The Scribe

Here is a voice narrative of the text below, if you prefer.


He sat at his desk in a clearing under a giant sausage tree. His table was self-made and somewhat rickety; heaven knows how far and from where his bush-ravaged plastic chair (and the single one for a customer) had come. A well-worn path suggested that his dwellings were a few hundred paces further towards the river, but close by was a flimsy thatched structure for when it rained during office hours.

I simply had to stop to meet him.

He must have been well aware of my vehicle’s approach along the sandy track for quite some time, but only when I stood right in front of him did he slowly lift his gaze from the few pages that were tellingly scattered around the desk. He was still quite young, maybe early thirties, but he wore a pair of glasses. His reflection-blanked gaze suggested, “Yes, and what can I do for you?” I had to suppress a smile at his surprisingly officious and somewhat aloof manner. He was clearly aware of his status in this world, and demanded appropriate demeanour, or perhaps he felt threatened by my appearance. “Fair enough.” I thought.

He spoke English (of course), but how to approach figuring out what he was trying to do there, so completely alone at the table under the tree? The Western way of asking a direct question would not be appropriate. First, it was the greetings (very formal), then about the heat (hardly a reaction), then “I am crossing the Save that way” (simply a nod), then, “You have a nice place to sit here under the tree,” then, “You have many papers. Are you studying?” The long fingers of his right hand slid down his cheeks as he pushed out his lower lip and shook his head. He was unhurried and grave, like a senior judge addressing his court. It was somewhat of a journey to piece together that he is a writer of letters and requests, interpreter of missives and directives, and filler-in of applications and submissions.  He is probably well-known and talked-about among the sparse pastural inhabitants of his fringe world. His customers would trickle out of the surrounding bush on foot, by bicycle or by oxcart, but not many, as the single chair and the scattering of untrodden leaves around his little clearing suggested.

His office hours were hard to confirm – something like “once per day, perhaps,” or once per week. His customers would likely often have to wait, which they would do with endless patience, even for more than a day. I was just lucky to find him there, and able to see me directly.

This was the very edge of the Middle World; just a finger, stretching north to a sand crossing over the Save, and from there lazily fanning out along a few obscure roads to the Beira corridor further north. If I would head east or west along the river, I knew though, I would be in complete wilderness within some twenty kilometres.

Yes, the Middle World is spiced with all manner of the most surprising idiosyncrasies, like The Writer in his office. As I pulled off I waved to him. Just an incline of the head back. “Isn’t Africa just endlessly splendid?” I thought, smiling to myself.

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