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Some damage to our roads - small cars can now make it - albeit carefully. Don’t take shortcuts - follow our directions on this site. Some damage to our roads - small cars can now make it - albeit carefully. Don’t take shortcuts - follow our directions on this site.

Shambaya - a novel by Nani

CHAPTER ONE

A scorching equatorial sun spread a milky heat haze over the land, no leaf stirred, the flat monotone of the tea fields seemed blanched. Regular creaking of the cicadas marking the rhythm of the timeless day. The hazy hum of bees enveloped the huge trunk of the tropical giant tree. A lizard sneaked sluggishly along one of its hot branches. Above the thicker foliage of the strangler fig that billowed like a voluminous skirt, straggled the remainder of the once magnificent forest tree. Lichen and mistletoe bearded the gnarled fingers, grasping the cloudless sky above, drowning in the intense light that permeated all its former secret nooks and crannies. A large, dozing bird swayed balanced on the uppermost pinnacle, opening one drowsy eye to perceive the small, black figure ambling up the path below, mostly hidden from view by an enormous bundle of what looked like rags and sticks.

Sidjui slowly pushed one dust-encrusted foot back into its scanty covering of rubber flaps fastened with sisal string around his ankle and resumed his steady climb. Old age and a total lack of moisture finally proved too much, and sighing, the Muna tree shed another cumbersome branch which sidled crashing through the tree, taking with it as many minor twigs and dry leaves it could reach. The hornbill, whose attention had been waning, was caught unawares by the sudden draught and commotion, flung itself up in an uncontrolled lurch, feathers flying, and took to the wing, squawking disgustedly, off into the haze, in search of a quieter resting place.

The branch, with .

increasing speed, had caused a tree avalanche which burst, crashing and splintering, enveloping everything in a cloud of dust. Sidjui watched without expression as the dust settled, to see the side of the rainwater tank crushed and a dispirited trickle of algae-green water being sucked up by the parched soil.

Replacing his wrinkled foot in its rubber-casing which kept slipping off, he bent his head to his burden and shuffled up the remainder of the stony path.

The group of eight elders moved ceremoniously across the rolling slope. Puffs of pollen were released at every step and the sheaves of long grass waved gently at their passing. Their heads were covered by rolled-up articles of clothing or strange versions of hats in an effort to keep off the relentless sun that sought them out and concentrated on their shrivelled bodies as if focused there by an enormous magnifying glass. No-one said a word, the spell must be established in total silence, all thoughts and wishes concentrated on the one thing only - Rain.

Kamwana wrestled with the pure-white new-born goat in his arm.

It was uttering muffled cries. He adjusted the rag around its muzzle and stroked it reassuringly over its perfectly rounded head. Charity had been beside herself, called him a heathen, a godless old fool - children had lost all respect for their elders these days. She had read out to him from her books which meant nothing to him. A strange prose lacking the flow of conversation.

She had nagged and argued that her mother would have agreed with her, that God would be angry for their adhering to the old heathen customs, no good would come of it, and he could not have the goat.

She had to be bodily removed when the time came and it had been embarrassing and humiliating. Now everyone in the village knew who ran that household, that he had nothing to say in matters, that this insolent wench was ordering him about. He was too tired to rebuke her, too tired to answer the constant bickering. He was

content to sit with the other elders sympathetic to his feelings, the slow give and take of their conversation. Recounting the old days and the melodious 'Eh' and 'Ah' of agreement, an echo of the herds resting and ruminating. Her pace was too fast for him, maybe it would have been different had not her mother died.

But, he now knew it would not work. It was all futile and he would only aggravate his bad standing by revealing the truth.

Charity had stood there wide-legged, her kanga gaping, disclosing fat, willing thighs. Why did she not find a man? Why did she feel she had to protect her father? She revelled in the role of the martyr. She had hissed like a leaking karai on the fire, "It's no good. I have given this goat mulberries, she liked them, she ate thirty..." Then she had cursed the goat and him and had been dragged out. So the goat would die anyhow and the spell would not work. That was very bad, they needed the rain desperately. Charity had said they would not starve, their government would feed them, the colonials were gone, a young healthy nation would feed its old and hungry. He did not believe it, it had never happened, the old and hungry died. This young nation did not include him, he was old, he did not understand their words, leave alone their newfangled arguments. But this time it would not work, he knew it and it worried him. When would the opportunity arise again? Pure white animals were rare. It had pink eyes and it would die.

Kamwana remembered as a young man, when he had come back from the other side of the lake laden with money and trinkets. He had paid off Charity's mother's parents handsomely, had been a hero and bought a big shamba. But there was that girl, a peculiar quiet sort of girl he used to play with when they were children together and she gave birth to white twins. All white, pink eyes and yellow hair. The Council's verdict was strict and executed fast. The whole little family unit disappeared. They claimed she had associated with the evil pale spirit of dawn, him whose icy breath robs the life of babies and old people. And he had given her the twins who would grow up, if allowed to do so, to spread all sorts of evil. It was said, if a person like that looked at you, you were doomed.

Understandable that the Council did not want them around. But Kamwana had not believed any of it then. He had known the girl, believed she had shared some young man's hut and being strange and extremely timid, her children had turned white inside her womb. Kamwana shuddered in spite of the intense heat and felt a burning at the back of his neck. He darted a careful glance backwards and sure enough, there was Mugo. He suspected, was always suspecting... Kamwana's guilty conscience made him hold his goat tighter, the goat struggled and bleated.

They had reached the top of the long grassy slope. Their goal was a large tree serenely growing just below the top of the ridge they were on. In the gloomy shade below, large objects were discernible, the cattle and its young herders had retreated here.

The boys were sitting on a low arching branch, dangling their feet and constructing complicated machinery with wire and string, too deeply absorbed in their task to notice the approaching silent train of old men. The cattle looked up and although an unusual sight, were not perturbed by the presence of their owners.

The elders were faced with the difficulty of making themselves noticed and understood without uttering a sound. It was of course Mugo who faced the boys and with a commanding arm stretched out, bid them move. They at first looked uncomprehending; were they to take the cattle out into the broad sunlight, to die of heatstroke, or did he mean them to go home? Had something terrible befallen the village? Were they in trouble? Had they found out? The smaller of the two boys, the free-and-easy dangle of his dust-grey legs arrested in terror, did not wait to find out. There was an ominous quality about Mugo's outstretched arm. He jumped off and, leaving most of his engineering equipment scattered on the bare soil, began driving and prodding the unwilling cattle with a branch he broke from his previous resting place. The other boy joined him and soon they were driving the disgruntled herd across the valley bottom in search of other shade.

Mugo turned and with the same commanding gesture bid the other elders come closer so that they could begin with the ceremony.

Kamwana was resenting Mugo more and more. Why was he assuming leadership? They were all of about the same age; wealth, what little there was of it, fairly evenly distributed. Why did he think he could order them all about? But his sudden dislike melted away and he put down the goat meekly enough. This was no time for argument and it was not important anyhow. All they must be concerned about was rain. Then he remembered again, it would not work. The men all faced east, raised their arms towards the blank sky and started chanting. Up and down waved their emaciated bodies, the monotonous chant carrying far across the savannah. They faced into all directions of the compass, the chant hardly altering, as old as they could remember, as anyone therefore could remember, never failing, invoking the powers that be, promising to fulfil the sacrifice, if only the rain powers would listen, send that promise, that hope of a wisp of a cloud to disgorge the cooling water. The sweet and heavy drops, like a mother drops her sweet and heavy burden. The shambas blotted by months of thirsty sun, no seed able to germinate in the baking soil. Charity had said the government would send posho, bags and bags of posho to make their ugali and maize puddings. No-one would starve.

He must keep his mind on the chant. He felt the sacrilege he was permitting to grip his mind wrench his senses away from the present, relived the scene with Gathiuni who faced him, long flowing white hair dishevelled, claw-like hand outstretched, ready to strangle Kamwana if he came any closer, that usurper of magic powers, that unbeliever.

He had refused Gathiuni entrance to his hut when his wife lay in labour, in labour that lasted five days. He had known of the unsavoury tricks Gathiuni performed in such cases, did not want it to happen to his own bibi. He had seen better magic performed by the white man with whom he had worked on the other side of the lake. When the mzungu's cook had been bitten by a puff-adder and had just lain there, stiff as a board, his eyes turned to the inside of his head, watching his soul go, the mzungu had performed some secret rites and punctured him with needles. Now of course he knew they were injections, a very powerful medicine. That cook, he forgot his name now, it was so long ago, had lived. He had only lost his finger. It was the only case Kamwana knew of someone surviving a puff-adder bite. So he had given strict instructions that no-one should enter his hut and had run off to find a doctor.

When he got back, his wife had been dead. The deep hatred he had felt then surged through him again.

The preliminary chanting and invoking done, Mugo sharpened the panga with a rhythmic - slish-slash - across a stone. The small goat stood trembling by the multi-fluted trunk of the mugumu tree, nuzzling the bark, its pink eyes closed in ecstasy. A sharp gurgle and its blood spurting against the tree, the men humming the age-old sacrificial tones. Carmine trickles over virgin white seeped through the powdery earth, soaking the roots of the holy tree with spilled life. The roots would drink the blood, carry it to the very centre of the tree where the spirit of rain resides, and there would mollify the angry sulking God, convey the desperate need of the people, and the spirit would know it was doomed blood it was being offered and would not relent. Its wrath deepened, it would send misfortunes upon the village, maybe the whole tribe.

Goose-flesh had crept over Kamwana, he felt Mugo scrutinising him.

One quick rip and the hot entrails spread milky pale, tangles of intestines innocent of food and waste. Mugo detached the long loops deftly and began flailing the tree. He intoned a high-pitched song suggesting young voices, the squeaky first notes of the lamb, the helpless low mooing of the calf, and finally, the flat crying of the human baby.

Thrash-thrash.. the white bands flying, the men standing back.

Kamwana had to admit, as he bbecame absorbed in the mesmerising scene, Mugo was good, convincing - a pity it would not work. The wet slapping, young girls clapping their hands in the marriage ceremony, the high-pitched voices. He had never remarried, had left the village to work for the mzungu again, but the mzungu had gone, they had got Uhuru since. There was instead a man of his own tribe there now who only employed his relatives. No surprise to Kamwana who was not really skilled at anything, just a good casual worker.

Slap-slap… the white bands were ripping, pink slime oozing, marking the tree, like raised welts across a beaten body. God would not be able to resist, except he would know.

Kamwana groaned... groaned in sympathy, in symphony with the others, a circle of shrivelled-up old men moaning and swaying.

Mugo threw the last shreds against the tree in a final outburst of shrieks and wails. They set to work, buried the caved-in soiled tiny body beneath the tree. It was done. They huddled in a silent cluster under the tree waiting for the sign…

 Chapter 2

Lina wiped the condensations from the window pane and stared through the cold glass into the grey wetness. It must have rained for weeks now, the wettest winter Britain had experienced in the last 10,000 years,

The sludge grey concrete walls opposite, the charcoal grey tarmac below all glistened with the rinsing of several weeks, and it was still coming down. What did the religious leaders say, how could they say it was not the flood returned to drown them all - it had certainly been forty days and nights. The streets were deserted, in every house families huddled comfortably around the telly, TV snacks and another beer for Dad. Convenience foods take over in Britain went through Lina's mind, it was true - when

had she last tasted a solid honest roast beef? Donkeys years, frozen peas, frozen fishfingers, cheese snacks with a soupçon of artificial bacon.

They were experimenting with all artificial cheeses, they did not have a lot of trouble with the texture and colour but the taste was not that easy, Krafts, always a past master at the tickling of the eye with their garishly coloured processed wedges, got closest by producing something that could pass as a processed paper paste.

Lina was hungry, She knew if she went down and joined Paul at the Elephant and Castle it would be cider and a pork pie. Better than nothing, or going home staring at the tube when she had so much to do. Yes, a little snack would be in order, she could come back and try to finish later.

She pulled on her Afghan. The fringe of black sheepskin smelled strongly. Damn this weather! Why could it not be properly cold and make furs worthwhile! As it was, she was always surrounded by an odour of wet sheep just returned from pasture, drenched by the midwinter rains. A girl she knew had a Siberian wolfhound jacket.

She giggled to think how her boyfriends were reacting.

The wet seeped through the damp coat. She would have to get a spare raincoat, to give this one a chance to dry out. She threw a parting glance over her table littered with half-finished drawings and sketches. Even the paper was damp and the ink spread all over it. It was just like drawing on blotting-paper. Frustrating! She wouldn't be sorry if she never saw that office again. The money was bad too. She hated the idea of having to ask for a raise. People did not see that one's work was worth more with the constant price increases. Surely she should be able to afford something nice instead of it all going into rent and clothes. Maybe a holiday? Or perhaps she should marry Paul?

She skipped down the five storeys. Good for the calves and no chance of getting stuck in the lift if there was a power failure.

The moist had permeated all the cables and electricity cuts were common.

But, a lifetime with him? Good God, how old-fashioned. Nobody stayed together a lifetime, just for a bit. She would not have to slave for a pittance, would paint a few pictures, just for fun.

That's what marriage was for. Freedom and liberation from the daily rut of having to earn enough to live decently. Those married women, all they had to do was look pretty and dust a few shelves, then scream for liberation. She did, of course, agree that women should be given as much pay as men when performing the same job, but if you got bossed around by some male dimwit, surely that was your own lookout.

Lina's ideas were not very militant. She was bored of strident ladies rushing about waving banners. She was bored with work, she was bored with the idea of marriage. Couldn't see herself papering the bedroom, choosing carpets, fixing dinner with meat and two veg. Her bohemian streak had become exhausted at art school when she lived in a seaside commune, beach-combed, bare-footed, got tattooed, discussed philosophy, and resented her mother.

Oh, what a drag! The rain had turned into a fine spray, describing haloes around the street-lights.

The Elephant & Castle was as cosy a pub as you could really expect in London. Layers of warm smoke concealed the ceiling and the many bodies gave it warmth and congeniality. The hearty "hallo's" when Lina entered, reminded her of the advanced hour.

She would just have time for one drink. It was hardly worth the trouble. Paul would think she did not have the stamina to carry on working without having seen him. So what?

His lanky form detached itself from a group by the bar on the far end. He pulled her close but recoiled at her dampness.

"Jesus, you are wet! Your office leaking? I'll get you a cider, you're just in time."

Lina contemplated the greasy rolls and pies behind the steamed-up glass. She had better have something or the cider would knock her flat.

"A pork pie and pickled egg, please!" she shouted to the busy barman who nodded friendly recognition over at her.

She joined the group, mostly old University cronies of Paul's, mostly married and carrying a stout paunch of success. Spence was in advertising too, he had made a couple of lay-outs come her way.

Everybody was moaning tonight. The beer had made no difference to their dismal mood, enforced it, if anything.

"Our basement is full of water. You think I could get a plumber to fix the goddamn leak? Oh no, they're all too busy to bother with people drowning. Said we should call the fire brigade if it was that urgent. Bloody damn cheek, that!"

"I'm going to have a whisky, " announced Robert.

"You can't, it's only Wednesday and Ann will skin you if you get stewed. "

"Who cares. Anyone else want one?"

"Oh well, if you twist my arm." Paul was only too ready to accept the rare offer.

Lina declined and sipped her sweet cider, chewed joylessly on the sodden crust of the pie and spat out part of the pickled egg.

It was not pickled, it was rotten! The Chinese were always eating rotten eggs, nothing wrong with it. She said as much to Paul, who agreed that the country was going to the dogs and that the Ice Age was coming.

"Oh, I went to the post box, got a letter for you. Who is it from?" He showed her the blue airmail envelope and teased her, not letting her see the address.

"I'm terribly jealous. Tell me who it is, I'll kill him," he joked, still holding the letter aloft, hoping she might jump for it, making a fool of herself.

"Stupid clod!" she commented, getting annoyed and lighting a cigarette.

"It's from the heart of the Black Continent," he goaded.

"Oh, that's my African lover," she grinned back, "he beats you by miles, you bum!" but very curious now about who it could be writing to her from Africa. Probably another brochure for safaris.

She had a knack for drawing pretty spotted cats and everyone wanted them on their brochures.

When she finally gained access to her letter and opened it, she read, "Pleased to inform you that on passing away, Andreas B. Frazer, late of Shambaya, Mahindi, has made you heir to his holdings in Sokoni, comprising a farmhouse and outbuildings on 50 acres of tea-growing and grazing land."

On re-reading it, it still said the same, and was signed Bertleman & Bertleman, Mahali.

Stunned, Lina put the sheet down and stared into the glum interior of the pub, with its acrid smell of stale beer and cider and the pickled egg. She looked down upon it. Would there be pickled eggs in Africa?

Visions of tangled jungle, lianas and lush vegetation of an unbelievable variety of form and shading. Small animals creeping through dense bush, brightly coloured birds and butterflies, a silvery green snake slithering along the limb of a tree. Enormous blossoms, heavy with nectar, of a complicated design unknown to the mortal European, their scent a mingling of vulgar perfumes and decaying meat...

"Hey Lina, what's it say?"

The whole group were looking at her, whiskeys in hand, Paul's long white fingers on her shoulder.

"I am going to Africa," she announced and handed the letter to Paul who snatched it, jealous disbelief and irritation showing flushed on his forehead.

How dare she say that! He had been about to ask her to marry him, but if she was going to be so foolish, then maybe it would be wiser not to. She would be terribly sorry, of course.

A farm in Africa in preference to all his glowing prospects!

All he had to do was to write up and the D.Phil. would be in his pocket. Of course it was asking a bit much, what with this job to hold down at the same time, but he would get around to it soon, could start next week when the meeting of the British Gallinaceous Birds Society was over.

"You are mad!" everybody agreed. She just did not have that sort of mentality, was not a bit the missionary type, no trace of the do-gooder. As for farming, she would not know one end of a cow from the other!

"Tea?" Spence chuckled. He said he had not realised they grew that stuff, thought it was mined. He said he could see her, a lassoo slung over her shoulder, a topi on her head.

"Spence, you are totally mixed up! It's not the Mid-West and a topi is an antelope which you certainly don't wear on your head!" They all laughed, sensing the tension between Lina and Paul mounting. Beginning to feel uncomfortable, they were gladly summoned by 'Time, gentlemen, please'.

"Send me a postcard with some black boobs on." Spence's mischievous eyes twinkled with what Lina interpreted as sympathy.

There had been a time before he met Maureen when they had had an understanding, a kindred spirit kind of feeling between them, that easy humour. But she had been put off by his fiery Welsh temper, the many fights he usad to pick, his drunken plump advances. Everyone had been amused when he met Maureen. That tiny slip of a girl who never stopped talking, her high twittering voice never stemmed, even by her obvious admiration for the dark quiet Spence. They had temporarily stopped seeing each other, but then got married. Spence had argued that when Maureen was not around, he could not stand the silence.

Paul walked Lina back to the office. They were quiet. He did not try to dissuade her and only coldly wished her good night.

Oh well, if that was the way he felt, she was certainly not going to fall for it. She instinctively felt that here was her breakaway from a stagnant life and even more stagnant relationship. But she was also scared, wished there was someone to go with her, hold her hand, explain things and comfort her when she was blue.

Disgustingly weak!

The mass of papers on her table lay undisturbed, a little damper if anything. She switched on the electric fire, would probably blow all the fuses in this dump. Tropical heat, light cotton dresses, sandals… Yes, there was no doubt about it, she would definitely go.

They had a tremendous party seeing Lina off. Most of the girls from the office and all the chaps of the gang had turned up. Paul was armed with bottles of sparkling wine which they drank on the way to the airport, in the lounge and still when she had disappeared down one of the corridors labelled AFRICA AND THE FAR EAST. A hint of cinnamon and cloves and unidentified spices clung around Gate D, and dusky black faces were more numerous than elsewhere. The slight pang on seeing Paul diminish in the crowd and finally disappear soon left her and the scene remained symbolic of their whole relationship.

Her mother's reaction had been good. Slightly envious at the opportunity offered to her daughter which she had never had. No doubt she would have loved to accompany Lina but was too busy in her new business venture which, at the age of 67, she was sure would succeed in getting off the ground and make her a millionairess at last! Like Lina, she had been dumfounded at Andreas' will, leaving the smallholding to his distant niece whom he had met only briefly on one of his flying visits to England when she was a little girl.

As the engines roared and the great silver-bird effortlessly lifted off the ground, the tight-ruled mass of red brick houses rapidly receded behind dirty grey rags of cloud, and Lina could feel the burdens of gravity, of duties and appointments drain from her. She leant back and was determined to enjoy every minute of her adventure. Being a Virgo and in possession of a neat mind, did not deter her from experiencing lifts of happiness as she looked forward to this rather unorthodox holiday. Still, Sonny would be there to pick her up and assist her in getting around Sokoni.

She remembered him well, clean-cut and sensible about problems and cars. He had grown up in Africa, and lacking any signs of intellectualism, emanated a healthy air of unambitious satisfaction which dissolved emotional and theoretical problems like sugar in a teacup.

The stewardess offered her a drink and Lina, still light-headed from the wine, was glad to accept.

CHAPTER THREE

If he shifted his position to the right a bit, perhaps the burning pain from the fungus on his left buttock would ease somewhat. Curse the rains coming early. The suggested manoeuvre had the desired effect, if only, as he well knew, temporarily. The secondary effect was the grubby sheet falling to the floor, accompanied by an accelerated lurch and groan from the dark Tunisian woman.

For her part, the Kharaddi's onset, after nearly two and a half years of drought, had produced an effect in her otherwise torpid demeanour somewhat akin to a ritualised frenzy.

His irritation was all but forgotten as he turned his attention to her voluptuous celebration of the new growing season. Outside, the street of the small North African town, some 2,000 years of hard-packed earth, was being steadily washed away.

Away, away, away... He desperately wished to get away.

He thought hard on his ironical misery - a fly engulfed in honey as a strategical forestalling of the crisis. Trapped by Fatuma who was noisily chewing a pillow, trapped by this wretched town, by the heat and now by the rains. God, it was raining really hard.

Great big drops. Lots of kinetic energy carrying away chunks of soil, bits of vegetation, dead rats and turds.

Fatuma suddenly executed a quite remarkable change of pace, involving an unnatural twisting of her spine and one leg. Christ, gullies, erosion gullies! Ah, the traveller's life was not an easy one. Fatuma miraculously froze in mid-air. Dendritic erosion gullies...

The knocking was not his knees nor his heart, it was on the door and was accompanied by an urgent voice.

"Jack, Jack? You in there? I got it fixed. We can go. Cost me all the local dough I had, but it's working. That guy at the guest-house says the road is still all right if we can make it to the river, but not much longer. It's pelting down, hurry up!"

He was right, of course. If it had been dry for two and a half years, then it might rain for the next two and a half years.

What a crazy country! He had to get out.

He gently tried to disentangle Fatuma's limbs but her stranglehold became fiercer and she crooned softly, "Jacky boy, you not leave me. My mummy, she fix dinner for you. You like, plenty of curry and chillies."

He soothed and pleaded. Only had to go see this man, tell him he could not go with him. How could he leave, with his lovely Fatuma so lonely without him, he lied. She should wait at her mother's. Yes, he was very hungry, could eat a camel, ha ha...

"Then when my uncle Suleiman comes back, we get married, yes?" Jack pulled on his trousers. He should never have got the zipper-kind, damn this muck. Freedom! Freedom waiting for him in the shape of the old truck. If they had really fixed the gears and the crankshaft, perhaps they would make it to the border after all.

"Jacky, you are so strong and beautiful..."

She stroked his long red hair as he tried in vain to tuck it under his cap. "You let me comb you, please."

The ornate wooden gap-toothed comb flashed and he groaned.

"Not now, see here, ooh that hurts, lemme be, damn it!"

Fatuma got the teeth entangled in his sensitive beard and tried hard to pull out the curly streaks from the grimy comb.

Why was he so rough and in such a hurry? Had she not pleased him? Had he not said he loved her? She would do anything to keep this wonderful white man. Never had she experienced such raptures, never felt such explosive passions, such pride.

Jack pushed her back roughly.

"I got to do some business, do you understand? I got to make money, m o n e y!" He spelled it out and Fatuma understood.

He would need money, lots and lots of it, to buy the radio and the lovely pink beds, beautiful clothes and shoes and a car and a television set and all that. She would daintily pick her way over the mud and dirt. Beela and Niome would stare and whisper behind their unringed fingers. She would fling paper dollars at the one-legged beggar and ensure a long life and happiness. Oh, she would be so happy!

Jack kissed the sweaty ample cheek in farewell, agreeing to anything, anything at all to get away! Yes, he would buy a Rolls Royce, diamond tiaras... and with a "see you, " he rushed out.

Terry was not exactly waiting for him. He was piling bags and boxes into the truck and had started fastening the canvas top.

"You're not taking this seriously," he complained. "Anybody would think you did not want to go to Mahindi, the way you fart around!"

"Can I help being so popular?" Jack watched Terry as he kicked the spare-wheel on the back-door shut. He was trying to get that blasted comb out of his beard, it irritated him.

"How am I going to get my gear? Fatuma's up there guarding it!" Terry had climbed into the driver's seat to get out of the rain.

"That's your lookout, I'm off."

"Come on man, another five minutes isn't going to make the cat fat. You go up and tell her I want to see her urgently in Juma's Bar, or better still, here, give her this and say I want her to go and buy herself a slip or something."

Jack took out some grubby notes from his breast pocket.

"Tell her to hurry, they are closing. Then I nip up and get my gear."

"What an ass you are!" Terry anxiously watched the mud which seemed to be creeping up around the tyres, but then he went.

Jack ducked as he a little later observed the round figure of his girlfriend hurrying out of the door, but she had a towel around her head and intent on avoiding the deepening puddles, never looked around.

They had trouble getting the car out of the hole it seemed to have sunk into whilst they were organising the getaway. But once on the open road there was little to stop them. Jack, however, did not dare to breathe freely until they had reached the hills.

As they climbed steadily, only now and then slipping into the deep ruts that were filling with muddy water, the clouds seemed to thin out. From the top they could see the dirt-road stretching ahead, as if drawn with a ruler, through endless country. A low scrubby bush, a few rocky outcrops, were all the landmarks.

The desert was awash. They did not encounter a living soul all that day and the next. Everyone was holed up in their shacks or tents. They few villages they drove through were empty. Then they rolled down a slight incline and were faced with the river, except

it looked like a lake from the place where they stopped. They could not make out the other side. As it was approaching night, they decided to stop and reconnoiter next morning. They failed to get the stove going. The wick was wet and there was water in the paraffin. They ate some damp biscuits and tinned lichees and rolled up in their damp sleeping bags.

Next morning it was still wet. There were steady trickles now in several places through the canvas-top of the truck. The two young men's tempers were violent. Jack felt sore and cold. The sky had socked in, no chance of sun, and another pelting was imminent.

Broad expanse of mud-brown water, as if someone had upset an enormous tin of molasses and spread it all over the country. The waves appeared sluggish until you went up close, when you realised their size and listened to the roar.

Terry waded in up to his waist, then he lost his footing and was swept downstream a few hundred yards. As he clambered up with Jack's help, he shook his head, "I don't think the truck will make it, unless we find another crossing."

They drove up and down the ragged shore-line with little hope, their fears confirmed. The banks everywhere were soft or much too steep. They returned. Their wait was uneasy. Terry got out a bottle of brandy and they tried to drink away their frustration.

Jack had the ominous feeling that when he looked back along the road they had come, he would see a band of camels trotting up fast - Fatuma's uncle come back, heading them! A threatening large dark individual. Burning revengeful eyes, hands like baskets. A scimitar swishing through the rain, slicing the sheets of water to shreds. "Infidel! how dare you defile my niece! Off with your head!"

As the alcohol warmed his insides, his imagination became more vivid. He saw a cloud of spray thrown up by the camel's feet. They would never catch him alive! He would jump into the river and swim for it...

"Hold it, hold it, let's see it first!" cautioned Terry.

The tidal wave disturbing the natural downward trend of the rain pattern came closer. It was not a band of camels and Jack sighed with relief, but another vehicle, a battered old-fashioned high-wheeled saloon. Four broad brown faces peered through the rain.

"Allah mir! krushiolluba!" they exclaimed on seeing the river.

"You guys trying to get to El Kutum too?" ventured Jack.

They nodded, "misherngoosi."

"Where you from?"

The choices were really not that varied, so when the broadest brownest face replied, "siminatter futusheelu, assdo sselyty, " he nodded sagely. Yes, of course.

They waited. Communication was limited to some dried dates being passed around and some cigarettes being passed back.

On the third day of rain and waiting, they were joined by another vehicle. This time a Land Rover full of British globetrotters. They came paddling through the rivulets of water to introduce themselves to Terry and Jack. There was Pete, tall and handsome in faded jeans. Pete's girl, a sensible looking freckled young woman in an army overcoat. Sam and Tony, tough-looking youngsters from Bristol University, and a German girl, Ingrid, who was there by accident.

When surveying the scene and realising the impossibility of crossing the river - it was, if anything, higher now than when Jack and Terry had arrived - the newcomers pitched their tent, which was the large canteen kind with ample room and a verandah overhang. It was a Godsend! Now it was possible to stretch one's legs without getting wet to the skin, or lie down flat, as opposed to assuming the same cramped position between sacks and boxes.

Their Land Rover was a mine of treasures. The four brown faces watched in amazement as the young people dragged out chairs and folding tables, mattresses and stoves. It turned out that the genius of packing was Pete's girl. She was like a packing Houdini.

There was nothing she could not fit in somewhere. The large tent was cramped but looked inviting. Terry shared out his brandy and everyone became quite jolly. Even the four brown faces came in and did not seem to take up too much room. They stayed close together in one corner, smiled, and shyly accepted a drink of juice and said, "Snoitidnoc era tew, yo yo."

Jack was smitten with the German girl. She seemed not very bright but maybe it was the language barrier. She just laughed a wide generous laugh and let him touch her everywhere. She admired his hair and beard and enquired how long it had taken him to grow it.

"Oh, a lifetime, " sighed Jack, squeezing her soft bum.

Could he persuade her to come into their truck? Not very comfortable there, but so in-ti-mate! He hinted such and Ingrid was quite delighted to accept.

"There he goes!" cursed Terry as he watched the couple clutched tightly swaying out into the rain. Incredible how much sex appeal there was in that little red-haired man. If it was the hair, then perhaps he should grow some more himself? Terry stroked his thin ash-blond hair, it would look awful. As for beards, he had tried that, would grow like a moth-chewed carpet. Some guys had all the luck.

Nobody was sure whether it was jealousy or the brandy or claustrophobia, but after another two days of this - they had been on the river for a week now - Terry declared the river was down and that he was crossing. Everybody went to investigate and found the water to be as high as ever. With an insane laugh, Terry insisted. Jack was horrified and suspected that this foolhardy manoeuvre was being engineered just to get him and Ingrid out of the truck. Maybe. Jack tried to talk sense into him but Terry brushed him off.

"You are not taking this serious, " he repeated his old complaint.

"Christ man, what else is there to do but screw!" Jack said helplessly, water running down his beard unto his hairy chest.

Ingrid laughed, and with a blanket around her, ran back to the tent. Terry threw out Jack's bag and tried to start the truck. It made no sound, the battery was flat. After endless conferring and backing up, he managed to jump-start it, using the saloon. Then, grim-faced, he drove the truck into the river where it spluttered and sank.

Everyone watched the spectacle in fascination, and when the last trace of the truck was gone from sight, Terry was helped ashore. He was shivering and in a stupor. Ingrid, it turned out, was a nurse. She wrapped him in her blanket and gave him some herbal stuff from her bag, and with his head in her lap, he fell into a deep sleep.

Next morning, the rain had stopped and the river was down. The muddy banks were slimy and studded with weeds and branches. A bloated mongoose corpse floated by. Remnants of cardboard were lodged amongst some more debris on the now closer far side, but... nowhere any sign of the truck. On the spot where it had sunk beneath the waves, no marks - it had totally disappeared! Terry did not seem to care, he was running a fever and seemed content just to lie and gaze at Ingrid. She was really an excellent nurse, all interest in Jack had flown, her calling was for the sick - a sick man for her was far superior to a healthy one, even if he did not have a beard.

"Der arme Junge, der arme Junge, " she would croon and change his cold compresses. She diagnosed his state as malaria with a touch of pneumonia, but felt quite confident that she would be able to pull him through with antibiotics and Nivaquine, Vicks vapour rub and cough drops. It was Jack's turn to feel quite nauseated by the performance. Oh, the fickleness of woman.

The crossing did not present any problem. The Land Rover went first, prepared to pull the saloon through, but that one also made it on its own steam. They had to split up, as even the ingenuity of Pete's girl failed at the prospect of adding Jack and his bags to the already completely full Land Rover where they had to find space for the sick man who, admittedly, had no luggage.

By the time the farewells and packing were completed, the river had subsided to a trickle not two feet across. African rivers were as unpredictable as women, Jack mused sadly. Still no sign of the lost truck, however closely they investigated the river-bed.

Jack spent an unhappy time in the rear of the saloon, squeezed between two brown faces who smelled strongly of garlic and rancid fat. He said goodbye in the next fou where there was a bus service to the border.

He sat beside a large Ethiopian lady in the bus. She had a baby on her lap and a cage of chickens at her feet and was most friendly. The baby played painfully with Jack's beard, and the lady fed Jack with sweet little cakes that made his mouth pucker.

Some ingredient in the cakes had the same quality as rhubarb, his teeth felt raw, it was probably arsenic. The chickens pecked at his toes and his bags kept falling out of the roof-rack, which mainly consisted of holes. When the baby left off tired, its head tucked into the ample heaving bosom of its mother, Jack fell into a fitful sleep. All night long the bus lurched and slewed across the wet country roads, stopping at frequent intervals to take in sodden passengers who would lean exhausted against the other . sleeping occupants. At the border, Jack was glad to be released and bought some tea at a stall. The hot liquid cheered him somewhat but he was keen to get on. Then he discovered that his money and passport which he had kept safely in his parka pockets had been stolen. Not satisfied with his story, the stern-faced officials meaningfully looked at each other behind Jack's back. They asked him strange questions about the German girl and the truck. Then he was politely informed that he had to remain in custody for questioning. His irate behaviour yet another obstacle to his getting to Mahindi, confirmed their suspicions, whatever they were.

His assurances that he would get another passport from the U.S. Embassy, were viewed with amused disbelief and he was led off.

It had to be Fatuma's uncle! Jack cursed his indelicacy with women. He had known all along that she would catch up with him.

Woman's revenge! Oh God, no apology would pass, what could he do?

He scrutinised the bars on the window and contemplated suicide. A young promising life ended so sadly in a North African prison, far from friends and countrymen.

A puddle had formed on the floor from the constant drip through a crack in the brown ceiling. Chinese torture! That drip, drip, drop... would drive him crazy! Under the two planks that served as a bed was a frog. At first hesitant, then bolder, it croaked in synchrony with the dripping. Jack studied the graffiti on the walls, mostly Arab symbols, some crude drawings of gallows, probably executed with blood. Towards evening the damp cold which made him shiver nevertheless did not discourage the mosquitoes which added their thin whine to the dripping and the croaking.

Quite a concert. He curled up on the mealy feed sacks that served as a mattress and went to sleep.

Thirty four -

The yellow-brown of the parched continent below had been peeling away below for hours to reveal yet more parched earth, the last fragments of whispy clouds were left behind long ago.

Lina was startled at the abrupt announcement that they would reach Mahall in another fforty minutes. She made her way to the ladies to freshen up, renewed her make-up and after a few drops of eau-de-cologne was ready to meet the great outdoor country with a pale but determined face. Marion had been going on and on about lions and snakes but in the travel brochures she had studied no mention of either except as amusing diversions had been made.

"Of course they don’t want to frighten away the tourists, you goose" Marion had shuddered: "You could just write to these lawyer chaps and let them sort it all out. Find a good buyer and go to Spain instead.

You could lounge in the sun and would not have to expect a lion jumping at you every moment or snakes attacking you from under beds.

Besides everybody knows the tropics are a deathly climate fol the complexion..."

Marion, a beautician, always saw things in a gloomy, pessimistic light, no wonder, if you were on a constant diet, always squeezing pimples not only your own, faced the persistent wrinkling of the most stunning faces, the passage of time so cruelly manifest every minute of your working life - of course then it all appeared quite hopeles:

But young Sonny Gordon-Davies had not warned her of snakes, maybe they did not bother him, as for lions she was sure he would face them with his knife between his teeth and they would fade away before him just as any bothersome idea.

Well she would have to stay close and see how he tackled these things.

Airports - amazing that they succeeded in even making an airport in as exotic an environment as tropical Africa dull.

Out of the airconditioned aircraft on to a strip of remarkably hot tarmac and into an airconditioned lounge.

Sonny waited for her, suntanned in neatly starched shorts, safarijacket and bushhat, boots that showed he knew Africa and a wide warm grin.

Check out momondo’s Nairobi Guide for travel inspiration.