Who really is the commanding man in my dreams?

December 21, 2012

There are only really two varieties of men who go to that God forsaken interior of the deepest bowels of Africa to turn the wheel of life. The first are of course those who are stupid enough to join the French Foreign Legion to try to escape from their averagely miserable lives.

The other was that variety of man who lived on the hill overlooking the vast expanse of Gabundi Cocoa Estate. The Chinaman Cocoa Farmer who was now looking at a spent heat stroked white man with cropped auburn hair who claimed to have lost his way somewhere along the dusty road between the Seritati and Kafuri road 200 miles from Kampala. 

The Chinaman knew he was a deserter from the Legion – it took him exactly 5 seconds to form that conclusion – he could make out the bruised callouses on the outer edges of the man knuckles – a physical disfigurement brought forth by a design flaw on the cocking device of the St. Entiene standard issued FAMAS that the legion used – the last two laces of the man were parallel and finished off with a butterfly knot. The Chinaman knew again, legionnaires used this to keep out fine sand from their boots on long marches. 

But despite all this – the Chinaman nodded to the tribesman who had brought him in that hot afternoon. At first the Matabilli tribesman looked to the rest of the braves – he too had after all known that this was probably a deserter from the legion. The tribesman had wanted to say something to the Chinaman Cocoa farmer, but he had been cut short by a stern voice as the farmer narrowed his eyed and now the tall Matabilli tribesman had looked down submissively.

The deserter was taken into the plantation house by the Chinaman’s servants – the Chinaman was after all the Shahidi – a chieftain and medicine man and above all rain maker in his own right. Such a man commanded respect in these parts. This was how politics was conducted in the deepest bowels of Africa. To the far North, East, West and to the southern reaches of Uganda where the confluence of the Nigiri and Togoba river met – the Shahidi was known to all the tribes, the Adomako, who were once descendants of the fierce Zulu. They guarded the Chinaman’s estate. Only the Adomako were permitted to roam the grounds of the Shahidi’s plantation. To the South, the man knew the Kashari who once transported salt cones on caravans of camels across the barren plains of the Sahara – they served as the eyes and ears to the Shahidi and had told him the legion were scouring the western plains in search of the deserter.

The Chinaman was the Shahidi – the rain maker, the man who could open the heavens and bring down the water of life. This he did by firing his world war II antique 88mm canon which he filled with silver halide at clouds to seed rain – the tribesmen considered this a form of magic. And so they all obeyed him.

The following day a column of legionnaires in light armored entered the gates of Gabundi estate – the officer who was in charge was mindful of the Chinaman Cocoa farmer. He had heard so many things about the Shahidi that he ran an illegal goldmine in Nariobi that stretched even all the way across Burundi, had dabbled in the illegal ivory trade in Kenya and had even smuggled arms right up the Serengetti through Zambezi and Congo rivers – he had even once saved some of his own men from certain decapitation three years ago, when he had intervened and negotiated for the safe return of two kidnapped legionnaires and a French TV crew with the dreaded Askhali tribesmen who made it their living hijacking tankers off the coast of Burundi. That day as his armored column approached the planters house at the top of the hill the young legionnaire officer was wary that he was very far from civilization. As the armored column passed by the many Cocoa trees, the farmer’s Adomako tribesmen who eyed them suspiciously as they cradled their AK-47′s – while the younger braves looked on with their spears. 

When the Chinaman planter was shown the picture of the deserter – he was brusque and replied in crude African Pidgin French also called Guinea Coast Creole Francaise – this was the lingua franca, or language of commerce, spoken deep in the interior of the heart of darkness known as deep Africa. And had been used since time in memorial along Western coast of Africa during the warring period of the Atlantic slave trade. It had all been lost – but in these  remote parts where only the omnipresent law of the AK-47 ruled – this dead language which was once used by all stretching across the Coast of Guinea had come alive that day.

The officer of the French foreign legion who wore his pristine white kepi blanch knew that the Chinaman cocoa planter could have used, le français standard, le français normé, le français neutre – civilized French which he much preferred. But that day, the Chinaman had chosen to reply to the representative of the French government in Creole Francaise – perhaps he was simply reminding the French officer that he was very far from civilization. It was the Chinaman’s way of conveying to the nervous French officer that in these remote parts where only a godless sky ruled – a man could very well die in a thousand and one ways – the legionnaire realized that it was pointless to continue the conversation. He realized only too well, that it wasn’t worth trying to intimidate the Chinaman Cocoa planter. He was after known to the Legion – and his superiors had warned him – “we may need his help one day, so don’t push your weight around with him, otherwise you may end up having to go back in a plastic bag.” with these thoughts, the young French officer turned around and left. After all this was how politics was conducted in deep Africa. This wasn’t Kenya, Nariobi or Cape town – the laws were malleable here, elastic to the point where it even meant so very little. And everything under the sun was negotiable. Besides all the Shahidi had to do was snap his fingers and half his men would probably be cut down by machine gun fire – it was after all the legionnaires last tour of duty in this God foresaken part of the world. Besides he only had less than a month to go before returning to wife and kids in France. The last thing he needed now was to stir up a shit storm. So that day the French light armored column did a U turn and drove right out of Gabundi estate.

That same evening as the man dined with the deserter on the thirty or so feet long table on the plantation house on the hill – he was impressed by the man’s cooking. He has earlier allowed the man to wander around his kitchen. Somewhere between desert and cognac, the man turned to the deserter and asked in a slow and grave voice like rolling thunder,

“Tell me why did you run away from the Legion?”

The deserter knew instantly the Chinaman who wore flared ridding breeches and ankle high mirror polished boots with a revolver slung from his shoulder holster had seen right through him like a pane of glass – he was transparent – he had known it all along and pretended not to know till this moment when he had raised the question when he was most relaxed and comfortable.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. I rather take my chances on the run than to spend another minute in that hell hole.”

The man nodded his head. He murmured, “I understand completely.” Then he continued, “it is not easy for a man to run away from the legion….tell me what will you do if it was possible for me to arrange to get you the right papers to make it all the way back home safely?”

“I am a cook. That’s what I do best. I am happiest when I am in the kitchen…..”

The Chinaman sighed as he emptied his third cognac that evening – he began to loosen his shoulder holster and remove what to the deserter seemed like an oddity – an old Webley revolver. He knew instinctively that the Chinaman knew his weapons – as only this clumsy British firearm was the preferred side arm of the Bedouin as only such a weapon could stand up against the fine ochre red dust that blew from the North to the South every year clogging and jamming even the best modern firearms – the deserter had once served in Sudan and Chad. He began to look at the man – and wondered whether perhaps the respectable cocoa farmer, illegal gold miner, rain maker who the tribesmen called Shahidi with his magic rain making canon might have been a man who had also once seen the terror of war. 

“Yes, I understand how it must be like to be hunted…to be on the run….you should stay here longer…..when the coast is clear…..I shall make arrangements……meanwhile please be feel free to cook wander around kitchen….cook for me…..and one day perhaps many years from now…..we may look at this time and place….and even laugh out loud…..you see civil war will rip through this country very soon…. I have really cashed out…soon you wouldn’t even need papers to walk from here all the way to Kampala. But for the mean time…..you will be safe here.”

The deserter was relieved. And thought this was where the man had felt that the conversation should have ended. For some inexplicable reason – he felt compelled to ask one more question – perhaps it was the effect of the fine Cognac, the faint and calming murmuring of the cicadas or the gentle breeze that blew that day from the Kalahari.

“Tell me what would you do? Where will you go when this country explodes into civil war?”

He hadn’t expected the man to reply, as the Chinaman seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. But he was mistaken, that evening the Chinaman was happy to have a dinner guest. He seemed to be in a talkative mood.

“I want to go to a place where people don’t regularly point guns at me. I want to go to a place where I don’t have to carry this with me.” he gestured to the old Webley revolver. “I want to go to a place where if I call the police, they will come. I want to go to a place where I can write a cheque and use a credit card and not carry gold bars in a lorry with ten men armed to the teeth. I want to go to a place where I only see tanks and soldiers during parades. I want to turn the wheel amongst people who only care to talk about what schools they should best send their children too or which restaurant they prefer to have dinner in – I want to sit down in a coffee shop and eaves drop on housewife’s as they vex about the colors of their curtains or some harmless rash their children seem to have caught from school. Above all I want to just want to lead a normal and peaceful life….maybe even join a church….help out and believe that the world is filled with good intentioned people who are working hard to make happy place…maybe I will go back to Singapore….Maybe I will met a nice girl and marry her….yes, when all hell breaks out here Uganda….Singapore….”

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