One of the things that has always struck me about Africa is the paradox of passivity and violence that seems always to be part of it.
In camp at the moment there is still some residual construction underway as a few of the staff and other admin buildings are completed. Taking care of this work is a gang of local construction workers who are more-or-less nameless and faceless to me, and on the whole I have very little to do with them. My responsibility is with the camp staff who tend to be a higher class of individual from either Arusha or Nairobi. They and the construction workers live together in temporary and rather ad hoc staff quarters situated a few hundred yards from camp. Until now I spared very little effort to measure the dynamic that might exist between them and how they might feel about each other.
Just by way of a little background. The lingua franca around here is Swahili. This is a coastal language that has traditionally been the medium of trade in East Africa. It evolved as a bridge between the Arabs of the old slave and ivory trades, the coastal Swahili people themselves and the plethora of interior groups who provided both the raw materials in the form of slaves, portage, also in the form of slaves, and internal trade centres.
This was the Indian Ocean Slave Trade, I hasten to add, and not the more industrial and notorious Atlantic Slave Trade that populated the Americas with African American people.
To me, as an outsider who speaks no local language at all, the buzz of conversation that surrounds me is as meaningless as the birdsong that also surrounds me. Everyone who can do so, speaks to me in English, and those that can’t do not speak to me at all. I have no inkling of the ethnicity, backgrounds or origins of any except those who are articulate enough to discuss it with me. The idea that this is all one big happy family has been a comfortable illusion that I have taken no time whatsoever to debunk.
And then one night there was a fight between different ethnic groups. It was most inconvenient because at the time we had guests in the house. I was entertaining a genteel Belgian couple at the time, who were already wide-eyed at all that was going on around them, when a rumbling murmur of anger and angst began to filter into the dining room from somewhere in the direction of the staff compound.
I excused myself and went outside to investigate. Outside it was a moonlit night. As I made my way down towards the staff quarters it was clear that something was amiss. I was met by a fleeing group of one particular identity, carrying pangas and knives that glinted very unpleasntly in the moonlight, and who were purused by a group of opposing identity, also carrying pangas and knives.
Both groups spilled over into the camp precincts amid the usual melee of rapid fire verbiage, high volume yelling and several near misses and scrambling retreats as pangas were swung and knives weilded. All of this appeared to be undertaken with clear and absolute intent. Alcohol was evidently a factor, and injury or death was inevitable somewhere and at some point.
Here for me was shades of Zimbabwe in very recent days. It is a nasty sight to confront and a difficult situation to handle. As a white man my main advantage lay in belonging to no particular ethnic group against which a grievance at this moment might have been held. There is also usually a higher price to pay for the death or disappearance of a white man is situations like this. A black man can disappear into the night, the hyena will eat, the local police will come and go and no-one will be any the wiser. The death of a white man in similar circumstances, however, has more serious ramifications. Call it what you want, criticise it if you will, but it is a thin thread, and at times the only thread that has kept me alive in many similar situations such as this.
After much threatening, calming and stern advice from me the situation was diffused, the parties separated for the night and the most offensive weapons confiscated. I returned to the dining room reporting that an elephant had been causing mayhem in camp and settled back down in an atmosphere of muted lighting, glinting silverware and fine South African wine. A pleasant evening was passed and there was little more to report.
I have kept one of the pangas as a memento of the evening, it is pictured above. This is the weapon of choice for political and social equalisation from Cape Town to Kampala, from Kigale to Nairobi. It is conflict resolution Africa style. It sends chills down my spine when I look at it, but it helps remind me that utopia is always leavened by dystopia, that most of the time peace is simply a lack of violence. There is still a dark heart to Africa, a fact it pays never to forget.
There is another aspect of African violence that is thankfully easier to stomach for most people. It is in fact what most come to Africa hoping to see, and indeed to photograph. This is the wild violence of the bush.
As is the case with many similar camps across Africa, at Grumeti we have a resident herd of impala who seek some refuge in and around camp in what is a comparatively safe environment. However their presence here means that a pair, and sometimes more, of lion keep very close attendance too, and reap a modest off-take from the herd as a natural right of dominance.
I have had lots of time over the past few weeks to watch this drama as it unfolds almost on a daily basis. The daylight hours are languid and very peaceful. The herd, consisting of perhaps fifty mixed females, young and young males, and one mature bull, feeds on the fringes of camp, drifting sometimes as much as a mile distant. However, as evening approaches, the jitters become very evident. The male, who I think is extraordinarily bold and vigilant considering all he has is a set of fine but rather light horns to confront 350 pounds of solid muscle, aggression and teeth, begins to pack his charges into a tight group and patrol its edges nervously.
The lions, for their part, utter a low cough in moods of indifference to announce that they are around, and this signal is audible all night, and through much of the day. However, when it is business time they growl, and it is as if a public address system has magnified the sound and sent it resonating around a football stadium. It is a sound that turns one’s guts to water, and the impala bull responds immediately with his sneezing/barking alarm call. This sends the nervous knot of females and adolescents milling backwards and forwards in a hopeless quest for some sanctuary in the wide open bush.
This usually continues until the dead of night, and the resumes again at the first chill of dawn. I have not yet seen a kill take place, but I have heard it happen several times, and it is an awful but thrilling sound. It seems, however, that once the deed is done the herd immediately relax and begin to graze or ruminate with neither grief nor regret.
This is simply part of the cycle of life I suppose, and a kind of fair acceptance of it all characterises the whole experience.
Sometimes I feel there must be a similar pattern of life in such human conflict zones as the eastern DRC. During the day the fields are tended, commerce conducted and human life undertaken. However, at night flimsy doors are locked and children put to bed, after which long hours of anxiety follow lest this be the night the rebels of the Lords Resistance Army choose to visit, panga in hand….
South African Cartoonist Zapiro has a savy take on most things, this is his take on South African ethnicity…