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 when its time and its place is right.
The picture is of the living area of the dwelling (for now) of a semi-nomadic bush family. It was taken with a little idiot-box by an idiot snapper, so apologies to the aficionados.
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 a tennis court, where they plant maize or cassava or, if it is wet enough, rice. Then they fish, if there is open water, snare game and harvest wild fruits and berries and roots. That is pretty much what life consists of. 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.
The scene in the (Bruegel) picture is actually quite interesting.
The man on the left in the red shirt – his best, specially hauled out from among his few scraps of western style clothing when he understood we were going to spend the night – 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 colonial years – their title for the ranking local government official at a field post. 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 fresh wood-fired flat bread, some three days walking and another day’s driving back. He came up while I was waiting 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 drive in my vehicle; not many days of hard walking in the heat. He turned out to be quite a problem – unable to keep up, scared, inappropriately officious, and griping all the time – 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. Kalemba 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 erected are rudimentary, fashioned from local materials, but with remarkable innovation and skill, to be just sufficient to protect them from the elements and predators. 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 animal skin strips.
The communal structure in the centre of the picture is where the family gather in the evening around a small fire. It was flimsy to start off with and it was on its last legs now. Its rickety lattice platform halfway up was where I spent the night – I couldn’t quite face the dark and musty interior of the communal hut they generously offered. I had to squirm around to find a position where I could keep reasonably dry when it started raining later that night and needless to say, I didn’t sleep much.
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.