After a ten-hour stormy flight from Europe, the Air Zaire plane landed
in the heart of Africa. Peter and Sylvia hired a clattering taxi and set off
for Douala. Lining the road on both sides were huts made of tin, mud or
wood, half finished or half broken down and terminally neglected, with
holes instead of doors, or with doors barely holding onto their hinges. A
damp, suffocating smell of filth, exotic spices, excrement, rotten fruit
and sweat wafted through the windows of the car from the huts and
sewers and piles of rubbish in front of them. Lying forlornly in the dust
or mud were pots, pans, baskets, motorbikes, car tires, wheelbarrows, all
in great disorder. Here a crouching woman would be selling malodorous
dried fish; there a man sitting on a pile of large screws would be
repairing a bicycle. People, animals, motorcycles, battered cars swirled
around as if driven by panic.
The Protestant Mission building stood in a thicket of palms and
mango trees on a little incline above the port on the River Vourri. "You
want room?" three black boys at the reception gaped with astonishment.
Sorry, they shook their heads. Peter said he and his wife were very tired,
the flight had been a nightmare; did they at least have a corner where
they could lie down on the floor for a while?
A violent argument broke out among the boys, who had been joined
by a few others: some were for, some against, some said there was a
room, and others insisted that there was none. In the end a placid little
man, probably the manager, explained that they would get a room, at
2000 CFA a night, but they would have to wait for an hour for the room
to be cleaned. Thank you, and may God preserve Protestants, Peter said.
Sylvia said nothing. They collapsed onto a shabby sofa in the day room
and sucked on their coca cola bottles like toddlers on rubber-teats. The
world was no longer so threatening; standing in the hall was a large
fridge, full of refreshing drinks.
Around noon a young attendant showed them the way to one of the
huts behind the main building. The outer walls had numerous garret-
windows with a downward slant, so that it was possible to see out
without anybody being able to see inside. The floor, made of concrete,
was pleasantly cool, but the mattresses under a yellowed mosquito net
were thin and soft; Sylvia could feel her back pain coming on by merely
looking at them. Next door, in a room of equal size, in the farthest
corner, oily water was slowly dripping from a large rusty showerhead;
that was the bathroom. The outside door could be locked only after it
was slammed shut by a violent kick. The toilet - public, for it was also
used by an occasional passer-by, was round the corner, close to the
street. Crawling and leaping about on the pavement that surrounded the
hut, keeping at bay the enchroaching tall grass, were huge spotted
Peter rummaged in his backpack and pulled out a guide to
Cameroon. He opened it and with unseemly haste, as if it was the most
urgent thing in the world, started to relate to Sylvia - not without
noticeable enjoyment - the most gruesome details about the place in
which they had found themselves. How mushrooms often sprout from
the carpets at the Akwa Palace Hotel in Douala. How on the slopes of
Mt. Cameroon, the volcano piercing the clouds sixty kilometers from
Douala, the rainfall often exceeds ten thousand millimeters, more than in
rainy England. How not far from Douala, at the mouth of the River
Vourri, there is a swamp that every day produces trillions of malarial
mosquitoes and millions of buzzing flies. How an evil smell hovers
above the swamp, and how the suffocating humidity is unbearable even
for the natives. And how Cameroon is known as the armpit of Africa...
"Why are you doing this?" asked Sylvia.
"What?" he affected ignorance.
"Nothing," she said.
He continued with pleasure which to her seemed even greater than
before. How Douala is full of contradictions: on one side filth,
dereliction, poverty, on the other French chansons, French films, French
restaurants, in which the homegrown bureaucratic and business elite
enjoys imported French wines. On one side the disorder of tumble-down
shacks and mud-spattered market places, on the other boutiques and
supermarkets with an astonishing choice of salami, cheeses, tinned
salmon and even ice-cream, all of it flown almost daily from Paris. And
how Douala is a city of heartless profiteers who for next to nothing buy
fruit and vegetables in the north of the country and sell it for ten times
the amount to neighboring Gabon, while at home there is a shortage.
And how at the same time Douala is also a city of missionaries...
With three of those they soon found themselves at the table in the
dining room of the Protestant Mission. The blades of the whirling fan
above them gently cooled their perspiring necks. Sylvia found the food
surprisingly good: cold fish, spicy mixed vegetables, sweet rice
pancakes. One after another, the serving dishes passed from hand to
hand. Each of the diners paused a little before passing the dish on,
glancing at the plates of other diners and weighing the last spoon as if
afraid of taking too much. Peter was so hungry that he could have eaten
the whole lot himself. But that was only a sinful thought; Sylvia would
never have allowed him to behave like a pig in front the missionaries.
But why shouldn't he, a rebellious thought appeared in his mind.
After all it was the missionaries who had colonized Africa, who had
conquered and imprisoned the African soul. They had succeeded at
something quite unprecedented: in the tribes that worshipped courage
and fighting spirit, they had implanted faith in a God who rewards
obedience and humility. How convenient!
He remembered the data he had found in the guidebook during the
flight. How in sub-Saharan Africa after World War II there were more
than four thousand American Protestant missionaries. How Americans
spent on missionary work in Africa ten million dollars a year. And how
Catholics, too, got a slice of the cake, especially in the former Belgian
The missionaries with whom they were dining engaged in a
conversation from which they felt excluded, not only because it was in
French, but also because it revolved around missionary problems and
personal anecdotes. Two were Europeans; the third was a black man, a
native of Cameroon. This one mainly listened and nodded, while
between the other two most of the talking was done by the elder one,
who was around sixty. The younger one, around forty-five, responded
with deference and only when invited to speak by the elder. In the
younger one Sylvia immediately recognized a Dutchman, while the elder
turned out to be Swiss.
After lunch they moved to easy chairs by the window, where they
were served coffee. Peter explained that his French was very poor, and
that his wife never managed to get beyond "au revoir".
The three men obligingly switched to English.
It began innocently enough, but it soon escalated into a conflict and
finally into something Sylvia knew she would never forget. Peter
resented their self-complacent conceit, as he would put it later,
especially that of the Swiss and their conviction that as missionaries they
were "on familiar terms" with God. Didn't they think - he threw the cat
straight among the pigeons - that the efforts of the missionaries had
turned millions of Africans into spiritual slaves? The Swiss was
astounded. Christianity, continued Peter, is a complex, historically
conditioned system of morals and ethics that cannot be successfully
transplanted into another cultural environment, least of all into the
animistic African one. And because, contrary to African traditional
beliefs, it puts all the emphasis on the individual, it created in the minds
of most Africans more than just a simple confusion...
"Excuse me," said the Swiss. "Excuse me, but what you're saying is
quite simply balderdash. Missionary efforts were not exclusively
evangelical. What they brought to Africa was Western civilization:
schools, hygiene, health care. Even today missionaries are mostly social
workers and hospital orderlies. What are you talking about, my good
man? Christianity can claim credit for everything that is good and
progressive in Africa. Without missionaries these people could not even
Maybe so, Peter stuck to his own. But isn't it also true that
missionaries, by emphasizing Christian values such as renunciation,
forgiveness, love for one's neighbor and enemy, also cut out the path for
the triumph of colonialism? Did not missionaries teach their converts
that they must show obedience and devotion if they want to end up in
heaven? In Africa, science and God had marched hand in hand, for the
missionaries did not teach only the Ten Commandments, but also
mathematics, biology, and foreign languages...
"You're a Communist," the Swiss cut him short.
"No," replied Peter, "you are a Communist, because you're
afraid to admit that you could be wrong."
"And you," concluded the Swiss triumphantly, "having arrived in
Africa two hours ago, want to know more about it than people who have
lived here for thirty years. Books do not contain all the truth."
"No, they don't. Some of the truth is in the ground, under one's feet.
That part of it is a little more complex."
"Is it?" Peter shrugged.
"Yes, it is," replied the Swiss. "Are you ever on the ground?"
The next morning one of the Mission's attendants knocked at the
door of their hut and brought back the wallet which Peter had left in the
dining room. Peter checked the documents and counted the money.
Nothing was missing. That made him remark that the blacks were
essentially honest, and that before the arrival of white missionaries they
probably had no idea what a lie was.
"Can you imagine?" he turned to her during their bus journey north.
"Not knowing what a lie is?"
"No, I can't imagine that," she replied gently but firmly. "Because
then I could tell a lie by mistake, thinking that it was truth. I wouldn't
How stupid, Peter thought. But then what else could she say, she
who specialized, like most women, in seeing things chronically
complicated, and would complicate even the most straightforward thing,
only to be able to hide behind the mist of uncertainty?
They had come to visit Wazza National Park, the Cameroonian
sanctuary for wild animals. All their friends had already been on a safari,
either in Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia or South Africa, but not a single one
had been to Cameroon, and not one of them had thought of going where
no one else had been. Except Peter, who wanted to be different, and
Sylvia who bowed to his wish in order to avoid an argument. As a matter
of fact, she thought during the bus journey north, there had been few
occasions in the recent past when she had done anything that wasn't part
of her wish to avoid an argument.
In Marua it became necessary to decide how to continue. The
sanctuary lay sixty kilometers farther north. Pedestrians were not
allowed in, for fear of lions making a quick meal of them, which would
dramatically reduce the number of tourists. A wildlife sanctuary is not a
zoo, where you can make a round of the cages in half an hour. During
the bus journey Peter had gleaned from his guidebook the astonishing
fact that Wazza National Park measured no less than seventy thousand
hectares, and that the surface was mostly open savanna. Without a roof
over their heads the sun would kill them in less than two hours. Regular
buses did not go there either, since the natives are less romantically
inclined towards giraffes and elephants than either Europeans or
A taxi driver by the name of Amado offered to take them on a safari
for 12,000 CFA. That's fine, said Sylvia, but Peter found the price
extortionate. Yet already the following day three taxi drivers demanded
one after another twice, twice and a half, and three times as much. They
spent the entire day walking the dusty streets and looking for Amado,
but he was nowhere to be found. They ended up at the office of
Norcamtour, where they were told that the following afternoon a group
of European tourists would fly in from Douala, which Norcamtour
would take on a two-day safari to Wazza; if they wanted they could join
Two days later, at five in the morning, the safari bus picked them up
at their hotel, Porte Mayo, and took them to Novotel, the overnight stay
of the European tourists. They were just finishing breakfast. Peter and
Sylvia sat in the bus, waiting. The bus was very small, with only fifteen
seats, but they were comfortable, which, at least to Peter, seemed most
important. Sylvia was more concerned with the question from how close
they would see the lions after flying all that far, not to mention the bone-
shaking three-day journey by bus from Douala.
When the tourists began to enter the bus they were surprised to see
that someone was already there. They exchanged glances and remarks in
French. Eventually a female employee of Norcamtour rather rudely
ordered Peter and Sylvia to move to a similar bus parked behind the first
one. Without a word they collected their bags and complied. But when
the tourists began to enter the second bus they were no less surprised to
see them than those in the first one. A haughty black woman warned
them that they were occupying her seat. Because she was the only black
person among the people boarding the bus they assumed that she was
another employee of Norcamtour, so they got up to change seats. But the
bus was already full.
The driver led them back to the first one. Peter tried to explain to
him that they had just been thrown out of that one.
"Who is the boss here?" he suddenly couldn't contain himself any
longer. "We want our money back."
A tall black man who was evidently a representative of Norcamtour
approached them. Peter told him that there was no room for him and his
wife, so they wanted their money back. Of course there is room, said the
black man and pointed to a narrow bench at the back of the bus. No, said
Peter, they were not going to sit on a tiny bench at the back, his wife was
of fragile constitution, and they wanted their money back.
The black man implored them to understand that there was little he
could do, and would they please take their seats so that the bus could
depart. But Peter obdurately stuck to his own. Eventually two of the
tourists decided to sacrifice their seats and move to the rear bench. But
the seats which Peter and Sylvia got by not giving in were directly above
the rear wheels, and far less comfortable than the bench at the back. Still,
Peter didn't mind, what mattered to him was that he had won. "Will the
lady not mind if we travel in the same bus?" he sneered at the black
woman who had earlier thrown them out. It turned out that she was not
an employee of Norcamtour after all, but a tourist. She stared at the back
of the seat directly in front of her eyes.
The two buses set off for the sanctuary.
The heavenly fire began to burn before the vehicles entered the
dried-out plains. Peter, through the thick lenses of his glasses, stared at
the pages of his guidebook, while Sylvia observed their fellow travelers.
Almost all were armed with video cameras, photo cameras, telescopic
lenses and bags of film. One Tyrolean gentleman had a lens of such
dimensions that it reminded Sylvia of a bazooka. Most of all, however,
the tourists were armed with plastic bottles of distilled water which the
driver had placed in an ice-cube box behind his seat. Peter and Sylvia
had brought only a thermos flask, half filled with warm orange juice. But
the water in the icebox must surely have been provided by the organizers
of the safari...
Criss-crossing the endless plain along rutted tracks, they drove
around looking for animals. The sky was deep blue and cloudless and
the sun was a shapeless source of hot blinding rays. The savanna, with
its infinite stretch of brown grass, low bushes and scattered gnarled
trees, filled Sylvia with a deep feeling of desolation. Whenever the
guide, who was sitting next to the driver, spotted an animal, the bus
would slow down and carefully crawl closer. Then the windowpanes
would be wound down and one side of the bus would suddenly sprout
countless barrels of photographic armory. The equipment would whir,
buzz and click, and Kodak's shareholders would be getting richer
without even knowing.
Every now and then the tourists would be allowed to leave the bus,
to see a flock of birds at a watering hole, or a half-eaten body of an
antelope, or the tall necks of giraffes, pricking their ears high above tree
tops, or a group of elephants huffing and puffing while taking a
mudbath. Then they would carry on. And on. And on. Occasionally
straight across the brushwood and grass, across the parched, broken
earth of the savanna. Between stops there were endless kilometers of
hollow emptiness, kilometers of discomfort, monotony, heat and thirst.
The plastic bottles of water began to leave the icebox. The parched
mouths of the tourists would suck on them as if allowed one last drop of
water before execution. An elderly Frenchwoman, who, with her
husband, was sitting in front of Peter and Sylvia, turned around. When
she saw that they were quite dozy from dehydration, she passed them the
bottle with the kindest of smiles. Thank you, thank you, they burbled
and gasped, passing the bottle to each other with shaking hands. Then
they returned it. This ritual would be repeated five times. Whenever the
Frenchwoman and her husband got thirsty, the bottle would also be
passed to Peter and Sylvia.
Then Sylvia noticed that only some tourists were given bottles from
the icebox. She also noticed that the bottles were marked with crosses,
circles and other signs. Suddenly it occurred to her that the water was
not there for everybody. The agency had provided only the icebox; water
had been brought by the tourists themselves, and not even by all of them,
only by those who knew what was awaiting them. The Frenchwoman
was, God knows why, maybe out of sheer mercy, giving them her own
water. This moved Sylvia very deeply, especially after Peter's rudeness
earlier on, of which she was now even more ashamed. She could not
even imagine what they would do without those drops of life-saving
liquid; they would have suffered a heatstroke for sure. Five hours after
entering the sanctuary they were still circling the shimmering plain,
looking for signs of life.
They paused at a watering hole. The water had evaporated; all they
could see at the bottom was slimy, sticky mud. Five little birds were
slowly dying in it; they must have landed there by mistake and, stuck in
mud, couldn't take flight any more. The horrible scene reminded Sylvia
of something familiar, but she couldn't quite figure out what. A hyena
came running past. Sylvia's awareness of the presence of something
familiar continued, and intensified when a lone hunter came out of the
shimmering heat. He had just caught a little monkey, and was holding it
by the skin of its neck. He raised his arm and pointed west. He said he
had seen a few lions there. The tourists filed back into the bus, and the
driver headed west.
"It says here," said Peter, who was devoting more attention to his
guidebook than to the world outside, "that a lion will never attack a
white man if he can get a black one. Most often it will avoid a man and
run after a zebra. Zebra has more flesh, and it can't shoot."
At long last they spotted them. There were four of them, breathing
rapidly in the shade of some bushes. They were scrawny and dozy, and
would not have looked less dangerous if stuffed by a taxidermist. King
of the beasts? wondered Sylvia. The lion which, for almost a year prior
to their African trip, she had repeatedly gone to see at the zoo as if trying
to engrave its image on her memory, might have deserved such a title,
but here, in their natural habitat, the big cats reminded her of nothing
more than of unwashed and uncombed octogenarian men. They were
dozing with their heads resting on their front paws, completely
immobile. Only occasionally did one or another twitch its tail. Every
now and then the oldest lion would raise its head and aim an indifferent
look at the bus, directly at her, it seemed to Sylvia. Perhaps the
indifference was disguised vigilance. Perhaps in a moment of danger the
flaccid flesh would tighten into a knot of muscles and spring into action
The guide said that most watering holes were empty because of
continuous drought; although trucks were bringing in water in tanks, it
soon evaporated, and there were not enough trucks. Many animals were
dying. Entire herds of elephants had moved away. And maybe the
drought was not alone in killing the animals in Wazza. There was a
rumor that the trucks, which during the day brought water for the
watering holes, under the cover of darkness took away boxes full of
ivory. Maybe some people were building new houses not so far away.
"Listen to this," said Peter. Strangely, the beasts in the shade of the
bushes did not interest him; he preferred the guidebook. "It says here
that every few years a lion appears which likes only human flesh..."
Maybe not often enough, thought Sylvia, who had long ago learned
to push Peter's voice out of her consciousness, regardless of how close
to her ears he was flaunting opinions which were almost never his, but
opinions of other, unknown, mostly dead people. They continued on
their way. On the plains of the wildlife sanctuary, which straddles the
corners of Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad, they discovered only two herds
of elephants. And some giraffes, some lions. Two antelopes. Some
ravens. And a coyote. A hyena. Sylvia had seen more animals at the
Late in the afternoon they stopped at another dried-out watering
hole. Something had attracted the guide's attention. Sylvia wound down
the window pane, leaned out of the bus and exclaimed, "Oh, look!"
Lying in dry grass was a baby lioness. One of its legs was broken, it was
starved and exhausted, flies were feasting on a festering wound on its
back. But in its eyes there was no trace of fear. This time there was no
doubt: the baby lioness was looking straight at Sylvia. Maybe its
attention was drawn by Sylvia's voice or her sudden gesture as she
pushed her head out through the window, almost as if seeing something
dear, close and badly missed. The brief embrace of two pairs of eyes, of
two familiar sufferings, would have made any attentive observer think
he was witnessing a reunion of two friends.
Then Sylvia pushed Peter's knees out of her way with an abruptness
which was for her quite unusual, and squeezed past him into the aisle.
Snatching a plastic water bottle from the Frenchwoman's hand, already
the second from the icebox, she ran towards the door of the bus. "No,
Miss, it's dangerous!" shouted the guide, but he was too late, Sylvia had
already pushed the door open and tumbled rather than stepped out of the
bus. She got to her feet, rushed round the vehicle, but then slowed down
her steps to careful, almost cat-like movements with which she
approached the wounded wild cat almost as large as herself, and, as if
unaware of what she was doing, knelt down beside it. She unscrewed the
bottle top, fashioned her left palm into a cup, poured some water into it,
and the exhausted lion cub gratefully lapped it up, licking the palm clean
with its tongue.
Then the young lioness placed its head in Sylvia's lap, as if wanting
to rest it somewhere soft and safe.
This almost biblical scene spurred the tourists in the bus to a frenetic
bout of recording and picture-taking; it seemed that not one of them
wanted to miss the opportunity to enrich his or her family album with
the image of reconciliation, almost trust, almost mutual consolation
between the two worlds, between animal instinct and human emotion,
between common suffering and human mercy which was shining on
Sylvia's suddenly beautiful, gentle face like a light from another world.
Not even Peter. For the first time since their arrival in the sanctuary
he pulled from his bag his automatic Pentax and aimed the lens at his
wife, who gazed back at him and through the lens into his soul with
greater defiance than ever since he had tamed her and trained her into an
obliging house pet. In her look he could feel that she had finally escaped
from the house he had painstakingly built and surrounded with a tall
fence so that they would both be safe inside it. She had escaped into the
world he did not understand, back to the savanna, back into heat,
solitude and inaudible wind.
Karl Young's Introduction to
Evald Flisar's Tales of Wandering
Light and Dust
Copyright © 2001 by Evald Flisar
This is a cooperative presentation by
Textures Press and Light and Dust