By Fred Owens
"I wish I had never gone to Africa." Already I'm getting tired of that opening line. Readers are encouraged to supply a replacement. Maybe from the old Bob Dylan song, "I'd like to spend some time in Mozambique."
Jerry Thebe lived in a shed in our backyard in Bulawayo (a solid brick shed with shower, toilet and electricity, quite a decent shed). His parents owned the house we rented. His family came from Botswana. And what language do they speak in Botswana? Setswana. They speak Setswana. That's their language. Ba- is a prefix that means people. Mo- is a prefix that means person. So Jerry is a Motswana who comes from Botswana. and speaks Setswana. That is our first lesson in African languages.
Jerry also speaks Shona, Ndebele, Xhosa and English. Maybe some Kalanga and Tonga. Most Africans know at least three languages and have an impressive vocabulary, at least as large as mine. When I first got to Africa I was riding a bus from Pretoria, across the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe on my way to Bulawayo, which is a day long trip, counting an hour or so at customs. The three young men sitting in front of me were speaking and laughing to each other with great enthusiasm. The beer they were drinking seemed to spur the verbal antics. But they weren't just speaking and telling jokes. They were playing with the language itself. They didn't just speak three languages. They spoke three languages at the same time, because that's more fun. And they laughed and drank more beer. It was ten a.m. We stopped for lunch at noon. They had huge plates of sadza and nyama, followed by more beers. They piled back on the bus and fell asleep. I enjoyed the quiet as the bus rolled along and contemplated my own inadequate grasp of English.
I was forgetting about Jerry Thebe. He lived in our backyard for more than a year and studied software and computer usage. Later he moved to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, where he worked in software. I last heard from him by email about ten years ago. I am trying to locate him now. He would be forty-something and likely has his own family. I would bet he's still in Gaborone, which is not such a large city. It would be fun to go looking for him. It is fun to find people --- when you're intentions are innocent, as mine are.
I also looked up Jonathan Timberlake, the botanist who published the authoritative guide to the acacias of Zimbabwe. As I said last week, he needed a sabbatical in the cloudy country of his native England. His fair skin was causing too much cancer. But he continued his work and edited the Flora Zambesiaca, which features a complete list and description of all the plants species in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi. The project was started in 1950 and it has cataloged 24,000 species as of 2012, in multiple volumes, sponsored by the Herbarium at the Royal Gardens in Kew.
Botany is such happy work. I imagine Jonathan Timberlake is fully absorbed in this project. And he too has quite an impressive vocabulary. I am trying to locate his email address. We did not get to know each other well when we botanized together in 1997, but he would welcome inquiries from a fellow enthusiast as I am.
She. She is the title of an Africa fantasy novel by Rider Haggard. He is the third person I would like to contact, besides Jerry Thebe and Jonathan Timberlake, except Haggard is dead, so this will have to be done telepathically. What will I say to him? Mr Haggard, did you really just make this up? Rider Haggard also wrote King Solomon's Mine, published in 1885, which I absorbed. Here is what Wikipedia says, "Rider Haggard has been widely criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes about non-Europeans." True, but they didn't tell me that. I covered my ears. The fantasy was too rich. Knowing full well that there was absolutely no truth to this claim, I became quite certain that King Solomon's Mine actually existed and could be located in the Matopos Hills outside of Bulawayo, guarded by leopards with gleaming eyes. Ingwe means leopard in the Ndbele language. We sometimes drove out from Bulawayo and spent the afternoon by the pool at the Ingwe Lodge in the Matopos Hills. We drank Bollinger's beer and my wife went in the pool and began to learn to swim. There are leopards in the hills of Matopos, and caves that hosted traditional ceremonies. And the buried treasures? You know they had to be around there somewhere, rubies and diamonds. I could sense it. Matopos isn't just magical it's extra-terrestrial.
I decided to leave out the part about the rumored, but never proven, affair between director John Huston and artist Frida Kahlo. This affair culiminated in Kahlo's arrival at the movie set in 1951. Huston was filming live on location on a tributary of the Congo River for the movie African Queen. That movie was adapted from CS Forester's novel of the same name published in 1935. The movie starred Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut, the drunken captain of the African Queen, and his companion Rose Sayer, the missionary sister, played by Katherine Hepburn. Both the book and the movie were a huge success. Accurate or not, these tales form the basis of what we know about Africa. But the part that fascinated me the most was Kahlo's secret journey to the movie set, for her clandestine liaison with Director Huston. He lied to her and told her she would have a major role to play in the film. She knew he was lying. They fought. She came down with a tropical fever and almost died. Huston continued drinking Gordon's Gin with Bogart. Hepburn had brought her tennis racket with her to Africa but found it quite useless and it began to warp in the tropical heat. None of this can be substantiated however, so I must leave it out of the story. Some lies are too fantastic.
The next issue will introduce the Mataka family from Bulawayo and the woman I married. I'm trying to give her some fan fare before she enters this humble story. I will undoubtedly seem dismissive, patronizing, disillusioned, uninformed and egotistical. I will try, but almost surely fail, to step out of the way and let the story tell itself.
In the meantime, God Speed,