt that flapped like and agitated flag. He was taking the news that the big petrol deal was off rather badly.  He couldn’t understand why on earth we were in such a hurry – why not have some more coke and relax; after all, the truck was about to arrive, his incredulous look seemed to argue.  He was absolutely convinced it was in our best interests to stay and wait.

Fortunately he conceded that he actually had a stock of power paraffin “at the pump.” At his insistence I followed his panting hulk along a well-worn footpath. A few hundred metres into the bush we came to a dry pan. On its edge a little pump house apologetically peered out from among some fiercely growing acacias.  It was of bricks, but part of one wall had been pushed over by a tree, and some of the roof sheets had been removed to cover something else more important.  The floor was swamped in a few inches of water from the leaking pump (our host explained that it only leaked “a little bit when it is pumping”). Suffice to say, viewing of the installation could best be done from outside, through the gap in the wall.

It consisted of an engine, probably an ancient Lister, driving a turbine pump of uncertain origin by a single tattered V-belt, augmented by a makeshift strip of rawhide.  In several places nuts or bolts were missing, or had been replaced with incorrectly sized ones, some unceremoniously driven in with a hammer, and generous use was made of wire to hold the contraption together.  The whole installation was covered in a thick black layer of old oil and dust.

Our host insisted that we observe it in operation.  He instructed the “operator” that he had commandeered to accompany us to start it. We remained safely outside on dry land to enjoy the show.

The operator was very adept at the starting drill.  He first switched from power paraffin to petrol.  The old Lister once had a two-way brass valve for this purpose, but that had long since been worn out beyond repair.  The switch was now accomplished by simply pulling out and swapping the fuel line from the paraffin tank to the petrol, and plugging the paraffin line with a specially fashioned wooden plug removed from the petrol one.

As the operator fiddled with this operation I looked around for the starting crank. I finally spotted it lying on the floor half submerged, but battered almost beyond recognition by its various roles as hammer, crowbar and the like over the years.  It was clearly not going to be doing any more cranking of the engine for the remainder of its eclectic life, I thought.

I was right. The operator sloshed to the corner of the pump house and took a rawhide thong, about three meters long and soft as cloth from frequent use, off a wire hook on the roof. This he proceeded to wind several times around the large flywheel of the Lister.  He then cranked the engine by pulling hard on the thong, showing great skill (no doubt perfected over many sweaty hours of trying) at rapidly altering his grip on the thong to keep up the tension.  The venerable old machine caught on and started chugging away gamely, and soon water began to spurt fiercely in all directions from the pump, causing the operator to bolt out of the structure to safety behind the wall.

The last bit of the complicated starting procedure was to swap back to paraffin once the old lady was well warmed up.  This was again accomplished by the fuel hose-swapping routine, but of course the machine died when its supply of petrol was cut off, so the rawhide thong procedure, also, had to be repeated, now on paraffin – but, having been warmed up, she caught on obligingly.

Our host’s  attitude was much improved by my astonished remarks and amused chuckling (the reasons for which he might have misunderstood, somewhat), and especially by my announcement that I would buy a whole ten litres of power paraffin from him at (his) petrol price.  He promptly instructed the drenched and rather dejected-looking operator to measure out the correct quantity and take it to our vehicle.  But generosity is relative, and the can of coke also suddenly made its appearance in the transaction.

I got the Land Cruiser going, and let it run a bit before adding our power paraffin. We took off, driving as economically as possible without dropping the revs, and holding our breaths and thumbs and me rehearsing my prayers.  We actually made it to Mwenezi, albeit stuttering and lurching a bit, and, to my relief, they had petrol there at the (slightly bigger) little store! We soon headed back, now fortified by a coke each, cold, from their paraffin-powered fridge.

When we drove past the little shop with the red petrol pump at dusk the truck had still not arrived…


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