We had started picking up signs a day earlier. A barefoot track in the soft mud on the edge of a waterhole; a sapling stripped of bark to tie down something; a patch of white-grey ash where a lone hunter had spent the night when darkness caught him – close to a tree so he could sit out the night with his back against the trunk and the fire between his legs.
Humans. We had to be within a day or two from one of those lone villages in the bush. So we were not surprised when we caught the feint drift of human voices and then, when we followed the sound, found this group. It was an overcast morning and the breeze goose-pimpled our skins in the bare parts but it did not deter the men in the water, some shoulder-deep. They chatted in short gasps from the cold but they were happy for what they had managed to haul with the nets they had so painfully lugged through the bush, originally all the way from Lake Tanganyika, some two hundred kilometres to the west.
These were migrant fish from the big river that got stranded in the pool when the little stream dried to a few pools with the turn of the season. They were small. All of them. They hadn’t had time to grow. There weren’t any crocodiles in the pool – they do often get marooned and one has to be extremely careful when you approach the water’s edge of pools like this – so it had to be mostly humans that did the fishing. Birds of course accounted for some – king fishers and herons and hamerkops and spoonbills and ducks that foraged along the green-edged meander, but those would be even smaller fish, and not that many.
The pool was being fished too heavily. The village was getting too big. Soon it would overpower the bush’s ability to support it. Already the number of young men in the fishing party seemed high. Some would have to move out, to towns, find work. But what? They had lived in the bush all their lives.
But they would move out, to the little rural towns, then to the cities, in the impossible hope of finding something… And they would end up sharing in the meagre income of some relative there, or try to survive on the odd menial “piece-job,” or they would drift into in crime, first petty, then maybe bigger, or into begging, or they would wander to the next town, the next country, and find the same. And slowly their misery would fester into discontent and they would be ready to soak up the populist rhetoric of some self-centred politician.
And the village? The bush would never recover sufficiently to support it again. More would leave until only a few remained; mostly old people and children left in their care. Desperate souls, dependent on meagre alms arriving along tenuous links from migrant relatives in distant towns and cities. And then the big-business poachers would move in, recruit, supply guns if necessary, pay pittance for horns and tusks and claws and tails and skins; pittance, but a fortune, a saving grace to the villagers. And soon the poaching trade would gobble up the village until everyone and everything was dependent on it, connected to it.
In a way it is the story of Africa…