This week’s picture is like a Bruegel painting. It carries many stories, of wandering and of bush people and of an opportunistic Chefe du Posto, and a gentlemanly old chief and a rogue hippo in a far place; much too much to try and squeeze in here.
But let me start with a few remarks about the picture itself. Maybe some of the other stories will emerge, each in its own time. It is like that with stories. Each one comes forward when its time and its place is right. Sometimes it spills out, sometimes it withdraws again. It depends…
The picture is of the living area of the dwelling place (for now) of a semi-nomadic bush family. It was taken with a little idiot-box by an idiot snapper, so aficionados, my apologies, and please skip over the details.
As I had mentioned in earlier blogs, these families move from area to area. They stay only for as long as the bush around them is able to sustain them. They slash-and-burn an area about the size of tennis court, where they plant maize or cassava or rice (if it rains enough). Then they fish, if there is open water, snare game and harvest wild fruits and berries and roots. When the area is depleted, they load their few earthly belongings onto their heads and move to another area, maybe thirty, fifty kilometres away.
We noticed signs of their presence during the afternoon and because it was yet again looking like rain and we were tired of sleeping wet, we decided to find them and make use of their hospitality for the night. I couldn’t quite face the dark and musty interior of the communal hut they generously offered, so I slept (not much) on the lattice platform of the rickety structure in the centre.
The scene in the (Bruegel) picture is actually quite interesting.
The man to the left in the red shirt – his best, hauled out from among the few scraps of western style clothing, specially for our arrival – is Enrique, introduced to me as Aric (took me a while to make the connection). He is the father of the family; about thirty, I would guess.
The picture-eager person to the right of Enrique is the Chefe du Posto, standing with my tracker/guide Kalemba on his right. Chefe du Posto was a hold-over from the Portuguese colony years – their title for the ranking local government official at a field post out in the bush. I just called him Chefe. You can see that he has donned his official tunic and wide-brimmed hat to lend him some extra gravitas while with the bush people – not sure they actually noticed, or cared. “Government” was something very far from their world and their minds.
I reluctantly inherited the Chefe when I stopped at his village post to buy wood-fired flat bread, some three days walking and another day’s driving back. He came up while I waited for the bread and importantly introduced himself. Communication was painful but when he found out I was heading into the bush in “his area” he asked if he could come along. He had never left the village, he said and explained that he hadn’t a vehicle and didn’t feel safe to ride into the bush with his official bicycle. I think he was imagining a leisurely day’s drive in my vehicle, not many days of hard walking through the bush in the heat. He turned out to be quite a problem, but that is another story.
The one advantage I got from meeting him was that he put me in contact with Kalemba, who was the village poacher and also the village drunk when he wasn’t out poaching. Meeting him there saved a lot of time looking for a guide and he turned out to be quite good in the bush – as most poachers are.
Further to the right of the picture are three other members of the family. A young boy and the mother, kneeling at the small cooking fire, and a knotty dog.
You can see that the structures they erect are rudimentary. Just sufficient to protect them from the elements and predators. The structures are erected from local materials with remarkable innovation and skill, but they are not maintained. By the time they collapse it is also time to leave…
In the foreground, on the left, is a raised framework of saplings tied together with bark strips. It serves as a table close to the main cooking fire, of which the white ash patch and a drift of smoke is just visible beyond. On the lattice-work rest two earthen cooking pots, made by the mother of the family at some point. As you can see, they are well-used but still perfect – amazingly symmetrical and thin-walled too.
The thatch roof of the hut behind Enrique is beginning to sag badly, but it is not leaking too much yet, so no need to be concerned. The hut is made from upright stakes planted close and held together with bark strips, then plastered with crushed anthill – almost as hard as cement. Note the door, sturdy saplings lashed together with the inevitable bark strips, and hinging on rawhide strips.
The communal structure in the centre of the picture is where the family gathered in the evening around a small fire. It was flimsy to start off with and it was on its last legs now. I had to squirm around on the lattice platform halfway up to find a position where I could keep reasonably dry when it started raining later that night.
But the main thing about this group of people was that they were unreservedly friendly and hospitable to us, complete strangers. They generously shared what they had without even questioning first who we were and where we were heading and why. This is what I have always found with people living in this way in the distant African bush.