by Evald Flisar

from Tales Of Wandering
Translated from the Slovene by the author and Alan McConnell-Duff

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 lizards.

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 Congo ...

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 read!"

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."

"Don't they?"

"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 want that."

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 Americans.

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 them.

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 with ease.

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 London Zoo.

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
Texture Press and Light and Dust